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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Visual Labyrinths in Body DoubleSomething I Read #16 – David Perkins


Monday, May 29, 2017

"Taxing the Rain" by Penelope Shuttle

Penelope Shuttle's "Taxing the Rain" can be found here [link]
 

an exploration post

 

Let's just explore some language in a bit a verse. Penelope Shuttle's "Taxing the Rain" passed by my way today in my FB scroll and it struck me as a curious thing. It's been put online by Jeanette Winterson on her page [link]. (To note, it came my way formatted entirely in two-line stanzas, not as Winterson types it.)

The heart of the verse – its focus and its primary source of energy as presented – is the description of rain and what it does. And there are moments in there that might in themselves offer points for interesting discussion. (E.g., the shape of scented baths? Or, is it rain anymore when it is a bath? Or, notice how the verse uses a shift to abstraction, "dreamy complexity," to get the rain indoors.) However, what interests me most is the framing device that is used to get the verse to the idea of what the rain is and does: that is, the idea of people wanting to "tax the rain."

The idea as presented creates a difficulty. You can speak of "taxing automobiles," say, but it is clear from the idea that it is the owner that will pay the tax. It is the owner that is really being taxed. But who would be the once-removed target of putting a tax on rain? Nobody "possesses" rain; nobody "causes" rain for a desired purpose. Indeed, most of the text's description of rain is rather universal if not a-personal. How would the rain pay a tax upon itself? How would such a thing be leveed? What exactly would be collected? Does the phrase "tax the rain" make any sense in the everyday world? With any thought comes the recognition that taxing the rain is inherently an absurdity.

Now, the presence of an absurdity in a text does is not in itself a flaw in the text. The issue is not whether there exists an absurdity. The issue is whether the text can get the reader over the ideational hurdle of the absurdity. That is, to use a phrase, does the text successfully suspend disbelief so that the absurdity can become part of a vibrant whole?

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.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

"The Hollow Men" by T.S. Eliot

"The Hollow Men" can be found here [link]
 

some of Eliot's own line periods

 

Perhaps I move a touch too quickly with this post. In defense my intent here, as with other posts of this nature, is not to argue definitively but to prompt thought.

 

Seeing a small word – an adverb or pronoun or conjunction – at the end of a line is these days a too reliable cue that the break is unpurposed, in continuation of the previous post that the line carries no sense of a line period, that it is not a constructed line; such words are too frequently strong evidence that the text is not verse at all but prose with line breaks pretending to verse.

Take, as a quick example, and possibly too easy an example, Philip Levine's "The Second Coming," which appears in the February Poetry Magazine, found online here [link]. Out of eight lines, five of them end in small words: "the," "only," "is," "a," and "of." At first glance – indeed at that first "the" – a reader should know that the text is not verse, that it will show little of that fundamental quality of verse, the crafted line.

That the text is shaped does not defeat the assessment, it does not magically turn a prose text into verse. One need only think about the shaping of text in magazine advertisements as cases in point. There is nothing about concrete shape that excludes the possibility of crafting lines, as such

that

the text

is physically

shaped does not

excuse the author who

desires to write verse from

the requirement of writing lines.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Tamburlaine the Great, Pt 1 by Christopher Marlowe

Back from my break. To say, I was able to finish the project for which I had blocked off the time. Which is a good thing. Perhaps the final result was not as good as I had hoped for, but we can't expect the best results every time.

As I said on my last post, initiating the break, I am unsure how I want to proceed with this blog. The longer posts like this one are fun, but can also be laborious. And I would like to try to give more effort to smaller, "spur of the moment" posts, as well as more posts that respond directly to verse. Whether and how I might do that, however, I do not yet know.


 

the line period

 

My launching point for this excursion is a moment from T.S. Eliot's "The Blank Verse of Marlowe" (found in The Sacred Wood). There is no reason not to get right to it, so:

The verse accomplishments of Tamburlaine are notably two: Marlowe gets into blank verse the melody of Spenser, and he gets a new driving power by reinforcing the sentence period against the line period. The rapid long sentence, running line into line, as in the famous soliloquies "Nature commended of four elements" and "What is beauty, with my sufferings, then" marks the certain escape of blank verse from the rhymed couplet, and from the elegiac or rather pastoral note of Surrey, to which Tennyson returned.

