Punctuation in Poetry

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Punctuation in Poetry

Gardeners

when three bearded men
unbury winter’s bones they pick
at old wood scars dead trees and
their limbs now lying there lifeless

they dig deep at flowerbeds
uprooting a riot of Japanese
Knot Weed untangling roots
all tangled and twisted with
Bees’ Balm and perennials
that stray across borders
unwelcome immigrants neither
barriers nor fences can possibly hold

they probe between flag-
stones where wintering birds
and squirrels and chipmunks
cracked the seeds and wild weeds
that grow there and flourish

but where would the land be
and what would it accomplish
without helping hands
and the power of strong fingers
and fresh eyes that spot those
intruders who diminish
the space where good flowers
grow strong with fresh herbs
chives and oregano basil
and parsley peppermint sweet
crushed beneath feet

Comment: I posted this poem yesterday. It’s another raw poem. On re-reading it, I found it confusing. To punctuate or not to punctuate, that was my question. I decided to rewrite it and use punctuation. Here’s the new version.

Gardeners

Three bearded boys unbury
winter’s bones. They pick
at old wood scars, dead trees and
their limbs now lying lifeless.

They dig deep at flowerbeds
uprooting a riot of Japanese
Knot Weed, untangling roots
all tangled and twisted:
Bees’ Balm, Cape Daisies,
and quick-growing weeds
that run across borders,
unwelcome migrants
that barriers can’t hold.

They flourish between flag-stones
where wintering birds,
squirrels, and chipmunks
cracked seeds from the feeders.

Where would the land be,
and what would it accomplish
without helping hands,
the power of strong fingers
that pluck out the intruders
that infringe on the spaces
where proper plants grow
unthreatened by weeds?

Second Comment: Both versions work, but in different ways. The first version is more spontaneous and less logical. It allows thought and image to freely flow, but there’s some repetition and a certain lack of clarity. It does allow the  reader to be creative and to seek for alternate meanings and choose the combinations that please the most. The second version is more logical and expresses a slightly different train of thought. Punctuation forces revision and a revision that punctuates demands good grammar, less freedom of speech. The result is a tighter, much closer expression. By extension, the need to punctuate also demands more thought, more concision. Needless words are eliminated. Better combinations are possible. In addition, I find the rhythm becomes more prominent, but less spontaneous. To punctuate or not to punctuate: only the poet can decide, but any comments will be most welcome.

.

My Favorite Book

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My Favorite Book

Last night, my writing group threw the table open for discussion on ‘my favorite book’. I listened as each member of the group came up with a title or two and then chose a book that was ‘the favorite’. When my turn came, I was last, they all turned to me, but I remained silent for a long time and then: “I can’t do it,” I said. “I bet it’s got windmills in,” one person remarked, thinking of my propensity of frequently quoting Cervantes’s Don Quixote as a model when literary discussions arise. Indeed, Don Quixote might be my favorite book, but is it?

Let us begin with the concept of book. Is a book something contained between two covers or could it be a series of books? For example, does one choose between The Chronicles of Narnia or must one select The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe over The Silver Chair? Is one free to choose The Lord of the Rings, or must one prefer The Two Towers, say, to The Return of the King? By extension, where exactly does The Hobbit stand, as a book, in book form, in relationship to the later and longer series? Or The Silmarion? Again, can we roll them all together, a series of books under the cover of one book, a favorite book?

The idea of favorite author versus favorite book then surfaced and we discussed Georgette Heyer, John LeCarré, equally loved and loathed, Jane Austen, the Bronte’s, J. K. Rowling, and William Shakespeare. The mention of Shakespeare led us into plays as reading material and plays as performance, and performance as on stage or on film. One of our members loved Shakespeare on film and TV, but didn’t like reading Shakespeare, because it was ‘difficult to read and needed the interpretation of the actor for the meaning to come across’. This same person did not like LeCarré’s books, but was very appreciative of his work on film. Where does George Smiley begin and Alec Guinness end, one asks? How can we separate the character from the actor? Applied to James Bond, who is James Bond? Is he Sean Connery (totally unique and my personal favorite), Roger Moore (better for me in the role of Simon Templar, The Saint), or one of the later and newer actors who have taken over the role? By extension, should James Bond be played by a black actor (why ever not I ask?), and could (oh horror of horrors!), a female actor take over that role (I’d love to see it … “I’m Bond. Jane Bond!”)?

