Economics, Literature and Scepticism

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I am a PhD student in Economics. I am originally from South Africa and plan to return there after my PhD. I completed my M. Comm in Economics and my MA In Creative Writing (Poetry) at the University of Cape Town, where I worked as a lecturer before starting my PhD.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Structure, Art and the Specifics of Writing

Posted by Simon Halliday | Thursday, July 06, 2006 | Category: |

Something that has been plaguing me of late is the idea of structure and form in writing and people's pooh-poohing of it. This worries me. For some reason at school we are often told that we need to be 'creative' or 'imaginative' and that poetry is something that 'is just an expression of the emotions and the imagination'. We are allowed to write free verse as though it is an underpriced commodity and told to 'let yourselves go'.

There are several problems with this, the first is an over-indulgence in a lack of structure. People these days often give cummings, Eliot, Plath and several others as their favourite poets, without really understanding why they are great. Much of what made these poets interesting was the structure from which they broke – they understood and knew these styles, they used ancient forms and brought them back to modern use (especially Eliot and Pound). Plath and Hughes were brilliant at taking forms and adapting them to their own use, to find ways in which they could re-construct terza rima (for example) or a normal quatrain to their own uses.

But people see free verse, subsequent to Walt Whitman (the man who invented first used free verse in English poetry after observing vers libre in French poetry) as something that they just write without any idea of the constraints of free verse itself, the necessary consideration of the rhythms within words, the syllabic content, the inner workings of the poetry which is being written. Free verse still has a consideration of lyric, of stanzaic structure and of internal and end rhymes. These make much of the premier free verse as good as it is. We can see much of this in work by Seamus Heaney – he takes landscapes and translates them into poetry, finds ways of making us feel the landscape through what he has written. This is what can make free verse great.

The 20th century in both modernist and post-modernist literature has also seen an upsurge in attempts to look at poetry in translation. Poets like Federico Lorca, Yehuda Amichai, Czeslaw Milosz, Zbigniew Herbert, Hans Enzensebergen, Wislawa Szymborska, or Martin Espada have translated their own work or had their work translated into English. This has led to a whole array of work investigating the idea of poetry in translation, of the idea that poetry can be translated – the gain and loss of meaning. In addition to this works that have been translated have challenged the translator to ensure that the translated poem has a similar structure, meaning and rhythm than the original.

An example:

So Little - Czeslaw Milosz

I said so little.

Days were so short.

Short days.

Short nights.

Short years.

I said so little.

I couldn't keep up.

My heart grew weary

From joy,




The jaws of Leviathan

Were closing upon me.

Naked, I lay on the shores

Of desert islands.

The white whale of the world

hauled me down to its pit.

And now I don't know

What in all that was real.

To me this serves as an example of a poem that, in translation, brings us a wonderful sense of how English can interpret and give us poetry from other languages. The ways in which adherence to free verse, to a freer movement in the beginning, with couplets of idea-images towards the end can be a beautiful use of free verse – it has an intent and the intent is mirrored in the voice of the poem (some of you may think I am being abstruse here, but I hope you get what I intend).

Moving away from that example, and from translation in language – Picasso is a typical example in visual art of how an individual firstly mastered the methods of the 'masters' (he is acclaimed for his command of lines of his continuity). From this he was able to then identify the rules and break from them, move away from them towards his cubist work, to his adaptations from ideas such as n├ęgritude of African modes of art. It is this idea, which others such as Whitman in English poetry (and Rimbaud in French if I recall correctly) or the others I listed above (several more even – I could list loads in the past couple centuries who did it well).

On this Pound commented that “The Art of Letters will come to an end before AD 2000” on which Stephen Fry commented “It might be tempting to agree that 'the art of letters' has indeed come to an end, and to wonder whether a doctrinaire abandonment of healthy, living forms for the sake of a dogma of stillborn originality might not have to shoulder some of the responsibility for such a state of affairs.” (2005:174-5). He is even more scathing on this later where he speaks of an indoctrination in which form is 'a kind of fascism'. I agree with him to a large extent (which is to some extent probably why I read the book in the first place). In fact I agree with Strand and Bolan (2000: xiv) when they comment that “The true and final power of form is not societal: poetic form, when it comes from deep feeling, is deeply human.” They also argue that the changes in form in the last century or so should be seen as 'a form of dialogue' with historical forms. This I believe is the crux of what I personally believe – a command and understanding of forms of poetry allows us to engage with this conversation on poetry without this knowledge, without this understanding we could not do so.

