Statement of Philosophy

A site for exploration and discussion about verse, poetics, the aesthetic, and creative writing in general.

Because there is a profound difference between writing something to be read and writing something worth reading; and in that difference might beauty be found.



★★ The Latest Posts on Hatter's Adversaria
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Something I Read #20 – Carl JungSomething I Read #19 – Carl Jung


Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Two Poems by Glyn Maxwell -- Poetry Daily, 4/30/2013

from Pluto
poems found here

 

First lines:
Together they took the least space they could.
Entered each other deeply, to be less,

 

meter and meaning

— reformatted 9/30/15

(I am trying out including subject headers. We'll see how it goes.)

I was actually hoping something like this would come up, as I've been wanting to show an example of how meter guides reading. And I wrote this whole post out before realizing it was slightly more complicated than I read at first. What I want to look at is scansion, and the meter of a poem relates to the meter of a line.

Take a look at the first stanza of the first poem, "South-East of Eden":

Together they took the least space they could.
Entered each other deeply, to be less,
to throw one shadow only, to be still
for all the world while moving for each other.

Originally, when I read this stanza, I read it as follows:

ToGEther they TOOK the LEAST SPACE they COULD.
ENtered each Other DEEPy, to be LESS,
to THROW one SHAdow ONly, to be STILL
for ALL the WORLD while MOving FOR each Other.

But it didn't take me too many lines farther to realize that the poem is written in iambic pentameter, and that I had misread lines 2 & 3. And there is nothing wrong with that. It is quite alright to establish how the reader is supposed to read a line through the use of the overall meter. Part of learning to correctly speak Shakespeare is learning to read (and speak) the lines as iambic pentameter, and not with whatever other count of stresses.

It is not uncommon that a line in metered poem sounds very different from the same words spoken in casual conversation. Some of Robert Frost's work is very easily misread, if one ignore the meter of the poem. That is part of the aural aspect of poetry: the control of the rhythms and sound. And, by controlling such rhythms and sound, you can direct the reader toward a certain reading, and even a certain meaning. For example, the lines of this stanza could be read like this:

ToGRther they TOOK the LEAST SPACE they COULD.
ENtered each Other DEEPy, to BE LESS,
to THROW one SHAdow ONly, to BE STILL
for ALL the WORLD while MOving FOR each Other.

Saying "to be LESS" is very different from saying "to BE LESS," no?

Except that line 3, actually, is more naturally read "to THROW ONE SHAdow ONly, to be STILL." And once you de-emphasize the one "be," you rather have to the other to keep the very similarly structured lines in parallel. So I believe the correct reading of the stanza is:

ToGEther they TOOK the LEAST SPACE they COULD.
ENtered EACH Other DEEPy, to be LESS,
to THROW ONE SHAdow ONly, to be STILL
for ALL the WORLD while MOving FOR each Other.

I used the recognition that the poem was iambic pentameter to add another stress to the line. And, used parallelism to recognize that the second line should be read as the third is most naturally. But you should be able to see how, if the lines were slightly different, the iambic pentamer meter could be used by a writer to make the reader read the lines as "to BE" rather than "to be."

This is both a natural and potentially powerful tool. But, it is very wrong to force a line into a rhythm that is counter to any of its natural readings. That sounds terribly clumsy to the ear of a sophisticated reader. This is a very common event in popular musicwhere the rhythm of the music overrides the natural rhythm of the speech, and forces stresses where they should not occur. Good lyricism pays attention to how the flow of the lyrics and flow of the music work together. And, sometimes, in music, you can create an interesting lyrical line by having a heavy musical stress meet a soft lyrical one. Though, normally, it does not work so well, and the results sound awkward -- at times very awkward -- to a sophisticated ear. (Not exactly the kind of thing that one remembers, so I do not have an example on hand. If I come upon one, though, I will add it in.)

In poetry, it is not always clear whether a meter is forcing a stress upon a line, or if the line can be read with the stress, though it would not be a common reading. If you need a general rule, if it at all feels like it (or, more importantly, if it at all feels like it to someone else), then you should reconsider the line. When it fails, it sounds so very bad.

So, in sum:

  • The established meter of a poem can influence the reading of a line, telling you that it is meant to be read one way and not another.
  • Which comes into play when lines can be read with different stress patterns.
  • It is quite alright that a reader might have to go back and reread, once they realize the intended meter of the poem.
  • What is not alright, however, is to use an established meter to force a stress pattern upon a line, when the stresses are counter to any natural reading.
  • Finally, most interestingly, is to look at how when the stresses that exist when 2 & 3 are read as pentameter change the meaning of the line. It is a different thing to say "to be STILL" and "to BE STILL." They mean two different things, as the emphasis on the phrase shifts from "still" to "be."

 


Of course, free verse is not exempt from these considerations, however much quotidian practitioners of free verse may refuse the idea.

Monday, April 29, 2013

"Ms. and Super Pac Man" by B.J. Best -- Verse Daily, 4/29/2013

from Pleiades (33.1)
poem found here

 

First words:
They met at Overeaters Anonymous.

 

the prose poem, and the question of the distinction between poetry and prose

— reformatted with minor editing 9/30/15
— a little editing 6/16/2013

This is a prose poem – or so it claims. But that is the question: what is a prose poem? It seems these days that people are very willing to take near anything under 300 words or so and call it a prose poem. But are they? Merely because they are short, does that make them a prose poem? How is a prose poem different from a short-short? How is it different from flash fiction. Are you willing to say there is no difference and "prose poem" is, merely, any short prose work? Let me reverse the question: is there anything about this little story that is not, merely, prose?

Let's look at two texts. First, T.S. Eliot's "Hysteria," often called one the best prose poems in English:

As she laughed I was aware of becoming involved in her laughter and being part of it, until her teeth were only accidental stars with a talent for squad-drill. I was drawn in by short gasps, inhaled at each momentary recovery, lost finally in the dark caverns of her throat, bruised by the ripple of unseen muscles. An elderly waiter with trembling hands was hurriedly spreading a pink and white checked cloth over the rusty green iron table, saying: "If the lady and gentleman wish to take their tea in the garden, if the lady and gentleman wish to take their tea in the garden…" I decided that if the shaking of her breasts could be stopped, some of the fragments of the afternoon might be collected, and I concentrated my attention with careful subtlety to this end.

and Franz Kafka's "Absent-Minded Window-Gazing" (translated by Willa and Edmund Muir; plucked from here):

What are we to do with these spring days that are now fast coming on? Early this morning he sky was gray, but if you go to the window now you are surprised and lean your cheek against the latch of the casement.

The sun is already setting, but down below you see it lighting up the face of the little girl who strolls along looking about her, and at the same time you see her eclipsed by the shadow of the man overtaking her.

And then the man has passed by and the little girl's face is quite bright.

I have to put them within the post, here, because the whiz kids at other poetry sites (like Poetry Archive, Poetry Foundation, and AllPoetry) don't seem to realize it is a prose proem and have it on screen left justified, with broken lines. (If you look at the html, the poem is actually by hand broken into lines.) [Note: PoetryFoundation corrected it the next day, after I pointed it out. 4/30] And since I put up one, then why not also the other. I put them there mostly for you to read. To compare.

"Hysteria" is a prose poem. "Window-Gazing" is a story. You do not every see "Hysteria" called a story, and I have yet to see Kafka's short-shorts called prose poems except in the loosest manner (as a kind of association with them, rather than identity with them.) So read them. Granted, these are only two texts; but can you find something different between them?

Let me offer a suggestion: is, perhaps, the Kafka piece, simply, prose. It uses prosaic forms, it plays with prosaic technique and effect (here, the creating of suspense and realization within a linear narrative). Does it not seem that the Eliot piece tries for something more, if not, even, different?

To be honest, I have rather come to dislike the idea of the "prose-poem," because so little effort has been put into maintaining any singular identity to it. (Which is unfortunate, because the idea of a "prose poem" – the idea that Eliot was playing with, and that Mallarme played with – could be a fascinating form.) And, in contemporary poetics, just as people are willing to accept anything with line breaks as a poem (rather than prose with a narrow margin), so then also can any short prose work be considered "poetic." So perhaps the answer to the question of what is and is not a "prose poem" lies less in form – because it is absurd to think "brevity" is the single and only source of the "poem" part of the title – and rather in the simple question: What is the difference between poetry and prose?

Just for fun, let's take a look at The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics. This is the opening of the entry "Poetry":

A poem is an instance of verbal art, a text set in verse, bound speech. More generally, a poem conveys heightened forms of perception, experience, meaning, or consciousness in heightened language, i.e., a heightened mode of discourse.

"A heightened mode of discourse": what Wordsworth calls "calculated" language. Notice how the definition moves away from any specific area of effect (perception, meaning, or what) and turns instead to the more elemental idea of "heightened language." And I think that is both a simple enough – and sufficient – distinction between prose and poetry: that which is poetic rises above the prosaic through a heightened attention to, and manipulation of, and creation out of language. Manipulation in what specific way, attention in what specific way, and creating in what specific way is are questions unnecessary to the general, encompassing idea. As such, there is no requisite form (or such) to poetry – and you can legitimately have such things as the prose poem set next to villanelles. What is constant, though, what is necessary and requisite, is "heightened." Which is, rather and in truth, what I look for when I read poetry: I want to come upon something that has been created – which means looking also at the language – and not something merely related, and conveniently broken into lines to get it past poetry editors, when prose editors really wouldn't give it a second thought. I want to see crafting, not mere "writing."

