Sunday, 6 March 2011

From Field to Form 5: Force fields and working the pitch

To recap and elaborate a little on some recent points:

Force field
The force field is associated with specific forms which may be seen as charged objects capable of generating the energy accumulated in them because they themselves have been recharged time and again, each new charge being not a repetition but a variant on the original object. So there is a sonnet of one kind, then another kind develops, then another, each redefining the original in such a way that it can still be regarded as part of the same object as it develops. Here the longevity of the form is an asset. The reason it doesn't die is because it is continually recharged. It may be that the sonnet responds to a need for a particular length, dynamic, and organisation in lyric poetry, offering, in the process, a useful median between feeling and intellect.

To return to the idea of space, the sonnet, like the room, is a space in which we may live and dispose. Whatever metaphor we choose it seems to me evident that the sonnet has survived in ways other forms have not and this may be a reason why.

It may be that other forms that look, or have in the past looked moribund, have simply not been sufficiently frequently recharged but are capable of being so. I think it might have been Swinburne who revived the sestina, with Carlotte Perkins Gilman soon after, then Pound following on. It may be that Pound, standing as he does at the crossroads between nineteenth century aestheticism and high modernism, is the major re-charger of this neglected form. Not quite as natural a recourse as the sonnet, the sestina has nevertheless assumed its position as a force field capable of generating a charge.

A poetic force field in terms of form is, we might say, one that offers possibilities and restraints that may be referred to and internalised by a writer. Of course individual poets and poetic themes offer force fields of their own.

Retournons á nos Rooneys. A football match has eleven players per side who may be disposed in a number of formations. I still remember the innovatory force of Alf Ramsey's England World Cup winning team: the 'wingless wonders'. This formation has been so internalised it would seem rather odd to revert to the old 2-3-5 formation (forgetting the goalkeeper who is always 1) that was more usually a 2-3-2-3 or, as I recall them: right-back, left-back, right-half, centre-half, left-half; inside right, inside left; right-wing, centre-forward, left wing. That was back in the days of the splendidly named Walter Winterbottom. Since then there have been many more modifications though the formation in itself guarantees nothing except a basis. The formation is a force field among other force fields.

Spaces and trajectories
I understand this in a visceral way. I understand that forms delimit and make clear demands that may, however, be negotiated. One learns to move in various kinds of space. These spaces (the fourteen-line space, the thirty-nine line space, the sixty-five line space) might be valuable because they carry enough energy to work as positive force fields as in the examples above.

I know instinctively where I am in a sonnet just as I know where I am in a room. I know where I am in the rooms I am already familiar with of course, but even in unfamiliar rooms I know to feel for chairs, tables and other articles of furniture. I expect there might be a window, a light-switch, some kind of floor covering, something on the walls. I have some preconceptions about rooms in general. The longer the poem the bigger the space, the more objects one might find there. Even if I transfer this concept into the open air, I have an idea of gardens, parks, fields and various other kinds of terrain.

The laws of Association Football do not lay down precise measurements for a pitch, but offer a range of legal possibilities. I expect the length of the pitch to be greater than its width. I know there are certain marked areas within the pitch. I understand how the laws operate in terms of available space.

Trajectory is not about space but movement in time. A ballad has specific units of movement but no set length. Terza rima can extend as long as it needs to. Both are narrative forms, as is the ottava rima and the heroic couplet. They are ways of moving. In these forms the spatial sense is to do with stanza on the one hand, and narrative proportion on the other. In terza rima you weave, in ottava rima you perform a more elaborate, almost digressive set of movements that nevertheless form to a snap or series of snaps. It moves while diverting. Rhyming couplets in a row propose a highly disciplined set of brisk movements joined through hard logic.

You can recognise people by the way they move through space. In poetry the movement is always formal in some way, or - I would suggest - works against formal expectations. Once the formal expectation has gone the movement must work against some other rationale. The ghosts of pentameters and trochaics are formal expectations against which verse can move. It might be that neuroscience, or some related discipline, will provide a useful framework for a theory of poetic line and movement, but in the meantime there remain the ghost structures of verse form.

Warning: turn off sound!

The football equivalent of trajectory is the run and the pass sequence. The pitch is of limited size but a successful Barcelona or Arsenal move involves sideways, backwards, forwards, running straight, weaving, pausing over time. It can be very beautiful. There was a notable goal in the last World Cup where the Argentina side played some twenty-five passes in a row, in all directions, before scoring. The players involved in the passing move were all running and weaving into position. Manchester United's best moves are not like that: they are lightning fast forward, one or two rapid interchanges then the attempt at goal. Quite a different, counter-attack 'poetics'.

Turn off sound

Barcelona combine the best of Arsenal and United. Giggs and Messi are weavers as is Nasri.

I have flown this idea before. It is the three-part lyric, a flexible variant on beginning-middle-end, on the dialectic thesis-antithesis-synthesis, or, as I prefer it, the ode structure of strophe-antistrophe-epode.