The reason that this comes up for me is as a result of a consideration of my own relationship with form. I predominantly write in various free verse structures adhering to specific stanzaic or rhythmic/metric forms when I think them necessary. Sometimes people have asked me why I do this, why I don't write 'freer'. The interesting thing for me is that through an understanding and an adherence to specific ideas in form (say if I wrote a sonnet) or to meter, syllabic structure or stanza in free verse I can actually go about liberating myself to do things I would not have done otherwise. Bad free verse is often self-indulgent, over-written and lacklustre because of some vain attempt to be 'free' or to be 'unconstrained' by 'the rules of poetry'. The thing is in many cases it is the understanding of these rules that makes us able to appreciate good free verse and to be able to appreciate poems that continue to adhere to formal structure.

It should be noted that I write this fairly late at night and that I may have over-stated my intent and my argument, or not outlined it well enough – it happens. I was asked an interesting question recently by my supervisor, Ingrid de Kok, she aske “Why poetry?”. She wanted me to interrogate why I believe that I want to do my Masters in Creative Writing specifically in poetry, what makes poetry that appealing to me, what demands to I place upon myself to write poetry, why poetry? If I have ideas, why poetry? I'm not going to give you my answers to her, maybe we can discuss that at some point over a good bottle of wine while reading good poetry and then we can begin to attempt an understanding of the significance of this question. And it is awfully significant. It is one of the most important questions for an aspiring poet to begin to answer, quite likely the answering of it will end up in the poetry that they write (or they will stop writing altogether because of being unable to answer it, which may be a good thing in itself). Nevertheless, it is something to consider and something which I have had to consider and to which I have begun to relate on multiple levels. Why poetry?

So yes, this little essay thing has rambled, has tickled and has strung its way towards a point at which it says that poetic form is a good thing, so is free verse, poetry in translation is intriguing (try to write your own poetry in another language then translate it back to English and see what happens). Finally ask yourself “Why Poetry?” Why do you read it? Why do you write it? What makes poetry the form of choice (because poetry is itself a form – once you have engaged with it prosody can educate you beyond that which you initially though plausible). Think about language. Think about rhythm. Think about sound and lyric. Think. Read. Speak. Write. Most of all enjoy it, then get back to me with what you thought, I'd really like to hear.

Currently have 4 comments:

  1. Mwoo hoo
    ha ha

  2. in all seriousness, however
    one is hardly ever so abstruse
    as when one says
    "some of you may think
    I am being abstruse here"

    or perhaps I'm mistaken
    nonetheless, I had a good snort at that
    (so good)

    and I think it was a wonderful post
    thank you

  3. no fucking way! Ingrid de Kok is your supervisor!!! I'm so jealous... And I'm so stoked you are doing your MSP - my version of a masters in poetry :) :)
    That's so awesome Si - wow. you've come along way huh? From manuscripts passing hands in 2nd year (i still remember the one about the tomato) to this. It's going to be an amazing Journey - i look forward to reading the fruits of your Loom.
    I concur with Paddy - it was a great post. And i just like e.e. cummings cuz he's cool, got nothing to do with inverted syntax....

  4. why poetry?
    poetry is the most sensual and distilled form of literature. It is endless in possibility, yet quick to separate the brilliant from the mediocre. It encourages the writer to condense and interrogate their meaning; it inspires the reader to question meaning. I have read too many books and forgotten most. A special poem infuses with your heartbeat; it will moderate your way of interpreting the world (even if just for a moment...).
    Poetry is like a passionate tango between the readers/writers and Language. I think Language always has the upper hand, because it naturally dances to rythym. We try to tame Language and mould it to purpose - but we're still utterly dependant on it, clumsy slaves to it. I enjoy the power struggle in poetry: i like feeling overwhelmed and superficial when i try to engage in it. I also love the egocentric thrill of believing I've stumbled upon a new way to compose a jaded scene/emotion (although I know its probably been done before). I enjoy the fear of releasing a poem into the wilderness, never knowing if it shall flourish or die in the public arena.
    This is "why" Poetry.