Poetry – be it line broken otherwise – is a challenge: a challenge to skillfully and brilliantly manipulate language to create a heightened experience, one beyond what you find in mere prose.

Of course, as i said, this idea rather takes the question of form out of the definition. Which is good, because Broch's The Death of Virgil (for example) is very much a book length poem, even if not broken into formal lines, and needs to be identified as a book length poem: or, at least, and perhaps more accurately, as a poetic book. Line breaks are merely one way of heightening language, not an identifier – which is why I rail so consistently against poetry that is really just prose with arbitrary line breaks. Simply, such texts are not interesting! You've shown me nothing, of poetic skill, ability, talent, or performance. You've merely written some (usually drab and melodramatic) prose, and broken it into lines. Am I to accept that that is the extent of your poetic ability? Two-inch lines and a stanza break after every third?

So, we return to the Pac-mans. Don't ask yourself, "Is this a prose poem?" Ask yourself, "Is this poetic?" Is there heightened language? Is there literary performance beyond the prosaic? Or is this merely prose? Which is fine – let it be a short-short. Nothing wrong with that. And I leave it to you to decide. But I think there is damage done if you accept the merely prosaic as poetic; damage done whether that prose is written in paragraph form, or with line breaks: that is, a lowering of the bar, a diminishing of beauty. A willingness to accept mediocrity, or worse, in a field that, by it's very idea, should be demanding attempts at brilliance.

 


That little correction – from a "book length poem" to a "poetic book" – may be far more important than one might think at first. For it moves the idea of "poem" out from the nominative and into the descriptive. It is a very different standard of judging to say "is it poetic?" rather than "is it a poem?" Playing to definitions is far easier than playing to characteristics. Saying "is it poetic?" puts the emphasis on rising in performance; whereas "is it a poem?" merely asks, "can it fit in this (insanely broad) category?"

Thursday, April 25, 2013

"Sister as Moving Object" by Jan Beatty -- Poetry Daily, 4/25/2013

from The Switching/Yard
poem found here

 

First lines:
my sister is moving in me again
with her long          arms and legs

 

some general, exploratory questions

— reformatted 9/30/15

I have a number of questions about this poem. My talking them here rather slants to the feel of critiques; but if I was in conversation, for some of them I would like to hear the poet speak her justifications: I am always wanting to have someone point out to me something I am missing. Hopefully, for you readers, I am prompting explorations, some things to ponder.

(1)

I don't see very much reasoning behind the fracturing of the lines, or much consistency in its use. In many places in the poem the fracturing gets in the way of reading, creating a choppiness rather than an intended breaking up. (At stanza 7, "she raised me up," it starts getting very bothersome – even annoying – for me.)

Directly related to this, the wording of the poem works counter to the fracturing in many places. If you are going to fracture the lines, why then have syntax that wants to join the fragments back together, as with the "like" in line 33:

I took to the heat          like a dog to an electric fence          don't go past

Simply leaving the "like" off would not change anything except to improve the sense of the structure.

Another example is the prepositional phrase in line 9:

Rocks the house          to 1965          wearing pink-pink-

Why not write it is a independent noun phrase (for example, something like a "1965 in a" phrase).

In the other direction, why say "moving to tell me" in line 3, when its wording is on its own fighting the upcoming gap. Why not, simply,

talking in moving          she's still here          don't go past

(By the by, "moving to tell me" is rather already stated in the title of the poem. No need to restate your premise: just demonstrate.)

 

(2)

To say, I have no issues with the splitting up of "pink-pink-" and "caked on lipstick." It works well, as does the "teased-up- / Ann-Margaret hair" line break across 10-11. Though, I see no sense in the hyphens after "up" or the second "pink": they seem gramattically incorrect and poetically unnecessary (if not detrimental). If they were on a single line, would you write "pink-pink-caked-on lipstick"? I read the first hyphen as creating an emphasis:

Mutt: "What kind of pink was it?"
Jeff: It was pink. It was pink-pink. It was PINK-pink.

In fact, I am going to try to remember that use of the hyphen. It works very well.) However, adding the hyphen after the second pink reduces the effectiveness of the first, because the words are now merely two in a chain of four. Plus, I have a feeling it is just enough outside the norms of grammar to cause a little stumble.

(3)

Sometimes the situation is reversed, and the breaks work against the syntax/semantics. For example, the natural reading of line 7

some days          an ocean liner          splitting

is that the oceanliner is cracking in two. The "splitting" should not be split from its necessary object, "the dark waters." Though, the problem here is not wholly the fault of the fracturing. It could easily be fixed merely by changnig "splitting" into something that can not point back to the ship: "slicing through" or what.

 

(4)

Some of the wording contradicts itself. Most glaringly, line 8 opens up the description of the sister with "my sister's particular beauty" – a phrase repeated down near the end of the poem – and yet, that description ends, at line 11, with "could've been anyone's / sister." One of them cannot be correct.

But, note that I am not talking about events like in line 29:

with everything coming          his thin teeshirt          i watched their mouths:

That is more the effect that the fracturing is supposed to create, to be able to put fragments of thought together to create a combined whole or continuous flow ideationally without doing so grammatically.

 

(5)

I see that the "I"s in lines 29 and 30 are not capitalized, while the "I"s in lines 31, 33, and elsewhere are. If intentional, it reads like an error, since there is no reason evident in the lines for the change to lower case.

 

(6)

Why have the comma in "she, later" – in the second to last stanza – and not have the complementing comma after "music"? Is the first one really necessary?

 

(7)

I can make no sense of the some of the moments in the poem. For example, there is "magnetic" in line 6 (how is a truck magnetic? what is created in calling a truck magnetic?). And then there is "from the guyot to the springboard" in line 17. "Springboard" is hanging in the air, with nothing else in the poem to connect it to anything. But, even at the simplest level, how does one connect a springboard to a guyot? (I am wondering if Ms. Beattty has a incorrect understanding of what a guyot is, since I see no way you can substntially connect the idea of swimming or diving to the idea of a oceanic guyot.)

 

(8)

This is by far the most interesting question/comment.

I'll bet you anything this poem would be greatly improved if it was rewritten without the woman being anybody's sister, with it being written simply a description of a fictional character. I say this often: most of the time the presence of an "I" weakens a poem, and weakens it in the writing of the poem. For whatever reason (I do have reasons, but I say "for whatever reason" because I don't here want to get into them), for whatever reason, people are sloppier, and put less effort into a poem when they are writing out of or through an "I." And this poem in particular screams out to me "GET RID of that damn 'I'! I could be so much more interesting without it!"

Now, many writers – I am not saying this poet in particular, here; I am talking about conversations in the past – will counter with something like "but I want it to be about my sister" or "but it is about my sister," both being an appeal to some necessity behind the presence of the "I." It is that very want, that very pull of "but this is what really happened," that leads to the weakening of the poem. (And look at me, I'm getting into reasons.) You have to get your head out of that mindset. Great, artistic portraits are not great because they are spitting images of the person who posed. (In fact, the oft repeated truism is that replication of reality is the lowest form of art, because it is nothing more than technique.) Great portraits are first and foremost about the painting. (Rembrandt's self-portraits are intended demonstrations over time to this point.) When you are more concerned with the "I," wth the reality than with the poem, you have established an obstacle to the success of the poem. In his Preface to the Lyrical Ballads, Wordsworth talks about how a poet must remove themselves from the immediacy of the experience so that they may analyze the experience, and cleanly do the work of turning the results of that examination into poetry. There has to be a degree of removal, or the experience overwhelms the writing process, and the poem fails.

To me, this poem seems loose directly because of how often it needs to point out that it is about the speaker's sister. Very little of the poem is actually about the relationship between the speaker and the sister: most of the work to that end is done with explicit statements. Most of the metaphoric work is simply about the sister. Ergo, I say this as something to ponder: the poem is confused because the emotions that spawned the poem wants to constantly say "this is about my sister and our relationship," but those emotions and that resulting want gets in the way of the real energies of the poem, which are, simply, the description of a woman. So, then, why not simply write a poem that is the description of a woman?

Or, alternately, scrap the poem, get some distance, study and explore the relationship between the speaker and the sister, and write a poem about that. This one isn't quite working.

 

(9)

Finally, on a similar vein, but one much more exploratory, the title of the poem – "Sister as Moving Object" – is very much the kind of title one might see connected to a work out of the school of Futurism. (Here's a wikipedia link.) Mina Loy was possibly the only truly successful U.S. Futurist poet (not only in popularity, but in bringing the ideas of Futurism successfully into the medium). It would be an interesting thing to read up on Futurism, and rewrite this poem, or write a poem within the idea of "Sister as Moving Object" in a manner derived from out the school. That just to say, perhaps to prompt.

 


Just to say, if you do not have Mina Loy's collection, The Lost Lunar Baedeker, I strongly press it upon you. Not only is it very good, it has the potential to teach you a lot.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

"30 things to tell a book snob" -- A Literary Elitist's Response

from booktrust.org (4/19/2013)
article found here

 

the optimistic literary elitist

A little editing done: 4/26.

So, obviously, this is not from PoetryDaily, and not even a poem. But very much to point, and still a response to a text. And did you really think I wouldn't branch out sooner or later? (Don’t worry, it won’t happen often.)

