Monday, 26 April 2010

How low can you get?

Before worrying about plot there are other underlying layers of meaning that are often ignored by readers. Readers are aware that poets commonly exploit the visceral effect of sound but there are other conveyors of meaning too.

Colours - in the old days text was black on a white background. On the web there's no technical or financial reason to continue with this default - it's more a matter of choice. Web writers who choose black-on-white may want readers to think about the paper tradition, or obits?

Fonts - neglect them at your peril

  • "I prefer to read the poems of Wallace Stevens in the Electra typeface that was used for the 1954 Collected Poems ... For me, the experience and the pleasure of reading Steven's poetry are not just intensified by this typeface, they are intimately part of it, so that reading Stevens in another font seems unusual and even disconcerting" (S.Matterson and D.Jones, "Studying Poetry")
  • "Many of the older typefaces have historic contexts. Using a particular typeface can therefore add a subtle extra dimension to a book. The first edition of Edwin Morgan's Sonnets from Scotland for example was set in Scotch Roman ... Setting such a book in a distinctly English face, such as Caslon, for instance, would seem inappropriate unless you were doing it very deliberately to make an ironic point", (Gerry Cambridge)

Choice of Language - The language you choose to write in has implications. In Colonial countries, the implications are clear, but even in the UK, Welsh and Scottish writers have decisions to make. Don Paterson writes some poems in Scots (with a glossary). Others write dialogues in Glaswegian that can be hard for English people to understand. Even writers who have no choice of language might need to choose between using "colour" and "color" - is using the latter succumbing to US global domination?

Word play - Some word play draws attention to itself, but acrostics might lurk unnoticed for years. A relatively well-known one is by Nabokov - his short story "The Vane Sisters" has an acrostic final paragraph where the first letters of each word spell out a message from beyond the grave.

Whose Language is it anyway? - Within a language there are many styles. How much does adopting a style mean that the writer is also signing up to the consequences of that style? Is using "he" rather than "s/he" a vote for "Man-made language"? In the States some writers decided that Language wasn't at all neutral. Reagan, Feminism, Black Power, Multi-nationals, Colonialism etc, all get tangled up in this issue. It's clearest in poetry. In the USA especially, Forms came to be considered WASPish, right-wing, male. Even clarity became the oppressor's smooth-talking tongue.

  • According to Susan Vanderborg, Olson's "narrators associate a flat, statistical style of documentation that forecloses interpretation with a bureaucratic pendant for dehumanizing persons as enemies or casualties".
  • The L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets went further, breaking sentences into disjointed phrases and breaking phrases into words in order to cleanse language of corruption and banality. Lyn Hejinian tells us that language poetry "invites participation, rejects the authority of the writer over the reader and thus, by analogy, the authority implicit in other (social, economic, cultural) hierachies".
  • N. NourbeSe Philip "saw the lyric voice as one of the tools used to further the ends of colonialism".

I sympathise with some of these views, but some of the later ones seem to be throwing the baby out with the bathwater (and throwing the bath out too).

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