This led us into the art of the narrative and the relationship between book as narrative and film as narrative. Clearly they are two different forms of media, but how do they influence each other? The book obviously comes first. We can talk of the seventeenth century novel, but it is difficult to talk of the seventeenth century film. So, the linear narrative of the book comes first and then that book is turned into a film. However, a film contains its own narratives structures and these include multiple points of view, split screens, flashbacks and time distortions, and a multiplicity of other devices among which the actual scenic impact is of the utmost importance. For most of us, the nineteenth century novel (no radio and no television for entertainment in those days) is long drawn out and very slow moving. We miss the instantaneous impact of screen and TV with the breaks for advertisements and the time to recharge our coffee cups and snacks. This leads us to our own attention spells as readers and our own demands for the instant gratification of a thrill a minute. “Hook them on page one and addict them by page three,” one person commented to many nods from around the table.

But the mention of Don Quixote also takes us into other areas. In this age of bi- and multi-lingualism, do we prefer to read our books in one language rather than in an another? Don Quixote in Spanish or French or English? And which translation? There are some twenty translations of Don Quixote into English. Is one preferable to another? Which is more accurate in the terms of a translation? Which reads more easily in terms of a re-creation in artistic form of the original? Should we prefer an English-English translation to an American-English translation? And where oh where is the Australian, Indian, Pakistani, South African, Canadian, Irish, or Welsh translator who will justify that famous text in his own country’s rendition of what used to be called the King or the Queen’s English?

Don Quixote, according to the great Spanish literary critics, is a book for the three ages of life. Readers should read it when they are young, when they are middle aged, and when they are approaching old age. Why? Because one’s reading and understanding of the book changes as one grows older. If this is true, then can we not expect to have books that we preferred at an earlier age in life, The House at Pooh Corner, for example, or The Wind in the Willows? And what about our early teens (adolescence), our early twenties (university years)? The idea of our being able to choose a ‘favorite book’ becomes less and less clear as we open up our minds to the broader horizon of tastes that change as we age and mature.

You will have noted that, with the exception of Shakespeare, we concentrated on the twin ideas of fiction and narrative, be it in word or on the screen. What about poetry? Five major critics met at the Modern Language Association of America’s meeting held one year in the University of Toronto and held a panel discussion in which they discussed why and how they had been attracted to the foreign language that they had studied. In four of the five cases, it was the poetry of the language, not the theatre or the narrative, that had pulled them in. Last night, we did not discuss poetry.

When we bring poetry to the table, we open a different discussion. We rarely read and appreciate ‘books of poetry’. With a few notable exceptions, it is individual poems and poets that attract our attention, rather than entire books or collections. And what is it about poetry that attracts us? Surely, it is the power, not of situation nor of action, but of language. It is the sheer power of language and the thrill of words that draws us to poetry. Perhaps that is why, in an age of impatience, we have less time for immersion in the magic spell of words and their undercurrents of subtle meanings. As a friend of mine sad to me, the day before yesterday, “I started your poetry book, Obisdian’s Edge, but it was too deep for me, too difficult. I gave up on it. I needed something simpler to read.”

Comment: This article should be read in association with an earlier piece in this blog (15 July 2016) on My Top Ten Books.

Writing Groups: Thursday Thoughts

 

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Writing Groups
Thursday Thoughts
11 May 2017

We write in solitude.

We cannot group-write with a second person suggesting the second word and a third person, the third word. This leads only to the Third Word War or the Third Word Whore, as some would express it.

To write is to be alone. It is to sit alone before a blank page and watch it slowly fill with the black ants that we form into thoughts. With pen or pencil we trace the Morse Code SOS of our Mayday signals. We gather them into groups, press them between cardboard covers, and we send them out to sea in little bottles. Then we sit back and wait, hoping to contact intelligent and compatible life that will approve our efforts and perhaps offer to publish our writing.

We must not confuse the act of writing with the act of sharing.

In many cases, to share is to seek approval. But this is not always true. We sometimes share in the hopes that a listener will suggest improvements to our writing. I think of this as ‘sharing from weakness’. We are unsure of our sharing self and we seek confirmation and reinforcement. We also seek the reassurance that the second person or the third actually has a better vision than the writer and can improve that writer’s offering. How confident are we in our own writing when we constantly look for approval?