[Note added 6/11/2013: Matt Haig followed up this "30 things" post with a second, "30 things to tell a grammar snob." While I didn't respond to the second one point by point, I did respond, and give some words to grammar, and the attitudes thereto (here).]

 
As always, I prefer transparency, so let me say up front that before this I knew nothing about Matt Haig -- or, at least, nothing I have read about him since rings any bells. So I have nothing directly at stake with him.

The essay was cross posted by a friend of mine, and the title easily caught my attention, for, yes, I have been called a book snob. Though, I think it a bit of a mislabel: better would be to call be a literary elitist. It is not wholly my fault, however: I was born to the title. After all, my first real taste of the magic of the adult written word was reading Eliot's "The Hollow Men" -- and some bit of criticism thereon -- somewhere back when my age first found its second digit. Though, in truth, it would be many, many years before my elitism truly blossomed. In part because of that delay, and in part because of my very expansive and exploratory curiosity, my reading has been very broad. I have read Anne McCaffrey and Edgar Burroughs, but also Samuel Delaney and Alfred Bester; I've read both Leon Uris and Joseph Conrad; I've read Toni Morrison and I've read Nathaniel Hawthorne; I've read Harlan Ellison and then also Jorge Luis Borges; I've read Anonymous, and I've read de Sade. I've read the all of E.E. Cummings, W.B. Yeats, Wallace Stevens, and T.S. Eliot; and, yes, I've read both Ulysses and Finnegans Wake multiple times, and was nearly through the Cantos last I put it down. I have started The Lord of the Rings three times, but never with success. But, then again, the same can be said for Gravity's Rainbow.

The former, however, I will never again lift. While the latter is patiently waiting my next attempt. And that is because the former, however much it is read, and however influential it has been, is not that terribly good. And it is difficult for me to read hundreds of pages of something that is not that terribly good. As Ray Charles once said on the Johnny Carson, I’m really only interested in music [in literature] that has something to teach me. And I will openly admit, after five Maya Angelou poems my brain cells are threatening mass sepukku should I continue.

Why? Because there is a marked and substantial difference between Pound's "Hugh Selwyn Mauberley" and pretty much anything written by Angelou. And that difference it is not technique, nor the presence of allusion, nor the five-dollar words. Rather, it is because while Maya Angelou may be making personal statements, they are being made with rather banal and not terribly good poetry. While “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley” –- also a personal statement -- is first and foremost a poem. And I am a lover of literature, not of people’s personal statements.

But the difference goes deeper than that. There is also a fundamental difference in the modality of thinking and perceiving and understanding. We live in a world of two modalities: a social modality, and an individual modality. Say it again, everybody thinks and perceives and experiences the cosmos in two modalities: everyone has a ‘social’ self and an ‘individual’ self. The question is which one do you, to wit, ‘prefer.’ The reality of the situation is that most people live their lives, most people let the world be defined through their ‘social’ self, and suppress to a great degree their individual self.

This is what was observed by Ortega y Gasset in viewers of what we now call modernist art at the early in the last century. If I may a quotation:

Every work of art arouses differences of opinion. Some like it, some don’t; some like it more, some like it less. Such disagreements have no organic character, they are not a matter of principles. A person’s chance disposition determines on which side he will fall. But in the case of the new art the split occurs in a deeper layer than that on which differences of personal taste reside. It is not that the majority does not like the art of the young and the minority likes it, but that the majority, the masses, do not understand it.
(This is from his essay “The Dehumanization of Art.”) Ortega y Gasset is not the only person to observe this. Jung speaks about it, the whole of post-structuralism is a discussion about it. And it was much of what Manet was demonstrating with his Olympia, and Picasso with his Demoiselles D'Avignon.

Without a doubt, society can be split into two general groups: those dominated by the ‘social’ self, and those who strive to live primarily through the ‘individual’ self. The root question (which few people address), is whether this is a difference or a division. That is, are you fated at birth to one and not the other?

As with gnostic cosmologies (not an arbitrary comparison), there are two answers. The pessimistic answers yes. If you cannot understand, you cannot understand, and you will never understand, and apples and oranges etc. (It might be argued that Ortega y Gasset falls in this camp, though really his point in “Dehumanization” is merely to say we are fools for not recognizing, admitting, and utilizing this elemental aspect of human beings.) The optimistic, on the other hand, says, no. While there is a difference, it is one that can be crossed. It is this optimism that brings Zarathustra down from the mountain, and, even after he returns in dejection, will guarantee that sooner or later he will come back down again.

Nietzsche was, perhaps, the world’s greatest optimist. He dedicates Human, All Too Human to “Free Spirits,” knowing only such persons will really understand the book, but hoping, and believing, that anyone could potentially enter the book and emerge a free spirit. I also am an optimist. I have seen too many light bulbs go on to deny what is, admittably, a philosophical and emotional predilection. I believe that sophistication can be developed; and, in truth, naturally develops with any effort by the individual. Perhaps that is why I reject the word "snob" and identify myself a (slightly ironicized) elitist: for, inherent to snobbery is the idea of east is east and west is west.

It is “snobbery” that Matt Haig is talking about. Though, I have to say, never in my many days and years and decades of living with, among, and around books and readers, have I ever met a person who believes, as Matt Haig states, that there is a snobbery "that says opera and lacrosse and Pinot Noir and jazz fusion and quails' eggs and literary fiction are for certain types of people and them alone." Now, perhaps this is a aspect of some small social class. But, then, if it is, I don't think it even merits the effort of a list of thirty elements. Such snobbery has far more to do with social identity than anything what with literature, and there is no need to defend the written word from them. And, indeed, I could not name a single author that would ascribe to such a statement. Yes, of course, writers can very much be elitist, and, even, a social snob. But does it then apply to their works and their attitudes thereto? Have I ever heard an author say “Yeah, you know, I’d much prefer it you didn’t even bother with my work”? (That is, without it being a slam against that specific individual.) No.

(OK. What I have encountered are what I would call literary assholes, people who think because they read Shakespeare they get to treat people who don’t like second class citizens (I am being polite) – and I am sure we all have. But, then again, everything about them is really about them, and do we need to defend anything against the attitude of an ass? No, you just throw your drink in their face and laugh.)

A writer writes to an audience. The more sophisticated the writer, the smaller that audience. Which is true, but which is also not true. Eliot writes "The Waste Land" knowing only others steeped in literature are going to be able to fully enter and engage his work. And believe me, Eliot was an exemplar of the literary social snob. But, Eliot also believed that anyone willing to steep themselves in the tradition would also, with the effort, be able to read his work and experience it deeply and fully. While Ortega y Gasset described what was and is an obvious division in the human populace (you need only watch, and you will see it play out continuously), and while Manet and Picasso et al knew that few people would really be able to understand their work, and the majority would not, I would argue that it is inherent to artists that they hope, and want, and wish, their work to be received by everyone. In fact, I would say it is important to them. Indeed, it is the rule that the Eliots and Pounds and Joyces and Picassos and Matisses and Schnittkes of the world are inherently and irremediably optimistic. I have seen, heard, and read plenty "I'm better, smarter, and faster than you and my book proves it" type snobbery; but never "I therefore do not want you or anyone like you to read my book" type snobbery.

So it is difficult to respond accurately to Haig's list, since I have never seen such snobbery to exist. Perhaps it is rampant in the UK. (Though, I seriously doubt it.) Nonetheless, I would like to respond to each of his thirty points, as, reading them, I believe that in his attacks on snobbery, he is in fact defending its opposite: literary philistinism, the defense of the lowest common denominator as a permissible standard. Indeed, I am saying that Matt Haig is a low-brow snob. That he is saying -- even if by accident -- that there is no difference between Pound and Angelou but high-brow snobbery makes it so, and that if you are low-brow, you should be satisfied with low-brow: something, I would argue, every author of any merit would vehemently deny.

In fact, this I strenuously deny. For my elitism is saying there is something 'better' (to use an admittedly faulty word) about Pound over Angelou. And I want you to be able to see it. Because if you can, when you can, the world, too, becomes better. To use Haig’s word: the magic is by orders of magnitude all the greater.

So let's see how it goes:

 
1. People should never be made to feel bad about what they are reading. People who feel bad about reading will stop reading.
Yes. Of course. That is obvious.

Except I wonder if Haig has ever read a Star Wars tie-in novel. Tie-ins are the dredge of the literary world. Tie-in novels can make fan fiction website look like the Algonquin Round Table. People who defend tie-ins as acceptable reading material should be repeatedly brow beaten. Now, you might say it is the publishing companies that should be taken out behind the shed: but that is the nature of capitalism. A company will gladly admit that they are making millions of dollars off of selling crap, and laugh all the way to the bank. Capitalism loves the low brow; it loves mediocrity, and it loves lowering the bar. Basic economics: you make more money when you spend less effort. The reason tie-ins are so often so bad is because they are generally contract work: the company asks somebody, "Hey, I'll give ya' 50 large if you whip out something about the Star Wars universe; don't worry if it's good." And, so, you get what you get. (But don't get me wrong, I'm up for the gig! You know I love you, baby. You know my number: 392-7704. Call any time.)

(A little Tom Waits there, so you supply the voice.)
 
