Marie Marshall

Author. Poet. Editor.

Tag: opinion

Poetics: difficulty

But the fact of modern poetry’s being “hard to read” can be extolled as a virtue in and of itself […]. In writing that is propelled by sonic associations, for example, what one might call musicality, the result may, paradoxically, be a form of realism, giving the poem’s language material reality, palpability, presence, and worldliness. Such difficulty, even when it doesn’t produce conventional sense, may be engaging in its own right; or, from another point of view, it may be disengaging. It may be emblematic of resistance, elaborating a rejection and even a defiance of the production of totalizing and normalizing meanings, in resisting dogmatism, it may create spaces for ambiguity, provisionality, and difference. […] it may serve to roughen the surface of the work, so that it catches one’s attention, impedes one’s reading, wakes one up to reality. (Lyn Hejinian, The Language of Inquiry, p330)

I am grateful to a friend of mine for pointing me in the direction of the above quotation. It comes from a book of collected essays by one of the late 20c’s most challenging and fascinating poets, and one for whom I have a great regard. I say 20c, but of course Lyn Hejinian is still with us, and long may she remain. My reference was to the fact that it was in the 1970s that she, along with the likes of Barrett Watten, came to write a type of poetry that attempted to put the reader and the reader’s interpretation at the forefront of the creative process.

RolandBarthesI have often, in conversation and on line, mentioned Roland Barthes’ famous essay ‘The Death of the Author’. These days it has become fashionable to scoff at Barthes, but for me he will always remain someone who forced home the important lesson that it is impossible to isolate The Great Poet-Goddess and Her Great Work from what came before and what comes after, that this Great Work is a work of a moment’s completion, after which it is totally free of the further influence of the Great Poet-Goddess, and is the property of all of us.

And that last phrase – ‘the property of all of us’ – is a principle that drives much of my poetry these days. I write for everybody. I write my poetry to turn it over to you. That doesn’t mean it’s easy to read. ‘Accessibility’ isn’t the point. Everything is inaccessible until you access it, and to access something doesn’t necessarily means you’ll instantly ‘get’ it.

People seem to think that it’s all right to be really into, say, Wagner, and yet also listen to Country & Western, and Trance. But not the other way round, for some reason. That’s where class and intellectual snobbery rear their ugly heads, and conversely intellectual reverse-snobbery too – yes, it works both ways. And all of this makes people feel that they can’t pick up something outside their comfort zone. We fear the facile and we fear the difficult.

HejinianBut my message today is that difficulty belongs to all of us. Lyn Hejinian’s words at the head of this blog post seem, at first sight, not to offer much satisfaction. They are not a key to interpreting the intentions of a ‘difficult’ poet’s work, they seem to leave all that up in the air – it might be this, it might be that, it might be the other. But that is nothing more nor less than openness. It is an invitation to take a piece of ‘difficult’ poetry (or art, or music, or whatever) and run with it. If you don’t ‘get’ all of it, so what? Get what you can, make something out of it, play with the words and with the associations they spark in your own mind.

My poetry, at least some of it, resides here. Pick it up and run with it. It’s yours.

The disappearing original…

Regular readers will know that from time to time I write about art in general. It is not an easy subject to write about, strange though that may seem, because each one of us has prejudices that are difficult to shake off. To one of my readers, for example, technique or technical skill is all-important. To that person, Caravaggio’s work is ‘better’ than Rothko’s because the former’s is representational and skillfully so. Yet as a writer I know only too well that Virginia Woolf, Tolstoy, John Steinbeck, J K Rowling, Barbara Cartland, E L James, and I all use the same technical skills as each other in writing, and that nevertheless we do not produce works of equal – what? – worth, quality, whatever. Nor do we all enjoy equal success, nor is that success necessarily commensurate with any particular literary merit, nor, to come full circle, is that literary merit necessarily relative to our levels of technique. To my mind this subverts the idea that technique is an over-riding rubric for judging artistic worth.


Duchamp, ‘Fountain’, 1917

“But this argument,” my reader who values technique above all may object, “has been used since the early twentieth century, as an excuse for treating as high art presentation after presentation where skill and care have been abandoned in favour of facility of execution. A child could have painted some ‘modern art’. A chimpanzee could have. Experts have been fooled. A urinal, bought no doubt from a builder’s merchant, has been exhibited as a sculpture.”

I dare say that is all true. And I dare say that my friend never ceases to be irritated therefore by the whole idea of Conceptual Art. This was defined by American artist Sol LeWitt thus:

In conceptual art the idea or concept is the most important aspect of the work. When an artist uses a conceptual form of art, it means that all of the planning and decisions are made beforehand and the execution is a perfunctory affair. The idea becomes a machine that makes the art.

