Monday, 25 April 2011

Poetic texture

Digital dirt. For a long time, it has been a kind of holy grail. I remember a trip with other friends from the university research group to Toy Story in 1995. Not to revel in its tight storyline and jolly characters or to regress to childhood but to look at the on-screen dirt. As the first ever feature film to be made with CGI entirely, we had been led to believe that the programmers had mastered dirt, or at least attempted to do so, and we wanted to see it. Hairy arms, textured floors, gunk, smears, stains. In the event, the film was fun but the dirt was minimal, you know the bit in the bad boy's room, but we went away thoughtful.

Dirt is what accrues with use and as such must be akin to provenance (and that stained cover to Zolar's Astrological Murder Mysteries which I dropped in a puddle while moving house). Poetic dirt or texture to give it a nicer sounding name is something a little bit different.

You might think about Tennyson's flowerpots in Mariana (based on the character from Shakespeare's Measure for Measure):

With blackest moss the flower-pots 
     Were thickly crusted, one and all:
The rusted nails fell from the knots
     That held the pear to the gable-wall.
The broken sheds looked sad and strange:
     Unlifted was the clinking latch;
Weeded and worn the ancient thatch
     Upon the lonely moated grange.

But onomatoepoeia, of which the above is a borderline example that you can almost chew, isn't quite what I am after either. I am really think of the crud that we have to wade through when dealing with poetic form. How it is almost impossible to approach writing a sonnet say without encountering the dirt left by all the fingerprints of writers (yes, Shakespeare again, for example) who have gone before us. It is a bit scary to tackle it. What if we don't get it right? We'll look a fool. What if there were a new kind of form? One that we could invent ourselves. Free verse seems the obvious option...of course.

But does this mean that to rebel and do our own things, we will have to keep churning it out: like the animators with their endless squeaky clean cartoon characters; must there be a never-ending streams of form-free verse. To be honest, it is hardly rebellion. Shakespeare himself arguably wrote free verse. He plays with form and spoofed it in Much ado about nothing for example. And in that play he even teases us with his portrayal of Claudio's slavish adherence to style advocated by George Puttenham's The Arte of English Poesie (1589). A kind of style guide of its time and much consulted.

So break free properly, and think texture. Think what we could do if we could find the form with a little bit of work and experiment, maybe a little bit of technology, a little bit of globalization, that suits us? And stop feeling that fear of form. Sometimes you have to get your hands mucky.

Form is not a search for chains, in fact the opposite, it can set a poem free; the search for perfect dirt. Paydirt.

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