2. Snobbery leads to worse books. Pretentious writing and pretentious reading. Books as exclusive members clubs. Narrow genres. No inter-breeding. All that fascist nonsense that leads commercial writers to think it is okay to be lazy with words and for literary writers to think it is okay to be lazy with story.
The logic here is mostly imaginary. There's some serious dividing by 0 going on (to mix mathematical metaphors). How we get from snobbery to exclusive members clubs is beyond me. I don't think there is a publishing company on the planet that would make it policy to publish editions of fifty. Nor one that would stake its financial existence on an annotated Finnegans Wake. See #1, above. No matter how many snobs there are, there is always going to be a Timothy Zahn making Lucasbooks a heap o' money with absolute crap.
 
3. If something is popular it can still be good. Just ask Shakespeare. Or the Beatles. Or peanut butter.
Yes. But, unfortunately, that is not exactly proven to be the norm. The demonstrated truth is that “popular” equals mediocre, or worse. There is no small humor in the story of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s frustrations that his novels were being way outsold by popular romances -- books with very little literary merit.
 
4. Get over the genre thing. The art world accepted that an artist could take from anywhere he or she wanted a long time ago. Roy Lichtenstein could turn comic strips into masterpieces back in 1961. Intelligence is not a question of subject but approach.
I am going to assume he means criticism of genre, because that would be the natural conclusion. The statement above does not, on its own, get us there. The statement that "the art world accepted that an artist could take from anywhere" is actually rather both missing the point of the art to which he is referring, and assuming that anything labeled 'art' is, somehow guaranteed to be of quality. The best definition of ‘art’ ever: anything for which someone will pay money, so they can hang it on their wall. Possibly also the most accurate definition as the word is most commonly used: and it has nothing to do with the aesthetic. But that's another issue. Let's instead just focus on genre.

Yes, there are natural rejections of genre within established communities: there is a reason The Silence of the Lambs is the only even quasi-horror film to win Best Picture Oscar, and why The Sting won over The Exorcist. Fantasy and Science Fiction is likewise often given the brush off in literary circles, which is ironic since fantasy and science fiction are firmly placed in the literary canon (see Gargantua and Pantagruel and R.U.R. for an example of each.) But, imaginative fiction is making itself known within the coursework: I not infrequently see Stephenson's Snow Crash on reading lists, and, Bester and Delaney's works. But, I think Delaney would agree, that much of the problem lies in that the defenders of imaginative fiction are too quick to defend the mediocre or worse, and too slow to be familiar with the very good. Beyond that, I will hold off on genre, because Haig doesn't wholly demonstrate an understanding the idea, as is demonstrated below (see #17).
 
5. It is harder to be funny than to be serious. For instance, this is a serious sentence: 'After dinner, Alistair roamed the formal garden behind this unfamiliar house, wishing he had never betrayed Lorelei's trust.' That took me eight seconds to write. And yet I've been trying to write a funny sentence for three hours now, and I'm getting hungry.
I am not sure of the point, here. At all. Is he saying humor is not established in the literary convention? Nash, Joyce, Rabelais, Sterne, Pound, Eliot, W.C. Williams, Cummings, Shakespeare, all have written in the humorous vein. Finnegans Wake, arguably the greatest achievement in English literature, is nothing if not humor.
 
6. Many of the greatest writers have been children's writers.
Again -- I don't see the point. A snob can also be a snob about children's books. (In fact, I have met children's books snobs. Though, again, not as he defines it.) But, so also can childrens books can suck. I would argue it is very easy to write a crap children's book and have it be accepted as ‘good.’ And that there is a reason most children’s books seem come and go without so much as a blurp.
 
7. It is easy to say something to people who are exactly like you. A bigger challenge lies in locating that universal piece of all of us that wants to be wowed, and brought together by a great story. There isn't a human in the world who wouldn't enter the Sistine Chapel and not want to look up. Does that make Michelangelo a low-brow populist?
What literary tradition is he engaging? "Universality" is frequently upheld as one of the marks of great literature. Very possibly, it is the forerunner nominee in the category. How does looking up at the Sistine ceiling result in low-brow? I think rather he is arguing my point, rather than his: that is, that there is a difference between accessibility and sophistication. Handel may be very accessible, but he is not "low-brow."

(I should state, for clarity, that while “universality” is very frequently upheld as a mark of great literature, I myself argue that the “universality” being upheld is not the “universality” that writers of the ‘individual’ self would uphold.)
 
8. It does not matter about who the author is. The only thing a book should be judged on is the words inside.
Yes. Absolutely. But, are you willing to stand by that statement? Have you ever read the blurbs slapped on books (by people who have ostensibly read them)? I can show you accolades such as would make Sophocles blush on the back of incompetent, unsophisticated drivel. Recently the New York Times Review of Books came under criticism -- through one of their own polls, I believe -- that there was not nearly enough negative criticism, and far too much praise. And the amount of poetry published in journals because of the author’s name -- as opposed to any real quality in the work -- is mind-boggling.
 
9. Martin Amis once moaned on the radio that there were too many writers talking across the table to their readers rather than down to them. This was the point I went off Martin Amis.
Well, I don't want to respond directly to Amis's words since I do not know the context. (To be transparent, I’ve never read Martin Amis.) As for myself, in educational or explicational situations I try never to talk down. I always aim to talk just over the head, just within reach. Experience has showed me that the audience will rise to the occasion. (That is rather the purpose and joy of discourse, no?: that everyone in the discussion comes out the better for everyone else expanding their thinking? Talking down only dumbs down.) And that is very much to the purpose of optimistic literary elitism, and “high-brow” literature as a near whole: literature wants its audience to rise to its level, and will, when the opportunity arises, help them to that. There is an often spoken of characteristic of good, sophisticated literature: it is said it strives to teach the reader how to read it. Of course, the reader has to put in the effort. And there’s that rub again.
 
10. You don't have to be serious about something to be serious about something.
I am going to guess his point and say: No, you are wrong. If you want to write, say, poetry of merit, you have to study poetry. You have to be serious about it. The people who say otherwise are people are almost always people trying to inflate the importance of their own mediocrity to the status of merit. I have seen a person write and rewrite and rewrite and rewrite a poem with all the seriousness and earnestness they can muster, but only to fail and fail again, because they are assuming that success lies in serious effort. Serious effort is necessary, yes. But success lies in serious study. You can not build a house without studying houses. (If that wasn't to the point, then I missed it.)
 
11. You don't have to be realistic to be true.
I presume this is also meant to be in defense of imaginative literature. Realism in literature is a genre. It is a chosen mode of writing. It is not defining of literature; and I do not think any scholar of literature would say it was. Though, to be fair, I have met plenty of literary scholars who are flummoxed by, say, the end of Ironweed because they can’t make it be ‘real.’ And a far greater number of scholars who can’t understand that not every poem is autobiography. (People, H.D.’s Trilogy is an imagist poem: by definition it cannot be biography.)

But, that said, the statement "it has to be real to be good" is, actually, mostly made by people of lower sophistication. In fact, even within readers of imaginative literature there is the equivalent of “it has to be real to be good.” It is with them simply a different reality. (These are the people who are flummoxed by the likes of Bester and Dahlgren. The idea of “character development” you often see in sf/fantasy magazine submission pages is an extension of this desire for reality.)
 
12. You are one of 7,000,000,000 people in the world. You can never be above all of them. But you can be happy to belong.
This reads to me like a bumper sticker. So I am just going to pass it by to avoid sounding like a bumper sticker myself.
 
13. The only people who fear people understanding what they are saying are people who have nothing really to say.
I can't figure out how this applies to snobbery, either in how Haig defines snobbery or in general. But, even on its face, I don't agree with it. Even reversed I don’t agree with. For example, the poetry world is full of people who really have nothing terribly interesting to say. I don't know if I would say they “fear discovery.” (They may, however, react to it!)
 
14. Books are not better for being misunderstood, any more than a building is better for having no door.
I believe Haig is trying to make a statement about inaccessibility, which I've already covered in saying there is a difference between inaccessibility and sophistication: one does not necessitate or create the other. But, I would like to take a moment on "misunderstanding," because it touches on a concept that is very important to my talking about literature: validity. Everybody approaches a text as themselves (though, if they are approaching it as their 'social' self more than their 'individual' self, that self tends to identify with and be like the other people in that person's social circle). As such, every person's response to a text is neither correct nor incorrect: it is their response, their engagement. However, we can talk about whether that response is valid or invalid: to do that, we must bring in a second person, and begin discourse on the text. Then, there can be a comparison of ideas and experiences, a swapping of knowledge. And with that, the individual can come to understand whether a viewpoint has validity: whether it can be sustained within the reading of the text as understood by that person at that time.

(Obviously, that second person can be the same persion: say, I read "The Waste Land," then read up on the literary works referenced, and then read "The Waste Land" again. The second me is going to find many of the ideas and responses of the first me invalid with the expansion of knowledge, understanding, and ability to engage.)

In a sense, every reading of a text is valid, until accepted by the reader to be invalid: at which point the reader has to go back and come up with a new reading that they find, for themselves, to be valid.

I think the statement "books are not better for being misunderstood" actually perpetrates the problem Haig is approaching. A book cannot be misunderstood: until something points out to you that you misunderstood it, and you accept that ‘pointing out’ as a valid statement on the text in question. I would say that each individual has their experience with a book, and that's it. But, the comparison of experiences, the development that comes with comparison, and with testing validity, is equally important. In fact, it is central to the point of the aesthetic: yes, aesthetic literature appeals to the ‘individual’ self. But that does not make it isolationist: it is inviting discourse between ‘individual’ selves so that the experiences – both of the work in question and of the world in general – are the greater for both.
 
