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On Poetry and Culture Shock

The Creative Process

Recycling the disposable

Today, I have been forced to hear the Top 40 radio station for almost an hour. This is well known for its disposable music, and it seemed to me untiul recently that songs were popular for a shorter and shorter period of time. Now, however, I have been shocked to find that about half the songs played were two to ten year old. One song was from 1991. Does this mean that the producers that make song after identical song have definitely run out of ideas? Or that no one wants to take the risk of playing anything remotely new?

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Hoy no he tenido más remedio que escuchar cerca de una hora de Los 40 Principales. Hasta ahora, la música de ese tipo era verdaderamente de usar y tirar, pero ahora resulta que, sorprendentemente, Los Cuarenta ponen canciones antiguas, de entre uno y diez años. Más o menos mitad nuevo, mitad antiguo. Los Celtas Cortos promocionan una gira con una canción del 91.

 No es que me parezca mal que se escuchen temas más o menos clásicos, pero esto me preocupa. ¿es que los productores se han aburrido de repetir la misma canción? ¿a estos extremos llega el miedo a hacer nada mínimamente nuevo? 

 

 

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Prose poetry

Poetry Thursday's prompt for last week was "prose poetry". I like prose poetry, but I think that there are lots of problems in the form and in the way it is often understood.

The three classic main types of text are dialogue, narration and description. All of them can be in prose or in verse form. For example, Shakespeare uses both verse and prose in his plays (which are, by their very nature, dialogues). Novels are, for the most part, prose narrations, and epic poetry is verse narration. Description is equally possible in prose and in verse, too. For example, I think that lyrical poetry is description of feeling.

The problem with prose poetry, the way many people understand it, is that it is necessarily a description, preferably of a setting, a location. Even teachers at the University level understand that prose poetry is what happens when the narrator of a novel takes up a paragraph with long sentences and pretty adjectives to describe a sunset or a room. I think that the possibilities of prose poetry are mostly unexploited, but if we widen the field, we need a definition so that we know where we are. We could start by saying that prose poetry is prose that shares as many poetic qualities as possible, excluding the ones related to line formation. We can have all the other phonic devices (rhythm), we can have the pleasure of language for its own sake, a greal deal of nuance, and all the semantic devices we expect in poetry, like metaphors.

The best two works of prose poetry that I know certainly include a lot of description. They are Written on the Body, by Jeanette Winterson, and Platero and I by Juan Ramón Jiménez. Both are mostly descriptive, but have enough action to appeal to compulsive novel readers. The language is beautiful, without smothering the message in metaphors. The subject matter is commonplace (romantic love, rural life) treated with originality. The best of what poetic prose can be.

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La sugerencia de Poetry Thursday para esta semana era "prosa poética". A mí me encanta, pero creo que hay algún problema en la forma en que normalmente se entiende.

Los tres modos clásicos de elocución son el diálogo, la narración y la descripción. Todos ellos pueden ir en prosa o en verso. Por ejemplo, Shakespeare lo mismo usaba prosa que verso en sus diálogos en teatro. Las novelas son son narraciones en prosa, y la poesía épica, narración en verso, La descripción puede ser en prosa o verso también, y puede decirse que la poesía lírica son descripciones de sentimientos.

El problema de la prosa poética es que para mucha gente es necesariamente descriptiva, a ser posible de un lugar. Hasta profsores de Universidad entienden que la prosa poética es una sola cosa: lo que pasa cuando el narrador de una novela ocupa un párrafo entero en describir una puesta de sol o una habitación con frases largas y muchos adjetivos. Yo creo que las posibilidades de la prosa poética abarcan bastante más, si usamos una definición como, por ejemplo, prosa que comparte la mayor cantidad posible de características de la poesía, pero no la formación de versos. Puede haber algún recurso fónica (ritmo), y un lenguaje cuidado, acrobático, con matices, con los recursos que esperamos de la poesía, como las metáforas.

Las dos mejores obras de prosa poética que conozco son Escrito en el cuerpo de Jjeanette Winterson, y Platero y Yo de Juan Ramón Jiménez. Son muy descriptivos, pero también tienen mucha acción, y mucho humor. El lenguaje es precioso sin ser cursi, sin ahogar el mensaje en metáforas. Los temas son corrientes (el amor, la vida rural) pero tratados con originalidad. Lo mejor a lo que puede aspirar la prosa poética.

On creativity, mediocrity and love.

