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[Back to Essays]

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 game.

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 in himself.

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

(3)__    ____       _

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 -- Bend 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 unexpected way.

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 false notes.

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 well played.

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 art.

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 fools."

(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 form.

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.

  Big Cats in Snow
Monday, December 13, 2004