Friday, 22 June 2012

My most unpopular articles

Beats me why some of my articles have been read 1000s of times whereas others might only have been read by me and bots, if that. I make no great claims for the pieces listed below, only that they're surely not a 1000 times worse than my most popular attempts. Are they?

Sunday, 17 June 2012

Entry-level poetry and originality

I've been reading some newbie poetry recently and have been wondering what to say to the poets. Let's keep it simple and suppose that a good poem should (1) "have something to say", and (2) "say it well". But that's not enough (for the same reason that a science student deriving "E=mc squared" without help isn't enough). If it's already been done no one will be interested, though it may be an important, impressive developmental milestone for the writer. So for work that's going to be shared there's another requirement - (3) "it hasn't been said that way before". Novice poems often lack all three of these features. Such poems are easy to identify. Difficulties arise when some of the features are successfully implemented. In the table below I suggest what pieces that lack one or two of these features might be like.

The FeatureIf it's the only feature lacking?If it's the only feature?
Something to sayStylish, original but ultimately vacuousConfessional, documentary
A good way to say itThe poet has ideas but expresses them in a confusing or bland way, though the result's original enoughAn exercise in style
Not been said that way beforea "workshop" poem?Novelty for novelty's sake

The poems described in the 2nd column lack only one feature, and should be better than those in the 3rd column, and easier to fix. But sometimes the feature that the poems in the final column focus on is so good that it's worth many a poem in the 2nd column. Some life event or desire to be different is what might have inspired the poet to write in the first place.

Which faults are most easy to remedy? Which are the most egregious? Some poetry think that having "something to say" is crucial; the only reason for writing poetry. Auden liked young poets to have technical skill and an interest in wordplay, having "a good way to say it". Time and travel can provide subject matter later. The feature in the final row is often underestimated. Of course, new poets may have read so little poetry that they can't assess originality, or assess how the poetry community will view the work (they may have no notion of a living "poetry community"). Some people don't bother about this factor until they've completed the poem. And works in this category may be excellent in themselves, important milestones in the writer's development, so poets, for a while at least, shouldn't been discouraged from producing such work. People like Derek Walcott think that poets might well be derivative during their apprenticeship.

But avoidance of derivative writing is part of my writing process, not an afterthought. When I feel the urge to write about bruised light I think again. My approach can be stultifying, and it's probably not a good idea for first drafts. The anxiety of influence shouldn't affect each phrase I write. And who's to judge whether the work is too much like what's gone before? Development often proceeds by minor variations and incremental improvements.

So I think the "originality" factor is the one that poets are most likely to re-evaluate as they develop. I don't think new poets should do what I do. Initially they shouldn't worry too much about originality (besides, they're not equipped to assess it). They might benefit from being shown similar poems. Later they may incorporate avoidance of copying into their thought processes (or call it intertextuality)

Monday, 4 June 2012

Two poetry primers

I found I agreed with much in "La poesia salva la vita" by Donatella Bisutti. It avoids theoretical language (but not difficult poems) and asks basic (or if you prefer, fundamental) questions. It quotes extensively from a wide range of poets (Achmatova, Blok, Bly, Campana, Caproni, Kavafis, Lear, Liu, O'Hara, Queneau, Silkin, Vernon Watkins, etc). The title ("Poetry saves lives") sounds over-the-top but the book suggests that it's anecdotally true for a particular concentration camper. A pervasive theme is that words are both transparent meaning-carriers and objects/noises whose properties also carry meaning.

  • Rhythms derive from our movements, dance, and breath. On p.160-161 there are graphs showing the rhythms of an Ungaretti poem.
  • Shape and sound contribute to meaning. Onomatopeioa extends beyond words like "farfalla" (Italian for butterfly). On p.137 there are counts of the frequency of vowels and consonants in some poetry by Pavese.

Key ideas are printed in boxes. Here are some quotes (my translations)

  • the meaning of a poem is in reality a fine net of meanings that interact beneath the surface and it's really this interacting that makes us say it's beautiful, p.89
  • when there seems to be no metaphor, we've seen that the whole poem becomes a metaphor, p.96
  • everything that repeats itself with minor differences, by a curious psychological mechanism, pleases us, p.99
  • modern poetry makes much use of polysemy to multiply and also hide meanings, p.146
  • Of such obscurity this book wants to provide at least one key: abandon oneself, like children, to suggestion, to echoes, to the circles that radiate from the words, p.147
  • poetry fails to capture reality, p.227

"Fundamentals of the Art of Poetry" by Oscar Mandel (Sheffield Academic Press, 1998) also has many examples but few surprizes or insights. It's less fundamental than the other book. The nearest Mandel get to being controversial is to suggest that Keats' "The poetry of earth is ceasing never" is "a dismal failure" (p.205) and that prose poems don't exist - he's happy for poetry to be devoid of rhyme, meter, metaphor, etc, but they must have line-breaks. Here are a few quotes

  • Poetry is the branch of Literature whose words and related signs are preponderantly delivered (when written down or printed) in premeditated limited quanta, p.80
  • A prose poem is like a well-dressed nude, a square circle, or a 41-line sonnet, p.86
  • when we study the poetic history of any given nation, we quickly discover that there are years, and even decades, of poetic productivity from which nothing is prized any longer, p.191