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Medievalist
01-13-2007, 02:07 AM
Colorado Guy in this thread (http://www.absolutewrite.com/forums/showpost.php?p=1040175&postcount=4) referred to what I'm calling poet savants; that is, people who are suddenly given the gift/curse of poetry who may not be considered, previously, to be quite sane or particularly intelligent.

One of the paradoxes of medieval Irish literature is that future poets and prophets often begin life as hideously ugly individuals, who are mute until an external catalyst spurs them into speech. Ecet Salach or Echen was an Ulster smith and the father of an hideously ugly misshapen lad named Amargein. Amargein is incapable even of keeping himself clean and subsists on a diet of curds, salt, berries and nuts. One day Athirne sends his assistant Greth to put his master’s axe into the forge’s fire when Amargein “cast a hard look at him” thus terrifying Greth. Suddenly Amargein, previously mute, speaks for the first time, uttering the same phrase three times: “Does Greth eat curds?” a pun on Greth’s name and the Irish word for curds gruth. In the end Amargein is fostered by the poet Athirne, and takes his place as the chief poet of Ireland after Athirne (I am paraphrasing from Ford’s translation in Ford 1990, 28–30. Ford cites R. I. Best et al 1954–83. Vol. II ll. 13565–617 (ff. 117b–118b). In Amargein’s case, the catalyst that caused him to speak was the potential for a pun occasioned by the appearance of Athirne’s servant Greth. Labraid Loingsech is another poet who moves from speechlessness to poetic utterance:


[Labraid] as a youth was known as Men (or Man, maen ‘Dumb, Mute’) Ollam. Ollam of course, is the name for the highest degree of fili ‘poet,’ . . . It was said of Men that he was amlabar . . . cimbo fer mr ‘speechless . . . till he was a grown man” (Ford, 1992, 25).


For Mon, the catalyst that brings him from silence to speech occurs when he is struck in the shin with a hurling stick during a game. “That got me” he says. “Men speaks [labraid]” say the other boys, and he earns his adult name (Ford 1992, 25).

There are other oddities, too; a fellow named Donn Bo who, after a head injury, "lost his brain of forgetting," and proceeded to learn all three branches of Irish scholarship, the traditional lore of poets, the Brehon lore of the judicial system, and Christian lore.

The Welsh ber poet Taliesin is another case of spontaneous poet from an idiot savant, of sorts.

If this stuff interests you, there's a neat book called The Role of the Poet in Early Societies by Morton W. Bloomfield and Charles W. Dunn; published by D. S. Brewer.

Works Cited

Ford, Patrick. "The Blind, the Dumb, and the Ugly: Aspects of Poets and Their Craft in Early Ireland and Wales." Cambridge Medieval Studies 19 (1990): 27-40.

Ford, Patrick. Ed. Ystoria Taliesin. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1992.

ColoradoGuy
01-13-2007, 03:04 AM
Fascinating. Thanks so much. The core issue, I suppose, is whether poetic language is focused, trimmed down "ordinary" language or whether it is fundamentally different from standard speech. Your comment (http://www.absolutewrite.com/forums/showpost.php?p=1045899&postcount=8) that poetic utterance lights up a spot in the brain on PET scan that may be different from the usual language cortex would be a physical demonstration of this notion.

ETA:
(PET scan stands for positron emission tomographic scan. It's a technique that addresses brain function as well as structure. Less fancy scans, such as CT (computerized tomographic) and MRI (magnetic resonance image) scans examine structure alone, although the MRI gives a little functional information. This Wiki article explains PET scans pretty well. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Positron_emission_tomography)

Medievalist
01-13-2007, 04:04 AM
Fascinating. Thanks so much. The core issue, I suppose, is whether poetic language is focused, trimmed down "ordinary" language or whether it is fundamentally different from standard speech.

Well, the question sort of answers itself, really. We know poetry when we hear it and see it, though some poetry is written as prose. So yes, the language of poetry is specific in extent -- it uses rhetorical figures to a greater degree, it is metered, it uses sound patterns, and it may rhyme.

There's another way to look at it too; the etymology of poet (http://www.bartleby.com/61/75/P0397500.html):


Middle English, from Old French poete, from Latin pota, from Greek poits, maker, composer, from poiein, to create. See kwei-2 (http://www.bartleby.com/61/roots/IE247.html)in Appendix I.

At its heart poet/poetry are about making things, about building. So too are the other English words for poet, the Old English scop, which appears to be distantly related to modern English "shape," or Middle English maker as a word for poet.

