How Art Works
Note: This essay (from a letter to a friend) was inspired by passages
in several works by L.
Ron Hubbard, including Science of Survival, Scientology 8-80
and "The Art Series".
Art, ideally, is the exchange of universes, creations, ideas, etc.,
where the exchange has rules (agreements) enough to make it a game,
such that communication (exchange) can be considered to be of greater
or lesser quality. Thus, one of the major roles of an artist is
helping self and others keep in view the ideal scene for spiritual
existence: It's not that the art is ABOUT spritual existence. The
art IS, as a game, spiritual existence. It is what we, by preference,
do when we remember who we really are.
Essentially, an artist tries to create an effect (as do we all).
An artist is concerned with the quality of the effect he creates.
But this is redundant: A high quality effect is simply more of an
effect, more effect. Why? Because we have to have an agreed-upon
sense of time (its direction, for example) in order to conceive
of cause and effect. We have to separate them, put cause earlier,
effect later. And once we have time, we can speak of more or less
lasting effects, more or less effect-spawning effects. And thus
we admire effects that inspire others to create effects, and thus
the initial effect becomes the immediate effect created plus all
the effects the beings affected create. In other words, good games
open up more games. Bad games lessen the possibility of having a
Thus, you could create a big effect by blowing up the planet right
now, but you'd have this one brief big effect (possibly quite aesthetic
for anyone capable of experiencing it), followed by aeons of no-playing-field,
no game, no effect. Or you could create the tiny effect of helping
one person to greater freedom. But that being may now help others
or create great art that reaches millions, some of whom may be inspired
to reach millions more. You may paint a painting that enables billions
for millennia to see a color in the setting sun no one had noticed
before. People in good shape tend to play aesthetic games.
Aesthetics can also melt the traps created by aesthetics. Too often
we devotees of the arts ignore (in our insistence on the value of
art) its danger: How an aesthetic frequency (being closest to what
we are) can be used as a kind of bait to hook us on coarser frequencies
(good-evil, effort, emotion, thinking, symbols, sex, etc.). The
basic traps use aesthetics: Study almost any TV commercial.
Think of it as a sequence. Imagine yourself a purveyor of cars
looking for a hook. Ah, we'll associate the cars with sexy girls,
youth, energy. So girls, youth, energy are the bait. But what makes
THEM attractive? I think that long ago purveyors of social control
used aesthetics to make bodies attractive to us, but without becoming
quite so esoteric, I think we can observe that most of us are not
uniformly charmed by the young people we meet, not turned on by
every woman/man we encounter and not always attracted by explosions
of energy, noise, etc. We find these things attractive in commericials
(and, when they are, in life) mainly because of aesthetic values
with which they are enhanced (make-up, lighting, music, choice of
camera-angle, allusion, etc.). An immense amount of art goes into
every commerical. An immense amount of art goes into every attractive
man or woman.
But one can use aesthetics to increase awareness of (confront
of) aesthetics and this has more use than just proofing us
against commercials: Most people who are stuck, if scrutinized closely
enough, reveal an aesthetic posture at the core of it, a tragic
nobility or whatever. In fact, all of us have such postures, I think.
Our blindspots have aesthetic bases, the clichés we aren't
aware of, the borrowed aesthetics (with which someone else once
overwhelmed us) that possesses us. These, two, one can undermine
with aesthetics. For example, have you ever seen someone in mid-dramatization
(rage or grief or apathy, for example) charmed out of it by someone
doing a perfect parody of it? I've seen such a parody goad someone
out of grief into rage and then (struggling against it all the way)
into hearty laughter. One can always undercut an aesthetic trap
on one frequency by raising aesthetic awareness to a finer frequency.
This is what form is about: Frequency. Form means, simply, anything
that generates expectation, then creates effects by meeting or disappointing
expectation or mixtures and variations of these for example,
simultaneously meeting and disappointing (say in music a resolving
chord with a disturbing note added; or in a poem, a paradoxical
aspect) or one could meet expectation with a vengeance, for example,
generate humor by rhyming, not once, but a dozen times.
This definition is my own, but you may find it elsewhere; I doubt
that it's original. It reveals the possibilities of form and gets
away from definitions that depend on differentiating between form
and matter/subject, a rough differentiation that is not easy to
make in many cases. It's easy enough to distinguish painting from
frame, but it's not so easy to say that, for example, the moral
of a fable is part of its content, as opposed to its form.
