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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.

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Sunday, May 26, 2013

"The Other One" by Nadine Botha -- Verse Daily, 05/26/2013

from The Commons
poem found here


First lines:
I could find a million nuances for how to improve me and influence my life,
as though, if I could just identify that one—like The One, the love—


abstraction and control

— edited 5/27/13; expanding explanations beginning at "For example:"
— reformatted 9/30/15

What I would like to show here is how excessive abstraction is not just poor writing because it iss excessive abstraction, but also how abstraction opens the door for other poems throughout the poem. Specifically, I want to try to show that when a person is too abstract in their writing, they tend to have less control over their ideation and wording.

The more effort that is put into filling a poem with solidity, the more those solid elements create, within the writing mind, points of control. By "solidity" here I mean moments of ideational strength, moments where ideational energy is put into the poem, energy that will then seek to interact with other moments of ideational energy, both to build on each other and to weave the micro-cosmos of the poem.

To take a nearly wholly random example, look that the first two verses (and half a line) of Thomas Hardy's "Channel Firing" (full poem found here):

That night your great guns, unawares,
Shook all our coffins as we lay,
And broke the chancel window-squares,
We thought it was the Judgment-day

And sat upright. While drearisome
Arose the howl of wakened hounds:
The mouse let fall the altar-crumb,
The worms drew back into the mounds,

The glebe cow drooled.

Look at the second stanza, both at the ideational energies developed and how they interact. The first stanza sets up the event: the guns firing in the Channel. The second is the immediate consequences in the graveyard/church. But also it is in the second stanza that the actual scene is established. Notice the difference in response of the characters present: the skeletal dead sit up in positive anticipation, while the mice, worms, and hounds -- and the utterly uncaring cow -- react in rather quotidian responses.[FN] This opposition is the primary place where the energies of the falseness of the dead's belief in Judgement Day lie is developed. Also, it is in this opposition that one finds the birth of the humor of the poem -- that humor that takes play in the later lines about Parson Thirdly: "I wish I had stuck to pipes and beer."

[FN] It is worth pointing out, as well, how Hardy emphasised both the humor and the opposition by dropping the action of "and sat upright" down into the second stanza: out of the stanza about the noise of the guns, and into the stanza of the reactions to the noise.

But look also at how the strength of the lines also create ideational stability and an anchoring in the poem. You have four animal responses given in opposition to that of the skeletons. Four moments across five lines given to establish the actual scene (as opposed to the imagined scene) of the poem. And four moments that, though equivalent in their quotidian response, are also different in their particulars (dogs are disturbed, mice skittish, worms burrow to their safe homes, and the cow could care less). So it's not just an abstract "but the world did not so much care," it is an interweaving of concrete moments and demonstrations of that idea.

So do you see what I mean as to how that second stanza grounds the whole poem, and establishes a moment of control in its concrete ideational strength -- even while generating the overarching humor of the false belief of the dead? But also, how that concrete strength demands and creates control over the flow of the poem, not only in the early verses but throughout?

"The Other One," however, offers no such moments. it is almost entirely abstract. (To be honest, I can't find a concrete moment anywhere.) And it is because of that over-dominant abstraction, I argue, that the poem never gains control over itself.

(Now, I recognize I am asking you to see in the final results what, really, would best be evidenced in watching the actual writing of the poem. As such, there is something of an argumentative leap I am asking of you. You'll just have to trust me. If you pay attention to your own writing, you will see it demonstrated.)

So, now, the lack of control. Obviously, there is absolutely no notion or control of line in this poem. There is a loose idea of stanza, in that each stanza is in a way a contained moment. (Every stanza ends in a period.) Grammatically and syntactically there are problems all over the place:

  • The phrase "how to improve me" should be "improve myself" -- not only because of grammar but also because the rhythm/sound is so much better.
  • The "it" in line 5 has no natural referent (the sentence changes in mid-stream from "I have not grasped one" to "I have not come close to wondering if it is the One").
  • The fourth stanza haw two sentences that change subject: "one has in my whole life" and "one realizes that [. . .] I had no idea.
  • Let's write the second sentence in the seventh stanza out:
    I can be grateful for getting more than I thought I might have or could try for, and didn’t.
    So what do have we have with that?
    I can be grateful for getting more than I thought I might have and didn’t.
    which makes no sense, and
    I can be grateful for getting more than I thought I could try for, and didn’t.
    which makes less sense.

