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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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Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Introduction to "The Kekulé Problem" by David Krakauer

the fear of empty space

 

Here is a curious moment from something recently published on the web. The article is "The Kekulé Problem" by Cormac McCarthy, published on the Nautilus site [link]. What caught my eye, however, lies in the introduction to the article. That intro begins:

Cormac McCarthy is best known to the world as a writer of novels. These include Blood Meridian, All the Pretty Horses, No Country for Old Men, and The Road. At the Santa Fe Institute (SFI) he is a research colleague and thought of in complementary terms. An aficionado on subjects ranging from the history of mathematics, philosophical arguments relating to the status of quantum mechanics as a causal theory, [. . .]

It is necessary to context to know that the intro was written by one David Krakauer, himself a professor at the Santa Fe Institute.

My interest lies in the third sentence.

At the Santa Fe Institute (SFI) he is a research colleague and thought of in complementary terms.

There are two things here. First, a moment of syntax.

Hopefully you caught that there is an error in syntax in the list: specifically, the list is written as though it contained a parallelism that doesn't exist. The list is written as though the "is" applies equally to both parts of the list.

[. . .] he is
a research colleague
and thought of in complementary terms.

That is, however, not true. In the first entry in the list the structure is that of noun-is-noun, the "is" being used as a copula [he – is – a colleague]. In the second entry in the list the structure is that of noun-verb, with "is" being used as an auxiliary verb [he – is thought of].

As a general rule, when you are listing phrases you should include in the element of the list the whole of the basic structure of the phrase. That way you avoid the stumbles such as that created above. The sentence should be written

At the Santa Fe Institute (SFI) he is a research colleague and is thought of in complementary terms.

I say only "general rule": writing it out should be the default, varied from only when the writer is sure that the variation works, when it does not create an unwanted hiccup in the reader's ear (and is interesting enough to justify the variation). It should be a conscious choice when you vary from the default, not an accident of inattentive writing. The likelihood of creating something that sounds clumsy will exist almost entirely on the side of not following the default. For example, when giving a list of infinitive phrases, it should be the default to include the "to" in each element in the list. This becomes important when the phrases get long and the reader's ear could really use the repeated "to" to help organize. However, the construction is only the default. To the other side, when the phrases are very small, having the "to" on every phrase can sound repetitive and unnecessary. As well, when the phrases do not need the "to" keep themselves organized, the decision to include or remove the "to" can work to controlling tempo and other aural effects. Anaphora exists for a reason, after all.

Attentiveness to this applies doubly in verse, where line breaks and the pauses created thereby are added to the mix, as well where aural effects are (ostensibly) in play. It is all the easier in verse to lose the sentence structure when the phrases get long.

Speaking of anaphora, here's an example I just came across in prose, in the essay "The Crisis of Language" by Richard Sheppard, in Bradbury and McFarlane's Modernism.

Essentially, both the Dadaists and the Surrealists were anti-art. With them, literature and poetry cease to be supreme and become instead only one psychedelic means among others. With them, poetry becomes 'disposable', created for no particular purpose, and useful in an undefinable way. With them, language is displaced from its pinnacle and reinstated simply as one means of communication among many. With them, language ceases to be the tool for asserting human lordship over the universe and becomes a natural force in its own right, which creates as it will and over which human beings have only limited control. With them, man becomes the servant of his language rather than its master. [continuing for three more "with them"s]

A good example of a device used both to help maintain structure for the reader's benefit and to create an aural effect.

 

But back to the sentence of concern. There is a second event going on with it – or least there is evidence of this second event: one can never be sure with such things when you move from "what is" to "why it happened." The event, or the evidence of the event, is very apparent to me because I see in it something I struggle with in my own writing, a source of bad habits that, in both my creative work and my essays, I must ever be alert to. Unfortunately, I may not be able to make the event visible to everyone (and probably won't). I'm hoping I can make it apparent by backing into it.

Here's the sentence again.

At the Santa Fe Institute (SFI) he is a research colleague and thought of in complementary terms.

