The Poetic Title
Wednesday, 18 July 2012 at 18:00
The Poetic Title
Titles in poetry, unlike other assemblies, are not meant to accurately describe what follows. The title of women and men in corporate and public life also answers to the question What do you do? all titles are meant to inform: clear a way toward a mutual understanding; introduce a possible new approach of interest in a subject: claim an opening transparency or superiority; put firmly in a box of money, or class, or education. Titles like these seem to me to be filters.
The title Marketing Director, South East Asia really does explain very simply the ability, geographic area and seniority of the woman or man that walks that international stage. It also supplies a slightly suppressed but eagerly signalled state of the corporate body that has employed such a person. Clearly South East Asia since it is a limited, albeit vast region hints at other regions were Marketing Directors might enthrone themselves. The Corporation behind the employees title dances enthusiastically at its global penetration.
Here is another title that leaves nothing to the imagination Regis Professor of Philosophy, Cambridge University and yet somehow leaves everything to the imagination since only very few people understand what being The Regis Professor of Philosophy, Cambridge University could possibly be like. Once again location is supremely important this time for different reasons. Partly a snobbery of intellectual glitter rather than global reach, but the seniority and description of labour mirrors the Corporate approach.
I suppose the first title was Leader.
Titles like these encourage speculation, swiftly followed by elaboration, for instance: King, Prince, Chamberlain, General…King of the Belgians, Prince of Wales etc. That titles have endured with a vengeance is indisputable: Best Buy: 2 for 1: Holby City: even down to letters alone, BBC, CNN. Perhaps everything written or spoken is a title: Human, Animal, Plant, in which case all conveyance of knowledge can be reduced to a title for that is all we need.
An expression came into use about two decades ago ‘too much information’, used socially to indicate boredom it also exposes a dilemma in our teeming worlds. Once information, of any kind, was priceless, since hardly anything was widely known, now it is commonplace. So what we now find priceless information cannot, any longer, be kept secret. Since huge amounts of interesting information is known all we are left with are concealed lives, atomic physics, cosmology and food recipes. We are drowning in a surfeit of information titled for us so we can digest it all. Our alimentary cultural tract is being developed in such a way that we may be en-titled to consume everything.
If one thinks of titles as frames then they both present or make presentable and simultaneously hold. So a good title will not detract from the body of work it presents but a clever title can also conceal content that has no merit. This is particularly true of poetry. The oblique ‘The Bible’ which tells us nothing about what to expect but rather delivers the idea of an instruction manual or ‘Anna Karenina’ which tells you everything you need to know before you begin but conveys nothing of the content. In this way there is an uncanny relationship between a title and a stills photograph.
The fact that published photographs are almost always titled or captioned is in direct relationship to the medium. Photographs mostly depict a moment, in a particular location, (a located urgency) made in a fraction of a second at a very specific time and containing, mostly, recognizable objects. If the stills photographs of Bergen-Belsen had been presented to the public, as they were in 1945, without any title the effect would have been a frustrating intensity but the photograph would have been more aptly described as a piece of ‘work’. Photography has undermined the word to such an extent that shortly there will only be images accompanied by a title. Baudelaire saw this when he cursed Daguerre and his ‘glass traps’.
Photographs demand information and once this obligation is delivered all photographs become politicised. With poetry this cannot be the case unless deliberately manipulated. With poetry, avoiding descriptive titles can also reveal content. A poem about a Vatican Cardinal who hangs himself in a cool, marbled, colonnaded room, consumed by jealousy and desire, is titled ‘Tranquillity’. Desire has no history. Immediately foregrounded, continually replacing its titanic demands that swell and recede, where tranquillity can make no arrangements; a title of this nature can only suggest finality or resolution. Yet the title gives nothing but once the poem is read and absorbed it makes the point, it declares its own sovereignty; the stanzas stuffed with adjectives and adverbs, fullness, stillness, absorption, silence, meditation. The irony of the title, describing the state, rather than the event has a ponderous lucidity. Unlawful financial procedures, moral turpitude, arcane horrors – all these indices confront the title’s ambiguity.
In another short observation (elsewhere on this blog) of Seamus Heaney’s poem titled ‘Stern’ layer upon layer of motifs and tricks wriggle in our grasp. The title contributes so much to the poem that it is absorbed into it.
In poetry the success of a title is always an inflation for the simple reason that the title avers to the poet not the poem. The title is what the poet thinks, the poem is what the poet feels. In fact the title of a poem is a second ‘poem’ exemplified by some poets who run on the title into the first line of the poem as though the poet has refused to give the title a separate existence.
Titles then become crowns, denoting sanction, a fact that has not been overlooked by the advertising industry.
Friday, 27 January 2012 at 12:31
I feel we have reached a decisive moment, or rather a moment of decision. I don’t mean a moment I mean a passage. But then all passages of time become, eventually, decisive.