ColoradoGuy
01-13-2007, 04:42 AM
Well, the question sort of answers itself, really. We know poetry when we hear it and see it, though some poetry is written as prose. So yes, the language of poetry is specific in extent -- it uses rhetorical figures to a greater degree, it is metered, it uses sound patterns, and it may rhyme.
True, but if poetic language affects its own special place in the brain, well, that really fascinates me. Maybe it's just because I'm fundamentally an empirical sort of guy, but identifying a special place in the cerebral cortex for poetry makes it special in a whole new way. Putting on an evolutionist's hat, the obvious question then becomes: why did such a thing happen? Maybe it's the Quaker in me, but I'm always searching for those special things that make us human; so if I had to find a physical home for our Inner Light, it would be there, where poetry lives.

kdnxdr
01-13-2007, 10:41 AM
At its heart poet and poetry are about making things, about building. So too are the other English words for poet, the Old English scop, which appears to be distantly related to modern English "shape," or Middle English maker as a word for poet.[/quote]

The act of making or building implies that there are resources utilized to make or build. The poet uses existing materials and connects those materials in such a way as to produce something that is made or built.

As any good maker or builder, there is, ideally, a template and a purpose for the thing that is made or built.

There is also an infinite array of possibilities, using fundamental templates, to make or build.

Code/language/poetry is not static but in a flux of continuous remix. Only imposed rules are static (to a point).

Medievalist
01-13-2007, 10:54 AM
True, but if poetic language affects its own special place in the brain, well, that really fascinates me. Maybe it's just because I'm fundamentally an empirical sort of guy, but identifying a special place in the cerebral cortex for poetry makes it special in a whole new way. Putting on an evolutionist's hat, the obvious question then becomes: why did such a thing happen? Maybe it's the Quaker in me, but I'm always searching for those special things that make us human; so if I had to find a physical home for our Inner Light, it would be there, where poetry lives.

What makes poetry different from prose?

Meter, much like music is organized in terms of pitch and time/rhythm. I suspect that's the difference between the brain on poetry and the brain on prose.

kdnxdr
01-13-2007, 11:31 AM
With the advent of poetry generators and their certain perfection, poetry will soon belong to machines.

However, machines will never be capable of infusing spirit into poetry. Mechanically, poetry can exist. Good poetry will always embody spirit and that is the human contribution.

Spirit is the real controversy.

P.H.Delarran
01-13-2007, 11:34 AM
This is very interesting. I'd never heard much about savants and poetry before. Nor did I ever suspect that a different part of the brain was stimulated in the poetic process.
It does make sense though then that using rhyme-games as a memorization/learning technique would be so successful. I just never thought about it using a different part of the brain.

ColoradoGuy
01-13-2007, 09:06 PM
Spirit is the real controversy.
Intriguingly gnomic, but I'm aftraid I don't understand what you mean. Could you explain?

MacAllister
01-13-2007, 09:29 PM
I like the part about a pun having the same effect as a sharp whack on the shin with a big stick.

William Haskins
01-13-2007, 09:41 PM
great thread.

Medievalist
01-13-2007, 09:44 PM
I like the part about a pun having the same effect as a sharp whack on the shin with a big stick.

Yes; there's something very Celtic about that.

ColoradoGuy
01-13-2007, 10:47 PM
the brain on prose.
Or on Prozac? (Sorry, couldn't let that one slip by).

kdnxdr
01-14-2007, 12:35 AM
Relative to my comment regarding poetry generators, machines will never be able to infuse spirit into poetry though they will potentially produce masterful poetry.

Spirit in and of itself is a controversy in that there is no defining agreement as to what spirit actually is or is not.

My best definition of spirit : the essence of a living self-willed being.

Spirit is the human response, machines can't provide.

According to Kurzweil, The Age of Spiritual Machines, machines will evolve beyond human capability and assume human culture and challenge human identity.

ColoradoGuy
01-14-2007, 02:12 AM
I don't buy the machine evolutionary bit (maybe because I've never liked The Matrix), but I agree poetic sense may be nearer than anything to defining what makes us human. That's why I'm terribly interested in where in the brain that sense may lie, what the physical substrate for that kind of language may be.

I've never heard of a mechanical poetry generator. Seems to me it would end up looking like that famous chapter in Atlanta Nights.

Pat~
01-14-2007, 02:59 AM
...if I had to find a physical home for our Inner Light, it would be there, where poetry lives.

Cool thought, Colorado Guy.

Medeivalist: weren't those characters (Donn Bo, etc.) part of folklore, or were they historical people?

Great thread.