Form, then, produces the characteristic I associate with all art
that works: Simultaneous recognition and surprise creative
enough to surprise, but familiar enough to make one's own. The reader
takes something into himself, then is surprised by what he now finds
This definition of form as whatever it takes to generate expectation
and to meet and/or disappoint it suggests the wide-open possibilities
of form. Sure, a set of rigid, complex rules for rhyme, meter and
subject set up a good game (that's another way to define form: The
game rules). But you could create form on the fly ala Calvin-Ball
or, often, jazz. The first word of the poem could set the reader
up with an expectation which the second word would tamper with in
some way, the third word in another way, etc.
The thing is, if you're too loose, the reader will lose track of
any game going on, and go find a game he can play. He won't be aware
enough of what's going on to have an expectation. Much depends on
the shared awarenesses of reader and writer. For example, I watched
two nephews of mine, identical twins, playing when they were about
five: They started with something simple, like one rolling a ball
to the other, but they kept changing the rules, instantly, with
no hesitation or talk, doing other things with the ball, introducing
other toys, and each knew exactly how to respond. It was like Calvin
Ball: the crazy game Calvin and Hobbes invent as they go along ("Wait,
you didn't turn around 3 times, so you have to stand by the bad
tree for three moves", "No, because I declared it silly
time when you have to do the opposite of what you're supposed to
do", etc.). It seemed arbitrary to me, but to them it made
sense, they were so mutually atuned.
A writer can educate his reader on form in the course of the work,
gradually, beginning slowly, then beginning to move swiftly, like
a dancer getting into more complex steps. One fine example is Pale
Fire, by Nabokov. It's a novel (perhaps); it's also a complex
ground/field puzzle which, viewed one way, is a novel, in other
ways, not, except that it tempts you to get into an argument with
yourself over which way to view it, and that leads you back into
it, since your argument parallels the "content" of the
"novel" (for example, characters "within" the
novel are arguing about how to read the work you are reading), but
your awareness of that mirroring leads you back "outside"
again, etc. With Pale Fire, quite literally, the reader must decide
in which order to read the pages, but not because the choice is
left to the reader, but because the choice is a significant step
in the experience of the story.
Even within a traditional form, immense variation is possible.
Look, for example, at Gerard Manley Hopkins' great sonnet, "No
Worst, There Is None", a fine formal sonnet that tears the
sonnet apart with counter rhythms, like contrary undercurrents.
One way to understand form is to see how a simple thing like iambic
pentameter can be varied to a certain point without most readers
losing the sense that the poem is iambic pentameter; whereas, if
the variation goes too far, it loses that form or if the
poem begins with too heavy a variation, the reader may never pick
up on the form in the first place. I could write a book, conceivably,
that led up to an entire page consisting of just the letter p (ppppppppppppppp...)
and make it work. Sterne pulls stunts like that in Tristram Shandy.
But if I BEGAN the work like that, I'd have a harder time. Though
I suppose it's possible the sheer novelty of it.
One could translate this model of form into the language of frequency,
amplitude, wave-length, etc. You can feel the frequency of a poem's
shifts and tensions increasing. This is a matter of speed or density,
partly: How quickly are expectations stirred and exploited. But
probably it's more a matter of the closeness of states: For example,
the book starts promising a sad ending, then delivers a happy ending.
That's a huge turnaround, and if that's all there is to it, the
book would be at a fairly coarse frequency, maybe even sentimental.
The book promises a sad ending with hints of maybe a not-so-sad
ending, then produces an ending that is sad in a slightly different
way than expected, happy in a slightly different way than expected.
It would require a finer awareness, I think, to pull that off.
One generates energy by holding two things apart, where the two
things are at a different potential (e.g., the terminals of a battery).
You can build a generator by holding apart enthusiam and apathy.
The energy generated may not be in a form physics currently recognizes
as energy, but surely you can FEEL the energy when, for example,
you are awaiting the outcome of the big game, knowing it will mean
loss or triumph. A huge charge of energy develops (especially if
the game is close), which releases when loss or victory is attained
(one may go limp).
But you could also hold apart strong interest and mild interest
or fear and anxiety. These latter require a finer awareness of the
emotions, an ability to make more subtle distinctions.
A person capable of more subtle distinctions could deal finely
with the broad distinctions, write a story promising tragedy, leading
to a happy ending, but still somehow generating a very fine frequency.
In choir singing this becomes obvious. Often a conductor will make
the choir aware of a finer underlying rhythm (in Bach, for example)
by having them sing "one-two-three-four" for every beat.
