Thursday, April 21, 2011

Puzzles & Dreams

I've never been one for crossword puzzles. When I worked for the government, my biggest problem was I couldn't generate motivation to learn new programs, with their complex structures, endless recital of exceptions, and the cute lists of acronyms. My major issue was that these were "other people's dreams"--concocted by technical writers and program analysts, following the thorny compromised legislation cooked up by the Congressional committees and their staffs. Our program "operating manuals" were constantly being updated and re-written to reflect these new programs or changes, sent to us as "transmittals" or announcements, in the driest possible language. As the computer age dawned, these operating manuals became even more arcane and impenetrable, combining jurisprudence and software language into a dense, ponderous prose style. I've never been fearful of complexity or contradiction, but having to adopt and implement "other people's dreams" of Federal and state regulation nearly drove me mad. Why?

Because I've always been a "creative-minded" person. Which is not intended as a compliment or to feather myself with esteem, or to suggest that I'm a leader instead of a follower. Only that as a personality type, I find it difficult to follow slavishly in the footsteps of someone else's plan, especially when its inherent value is merely pragmatic, or ephemeral. I can follow orders as well as the next man, but to be made to appreciate and work happily within a system I had no part in creating, or to solve problems caused by someone else's flawed thinking--are tasks I was not born to do.

The typical approach in the humanities is to present the student with facts, forms and systems. Independent or creative thinking is mostly frustrated and discouraged. Even so, you're not simply "following directions" from a guidebook, but analyzing and describing and interpreting. You're, in effect, creating your own model of a specific discipline, or of civilization entire, even if you aren't aware of this at first. Generally, the biggest names in the humanities are the most creative, or creative-minded, people. In other words, though learning is usually confined to absorption and inculcation, those who succeed to the highest levels, pass through this initial stage by dominating and transcending knowledge, eventually becoming contributors or participants in the living dialogue with history and contemporary aspiration.

As an aspiring poet (and college English major) in the late 1960's, I can recall becoming saturated, impregnated with the qualities of English verse. There was a kind of symphonic maelstrom of sounds and echoes of words and phrases, which was constantly passing through my consciousness. The idea that one might participate in this vortex of sensible music seemed blocked, however, by the lack of an encouragement even to consider doing so. Literature was a shrine, before which one genuflected and prayed for acceptance in the society of worshippers. What vanity to imagine that one might actually write a poem oneself!

But to get back to crossword puzzles. . .

Studying the mechanics of verse and the strategies of poetics can seem a very dry and dusty pastime. The sonnet, for instance, was taught not just as an historical oddity, a random invention which was copied over and over again, with some minor variations, but as an universal form, inevitable and permanent, perfect and indisputable. Treating literature as (almost) a Platonic system of forms inevitably leads to a stultifyingly fixed view of literary creativity, as if humanity were simply "discovering" eternal structures which pre-existed their use as actual linguistic acts. As a student of poetry, I felt a certain arrogant contempt for people who treated historically fixed literary forms. I certainly could see the use of such forms--by Shakespeare, for instance, in his Sonnets. As a pastime, one might derive some second-hand pleasure, in attempting to "re-create" or mimic a Shakespearean sonnet in one's own words, following the meter and scheme of correspondences.

Scanning a poem, and diagramming its formal characteristics has always suggested to me a process of synthetic application which is closer to solving word puzzles, or crossword puzzles, than it is to the impulse creative people may feel to express a feeling or thought in words. Our initial impulse, formed in the crucible of our linguistic sensibility, is naturally to state, in a colloquial or common (vulgar) manner, without resorting to a formal structure. No one "thinks" sensibly in poetic language, much less imagines elevated speech as a pattern of correspondences which derive from a strict form. People who commonly are immersed in dramatic language (such as classically trained actors), or scholars who are immersed in the language of highly refined speech (from literature), may feel at home in formal-sounding sentences or phrases, but they aren't spontaneously speaking poetry when they talk--especially about matters that are important or personal to them.

It has traditionally been thought that the most highly skilled and talented professionals in any field are often the best imitators of their forbears in their respective fields. A great poet would be expected, in his youth, to understand fully, and be able to make his own successful version of a Shakespearean sonnet. A great composer should be able to make a decent short sonata in the manner of Mozart without great difficulty. The real difficulty, of course, as with all art, is not merely to imitate the models of superior achievement of the past, but to create one's own forms--to invent and imagine novel ways of making, as additions to nature (and not merely adapted from nature). If we were to define "nature" in the Platonic sense as pre-existing all man's thoughts and discoveries about it, we might very well think of sonnets as inevitable poetic forms which can not be improved upon, and must be practiced and worn and ridden and slept inside of (like an old overcoat) forever and forever.

Do Shakespearean sonnets "get old" or obsolete? Does there come a time in history when we no longer think them formally "relevant" or meaningful as ultimate vehicles for the expression of sensibility? Does an immersion in the literature of the past suggest that there is a limited stock of forms, of ways of expressing ourselves in words, which, once completed, can never be added to or altered in the future? Critics have attempted to codify and prioritize poetic forms in the past, to make systems of valuation--make hierarchies of taste. Poe thought the dramatic narrative poem the highest form of literature; it was at the top of his pyramid. Few people today read narrative poems, though the form stubbornly survives. The novel, by contrast, thrives and has an almost unlimited audience.

Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments, love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove.
O no, it is an ever fixèd mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wand'ring bark,
Whose worth's unknown although his height be taken.
Love's not time's fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle's compass come,
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom:
If this be error and upon me proved,
I never writ, nor no man ever loved.

--Sonnet #116

My comparison of the sonnet form to a crossword puzzle will doubtless have detractors. What I'm not saying, of course, is that a Shakespearean sonnet is as pointless and random and trivial as intersecting grids of letters. What I am saying is that a form which completes itself or fulfills itself through the adherence to a strict formula of rhythmic and syllabic forms, unchanging (with minor departures) and unaltered through time, is probably no more compelling as the vehicle for creative writing, than a crossword puzzle is. In other words, no matter how good a sonnet written yesterday, may be, its ultimate meaning is first as a demonstration of mimicry and obedience, of imitation, not invention.

Poets who voluntarily relinquish the freedom to explore uncharted formal territory probably are withholding some portion of their sensibility, or have insufficient curiosity or perspicacity of mind to realize it. There are many "traditional" poets whom I admire immensely, but I recognize that the limit placed on one's creativity, by staying safely inside the property lines already demarcated by previous explorers and settlers, is a limitation that needn't be regarded as entirely necessary.

I continue to believe that the way we teach literature--particularly poetry--to children, both at home and in schools, skews how we grow up thinking about what poetic language can be. From the earliest ages, we parrot nursery-rhymes to children. Then in grammar school, and in church, they're fed the usual war-horses of jingling-jangling ballads and religious verse. By the time most people reach high school, the idea that a literary work might be more abstract and unfamiliar than a rocking horse is well beyond their range of expectation and belief. They're indoctrinated, in effect, with the notion that all poetry is sing-song-y and sweet, or humorous and trite. They've been dumbed down on poetry. It's only a short skip and a hop from this to the meretricious tripe of Billy Collins.


Kirby Olson said...

It's very difficult to distinguish Mozart from Salieri, especially for Salieri.

J said...
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J said...
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