It is an attitude that uses what is presented as art to question the nature of art itself. I dare say that during the period of its currency, a lot of people have jumped on a clever-clever bandwagon. Nevertheless I would say that as a broad movement in art it has certainly made us think. Specifically it has made us think hard about the authorial presence in art. In my own writing – although of course I do write conventional novels, short stories, and poetry – I have never ceased to question my own ‘presence’, and have experimented with work outside my ‘normal’ field. For several years in my regular poetry blog I dispensed with the idea of ‘text’ as it is commonly understood, and presented poems as jpg images. These have looked like text in Courier font, but they have all been images. Though I hardly ever stated this much, I hoped that people would question whether they were looking at words or a picture. Did anyone? I don’t know.

Also I wondered whether it served any purpose to caption each one “© Marie Marshall”. It often seemed an act of desperation rather than fact, an attempt to re-establish the authorial presence where I had only just abandoned it, or where it was at the very least debatable.

Recently the affordance of regular space on someone else’s blog prompted me to carry out a conceptual experiment. Here’s how it went:

The main concept was an exploration of what was an ‘original’ piece of art. I was approaching it in a way that only the technology of the internet could afford – I dare say this concept is not unique, but it was to me. I started with a piece of scrap A4 paper, some magic markers, and some highlighters. On the sheet of paper I made one rectangle of red and one rectangle of yellow. In the red rectangle I placed an upper-case letter ‘F’, and in the yellow a lower-case ‘f’.

The presence of the letters was itself a supplementary ‘concept’. The ‘Ff’ asked viewers – or readers if you prefer – how minimal a presentation recognisable lettering could be and still convey some kind of meaning; and if that meaning contained expression, was it in any way ‘poetic’. I did not and do not invite the answers yes, or no, or maybe, although I know at least one of my regular readers will give one without hesitation. I merely posed the question and let it hang there.

Anyhow, the next stage was to scan the piece of paper. Having made a scanned image, I shredded the paper. Then I used the standard image-handling programme on my computer to adjust the colour and sharpness of the image. Next I posted it to the blog where I was guesting. Lastly, I deleted the image from my own computer. The only place where the product of all this activity was viewable was on a web page which, when the site owner closed the guesting period, was out of my control.

I won’t labour this point, but having revealed the process, I was asking people viewing the final product whether they considered what they were viewing to be an ‘original’, or whether an ‘original’ existed at any ‘stage’ of the process.

It has always made me chuckle that although one raison d’être of conceptual art has been to challenge the commodification of art, some works have attracted big money from collectors, galleries etc. My ‘Ff’ had, like so much on the blogosphere, no commercial value whatsoever.

You may be wondering why I haven’t included in this article a glimpse of ‘Ff’, or at least a link to it. That’s because the owner of the blog recently removed all the guest items. I took a deliberate step of placing ‘Ff’ in peril when I put it somewhere over which I had no control. That was part of the concept. Its disappearance now adds another layer of questioning. It existed. Does it still exist in the memory* and experience of those viewers and readers who looked at it? Does it count as my work at all, now that it is ‘lost’? Does ‘lost’ work belong in the recognised corpus of any artist or writer, past or present?

It would of course be counter-productive to attempt to answer any of my own questions.


* Memory is not like a photograph album anyway, but rather it is like a million-million tiny bombs of sensation, each exploding in an instant – there and gone – each somehow related, sometimes arcanely, to the next. A sight, a sound, a feeling, a scent, they populate a space in your mind that sometimes seems infinite, more often like a room in a house…



Pet Hates

authorWriters who write down to their readers.

Writers who write for an ‘in’ readership.

Writers who are afraid to experiment in case they alienate readers.

I believe that literature belongs to everyone, is for everyone, and that everyone has a right to its radiance. No one should be afraid of picking up a ‘difficult’ book – difficult books do no belong to any elite. No one should be afraid of picking up a book from an ‘easy’ or throwaway genre – there can be a lot of joy in the simple and ephemeral, and that joy is everyone’s right too.

I detest shoddy workmanship, no matter whether in a difficult or easy book.

Grammar precision: why hasn’t that boat sailed?

woman-writing-letters-by-charles-dana-gibsonOne of the most common memes on Facebook, at least in the circles I frequent, is the exasperated declaration about a point of grammar. Grammatical rules are a sticking point for so many people. Now, I know I’m writing from a position of privilege here (I checked – I often check my privilege, y’know!) inasmuch as my education was grounded in ‘correct’ grammar, and the mode of communication I was brought up with is Received Standard English. However, I am often driven to comment that these rules are arbitrary. They are. They were devised in the eighteenth and nineteenth century, by gentlemen with the benefit of classical education, who observed that the English language was changing.

Changing? Whoa! Who knew?

Languages change. The English language has changed radically in my lifetime and – know what? – by and large no one noticed. We simply went on speaking and writing English. The concerns of those erudite gentlemen in periwigs and britches have been echoed in every generation since then. They made a conscious choice to base their concept of English grammar on Latin grammar, even though the Latin language had had, until then, only a very limited influence on English. Hence, for example, their rule that one should never end a phrase with a preposition. Such a thing is actually impossible in Latin. However, it was current usage in 18c English and remains so, despite them, to this day. You probably noticed I broke their rule (deliberately) in the first paragraph above. Did that bother you? I doubt if it did too much damage to your sensibilities, any more than the many neologisms did that I use in this article.

