{Sat 3 March 2007}   Poetry and specialised vocab

Today I came across an interesting article called Mathematics in Poetry by JoAnne Growney. It’s aimed at people interested in maths, of course. I’m one who protests an interest in maths, but in whom maths is not interested, having given up on me a long time ago. Therefore, although I’m drawn to it, I lack some of the necessary vocabulary to make the best sense of some of the quoted poems. However, I remember enough from high school to recognise the cleverness and humour of some of them.

I recall being enthralled at school by Donne’s compass conceit in “A Valediction: forbidding mourning”. On reading it, I picked up the coldly functional and somewhat dangerous geometry instrument that lay inert in my pencil box and suddenly felt connected to this poet of another era. I imagined him sitting at his own desk, picking up his compass to create a circle as part of some practical or conceptual investigation and then becoming momentarily fascinated and distracted by the smooth ease with which he created a perfect circle. Perhaps he repeated the movement several times, warming the compass with his hands as he did so. Perhaps he entered a slightly altered state as he contemplated the startling perfection of its creation on the page, suddenly aware of the supernatural certainty that it gave the human hand. Did he also think about how the best circle comes with the lightest touch, and how hard it is to draw anything other than a circle with a compass—how one must bear down on the pencil tip and tear the page in order to vary the line? How this is so contrary to the nature of the thing that one desists in shame after the first attempt to break free? I’m not a mathematician, but there were aspects of this conceit that I could relate to, and which were enough to make me look up implications or inferences that I didn’t know as I sought a richer experience of the poem.

These musings took me back to my discussion of the use of vocabulary in my poem “On deciding not to marry a priest“. In response to a frustrated question about its perceived difficulty, I defended my use of a style, register, vocabulary, etc. that seemed appropriate to the content and the context of this poem. Admittedly, the context is only available to the reader by inference from clues in the title and the content, and these will be more easily read by people familiar with that context (and there are, believe it or not, many such), but I think there’s enough there for comprehension by anyone prepared to spend more than five minutes reading it.

The point is that I think it’s quite legitimate to write poetry that requires specialised knowledge for a full understanding of it. I’m quite irritated by the constant demand for accessibility requiring the exclusive use of an ill-defined “contemporary” vocabulary and forms. It seems to be driven by a requirement to communicate with a, by necessity, lowest common denominator-type audience who are not expected to put any effort into their part of the writer-reader contract. I believe that a writer has a responsibility to put an internally consistent piece before her readers. However, as a reader, I must recognise that each poem has its own language (in the broadest sense of that term). I need to be open to the potential beauty of any poem I encounter. Then, without resentment, I can seek to fill any gaps in my fluency in the poem’s language in order to plumb its depths. Of course, I won’t bother if there’s nothing in it to attract me initially, but if I scent beauty in it, I won’t petulantly demand to be spoonfed every puréed morsel so that I can make my date with the TV on time.

nic paton says:

Hi Tia

You have moved into the realms of academic rigour I see, and very deftly too.

I guess its a movable line between poetic integrity and required readership. It’s an art in itsself to decide how accesible you want to be. Clearly the perfect scenario is maximum readership and maximum depth-creativity-integrity.

Which brings us to a graph, lets say readership = x and accesibility = y. Hyperbolic curves (or waxing lyrical thereof) anyone?

Tia says:

Hi Nic. I think that each poem needs its own graph! Just as each poem has its own language, each poem also has its own audience. My poems differ very much from each other in form, language and content, and I like it that way. People who enjoy one will not necessarily enjoy another, and that’s ok. I like the idea of offering a smorgasbord so that everyone feels welcome at the table but no one has to eat everything on it.

Some of my poems will doubtless be described as more “accessible” than others, but that’s a very arbitrary definition. I’m still curious to hear someone clarify by whom they are (or should be!) accessible. In that opinion, at what level of general education/English education/poetic education should the poet aim, and also, who is excluded when one gets that aim “right”?

nic paton says:

If you were the editor of your work,
And were twixt public and poet to lurk,
I’d like to know how you’d go about
deciding what was in and what was out?

Tia says:

It’d depend upon which public we were talking about.

Nic Paton says:

You don’t sound like a very enthusiastic editor.

I have always found it a greatly intruiging task to sculpt an album from a series of compositions. Work out a corporate identity, and give the group of pieces a name. Obviously one of the questions is what is your particular audience, but you need to enquire of the assembled works, too. The editor needs to be artful and balance the various demands.

Go on now, put yourself in a real world publishing situation. If you had to edit and compile a subset of your writings, right now, what would they be saying and what would your imagined audience look like?

You can’t stay in your ivory tower for ever you know.

Or maybe you can…

Tia says:

A useful suggestion, thanks Nic. It’s just not where I’m at right now, but I’ll bear it in mind should I ever conclude that I have enough publishable poems to justify the effort!

Who was it that said poetry is the art of numbers? My book Prose 1997 – 2008 includes an essay on Ada Lovelace and how she combined both poetry and science in her life.

Tia says:

Your comment about Ada Lovelace sent me searching over the web because I remember that she was honoured by female geeks as the first female computer programmer (and in fact by some as the first computer programmer). I found this surprisingly comprehensive definition of poetry on Wikipedia; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Poetry and also this great entry on Ada Lovelace: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ada_Lovelace

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