Semantically, ideationally, and structurally:

  • The first sentence contradicts itself at line 2: "I could find a million nuances as though, if I could just identify that one": how can it be "if I could just identify that one" if you start the sentence by saying "I could find?
  • In line 2, why is "The One" capitalized, and not the immediately following "the love"? By not capitalizing it you have changed the idea, so that "the love" is no longer equivalent to the individual who is The One, but is now an abstract notion of love: which creates an ideational conflict in the poem.
  • So, exactly how does one "come closer to wondering" (line 5)? That does not mean what Botha wants it to mean. What it means is the speaker is not yet wondering, but is very close to beginning to wonder.
  • I have a feeling line 13 does not mean what Botha thinks it means: "I still don't always like to get my feet wet" means that most of the time the speaker does like it: which doesn't fit with the general idea of the mostly forgettable adulthood.
  • Indeed, the whole of the sixth stanza makes little sense.
  • And, possibly, the worst moment: the last line: "So where, then?" Which is exactly my question: Where previously in that poem is there anything that at all relates to "where"?

Now, if I had to make a guess, I would say this poem was written rather in a spurt, rather blurted out upon the page (describing the manner of production, not the time taken in production), and the only "development" of the poem in writing was in organizing the thoughts and stanzas and some editing. Which actually goes to my point: with the poem being so abstract, it is very easy for the poet to so blurt. When a poem is anchored in the concrete, there is in the words themselve the demand for attention to detail. In the abstract, that demand-on-the-page is mostly lacking: and thus the tendency to loss of control.

For example: do you see how the argumentative "conclusion" in line 6 really comes out of nowhere? I don't think anybody else on the planet would have arrived at that conclusion considering 1-5. If everything is abstract and loose, it's very easy for a poet to lose track of what is on the page; it is quite easy for the poem (or whatever text) to exist more clearly in the writer's mind than on the text. Much of this is because, if the text is too abstract, it is usually loose also in the writer's head, so it ends up even looser on the page. Also, the more abstract, the more difficult it is for the writer to keep focused on the words on the page. If I had to make a guess why, it is because the writer does not really have in their head a precise and controlled way to say what they want to say, so it cannot be translated onto the page, and because of the disconnect the action of their writing never really leaves their head.

But, also, the more abstract the text, the far more difficult it is to write the text. Every writer of theoretic texts will attest. But it is not just on the writer's side, the scam. In an highly abstract text, it is easy to write down such a fallacious statement as that in line and expect the reader to accept it: because with all the sloppy abstraction, the reader has, really, been given nothing by which to reject it.

But, more importantly, neither have they been given anything by which to accept it! And that is the key point. An overly abstract poem, in the end, offers nothing to the reader. The reader will glide through with little effort, little necessitated thought, in fact following a demand on the poem's part for little thought (because once you start to think, you realize what it is your reading), and in the end get very little in return for the attention spent. As well, as I argue, as a result of all the abstraction, a poem will then toward being wholly out of control. And you cannot justify the language of this poem with the claim of "style": it's just bad writing.

Our concluding results? Two ideas:

  1. Over-abstraction is bad because it offers the reader very little on its own.
  2. Over-abstraction is very bad because it creates, on its own, the opportunity and impetus for sloppy writing.

Kind of rather sounds stupid when you wind it down to two sentences. And yet the issue of abstraction is so very fundamental to poetics: not as rules of writing, but as rules of how words work during writing (especially when you are not even paying attention to the aural nature of language, or playing with poetic elements of structure and phrase, which is what raises the philosophical content of Pope into the accomplished). Even in non-fiction prose these come into play: the more abstract the subject, the more precision is demanded in aspect of the writing. Or the presentation quickly disintegrates.


I would think very arguable that the issue of abstraction and concreteness (and the heightened requirement of control with the abstract) is the first great hurdle a writer must overcome -- with any medium, but especially with poetry. If you look at amateur poetry on the web, you will see it is overwhelmingly abstract: even, curiously, when the subject of the poem sits in the concrete. To choose a banal example, an "I find you beautiful, let me say why" poem prompts direct approach to concrete example; yet the amateur poet will still set those examples in the abstract. You do not find "Your arms are the swaying reeds at the river's edge" but "You arms are like a reed," or "Your arms are lithe and flowing." Metaphors fall into similes, and similes disappear into basic adjectival description. This is part of why I think beginning poets should stay away from emotion-oriented and I-oriented projects, and move to narrative or situational or scene-oriented: to get their heads into the concrete and out of the abstract, and to get them to see what they can do with the concrete when they concentrate thereon.


As a last thought, it should be apparent by now that this a not very good poem. Indeed, it's flat bad. So I am brought to wonder why Verse Daily would decide to put it on their site? And it's not just Verse Daily: I've seen such poems presented on other such sites. As I've asked before: was there not something better? But, more to the point, if you are wanting to be a site whose purpose is to promote poetry, why would you post sub-par poetry? Is there a justifiable answer to that question? One that is not defeated by the simple counter: "Why not give the praise inherent to your "choosing" of a poem to poems that merit praise?"

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