Medievalist
01-14-2007, 03:06 AM
Medeivalist: weren't those characters (Donn Bo, etc.) part of folklore, or were they historical people?

Great thread.

Donn Bo might actually be real; I've got an article about him I need to finish, but basically, we do have some evidence to suggest he existed, and, I've discussed him with a couple of neurologists who came up with some plausible neurological explanations.

Taliesin also probably existed; but there seem to have been two poets by the name, one historic, one mythological (http://www.digitalmedievalist.com/faqs/taliesin.html).

PeeDee
01-14-2007, 03:33 AM
I adore this, and all the other threads in this little section. I'm still too deeply intimidated (and haven't anything useful) to contribute, but I love reading this stuff here. You people are amazingly smart.

Okay, my contribution, the poet savant in A Canticle For Leibowitz was a wonderful, horrible character. He was the poet sirrah! and everyone hated him.

Right. Back to lurking. :)

P.H.Delarran
01-14-2007, 03:53 AM
PeeDee, there's room over here by me in the Lurker's corner. I have fresh popcorn too.

ColoradoGuy
01-14-2007, 04:40 AM
Right. Back to lurking. :)
I appreciate the posters and the lurkers. When Mac asked me to mod this forum I had no idea if anyone would be interested in it. I'm glad others find it interesting. For myself, I think wondering about how language actually does its work is the Mother Thread Topic for writers.

P.H.Delarran
01-14-2007, 04:42 AM
I think about this stuff alot, more on the philosophy side, but I don't have any expertise. I just dig listening to those who can back up their talk.

PeeDee
01-14-2007, 04:44 AM
I think about this stuff alot, more on the philosophy side, but I don't have any expertise. I just dig listening to those who can back up their talk.

That's me too. I enjoy hearing about it, and some of thsi stuff does cross my mind, but not in such a manner that I could present it to other people, and certainly I would fail to back it up and form a discussion. Hence why I'm sitting here, eating all of Delarran's popcorn.

jess b
01-14-2007, 05:41 AM
Donn Bo might actually be real; I've got an article about him I need to finish, but basically, we do have some evidence to suggest he existed, and, I've discussed him with a couple of neurologists who came up with some plausible neurological explanations.

Taliesin also probably existed; but there seem to have been two poets by the name, one historic, one mythological (http://www.digitalmedievalist.com/faqs/taliesin.html).

And then there's Caedmon (to keep the medievalism going), purported composer of the first poem in English to be written down. A 7th-century Anglo-Saxon herdsman, he supposedly learned to compose poetry in one night, from a dream (I think). But, obviously, a fair amount of mythologizing no doubt imbues our knowledge of him. And since his poetry was explicitly religious, the whole issue of divine inspiration can't help but seep in.

"Nu sculan herigan heofonriches weard...." Good stuff!

Medievalist
01-14-2007, 06:05 AM
Caedmon is another savant, yes. Thanks for mentioning him. I meant to and got distracted by . . . stuff. There's a lovely Caedmon page here (http://www.heorot.dk/bede-caedmon.html).

ColoradoGuy
01-14-2007, 06:47 AM
What I'm reading here from you scholars is that there is a venerable tradition of regarding poetic speech as being somehow special, even divine in origin? That notion makes me circle back to the gist of my earlier post -- wherever poetic sense lives inside us, there is where the Divine lives also.

MacAllister
01-14-2007, 07:01 AM
PeeDee, I'm very glad you brought up Canticle for Liebowitz--because it's a perfect example that this tradition is alive and well right now.

Roger J Carlson
01-14-2007, 07:48 AM
This business of poetry savants got me to thinking about how I write poetry. Sometimes it's a very savant-like process in that a poem will leap to my mind fully formed with perfect meter and rhyme. Other times, I have to work very hard at it, digging through the thesauri and rhyming dictionaries, and even then sometimes I can't make it work. What makes the former possible?

The odd thing about when I write a poem that just flows, is that I can hear it; the words, the meter, and the rhyme; before I know what the words are. It's almost as if the words are already there, but I just haven't discovered them yet. It's more like transcribing than creating.

Does that make sense? Do others here do something similar?

Medievalist
01-14-2007, 08:18 AM
In really old cultures, poetry and prophecy are closely linked. This is true for pretty much every single I.E. language. There's a very very clear connection between the poet and the prophet (and the lunatic) in Irish and Welsh.

ColoradoGuy
01-14-2007, 08:35 AM
Anybody know enough about Aristotle's Poetics to comment on any of this? I've forgotten what little I knew. I seem to recall his regarding poetry as related to rhetoric in some way. I do know that most think of him as the first literary critic.