In other words, instead of singing (B-Minor Mass) "Kee - ree
- ay - ee - lay - ee - son", they sing something like this:
Kee-eee-eee-ree-ay-ay-ee-ee-lay-ay-ay-ay-ay-ay-...". The point
is, the music seems to be flowing along at a stately pace, but you
can't sing it right unless you get a sense of the composer's real
beat, which is about four times as fast.
Look how the frequency of a beat is changed by syncopation. To
encompass the syncopation within the rhythm, you have to double
or quadruple (or more) your sense of the beat, depending on the
fineness of the syncopation. If the rhythm is
(1) __ __ __ __,
(2) __ __ __ __
would require doubling your sense of the beat, because I moved
the third beat halfway to the left. But
would require quadrupling your sense of the beat, because I made
a move that requires differentiating among smaller intervals. The
first is dum dum dum dum. If you said instead, dum de dum de dum
de dum de; then you could express the second pattern as dum dum
de [dum de] dum (with a pause after the de for the missing dum and
the second de [in brackets] not said, but felt). The third one would
require you to sense an underlying beat of dum de de de dum de de
de dum de de de, etc., so that the syncopation could be expressed
as dum de de de dum de [de de dum de de de] dum dee dee dee.
Or something like that. I'm no expert in annotation for syncopation.
The point is, you don't need to voice (or play) 16 beats in a bar
of music in order to get the listener (and performer) thinking in
terms of 16 beats to the bar. You can do it with 4 notes or even
two notes, and, I suppose, with a single note if that note is just
barely off an established 4-note beat.
The fineness of aesthetic frequency generated has to do with how
keenly aware the reader must be to keep up with the game. The amplitude
has to do with how much the reader cares, how important it is to
GET it, how deeply felt the resolution is. It's one thing to deal
playfully with comic characters who never get hurt, another thing
to generate the same lightness and detachment when involving the
reader with real, vivid, rough death for example. (See Nabokov
Sinister.) All this is rough, needs more thought, but it could
be fairly rigorous, closer to a science of aesthetics than most
other aesthetic theory, closer to a varifiable phenomenon, I think.
It's a real frequency, I think, something one could detect on an
oscilloscope for performed music, poetry, etc.
But all I want to do here is to to communicate a sense of the possibilities
of form. The point is that fineness of form has to do with how well
and how subtly and how strongly you generate and fullfil/disappoint
expectation, not with your abiding by traditional rules. You ARE
abiding by agreement, but the agreement may never have been described
by anyone's rules. The reader may have no idea what it is. But it
requires agreement to establish an expectation. The agreement may
be that a certain sequence of words suggests an attitude of disgust,
so the reader prepares to be disgusted, but some additional words
put a twist on it that changes the sense of the first words in some
The expectation aroused by "Take my wife" is that the
speaker is about to say something about his wife as in "Take
my wife, for example", but the next word (" PLEASE!")
reveals that the speaker meant, literally, TAKE my wife take
her away! That's a simple example of form. The reader/hearer may
never have noticed he held these various agreements about the meaning
of the word "take", but they go into effect in that joke.
Many aesthetic fallacies are based on the idea that it's the nature
of the element of the poem that's used to rouse expectation that
determines whether the result will be aesthetic or not. In other
words, some people think that it's essential to use metric elements
or word-sound elements or image-elements or feeling elements, etc.
This made me feel left out for years, because I tend to use "thought"
or "logical development of idea" elements as key generators
of form in my poems, and since the 17th century (maybe 18th), that
hasn't been fashionable in English literature.
The element(s) used have nothing to do with the aesthetic power
of the work. The difference of potential between two images (say
Blood and red lips) is not necessarily more important or more aesthetic
or finer than the difference of potential between two rhythmic elements
or two sounds (say Bone and Stone) or between two ideas (say Death
and Vacation). Usually many elements work together (harmoniously
or in intentional conflict) to generate the form. A painter can
create odd discordant effects by signaling object A is in front
of object B by giving A a warmer color than B, but simultaneously
signal that B is in front of A by one or more of the other indicators
of perspective (for example, classical perspective by parallel lines
meeting, perspective by shading or modeling, perspective by size
large object nearer, perspective by precision of focus versus
vagueness, perspective by position in the painting, etc.)
An artist can narrow the scope of possible effects (striving for
a "purer" form, less distraction, or simply using what
he knows best). For example, a painter who is entirely "abstract",
no recognizable images, can't do much with certain ways of rousing
expectation. A poet who doesn't use rhyme and/or meter - ditto.
