Wednesday 23 May 2018


The transparency of language - its ability let us see the world through it - is a joyous make-believe, a spell that shouldn't be broken carelessly. It's often thought that this transparency is at odds with art -

  • "If reality impacted directly on our senses and our consciousness, if we could have direct communication between the material world and ourselves, art would be unnecessary", Bergson
  • "If what has happened in the one person were communicated directly to the other, all art would collapse, all the effects of art would disappear", Valéry
  • "The non-mimetic character of language is thus, in a certain way, the opportunity and the condition for poetry to exist. Poetry exists only to 'renumerate' in other words, to repair and compensate for the 'defect of languages'", Gerard Genette

Language nowadays has two foundation layers - that of sounds and that of typography. Both these layers can show through when we experience a poem. I suspect a text will seem more poetic if they do - i.e. if the text has many sonic effects or uses visual effects.

The effects of the underlying layers can synchronize with the meaning or be largely independent of it - "The remarkable result of Valéry's treatment of sound and sense as consciously separated variables is that it allows the semantic components of the poem to take on structural value and the structural values of the poem to take part in a semantic or signifying action in turn" (C. Crow). Interaction can happen in many ways -

  • Sound and meaning interacting - Perhaps key words are emphasised by being rhymed, but the effects may be more pervasive and subtle. Sound can begin to take over in Dada Sound Poetry, or even in some Dylan Thomas poems. Poets like Bunting thought that the sounds could convey an important meaning.
  • Typography and meaning interacting - In Abcedereans and Anagrams words are decomposed into letters rather than sounds. Line-breaks can have various effects, and with Concrete poetry appearance can be a dominating factor.

The sculptor, Brancusi, believed that his art might "coax an image from within the material rather than forcing an image onto the materials". Similarly, poetry might help bring to light something implicit within language, especially if conventional "meaning" doesn't get in the way.

Gérard Genette used the term 'metalepsis' for when boundaries between layers are crossed by characters or other textual elements. I think the term "Entanglement" is useful to describe when, more generally, meaning and the underlying layers can't easily be separated.

I think I try to write entangled poetry - it's as likely to reach down into language as it is to allude to nature or states of mind. Here are some examples -

A poet's double life
He went gray; too
guilty to stray
he longed to graze
on beauty without
needing to pray;

At the end of this poem there's a note saying that it should be re-read omitting the rs. The next poem begins with puns and anagrams involving "surreal" and "freud dada"

Surrealism is Symbolism without footnotes,
nonsensequitur offspring of Freud and Dada,
a dead fraud, fad, a dud era. It's a real serial
artist called Sir Real - Cyril for short -

The next poem has more anagrams.

Sound sense
Lines; truths by committee,
tones buried in words
like a sword in stone.
Stock quotations tumble.
Culture’s very core is shaken; recovery is slow
until a rag man risks an anagram.

In poetry books and magazines nowadays poems using wordplay aren't so uncommon, though I suspect they divide opinion. Language (its sound and spelling) is rarely a transparent medium in Paul Stephenson's "Selfie with Waterlillies". Sometimes it seeps into the foreground as in

I want to know swathe,
want to bathe in swathe,
I'd scythe swathes of grasses,
no, better still, swathes of heather.
Lithe, I'd scythe longest swathes loose

My Truth to Materials and Heather McHugh article has more information.

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