in verse # 7 : not just a pretty face

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:

Your turn.

[i] Verbal behavior, by B. F. Skinner.  New York : Appleton-Century-Crofts, [1957].  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.

About Dennis Clark

Dennis Clark should have been locked up long ago, but since he was allowed to wed and breed, the cat is out of the bag, the toothpaste is out of the tube, the cat is pawing the toothpaste and you should be careful what you put in your mouth. Put a good poem in your mouth!
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3 Responses to in verse # 7 : not just a pretty face

  1. “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.”

    I have heard this very thing applied to the whole Book of Mormon (not just “the Isaiah parts”), which as Moroni pointed out in Ether, is a written work created by people from an oral tradition, and therefore not as “strong” as their oral expressions.

    Since we, as modern readers, are from a more written tradition, we have to learn how to read the Book of Mormon, and we learn how by letting it teach us, by our reading it and getting to know it.

    • Dennis Clark says:

      And consider this: the text we have of the Book of Mormon is from that oral tradition. Joseph Smith dictated that text. I have trouble with the view that he read it out of a peepstone, word by word. I have less difficulty believing that he learned to read the language under Moroni’s tutelage and in very strange and otherworldly circumstances. But since he never revealed the means by which he translated it, I am happy to accept it as one of the last oral artifacts of English literature.

  2. Jonathan Langford says:

    I’m glad my comments helped to spark such a thoughtful (and thought-provoking) response.

    I’m quite happy to accept your correction of poetry as a linguistic mode that contains multiple genres, rather than as a genre in itself. I also like the idea of meaningful language use as inherently involving forms and conventions, no matter how different those may be from genre to genre–and of ourselves as inherently programmed to construct and decode literary form, just as we’re apparently born with the instinct to look for and utilize the structures of language. However…

    In talking about genre, I mostly tend to think about issues of community and audience expectations, as opposed to formal approaches and characteristics. Thinking about it, I’m not sure I accept the notion that a work of literature can teach you how to read it, absent an interpretive community in which one’s own reactions to the work are situated. For modern American lyric poetry, that community tends to congregate around literary magazines, university creative writing departments, and the like.

    Are some genres inherently more difficult to interpret than others, requiring a more complete education and/or more active engagement on the part of readers? Certainly there have been some generic traditions that have prided themselves on being more or less complex than others. Regardless, it seems to me that there’s a qualitative difference between the kind of learning one picks up from one’s peers compared to the learning one picks up from creative writing teachers. Rap may be just as complex in its rules and expectations as contemporary American lyric, but the conventions are learned in a very different way, or at least a different setting. Maybe it’s analogous to the difference between a language learned in childhood versus a language learned as an adult.

    Is poetry inherently harder to interpret than prose? It may be that the question lacks meaning–partly because, as Dennis points out, prose and poetry each are populated by myriads of different literary creatures, but also because it presupposes a point at which the reader or listener can meaningfully judge such a thing. I’m reminded of the way that we talk about some languages being harder to learn than other languages. Yet so far as I know, all languages take about the same amount of time to learn if you start as an infant. After that, I suspect it depends on how similar the language is to the one you already know. It may simply be that for poetry and prose both and their constituent forms and genres, the only two conditions that mean much are either (a) that we know the form/genre–in which case interpretation is easy to us–or (b) that we don’t know it, in which case interpretation is impossible. “Possible but difficult” might still exist as an in-between state, but one reflecting our own lack of experience, not any inherent difficulty in the form.

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