Expectation and disappointment imply time and sequence. This applies
in different ways to different arts. You don't see a sculpture or
painting the way you read a poem or hear music, but there is sequence
the path the eye follows, expectation of a texture, etc.
What frequency is, basically, is the frequency of creation of universes,
and thus, in art, the aesthetic frequency is the frequency of the
work and of the contribution to the work of his own world made by
the reader/viewer when he "gets" the work as a live communication.
Aesthetic frequencies, in themselves, are neither good nor bad (aesthetics
are senior to "moral" good/bad, but not to ethics in its
broadest sense quality of survival in all areas of life).
A high aesthetic frequency isn't necessarily good, not if it's used
to overwhelm the reader/viewer/perceiver. And the artist, too, may
be dramatizing that overwhelm overwhelming others with what
overwhelmed him. Just because the reader is stirred to respond with
an aesthetic frequency doesn't mean that the reader is made more
AWARE of the frequency, of his ability to generate it at will.
Thus, aesthetic power can be used for good or ill. You could use
aesthetic powers to enslave (Hitler's massive rallies, for example).
You could use them to fool people, scramble them up on the subject.
You could use them to sell cars. You could use them to leave people
stuck in noble beautiful sadness by making it a very fine sadness
indeed. Thus, criticism that considers only the quality of the aesthetic
impact is limited.
I'm interested, also, in the extent to which the work increases
the reader's awareness of his/her own ability to generate that frequency
including his/her ability to create his/her own emotions
at will. After all, the artist (when effective) gets us to change
our emotion as the art demands. So why can't we do this for ourselves?
There are various ways a work of art can make the recipient aware
of his/her own ability to create, for example, get the reader into
something, then parody it; or simply draw it out to such an excruciating
point that one is forced to transcend it (King Lear is a good example).
It's not enough that the artist has good intentions. The artist
must also be good enough technically to generate fine aesthetics,
so that he can use an even finer frequency to expose or undercut
a fine frequency. AND the artist must be free enough of blindspots
to know what he's doing. If the artist is himself dramatizing having
been overwhelmed by some aesthetic frequency (for example, he's
stuck in the aesthetics of sexuality and pain), he will tend to
enslave others in the same areas.
Or the very well-intended artist may FORCE positive themes, happy
endings, etc., but they will be sentimental, corny, sticky. They
won't work or they'll entrap the less alert in goo (the desperation
behind an artist's need to force the positive). An artist in good
shape can communicate the misery as well as joy, but an artist in
bad shape can't communicate joy readily. If someone chronically
in grief tries to communicate enthusiasm, he'll generate mainly
ALL artists use aesthetic frequencies to entrap to the extent that
they involve the reader in the work, get him to respond to the frequency
and contribute to the work at that same frequency. They get the
reader/viewer to resonate. (We ought to have a single word for one
who responds to art one word that includes reader, viewer,
taster, etc. effect point of art.) But once the reader
is involved and contributing, the artist can use art to make the
reader more or less aware of aesthetics. An artist can use aesthetic
frequencies to engage the reader in a work of art that will increase
the reader's awareness of lower-level frequencies, but leave him
stuck in a finer frequency. For example, a book can parody coarse
sentimentality, while validating a more subtle sentimentality. (Hardy's
Jude the Obscure is a powerful example.) How many artists create
from beyond insanity? (Shakespeare comes to mind.)
An artist can use aesthetics to overthrow aesthetics --
aesthetic judo. The reader's involvement is like an attack, and
leads to a fall. This is the main technique of Nabokov, Kafka, Beckett,
Sterne and some others.
Form = expectation generation. Fullfillment of expectation corresponds
to a regular frequency -- which we perceive as beauty. Disappointment
corresponds to irregularity (the unexpected), or ugliness. But a
form can be simply or complexly regular. For example, a more subtle
sort of beauty is achieved by presenting an apparent irregularity
which turns out to be part of a greater regularity. A crude example
of this is the pattern a kaleidescope makes of six mirrored sets
of random fragments of color. Or look at the elaborate oscilloscope
pattern made by rich violin music -- or any other instrument
Since one frequency can be the carrier wave for another, you can
create interesting effects by using an "ugly" wave as
the basis for a beautiful wave (or vice versa). For example, you
could have a very regular wave (say a sign wave), but if you looked
closely at it, you'd see it consisted of irregular, jagged saw-teeth.
All sorts of complications (modulations) are possible.
At higher levels of emotion (or above emotion -- above
enthusiasm), one begins to perceive and act in terms of aesthetics
(taking a walk or having a chat becomes an aesthetic experience;
as may washing the dishes). At these levels, one begins, knowingly
and willingly, to create aesthetics and respond to it.