15. Shakespeare didn't go to university, and spelt his name six different ways. He also told jokes. (Bad ones, true, but you can't knock him for trying.)
I'll skip this because I'm an Oxfordian. There’s a reason Shakespeare mispelled his own name, and it has nothing to due with being clever. And if you’re not laughing all the way through Much Ado About Nothing, you’re missing out. (And it might explain why you have such difficulty writing humor.)
 
16. Avoiding plot doesn't automatically make you clever. (See: Greene, Tolstoy, Shakespeare.)
No. I've no problem with that. But, I also say it's a statement that has no point. In fact, most sophisticated writers would say to up and comers "please master writing with plot before you try to write without it." Rather parallel to Eliot’s “you have to learn to write formal verse before you can write free verse.” (That’s not a direct quotation.)

(Also: are you giving Greene, Tolstoy, and Shakespeare as examples of people who avoided plot and thought they were clever but weren't?)
 
17. Freedom is a process of knocking down walls. Tyranny is a process of building them.
And here we are back to genre. There are two general uses of the word "genre.” (1) The looser is that of the nature of the bookstore sign hanging above the "fantasy/science fiction" section, and its value as a descriptor does not go very far beyond that use. (2) The more exact definition refers to a type of work (of whatever medium) that is writing within an established body of conventions. For example, the epic-fantasy genre is a body of work that most writes according to conventions that have been established by the writers and then accepted and -- most importantly -- demanded by the readers. It is not too hard to demonstrate how works that fit within a genre are, essentially, the same work rewritten with, merely, variations on the theme. (With epic fantasy, you generally have the story of a youth, with uncertain parentage, who is cast out of their normal world by a (locally) catastrophic event. Usually, that event is tied in to the hero and their heritage. There is also in the idyllic start usually a character who is the hero's friend, and who will at some point play a central role in the key moment of decision. There is also usually a mentor type who often does not make themselves overtly known as the hero's mentor until right before or after the catastrophic event. (Though, they may have been playing the mentor role without overt recognition.) This character usually either dies or disappears early on, forcing the hero to move away from dependence on the mentor. I can go on but I'm wasting time.)

My point is that genre, by definition, is the building of walls: of conventions, of strictures, of "if you want to be successful, you have to do it this way." Break those conventions too severely, and you lose your readership. A genre reader wants every book to be in the nature of every other book in the genre. They want the same story over and over. Now, the why again goes to modality: and, here, I will give a slight moment to explanation. The modality of the social, the nomos, as it is called, is the modality of truth, of convention, of repetition, of tradition, of "this is the way it is supposed to be, ergo this is the way it is done." The modality of the individual, however, which is also called the modality of the aesthetic, is about open engagement, is about experience rather than verity. What Ortega y Gasset noticed, the whole purpose and point of Olympia, was that people whose thinking was governed by the modality of the nomos could not engage the art that was created out of the modality of the aesthetic: that because the modality of the aesthetic is not about repeating conventions, but is about creating something new; it is not about stating an accepted truth, in fact it is not about truth at all, it is about experiencing the cosmos, and aesthetic art strives to create new experiences. But people of the modality of the nomos were looking for art and literature – and life – that followed recognized and accepted (and insisted upon) conventions. So the aesthetic art was wholly alien to them.

Now, am I saying genre=bad, aesthetic=good? No. Not at all. We are, again, of both natures. Roland Barthes pointed out that there was something very enjoyable to reading Victor Hugo, an author of genre fiction. And Barthes did not deny that he did, in fact, very much enjoy reading Hugo. What he did insist, however, is that there is something better about engagement with the aesthetic. In fact, there is a deep irony within Haig's statement above: freedom, in the end, is not going to be found in convention or genre, nor in the “low brow.” Aesthetic thinkers agree whole heartedly: freedom is about knocking down walls. So I must ask, why are you defending the walls that are raised to shut out the aesthetic, a modality whose very engagement knocks down walls? With his attack upon an approach to literature that Haig is falsely identifying as "snobbish," he is doing just that. He is, in essence, attacking Olympia, a bomb set against the gates of the walls of convention, as being “snobbish,” and he is building walls around her, so as to defend the walls of genre.

Two points to add: (1) intellect or education does not equal freedom from conventionality. Literary academia is replete with people who cannot escape conventionality, and there are plenty of books and such raised up as great literature that are little more than a wad of very well written conventionality, usually bundled with some political or social message. (2) The reason why genres exist is because they are easy to read. If you already know most of what you are going to find in a book because of the genre conventions, you do not really have to make all that much effort in reading it. Unfortunately, beauty, brilliance, “freedom” demands effort.
 
18. There can be as much beauty in short (words, sentences, paragraphs, chapters) as long. Sparrows fly higher than peacocks.
I think this is rather a straw man, followed by a rather spurious metaphor. Read Eliot’s prose poem “Hysteria.” (Here’s a link.) Within novel-form, imaginative fiction, Michael Moorcock’s Elric books are quite short, and very much high-brow literary experiments. And on the other side, Native Son is very long and very generic (even, not very good). Again, no one in literary studies would ever say there is something inherently better or worse about long or short.
 
19. Snobs are suckers, because they have superficial prejudices.
Ok, a rather shallow slam in its own self. (Not sure how superficial prejudices leads to suckers, either.) If you want to define snobbery though the idea of social strata, and if the literary tastes of that class was governed wholly by artificially derived standards of judgement, then, ok, yes. Except: "artificially derived standards of judgement" is a definition of genre. When the people Ortega y Gasset watched could not understand the modernist art, it was because the art did not follow their "artificially derived standards of judgement." Manet was attacking the "artificially derived standards of judgement" of the Salon with Olympia, and it was the public’s adherence to those same standards that brought them to deride the painting wth such performative vehemence. Popular poetry is currently defined by “artificially derived standards of judgement.” Wordsworth, in his Preface to the Lyrical Ballads, is deriding the popular poetry of his day for their artificial -- and, thus, very a-poetic -- standards. In the end, "superficial prejudices" are what justify and define the low brow. The high brow (to continue to use the words that Haig established) are works that reject convention, that strive to create literature/art that does not have a 'social' self, but exists as an 'individual' self.

(There is a famous quotation about how genius is the opposite of convention that I cannot pull out of my head, however I try.)

And, hopefully, you can here see why people like me, why us optimistic elitists, want to raise one body of literature over the mass of popular literature: because only one is truly about the individual self, and we want people to experience that brilliance and that freedom.
 
20. The book I am least proud of, that I didn't work hard enough on, was my most ostentatiously highbrow one.
Well, self admission, so I have nothing to say.

Except a question: did it fail simply because you were trying to follow an "artificially derived standard of judgement" that you were incapable of replicating? (That is, did you try to write a high seas adventure when you really only know the conventions to westerns?)
 
21. Reading a certain book doesn't make you more intelligent any more than drinking absinthe makes you Van Gogh. It's how you read, as much as what you read.
The hyperbole of "makes you Van Gogh" is what betrays the sentence. No one would say that, in the manner that you are saying that, ever. BUT, what absolutely would be said is that Van Gogh became Van Gogh in part because of who and what he studied. You can not be good without studying the good. If you never read literature, you will never write it. As Eliot pointed out, you can only go so far on your own: you need to steep yourself in the works and thoughts of those greats who preceded you. If you do not study English, you will never master it. And, no matter how adamantly you try to justify the literary merits of your work, it will speak for itself. Nicholas Sparks is a competent writer, but nothing more. And if all you read is on the par of Nicholas Sparks, you will, in the end, achieve the greatness of being a competent writer. Congratulations. As I have said before, you are missing out.
 
22. Never make someone feel bad for not having read or not read something. Books are there to heal, not hurt.
As for the first sentence, yes, obviously. But Haig is repeating himself (see #1). As for the second statement: it is not something I would ever say. There are plenty of things I have read that are meant to stick a thorn deep in your side. In fact, it might be easily argued that aesthetic works are always meant to prod, and conventional, nomic works are always meant to relieve you of effort. So, in a sense, low brow works do heal, because they tell you, “don’t worry, everything is ok, you don’t have to think, you don’t have to make effort; you will never have to face the possibility of your thoughts being invalid; everything is exactly what you expect it to be.”
 
23. Imagination is play. Snobbery is the opposite of play.
Ok, I can accept that. But, I have to qualify with saying that conventional, mediocre books can be very imaginative and still be the same book on its thousandth time warmed over. And that texts written out of the aesthetic self, the texts that are apparently being derided as high brow, are pretty much always play. (In fact, if they are not, that is reason enough to question them.)
 
24. I used to be a snob. It made me unhappy.
Well, I guess good for you. You should try optimistic elitism: there is nothing like opening up a new sophistication to a reader. Nothing like sharing the experiences of your ‘individual’ self with other ‘individual’ selves.
 
25. Simple isn't always stupid. When I write a first draft it is complicated. There is mess. The second and third and fifteenth drafts try and get it to make sense, to trim away the frayed edges.
Well, yes, editing, pretty much for everyone, is in no small part trimming away all the superfluous crap. (I'm sure I could produce a list of words that are ever present in my first drafts, and mostly absent in subsequent. And, as you probably can tell by now, I tend toward the verbose.) But, "Simple isn't always stupid": that depends on what you mean by simple. Much of Yeats's poetry is very accessible: but that doesn't make it simple. (It is, however, much of what made him a national hero.) Accessibility only marks how easy it is for a reader to get something out of it. Handel is very accessible: nearly everybody can enjoy him. Though, not everybody is going to see the art in his symphonies. Schnittke, on the other hand, is not so accessible. His music demands more up front effort and sophistication from his listeners.