Sometimes, our sharing is in an act of defiance. We organize our black ant army. We form it into battalions. We launch them at the enemy and “Take that you bastards,!” we think as we read out our thoughts. Occasionally, our sharing is an act of self-praise. We know it’s good and we want others to realize just how good this piece is and how good we are. Auto-homenaje (Spanish): an act done in praise of oneself.

The act of sharing can be private and confidential. This is when we gather with a group of friends to share our thoughts and creations. This is most useful, in my opinion, at the beginning of a writer’s career. Writers have to become independent. They have to learn to shake off the shackles of doubts, second and third opinions, and the rewriting that comes from the mind of an outside reader. Writers have to learn to stand alone and to write alone. This is where the public reading comes in.

To read in public, as in an open reading given before an audience of unknown faces, is a different proposition. We are relatively confident when we share with our friends. We are not so confident when we read in public. We must be confident in ourselves and our words if we are to stand before strangers and expose ourselves, our strengths and our weaknesses, to those who may not love us and some who may actually hate us, looking for any defect, any chink in our written armor.

Beyond writing, yet enclosed within it, is the writer’s desire to be recognized and published. If we are writers, we want our works to be known and read. We want to be published. Even when we know we are not ready to be published or worthy to be seen in print, we like to imagine ourselves preparing that great tome or slender volume of verses that one day will project us into the realms of glory when it finally sees the light of day.

Yet we cannot publish alone. Or can we? Desk-top publishing on our own computer is easy to do. Format the work, print it out, take it to the photocopy machine, copy it multiple times, staple the resulting pages together and we have … a book. But are we satisfied with those morsels of paper that we hand out to our friends? Some people are, many are not.

Let us look at an alternate route: we hand the book over to a press that edits the writing, does all the copying work for us, chooses a cover, binds the book, gives us twenty free copies, and hands us an enormous bill … some are happy with that; again, others are not.

Let us examine another route: we find an online company that will do all (or most) of that for free. All we have to do is market our work … again, some are happy with that; others are not.

Mal de todos, consuelo de tontos. This is a delightful Spanish phrase. It means that when everyone is travelling in the same ship of sorrows, only fools are consoled by the fact that we all share the same fate. Perhaps that’s why writers gather together in groups and perch, like autumn swallows preparing to migrate, on chairs in a drawing room at somebody’s house or gather together in a disreputable, but cheap, coffee house to read, discuss, share, and endlessly talk about the works that never get published.

“You just got rejected? What a pity. I just did too. Let’s compare rejection letters. Paper your walls with them, my friend.”

The carrot that we all seek is the pot of gold at the rainbow’s end that contains the winning lottery ticket: a letter from a publisher offering to publish the book we have written. An Old Welsh Recipe for rabbit pie begins with these wise words: “First catch your rabbit.” The same wisdom must be applied to writers: “First, write your book.”

When the book is written, to the satisfaction of the writer, then, only then, let the networking begin. Then we can reach out to the community. Then we can read in public. Then we can seek out that elusive publisher and follow our own thirty-nine steps to success.

Bu, in the meantime, remember, never forget, we write in solitude.

Hyperbole: Wednesday Workshop

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Hyperbole

It is no exaggeration to say that Hyperbole is one of the most exciting and fascinating aspects of rhetoric.

At its most basic, hyperbole means exaggeration. When we start to explore the term, however, it means oh so much more.

Looking up synonyms for hyperbole, for example, we find the following: exaggeration, hype, metaphors, overstatement, amplification, coloring, distortion, embellishment, enlargement, magnification, PR, big talk, embroidering, laying it on thick, making a mountain out of a molehill, tall talk.

But let’s not stop there. Merriam Webster offers this as a definition: The representation of something in terms that go beyond the facts. “Enough food to feed a whole army” is a common example of hyperbole. Here are some more suggested synonyms, with a few overlaps: caricature, coloring, elaboration, embellishment, embroidering, embroidery, exaggeration, magnification, overstatement, padding, and stretching. Related words include: amplification, enhancement, fabrication, misrepresentation, fudging, hedging, hype, puffery, plum-mcduffery, and superlative.