ColoradoGuy
01-14-2007, 08:44 AM
Does that make sense? Do others here do something similar?
Very interesting. I don't write poetry myself, but I do read it quite a bit. Your experience adds a bit more support to the notion that poetic language originates from some special place of its own in the brain, a place distinct from other language usage centers. Hence the possibility of the "idiot poet savants" we are talking about who are inarticulate in other ways.

jess b
01-14-2007, 08:44 AM
The odd thing about when I write a poem that just flows, is that I can hear it; the words, the meter, and the rhyme; before I know what the words are. It's almost as if the words are already there, but I just haven't discovered them yet. It's more like transcribing than creating.

This resonates with me on at least three levels.

1) I'm currently finishing up my dissertation, which deals a lot with medieval visionary writers, many of whom describe a process very like what you describe--although in their cases, since I'm dealing with Christian mystics, the poetry/theology/whatever is always attributed to God.

2) In writing my dissertation, I've often felt that the connections between my chapters, etc. were lost to me--but proceeded on the (perhaps foolish) assumption that there was "a dissertation" in there somewhere, and that if I wrote enough, I would find it. Sure enough, I'm finishing up next month.

3) The same thing happens with my fiction writing, at least the longer stuff. Sometimes I get kind of stuck, but that always seems to be because I've strayed from what I think of as "the track": the story as it exists somewhere, outside of my mind, since I'm often not aware of where the track really leads. Once I realize what I haven't been attending to--e.g. a subplot that I'd been taking for a random detail, the importance of a character who keeps popping up for some reason--then things start to flow again. And the story that comes out is always better, richer, than the one I had in mind going in.

I'm not quite comfortable attributing that kind of process to God, as my medieval mystics did, but I guess what I'm saying is that sometimes there does seem to be a kind of primal "text" that we transcribe as we write, and the project of writing is to uncover that text. That sounds a little...flighty, I know, and it's certainly not clear to me that my dissertation and my fiction are brilliant or anything, but my sense is that writing of any kind--at least prolonged writing--would be impossibly difficult without that kind of discovery.

Inspiration, I guess it is.

(Of course, this isn't actually about poetry, but whatevs.)

Medievalist
01-14-2007, 08:44 AM
We'll have to poke MacAllister. I know enough to expose him to undergrads. Poetry is rhetoric. Remember, until the late Middle Ages, all the Good Stuff was in poetry. Prose was for mundane lower class stuff.

Aristotle does buy into the whole poetic frenzy school.

Now, for someone who really gets words and text and poetry, you want Phillip Sidney and the Apology for Poesy (http://darkwing.uoregon.edu/~rbear/defence.html).

ColoradoGuy
01-14-2007, 08:50 AM
We'll have to poke MacAllister.
With the same stick that makes Celtic puns?

Medievalist
01-14-2007, 10:29 AM
This resonates with me on at least three levels.

1) I'm currently finishing up my dissertation, which deals a lot with medieval visionary writers, many of whom describe a process very like what you describe--although in their cases, since I'm dealing with Christian mystics, the poetry/theology/whatever is always attributed to God.

I've always wondered if Julian of Norwich's vision regarding the hazel nut (http://www.earlymodernweb.org.uk/emn/index.php/archives/2005/03/julian-of-norwich/) was related to Irish medieval tradition about hazel nuts as the source of imbas, or wisdom/inspiration/knowledge.

pdr
01-14-2007, 12:50 PM
that the use of the word 'dumb' in relation to such poets actually meant they were 'dumb' only as far as poetry? That these poets had shown no signs of being poets in thought or language and therefore were dumb to poetry, but not to ordinary language?

Fascinating thought of a poetic centre in the brain. Does this perhaps explain how some people were poets from childhood but stop writing poetry in their early thirties? Life experiences 'switching it off' so to speak? Although that doesn't explain the people who became poets in their later years, their sixties and seventies. Unless the brain is more flexible than I was taught and the centre is able to be 'switched on'. I find this personally interesting as I used to write poetry with ease, but lost the ability in my late twenties.

MacAllister
01-14-2007, 02:44 PM
Now you've done it.

My apologies in advance, for I'm about to wax long-winded. I think about this stuff a lot, and read about it a lot--so it's utterly fascinating to me.

Jess b said:
sometimes there does seem to be a kind of primal "text" that we transcribe as we write, and the project of writing is to uncover that text. That sounds a little...flighty, I know, and it's certainly not clear to me that my dissertation and my fiction are brilliant or anything, but my sense is that writing of any kind--at least prolonged writing--would be impossibly difficult without that kind of discovery.Jess, I think every writer who talks about writing because they want to know what happens, too, would confirm this point of view--and I've heard a fair number of 'em talk about creating fiction in just those terms.