I posted this four months ago, but things have changed dramatically, so please bear with me and read on.

About two years ago, I attended a sort of conference for poets, with publishers and other interested people. There was a dinner and I had the chance to talk with a few professionals, with amateurs like me, and publishers, and someone quite ruthless said a way of telling apart the bad amateurs from the promising ones. I'm translating as faithfully as I can, and I wish I remembered the person's name: 

Lots of young people write poetry. They are easy to sort out because the mediocre ones stop writing when they get into a steady relationship.

That fits nicely into the usual male-oriented explanations of the creative impulse as something nearly sexual. There is the Sheherezade model: being creative makes you sexy. There is the Sublimation model: you put into creating the energies that you'd put into sex if there was an available partner. There is the Oedipal model: you write because you want to beat your influences (your influences are yourf ather and Art is your mother: apply Oedipus to the triangle.

I have always doubted that this theory applied to me. Not because I believe I am above mediocrity, but because to me writing doesn't make sense if there isn't an audience, and most of the time I write better, or faster, or both, if there is an audience. The truth is, I am on the brink on testing if it does apply. Being in love, as I am right now, leaves me changed for words. There are new things to talk about, but hardly the words to do so. The interesting thing is that I'm not a good writer of love poetry; I know that much. If I'm lucky, the intensity, the sheer joy, will translate themselves in new ways of talking about the usual stuff: my trees, my cities, birds, weather, stranger's hands.  If I am not lucky, well, the world will have lost me as a poet, but I might be too much in love to miss the Muse.

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Hace un par de años, estuve en una especie de congreso o encuentro para poetas, con editores y otros interesados. Hubo una cena bastante informal en la que tuve ocasión de hablar con profesionales (es decir, poetas publicados), aficionados como yo, y gente que no escribe pero sí tiene que ver con el mundillo (editores, políticos que dan subvenciones, y demás). Alguien brutalmente sincero dijo lo siguiente:

 Muchísima gente joven escribe poesía. Es fácil separar a los mediocres de los demás porque los mediocres dejan de escribir en cuanto se echan novia.

 Eso encaja muy bien con las explicaciones habituales del impulso creativo como algo casi sexual. Está el modelo Sheherezade: ser creativo te vuelve sexy. Está el modelo Sublimación: pones en tu arte las energías que dedicarías al sexo, si tuvieras con quién. Está el modelo Edipo: escribes porque quieres ganarle la partida a los artistas que son tus influencias (tus influencias son el padre y el Arte la madre).

 Siempre he dudado de que esa teoría sirviera para mí, no porque piense que estoy por encima de la mediocridad (no es el caso, os lo puedo asegurar), sino porque para mí escribir no tiene sentido si no hay un lector, y si sé que tengo público, siempre escribo mejor, o más rápido, o las dos cosas. Lo que ocurre ahora es que estoy a punto de comprobar si la teoría se me puede aplicar. El amor cambia cómo me llevo con las palabras. Hay cosas nuevas de las que hablar, pero las palabras de siempre no sirven. Lo curioso del caso es que no se me da nada bien la poesía amorosa, eso lo tengo claro. Si tengo suerte, la intensidad, la pura felicidad de ahora se reflejarán en formas nuevas de hablar de lo de siempre: árboles, pájaros, el tiempo, las manos de la gente. Si no tengo suerte, pues bueno, el mundo tendrá una poetisa menos, pero tendré buena compañía y no echaré tanto de menos a la Musa.

Poetry and Beauty.

In Spain, there is an association called the "Real Academia Española", The "Spanish Royal Academy", which publishes the most prestigious dictionary in the country. The Academy's opinions are prestigious but not official; that is, contrary to what happens in France with the Académie, the Spanish Academia does not rule about what is "real" Spanish and what isn´t.

Well, the dictionary gives this as the first and sixth definitions in its long entry on poesía, "poetry":

Expression of beauty or of aesthetic feeling through words, in prose or verse.

Idealization, lirical quality, that which provokes a deep feeling of beauty, expressed or not in language

This is nonsense, because it is incomplete. Well, it is a dictionary, not an enciclopedia or a literary manual, but still. The problem is that it does not make sufficiently clear that "beauty" is a quality of the work, not necessarily a quality of the people, objects, or events poetry describes. Let's see. Can we write poetry of the ugly? of course we can. The beginning of the Iliad deals with a man getting very angry with another because on the course of a war, they are fighting about which one gets to keep an enslaved priestess. That is not a pretty topic! If we like the Iliad it is because it shows beautiful language and because it makes familiar things unfamiliar.

