In a response to my last post, Jonathan Langford asked two questions that I wanted to answer immediately. But I made the mistake of thinking about his questions as I was formulating my answers, and my answers grew more complex. The first question was this: “Your concluding claim, ‘Our verse deserves our greatest effort, because it is a gift we offer others who breathe the same language,’ makes me wonder: What does it mean, in this case, to ‘breathe the same language’?” Well, language defines our species; languages define our communities. Children come out of the womb programmed to listen to speech, and to speak. It is an innate ability, an inborn need, an appetite for conversation, a hunger of the tongue. We breathe language the same way we breathe air. The original community for us, as humans, consists of two speakers — one at least a child, the other anyone else who will respond to the child. The understanding that this ability is innate is Noam Chomsky’s best-known contribution to linguistics, and was expressed perhaps most strongly in his review of B. F. Skinner’s book Verbal behavior[i], in which he suggested that Skinner didn’t know how children learn to talk.
As Skinner’s title suggests, he viewed language as a learned behavior, and argued that children learn to speak in an on-going exercise in operant conditioning, hearing an utterance and repeating it until rewarded by a care-taker’s approval. Chomsky’s critique of Skinner rests on two observations: first, that children learn to speak perfectly grammatical sentences in their native tongue before the age of five, before any formal schooling; and second, that children produce sentences they have never heard before, creating these grammatical sentences through an innate human capacity — not through imitation and repetition of the known, but in an exercise of the unknown. In this case, “grammatical” means that members of the child’s community recognize the sentences as grammatically correct, regardless of individual quirks in vocabulary or pronunciation. And all of these observations are of speech, not of writing, of verbal interaction between people.
In that last post, I asserted that “these verse forms represent the grammar of Welsh poetry” — by which I meant that the Welsh meters under discussion are structural, not semantic: they mean nothing; they rather provide for the expression of meaning. Jonathan’s response continued in that same vein: “What does it mean, in this case, to ‘breathe the same language’? Not only in relation to the difficulty of properly appreciating Welsh poetry and poetic forms as non-Welsh speakers, but also in relation to the importance of education, of speaking the language of specific poetic forms in order to be part of the audience to whom they can effectively speak.” Well, in part I am arguing that contemporary Mormon poets should pay more attention to earlier verse traditions, and less to contemporary American conventions, because those traditions are more public. For many Mormons, the only poems they read are the hymns they sing in church. Hymns are by their very nature public, as are epics. They are part of the life of the community. Lyric poetry — contemporary American lyric — is often focused inward, on the speaker’s emotions, in isolation from her community. I am not arguing that we should properly appreciate Welsh poetry, but that if we were to adopt some of its conventions, the shift of focus would provide a way into our poems when we present them to our hearers. So when I said “Our verse deserves our greatest effort, because it is a gift we offer others who breathe the same language,” I meant the gift part to be the emphatic element of that statement. Anyone who publishes a poem is saying, in effect, “Here. I made this for you. See what you make of it.” The part about breathing the same language has to do with the materials the poet uses: human speech. Speech is as common as dirt to us. The poet is trying to use it to create something uncommon, something beautiful — in the case of a hymn, something beautiful for God. The elaborate verse forms, the deliberate choice of words, the careful marshalling of sounds — all these are attempts to make that thing beautiful. As Mormons, we have a certain acquaintance with gifts of curious workmanship, and how they might point beyond themselves.
So Jonathan and I are working over this ground in tandem, like a yoke of oxen, and I hope you will allow us a little logical boustrophedon in the strophes of our call and response. The next statement he made is one I would turn away from and plow backward: “All forms of literature are genre-based and require a reader’s/audience member’s knowledge of conventions in order to fully appreciate what is being said or performed. It may be, though, that of all the genres, poetry is the most fragile.” First, I would argue that poetry is not the most fragile genre. That distinction may well belong to journalism. Poetry is quite robust, both in American English and in other languages around the world. It may be a bit more private than, say, the novel, but is not fragile. But that brings up my second back-plowing objection: in the usual sense of the word, poetry is not a genre. It’s an effect of language. The basic taxa of written language are verse and prose. In prose fiction, the taxa can be said to be prose poem, short story, long story and novel, with poetic a description that might fit any of them. In verse fiction, the corresponding taxa are lyric, strophic, sophic and epic. Plays, like poems, can be written in either verse or prose, and, like poems, are notations for a performance, not a genre. The approaches that can be applied to these taxa are commonly called “genres”: romance, mimesis, mystery, thriller, science fiction, western and horror, for example. That may not be what Langford meant in talking about “genre-based” forms of literature requiring knowledge of conventions, but it’s as close as I can come until he responds to this post. So I explicitly reject the common classification of literature into “poetry, drama and fiction” for purposes of this blog — but that appears not to be what Jonathan means by “forms of literature.” And none of that is a direct answer to Jonathan’s assertion.