Each level of the emotion (grief, rage, etc.) has a frequency.
The frequency gets finer as one moves up. But technical virtuosity
enables an artist to use a high, aesthetic frequency as a carrier
wave for a coarser emotion (e.g., grief or rage), another example
of baiting a trap.
This would tie in with someone at a higher emotion being able to
create the lower one, but not vice versa, just as someone moving
fast can do the work of several people moving slowly. It's the same
as my analogy to beat in music above: If you're aware of a fast
beat, you can select out the slow beats to emphasize, but if you're
only aware of a slow beat, you miss the in-between beats.
The artist who puts a coarse frequency on an aesthetic frequency
carrier wave as a trap isn't really aware of the aesthetic level.
It's a compulsion, a need to overwhelm, a dramatized skill that
burns itself out from the misuse.
This would also fit with the notion that it takes a high frequency
to hold apart levels of emotion that are very near one another.
If you're in anger, you can't much differentiate between your anger
and someone else's antagonism. That's why someone in antagonism
can stir you up out of the muddier anger. Someone in apathy probably
can't differentiate emotions at all and doesn't believe anyone is
REALLY enthusiastic. Someone cheerful can easily spot the distinction
between apathy and grief or between boredom and mild interest, but
would have difficulty differentiating utter exhilaration from enthusiam.
Someone in anger can differentiate grief and apathy, but not cheerful
and enthusiastic, probably.
For me, the thing that's been most helpful in working through these
ideas has been realizing that you can generate aesthetics by fineness
of frequency no matter WHAT elements of the work are used to generate
that frequency. It helped me understand what I was doing when I
realized that it didn't matter whether I generated an expectation
with vowel-sound patterns, metric stress, ideas, attitudes, emotions
-- anything perceivable by my audience. In performance poets,
tone and volume and pitch of voice and velocity are key elements.
In free verse, line length is important. The element isn't the point.
It's a matter of finding ANY area of agreement and using it to generate
expectation. People often say that my poems have funny twists. They're
saying that I have interesting (usually aesthetic) ways of meeting
and/or disappointing expectation. One can even PARODY the expectation
-- like those childhood riddles where you get a guy to say
something "dirty", then fault him for having a dirty mind.
Parody of the reader is a tricky way to disappoint expectation.
What's a cliché? Too much meeting of expectation, all recognition,
no surprise, been done before? More to the point, it doesn't much
ROUSE expectation, because reader perceives the artist isn't trying.
Artist wants reader to contribute. He's building a house of bricks
and wants reader to contribute bricks and mortar. But artist holds
up flat cardboard "bricks". Reader isn't interested.
Just to say that too much meeting of expectation is a cliché
doesn't quite work. For example, there's an aesthetic quality (surprise
and recognition combine in our responses) to delivering what's promised
with great exactitude -- Flaubert's gift for giving you
a medicine bottle or hat that is exactly that down to unexpectedly
minute, yet vivid details. Tolstoy's does this with the inner life
of his characters. One of Dickens' favorite tricks is overwhelming
the reader with excessive meeting of expectation -- disappointing
expectation by meeting it more than expected: The many characters
who are all one thing beyond belief. For example, Dickens will tell
us that Pumblechook (in Great Expectations) is a hypocrite. Then,
in scene after scene, Pumblechook will reveal hypocrisy in all its
forms, level beneath level of it. Then, just when the reader thinks
he's seen the absolute hypocrite -- NO ONE could be more
hypocritical than that! -- Pumblechook manages to reach
new depths of hypocrisy. In short, there is an aesthetic quality
to meeting expectation beyond expectation.
Thus, cliché is more a failure to rouse expectation than
too much meeting of expectation. Some would say that what's cliché
to one reader may work for another. This may be true some
overused image, for example, may be alive to a reader who hasn't
seen it a million times. But more often the situation is that the
more aware reader is AWARE of the cliché, while the less
aware reader is not, but is responding to the cliché AS a
cliché that is, is reading on idle, not contributing
much of his universe to the art, is reading as one might eat who
sits and chats with friends while noshing on potato chips without
noticing the taste of the chips, as opposed to someone eating with
attention on the food. Or the reader has a set of responses all
set to go. The book pushes the button, and the reader responds,
like using porno to turn on and masturbate.
I suppose cliché could apply to the meeting of an expectation
OR the disappointment of an expectation, as well as the failure
to rouse expectation. But it's not a matter of whether the expectation
is met, but whether the meeting OR disappointment is aesthetic.
