Monday, 28 February 2011

From Field to Form 3: The skating apostles




One might well ask what it is about certain passages of prose that make them seem like poetry. Is it some quality of language? Alliteration? Use of metaphor? Onomatopoeia? Euphony? Approximation to certain kinds of rhythm or metre? Some version of particularly fine 'fine writing'?

It isn't hard to imagine prose deploying any number of poetic devices to achieve a heightened state. At worst we might have what used to be called 'purple prose' which implies a degree of over-writing. Fancy writing. What is poetic prose at best? Passages out of The Authorised Version of the Bible? Thomas Traherne's 'Centuries of Meditations'? Virginia Woolf? Marcel Proust? Henry James?

Might part of a novel, perhaps even a whole novel, register as poetry? Woolf's The Waves is often perceived as a form of poem.

On the other side of the question, don't we assume that the point of syntax is to move the mind on to a full stop? That the whole directional flow of a sentence, and the flow of the sentence into a paragraph suggests a forward motion in which the individual words are stepping stones to something located up ahead? If so, is prose that deploys a lot of poetic devices a weakening of the robust nature of the sentence? Cannot early Evelyn Waugh or Christopher Isherwood or Ernest Hemingway or, John Bunyan for that matter, be equal to the greatest poetic-prose writers?

I don't think the attempt to define poetry as verse can be based on a distinction between fancy and plain, between high-flown and dirty realism, between inspiration and intelligence. It is not a matter of texture, density, rhetorical level, nobility of purpose, or super-refinement of idea.

In his Eliot lecture, the year before mine, Don Paterson more or less defined poetry as something written by a poet. My question, the following year, was who was going to declare the poet a poet before he or she had actually written anything? I understood the nature of apostolic succession and the laying on of hands, I just wanted to be sure that this wasn't simply a club. Oh, don't you worry your head about that, my dear chap, one imagines the anointed and the anointer saying to the outsider. Which is the point I turn sans-culotte.

*

Since we are on Eliot territory here I want to go back the core image I used at the time in my own lecture, the frozen pond out of Edmund Blunden's 'The Midnight Skaters'. It is the ice and the skaters on it I want to return to.

The idea there was that language was the thin ice over a very large, deep and murky pond, at the bottom of which lay death. Some people with business to conduct might simply skate across. The ice for them is an obstacle they have to get over. Some might enjoy the skating sufficiently to think of the ice as clear crisp prose. Other will want to make patterns with apparently no other purpose than to make patterns.

Making patterns, I argued in 2005, and again in Brighton last week, is the poetic vocation. The only difference between someone doodling patterns on a sheet of paper and the midnight skaters is that the latter move across frail, easily cracked ice. The skating is important enough for them risk the ice.

The pattern on the ice is an affirmation of the ice. Language is like ice because it is as frail and unreliable as ice over water. Language is a system built on arbitrary equivalences. Each word of language is a nonsense held in place by the tension of syntax and association. Falling through language is falling into chaos. In order to skate the skater must move in complicity with the ice while cutting it. Cliches occur when the same cut is made time and again, so the skater falls through. The skater needs an instinctive - or rather some learned and internalised understanding of the character of the ice: its density, its thickness, its weak spots, the speed it allows, the movements it permits.

Metaphors are traps. We invent them then find ourselves caught in them. The poet does not risk death by writing a bad poem, but maybe the language moves one step nearer death in that part of the pond. We needn't follow the ice metaphor all the way through. But let's remember that there is a risk in poetry: the risk of failure. Let's remember the poet Rooney whose bicycle kick might have ended in nothing better than an embarrassing, painful landing and dented pride. We value the gambit because of the risk. The risk affirms the game.

The patterns on the ice are what is possible: the idea is to risk the difficult. The football pitch is of limited dimensions, so is the pond.

What is it makes the skater skate such patterns? Is it simply because the ice invites skating? Partly. But at the same time it is also something in the skater, something in the skater's experience or constitution, some experience that is rather like a subject - but not a subject alone, more a condition produced by various subjects distilled into a condition that says 'Skate!'

Almost anything that directs our attention to the tragic yet joyful nature of the ice - which is also our condition - is to the benefit of the skating. Almost anything that points to the fragility and otherness of language is to the benefit of the poem.



9 comments:

Sabine said...