We will pick up Marlowe shortly. Right now I want to focus on the concept the Eliot brings into his discussion of Marlowe, that of the line period.

It is a wonderful term. It is not synonymous with line break, and the reasons why are important and speak to its general superiority. For a line break can be arbitrarily had. Simply apply a carriage return and, voilà, you have a line break. However, a line period – as with the sentence period – speaks to a construction that is attending to far more than the mere question of where the line ends. A sentence period does not exist merely because it marks the end of the sentence. The presence of the period speaks to the nature of the words that precede it – and to the words that follow it in that a period also marks the beginning of a new sentence.

Friday, December 23, 2016

Winter Break

Shows where my mind has been that I meant to post this a week ago.

The ol' blog will be on hiatus for a month or two while I survive the holidays, and work on another slow-going project that I want to dedicate as much time to as possible. Posting this will remove some of the guilt of not fulfilling my self-imposed time constraints.

Looking forward, and I tend to give this blog a look forward every winter, I feel like I've gotten a little too hung up on writing long essays for the blog. Maybe a break will help me find some rhythm for including more frequent, shorter posts. I'm also contemplating a shift in focus back to including more responding to verse found on the web. Though, I'm not at all sure on that, and want to give it a taste test before I go live again.

So, Merry Holidays to everyone. See you on the flip side.

Monday, November 14, 2016

"the mind is its own beautiful prisoner" by E.E. Cummings

The text of the verse is found on-line, here [link]. To note, there is variation in how the verse is published. In the Collected Poems: 1922-1938, it is published as presented on the website (so also, then, I presume, in 100 Selected Poems, the named source for the linked page). In the Complete Poems: 1913-1962, however, the text is presented with spaces after all punctuation. (I do not know how the verse is presented in the most recent edition of the Complete.) As well, in both the Collected and the Complete, the text reads "Mine" in the second line, not "Mind": we can presume that is a typo.

 

the erotic and the merely sexual

 

The presentation here is divided, the theoretic discussion first, the exploration of the verse coming after. Most of the work of this essay will lie in that opening discussion; as such, it will be a relatively short exploration. However, because the verse is such a good example for the ideas being presented, it is my thought that by keeping the verse in mind from the start both the verse might work as demonstration of the theory and the theory might work as explication of the verse even as the theoretic ideas are being presented. For that, and because of both the brevity of the verse and the differences in the online version and the version in the Complete, I will break from my normal habits[FN] and give the verse in full, here, to be read as part of my presentation. (As with most of Cummings's work, it is untitled.)

 
the mind is its own beautiful prisoner.
Mine looked long at the sticky moon
opening in dusk her new wings

then decently hanged himself, one afternoon.

The last thing he saw was you
naked amid unnaked things,

your flesh, a succinct wandlike animal,
a little strolling with the futile purr
of blood; your sex squeaked like a billiard-cue
chalking itself, as not to make an error,
with twists spontaneously methodical.
He suddenly tasted worms windows and roses

he laughed, and closed his eyes as a girl closes
her left hand upon a mirror.

 

************************
[FN] The main reason I do not normally give the text in the post is because having a link to the text permits having the text open in a separate window for reference.
************************

From very early on in my literary studies I have held to the belief that any theory of literature must successfully account for two test cases: the comedic and the erotic. That is, account for them as inherent to the proffered theory, without, as I have often seen, bracketing them in one manner or another as peculiarities lying outside the central ideas. While the test case of the comedic was to the fore of my puzzling early on, it has not maintained a central place in my thinking as has the erotic. In part, because it ended up being a puzzle solved by happenstance in my early theoretic studies. But in part also because my own creative writing, while often light hearted, is rarely out and out comedic: I thus had no practical impetus to study the comedic beyond a general understanding.

That is not so with the erotic. For not only has the erotic always and ever held interest to me as a field of study (not only in literature but across the arts), it has held and has maintained a position as one of the primary themes of my creative work. As such, I have continually been forced to confront, genuinely and in depth, the question of the relation between the erotic and the aesthetic[FN].