A cliché is sort of a low-harmonic frequency slipped in where
the high-frequency is expected.
One angle on clichés is to realize that it isn't just a
matter of an overused phrase. Again, it's not the element that counts,
but the frequency (the fineness with which expectation is roused,
met, disappointed, how close one comes to meeting without meeting,
for example). Thus, not only a phrase, but an image, attitude, emotional
posture, idea, rhythm, rhyme, etc. -- any of these could
be a cliché. What differentiates a cliché from some
other failure of aesthetics is that it imitates aesthetics --
uses the non-aesthetic superficials of some earlier successful aesthetic
creation in hopes that the reader will be induced -- from
the similarity -- to contribute the aesthetics themselves.
Thus, the result is cliché where the artist tries to get
the reader/viewer to contribute THE AESTHETICS THEMSELVES, not to
match an existing aesthetic carrier wave, but to CREATE the carrier
wave FOR the artist by kneejerk response to something associated
with previous aesthetics. I put on Marlon Brando's hat and expect
you to respond to me as Marlon Brando. But triteness is relative:
A very high-frequency work slips to a lower (though still aesthetic)
frequency. An ending is "weak", we say. Good, but....
This frequency stuff is intended literally. It's physics, I think
-- not an ANALOGY of aesthetics to physics, but a rough
description of actual physical agreements behind aesthetics. The
word "physical" isn't quite right here, because an aesthetic
frequency can be finer than the frequency of this universe, I think.
I'm not sure how one speaks of such things, since time is a component
of the physical, so how does one define a frequency as senior to
time. But I do think one can, at higher aesthetic levels, perceive
and duplicate the lower frequencies of matter and energy and, at
least theoretically, create or uncreate them. And I suppose one
can postulate a time senior to physical time (finer, a quicker creation
of space to be in, which, in the "physical" is some function
of the speed of light), and then be at cause over time. In any case,
I think I'm describing actual agreements behind our responses to
Such ideas may be unreal to most people. I'm not engineer enough
myself to go deeply into such stuff. I have to stop and think each
time I sort out FM and AM or recall what it means to "heterodyne".
I know my aesthetics better than my physics. It would be fun to
sit down with someone who knows physics as well as I know aesthetics
and who knows aesthetics a bit better than I know physics and work
through some of this stuff.
One could take the above ideas and show how one poet uses meter
to rouse expectations, etc., how another uses something else or
many things at once. It's an interesting idea generator.
One could also use them to discuss any familiar form (say sonnet
or free verse), for example, show how the sonnet is a MACHINE for
generating effects, treat its "parts" as machine parts,
show what they can be made to DO. That's another way to define a
form -- a machine for generating effects. But then, what's
the poem itself if not a machine for generating effects? That definition
of form doesn't get you around the distinction between form and
content. The expectation definition does. If you say a form is a
machine, you have to say something like, the content is the way
the author fuels or drives or controls the machine.
But the machine idea is useful. An expectation generating and meeting
and disappointing machine. Look at the sonnet (the form, in general):
What are the ways a sonnet, just by being a sonnet, can create expectations?
Here we get to something much more complex than just rhyme and
meter and number of lines. There's also tradition. This is what
T. S. Eliot harped on in his essays. He wanted poets and readers
to know their cultures. If you've read lots of sonnets, you expect
certain themes and attitudes and types of rhetoric in sonnets. A
particular ending may not only be a twist on the start of the poem,
but also a conscious variation on the handling of the same theme
by Petrarch, Wyatt, Sidney, Shakespeare and more recent sonneteers.
Even if you weren't scholarly enough to spot the exact allusions,
if you were moderately well read, you'd feel them. I can write something
that alludes to Shakespeare (just sounds vaguely Shakespearean)
so that anyone who's read Shakespeare will get that allusion, though
they can't spot the exact play or scene.
In other words, everything that's ever been done in a form contributes
to the richness of the form (the way it can arouse and meet/disappoint
expectations). And everything that's ever been done in POETRY contributes
to the richness of poetry.
But what about people who HAVEN'T that degree of literacy? I'm
more literate than most, but I haven't read any of the Greek or
much of the Latin literature in the originals -- not much
in translation either. Ditto many other literatures (e.g., Chinese
-- Ezra Pound wanted us to read that too).
The richness of a form means the density of opportunities to rouse
and meet/disappoint expectation. In other words, if there are lots
of agreements, lots of rules to the game, things can get more complex.
