Tuesday, 17 August 2010

Counting the Words

Can you be an expert in a field you know nothing about?

This thought came to mind when I was reading Benjamin Markovits’ review of True Friendship, by Christopher Ricks (TLS 25/06/2010).

Ricks, a specialist on T.S. Eliot, writes in his current book about the influence of Eliot and Pound on three later poets– Anthony Hecht, Robert Lowell and Geoffrey Hill.

Whilst acknowledging the author’s ability at close reading, and his colossal recall, Markovits wonders if this is the right way to read poetry:

Larkin, They shake their heads; Hill, shake their sides; Yeats, To shake their wicked sides.
Larkin, plague; Yeats, plague. Hill, age; Yeats, middle-age, age. Hill, where; Yeats, Where, where. More loosely, Larkin’s horses and Hill’s; Yeats, The spur, to spur.

The author is picking up words and images used by one poet, and then finds their echoes in the poems of the other poets…. Thus a piece of art becomes merely a mosaic of language fragments; which can be rearranged at will. And although Markovits acknowledges the insights and subtlety of some of Ricks’ work, the overall impression is that the trivial has replaced the profound, that ornament has been mistaken for structure; and that the real core of a poem, its effect on our feelings, is replaced by mere words; an intellectual exercise. For the curious thing about poetry is that whilst the words are its material, and their texture and tonality give the poems their life, they are only the means to capture a reality outside of themselves; some feeling, an atmosphere. This is what Gauguin says in a different context:

Seeing this every day fills me with a sensation of struggle for survival, of melancholy and acquiescence in implacable laws. I am attempting to put this sensation down on canvas, not by chance, but quite deliberately, perhaps by exaggerating certain rigidities of posture, certain dark colours etc… All this is perhaps mannered but what is natural in art? Ever since the most distant times, everything in art has been completely deliberate, a product of convention…

He writes a lot here about surface ornament – of colour, of shape and form, of convention – but they have a purpose that goes beyond their physical qualities: their arrangement must capture that particular sensation at Le Pouldu. If you were to write just about Gauguin’s influences, his collection of postcards and artefacts, that he used to model postures and structure design, however interesting in itself that maybe, you would nevertheless miss the point of his art – to paint a specific sensation.

In his marvellous critical survey of Eliot, The New Poetic, C.K Stead has the following quote, to demonstrate the essence of his poetry:

For the items are united by the accord, contrast, and interaction of their emotional effects, not by an intellectual scheme that analysis must work out. The value lies in the unified response which this interaction creates in the right reader. (I.A. Richards)

Stead himself sums up nicely:

Eliot clearly meant what he said… when he argued that poetry could communicate even before it was understood…. he was acknowledging that the experience of his poetry is foremost an aural, emotional experience, one which approximates to music; and that an “intellectual” apparatus can easily impede a full and unified experience of the poetry.

Rick’s has not listened to his master, but appears to do exactly what Eliot warned against, taking apart that unity, to compare and contrast individual fragments, words and phrases; transforming a poem into a table of statistics, which you raid for patterns and trends…. But does the fact that Hill, Hecht and Lowell share some words and images tell us anything at all about the actual poems? Ok, ok, just a bit, perhaps; but then couldn’t you do the same thing on Simon Schama or Agatha Christie? Interestingly, the reviewer writes that Ricks’ method tells us nothing about the quality of the poem: it is merely a comparative analysis, that deals with the surface phenomena. For an artist, though, there will usually be some judgement of the work; which will arise instinctively from their own physical response to the object before them .

Markovits finishes well:

He is listening for echoes but forgets that the first noise a poem makes is often the more significant.