Another example. Shakespeare. Richard III. What is there of beauty is a hunchback, a man considered ugly by all the other characters, telling the audience how he plans to kill all his relatives because the have a better claim to the throne that he has? The words he uses, those original, beautiful-sounding word.

A problem arises, of course, when the poet is not good enough or the circumstances are so close to us that the familiar cannot be made unfamiliar. I don't think Turks or Africans or the children of victims of gender violence would appreciate Othello. But as Shakespeare proves, that doesn’t mean that a jealous husband killing his wife is unfit for poetry.

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La Real Academia Española, al contrario de lo que mucha gente piensa, tiene opiniones prestigiosas pero que no son oficiales y normativas. Es decir, no como en Francia, donde la Académie decide qué es lengua francesa y qué no, la Academia no decide qué es español y qué no (vimos una muestra de ello cuando elaboró un informe diciendo que era incorrecto el uso de la palabra “género” para querer decir “sexo femenino o masculino” en la Ley Integral de Medidas contra la Violencia de Género; el Parlamento aprobó la Ley con el nombre que quiso, dijera lo que dijera la RAE). Esto es lo que el Diccionario de la RAE da como primera y sexta acepciones de la palabra "poesía": 

1. Manifestación de la belleza o del sentimiento estético por medio de la palabra, en verso o en prosa.

6. Idealidad, lirismo, cualidad que suscita un sentimiento hondo de belleza, manifiesta o no por medio del lenguaje. 

Dicho así me parece un poco absurdo, porque queda incompleto. Se trata de un diccionario y no de una enciclopedia o un manual de Literatura,  pero aún así. El problema está en que no queda suficientemente claro que la belleza es una cualidad de la obra, no de la gente, objetos o acciones que la poesía describe. Veamos. ¿Se puede escribir poesía sobre cosas feas? Por supuesto que sí. El principio de la Ilíada trata acerca de un hombre que se enfada muchísimo con otro, porque en el transcurso de una guerra no se ponen de acuerdo sobre cuál de ellos se queda con una sacerdotisa que ha sido apresada y convertida en esclava. ¡No es un tema muy bello que digamos! Si nos gusta la Ilíada, es porque utiliza un lenguaje hermosísimo y porque vuelve ajenas cosas que nos resultan familiares.  

Otro ejemplo. Shakespeare. Ricardo III . ¿Qué hay de bello en un jorobado, un hombre considerado monstruoso por todos los demás personajes de la obra, contándole al público que piensa matar a la mayoría de sus parientes porque se interponen entre él y la sucesión al trono? Pues las palabras que utiliza, ese fabuloso lenguaje Shakesperiano.

Surge un problema, naturalmente, cuando el poeta no es lo bstante bueno o las circumstancias son tan cercanas que no se puede crear algo original. No creo que turcos, africanos, o los hijos de víctimas de violencia de género, por ejemplo, puedan disfrutar de Otelo. Pero como Shakespeare demuestra, eso no quiere decir que un marido celoso que mata a su mujer no pueda ser objeto poético. Y ahí, encontrar belleza en algo que no sean las palabras se pone complicado. Quizá la razón de que no me convenza la definición de la Real Academia es que parece pensada sólo para la poesía lírica.

The creative process as seen by Toteking

I haven't made a Creative Process post in ages. I heard this today as I drove and it always brings a smile to my face because of course, Tote is thinking of rap, but haikus normally have three lines. A haiku a day is certainly a triumph.

I serve a voluntary sentence in the notebook prison, where
three lines a day are a triumph.

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Hace tiempo que no opino nada sobre el proceso creativo. Esta mañana escuché esto mientras conducía y siempre me hace sonreír, porque evidentemente Tote está pensando en rap, pero claro, los haikus tienen tres líneas. Y un haiku al día también es un triunfo.

Guardo condena voluntaria en la cárcel del cuaderno, donde
tres líneas al día es un trofeo.

History of Western Poetry.