Half of what an announcer does during a football game to make it
more interesting is compare what's going on with what's been done
before by the team, other teams, by the player, etc. That's like
richness based on a tradition in art.
So to understand the sonnet form, you need to understand metric
and rhyme schemes and how they work, but that's only the beginning.
What Eliot seems to ignore (willfully, I think) and what makes
academic poetry (Eliot-country) "the enemy" to so many
is his failure to recognize the trade-offs implicit in richness.
Just as a work can be so "original" that it can't be understood,
so a work can be so "rich" that no one gets the point.
This is not necessarily a liability: An author can have his work
full of allusions, for example, but the work is effective even if
the reader doesn't get them. In other words, the "surface"
of the work is a good story or possesses some other accessible opening
for the reader. A work like Eliot's "The Wasteland" is
almost argumentative in its unwillingness to give the reader an
entrance point (or so it must have seemed in 1922, when such dissociative
allusive works were unfamiliar). It's like he's saying, "Damn
you, I'll MAKE you be educated by giving you a poem you'll HAVE
to read (because I'm a famous poet), but won't be able to understand
unless you also read The Golden Bough, the Bible, various works
from India, Dante, etc." Of course, he "cheats" by
giving the work an incantatory, lyrical quality that can capture
a reader who knows a bit about poetry, but little about the allusions.
Joyce is even more elusive than Eliot, but Ulysses has a great
deal more going for it, and can delight a reader who misses a great
deal of the footnote fodder, though getting it helps. Nabokov does
it all -- some of his work you can come in on just about
any level and be drawn into all the others or miss some, but still
find wonders. Though even with Nabokov, sometimes the rough edge
of a missed allusion is a distraction. Nabokov and Joyce mock the
very process of allusion, parody it (especially Nabokov). They aren't
as infatuated with tradition as is Eliot.
"Tradition" isn't the point, but richness. Tradition
is but one more element (like imagery, meter) for generating expectation.
Any agreement will do. Every definition and connotation of every
word is an agreement that can be used to generate an expectation
(as in "Take my wife", above). Eliot is sort of a cry
baby: "Boohoo, I have all this erudition, but if I use it,
no one will understand me, so I must make people understand the
profundity of tradition. You poor people who haven't tasted the
nectar of Homer, the fine red wine of Dante, etc. You poor vulgar
(Bah! What did Eliot know about the literatures of a billion lost
planets and societies, whole other art forms we haven't yet dreamed
of (or RE-dreamed of)? We're all babes as far as tradition is concerned.)
It's the same thing when I come up with a great pun that depends
on vocabulary beyond most readers -- or it's funny, but
it's obscene, and some of my readers won't tolerate the obscenity.
In other words, richness can cut the commmunication line. Or it
can drive people to learn more in order to be able to understand
(if it's not overwhelming -- just a LITTLE rich --
clear enough that the reader gets into it and WANTS to understand).
Most people won't begin to read a book where every other word is
unfamiliar, but if they are reading a book they like and encounter
a few unfamiliar words, they'll look them up (assuming they are
at all literate).
Much of the rebellion against academic poetry (say Bukowski's work)
is a rebellion because it talks current talk (slangy, conversational
talk) about current stuff, with most allusions to tradition just
sneers at tradition.
Richness is just density of opportunities for aesthetics. It isn't
always aesthetic. Someone can load every line of a poem with expectations,
but they don't stir you, or they're poorly resolved. An allusive
work can be cluttered and corny or stuffy or pompous.
Getting back to a discussion of form: Yes, one element of a form
is what's been done in the form before. If a reader begins a sonnet,
for example, he tends to expect a certain formality, so the opposite
can be a shock. So the more one knows about sonnets, the more agreements
exist that can be used to produce art. But it requires AGREEMENTS!
So it's what you know AND the reader knows or can be made to know.
Sometimes a work contains data that makes the work easier to understand.
Or a footnote or dedication can inform the reader. Or one can write
some work for one public, some for another, based on what they know.
What if an artist creates his own "tradition", his private
set of symbols and meanings or a private language? Usually when
it works, it resembles broader agreements or the apparatus is introduced
gradually, so that these elements become more and more effective
as one reads (sort of like watching my twin nephews invent their
games as they play them). But the same caveats apply: Richness (like
originality) always involves putting understanding at risk. A private
language is both richness and originality. Richness, because it
adds new words (new agreements - if we agree), original because
it's the author's invention.