"What is it makes the skater skate such patterns? Is it simply because the ice invites skating? Partly. But at the same time it is also something in the skater, something in the skater's experience or constitution, some experience that is rather like a subject - but not a subject alone, more a condition produced by various subjects distilled into a condition that says 'Skate!'"
If we are speaking of the poet as a skater, then he is ALWAYS a skater, even when he is sleeping, when he is eating, when he is buying groceries. His being a skater penetrates every moment of his day, is part of every cell in his body. When he meets another person, he is speaking and behaving like a skater, he is thinking skater-thoughts, looking through skater-eyes, in every moment he is true to his nature. It is not a coat he puts on or off, it is his state of being, his way of living. (This may distinguish the poet from the writer who uses poetic elements but is not a poet through and through).
The deep, intuitive knowledge of the ice is the natural consequence. The ice is his element and there is love and respect in moving on it. The skater-poet knows the pattern he can draw, the risk of failure.
"The poet does not risk death by writing a bad poem, but maybe the language moves one step nearer death in that part of the pond."
I am not sure if I agree with you. In a way I believe there is not such thing like a bad poem. I would define a poem powerful or less powerful, it may not speak to me, but to somebody else on a different level. There are things like more or less experience, important is the respect and love of language as the natural element.
A very nice way to give an expanded sense to this beautiful painting!

George S said...

Oh the Breughel painting came as an afterthought, Sabine. I wanted a picture and though there are plenty of skating paintings by artists such as Avercamp this one had the best pond and a nice distant view.

I don't mind using more powerful / less powerful as values. It comes to much the same thing as good / bad in the end. The trouble with leaving everything in the subjective realm is that in asserting individual privilege we forget vast areas of consensus so in the end we cannot discuss things at all. I have just judged a poetry competition with two other judges. Between us we read 12,000 poems. Do you think the three judges should have refused to judge because because there might have been someone else in the country who might have preferred different poems? Of course the subjective exists and we must admit it, but at some stage the three of us had to come to an agreement on some grounds. It was not an absolute consensus, or a divine consensus. It was the same consensus that a board of editors reaches in editing a book.

In any case I am perfectly convinced that I myself have written some bad poems, that some of my poems are better than others, or at least that in some good poems, that might have been better, I have left some bad lines, etc. And I am not sure whether it is the concept of 'power' that is the difference.

The point I am trying to make in the post is that the best poems have an air of risk. The more overt the risk the greater the fall. The ice image shows that the ice may be loved but not absolutely trusted, and that the risk of falling through the ice (because ice is not altogether reliable) is part of the beauty of skating.

You may be right about the poet being a poet all the time. In some deep part of his or her being that might be so. But I don't drive a car as a poet / skater. I drive it as a driver. If you were my passenger you might prefer it that way. My mind is chiefly on the road. Most of the time I don't 'think' like a poet, I am not registering everything with a view to turning it into a poem. I think the poetic act is one of intense concentration that couldn't be sustained because concentration is wanted elsewhere.

As you can see, I would like to separate the act of making poetry from the sense of being a poet. I - along with a lot of other poets past and present who have felt this way about themselves - feel that I am a poet when I am writing poetry. In other respects I am a member of the human race, which is to say a generalist with certain characteristics that dispose me towards poetry. It is important to make this distinction if we want to think about poems rather than poets.

It is poems, not poets, I want to think about here - which is why I distrust the Don Paterson argument.

litrefs said...

I've always preferred Frost's "slides on its own melting" analogy to his tennis one.

I think the ice skating analogy holds up. The test is whether ice skating
conclusions be be translated back fruitfully into poetry. I've just skimmed Wikipedia's pages on the judging of ice skating competitions, how technique and creativity are assessed - skating skills, transitions, performance/execution, choreography, and interpretation. After, the skaters wait in a place they call the "kiss and cry area". Time to update the Nat Po Comp procedures, I'd say.

My family are just back from skiing. Yesterday I read a popular science article about Snow which they brought back for me. For "snow" read "language" - layered, made of particles holding each other up. Snow gets damaged by use - the crystals' shape and size is affected. The crystals also suffer from temperature effects - the top layer may be hotter or colder than the bottom layer. Overnight the Snowcats (bulldozerish machines) restore the snow. They may look heavy, but kg/sq-metre they're lighter than a ballerina. And there are machines that make artificial snow.