On one hand, I think there's truth, there. On the other hand, I don't know as the whole idea of writing as a process of discovery rather than of creation is always screamingly helpful. But if we can balance and combine those two perceptions of art, as writers and readers both, in our approach to text--then we're getting somewhere.

Chris, you can read the Poetics online, and it's pretty short really.

Aristotle takes as given the concept of art imitating life, and the Poetics (http://philosophy.eserver.org/aristotle/poetics.txt) is primarily preoccupied with the mechanics of how that works, and how a poem or song or play or painting is made--and what constitutes success. And if indeed, poetry (or fiction, now, since we've broadened our understanding of story) is about imitating life, then it very much is a process of discovery, right?

Because at its very best, writing or poetry says something true. Or rather, more accurately, something True. That truth, of necessity then, is already existent, and external to the not-yet-created text.

And simultaneously, while discovering and revealing extant human truth, writing is an act of creation. You might not know the story yet, it might be waiting for you to discover it--but if you can only reach that story through that subconscious place where you know...then you must bridge somehow between that place and the part that's writing down the words.

Some people do this much more naturally than others. When that happens, it's very much, I expect, like being hit by word-lightning, like Roger is talking about.

It's not unique to poets, either--I've a recording of Sarah McLachlan talking about song writing. She says, "I write purposefully ambiguously so that people can derive their own meanings from it." But then she goes on to talk about writing a very successful song called "Dirty Little Secret" and relates that, "I just sat down at the piano one evening after having a lot of red wine and I just played it...from start to finish." She talks about mucking about with it, rewriting, and ending up using the original version that, happily, got recorded. Because it just was there in its entirety. Just like that. So that very first, extemporaneous version is the version they put on the album.

And what separates a poet from someone who writes in verse towards other ends is sort of The Big Question, to Aristotle, in many ways. It's that same "what is art" question:

Even when a treatise on medicine or natural science is brought out
in verse, the name of poet is by custom given to the author; and yet
Homer and Empedocles have nothing in common but the meter, so that
it would be right to call the one poet, the other physicist rather
than poet. On the same principle, even if a writer in his poetic
imitation were to combine all meters, as Chaeremon did in his Centaur,
which is a medley composed of meters of all kinds, we should bring him
too under the general term poet. (Poetics I - about paragraph 5, depending on your translation)

So there's the question begged, really, right? Even if the technique is not pure nor perfect, sometimes it's art anyway. And even if the technique is both pure and perfect, sometimes it's still not art. So...if poetry is something greater than technique, and greater than imitation, what exactly is it?


It is, moreover, evident from what has been said, that it is not the
function of the poet to relate what has happened, but what may happen-
what is possible according to the law of probability or necessity. The
poet and the historian differ not by writing in verse or in prose. The
work of Herodotus might be put into verse, and it would still be a
species of history, with meter no less than without it. The true
difference is that one relates what has happened, the other what may
happen. Poetry, therefore, is a more philosophical and a higher
thing than history: for poetry tends to express the universal, history
the particular. By the universal I mean how a person of a certain type
on occasion speak or act, according to the law of probability or
necessity; and it is this universality at which poetry aims in the
names she attaches to the personages. (IX)

So logic, consistency, and (at least some) predictability are a Big Deal, because that's how the audience can engage with the work. And it's important that the audience can recognize what's going on, at least unconsciously, because otherwise it's no longer an imitation of something real. If it's not about something real, then it's something else, for Aristotle, and not poetry.

As a reader-participant-audience member, we have to be able to recognize what's happening and understand not only the events, but the implications.

Aristotle gets a little weird when he starts making value judgments about superior and inferior ways and means of conveying this "imitation." He gets even weirder when he wants to break poetry down into its smallest component parts--letters--and somehow find art and truth and beauty inside, like a mechanic looking under a hood. He gets whacked on quite a lot for this--but in my reading, rather that advocating a strictly structural approach to diagnosing poetry, it rather seems like he's advocating excruciating command and control of language--that it, he thinks it's really important to figure out how to do this ambitious thing--achieve truth--deliberately and carefully, for best effect.