Poesía popular (universal): Quiero acostarme contigo.
Antiguo Testamento: No sé lo que es, pero seguro que está prohibido.
Lírica griega (Anacreonte): Quiero emborracharme antes y después de acostarme contigo.
Lírica griega (Safo): me encanta acostarme con mi marido, pero mis amigas son especiales.
Épica griega: Un hombre (o dios) se acostó con quien no debía, y mira la que armó.
Lírica romana (Catulo): Follar, polla, coño, HHmmmmm!!!!
Épica romana: Nuestros héroes no se acuestan con quien no deben.
Nuevo Testamento: ¡Dejad de prohibir cosas y quereos un poco!
Épica medieval: No quiero acostarme con nadie, estoy demasiado ocupado matando dragones / en la guerra (depende del país).
Lírica medieval: véase poesía popular.
Lírica medieval sacra: No quiero acostarme con nadie, estoy demasiado ocupado enamorado de la Virgen María.
Lírica medieval culta, no sacra: Laura no quiere acostarse conmigo.
Lírica renacentista: Estella sigue sin querer acostarse conmigo.
Shakespeare: Quiero acostarme con muchachitos vestidos de mujer.
Lírica postrenacentista (Inglaterra): Paso de ti, si no te acuestas conmigo ya lo hará otra.
Lírica barroca (España): Después de haberme acostado contigo, haré penitencia.
Neoclasicismo: Todos los anteriores deberíais haber utilizado mejor sintaxis y haber sido educativos, panda de sinvergüenzas.
Romanticismo: mi sufrimiento queda mucho mejor en los poemas que mis ganas de acostarme contigo.
Postromanticismo: Quería acostarme contigo hasta que descubrí las drogas.
Modernismo: ¿Sexo? Quién quiere sexo con lo bonito que es contemplar el nenúfar en el lago?
Vanguardismo, surrealismo: Los edificios grises de la gran ciudad quieren acostarse con los espinosos rosales del parque.
Música pop/ rock: véase poesía popular.
Canción protesta: No nos dejan acostarnos juntos, y me da coraje.

Popular poetry (universal): I want to have sex with you.
Old Testament: I don't know what you're talking about, but I'm sure it's forbidden.
Greek, lyrical (Anacreon): I want to get drunk before and after having sex with you.
Greek, lyrical (Sappho): I love having sex with my husband, but my girlfriends are special.
Greek, epic: A man (or god) had sex with someone he wasn't supposed to, and see what a mess he made!
Roman, lyrical (Catullus): Fuck, cock, ass, Hhhmmmmm!!!!!!
Roman, epic: Our heroes don't have sex with whoever they're not supposed to.
New Testament: Will you stop forbidding things and love each other for once!
Medieval epic: I don't want to have sex with anybody, I'm too busy killing dragons // at the war (depends on the country).
Medieval, lyrical: see Popular.
Medieval, lyrical, sacred: II don't want to have sex with anybody, I'm too busy loving the Virgin Mary.
Medieval, lyric, not sacred or popular: Laura won't have sex with me.
Renaissance: Estella won't have sex with me either.
Shakespeare: I want to have sex with boys dressed up as women.
Post-renaissance (England): Whatever, if you won't have sex with me, someone else will.
Baroque (Spain): I'll be penitent after you have sex with me.
Neoclassical: All the previous ones should have used better syntax and should have at least tried to be educational. Pack of shameless good-for-nothings.
Romantic: My suffering looks a lot better in a poem than my wish to have sex with you.
Post-romantic: I wanted to have sex with you until I discovered drugs.
Aestheticism: Sex? Who cares about sex when you can gaze at the beautiful lilies?
Modernism, surrealism: The grey buildings of the big city want to have sex with the prickly roses at the park.
Rock music: See Popular.
Protest song: We're not allowed to have sex and it pisses me off.

A reason of artistic inspiration?

About two years ago, I attended a sort of conference for poets, with publishers and other interested people. There was a dinner and I had the chance to talk with a few professionals, with amateurs like me, and publishers, and someone quite ruthless said a way of telling apart the bad amateurs from the promising ones. I'm translating as faithfully as I can, and I wish I remembered the person's name: 

Lots of young people write poetry. They are easy to sort out because the mediocre ones stop writing when they get into a steady relationship.

That fits nicely into the usual male-oriented explanations of the creative impulse as something nearly sexual. There is the Sheherezade model: being creative makes you sexy. There is the Sublimation model: you put into creating the energies that you'd put into sex if there was an available partner. There is the Oedipal model: you write because you want to beat your influences (your influences are yourf ather and Art is your mother: apply Oedipus to the triangle.

