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.



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Thursday, April 3, 2014

The Ticket That Exploded (excerpt) by William S. Burroughs

(Grove Press, 1967)
 

the aural effects of poetic grammar

 

So I've been re-reading William S. Burroughs's Nova Trilogy (in part for fun, in part for exploration). For transparency, I am a huge fan of Burroughs's works (though I have not read the couple earlier, more narrative works).

The Nova Trilogy (which is made up of The Soft Machine, The Ticket That Exploded, and Nova Express) is generally considered a masterwork of the cut up process. I do not see how someone can say they are not difficult reads. For one, the three books feed each other, at times out of order of the pages. For another, part of the result of the cut up technique is that a fragment read a cut up passages usually has its source in a straight(er) narrative passage — which can also appear later in the works. (As well, a phrase sometimes appears in multiple narrative passages, which adds more to the play.) As such — and I speak from experience this being my third time around &mdash they are easier to reread than read. But, then, as Barthes pointed out, aesthetic literature cannot be read; it can only be re-read.

Of course, there is also the more fundamental difficulty in that even at the level of the passages of straight narrative, the books do not have an overlaying narrative structure. But then, as it is stated within The Ticket That Exploded: "this is a novel presented in a seried of oblique references" (13).

While reading Ticket I had the idea to present a part of the text as written, and reformat it a couple of ways — including using line breaks — simply to put out and example of a well written cut-up text (so, simultaneously fragmentary and unified) to explore how format affects reading. For most of the trilogy the cut-ups are separated with dashes. What if you changed it to periods? What if you broke it up into lines?

While I won't go into it here, note that line breaks are indeed grammar — just as are punctuation and paragraph breaks. (Well, grammar or syntax, depending on how specifically you use the terms: you can't have the latter without the former.) Which is one of the reasons why I continually rail against poets who pay so little attention to line breaks: it is the equivalent to paying little attention to commas. It results only in sloppy writing.

Anyway. Here is the original text (from page 82). (Not the one I originally thought to use, but that one had subject matter that would deter from the experiment. But this one seems to work well enough.) Keep in mind, I'm not trying to draw any conclusions here. I'm merely using the internet to its advantage to experiment with the sound of the reading of a text.

Memory pictures and singing dust went up in slow motion ― Scandinavia outhouse skin forgotten ― rings of Saturn in the morning sky ― errand boy of subway dawns remitted back to the trade winds ― slow silence ebbing from centuries ― rose wallpaper bleeding youth body without a shadow ― smell of dawn flesh in a privy ― precise identity fading out ― And these boys circumstance the orgasm leaving ― beat a drum twisting Johnny's healed scars ― over the pass without doing pictures ― all toilet smell at this point ― tarnished mirror through dying peoples ― words back to the trade winds ― errand boy remitted ― leaning say "Good bye ― fading my name ― silence in tarnished offices ― last rotting pier ― Isn't time ― the Doctor on stage ― end of the line ― Played the flute in emtpy room, fingers fading ― Doctor on stage ― Played the flute in last errand boy ― Closing ― Left no address" ―

That is a complete paragraph, and it ends on a dash. To note, I did have the thought that the cut up technique might increase the ability to hear the grammar/syntax more clearly (as there is no endjambement of phrases, here). So also with excerpting the text from the work (most of the phrases above have a more narrative context by this point in the two volumes).

So let's try it without dashes, but with periods and commas, using the capitalized words as cue to the starts of sentences. (I'll make an arbitrary editorial choice and consider the "Scandinavia" phrase to be a capitalized phrase.)

Memory pictures and singing dust went up in slow motion. Scandinavia outhouse skin forgotten, rings of Saturn in the morning sky, errand boy of subway dawns remitted back to the trade winds, slow silence ebbing from centuries, rose wallpaper bleeding youth body without a shadow, smell of dawn flesh in a privy, precise identity fading out. And these boys circumstance the orgasm leaving, beat a drum twisting Johnny's healed scars, over the pass without doing pictures, all toilet smell at this point, tarnished mirror through dying peoples, words back to the trade winds, errand boy remitted, leaning say "Good bye, fading my name, silence in tarnished offices, last rotting pier. Isn't time, the Doctor on stage, end of the line. Played the flute in emtpy room, fingers fading. Doctor on stage. Played the flute in last errand boy. Closing. Left no address."

The general structure has not changed: periods only went where capital letters would normally follow them; and, the capitals themselves serve to cue a break in thought. But periods are marks pointing out "end-begin" whereas the long dashes cue "don't let it end, keep moving." However, if I may make one interesting observation, writing it this way does seem to show that there is a kind of semantic/syntactic flow through the paragraph. (And, in other sections of the book, paragraph breaks work within extended use of cut up to signal a change in subject, just as they normally do. I would risk saying that usually the first phrases in the new paragraph speak the new subject.