Conventional reading is easy: you already know what you are looking for and what you are going to get. Aesthetic reading is hard: every text is different. Yeats' couplets may look simple: but I can show you many, many contemporary, published poets who could not write with equal grace.

But permit me one more step, one that might justify why I do indeed give assault to such works as Zahn, or Robert Jordon, or Dragonlance, or such. Because they are easy. And easy is, in the world, not good. Growth and development -- of reading and of the self -- takes effort. And it is not that with out effort you tread water: without effort you sink. Low brow only breeds the low brow; and, generally, even lower brow. That is the way of the world. Genres, if not given new life, will deteriorate into blather, and then disappear. (Those romances that Hawthorne so hated are an example.)
 
26. Stephen King was right. Books are 'portable magic'. And everyone loves magic.
Yes. Absolutely. Even convention-ridden books are still in some way accessing your 'individual' self –- if you make the effort. If you decide to just ride the current of the conventions, not so much. As I said above, Barthes very much loved to read Hugo. I enjoy picking up the random fantasy every now and then, just to see what I found. Yes, magic. But if all you are reading is low brow, oh the magic you are missing.
 
27. Inclusion is harder than exclusion. Just ask a politician.
I think I've addressed this idea enough. But to repeat for emphasis, genre, and all works of the nomic modality, is, actually and by definition, exclusory. Where as works of the aesthetic modality are, by definition, invitational.
 
28. The brain can absorb many things. So can a novel.
No idea what this has to do with snobbery, except as an attempt at a general statement against limitations. I’ll pass on it.
 
29. For me, personally, the point of writing is to connect me to this world, to my fellow humans. We are all miles apart. We have no real means of connecting except via language. And the deepest form of language is storytelling.
Ok. I can live with that. For me, great writing is about making beautiful things. And I am a literary schmecker.
 
30. The greatest stories appeal to our deepest selves, the parts of us snobbery can't reach, the parts that connect the child to the adult and the brain to the heart and reality to dreams. Stories, at their essence, are enemies of snobbery. And a book snob is the enemy of the book.
Of course, I must ask, which self? It is a very important question, that. Very important. Indeed, there is a tradition found in every religion in the world -- the mystical tradition -- that says your very soul rests upon the question.

Final Statement: Reading a book (or a poem, or a play, or an artwork, or a movie) and reading the world in which you live is pretty much the same thing. The political side (so to speak) of the aesthetic modality of being is to show that the two modes of being that make up our psyches are not equal; they are not A and B set in opposition. In fact, the nomic modality of being can only survive so long as strives to deny the existence of the aesthetic modality; whereas the aesthetic modality recognizes the necessary existence of the nomic, and says “let’s use it to our ends.” Of the two, one is restrictive; one is liberatory. This may seem high brow thinking, and it would be easy enough to attack this by calling it “high brow snobbery.” But it is not so very much. It is merely asking a question: do you experience the world for yourself, or do you experience the world as convention tells you to? This, arguably, is the central question of literature (and the arts). Snobbery, of course, can be seen as a social circle, one defined by arbitrary convention. But, then, Haig’s statements here, against the “high brow,” are really little more than low brow snobbery. Yes, it is a terrible wrong thing to set up lines between the named “good” and the named “bad.” Sophistication, growth, development is not a light switch: it is a process. And we all start somewhere.

However, it is equally wrong to say “good” is “good enough,” to attack a body of work because it is difficult, or challenging, or complex, or because it requires some knowledge on the part of the reader, or because it requires effort. Believe me, the number of science fiction/fantasy enthusiasts who refuse to read Bester because it is not space opera, who refuse to read Tanith Lee because she continually screws with the conventions of fantasy, is far more than those who refuse to read Robert Jordan because Tanith Lee is such better writing. I have encountered many afficionados of poetry who refuse to read the nigh whole of the tradition of English poetry because it is too difficult. And believe me, their poems speak that to that world.

Nothing wrong with Andre Norton. In fact, her Here Abide Monsters had no small influence no my early imagination and mind. (In fact, the last time I re-read it was about five years ago.) But I do prefer to live in the world of the ‘individual’ self, a world much more imaginative, strange, wondrous, and magical yet.

It is fairly easy to read the film Bladerunner with Roy as a kind of Zarathustra, who has come down off the mountain to teach Deckard. His tears in the rain speech is very much a statement of aesthetic optimistic elitism:

I've seen things you people wouldn't believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched c-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate.
If you read the writings of Pound, this is what he is saying to the world. This is what, for me, makes Pound’s writings so potent: he is through and through an optimist. He is saying to the world – just as Roy says to Deckard (and Chew) -- , “if only you could see what I have seen . . . . . . . and you can.”

Saturday, April 20, 2013

"To a Young Father" by Sydney Lea -- Poetry Daily, 4/20/2013

from I Was Thinking of Beauty
poem found here

first lines:
This riverbend must have always been lovely.
Take the one-lane iron bridge shortcut across

 

the stanza break, and difference and repetition

Two bits:

1. While re-reading this a memory popped into my head of a conversation (repeated more than once) with someone showing me a poem. (The actual context of the memory is irrelevant.)

me:  Just to ask, why did you break your stanzas like this?
them:  I found it made the poem easier to read.
me:  But if you needed to make it easier to read, isn't that pointing out that there is a problem with your poem? and that your stanza breaks are not addressing the problem, but trying to hide it?

My point is simply to point out that very often a person might apply a format to a poem thinking it is a benefit to the poem, when in fact it is hiding a flaw. And, when you are crafting a poem, you should keep that in mind. Whether that applies to this poem I leave up to you.

2. A quick look at line 2:

Take the one-lane iron bridge shortcut across

I am not a fan of this line, because it is overwhelmed by stressed syllables.
 
TAKE the ONE-LANE IRON BRIDGE SHORTcut aCROSS

That's a lot of stress for a line, and it makes for an aurally clumsy read. Stringing stresses can be very interesting moment in a poem -- though, of course, that requires maintaining a nice flow of iambic (or whatever) rhythm for the string of stresses to play against. This poem, to me, does not pay much attention to the rhythm of the words/lines, and the string of stresses speaks more of not paying attention than of crafting, which is not good.

Simply, if your poem speaks to a reader of not paying attention, you have failed. Poetry is meant to be defined by the idea of paying attention. You do not dictate poetry; you craft it; you create it.


Note after the fact: By happenstance I came upon these lines from Robert Frost's sonnet "On a Bird Singing in its Sleep," this afternoon, an excellent example of a wielded series of stresses. (Keep in mind it is a formal sonnet, so it is iambic pentameter.)

It could not have come down to us so far,
Through the interstices of things ajar
On the long bead chain of repeated birth,

Note how the stresses are complemented by the long syllables.

Friday, April 19, 2013

"Northwest Passage" by James Pollock -- Poetry Daily, 4/19/2013

from Sailing to Babylon
poem found here

first lines:
When you set out to find your Northwest Passage
and cross to an empty region of the map

 

narrative verse

The general nature of this poem is that it is a narrative poem: it is telling the story of an expedition to find the Northwest Passage. It comes with a opening note anchoring the poem in The Franklin Expedition. Now, is it important to the poem that the narrative be true? Well, yes and no. No in that the poem works quite well even if the narrative were wholly fictional. And in such a case what would be important, history wise, would be that elements of the described event rang true within the context of a mid-18th-century ship on such a journey; and, even before, that there were enough elements to both establish the scene and its ideational field. [FN] But, here, to this specific poem, I would say 'yes, very important.' Now as to why.

--------------------------------
[FN] Unless, of course, you were intentionally creating something out of anachronism and error, but that is another thing altogether. Here, the primary structure is that of historical narrative, so anachronism or gross error would be a great detriment to the poem were they to exist.
--------------------------------

But it is false to say this is simply a narrative poem. There is that first word: "When." And this is key to the poem: the rhetorical context has completely shifted: the poem is not telling a story, it is presenting a "when-then" proposition, and the narrative aspect is subservient to that "when-then" rhetoric. Let me say it again: the action of this poem is not to tell a story; the action of the poem is to present a "when-then" idea, and it uses a narrative to present that "when-then" idea.

What is that idea?

When:
you set out to find your Northwest Passage
Then:
may you stumble at last upon some band of Inuit (the narrative, surface part of the "when-then")
And:
see how foolish you have been (the non-narrative, resonant part of the "when-then")
For you see, the second most important word in the poem is that ever present "you(r)." This is not a poem about history, this is a poem that pushess into the mythic, into the unconscious, into the resonant. Though, "Pushes" is not the right word there: the poem functions within the mythic. This is what divides aesthetic narrative poetry from the banal: the banal narrative merely tells a story, or tells a story with a moral or an emotional tag. Perhaps the prime example of the former is the work of Robinson Jeffers. The latter is nigh ubiquitous: it is every "I will tell you a story about how my dad and I built this picnic table I am now sitting at so you can see how sad I am that he is dead," dead-puppy narrative. Even, every "let me tell you a story about a single buck walking through the woods so you can see how sad I am that my father is dead" single-metaphor, poem; the reason being that such generally go no further than a surface narrative with a surface equating about whatever death, loss, or publication rejection is making you sad, or whatever emotion. Here, in great effect, everything melds into a single energy, a poem that is about ideas that both are fed by and feed ideas, that does not rely on abutment to connect. (For example, look at "Equine Aubade" two days ago on Poetry Daily (here), which is a tale of horse admiration, but whose metaphor workings rarely survives past their lines.)