I haven’t had the opportunity to see if that critic's theory applies to me, for the very simple reason that I have not had a long-term relationship since I started writing "seriously". Even so, I doubt it works on me. Not because I believe I am above mediocrity, but because I think I write faster and better when I have an audience. I think it's very funny (in both the "strange" and in the "amusing" senses) how most of my most creative spells, the ten-poems-a-week fits, have taken place in the bubbling ground at the very earliest stages of relationships. I am curious about whether, if I ever have a steady relationship again, that person (or me getting lazy and comfortable) will kill my Muse. I hope not.

Poetry and beauty

In Spain, there is an association called the "Real Academia Española", The "Spanish Royal Academy", which publishes the most prestigious dictionary in the country (sorry, María Moliner). The Academy’s opinions are prestigious but not official; that is, contrary to what happens in France with the Academie, the Spanish Academia does not rule about what is "real" Spanish and what isn´t (some Spaniards mistakenly think it does, but that’s another story). Well, the Academia dictionary gives this as the first and sixth definitions in its long entry on poesía, "poetry":

  • 1. Manifestación de la belleza o del sentimiento estético por medio de la palabra, en verso o en prosa.
  • 6. Idealidad, lirismo, cualidad que suscita un sentimiento hondo de belleza, manifiesta o no por medio del lenguaje.

Expression of beauty or of aesthetic feeling through words, in prose or verse. Idealization, lirical quality, that which provokes a deep feeling of beauty, expressed or not in language.
This is nonsense, because it is incomplete. Well, it is a dictionary, not an enciclopedia or a literary manual, but still. The problem is that it does not make sufficiently clear that "beauty" is a quality of the work, not necessarily a quality of the people, objects, or events poetry describes. Let’s see. Can we write poetry of the ugly? Of course we can, and we don’t need to resort to very modern stuff to prove it. The beginning of the Iliad deals with a man getting very angry with another because on the course of a war, they are fighting about which one gets to keep an enslaved priestess. That is not a pretty topic! If we like the Iliad it is because it shows beautiful language and because it makes familiar things unfamiliar.

Another example. Shakespeare. Richard III. What is there of beauty is a hunchback, a man considered ugly by all the other characters, telling the audience how he plans to kill all his relatives because they have a better claim to the throne that he has? The words he uses, those original, beautiful-sounding words. The problem is of course when the poet is not good enough or the circumstances are so close to us that the familiar cannot be made unfamiliar. I don’t think Turks or Africans or the children of victims of gender violence would appreciate Othello. But that doesn’t mean that a jealous husband killing his wife is unfit for poetry. Sadly, the most prestigious dictionary in the Spanish language seems to prefer a definition of poetry that applies better to works about flowers and butterflies.

Jazz

I generally dislike jazz on principle. The idea behind jazz is more or less the same as in free verse: as long as the central idea remains, you’re free to go in and out of the rhythm. I see jazz in one corner of a triangle with soul and blues on the other two. Blues is occasionally too monotonous; jazz is too free; soul has the perfect balance. This is something explained humourously in the novel The Commitments by Roddy Doyle, whose characters prefer soul, without a doubt. I agree with them: jazz is way too self-indulgent. I don’t think I’ve ever heard anything as boring as Miles Davis. Sorry.

The surprising thing about this is that I should not like Django Reinhart, who takes a theme or song and makes it jump and run all over the place, turns it backwards and inside out and then goes on as if nothing had happened. But I’ve just discovered Reinhart and I think I’m in love. If I could post music like it was a poem, I would. But I can’t, so stating my newly discovered love of Reinhart will have to do.

Edited to add: Coincidentally, Fitopaldi quotes someone who also despises Jazz. Heh. This may be the explanation of why I don't like Heavy Metal either.

Women and poetry

I thought that, because today is the international Women’s Day, I would post a poem from a different woman poet every day of the week. The problem is, I hardly ever read (or enjoy) poetry written by women. Chronologically, my list of adored women novelists starts in Jane Austen, two centuries ago, and then there’s the Brontës and plenty of 20th century ones. But poetry, not really. I find the discovery surprising. Why aren’t there more excellent female poets, if there are plenty of excellent women writers? I think these are some of the reasons:

  • Women not being allowed to learn to read and write. This applies mostly to the times in which only the upper classes wrote. So, upper-class women with artistic inclinations before the late Middle Ages might have learnt to compose poetry, but not write it.
  • Women being able to read and write, but not receiving any further education. This applies from the late Middle Ages to the early 20th century.
  • Women receiving some education, but not in the fields that everyone around them considered relevant for a poet. This is relevant most of all in the Renaissance and the couple of centuries that followed: 16th to 18th centuries. The idea is that women did not know much about classical antiquity or dead languages, and the current trends of the time were for poetry that imitated classic models. Therefore, women who wanted to express themselves poetically knew that their message was faulty.
  • Women being told that having ovaries is an obstacle to good writing. Read the introduction to The Madwoman in the Attic if you want more information, as I can’t say anything you won’t find there.
  • Women who finally can write and feel confident about their skills don’t turn up until the last couple of centuries. Hardly anyone can make a living out of poetry, and besides, someone who is painfully earning the right to be heard would rather write about stuff more immediate that lyrical poetry. Novels are ideal: wide readership that can provide an income (writers need to eat too), and a way to express ideals and at the same time tell stories.
We don’t really have valid reasons for the near absence of truly brilliant poetry by women over the last century or so. I imagine they exist, but I have hardly heard of them. I’ll keep looking for the best, no matter if the writer came with an uterus attached or not. I hope you enjoy the absolutely biased selection of poems I’m preparing for the rest of the week.

Damned if you do, damned if you don't

It bothers me the extent to which feminist criticism can easily become resentful and defeatist. It’s very hard to make good feminist criticism; I understand it as paying great attention to gender roles and more attention than has been given previously to female characters, under the assumption that gender roles are a construct. Not much more than that. Feminist criticism does not need to assume or denounce that women are badly represented by an especific piece of art, because the problem with this is that _all_ art can be put under suspicion.

Let’s put action and crime movies and TV as an example. We like to see violence onscreen. the problem of feminist analysis is:

Female victim, and you’re accused of perpetuating the role of women as passive victims. Pretty victim, you glamorise violence. Ugly victim, she has been punished for being ugly.
Female villain and you’re accused of making your female characters unlikeable.
Male villain and victim, you’re accused of inventing an all-male world. I have seen analysis of Harry Potter around the publication time of the third book that complained that Wizard women are too passive and badly represented.... because there were no female villains.

Same for every theme. We live in a world in which women are undoubtedly mistreated so some of us are too used to see the author mistreating the female characters. I don’t want to do that in my work as a critic, but it is nearly unavoidable.

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Adjectives

I love the Spanish writer (columnist, novelist) Elvira Lindo. now that she is living in New York City she so often tells in her columns things that remind me so much of my own reactions to Americans.

This little fragment  from her latest column is originally about political journalism, but it applies very well to many other things!

Sé de un profesor de redacción periodística tan extravagamente sensato que escurre los periódicos ante sus alumnos como si fueran estropajos y sacude los aparatos de radio para que se vacíen de adjetivos. Es lo que hace el artista cuando madura, decir lo que quiere de la forma más simple.

I know of a professor in a Journalism school who is so extravagantly sensible that he squeezes newspapers in front of his students as if they were cleaning rags and he shakes radios to thrwo out the adjectives.  That's what artists do when they mature: they say what they mean in the simplest possible manner.

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

Today is Saint Stephen, which is an occasion as good as any other to talk about Stephen Dedalu, a self-parody of James Joyce with a starring role in his novels Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Ulysses. The Portrait tells Stephen's life from early childhood until he decides that, if he wants to be  An Artist, he needs to leave Ireland and go to Paris where all the cool Bohemian kids are.

Stephen's problem is that he tries too hard to be cool. The chronological end of his adventures, as far as Joyce wants to tell us, is that after he has gone back to Dublin and can barely survive on his teaching salary, he meets a truly nice and generous man, Leopold Bloom. Optimist readers may think that after this encounter, Stephen will go and live for free in Bloom's home, sorting out the older man's loneliness (Bloom lives with his wife, but to say they have a communication problem would be the understatement of the year), and the young man's housing problem.

What of Stephen as a poet? The narrator likes to be ambiguous and never tells us if Stephen is a good artist. All you get of his style is that he is or wants to be very complex. The only poem of Stephen's in the books is this one, included near the end of the Portrait. Critics say that with it, James Joyce wants to tease readers: we are predisposed to like or dislike the poem according to our like or dislike of Stephen and we always need someone to tell us that it is OK to like something. The professor that introduced me into the Portrait said that the poem is there to show that Stephen wants to be a rebel but will not succeed because he has chosen a poetic form, the villanelle, that is formally very demanding: putting form so far above content is not a good sign. I think the poem is just like Stephen: too complex, and it takes too long to say too little. But the most interesting thing about it, as I say, is not whether I like it or not, but the way it is placed near the end of a novel whose ongoing enigma, its tiny plot, is the question, "Will Stephen ever manage to be A Great Artist as he wishes to be?". Instead of having qa comfortable narrator that tells you yes or no, all you have is Stephen's poetry so that you have to make up your own mind about poor Stephen's artistic ability.

