Saturday, October 30, 2004

Letters to a Young Poet (V)

Writing is an act of telepathy: communication, mind-to-mind, across removes of time and space. Poetry as a subset of the written word tends to be used to communicate ideas and mental states—what Wordsworth called “emotion recollected in tranquility”—and that’s where we run into all sorts of problems. Why? It comes down to the untrustworthiness of language. Let's look at the problem, and at some strategies for overcoming it...

Five: Sensory Perception (and the Extra- Kind)

When you are trying to communicate, rather than merely to express, the abstract language of the kind that we usually use to render ideas is so subjective as to be effectively meaningless. The word love, in a poem, tells me nothing. I think I know what it means; You think you know what it means; But how can we agree upon the single word “love” as a shorthand for our individual experiences, given how inevitably different they will be?

The inherently slippery nature of language has paralyzed some writers. The early-20th c. German writer Hugo von Hofsmannthal famously moaned that every simple word has so many possible connotations to different readers that it’s impossible to be sure one is communicating anything.

In despair of ever being able to make himself understood with any certainty, von Hofmannsthal eventually gave up poetry, concentrating instead on writing plays on folk themes—counting on the familiarity of shared cultural signifiers to overcome the vagaries of language. We don’t need to go that far; But we do need to be aware of the weaknesses of language in expressing abstracts, and to compensate for them by playing to its strengths.

Stephen King, in his book On Writing, points us towards a solution. He invites us to imagine a table. On the table is a red tablecloth; on the tablecloth is a cage; in the cage is a white rabbit, eating a carrot; on the rabbit’s back is the numeral 8, marked in blue ink.

Do we see the same thing? We’d have to get together and compare notes to make absolutely sure, but I think we do. There will be necessary variations, of course: some receivers will see a cloth which is turkey red, some will see one that’s scarlet, while others may see still other shade. ... Some may see scalloped edges, some may see straight ones. Decorative souls may add a little lace, and welcome—my tablecloth is your tablecloth, knock yourself out.

Likewise, the matter of the cage leaves quite a bit of room for individual interpretation. ... [The passage] doesn’t tell us what sort of material the cage is made of—wire mesh? steel rods? glass?—but does it really matter? We all understand that the cage is a see-through medium; beyond that, we don’t care. The most interesting thing isn’t even the carrot-munching rabbit in the cage, but the number on its back. Not a six, not a four, not a nineteen-point-five. It’s an eight. This is what we’re looking at, and we all see it. I didn’t tell you. You didn’t ask me. I never opened my mouth, and you never opened yours. We’re not even in the same year together, let alone the same room... except we are together. We’re close.

D’you get the kicker here? King acknowledges all of Hofsmannthal’s discontents and objections, and then shrugs them off. Does it really matter? Obviously not. It is a crude magic, this telepathy, but with a passage like King’s, at least, it is pretty goddam effective. Why? Because King is talking in pictures—in sense-impressions, rather than emotional aggregates.

There, at last, is the crux. The great paradox of poetry is that specific, concrete, sensory images are a far better tool for conveying abstract emotional states than are the words for the abstract things themselves. Eliot called it the objective correlative: Uncle Bill summed it up as “no ideas but in things.” It amounts to the same hard truth—that you cannot effectively describe a thing in terms of itself. When you say, “I am me,” what you say may be technically correct, but you’re not actually telling me anything. But images, comparison, appeal to the senses—now you’re talking.

To say that the grind of work “cancels out all of my positivity” is a nothing-phrase, because it is so subjective—positivity may mean something different to me than to you. Specific sense-impressions, though, tend to be universal. When I say that the day sucks the iron out of my spine, you know what I mean in a way that doesn’t come across when I baldly state that it “neutralizes my ambition.” An image will get the job done even (perhaps especially) if it’s fanciful, or funny. My heart, a fluttering budgie in the birdcage of my ribs, however risible a line, at least makes me feel something, while an idea-word like love—or days, or thoughts, or dream, youth, life, or half-a-million others—just hangs there, like vapor, and has no impact whatsoever.

This is what we mean by “Show, don’t tell”—a phrase uttered by every writing teacher, but rarely explained properly.

Here’s how I first learned this hard truth. Years and years ago, when I were a young lad—probably about your age—I was in a the soul-deadening, exhausting work situation I’ve been using as an on-and-off example of a felt idea for poetry. I tried writing a song about it, but I never finished—because I ran into exactly the problem of how to translate emotional distress into words—but I remember how the first verse started, with a guitar riff rattling behind it like a big industrial press and a flow of word-pictures sketching the situation by implication:

Too many cups of coffee white and lo-cal sweet
I’m hanging from my skeleton like a side of meat
What’s holding me up man I don’t know
Maybe it’s the shoes—maybe it’s the aggro
I’m a broken nose looking for a face to land on
Working a lot harder than I ever planned on...
...and that’s exactly the line where I went off the rails, and the song started falling apart, losing whatever substance (very little, to be sure) that it may have had. What’s more, I realized why all the songs I’d been writing were so fucking terrible. Why? Because I was telling, not showing.

All over but the shouting now...

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