The narrative here is a list of elements that very well could have happened on the Franklin Expedition. I don't think any of them could happen to any contemporary "you." With the "you"s, then, every element, then, is moved out of the narrative and into the metaphoric. There needed only be the second person for that to happen. But this moves farther, creates even more energy with the "when-then" structure: there is in this poem a blatant assumption: you will find yourself in this situation, when you do, then, hopefully you will see some Inuit.

And here is where the historical factuality comes into play. What is the word that is missing in the historical epigram (and pretty much the whole of the poem)? Lost. The Franklin expedtion failed, losing all 129 lives in the ice.[FN]

--------------------------------
[FN]Here is a link to the wikipedia article. A sentence from it that adds much to the poem: "The combined evidence of all studies suggested that hypothermia, starvation, lead poisoning and disease including scurvy, along with general exposure to a hostile environment whilst lacking adequate clothing and nutrition, killed everyone on the expedition in the years following its last sighting by Europeans in 1845."
--------------------------------

But, seriously, is the poem insisting that everyone is going to find themselves in such a position? I read that as no, that the poem is aimed at a specific "you," and that "you" is also present within the poem. If it were not so, the poem would read more flatly, with a kind of empty spot in it where the "you" should be. Rather, this poem all but hinges upon, revolves around who is the "you": it is the third, most important element of the poem, that element that finally gives shape and unity to the whole.

Who is that "you"? A Fool. A fool of epic proportion -- though still of very human proportion. A fool who was blind to reality, and blinded by their own hubris -- and hubris is the correct word, especially in that the hubris here is action against Nature, being, the way of things, the gods. The poem, in its pared down (and thus greatly emptied) paraphrase reads, "you idiots, who dares challenge Nature, I hope before you succumb to you madness, agony, chaos, and, ultimately, death, you get to see some Inuit-on-the-ice, so that you can realize just big of a fool you are." (Note, this is not a idea about rescuing the fool, it is about a fated fool, one irreversibly headed to disaster, and by their own hand. That is critical to experiencing the poem.)

Absolultely wonderful, and wonderfully calculated poem. I could go on with other aspects of rhetoric: especially how the poem is a list, which I think is a brilliant rhetorical choice. One could have told the "when"-tale in straigh narrative. Presenting it as a list, however, creates greater focus on the individual elements. Time, here, is presented almost wholly within the "and"s. There are few, if any, superfluous words. But let's be done with it, except to sum up.

Narrative easily succombs to banality: there are so many traps in narrative for the writer: superfluity, rambling, adherence to "but that is what happened!", failure to attend to rhythm (both poetic and rhetorical -- note here how the poem never lets the reader get bogged down on any one element). As well, a good narrative demands work, and research. Demands writing beyond and narrowing down. And, then, to write a good narrative , there is the demand that the narrative be subordinated to the effect of that poem (be it musical, poetical, or, as here, ideational, or whatever else). And it is not infrequent that I read poems that reek of the unwillingness to the such work. Which is why so many poems fail, and end up shallow, uneventful lines on a page.

Give close attention to how this poem works, how the narrative's purpose is crafted -- is calculated -- to serve the greater purpose of the when-then and fool ideations. Hopefully you see that here, that while the historical reality of the Franklin Expedition does function within the ideation of the poem, that reality, that truth, is subordinate to the modality of the poem as a whole, which is not about truth, but about ideas. There is much to learn from this one.


I cannot resist but point out: by the time I finished the paragraph above starting "Who is that 'you'?" I could not help but thing: once again it is shown that the more aesthetic is a poem, the more the poem is about the aesthetic. Though, I leave it as only a thought, except for this related statement: Calculated: because the poetic joy of a poem lies in the calculation behind the poem. Not in the story, not in the moral. It lies in the poem. That, also, is critically important to all poets and their endeavors.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

"Insomniac Romance" by Lynn Levin -- Verse Daily, 4/17/2013

from Miss Plastique
poem found here

first lines:
We hate to hate each other but we do—
hen feeling bad because of that we lay us

 
First off: I am pretty sure yet another typo by Verse Daily folk, since "then" or even "when" makes much more sense than "hen" in line 2.


a grammar note

Two quick bits about line 9:

my steadfast partner, in the practice death.

Question #1: Do you see that the meaning of the line changes with the presence or absence of the comma?

If you do not have the comma, then "in the practice death" is connect to "partner": it be comes a single phrase. The line would the  be saying that they are partners specifically in the context of the practice death (as in "partners in crime"). But if you put the comma in, then "in the practice death" no longer connects to "partner," but to the action of the sentence: "I like your breath and skin in the practice death," narrowing the event of the liking, saying there is something particular about the other's skin and breath in the practice death that they like.

Question #2: Which one do you think works better in the poem?

There is definitely a difference. Though, I don't there's a more valid answer. But it is an interesting question to ponder, in so long as you bring the whole of the poem into the question.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

"Elk Skeleton" by Amy Fleury, Verse Daily, 4/16/2013

from Sympathetic Magic
poem found here

first lines:
Down the draw at dusk seven mule deer come
to browse the blanched grasses around the cabin.

 

wording, metaphor, and the narrative "I"

--- Some editing and rewriting, 6/11/2013.

The words I looked up while engaging this poem: draw, has, scree, leach, lichen, brocades, hove. Some because I was not sure their meaning; some because I wanted to check to be sure I had the right meaning; some because I wanted to check their usage in the poem. (Thank you for teaching me this usage of draw, by the by.) Is this is a problem? Let me be clear: absolutely not. Poetry is about words. It is about discovering words. It is about the usage of words. (Indeed, it is also about the sharing of words and the usage of words.)[FN] Irritation at having to look up words for a poem is to me only one thing: laziness. (Well, two things. It almost assures I will have no interest in the poetry of said lazy person, because that laziness will appear also throughout their creative endeavors poetry.)

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[FN] In demonstration, I'll share something I learned yesterday: the origin of the word hobgoblin comes from the character Robin Goodfellow from folklore. As it happens, at one time, one way that people made diminuitives from names was to put an 'H' at the front. For example. Richard could have the nickname "Hick," and Roger would become Hodge. Here, Robin becomes Hobbe, which becomes hob, for "elf." Then, add goblin. (This from etymonline.com. I have not yet checked it against the OED.)
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That, just to say. Because it does need to be said every once in a while. (And, from it, I think I will add to my aphorisms on creative writing:

Aesthetic writing -- and poetry in particular -- is about words. It is about the sharing of words. It is about the discovery of words. It is about the creative use of words. Any other approach can be only attributed to laziness, or to a psychical insularity, neither of which makes for anything terribly interesting.
I'll work on the wording.


So, wording. Let's look at a couple moments and explore:

First: the "has" in line three. Is this grammatically correct? There are three possible subjects that I see: "seven deer," "grasses," and "not all," all of which are plural. Change the verb: would it ever be valid to say not all is dead? Or, change the pronoun: not many of them is dead or three of the five is dead? Now, I will be honest, I do catch myself saying "not all has" while thinking about and writing this post; but, it seems grammatically incorrect.

There's something else with that line: a curiosity as to time. The verb is "has been": a perfected verb, an action that is over. The line says "in relationship to the time of now, not all have have been winter-killed." Yet within the sentence there is a time-stamp of "this early April." So the phrase is, actually, narrowing the time of death of the grasses to early April -- which is a little off as far as seasonal cycles go. What is happening is the poet wanted to establish a time for the poem; but, by accident of language, created an idea that doesn't belong. You have to be careful how you execute things: syntax is very important.

Which prompts another question: does it even need to be said, overtly that the poem is set in "early April" at all? Keep in mind, there is nothing here establishing where (geographically speaking) the action is occurring. And, early April in Maine is very different climate-wise from early April in Mississippi. (O.K. There are not all that many elk in Mississippi, but you get my point.) But I ask, why even state a month? Is there anything being added to the poem that is not already established within the presented details? Actually, I can see how, without the month, one might read it as being early winter -- though, I think the fog works against it. But I believe the idea of spring could have been introduced -- or clarified -- without actually naming the season or a month. My point, however, is, simply: why be blunt if there is no need? (or, if you can avoid it?)

It is always much more interesting to generate an idea than it is to simply state a point fact. Point facts don't have anywhere to go. In fact, point facts tend even to restrict where its associated ideas can go. The end of this poem presents a kind of winter-spring -- or death/life, or death birth -- image, with the moth on the elk bones. Now, a simple comparison: which generates more energy? Abutting the word April with the idea of a moth on elk bones? (which is at best simple metaphor); or something like:

Seven mule deer emerge to browse blanched grasses
And a moth, perched on a rib from an elk, tests its wings.

(I rewrite a touch for my purpose, and make no claims that his is, thus, 'good.' I'm just exploring.) Yes, it's still playing with a simple metaphor, but with two non-facts there is more energy generated. Not only is there the 'awakening' of the moth, but there is 'emergence' and 'hunger.' However, with

            [. . .] April,
And a moth, perched on a rib from an elk, tests its wings.

the word April, because it is a base fact, contracts the energies. It is no longer so much play-in-metaphor but a definition: April, and a visual idea like you would see in April. One of those seems irrelevant. And might it not be true that, really, overtly stated time really has its greatest utility when it is being played against other times? (As in April here, because later in the poem it's going to be June, and I want to formalize the passing of time.)

