{Mon 23 November 2009}   What is Transliteracy?
What is Transliteracy?

Well, theoretically, I should know the answer to this question as this is what I studied in my MA over the past year. I have now graduated (with distinction) with an MA in Creative Writing and New Media from De Montfort University… but I’m still asking!

The term was introduced to the UK by Professor Sue Thomas and she and some other new media gurus have worked long and hard to refine the following definition:

Transliteracy is the ability to read, write and interact across a range of platforms, tools and media from signing and orality through handwriting, print, TV, radio and film, to digital social networks.

It’s a good definition that covers a lot, but its implications and ramifications lead to further questions. See my post on Transliteracy.com for some of these.

I ended the post with a link to a video about a fascinating artwork that future generations may hold to be a significant transliterate artefact.

I’d love to discuss all this, so please feel free to comment either here on TiaTalk or on Transliteracy.com.

{Sun 25 March 2007}   The Priesthood of the Soul
I have just found in an old backup file some essays of mine on subjects close to my heart, which I had feared were lost. They were created in WordPerfect in 1992 and 1993 on my first computer – a 7.5kg whopper of a laptop which I abandoned in about 1997, I think. I have no idea whether these thoughts and approaches would be considered to have any validity now in any current education programme, but part of me doesn’t care. I just want to affirm and reconnect with my experience of “flow” at the time and also to reconsider now these influences which I know have formed and informed my approach to poetry.

As I read through them, and read the markers’ comments again, I am amazed both at the intensity with which my mind was working at the time, and at my concurrent inability then to absorb either the praise or the criticism that the markers gave. My relative maturity now enables me to see how much care was taken by the markers in their thoughtful comments and I am embarrassed to realise how little I valued them then. My driving need for approbation and reinforcement prevented me from realising that people were offering me exactly these simply by taking my writing seriously enough to offer me thoughtful feedback.

I have no record of the mark I received for this one, but the lecturer actually wrote a five-page response to this twelve-page essay which begins as follows:

The Priesthood of the Soul: The relationship between Imagination and Reason in Keats.

The Romantic obsession with the apparent dichotomy between Passion and Reason is given a new twist in Keats’s unique theology:

Call the world … “The vale of Soul-making”…. There may be intelligences or sparks of the divinity in millions — but they are not Souls till they acquire identities, till each one is personally itself…. Spirit-creation … is effected by three grand materials acting the one upon the other for a series of years — These three Materials are the Intelligence — the human heart (as distinguished from intelligence or Mind) and the World or Elemental space suited for the proper action of Mind and Heart on each other for the purpose of forming the Soul… As various as the Lives of Men are — so various become their souls (Letter 123, 335-6).i

That Keats favours a chemical metaphor for the processes of both poetry and human experience indicates how much his rational and his imaginative faculties complement each other. In The Chemistry of the Poetic Process, Stuart M. Sperry minutely demonstrates how much Keats borrows from his scientific reading to develop his poetic philosophy.ii He shows that Keats sees poetry as a process whereby the material world’s beauties and travails are absorbed via the senses and distilled, through an inner contemplative-experiential mechanism called ‘intensity’, into an essence of thought. Such thought, however, cannot be equated with rational conclusions arrived at through logic. Sensation acted upon by the imagination (the agent of intensity) produces a fresh complex of sense-stimulating beauties which open up new avenues for exploration. For the reader, the poem then forms an acutely tuned part of his material world and invites him to a similar experience of intensification and distillation of thought. In consequence, the reader’s appreciation may differ from the poet’s. Keats’s own capacity for existing in uncertainty allows his readers to fashion their own souls as they choose. In one letter he asserts that poetry can lead man into contemplation and through it to an active awareness (by which he means sensitivity to potential pathways rather than any single, absolute conviction) which could transform humanity (48, 103-4). This is how the poet functions as priest of the soul in ‘the vale of Soulmaking’.

Read the rest of this entry »

This essay by Timothy Steele has been around awhile, but it’s so well-written and its defense of the value of “meter, rhyme and stanza” is so well-supported with resonant examples that it still bears reading.

The Forms of Poetry by Timothy Steele, from The Brandeis Review, 12 (Summer 1992), 28-33

Today, I am particularly taken with these two passages:

“The original revolutionaries perceived more acutely what they wished to challenge or undermine—meter and rhyme in poetry, representation in painting and sculpture, conventional melodic arrangement in music—than what they wished to establish. As a result, the revolution had considerable destructive vitality, but it did not have comparable constructive powers to create alternatives to replace the conventions it swept away.”

“Meters reflect patterns of speech that occur naturally in language. Poets do not invent them out of thin air. To construct a new metrical system, one would first have to construct a new language, or the pronunciation or accentuation of the existing language would have to change radically. So once the battle the modernists fought had been won, their followers tended simply to maintain a somewhat meaningless spirit of rebellion, meaningless because the styles and attitudes against which the rebellion had been directed had ceased to exist.”