There's nothing wrong with writing an incredibly rich work that
can be understood only by a small elite audience (say, only those
who can read ancient Greek and several other languages). There's
something terribly wrong with implying that that's the only kind
of art or that only that small elite audience is worth communicating
to or capable of receiving high-quality communications or that elitism
has anything to do with high quality or aesthetics.
An artist who, like Eliot, has immersed himself in past literature
and gotten many of his deepest experiences and perceptions of the
present from his experiences with past literature will, naturally,
want to communicate these things. I've had some tremendously aesthetic
experiences that would probably be unreal to most of my readers
-- or at least I haven't yet found a way to make them accessible
to most readers -- because they are intimately tied into
spiritual practices unfamiliar to most of my readers. The point
is, I can understand Eliot's frustration; he wanted a more literate
audience -- particularly one literate in his fashion. He
felt that to write for a wide audience, he'd have to WASTE aesthetic
resources. Well, so do we all, all the time. One has a fantastic
experience, but can't find words for it in the language. So one
wastes that resource (that experience) -- maybe approximates
it, but feels one hasn't communicated it. Why can't one find words
for it (assuming one is great on language, not tongue-tied, etc.)?
Because it's a rare experience. Few others have had that experience.
So the words (which represent agreements) don't exist. In the land
of the blind-at-birth, color imagery doesn't work as well.
More simply, each has a universe rich beyond our present imaginings,
and each has a small subset of that universe (the part called the
physical universe) in which to communicate all that richness. That's
what art is about -- transcending the physical means (paper,
paint, etc.) and conveying the spiritual richness. The artist gets
the reader to contribute -- what? His own universe. The
artist gives us the right details -- a table, a candlestick
-- and we surround it with a house, a yard, a world, --
and we add our past, our feelings, our hopes, etc.
To the extent the artist manages to make that a knowing, willing
contribution (not an automaticity on the reader's part), the artist
has put the reader more at cause over his own universe. To the extent
a person is at cause over his own universe, he can cause things
in the physical universe, since the physical universe is only a
small part of my universe or your universe. It's what we all agree
to (reality). We know this instinctively when we sense that the
person who "has it all together" is causative and successful.
Thus, basically, we all have Eliot's problem: Lots of richness
that isn't shared by others and that isn't part of the available
media. And yet, it's not a problem. One can communicate anything.
Start with the available agreements and find a game (like using
mimicry on a near-catatonic to get him/her up to talking). Then
gradually increase the richness of the game. "Tradition"
isn't the magic element Eliot thought it, just one of many. Anything
you know, you can use, but if it gets in the way of communication
or limits your audience, why that's one of the barriers that makes
art a game.
Find a way to communicate with the agreements at hand --
that's part of the game. We're so used to writing poems, we think
of it as the natural thing to do, but I can imagine some beings
used to a richer, more immediate form of communication viewing our
use of words as we might view, say, communicating by smoke signals
or trying to relay Shakespeare via aromas or trying to express ourselves
using a 20-word vocabulary.
Someday people may discover my work, then hear a rumor that much
of it is based on, for example, my religion and is richer if the
reader can pick up the allusions, and then people will study my
religion to better understand my poems.
Backing WAY up to how one approaches form, as you can see from
the above discussion, you can start with "form" and end
up discussing EVERYTHING. If form is defined as I define it, then
everything ever written in the form becomes part of the form. But
more typically, someone discussing, say, the sonnet form means the
most obvious rules for writing a sonnet. In other words, one defines
a form by listing and giving examples of works that follow a set
of rules. These rules, in terms of the broader definition, are the
most obvious elements that generate expectation in that particular
Of course, to write a sonnet, one must mainly MEET these expectations,
but one can strain against them (partial disappointment). For example,
metric variations can push against iambic pentameter. Then there's
various sorts of slant rhymes (look, back, dock) used in many modern
sonnets. And so on.
So this simpler definition of form (a list of rules, etc.) is a
subset of my broader definition. The simpler definitions won't get
you very far with loser forms like free verse. That's why some people
call new or flexible forms "formless", even though other
people feel that these works have "form". The other people
feel, as they read, that stirring of expectations and meeting and
disappointing of expectations in subtle ways -- the same
feelings they associate with stricter forms, but they don't know
what's causing these feelings, so can't easily justify saying that
the poem has form. With the broader definition, it's easier to spot
the formal elements of free verse poems -- both of specific
poems and of free verse as a form (or group of forms?).
In teaching form, one can start with forms like sonnets that are
OBVIOUSLY (to everyone) forms, then, in showing how sonnets work,
develop the concept of form as a stirring of expectation, etc.,
then apply THAT to examples of free verse.