And he's pretty clearly onto something real when he talks about catharsis--even though the word isn't present:

Fear and pity may be aroused by spectacular means; but they may also
result from the inner structure of the piece, which is the better way,
and indicates a superior poet. For the plot ought to be so constructed
that, even without the aid of the eye, he who hears the tale told will
thrill with horror and melt to pity at what takes Place. This is the
impression we should receive from hearing the story of the Oedipus.
But to produce this effect by the mere spectacle is a less artistic
method, and dependent on extraneous aids. Those who employ spectacular
means to create a sense not of the terrible but only of the monstrous,
are strangers to the purpose of Tragedy; for we must not demand of
Tragedy any and every kind of pleasure, but only that which is
proper to it. And since the pleasure which the poet should afford is
that which comes from pity and fear through imitation, it is evident
that this quality must be impressed upon the incidents.

We might say, now, "you gotta get the audience where they live." Which is as true of Stephen King as it was of Homer or Sophocles. That is, for a piece to work, it has to find that universal human truth that sets up a sympathetic resonance between poet and audience, so that the piece forces the listener or reader to feel something real, or the memory/shadow of something real. This is where the magic happens, and suddenly there's something happening that transcends all the fine points of plot structure, diction, characterization, and unity.

I've done a lot of thinking about this section the Poetics in terms of squick and squee buttons. In fiction, for instance, a successful piece of writing finds the squick button and make you like it--because it's ultimately about human truth: we're attracted and repelled by the blood mingled with rain on the pavement and the flashing lights from the emergency vehicles, because "oh my god that could be me..." but then, to push it even a step further, "and what is that thing crouched in the driver's seat..? And is it eating...ohmygod it is!"

When a written work gives that to us safely, it's enormously gratifying. We can try out these emotions in a safe context, and we understand ourselves and the world a bit better for it.

Aristotle talked about catharsis in terms of music, in Politics, so we know he thought about it. The etymology of the word (http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?search=catharsis&searchmode=none) says a lot about how he thinks this all works: "catharsis from Gk. katharsis "purging, cleansing," from kathairein "to purify, purge," from katharsos "pure."

From a decent essay about the Poetics: (http://www.iep.utm.edu/a/aris-poe.htm)
The word catharsis drops out of the Poetics because the word wonder, to rhaumaston, replaces it, first in chapter 9, where Aristotle argues that pity and fear arise most of all where wonder does, and finally in chapters 24 and 25, where he singles out wonder as the aim of the poetic art itself, into which the aim of tragedy in particular merges. Ask yourself how you feel at the end of a tragedy. You have witnessed horrible things and felt painful feelings, but the mark of tragedy is that it brings you out the other side. Aristotle's use of the word catharsis is not a technical reference to purgation or purification but a beautiful metaphor for the peculiar tragic pleasure, the feeling of being washed or cleansed.

And I could go on...but I've just realized how long this is, already. :)

ColoradoGuy
01-14-2007, 08:55 PM
Wonderful post, Mac. I think of Aristotle as this towering intellect trying to organize the world using that intellect in a way never done before. I haven't looked at Poetics since undergrad days, but I did plow through History of Animals a few years ago. Hardly anyone reads that one, and it is pretty tedious. But in it one sees a mind at work trying to define the essence of what makes a living thing what it is: what, precisely, is it that makes a fox a fox and not a fish.

So when he looked at poetry, which as Medievalist pointed out was the highest literary form, he did it in an effort to define, and thereby capture, exactly what it was. Why does it make us feel these emotions? How does it work? How can we harness it?

For all of us struggling authors, of course, the key corollary is this: can it (meaning all literary forms, not just poetry) be taught? I don't recall Aristotle addressing that one (did he?), whether it is a divine gift for those poetic savants, or whether the degree to which we have the gift positions us on the scale of good to bad. That's the issue for every MFA program and writer's board: can it be taught?

Aristotle settled on the notion of mimesis, of art imitating life. To me that is a very profound insight, because if one thinks of life as the whole bundle of feelings and emotions we have, then imitating those feelings, reproducing them in the reader, is the ultimate measure of writing success.

(I suppose the fanfic/reader responders would say Aristotle is an old dead white male fuddy-duddy, since the author has no business telling the reader what emotions to feel, what to take from the text. Mimesis indeed -- bah, humbug! The reader is not the writer's puppet. But that's over on the other thread.)

Okay Mac. Now I've got to go off to the Loeb Library page to get a Poetics. I appreciate the free link but my daughter is a budding scholar of classical Greek, and I might as well put some of those tuition dollars to work getting her to explicate Greek to the old man. I may even drag out my old copy of Auerbach.

P.H.Delarran
01-14-2007, 08:58 PM
Now you've done it. ...
And I could go on...but I've just realized how long this is, already. :)

The entire post was completely fascinating to me Mac. Makes me wish I was a little smarter and a LOT more educated.