Ok, now, judge for yourselves.
 

Are you not weary of ardent ways,
Lure of the fallen seraphim?
Tell no more of enchanted days.

Your eyes have set man's heart ablaze
And you have had your will of him.
Are you not weary of ardent ways?

Above the flame the smoke of praise
Goes up from ocean rim to rim.
Tell no more of enchanted days.

Our broken cries and mournful lays
Rise in one eucharistic hymn.
Are you not weary of ardent ways?

While sacrificing hands upraise
The chalice flowing to the brim,
Tell no more of enchanted days.

And still you hold our longing gaze
With languorous look and lavish limb!
Are you not weary of ardent ways?
Tell no more of enchanted days.

Trainspotting the movie: Is it a comedy?

Trainspotting , the movie, is an excellent example of the theory that “tragedy is a slap on the face; comedy is a slap on someone else’s face”. It is a lot easier to make comedy about whatever is different from you, which means, in the case of Trainspotting, that if you have seen the effects of drugs from too up close, if you cannot see them with detachment, you might like Trainspotting, but you will not see it as a comedy. The first time I saw it, about nine years ago, the most salient thing to me was the black, weird humour. Now I still love it, but the things I really appreciate have nothing to do with the plot; they are formal aspects,  such as the cinematography and the editing. I also enjoy precisely what makes the movie closer to me, what I can relate to (and that goes well beyond comedy): the accents, and the places that I know.

By the way, the film was shot on location in several different Scottish towns, which means that in the now classic “Lust for Life”, Renton-chased-by-the-police scene, he runs away in Edinburgh, crosses the street in front of the Glasgow Museum of Modern Art, and is caught by the police back in Edinburgh. That’s quite a long distance to run.

Shakespeare vs, Britney Spears?

I have discovered a philosophy site with a few interesting (and rather geeky) games. One of them teaches about the characteristics of art: it asks you to give rate six characteristics  art is supposed to have and then it checks how two artists or so-called artists compare according to your own criteria.

This is what I think of the six characteristics the site gives as elements of a work of art:

Great technical ability: Necessary but not essential. It depends on the degree of beauty, maybe.
The work is enjoyable: Again, necessary but not essential.
The work conveys the feelings of the artist: Absolutely unnecessary, of course.
The work conveys an important moral lesson or helps us to live better lives: Again unnecessary.
The formal features of the work are harmonious and/or beautiful: Necessary but not essential.
The work reveals an insight into reality: Essential. Art makes you see the world through different eyes. Having said that, to me language is part of reality,so a work that is very self-referential, a work that plays with language is also revealing an insight into reality.

What I find interesting, rather than the results the test gives to me, are the rates other people have given. Everyone else thinks that the most important value is that the work conveys the feelings of the artist (noooo, bleh, the world is too full of Bécquer fans, yuck), and that it is enjoyable. Beauty and moral lessons are not popular. Feeling and fun are.

You can check the game yourself here.
 

Preferred and dispreferred responses

I have dedicated four separate entries to Grice's Maxims, which are very useful for the construction of dialogues. The maxims have to be seen in the context of preferred and dispreferred responses. The theory is very easy: If you ask someone to marry you, you hope a “yes” and you fear a “no”. Anything that is not a “yes”, including “maybe” (which is uninformative), extra information, being asked back something else (“Will you marry me?” “How long have to been waiting to ask?”), jokes, irony, anything, is a dispreferred response.

When you say a compliment, you expect a thank you. Sometimes you expect modesty: “What a lovely meal” “Oh, it’s nothing, it’s a very simple recipe”. That is a preferred response. Anything else is dispreferred.

When you ask for permission, you hope a yes and fear a no. You ask your boss if you can leave early on Thursday. Yes is preferred. “Yeah, right, and next week you’ll ask Thursday off, and the following week you’ll ask Thursday off and a rise”. That sentence is not a “no”. Still, it is a dispreferred response because it is delaying a real yes or a real no. It is breaking Maxims Three and Four. As answers to “Can I leave early on Thursday?”, the difference between “How are you doing with this week’s workload?” and “You can leave early on Thursday if you’re nearly finished with the week’s assigned work” is that the question is a dispreferred response; the conditional yes is not a good as a plain “Sure!”, but still, it is a preferred response because it is straightforward.