How many millennia passed between the fully established practice of flaking that hard shiny flint, its use in skinning and butchery and weapon heads, and the smelting of bronze? A principle was established, utilitarian, pragmatic and uncomplicated and the principle went unchanged for thousands of years. Nothing changed. In that period of roughly 2.1 m years the flake ruled supreme. It made the weapons, the skinning tool, the butcher’s knife, it traded, struck fire, created skills, proposed a logic, trained minds, educated, explored and finally pointed a way toward a fresh principle; bones, a heavier mammalian artillery. This principle lasted, in comparison, an extremely short time, replaced soon enough by the Bronze age.
I mention this only to illustrate the principle of the Principle.
The principle, to begin with, is never noticed, always peripheral, its nature, its force, is to become habitual. This habit forming gives a burgeoning energy to the periphery that is then noticed and given central dominant focus and instantly acquired. This becomes a new principle. Simplicity gives way to complexity as new principles multiply and are adopted. The displaced principle carries a charge however and remains in place although much diminished in energy.
Poetry is built like this. Literature, culture, society.
‘New forms in art are created by the canonization of peripheral forms,’
said Viktor Shklovsky who was applying it to the Soviet cultural habit of ignoring mistakes instead of learning by them as if his effortless mechanical formalism applied to poetry alone. If you take out ‘…in art…’ the peripheral forms that come into focus can be anything, tools, ideas, insights, imaginative processes and of course principals.
The Principle is only a set of rules, a matrix laid down by its own logic. The principle builds itself; the rules are not applied by an exterior mind. The principles by which we function are so vast in number that to comply with the rules many of the actions have to be more or less self motivated. We do not, for instance, manipulate the trajectory of every electron around its nucleus, although we may now do this a little if we wish. But the countless, almost infinite, number of electrons whizzing about their business need no input from us to determine their position or speed. 99.9% of the natural Universe does its thing without let or hindrance from us. We can only alter the principles that exist in our traditions and cultures. We can only alter what we build. In that respect we are certainly the greatest creator in the Universe. Constantly creating, ordering and adapting consciously our positions and energy; Nature just follows the rules that the Principle organically formed, we change the rules, never satisfied until every limitless one is changed.
Scientists like to talk about ‘The First Principle’ in as much that if you understand how something began then you can follow its progress to the moment that you observe it, now, and have a more profound knowledge of it. This is also termed the things evolution. It affects the social progress of individuals and societies just as much as the combinations of the Periodic Table.
The evolution of something also influences others evolutions. The principal builds on influence, the slow accretion of subtle complexities. In poetry and literature this is self-evident. You can track the course that was taken between the Eddas of Snorri Sturleson and The Waste Land of TS Elliot or Crow by Ted Hughes. Every step of the way is influenced by the pile up of poetic imagination directly behind it, or, more properly, directly preceding it. Sometimes there is a lurch back as a cul de sac is recognised. Dryden gets dumped for Donne’s resurrection. The pre-raphaelites blossom, tended by Arnold and The Wreck of the Deutschland written by Manley-Hopkins. The influence in the Principle doesn’t always abide where you expect it.
Yet influence is not the main consideration here, it is a side show. The Principle’s primary characteristic is hidden from our view. The ‘thing’ of a tiny amount of space and time that began, apparently with a bang, is the first principle and its primary characteristic is that, it isn’t real, it’s an illusion.
Stephen Hawking talks about why a creator should create us in the vast complexity of the Universe when we are so totally insignificant that, if a creator existed, we wouldn’t have attracted its attention anyway.
He misses the point about ‘us’. It is ‘us’ that makes the Universe vast and complex and considers us insignificant. It is our consciousness that makes it appear real or at least a suitable subject for enquiry by the consciousness’s of the likes of Stephen Hawkings’s.
The Universe only exists because we are conscious of it. This is another Principle, the anthropomorphic one.
Beyond principle lies the Unprincipled where there are no laws, no morality, no ethics. The Unprincipled reality is absolute freedom.
God is mans construct. Beyond the principles of boundless infinite nature lies the Unprincipled lawlessness of Love. This is where poetry resides.
Poetry & Truth
Monday, 3 October 2011 at 12:26
Poetry & Truth
A justified scepticism might be the only possible way to approach this association but I am not talking about The Truth. Poetry arrives at truths through a variety of means while all the while circling its own ideal of Truth, expressed by individual poets, and acknowledged by their readers.
What means does poesy employ? It suggests certainties that upon closer examination are not empirical at all but address an ‘unsaid’ thing, an ‘unsayable’ thing that finds its echo in the interior lives of humanity. For instance: The darkest hour lies afore the dawn (Milton, Paradise Lost). Firstly it is untrue; the darkest hour of the night is when the sun is at the exact opposite, and therefore most concealed, part of the earth from the observer. This is not the hour before dawn. In fact the statement is a lie as Milton obliquely acknowledges. And yet there is some universal truth in the fact that the most despairing of moments lies just before the crisis turns. Now of course this is metathetic. But we need to understand what truth is being given a metaphor as a tool for understanding. The truth is difficult to see, it cannot just be the universal experience of darkness at the end of travail, just before things begin to improve because that is only a linear torment. The longer the crisis the more despairing one becomes is not a truth it’s a fact.