Those taxonomic differences are not what he is getting at. His second question is expressed thus: “Which leads to the question of why (in our democratic times) we should expend effort on literary forms that are both inherently difficult and discriminatory, separating those who have learned how to interpret their meaning from those who lack such learning. Wouldn’t it be better simply to translate everything into more easily understood forms?” It is easier for me to address this question, since by “forms” here Jonathan seems to mean something like “verse forms,” or the Welsh meters I have been blogging about. Any form is difficult until you understand it, and usually that requires familiarity. A work in a given form can teach you how to read it — a well-done work will do that. Doing so is the work of learning to know someone. The conventions of the work may be totally unknown to me at the outset. I will be drawn in by its beauty.
But I have to read it, or hear it, experience it, hearken to it. I can tell within a few paragraphs whether I am willing to hearken to a novel. Sometimes, having been told that I should love a given work, I will persist beyond the early warnings and read despite myself. But usually I read something because I want to. I’m not sure what our “democratic times” have to do with the matter at hand. Rap is perhaps the most democratic form of music on the planet right now, and its use of rhythm and rhyme is both bound by convention and radically experimental. When I first started contemplating a long poem in Anglo-Saxon prosody on Joseph Smith, “rap” meant “conversation,” as in “We were rapping about life and love when the heat busted us.” It interests me that the slang for “to speak” became the name of the dominant popular form of song worldwide. At the other end of the verse spectrum from rap is the court poem, sophic or epic in its nature. Jonathan might consider it undemocratic.
For example, I am reading Dante’s Commedia right now, in John Ciardi’s translation[ii]. It is a wonderful work in American English, supple and strong. But Ciardi found it difficult to implement Dante’s terza rima in English, so he only rhymes the first and third lines, omitting the chain rime of the second line of a stanza with the first and third of the next stanza. As Jonathan suggests, he has translated both the language and the form, and it works. I know that I am reading Ciardi and not Dante, although Ciardi gives me a strong sense what the poem is and how it works. And a large part of that sense is borne by his use of verse.
Jonathan goes on to clarify his question in this manner: “Note that I’m not claiming that modern American verse is necessarily more transparent, in that respect, from other verse forms, though it may be more familiar to us. Rather, the question is why we should bother with verse at all, given its restrictions.” And here we are back at the matter of verse in its essence. Why indeed bother to write in verse? Because verse is speech raised to the level of art. The riskiest form of verse is the improvised poem in a poetry slam. Rap is often improvised in performance, and sometimes in the studio as well. But most poetry is written and rewritten, polished and revised, until it seems to join the spontaneity of improvisation with the profundity of revelation.
Now I don’t want to shortchange Jonathan, because in his final paragraph he provides his own answer to the clarified question above, which breaks the discussion wide open again, instead of closing it down. “It’s interesting to me in this connection that Nephi, appreciating that Isaiah’s writing couldn’t properly be understood by someone lacking a Jewish literary education, mostly didn’t choose to translate Isaiah’s prophecies into easier-to-understand format, but rather chose instead to try to educate his own people (and ourselves) enough to understand Isaiah at least partly on his own terms. This suggests to me that there may be certain kinds of meaning that simply can’t be communicated in less demanding formats.” That is the justification for using verse. Isaiah is a fine example of a wonderful sophic poet. For the most part, each chapter of the book of Isaiah is a separate poem. You can best understand his work by reading it that way, and trying to figure out each poem on its own. That is, I think, what Nephi is getting at. He does not speak of his audience lacking “a Jewish literary education,” after all, but says “my soul delighteth in the words of Isaiah, for I came out from Jerusalem, and mine eyes hath beheld the things of the Jews, and I know that the Jews do understand the things of the prophets, and there is none other people that understand the things which were spoken unto the Jews like unto them, save it be that they are taught after the manner of the things of the Jews” (2nd Nephi 25:5). This sounds to me more like an entire cultural education, not simply a literary education. That Nephi goes on in verse 6 to say that he has not taught his children “after the manner of the Jews” but that “I, of myself, have dwelt at Jerusalem, wherefore I know concerning the regions round about” attests to the breadth and depth of the task he refused to undertake.
But hold on, I hear you say. Isn’t this post just a big long session of picking nits? No; it is rather an example of what I mean when I say:
[i] Verbal behavior, by B. F. Skinner. New York : Appleton-Century-Crofts, . Chomsky’s review was apparently reprinted in his Language and mind in 1968, but I can’t find my copy to confirm that.
[ii] The divine comedy, by Dante Alighieri; rendered into English verse by John Ciardi. New York : Norton, 1977.