The Power Thesaurus suggests that there are over 263 synonyms for hyperbole. It offers 14 pages of them. Here is the start of page one:

exaggeration / image, parallel, flower

overstatement / exaggeration, adornment, coloring

metaphor / exaggeration

embellishment / exaggeration, excess, decoration

distortion / exaggeration

magnification / exaggeration, fancy, line.

We could go on and on and on with this, world without end, secuale seculorum, for ever and ever, and all that, without exaggeration. The point is clear, we have more than enough definitions here to fill several rather large books and clearly, without being too catty about it, it would take at least nine lifetimes to read and understand them all.

Meanwhile, hyperbole possesses an adjective: hyperbolical. This is sometimes confused with the term hyperbolic which in turn is occasionally confused with the term hyperbollocks, as in the saying: “this article is, without embellishment or exaggeration, a load of hyperbollocks.”

Chuck Bowie comments: “Down the road, I hope we get to see your take on how to employ this useful tool without reducing the document to caricature.”

Roger Replies: Thank you for your comment, Chuck. I think that the application of hyperbole to a literary text or an image within a text depends entirely on the individual author. As authors and human beings, even in our daily speech and our interactions with other people, we can and do exaggerate. How we apply hyperbole to our structures and stories and characters is very individual. Clearly there must be a balance between emphasis (potentially good) and over-exaggeration (potentially bad, but with strong potential for parody and comedy), but so much depends on the individual situation. A stylistic analysis of each instance will reveal if the hyperbole is excessive. However, in my opinion, that necessitates the presence of a text, rather than a doctrinal theory about ‘how to do it’. The easiest way might be to analyze a text or two and see how hyperbole functions in specific circumstances. Certainly, as you so rightly note in the above comment, hyperbole can be used for comic purposes, as I have done in my article. Its overuse can both be criticized and parodied. An interesting study, with the seeds of a doctoral thesis planted therein, would be to demonstrate how, in Don Quixote, Cervantes moves from a hyperbolic parody of his character to a truer understanding of the essential dynamics of the main characters’ essential personalities. If I were fifty years younger, I might start that doctoral thesis.  Alas, within the self-imposed parameters of  this blog, there is neither time nor space. We can continue this conversation at our leisure. Thank you for responding.

Picaresque Novels

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The Picaresque Novel
Wednesday Workshop
3 May 2017

The Picaresque Novel

             Think of a pendulum: at one end of the swing, we have the pastoral novel and the novel of chivalry. The knights errant meet shepherds and shepherdesses on their travels, and all are cultured and can read and write. The main characters, heroes and heroines, if you wish, express high ideals and maintain a cultured standard of thought and living. The knights, in particular, follow the path of chivalry and defend the poor and maidens in distress. The ladies, especially the shepherdesses, are all ‘as pure as driven snow’ and they go to their graves, in the immortal words of Miguel de Cervantes, ‘as virgin as the mothers who bore them’.

            At the other end of the pendulum swing and positioned there partly in contrast to the ‘perfect society’ of knights, shepherds, and shepherdesses, we find the picaresque novel. Most pícaros are men, though female pícaras do exist (la pícara Justina, for example), and the pícaro is an anti-hero. He writes in the first person singular and tells the story of his survival in the lower ranks of a corrupt and impoverished society.

            Wikipedia phrases it this way: “The picaresque novel (Spanish “picaresca,” from “pícaro,” for “rogue” or “rascal”) is a genre of prose fiction that depicts the adventures of a roguish hero or heroine of low social class who lives by his or her wits in a corrupt society. Picaresque novels typically adopt a realistic style, with elements of comedy and satire. This style of novel originated in 16th-century Spain and flourished throughout Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries. It continues to influence modern literature.”

            Lazarillo de Tormes, considered by many to be the first picaresque novel, was written in Spain and three editions appeared in 1554. Lazarillo is given by his mother to a blind man who agrees to look after the young boy in return for the boy’s services as a guide. Even today, a person who guides a blind man is still called a lazarillo in some places. The book describes the life of Lazarillo as he moves from master to master until he eventually establishes himself ‘at the peak of all happiness and the height of his career’ as the local town-crier, married to a cast-off woman with whom the celibate village priest has created three children.

