Wednesday, 5 January 2011
Into 2011 with bread slicers, suitcases and serotonin
Greetings dear reader and a happy new year to you, here's hoping it will be a good one, however you may define good. I think I switched off slightly through that strange period betwixt and between Christmas and New Year which many treat as an extended holiday. The sales were on in the shops and the nearest large town seemed full of focused women with sharpened elbows homing in on hot bargains like heat seeking missiles. I usually avoid crowds although I did queue for 20 minutes at my local bakers because they do make the best bread and I am slightly enamoured of their ancient jiggling bread slicing machine with three different settings. I love a good useful piece of engineering, something that man’s ingenuity has created in order to meet a simple need. I suppose a bread knife and a bread board would do but the bread slicing machine does have something enticing about it. As we watched some news about a Noble Prize being awarded my aged mother once announced that she thought there ought to be a Noble Prize for the invention of something small and useful like Velcro or bike clips. She had a point but then small pieces of domestic engineering can hardly compare with the discoveries of DNA, insulin or quantum physics and of course big inventions and discoveries filter down into society and have a myriad of useful applications. I have lost track of the times someone interested in such things has told me that we owe the ceramic hob to the space race. However after again watching the bread slicer vibrate its blades through my loaf in less than 5 seconds I have to say it deserves just a moment of recognition amidst the tidal wave of Ipads and Hadron Colliders.
I listened to the serialisation of Finishing the Hat a programme about Stephen Sondheim’s lyric writing on Radio 4. I was taken by how much of what he said about good lyric writing applies to poetry. Lyrics too tightly packed or not packed enough are something to be avoided. I thought about just how a poem can be fully packed with many levels of meaning and reference yet not be too dense. We often talk about ‘unpacking’ a poem in workshops as if the poem is somehow a suitcase with meaning, images, metaphors and language all crammed into it. You open it up and pull out all the contents, examine it, fold and unfold some and then shove them all back in. This process supposedly makes the poem clearer, more enjoyable, yet the language is the suitcase and also the contents. Some poems defy unpacking, so intrinsic is the language to what it contains. Michael Donaghy believed that the key word to analysing his poetry is "negotiation"; the poem is a matter of form in perpetual negotiation with content. The poem as suitcase feels a little too static and literally contained, I tend to agree with Donaghy that there is something more fluid going on in a great poem. A sound, a rhythm, a line break is seemingly not dictated and fixed by the form but appears to exist entirely to create that one poem. Form for instance in the hands of a great poet exists because it needs to in order for a particular poem to be and say what the poet intends.
Of course in the hands of a poet with less skill rhymed form can seem like the ugly sister desperately trying to cram her large foot into the glass slipper. Tony Harrison’s, Book Ends is obviously a well known and formally rhymed poem. However Harrison is the master of strong rhyme that at its best does not overwhelm the poem in its sheer insistence. The poignancy of this poem is supported rather than sunk by the rhyme.. If you listen to Harrison read his poem the sounds that draw the ear in are not lent upon so that the rhyme becomes the sudden dull thud of the other shoe dropping. The music of it is weighty yet still playful, the rhyme between smithereens for example and between’s could on the page seem strained but once you hear him read it it does have a strange ‘rightness’ as if the second rhyming word is already forged in the first one.
I am fascinated by the concept of how the concept of rhyme works. The ability to hear a rhyme is essential to develop phonological awareness which in turn supports our ability to learn to read. If a child cannot produce even a nonsense rhyming word to follow cat, mat, sat and instead looks at you with a sense that you are somehow slightly deranged in thinking he or she can possibly work out the relationship between those three words yet alone produce another one, then here be dragons! Bun, fun, fat does not auger well for reading but is never insurmountable, however most children, even very young ones hear and love rhyme, that wonderful way that sound can produce the possibility of prediction is a strange comfort but one nonetheless. The concept that we are hardwired for narrative and metaphor is put forward by the linguist Lakoff but I also think in a large number of languages rhyme is almost embedded in our psyche. Rhyme is a basic building block of prediction, if we hear ‘Twinkle twinkle little star how I wonder what you is’ even if you don’t know the correct word it can prove irritatingly unsatisfactory not to have that aural completion. Semantics allow for a level of prediction but once the ear is tuned into a rhyme scheme there is hope that all will be well.
Some languages such as Korean and Japanese have no concept of rhyme and I believe even early Anglo Saxon poetry relied heavily on assonance rather than rhyme. So rhyme is a relatively recent concept in language and its existence can be geographically particular but it is such a fundamental concept in European poetry that it is hard not to believe that it underpins how we assimilate language itself. I did find a tiny bit of research that showed that the serotonin levels in the linguistic areas of the brain were raised more when test subjects were exposed to heavily rhymed poems than to free verse even when the subject expressed a personal preference for the free verse poem, which would seem to suggest that the brain itself finds rhyme physically pleasurable. The skillful use of rhyme is part of the craft of poetry even if we choose not to use it, how sound works with meaning is not old fashioned or ‘establishment’ it is for me part of the excitement involved in creating a poem.
I have had several people contact me wanting to read my Bear story ( see previous post) so here is the link to open it from my public folder.