"Don Paterson more or less defined poetry as something written by a poet" - Picasso once said something like "one day a blank canvas will be shown in a gallery, and it will be art". He could have created the piece there and then, but he didn't, because, I'd guess, at that time it wouldn't have been art. It's not just the Poet or even the Poem.

George S said...

I think the ice skating analogy holds up. The test is whether ice skating conclusions be be translated back fruitfully into poetry. I've just skimmed Wikipedia's pages on the judging of ice skating competitions, how technique and creativity are assessed - skating skills, transitions, performance/execution, choreography, and interpretation. After, the skaters wait in a place they call the "kiss and cry area". Time to update the Nat Po Comp procedures, I'd say...

Yes, but the comedy derives here from minor adjustments of terminology. The evaluation of poetry does employ certain terms that may, perfectly properly, be rough equivalents of those used in ice dance. And I have seen the kiss and cry area in poetry, and I assure you that it really does exist.

The snow analogy is, I expect, just as good as the ice one. The limitation of both is that they encourage us to refer to ever more features of the analogy deployed until we reach a point that is patently untrue. Does it, for example, have to be winter in some sense in order for poetry to be written? Must one use a 'cold' vocabulary? Is the pen, or the word processor the equivalent of the skate?

I did warn the listeners at the Brighton talk that my metaphors are no more than metaphors but added that, as a poet, I find metaphors more attractive than specialist terminology.

I sometimes think the same apropos the idea of truth in poetry. Truth is vital, but in the end the poem is only a poem. The truth of a poem is not the general principle derived from it, but the sensation of truth passing through language and ourselves in the course of the poem. The way, say (he says, employing yet another metaphor) a wind only blows through the house while the window or door is open.

Which sense of truth may, of course, be as good as things get for some of us.

P-Lane Anon said...

Just out of interest, and if anyone knows - is this a specifically modern question? Or are there clear instances of the same thing being asked before, say, The Wasteland?

George S said...

I don't think the question is specifically modern but it has to be rephrased and re-examined every so often. Personally, I am interested in arriving at a definition of poetry that might arise out of ideas about verse, rather than from the apprehension of poetic experience.

I don't expect to arrive at an answer that has been eluding everyone from the dawn of time, but I hope to offer some answers worth considering.

I'm not sure The Waste Land poses that question in a particularly intense way. The advent of prose poetry in the late nineteenth century might be more to the point. The idea of inspiration is also interesting, I mean the suggestion that in such an elevated state everything the poet writes is perfect.

Jee Leong Koh said...

"The risk affirms the game." There must be a risk of failure if there is to be a chance at success. A poet is arguably strongest when he is most aware of the risks. I love "The Four Quartets" but it lacks the risk-taking that makes "The Waste Land" groundbreaking.

About metaphors: Zhuangzhi, the Taoist philosopher, said that words are nets for catching meaning. Once we have the fish, we can let go of the nets. Fish, a living squirming thing.

P Lane Anon said...

Thanks George - exactly what I was asking for.

Part of the (faintly) frustrating nature of the subjectivity of these questions/ideas is knowing that they have become less definable, more subjective, and worst of all, more POLITICAL, since the late 19th century.

It was all easier to answer then than it is now. Not "easy"; just more easy. Cue some rueful great-grandfather envy, although my ggf was a drunken copper and might well not have cared.

True also of drawing, painting, and for some of us there's a tug at gut level towards retaining what we can't retain - control over the definitions of what it is we're reading/writing/drawing/painting.

George S said...

Jee Leong - that is exactly my feeling about the relative merits of The Waste Land and The Four Quartets. I fully accept that the latter is the more mature, more comprehensive, more humane work, but it doesn't excite me as much as The Waste Land, which seems both to build and to destroy itself before our very eyes. It's a kind of 'report from the front' that witnesses that to which it refers. The bombs are falling all too close.

P. Lane Anon -I can't pretend to be a systematic thinker. I lack the scholarship and am happier to let my mind dart about as best it can, but I think poetry does depend on a certain stability and precision of language. The paradox is that it requires the stability while being keenly aware of the fact that nothing in language is as stable as it seems. Language seems stable until you tread on it, and - in the poet's case - begin to make a few dancing movements. That's the ice paradigm.