             Lazarillo de Tormes, a book that never uses the term pícaro, establishes the basic rules for the genre. (1) It is an autobiography, or pseudo-autobiography, of the main character. (2) That character leads a peripatetic life, wandering from master to master, usually at the bottom end of society, but sometimes working in the kitchen or lower service of the great. (3) The picaresque novel also contains elements of humor and satire and in some cases, Guzmán de Alfarache, for example, has a moralizing purpose that is used to justify the immorality of the book.

            The church did not receive the picaresque novel well, especially when the satire and humor were aimed at the church. In the Lazarillo, for example, Lazarillo works for a seller of Papal Bulls who sets up an elaborate and deceitful charade in order to increase his sales. This charade involves a friend who poses as a doubter, is then cursed and goes into a fit, but recovers almost immediately with the blessing of the Papal Bull. Lazarillo de Tormes was censored by the Inquisition and appeared in an even shorter version that was called El Lazarillo Castigado, Lazarillo Punished, with all unwholesome references to the church removed.

            Perhaps the most famous picaresque novel, after Lazarillo, was El Buscón / The Swindler. It was written by Francisco de Quevedo in 1601 and circulated in manuscript form until it was published, illegally I should add, in 1627. The novel was so scandalous that it was denounced to the Inquisition and Quevedo often denied writing it. His intricate and heavily conceited style is inimitable, however, and the book contains several references to his own life. It is difficult imagining any other person as author.

            Wikipedia translates pícaro as ‘rogue’ or ‘rascal’ and this illustrates the pleasant and humorous scallywag style that the character often has. However, the darker, more murderous side of the pícaro emerges more clearly when ‘swindler’ (Penguin Translation) or a stronger term is used. In this fashion, the pícaro (rascal or rogue) can be associated with Tom Jones or Oliver Twist, while his darker, more reprehensible side may be associated with by Bill Sykes or Fagin himself.

            More important, perhaps, is the long life that the picaresque has had in Western Literature as the traveler, the journeyer, the observer, the young man who is ‘down and out’,  works his way across the land, surviving, adventuring and commentating.

Algorithms

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Algorithms
Wednesday Workshop
26 April 2017

I want to begin by confessing that I don’t know what they are. Algorithm: it sounds like a word pulled out of a lexicographer’s top hat or a question from a Grade 9 Spelling Bee.

“May I have the definition?”

“Certainly: it’s ‘a step-by-step procedure for solving a problem or accomplishing some end especially by a computer’ …” (Merriam-Webster).

Before we go any further, please watch this brief, very explicit (self-explaining, sorry) video.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oP3c1h8v2ZQ

So, if I understand the video correctly, an algorithm, applied to literature, is a program that (a) analyses the structure of texts and (b) establishes whether or not a specific text follows the necessary steps or procedures for that text to become (b.1) a best seller or (b.2) an acceptable potential book in which an investor (aka publisher) could or should invest his / her money.

Where does this leave us as writers? We have spoken before about the Guardians at the Gates and the Judges who determine our fate when we enter literary competitions (see below)

https://rogermoorepoet.com/2016/05/31/winning-not-whining/

Suddenly, these Guardians are no longer fallible flesh and blood but infallible wires, nuts, and bolts joined by electronic circuits.

So, we have a story. Right? Right length. Right theme. We think it is good. We submit it to an editorial house. What happens next? Well, it depends. A major house won’t touch it unless put forward by an agent. No agent? It molders to a prolonged, slow, very slow death on someone’s desk. Electronic submission? Wait a minute. Some secretary may read the first five pages and find them good. Then, your submission may be sent to Death by Algorithm.

How is that algorithm prepared? Thousands of best-sellers and classics are fed into the computer program, analyzed, sorted into lines and curves, highs and lows … then your manuscript is fed in. If its computerized profile matches their computerized profile (the algorithm) then BINGO … you may have a foothold on the first rung of the lowest ladder that leads to winning the literary lottery!

Or not.

What can we, as writers, do about this? Absolutely nothing. We must believe in ourselves. We must believe in our writing. We must keep on writing. We must publish where and when we can … and, above all, along with Albert Camus and Sisyphus and his rock, il faut imaginer l’écrivain heureux / we must pretend that, as writers, we are happy.