Noise is a good word: that immediate reaction of half-comprehension mixed with vague feelings and a spark of energy! Writing about these effects, and keeping as close to the poem as possible, is much more difficult than analysing the language patterns. And the field may already be exhausted. Stead comments on the perspicacity of Eliot’s early critics, who understood what was going on in his work; and contrasts this with later writers who took a much more analytical or discursive approach. A poem is a small thing, of a tightly packed piece of reality enclosed within a fixed number of lines. But analysis is a whole library of theory and textural acumen…

The poem itself is a physical manifestation (this was the key insight of Eliot and the modernists), and is close to the original feeling that prompted it, and thus the amount of textural analysis to get to its essence will be limited. To use an analogy. A woman gets angry over a sexual remark. To understand the incident may take a little work, you would have to interview the participants, but once all the facts are in there will be a definite limit to what you can say about the actual emotion; its causes and consequences. However, if you want to talk about wider matters, of gender politics and societal change, or the ambiguities of language, the analysis can, in fact will, become endless; and at some point the incident will be left behind; and will have no further impact on the discussion (eg. an anthropological paper on offensive remarks between cultures may only cite general rules, with no reference to individual cases).

In Art and Life I wrote about the links between Modernism and the changes in society, looking particularly at its idea of art as an organic unity; and its belief that our responses to poems and paintings are fundamentally non-rational. Those insights came from highly intelligent individuals who were at the same time artists; and who were aware of the role of feelings and instinct in the production of their work. However, since then the technological and commercial pressures they were resisting have increased, along with the ideologies that go with them. This has affected both the arts and art criticism – essentially a university subject now. It is almost inevitable that this will change our views on art and poetry; and that the very thing I.A. Richards warned against will come to pass:

We can, of course, make a ‘rationalization’ of the whole experience, as we can of any experience. If we do, we are adding something which does not belong to the poem.

Richard Lewontin explains what’s going on (although the intellectual history is a little more complicated, I think, than this simple dualism – I explore it a little in Art and Life).

We have become so used to the atomistic machine view of the world that originated with Descartes that we have forgotten that it is a metaphor. We no longer think, as Descartes did, that the world is like a clock. We think it is a clock. We cannot imagine an alternative view unless it be one that goes back to a pre-scientific era. For those who are dissatisfied with the modern world and dislike the artefacts of science, the pollution, the noise, the industrial world, the overmechanized medical care… for people who want to go back to nature and the good old ways, the response has been to return to a description of the world as an indissoluble whole that we murder to dissect. For them, there is no use in trying to break anything down into parts as we inevitably lose the essence, and the best we can do is treat the world holistically.

The isolating of words and images, and putting them back together again in different combinations. Does this sound familiar? Ricks has so absorbed the mechanistic worldview that he reduces the poem to a machine; the parts of which he manipulates at will, and quite easily – words become cogs, and the poems a system of interlocking wheels; and our critic the friendly engineer as he rolls us down the tracks.

But Lewontin has a much wider point: the reaction to the mechanistic ideology was also wrong. You cannot treat the world as one complete whole, which cannot be broken down at all – it’s not true, and if we try to do so, we will lose our ability to understand it. Thus modernism had its own ideology that rested on its own myths, which need to be criticised. I think this is true to a large degree, providing we stay on the intellectual level. However, if we look at the actual art object, then I think the artists are right: it is our physical experience of poem that is important; and this cannot be broken down at all. Eg. When we eat a cooked aubergine it is one complete act (this view is supported by Hume), whose actual physical experience cannot be separated out. Of course, later, inside our minds, we can break this act down, and separate out the parts and analyse them. That is, we have taken that one act and turned it into an idea, which we can isolate and then manipulate, recombining in as many ways that our ability allows. And this is the problem for art criticism. Do we want to play intellectual games, with no or little reference to the art object, or do we want an understanding of a poem that goes beyond the merely physical experience of it, and which will require some rationalisation; to isolate some of its content in order to analyse imagery and texture.

Lewontin has some ideas.

The problem is to construct a third view, one that sees the entire world neither as an indissoluble whole nor with the equally incorrect, but currently dominant, view that at every level the world is made up of bits and pieces that can be isolated and that have properties can be studied in isolation. Both ideologies, one that mirrors the pre-modern feudal social world, and the other that mirrors the modern competitive individualist entrepreneurial one, prevent us from seeing the full richness of interaction in nature.

We have to inhabit the borderlands between these two ideologies. But for most people, raised and nurtured in the dominant culture, and who are doomed to ingest and regurgitate its myths and assumptions, this will prove an almost impossible task.

So who can do it? The mavericks and non-conformists? In art perhaps, it can only be the poets and artists themselves; or some strange critics who have that peculiar feel and touch…

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