Tuesday, 17 December 2013

Artistic simplicity

In his blog post Simplicity's tightrope Matthew Stewart points out that "Syntactic simplicity is just as capable of ambition and is even more dangerous as its opposite number. Moreover, there's no gorgeous language to hide behind if the verse falls flat on its face. Later he writes that "Hamish Whyte's ... new HappenStance pamphlet, 'Hannah, are you listening?' is an excellent example of such a kind of verse". He adds, and I agree, that "Poetry doesn't have to be flash to be memorable".

I've just been reading that pamphlet, and I too wondered about the issue of simplicity. My job in education involves trying to express concepts as simply as possible, but both at work and in poetry there are complications -

  • Accessibility isn't the same as simplicity. The bible's parables, or Blake's "Songs ..." aren't simple - that's why they've endured.
  • Minimalism isn't the same as simplicity - "Artistic simplicity is more complex than artistic complexity for it arises via the simplification of the latter and against its backdrop or system" - Yury Lotman
  • Sometimes things aren't as simple as they look. Sometimes we need to make familiar things strange, to see them in a new light. "Principia Mathematica" famously took hundreds of pages to show that 1 plus 1 equals 2. And we're learning how complex basic perception and language processing are - "The aspects of things that are most important for us are hidden because of their simplicity and familiarity" - Wittgenstein.
  • Some things that appear difficult ("Magic Eye" autostereograms, for example) can suddenly become easy to some people while remaining difficult to disbelieving others - "One of two kinds of clearness one should have - either the meaning to be felt without effort as fast as one reads or else, if dark at first reading, when once made out to explode" - Hopkins
  • Maybe simple poetry is more likely to be interpreted as deep and strong rather than bland and unambitious if the poet's already famous

Some academics prefer poetry that they can spend pages analysing and decoding - it makes them feel useful. Some poets know this, and write accordingly. Of course there are many, more acceptable reasons for telling it slant. Centuries ago, Demetrius wrote "ambiguity may often add strength. An idea suggested is more weighty: simplicity of statement excites contempt".

In computing there's a concept known as "syntactic sugar" - features added to a computing language that make life easier for humans without affecting functionality. In poetry there might be "syntactic curry" - features (like broken syntax) added to disguise the quality of the ingredients. Perhaps the realisation of this is why poets tend to write more simply as they age (though there are numerous exceptions - Blake, for example). Auden never again wrote anything as baffling as "The Orators". Kathleen Jamie's poetry is growing in simplicity. It seems to me that Jorie Graham and Denise Riley write most simply when writing about something that strongly affected them emotionally.

I don't often write "simple but strong" poetry, partly because I write short prose too (though Yury Lotman claimed that "Prose is a later phenomenon than poetry, arising in a period of chronologically more mature esthetic consciousness ... notwithstanding its seeming simplicity and closeness to ordinary speech, prose is esthetically more complex than poetry"). At this moment I'm more interested in poetry that lets language show through - sounds, letters, unwanted associations, miss-hearings, misspellings - rather than making language transparent. So consequently Hamish Whyte's pamphlet seems like too much of a good thing at the moment.

1 comment:

  1. I’m not a huge fan of ambiguity. Poems are so damn short anyway that they can’t help but come with inbuilt omissions without us setting out to deliberately, to use Beckett’s word, “envaguen” them further. I am a fan, however, of layers. It depends how deep the readers is. Some will draw a poem inside them and meditate on its contents whereas others are only interested in the words and what meanings pop into their heads when they first read. I think you need to cater for both. I’m always amazed when people start analysing films and I think to myself: How the hell did I miss all this subtext? The reason is that I mostly watch TV to relax. I don’t read to relax—I’m always on the lookout for subtleties in the books I read—but I pretty much switch all that off when in front of a television screen. Minimal is hard. I suspect this is why I tend towards the loquacious when working in prose; it’s nice just to feel the words bubble forth. I’m reading Anita Brookner at the moment (Look at Me) and that’s exactly how her novel feels to me, like someone’s suddenly been sat down and allowed to prattle on until the words all dry up. A world away from the Auster (Man in the Dark) I finished a couple of days ago with all his short sentences.