Facts aren’t truths. Bullshit beguiles truth and is often dressed as fact. Here is Dr. Johnson: ‘… you may say to a man, “Sir, I am your most humble servant”. You are NOT his most humble servant. You may say, “These are sad times; it is a melancholy thing to be reserved to such times”. You don’t mind the times. You tell a man, “I am sorry you had such bad weather the last day of your journey, and were so much wet”. You don’t care six-pence whether he was wet or dry.’
That the truth is here represented by cant, a foaming sentiment of sympathy expressed essentially as lies, nevertheless holds a truth about the communication of one human to another. It might be the case that everything is the truth. As Goethe said “Only everyone can know the Truth”.
Not only the expression of truth but also the yearning that truth is present. Although this is a risky business as Mrs. Bennet found out, ”It is a universally acknowledged truth that a single man of a good fortune must be in want of a wife”. Of course this would be a delightful outcome of the unappropriated wealth of a single man, but it isn’t necessarily true. To be pedantic, there may very well be single men of great wealth who abhor the idea of marriage. We can’t be sure. And that’s the point.
Truth isn’t something that determines existence and it can’t determine poetry. Humanity has been driven along its various roads by lies as well as truth. Some might argue that ‘lies’ are the more prevalent, and here I think poetry steps in to clear up the muddle to an extent. Truth and honesty are partners, truth and dishonesty have no living space but dishonesty if it reveals the truth about the poet (or about anything) may well be universally honest.
Byron would have loved the idea of a team game played in one continent only, being ascribed with the title ‘World Series’. His nose for bullshit specially with his well documented dislike of Bob Southey, who became Poet Laureate after Pye, was mostly directed toward his declarations that everything was rubbish except money. Don’t talk to him about the ‘legacy of the poets’ or the ‘subtle definitions of grace that befall the poets sensitivities’, it’s all nonsense….gimme money, money is all I want. Yes, he and John Lennon would have got on well. ‘The Corsair’ a shortish poem by Byronic standards, published by John Murray in 1814 sold 10,000 copies on day ONE. A figure that none in the English speaking world has ever come near to; Byron was ecstatic.
But creating a falsehood (a World Series) about an activity in some ways highlights the shadowy movements behind the false. Falsity and truth are also very closely joined, as any policeman will testify. The more false the statement the more the truth unfolds. This is brinkmanship on Truths behalf. As if it knows ‘….that it will out’. For the USA to call their American Football league The World Series, when it patently isn’t a world series, pricks out tiny particles of truth about the American psyche. Or rather, points toward areas that need examining, and what other reason to examine some body but to discover a truth about it.
Or to discover the nature of a thing. That The Truth has a nature is open to opinion but what isn’t, is that some things bring results and some don’t and the nearer action is to one’s own truth the more dramatic the results. If Dr. Johnson had insisted, in his little sermon on cant, on being plain speaking an altogether different effect would have been had, so that when his sympathy was elicited the feeling would have been an overwhelming sense of the ’correct’, the ‘genuine’; closer to truth.
Poetry does this all the time. The German poet Durs Grunbein (his selected poems are published by Faber, translated by Michael Hofmann)
wrote in his long poem ‘Variations on no Theme’ about a ‘…sort of I’ll Call You life’ where we wait for the call that determines our actions/destiny, the call that ‘trues’ us and makes us aware, enables us to act. This waiting for a truth to appear in order to act, paralyses us, and we become immobile. Grunbein’s work is, for me, all about this existential terror of the inevitable. Where we are unable to move because we cannot separate the important from the unimportant. In another poem about the bombing of Dresden called ‘Europe After the Last Rains’ he talks about his grandmother, Dora, ‘…..walking / calmly in the line of refugees, on tottering legs / to the afterlife.’ The destruction so complete that no one survived; life was making its call, all you could do was to walk helplessly with your helpless companions towards the inevitable vanishing in the flame. (He suggests, incidentally, that Hiroshima was plan B for the atom bomb; Dresden was plan A)
Like dreams, poems have more to do with the poet and the poets vision than they do with reality, yet in some respects, this self determination of poets to capture something of the truth is only the capture of a completely authentic unobscured crystalline structure of themselves and it doesn’t matter what this reveals. Good, Evil, Boredom, Sadism, Love, Compassion as long as it’s genuine. Capturing this and making it interesting is the art of Art.
Neitzsche said ‘History is of no use to me’. We don’t need the truth where we are going, let alone facts. We can make it all up and it’ll be as close to the truth as anything else. Who could possibly decide? But we make the art, write the poetry and free the human imagination. It is this mystery that manufactures human love. Its unknowingness is a hint that that is where the Truth abides. That is important.
For The Truth despairs over being seen, since its fragmentation into varieties of facts and lies leads always to the same result, ignorance. A principle of which declares, that which is unimportant is important and that which is important, treated as worthless. This, poetry now, needs to continue to energetically correct.
Please feel free to email any comments or thoughts on any of the weblog entries.