ColoradoGuy
01-14-2007, 09:01 PM
. . . and a LOT more educated.
Remember -- it's never too late to have a happy childhood.

Medievalist
01-14-2007, 09:03 PM
It's not unique to poets, either--I've a recording of Sarah McLachlan talking about song writing.

I take your point, and can point to novelists who say much the same thing--but songs are, by their very nature, poetry. Poetry was customarily set to music not only in Aristotle's day, but right through the early Middle Ages.



So logic, consistency, and (at least some) predictability are a Big Deal, because that's how the audience can engage with the work. And it's important that the audience can recognize what's going on, at least unconsciously, because otherwise it's no longer an imitation of something real. If it's not about something real, then it's something else, for Aristotle, and not poetry.

People just coming to the Poetics might as well stop right now and look up and internalize the meanings of the word mimesis (http://www.bartleby.com/61/69/M0306900.html) in terms of literature. You'll be happier for it. Really


He gets even weirder when he wants to break poetry down into its smallest component parts--letters--and somehow find art and truth and beauty inside, like a mechanic looking under a hood. He gets whacked on quite a lot for this--but in my reading, rather that advocating a strictly structural approach to diagnosing poetry, it rather seems like he's advocating excruciating command and control of language--that it, he thinks it's really important to figure out how to do this ambitious thing--achieve truth--deliberately and carefully, for best effect.

People also need to remember that Aristotle is writing about Classical Greek, where the language is particulate; words are themselves parseable. And that the letters of his alphabet were still embedded pictures--A or alpha is in inverted ox head, for instance.


That is, for a piece to work, it has to find that universal human truth that sets up a sympathetic resonance between poet and audience, so that the piece forces the listener or reader to feel something real, or the memory/shadow of something real. This is where the magic happens, and suddenly there's something happening that transcends all the fine points of plot structure, diction, characterization, and unity.

Yes; this is why readers read and pursue and love words and text and writers, even passionately love them. And I think this magic is something that either is inherent in the writer or not--I don't think it can be learned, though it can be polished and cultivated and encouraged.


When a written work gives [squick and squee] to us safely, it's enormously gratifying. We can try out these emotions in a safe context, and we understand ourselves and the world a bit better for it.

And that's the other half of the magic.

Pat~
01-14-2007, 09:06 PM
Wonderful post, Mac. I think of Aristotle as this towering intellect trying to organize the world using that intellect in a way never done before. I haven't looked at Poetics since undergrad days, but I did plow through History of Animals a few years ago. Hardly anyone reads that one, and it is pretty tedious. But in it one sees a mind at work trying to define the essence of what makes a living thing what it is: what, precisely, is it that makes a fox a fox and not a fish.

So when he looked at poetry, which as Medievalist pointed out was the highest literary form, he did it in an effort to define, and thereby capture, exactly what it was. Why does it make us feel these emotions? How does it work? How can we harness it?

For all of us struggling authors, of course, the key corollary is this: can it (meaning all literary forms, not just poetry) be taught? I don't recall Aristotle addressing that one (did he?), whether it is a divine gift for those poetic savants, or whether the degree to which we have the gift positions us on the scale of good to bad. That's the issue for every MFA program and writer's board: can it be taught?

Aristotle settled on the notion of mimesis, of art imitating life. To me that is a very profound insight, because if one thinks of life as the whole bundle of feelings and emotions we have, then imitating those feelings, reproducing them in the reader, is the ultimate measure of writing success.

(I suppose the fanfic/reader responders would say Aristotle is an old dead white male fuddy-duddy, since the author has no business telling the reader what emotions to feel, what to take from the text. Mimesis indeed -- bah, humbug! The reader is not the writer's puppet. But that's over on the other thread.)

Okay Mac. Now I've got to go off to the Loeb Library page to get a Poetics. I appreciate the free link but my daughter is a budding scholar of classical Greek, and I might as well put some of those tuition dollars to work getting her to explicate Greek to the old man. I may even drag out my old copy of Auerbach.

Really interesting, Colorado Guy!

This reminds me a bit of my study years ago concerning whether or not creativity can be taught. I worked with an identified "gifted" group of elementary 5th and 6th graders, and did the pretesting, the intervention ('teaching'), and the post-testing. The results showed an improvement, but one that was statistically insignificant. Personally, I think creativity can be developed, but not 'taught'. So maybe it's the same with poetry, or any other creative endeavor.

