To borrow from Roland Barthes: some languages are writerly and others are readerly. The choice is whether the speaker (written, vocal, or rude bodily noises) is responsible for the accuracy of the language and by extension for making the language unambiguously understandable for the reader, or if the language is sufficiently simplified that it forces the reader to be the arbiter of the author’s intent?
“Who” versus “Whom” is a good example. Do I immediately know “who” is committing the action and “whom” is being acted upon, or do I have to guess “who” is “who”?
When Othello says Desdemona is to die “presently”, he doesn’t mean “in a while” he means now – immediately. This ideally needs a gloss in printed versions of the play, to prevent misunderstanding: the meaning of the word has clearly changed considerably since Shakespeare’s day. How and why this change has come about, I do not know, but it’s a fair guess, I think, that it changed not because someone somewhere decreed the change, but because people who spoke and wrote in English began to use the word differently (possibly out of ignorance); and because this different usage soon caught on, and the older meaning of the word became obsolete. This may or may not be a loss to the English language: I would say it isn’t, but wouldn’t argue…
Two things: my favorite author has been and remains Alain Robbe-Grillet (see) and although I find many of the postmodern works fun and thought-provoking, I turn to the Nouveau Roman for its challenges outside of the traditional definition of a novel. Earlier I discussed Robbe-Grillet and also suggested that La Jealousie was my go-to, if not favorite, novel (see).
Abrahms writes about La Jealousie in the Glossary:
Thus Alain Robbe-Grillet, a leader among the exponents of the nouveau roman (the new novel) in France, wrote Jealousy (1957), in which he left out such standard elements as plot,characterization, description of states on mind, locations in time and space, and frame of reference to the world in which the work is set. We are simply presented in this novel with a sequence of perceptions, mainly visual, which we may naturalize (that is, make intelligible in the mode of standard narrative procedures) by postulating that we are occupying the physical space and sharing the hyperacute observations of a jealous husband, from which we may infer also the tortured state of his disintegrating mind. Other new novelists are Nathalie Sarraute and Philippe Sollers.
I was reading the poems published in a journal I receive regularly and was disappointed that they seemed, for the most part, strained and almost silly: I would say that the poet was trying too hard to be poetic and to write poems that are easily recognized as being poetical. There were, however, several example of non-standard poetry (very non-standard) that I enjoyed, if only for the form.
Now it should be understood that I spent most of my undergraduate and graduate education reading, analyzing, and discussing poetry (and drama later), so I am truly not adverse to the idea of a poem and secretly wish that poetry was more mainstream and available in this new century. Furthermore, I can take a volume of Keats or Donne or Ginsberg off the shelf and amaze myself that such powerful and often beautiful writing exists. But the current crop of ‘the typhoon of your kisses drips blood on my Post Toasties’ poets just aren’t doing it for me anymore. City Lights keeps my hopes up but some of the doggerel that gets published today makes me wonder.
What is going on?
Maybe poetry is spreading out and becoming more accessible outside of the literati and prone to the same continuum of quality and intelligence as is the world of prose? Obviously there are novels written for simple entertainment: bodice rippers, teen romances, formulaic westerns and science fiction, hard-boiled and fast-moving detectives, etc. These types of novels are appealing to read but we can expect them to have a short life and be replaced in our bookstores by newer titles that promise variety but more often are slightly stirred variations of all the titles that went before.
Is poetry evolving into this same model: classics that have endured, contemporary examples that may show quality, and the rest which is targeted for the average reader seeking entertainment? I don’t know.
Paul Valéry defined the poet’s function and I agree (what do you think?):
A poet’s function … is not to experience the poetic state: that is a private affair. His function is to create it in others. … The man of genius is the one who infuses genius into me.
Many people consider poetry a personal, cathartic expression: the poet has such a level of experience and sentiment that the poet eases the pressure by creating a poem. The reader of the poem, then, is an observer of the poet’s condition. Valery doesn’t discount the poet’s condition, but he reverses the idea of a poem being cathartic, which wouldn’t even need a reader, to the idea of a poem being a way of conveying or sharing experience: an “educational” experience. This seems consistent with my exposure to the mechanics of creating poetry: some poets struggle with every line of the poem, every word; other poets write and rewrite the poem over and over in many different versions often with radically different variations. It’s the old inspiration vs. perspiration routine.
Writing poetry, despite the clichéd scenes in an early sixties movie, does not involve a garret, incense, or bongos; it is an artistic creation much like a symphony, an ivory statue, or a painting on the ceiling of a church; and like these other art forms, it is the artist’s way of getting the observer or reader to share in the same intense experience. It’s hard work and along the way the poet or painter may have a cathartic experience, but that is personal; the complete poem is turned over to the reader to be experienced.
Two things I notice about this view of the artist: first, there is an element of intention and second, the goal is to have the reader essentially duplicate the experience and not to have the reader attach his own personal, extra-textual experiences onto the poem. So on one side we break with the New Critics and on the other we conform. Furthermore, with apologies to Roland Barthes, the author is once again important.
I like that: but I’m just musing this fine afternoon and may go walk barefoot on my new carpet for a while …
I would be remiss if I didn’t comment on the state of poetry as it pertains to country music and overpriced greeting cards … no, I can’t do it … way too painful.