Friday, August 14, 2015

On the Matter of Form: Three Language Games (attn Sandra MacPherson)

Last evening I decided to avail myself of online resources available to me through my alma mater, Johns hopkins. I took a look through the recent journal literature and found a very interesting essay:
Sandra Macpherson, A Little Formalism, ELH, Volume 82, Number 2, Summer 2015, pp. 385-405.
She says she's looking for "for a genuinely formalist critical practice, a little formalism that would turn one away from history without shame or apology" (p. 385).

She's singing my song. I think. Can't really tell, though, since she's operating within the conceptual parameters of contemporary literary theory and, as you know, I jumped from that ship years ago. And I jumped in part because it didn't foster a critical practice that attended to literary form in a robust way.

What does she mean by form? She means "nothing more—and nothing less—than the shape matter (whether a poem or a tree) takes" (p. 390). I can live with that, but I'm not sure just what she thinks literary matter is and how it can be formed. While I'll say a vew things about her essay in another post, I thought I'd dig out an old post from The Valve, Back to Basics: Three Experiments in Language, as I wrote it to explore, in a preliminary way, literary matter. I posted it on March 27, 2010 and it engendered a lively discussion, which I recommend to you. This version is changed slightly from the original.

* * * * *

Game 1: A “found” poem

Every so often you come upon an exercise that goes like this: Someone selects some arbitrary hunk of prose, breaks it into lines of some appropriate length, and presents in on the page as a “found poem.” If the person doing this is a literary critic, the object might be to worry the distinction between literary and non-literary language. That doesn’t much interest me, not here and now. What does interest me is simply that a chunk of language that wasn’t created as a “poem” can be made to read something like a “poem” by such a simple and arbitrary procedure.

Let’s look at a simple example. You should read the following passage aloud with a slight pause at the end of each line (you know, like a poem), or at least imagine it in your mind’s ear. It’s from a recent diary by David Patrick Columbia:
Afterwards at dinner
at Swifty’s
(which was jumping
last night) Margo and I talked
about Norris and her new book.
I mentioned the
item this week on Page
Six about the woman
who has written
her memoir about her long
affair with Norman
Mailer. This was very upsetting
news for Norris when it broke
last year. What’s more
the woman was
making it known that she
was selling
her “papers” to Harvard
Somehow those line breaks, some of them at arbitrary positions with respect to the passage’s phrase structure, give the passage a different feel. You know, like poetry. Your mind wanders just a bit in those short intervals, seeking what’s otherwise not there. Among other things that aren’t ordinarily there are the unconscious mechanisms of language itself. In those intervals we can sense, if not quite see, them.

Just what are those mechanisms? And how do they work? That, of course is a matter of intense investigation. More than we can possibly attend to here and now.

Game 2: Ripples in a pond

Think of your mind as a pond. When you hear (or read) a word, it's like a pebble dropping into the pond and sending ripples along the surface. Two pebbles, one after the other, and the radiating rings of ripples intersect. Now a third pebble, another ring of ripples interweaving with the first two. And so meaning is built up.

Now consider a single word, without context:


Without context the word isn’t much of anything. Easiest to just skip over it. Or you can ponder its meaning – the meaning of that particular word has been pondered endlessly, and there’s more to come. Or you could just wander among associations – art commerce beauty van Gogh Carney loft aspire church steeple people toes piggies . . . . however one’s associations might float to the surface.

Here’s another word:


Do with it what you will.

Now let’s put the two words together, like this:

art profession

That changes the game, doesn’t it? Now the two words put constraints on one another so that one is less inclined to wander through the association landscape. “Art profession” – might be an artist (could be a gallery owner, or a framer). Let’s add a few more words into the mix:

(1) art is not a profession

That sets up a very specific interaction between “art” and “profession,” and one that works against the grain of:

(2) art + profession = artist

Just exactly what’s going on in (1) is a bit tricky to explain, though the philosophers and linguists worry about such things. But it’s clearly different from (2). By way of a crude explication of (1) let me offer two more semantic “equations”:

(3) art = craft + inspiration

(4) profession = craft + money

The sense of (3) is that art involves craft skills in creating “works” infused with inspiration (whatever that is). The sense of (4) is that a profession is the exercise of craft skills to obtain money. Notice that both (3) and (4) contain “craft” in the definiens, they are otherwise different. The effect of (1) is to “cancel out” what art and profession hold in common and thereby focus our attention on the difference.

And then we have something like this:

(5) Art is not a profession lightly to be dismissed.

Now we’re back to (2) plus some additional semantic material.

And so it goes.

Game 3: Lost cues

This experiment is, in a way, the inverse of experiment 1. There we inserted structural delimiters (those line endings) that weren’t there in the original text. This time we’re going to remove structural delimiters: punctuation marks and line-initial capital letters. Again, David Patrick Columbia provides the text, just a bit further down the page from the passage in experiment 1:
The courtly Mr. Ney is not a newcomer to Southampton in the 1990s he and his previous wife Judy they were divorced last year owned a house that had previously been owned by Anne McDonnell Ford Johnson also a Southamptonite and coincidentally a cousin of Pat Wood small worlds collide and happiness results congratulations to the happy couple
Now what? The result isn’t “poetic.” Rather, it is a bit of confusion. The passage has not been rendered unintelligible, but it’s a bit difficult to parse. In particular, there’s an interjection – “they were divorced last year” – that derails one’s parsing when you have no cue that it’s an interjection.

Without those simple little cues that delimit phrases, punctuation marks and capitalization, we’ve got to think explicitly about how to group the words into phrases. We can figure out what’s going on, but it takes some work.

Finally, I offer you Shakespeare’s Sonnet 129, in modernized spelling, but without punctuation, initial caps, line breaks, or even word boundaries:
Pretty opaque, no? Now I've restored word boundaries:
the expense of spirit in a waste of shame is lust in action and till action lust is perjured murderous blood full of blame savage extreme rude cruel not to trust enjoy'd no sooner but despised straight past reason hunted and no sooner had past reason hated as a swallow'd bait on purpose laid to make the taker mad mad in pursuit and in possession so had having and in quest to have extreme a bliss in proof and proved a very woe before a joy proposed behind a dream all this the world well knows yet none knows well to shun the heaven that leads men to this hell
A bit better, no? But still, much is lost. How do you recover the sentences, and the phrases that make them up?

And when that's done, much is still missing. What about the sonnet form? If you didn’t know that this was a sonnet, how would you figure out the line divisions or even know to look for them? How would you detect the rhymes? Could you even detect the meter?

How can so much be lost by changing so little? Or, more exactly, by changing so many little things, for the cumulative effect of all those little things is FORM.

1 comment:

  1. I think that boredom can be a wonderful thing: the open door to more thoughtful examination of process and thought, of perception and sound, of resonance and color. Without the willingness to do some hard work, these vital elements of creative play can induce the super-imposed belief of exacting (new) information into (new) experience through new form. Most of the resulting poems are light enough to be blown away by a spider walking into the room. In other words, attempts to dispense with the limits of form without a true working discipline of writing the form can become only hollow traces of what first captured the imagination.