Anything constituting a forward dynamic is naturally associated with narrative and here we run up against the distinction I started with, between poetry and fiction (or prose generally): the cry versus the story; the wow! versus the and then? the act of naming versus the action and reaction; or, to change terms, metaphor versus metonym, association versus connotation, conjuration versus syntax, the lake versus the river, and so forth.

This is the distinction that is all but impossible to draw clearly, the chief reason why I wanted to begin with verse rather than with the looser, yet generally understood term, poetry. Is a poem without an action, or implication of action, a poem at all or just description? Is a story devoid of conjuration, association, metaphor etc fully a story?

It seems to me clear that poetry without a narrative or syntactic element (it may be playing against narrative and syntax) is not fully poetry and that a bare story in which we know or feel nothing about persons and circumstances by association is not fully a story.

To transfer this to a football pitch again, twenty-five passes behind your own half-way line never moving forward can be very dull, and simply kicking the ball forward on a pitch without a conflict that might deploy character or emotion, lacks interest.

In practice there are no poems or stories that I have read that are purely cry or purely action. It is interesting that in forms like the ghazal and the pantoum the sense of forward movement is restrained in favour of a more circular motion, nevertheless something continues to move forward. The poem's intensity increases as it circles. One might argue that it drills its way down. Or that, even in its circularity, it flirts with narrative, invoking potential circumstance, potential story. A ghazal about love names the author and refers to a condition that has not obtained from eternity to eternity. Its subject, in so far as it is desire, is necessarily temporal. It might be we are dealing with a form of impasse at a moment in the absent story.

The three-part lyric does generally seem to work, not so much as dialectic but as idea-and-action 1, that switches, as by an Aristotelian peripeteia, to idea-and-action 2, resulting not necessarily in a synthesising idea-and-action 3 (or, in the case of the Shakespearean sonnet in a paradoxical idea-and-action 3, which only works as a paradox because of the expectations roused by stages 1 and 2) but in the offering of a third, unexpected possibility (unexpected especially by the poet) that is, however, related to, and is a product of idea-and-action 1 and comprehends idea-and-action 2. The third term, the equivalent of the epode, is Rooney's moment of improvisation or its equivalent. It will not strike the reader as the trick of pulling a rabbit out of a hat, but as the natural conclusion after which the poem need not continue.


I argue from verse because verse is both compulsive and arbitrary. A regular beat is compulsive but the reason why this or that regular beat should be more compulsive than another is less clear. It is however clear that mere regularity of beat can grow dull unless quickened by invention and risk. The point is that the apparent imposition of a rhythmic pattern on language is an arbitrary imposition on it, a seeking out and locating of something that need not happen in speech. Rhyme (similarity of sound) is another imposition. It foregrounds coincidence as do all poetic devices.

Verse, therefore, is arbitrary and coincidental in exactly the same way as language itself is arbitrary and coincidental. Verse is the ghostly reflection of language's own condition, and language, I have suggested, is as thin as the ice on the pond on which skaters dance their patterns.

This is not an argument for judgment by prosody; it does not suggest a series of correct or incorrect moves as a basis for that judgment. The argument is that if there are distinctions between the expectations of the form of utterance generally known as poetry, and those forms that are not, it might be worth exploring the distinctions specifically from the point of view of form, that is to say in terms of the limits of space, of the possible range of movements within that space, and the sense of improvisation and risk that depend on the limits of space and a flexible but still limited range of movements within the space.

Or to revert one last time to my football analogy, I would like to define the poetic in football (and anything else that has claims to the poetic) in terms of that which makes it possible to call a set of actions a game of football, and to suggest that the factors that make that possible find their best analogy in verse rather than in some general 'poetic sense', a sense that is in any case only poetic because of the residual elements of verse in them.

I chose football not only because I like it, but because it seems unpromising to those who look down on sports because they are the recreation of what seem to them uneducated and inarticulate people to the entertainment of what seem to them uneducated and inarticulate people. I might have chosen another sport or dance, but even in the ice analogy I have concentrated less on the 'art' of the ice dancer as on the simple act of cutting patterns on a village pond.

For a poet writing a poem, the mere apprehension of the presence of force fields might be enough to suggest ways of internalising space, trajectory and risk. But that apprehension would, I think, be improved by reading and listening to poetry in terms of space, trajectory and risk rather then in terms of situation, subject, or as I suspect often happens, when I listen to programmes such as Poetry Please, the background notion of small pearls of wisdom. The sigh of 'Oh how true' is less exciting to me than the cry of 'Oh how strange and approximate!'


Tim Love said...

Looks fine to me already, but I'll need to read it at least once again.

The field-of-force poetry metaphor I've seen most often employed is the science experiment of putting a piece of page over a bar magnet and shaking iron filings on it - they make visible the magnetic field in the way that words make visible the poetic idea. One could add that the magnetic lines of force loop back to the magnet much as the energy of some sonnets does.

George S said...

I thought of the magnet analogy, Tim, but thought it might suggest something over repetitive, the same pattern of iron filings time and again. I wanted to look for something that was generative of variations.