Similarly, I ask this question: what is added to -- or detracted from -- the poem with the presence of the present and viewing "I"? It only appears twice, with the "my" in the second stanza, and the "I" in the third. Yes, it adds a viewer. But is a viewer necessary? And, to split the difference, does the viewer have to be an "I"? Indeed, up the appearance of the "my" in line eight there is no hint of a viewer, nor any need to provide one. The ideas are working quite well all on their own. I would argue the poem would be far more interesting without the "I," and even more so without any viewer at all -- and, even, that the viewer is irrelevant to the poem -- for nearly the same reasons I spoke about with the use of "April."

An "I" in a poem works the same way and the "April," above. It is not an innocent insertion: it is the presentation of a brute fact: "this poem is a witnessing, the narrator is viewing in the present time." That changes the poem, and (potentially) constricts the ideation of the poem: it is no longer simply ideas generated from a scene; it is not about the person seeing.

Something to consider, something I do myself with my every project: whatever you are doing, if there is an "I," give it a try writing it without it. I have found -- both with my own work and, in a greater number, with other peoples' -- two things: the poem is (1) harder two write, but (2) usually comes out the better. Even when the poem is meant to be speaking a narrator's focus.[FN] (Something worth exploring: E.E. Cummings's many sonnets, most of which have a narrator's voice. When does he use an "I"? What is the reason? What is the effect?)

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[FN] I was just reminded on a web page these last couple of days of a little creative prose writing trick: if you are having difficulty working out a scene, shift to a present first person and brainstorm way. You might very often find that shifting into first person does, in fact, make the scene easier to write, and easier to explore. But that should also be pointing out that it is probably not as good a text as you will have when you pull it back out of first into some other narrative framework.
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A couple of other notes. I do not think "hove" in stanza two is used correctly; though, I do love the word. To be honest, I don't think it should be used at all since it demands either action on the part of the stones or action on the part of something heaving the stones, neither of which really works in the ideas as presented: it makes stones in someway animate or animated, and if stones are active, I think it rather clashes with the idea of the very non-active elk skeleton.

Finally, at first read I didn't like the comparison of the skeleton to a ship, because the poem is jumping from woods to water. But, the more I read it, the more I like it. I think it is justified with the skeleton being found "at the trailhead," which is an idea of emerging, just as the ship would have 'emerged' onto land from off the water. Though, I do feel like it is a touch underused. In fact, if I were writing this poem, and I got to that third stanza, I would be very tempted to trash the first two and start at the ship/skeleton idea. (Notice also how having the broad dead elk idea being compared to the broad shipwreck idea works in the positive way described above?, in that it is two ideas brought together to generate energies, as opposed to brute statement?)

Friday, April 12, 2013

"Ode to the Artichoke," translated by William Pitt Root -- Verse Daily, 4/12/2013

from Sublime Blue (Wings Press, 2013)
originally written by Pablo Neruda
poem found here
 

First lines:
The tender-hearted
upright

 

the poetic line

— reformatted with minor editing Mar. 14, 2015
 

Now, I've said before I am usually wary with messing with translations, because I don't have the source, and the poem being a translation opens the door for discursive points that only serve to muddle. (A translation of a bad poem is most likely going to end up a bad poem, after all.) But, I think I can safely step through that obstacle here. Which is to say, I am pretending it is not a translation. Some of what is said here may not apply within the literary tradition of the original.

 

Let's look at the first ten lines:

The tender-hearted
upright
artichoke
girded itself as
a warrior, constructed
a small dome,
to keep itself
waterproof
within
its scales.

I've two comments on the poem.

 

I.

First off, a note on parallelism, a very important idea in poetry and prose. In a comp class, bad parallelism will get your text called out. Somehow, poetry has become lazy enough that everyone does it willy nilly. One of the primary cuplrits behind this is the influence of pop music. Popular music is primarily driven by the music; the lyrics are usually secondary to the voice itself. For this, 98% of the lyrics of popular music make for appallingly bad poetry. Unfortunately, this is the majority of the 'poetry' that youth hears and learns. So the standard for poetry is thus pushed VERY low. People mimic the lyrics they hear and think it is of value. (After all, someone is making a ton of money off of it.)

One of the characteristics of popular music is that ideas are just strung along, one after the other, without much thought to generating any coherency or depth. For example (taking a rather arbitrary example), let's take the Foo Fighters (a group that had a fairly creative album with the "The Colour and the Sound," and has pretty much been remaking that same album over and over again ever since). Take the lyrics to the title song on the recent album Back and Forth (To be honest, I have no idea of this received radio time.) I am breaking it up to accent the phrasing.

Now your on your own,
one for the pages
Over the hill
and through the ages
Does my heaven burn like hell on you?

Out beneath the cracks
and coming in waves
Rolling like an earthquake under the pavement
Heavy now,
tell me Mr.Truth

Even copy-pasting it in I was laughing at how bad these lyrics are. Do you see how there is at best the most tenuous thread of an idea linking the phrases? In what way, really, does "out beneath the cracks" associate with "coming in waves"? Or "heavy now"? Any possible justification begins first off with "eliminate any value to the metaphors" and ends with "you have to squint your eyes really tightly."

But back to the poem and parallelism. What influenced the author here is irrelevant to this exploration (even the poem being a translation). I am looking only at what exists on the screen. The sentence in these lines is made up of a list of two elements: first it says the artichoke "girded itself as a warrior." But then, after the comma it says rather it "constructed a small dome." How bad's the parallelism? Let me count the ways.

  1. The first one is about a warrior; the second about a builder. (On that point did you notice the semantic clash between "girded itself as a warrior" and the preceding "tender-hearted"? It speaks of not paying attention to what words are being used and how they are being used. And you can see now how these opening lines are of the nature of the Foo-Fighters lyrics, with ideas strung together on a line, without thought on how they work together (or don't work together) when read.
  2. The first one is actively reflexive: the warrior is girding himself; the second is actively external, constructing a small dome. The two verbs have completely different syntactic natures.
  3. Similarly, the warrior is an attacking thing. (Artichokes are attacking food? Usually, when you metaphorically 'arm' a food, it signals that things are not boding well for a digestive tract.)
  4. The first phrase is creating a simile between artichoke and warrior; second one is, well, simply a mess. One might say that there is a very thin metaphor that is begun with "small dome"; but, really, "dome" is used adjectively. So maybe "construct" is enough to generate something? Only barely. The word "construct" isn't powerful enough to do anything. Finally, notice the structure hidden behind the line breaks (I'll remove the comma error): "constructed a small dome to keep itself waterproof within its scales." Do you see the problem? The phrasing doubles up on itself: the scales are the dome. So, in reality, the phrase is "constructed a small dome to keep itself waterproof within its dome." Which is daft.

Why is parallelism so important. Some of the more obvious reasons:

  1. It helps the reader by making the read smoother. The more sophisticated the reader, the more quickly and more blatantly faulty parallelism becomes noticeable. And when it does appear, it acts like a stumbling block. Why?
  2. Because parallelism brings the list into an order, and that order serves to help the reader know that there is a list happening, and helps the reader make a unity out of the list.
  3. Taking that even further, that order, that smoothing out, also increases the degree to which the ideas within the list can interact with each other. In the example from this poem, the shift in the nature of the verb, from the self-applying "gird" and the external "construct" is a marked clash, it's plaid and stripes. They two verb phrases can barely meld together at all. And then there is also that the first is establishing a simile with its "as"; the second phrase is making no such attempt, it is only a simple verb phrase. That's a little more subtle, but it does add to the clash.

So, summing up. Parallelism. Very important. It is not simply a style choice, is has dramatic effects on both the smoothness of the reading of the poem and on how the ideas of your poem work together.

 

II.

Now, to the structure of the poem. Let me bring back those first ten lines:

The tender-hearted
upright
artichoke
girded itself as
a warrior, constructed
a small dome,
to keep itself
waterproof
within
its scales.

Look at the lines breaks. Can you build out of the poem a rationality behind how this (albeit faulty) sentence is broken up. Particularly with lines 4-6: why end a line with "as"? Why not just "as a warrior"? and why the double idea of "a warrior, constructed" when every other line (indeed, nearly the entire poem) is one idea per line? If I had to make a guess it was unconsciously (or consciously) hiding the problems with the sentence and parallelism. But, as I said, causes are irrelevant. I'm querying the readers, asking what can be seen in the poem? Sophisticated poetry develops its own structure and keeps to those rules -- this is part of the organic unity of the poem. Breaks from such are noticeable to sophisticated readers.

To be honest, I can't come up with reason beyond the above, or simply saying bad writing. But, it's caught my mind enough to play around with variations, just to see what happens.

First off, I think there was huge, missed opportunity with the sounds of "heart" and "art":

The upright
and tender-hearted
artichoke
girded itself,
a warrior.

And really that's all I wanted to do. I can't get past the humor of a 'warrior artichoke.'

 

To note: that humor that does not exist in the original. Yet, it does, inadvertantly, here. You're on your own as to why. Looking at two other translations, and the original in Spanish, this translation I do believe missed the mark. Phillip Hill's (with the original): here; Jodey Bateman's: here.

It might be interesting to come back and take a look at how the original (or the other translations) compare. But, as per my normal policy, it's rather outside what I'm trying to do here. And I've spend enough time already . . . .