It seems an inevitable part of human experience that “the revolution”, after a heady period of free-spirited innovation, always acquires its own orthodoxy and becomes a vicious enforcer of “rules” of freedom. The insistence on the new way of seeing things as the only way of seeing things invalidates the experience, wisdom and creative productions of whole generations, and robs current generations of access to beauties and insights that have empowered and developed human consciousness for thousands of years.

This has always been the pattern with “renewals” in church history. At first they ride on a tide of openness, soul-searching, risk-taking and energetic action as people strive to “live out” their refreshed understanding of the meaning of their faith, sometimes taking great steps of love and courage and martyrdom which change lives and invigorate communities. But after a while, the actions become forms in themselves, nothing more than repeated, futile attempts to recreate the mysterious energy of spirit (Spirit?) that impulsed them so naturally before. The challenge to the status quo becomes the status quo, and the s/Spirit flees.

Why, oh why, is it so difficult for us to maintain “negative capability” (Keats) and realise that any form may contain or even generate mystery, that form does not preclude mystery and that neither form nor lack of form guarantee mystery?

Well, there’s been some discussion on this blog about whether my poetry is “accessible” or not… the jury’s still out on many related issues, such as which poems we’re talking about, to which audience/s one should aim to be accessible, and whether “accessible” is always good, for instance. I think most people would agree that the following is an example of an accessible poem that is puke-inducingly ghastly. I wrote this at the age of thirteen, obviously during one of my weaker moments…

(Warning: this might make you feel that you’re covered in icky stuff that just won’t come off for the rest of the day…)

Roses of Life

My heart is full of roses,
Of soft petals and cruel thorns.
Life and living it makes these posies:
Happiness the petals and sadness the thorns.

Light pink are the mem’ries of loved ones,
Deep red the embraces of lovers.
Soft yellow are my childhood companions,
Sweet orange are all the others.

Sharp, short, are innocent childhood hurts;
Long and curved the unfaithful friend.
Cruel, hooked, are the many “light-hearted” flirts;
Sword-sharp is youthful contempt for old men.

But through joy and grief has been growing
The flower of experience and wisdom:
She now her pure white petals is showing,
And her thorns are mere decoration.

{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.

{Fri 16 February 2007}   Poetry’s Potential
I am so excited to have found, via Very Like a Whale, this exquisitely expressed post called “Defining Difficulty in Poetry” by Reginald Shepherd.

I highly recommend this post, but I do wonder about the impact of declaring that “poetry is difficult”! That is what so many of its potential readers fear. Of course, this is due to a basic assumption that it ought not to be; that somehow poetry, uniquely among the art forms, should not use techniques, devices, materials and skills that require knowledge and mastery to achieve or comprehend its effects. Stephen Fry suggests in The Ode Less Travelled that most people believe that because words are a universal currency, art made from them should be instantly, universally accessible:

“Unlike musical notation, paint or clay, language is inside every one of us. For free. We are all proficient at it. We already have the palette, the paints and the instruments. We don’t have to go and buy any reserved materials. Poetry is made of the same stuff you are reading now, the same stuff you use to order pizza over the phone, the same stuff you yell at your parents and children, whisper in your lover’s ear and shove into an e-mail, text or birthday card. It is common to us all. Is that why we resent being told that there is a technique to its highest expression, poetry? I cannot ski, so I would like to be shown how to. I cannot paint, so I would value some lessons. But I can speak and write, so do not waste my time telling me that I need lessons in poetry, which is, after all, no more than emotional writing, with or without the odd rhyme. Isn’t it?”

Like Mr Fry, I say No! Poetry is so much more than that. Poetry can be narrative and is usually (but not exclusively) emotional, yes, but it also uses visual and musical forms, as well as semantic suggestions which, in the best poems, enhance their meaning. It paints pictures and caresses or startles the ear. It engages the intellect and the imagination as well as the emotions.

Besides language, the poet must have something of the visual artist, the musician and the philosopher in her. The poet-artist appreciates the form of words, sentences and lines, and the value of negative space, for shaping a thought. The poet-musician revels in the sounds of words and letters, composing melodies from them, and feels the pulse of speech, drawing it out to make its many possible rhythms audible and compelling. The poet-philosopher understands the force of rational argument and the epistemological limbo in which truth eternally seeks a home, the subjective impulse toward individuation and the objective need for civil cooperation, the power of verbal accuracy and the pleasurable mysteries of contextual ambiguity—the thought-tangents that may open whole new worlds or parallel universes.

Poems written by such poets are worthy of “payment” for one’s enjoyment of them. People quite readily pay hard-earned cash for art gallery entrance fees or concert tickets when artists they value are showing their work. Could they not be encouraged to spend a little time learning the tools of poetry appreciation, which costs very little financially for something very rewarding?

Perhaps, to invite such readers to engage with all of poetry’s potential, rather than fearing it, some alternative semantics might be in order. Rather than referring to it as “difficult”, could we choose words like “challenging, intricate, profound, complex, sophisticated, rich, essential (of or relating to essence), multi-layered, nourishing, fertile, verdant, intriguing, fascinating, mysterious, stimulating…”?

et cetera