And that, ladies and gentlemen and others, is a pretty sorry state of affairs and a pretty lousy (but very interesting) piece of translation.

Three Unities

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The Three Unities
Wednesday Workshop
19 April 2017

The Three Unities

The Three Classical Unities are those of Time, Place, and Action. They are usually associated with classical theatre. It is worth remembering that, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, when poetry and theatre ruled the artistic world of the west, the novel was relatively undeveloped and narrative form was concentrated in epic poetry. In fact, one of Cervantes’s greatest innovations was to draw a parallel between the modern narrative, as he developed it, and epic poetry. “También la épica puede escribirse en prosa,” he wrote in Don Quixote, I, 47. ‘Epic poetry may also be written in prose.’ Lyric and epic poetry had a different construct to the theatre, so it is really the classic theatre that we are discussing here, rather than poetry and prose, though all forms of creativity benefit from a knowledge and understanding of the three unities. Let us look at these unities one by one.

Unity of Time: The play should take place within a time frame of a day, twenty-four hours. This concentrates the action at the moment of maximum impact, or crisis, when the major decisions are being taken. In order to fill in the background details of what happened before, a confidant is often used, especially in French theatre, and this confidential person, or adviser, assists the main characters in coming to their decisions by providing missing background information.

Unity of Place: The play should take place in the same house, as a minimum, and preferably in the same room of the house. This limits travel, and the wanderings of Odysseus, for example, would be impossible in the classical theatre. This is a restriction that was blown away by epic poetry. The narrative forms also rejected this type of unity as they developed, and contemporary film, with its total mobility really reduces Unity of Place to the realms of history and the Absurd.

Unity of Action: All action within the play should be subordinated to the main plot and the main characters. There should be only one plot, but a minor plot is permitted provided it echoes, mirrors, and reflects upon the main plot. Unity of action is interesting in that, to a certain extent, it has remained with us. Television shows, especially police and crime shows, may have multiple actions, but they all link together to form a pattern of events that are linked within a series of unified patterns. It is these patterns of unified action that so often reveal the criminal.

Unity of Theme: Spanish classical theatre, under the watchful eye of Lope de Vega, broke all the unities as established above, but created a new unity: unity of theme. This, too, has demonstrated its longevity and is still with us. Thematic unity is common to all forms of literature and is a binding thread in poetry and prose, theatre, film, and novel. Unity of theme suggests that beneath the surface movement of the art work, there is a thematic unity, a set of deeper ideas, if you like, that provides links to all the action and thought.

Closely linked to these four unities is what I call Unity of Language. Unity of Language is consistent within characters, the way they speak, the way they use language. It is also consistent within a poem or a book. Sometimes it is based on the concept of Associative Fields according to which each word is surrounded by a series of associations (the Associative Field) that links words to each other at one level and to a central theme at another level. The use of Associative Fields is greatest in poetry and those forms of writing that base themselves on poetical repetition. In fact, the Associative Field may be looked upon as a form of repetition that provides emphasis by repeating a theme while avoiding the repetition of the same word within that theme.

I look on the development of art and culture as akin to the movement of a pendulum on a grandfather clock. On one side, let’s call it the right, the pendulum demands rules, immutable rules, and writers that stick to those rules. On the other side, let’s call it the left, there are no rules and chaos reigns in a creative land where the broken rule is the law of the day.

Classicism, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, was followed by Neo-Classicism, in the Eighteenth Century, and this was an even more stultified form than classicism itself. The Romantic Movement, on the other hand, broke the rules of Classicism and brought energy and freedom to all forms of art. As Victor Hugo said: “J’ai mis un bonnet rouge sur le vieux dictionnaire.” ‘I have place a red [French revolutionary] bonnet on the old dictionary.”  Romanticism is Revolution. In art, we need regular revolutions. The next major revolution is always just around the corner. Or, as the pendulum theory suggests, maybe the next revolution, waiting just around the corner, is a swing of the pendulum back from freedom (Romanticism) to restraint  (Classicism).

Certainly we modern authors may exercise our choices in a way that older authors could not. We can and should be aware of all that has gone before us. Knowing the traditions from which we write allows us to write better and to choose better, taking or rejecting that which we want and that which suits us best in our own artistic endeavours.