There is a word for this insistence on the purity of grammatical rules. It is called ‘prescriptivism’. There can be times when its adherents will stick to something even against good advice. Not so long ago I posted a piece about the split infinitive, in which I quoted Fowler at length. Fowler, of course, is the grand-daddy of prescriptivism, the go-to guy, The Man, the settler of arguments on English usage. His advice on splitting infinitives? That people waste their time avoiding them, and in avoiding them produce ugly, unwieldy English. But – if I may begin a sentence with a conjunction – I am still getting feedback on that, from people who insist that to split an infinitive is plain damned wrong, and would go all round the houses to actually avoid doing so.

Let’s take another example – the ‘double negative’, as in ‘Ain’t Got No’ from Hair. The double negative as an intensifier has been around for centuries. It is there in French, which was arguably the single most important influence on the development of Middle and Early Modern English grammar. It is there in many vernaculars throughout the English-speaking world. When Geoffrey Chaucer wrote

He nevere yet no vileynye ne sayde
In al his lyf unto no maner wight

or Joe Tex sang

Ain’t gonna bump no mo’ with no big fat woman

is anyone unclear about what they meant? And yet because a double negative is impossible in Latin it becomes un-passable in English! (By the way, in the examples quoted, Joe Tex uses a triple-negative intensifier, and Chaucer – arguably – a quadruple.)

Of course this is the moment at which modern prescriptivists say, “We know how the English language developed, but that is irrelevant – it has these rules now.” Do they have a point?

Anyone schooled in linguistics will tell you that the proper study of language is into how people use it. From the time of the classically-educated prescriptivists, and in the generations since then during which the grammatical rules were taught by rote, right though to today when prescriptivists fight a keen rearguard action, the English language has gone through a very dynamic period. It has spread world-wide, it has given birth to scores of vernaculars, creoles, and contact-languages, it has lived a life full of action and incident, it has seen an efflorescence of creativity, it has been subjected to the innovations of information technology, it has changed and developed markedly, it has – and this is a very important point to remember – moved far beyond the confines of its traditional bases such as Britain, Britain’s white inheritor-countries (Canada, Australia, and New Zealand), and the United States. In moving away from these it has weakened any right people there have to consider themselves sources of normative power, gatekeepers of the supposed purity of the language.

Prescriptivism has, however, remained a recognisable influence upon the language. Students of linguistics realise this; prescriptivists, on the other hand, need to realise that it is only one influence among many. That’s how it has always been. The developments I cited above all happened despite, not because of prescriptivism. If prescriptivism in how one may use the language had been the be-all and end-all, then there would have been no Finnegans Wake with its stream-of-consciousness, no Catcher in the Rye with its colloquial register, no On The Road with its unedited spontaneity, no A Clockwork Orange with its exuberant conlang. There would have been virtually no poetry!

Prescriptivists also need to scrutinise themselves further, and ask themselves, honestly, whether their concerns are truly governed by matters of language. So often language campaigns, particularly by politicians, have been coded references to other social matters – youth behaviour, class, race, social order, national identity, for example. I’m not standing apart here and pointing a finger; each of us has his or her own cognitive biases, of which we are hardly ever aware. I am sure I do, as much as anyone else.

I’m going to reverse track on this argument and propose that there are ways in which a certain level of prescriptivism can be viewed as natural and beneficial. Whilst personally I don’t care where a preposition is, whether a negative is double, or whether an infinitive is split, I do care about clarity. If I were writing a notice for the benefit of the general public I would want to be sure that as many as possible took as its meaning that which I had intended; this level of consensus ad idem can only be reached if there is an agreed standard between myself and my readership. Narrowing it down further, if I am in a plane, I travel more easily if I can take it for granted that such a consensus exists between the pilot and the air-traffic-controller. Go anywhere and you will find that people like the assurance that what they say today in a conversation across their neighbour’s fence, will mean the same thing tomorrow. In countries where English is a force of new focus – the expanding economy of India, for example – there are prescriptivist movements growing which, though they might trace their origin to the English of the Raj, have their eyes on a particular issue of local or national concern. Even in a dynamic and changing context such as the slang of the young, wherever in the world they may be found, in New York, Singapore, or Bangalore, there are rules no matter how transient they may be. Rules, whether artificial and imposed, or natural and usage-driven, do exist in language in general, and in English in particular.

I believe it behoves us all to realise that the history of the English language is not over. No one could have predicted its state today, and no one can predict its state in the future. It is a beautiful language in which to create. It is a language which, out there in the world, enjoys the dynamism and tensions of a myriad of cultural encounters. It is at the same time a natural thing with a life of its own, which twists in our hands as we try to grasp it, and on the other hand a far-from-neutral political tool in the same hands. It is a child still, and children steadfastly refuse to grow up in our own image.