Now lets turn back a little to the evening-out that dashes bring to the text and the visual effect of the cut up technique. All periods, though keeping the capitalization.

Memory pictures and singing dust went up in slow motion. Scandinavia outhouse skin forgotten. rings of Saturn in the morning sky. errand boy of subway dawns remitted back to the trade winds. slow silence ebbing from centuries. rose wallpaper bleeding youth body without a shadow. smell of dawn flesh in a privy. precise identity fading out. And these boys circumstance the orgasm leaving. beat a drum twisting Johnny's healed scars. over the pass without doing pictures. all toilet smell at this point. tarnished mirror through dying peoples. words back to the trade winds. errand boy remitted. leaning say "Good bye, fading my name. silence in tarnished offices. last rotting pier. Isn't time. the Doctor on stage. end of the line. Played the flute in emtpy room, fingers fading. Doctor on stage. Played the flute in last errand boy. Closing. Left no address."

To me it looks more fragmented even than with the long dashes. (For clarity, Burroughs tends to use long dashes, not em-dashes. Though occasionally he uses dots.)

Now for line breaks, with no end-line punctuation (though keeping capitals)

Memory pictures and singing dust went up in slow motion
Scandinavia outhouse skin forgotten
rings of Saturn in the morning sky
errand boy of subway dawns remitted back to the trade winds
slow silence ebbing from centuries
rose wallpaper bleeding youth body without a shadow
smell of dawn flesh in a privy
precise identity fading out
And these boys circumstance the orgasm leaving
beat a drum twisting Johnny's healed scars
over the pass without doing pictures
all toilet smell at this point
tarnished mirror through dying peoples
words back to the trade winds
errand boy remitted
leaning say "Good bye, fading my name
silence in tarnished offices
last rotting pier
Isn't time
the Doctor on stage
end of the line
Played the flute in emtpy room, fingers fading
Doctor on stage
Played the flute in last errand boy
Closing
Left no address."

Just for fun, let's try line breaks while marking off the capitalized phrases with a hanging indent (as used by Ginsberg):

Memory pictures and singing dust went up in slow motion
Scandinavia outhouse skin forgotten
    rings of Saturn in the morning sky
    errand boy of subway dawns remitted back to the trade winds
    slow silence ebbing from centuries
    rose wallpaper bleeding youth body without a shadow
    smell of dawn flesh in a privy
    precise identity fading out
And these boys circumstance the orgasm leaving
    beat a drum twisting Johnny's healed scars
    over the pass without doing pictures
    all toilet smell at this point
    tarnished mirror through dying peoples
    words back to the trade winds
    errand boy remitted
    leaning say "Good bye, fading my name
    silence in tarnished offices
    last rotting pier
Isn't time
    the Doctor on stage
    end of the line
Played the flute in emtpy room, fingers fading
Doctor on stage
Played the flute in last errand boy
Closing
Left no address."

Might as well complete the run and see what happens when we add the convention of capitalizing the first lines.

Memory pictures and singing dust went up in slow motion
Scandinavia outhouse skin forgotten
    Rings of Saturn in the morning sky
    Errand boy of subway dawns remitted back to the trade winds
    Slow silence ebbing from centuries
    Rose wallpaper bleeding youth body without a shadow
    Smell of dawn flesh in a privy
    Precise identity fading out
And these boys circumstance the orgasm leaving
    Beat a drum twisting Johnny's healed scars
    Over the pass without doing pictures
    All toilet smell at this point
    Tarnished mirror through dying peoples
    Words back to the trade winds
    Errand boy remitted
    Leaning say "Good bye, fading my name
    Silence in tarnished offices
    Last rotting pier
Isn't time
    The Doctor on stage
    End of the line
Played the flute in emtpy room, fingers fading
Doctor on stage
Played the flute in last errand boy
Closing
Left no address."

Hopefully you hear a difference between the four. What that difference is I leave for you to explore. Though, note that any difference in hearnig is a difference in engagement. That is, a difference in the ideation of the text.

And that is really all I wanted to do.

 

I've pointed it out before, I'm sure I will again: capitalizing the first lines of words was not invented by poets. It was invented by printers who (probably) simply thought it looked good to capitalize the first word of every line. Though, it very much has an effect on reading, so you might want to pay attention to it with your own writing. A capitalized line creates the presence of an implied, preceding period.

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