Friday, January 16, 2009

stuff on hard drive at home...needs to get posted to blog before I forget..."Language as an Object Worthy of Contemplation"

From: [self]
Sent: [eight years ago]
To: [people I knew way back when]
Subject: Language as an Object Worthy of Contemplation


I highly recommend Chris Redgate's daily, syndicated, capsule newspaper column, "The Red Pencil," which focuses on the art of putting words together. Chris' 100-words-a-day ranks right up there with Doonesbury and my morning bowl of Cheerios. He/she (never been able to resolve that forename into a definite gender, and I guess it doesn't matter--anybody here seen Julia Sweeney's wonderful "It's Pat!" movie?) recently wrote about the distinction (or lack thereof) between prose and poetry, and spurred me to respond as follows:



I enjoy your "Red Pencil" column, which I read in the Washington Post.
I'm writing to respond to your recent two-part column on the difference between prose and poetry. On one level, I agree that in practice there is often little difference between prose and poetry as distinct literary genres. In practice, modern poetry is often simply prose chopped up and defaced with arbitrary carriage returns, tabs, punctuation, misspellings, and obscurities. Poetry often suffers from highfalutin abstractions, precious diction, adjectival overload, lack of point or narrative, and whining, self-pitying attitudes. And poets wonder why very few people buy or care about their work.

On another level, though, we can distinguish between prosaic and poetic expression, which, taken together and interwoven well, can enliven even the most mundane writing. Prosaic expression points to objects in the world (even if that world exists only in the writer's head, as many scientific hypotheses, for example, do). Poetic expression points back at itself, focusing on language as an object worthy of contemplation in its own right (write!). Language as an object worthy of contemplation--what do I mean by that? I mean the features of language that make it noteworthy, catchy, and memorable: meter, cadence, rhythm, rhyme, alliteration, tintinnabulation, imagery, word choice, etc. Language as a symbol system or an equation that we continually manipulate: grammar, syntax, etc. Language as a human artifact that is capable of conveying beauty and meaning through its very structure and sound.

The very best writing is both prose and poetry--you want to read, then re-read it, focusing on the objects that the writer is trying to depict, but also the object through which the writer depicts them. Through brevity, the best poetry encourages us to re-read. The best e-mails do too.



It's all art and artifice. I've spent my career trying to breathe life into technical topics of thudding complexity. Committing this sh*t to someone's memory requires stealth poetry.