Beside the bad syntax, that sentence should catch your ear as somewhat odd. Why would someone say "thought of in complementary terms"? First, I don't think the guy would be a "colleague" if nobody could stand his presence, so the second half of the sentence is rather implied in the first. Technically, it doesn't need to be stated. Second, that's all that can be mustered? "Thought of in complementary terms"? He doesn't even make it to "is well liked"? It is all in all an oddly chosen phrasing. Disregarding the possibility that the phrasing is a poorly told joke (nothing in the rest of the introduction hints at humor), why does that oddly worded phrase exist?

I believe the answer lies in the first half of the sentence.

At the Santa Fe Institute (SFI) he is a research colleague.

Now, it is correctly written "Santa Fe Institute" first, and not,

He is a research colleague at the Santa Fe Institute.

because the information being presented is not the fact of McCarthy's association with the SFI, but the nature of that association.

Read it again, in context.

Cormac McCarthy is best known to the world as a writer of novels. These include Blood Meridian, All the Pretty Horses, No Country for Old Men, and The Road. At the Santa Fe Institute (SFI) he is a research colleague.

Do you feel a slight tension? It is such a short, succinct sentence. Do you get the feeling that something's missing? That the sentence is somehow incomplete? Do you have a want for the sentence to continue on?

At the Santa Fe Institute (SFI) he is a research colleague and . . . .

It is in that "and," in the desire for that "and," that I place the source of the poorly written second half of the sentence: a desire, an impulse to add something to the sentence because the sentence simply does not feel long enough or complete enough. An impulse to write more solely because it seems like there should be more.

It is an example of what I consider the verbal equivalent of the fear of empty space, the unconscious – and often conscious – need to fill in or occupy empty space in visual art and design.

At the Santa Fe Institute (SFI) he is a research colleague.

That's all the information meant to be shared and all the information that needs to be shared; but the sentence seems, feels, somehow incomplete, inadequate, needing something more to give sufficient weight to justify its existence. Thus there is tacked on to the sentence the somewhat silly and syntactically clumsy

. . . and thought of in complementary terms.

It might be argued that the same impulse can be seen in the first two sentences of the introduction.

Cormac McCarthy is best known to the world as a writer of novels.

That's the end of the thought. There is no need for more. But there was nonetheless felt a need enough to add a second sentence, a rather silly sentence considering the already attested to fame of Cormac McCarthy – he is after all "known to the world."

These include Blood Meridian, All the Pretty Horses, No Country for Old Men, and The Road.

Did we need the added list of titles for the first sentence to work? Or is it there because the general term "novels" opens the door for specificity, and we just have to walk through it?

Look at the introduction without the extra bits:

Cormac McCarthy is best known to the world as a writer of novels. At the Santa Fe Institute (SFI) he is a research colleague.

Look at how well they work together. To the world McCarthy is a writer of novels. At SFI he is a research colleague. Unfortunately, that extra material got in the way of the elegant, core thought.

It is the natural tendency to fill empty space. Children will want to use up the whole of the page when drawing their pictures, either by making their subject fill the page or by putting things into the empty space. Musicians have to learn how to hear and use rests. A shelf with only one object on it looks devoid, like it needs more.

Such desire to add to where something needs not be is inherent to writing as well. There is the want to add adjectives to nouns (the foolish workshop-ism forbidding adverbs has grounding in the easily picked up habit of over-using them); the tendency to use adverbial phrases to bridge one sentence to the next (to fill in the empty space between the sentences, a problem I suffer from greatly); the tendency, as seen above, to see short as being incomplete, when short might be all that is needed.

Look at Pound's three principles of imagism. The first is the most tied to the imagist project itself; the other two, however, could – and I would say should – be considered groundwork for anyone's approach to writing verse (and not just verse).

1. Direct treatment of the "thing" whether subjective or objective.
2. To use absolutely no word that does not contribute to the presentation.
3. As regarding rhythm: to compose in the sequence of the musical phrase, not in sequence of a metronome.

Three principles, three areas of concern: (1) the subject of the text; (3) the sound of the text; and (2) the construction of the text.

I do not believe it is coincidence that Pound's second principle recognizes that all writers have a natural tendency to put too much into the text, and that learning how to write well – both in verse and in prose – is learning to avoid and to get rid all that superfluous material, much of which exists simply because of the ever present want to fill in empty space.

 

And nothing more needs to be said, so I'll end there.

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