In short: the preferred response is what a person (or character) wishes or anticipates to get as a plain answer. Anything else is a dispreferred response.

The worst dispreferred response of them all is silence.

Virginia Woolf as a literary critic

Like any other artist working overtime as a literary critic, Virginia Woolf’s criticism, witty and tough, says that writing should be what she did. This passage from A Room of One’s Own sounds harsher than it really is because I’ve taken it out of context, but even so there is some truth in it (if you’re reading from Spain, remember that fatal means “lethal, deadly”):

“It is fatal for anyone who writes to think of their sex. It is fatal to be a woman pure and simple; one must be woman-manly or man-womanly. It is fatal for a woman to lay the least stress on any grievance; to plead even with justice any cause; in any way to speak consciously as a woman. And fatal is no figure of speech; for anything written with that conscious bias is doomed to death. It ceases to be fertilised… it cannot grow in the minds of others”

What would Woolf have thought of literature written from a purely queer perspective? Or about political literature, leaving gender aside, that puts a “stress in grievance”? I think she is exaggerating a wee bit, although I agree if what she means is that whatever there is of political in writing must be subordinated to the attempt to achieve excellency (whatever excellency may be).

Grice's Maxims, 4 and last: of brevity.

I have let too much time pass between each of my posts about the Maxims. Here you have the other three.

Grice Maxim number Four: Be brief; be informative. This does not mean “use few words”, it means “make all words mean something”. There are two extremes to break the rule: one is not providing information:

-“What did you do today?” “oh, nothing, the usual”.

And the extreme of giving lots of words and no information: tags, fillers. “Coletillas”. This is an easy way of making your characters sound different from each other and it was a favourite technique of Charles Dickens. Repetitions fall here too. Consider the difference between: “I can’t” and “I can’t, seriously, I just can’t”. Remember that we are talking about fiction: the one that talks like that is a character, not the narrator. Characters can do all sorts of things that the narrator isn’t supposed to do, like using the most trite phrases. Have a narrator saying: “As a matter of fact,” and you’ll kill the flow. Have a character say “As a matter of fact,” and you’ll be building up their personality.

Grice Maxims 3: of relevance.

I will continue with the series on how to use conversation rules as studied by linguistics,when writing dialogues in fiction.

THREE: Be relevant; be informative. I think this rule is the one we break most often. We change the subject when we want to talk about something different, or when we don’t want to answer a question. People who seem too talkative are often simply irrelevant: you get bored of listening to them, because what they say is not appropriate to the occasion.

In fiction that is not absolutely masterly, everyone gives straight answers,but we don’t do that in real life. If you use any instant messenger system, save and reread any longish conversation you have with a friend, and you’ll see what I mean. The uses of this maxim in fictional dialogue are endless. These are a few:

-Understatement: A person who doesn’t want to say something bad of someone else may point at an irrelevant good feature of that person. “Oh, but she has a beautiful smile”. You just don’t want to say she’s skinny and flat as an ironing board.

-Withholding information, like our ironic man of Maxim One (Be truthful). “What did you do today?” “Why do you want to know?”

-Characters that relate everything that happens to other people to themselves. Imagine three characters talking about a fourth person, who is sick, and one in the trio insists on describing his last illness, to get sympathy.
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Grice's Maxims 2: of politeness.

I willcontinue with the series of recommendations on how to apply Grice´s Maxims to the composition of dialogues in fiction. Grie's Maxims are four rules that we all follow (and expect others to follow!) in conversation.

Maxim 2 is: Be polite. This is culture-bound. For example, Americans say “Have a nice day” as a standard form of goodbye and it sounds terribly phoney to foreigners (it is impossible to translate into Spanish, it just doesn’t sound credible). Your characters can skip courtesy formulas, or overdo them. In Jane Austen’s Emma there’s a spinster that Emma considers an awful bore, and you get the impression that the poor old lady never stops speaking, but her problem is that she is overpolite, thanking people over and over again. At the other end, consider the power of someone walking in a room and starting to talk without saying hello: there will be a hostility plain to your reader. Agressiveness can be communicated like that, discreetly.

Politeness includes not interrupting people, and letting them speak. If you want a character to be overenthusiastic, rude, violent, anxious, or something like that, they can cut everyone else in the middle of a sentence.
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