P.H.Delarran
01-14-2007, 09:09 PM
Remember -- it's never too late to have a happy childhood.
I tell myself I get a little smarter each time I visit A.W.
:D

Medievalist
01-14-2007, 09:39 PM
that the use of the word 'dumb' in relation to such poets actually meant they were 'dumb' only as far as poetry? That these poets had shown no signs of being poets in thought or language and therefore were dumb to poetry, but not to ordinary language?

In the case of Caedmon, yes, in the case of the Irish, no, the text makes it very clear that he was sub-par in general.

kdnxdr
01-14-2007, 09:45 PM
I have two sister-in-laws that are head injury nurses and to have conversations with them, I attempt to find subjects of interest to share with them.

I came across a story where a head injury patient had lost the ability to speak. Rolling down the hospital one day, he passed near a nurses' station where some gospel music was playing on the radio.

Recognizing some song from his life before the accident, the patient began to sing aloud with the music.

Music is one route that head injury patients are retrained to use their brains to access other areas such as speech.

kdnxdr
01-14-2007, 10:03 PM
In regards to a special place in the brain from where poetry emanates and the divine resides, I wonder, "what about vain imaginings" referenced in bibilical scriptures.

Also, I believe there is a value system that it is an inherent part of language coding, hence, taboo words.

And now I question, "Are (we) who we think we are?" or "Who (we) are is how we think?"

And what about persuasion? As (we) anylize by nature, to some degree or another, how does persuasion become a part of what we think?

ColoradoGuy
01-14-2007, 10:12 PM
And now I question, "Are (we) who we think we are?" or "Who (we) are is how we think?"
Ah, yes. The old Cartesian question. And while we are thinking about who we are (and if the very act of thinking defines who we are), do we use language to do it? That would make us not "such stuff as dreams are made on," but rather "such stuff as words are made on."

Medievalist
01-14-2007, 10:20 PM
Music is one route that head injury patients are retrained to use their brains to access other areas such as speech.

Yes; exactly. There are really a couple of not so much speech centers, but word centers in the brain. People who stutter rarely stutter when they sing; it's a different part of the brain.

ColoradoGuy
01-14-2007, 10:22 PM
I wish Oliver Sachs would drop by, but he's probably busy.

kdnxdr
01-14-2007, 10:54 PM
Who is Oliver Sachs?

Addendum:

I just googled his name. Now, I see why you wished for his contribution. Why don't you contact him and invite him to visit our discussion? I think he would.

ColoradoGuy
01-14-2007, 11:00 PM
Who is Oliver Sachs?
He's a neurologist who has written a wonderful series of books describing unusual patients he's had over the years. Many of his patients have had language difficulties. His books have great titles: An Anthropologist on Mars, (which refers to autism), The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, and many others. Google him. He's worth reading if you like language and the brain.

ETA: I spelled his name wrong. It's Sacks

ColoradoGuy
01-14-2007, 11:22 PM
Who is Oliver Sachs?

Addendum:

I just googled his name. Now, I see why you wished for his contribution. Why don't you contact him and invite him to visit our discussion? I think he would.
I'd love to, but I think it would be like asking Gore Vidal to drop by and join our little discussion on historical fiction. But I would be very interested in what he would say about the notion of poetic sense having an actual physical locus in the brain.

kdnxdr
01-14-2007, 11:33 PM
After gleening through the googled information, I have to say that I personally believe that, foundationally, all language is pictographic in nature.

For example: While recently in France, I saw a medieval cart. My french husband told me that in French, the cart was called a tomble (I don't know the proper spelling). Thinking about the French word I could see how the English word tumble could be a derivative of that French word for cart. A child tumbles; a tumble-weed; something tumbles down.

I am by no means a linguist or one who studies language in any fashion. But, language fascinates me.

When reading a book, Genesis in the Chinese Language, I became aware that the symbols of Chinese are made up of radicals or elements of pictures that are combined and recombined to get new symbols. For example: the symbol for "boat" = three elements/radicals

the concept of vessel
the concept of eight
the concept of mouths/persons

In Genesis, Noah and his family constituted:

the concept of vessel
the concept of eight
the concept of mouths/persons

The book is very intriguing (to me) in that the author states that the chinese language is the oldest pictographic language still in use much as it has always been used. At the dispersion of Babylon (when the world was supposedly dominated by one language), the peoples that went to the area that became Chinese were geographically "locked in" and their original culture has "lasted" longer than others' original culture. The author of Genesis in the Chinese Language believes Chinese to be similar to snapshots of original event observers.

Another is example for the word light :

two radicals:

man
on fire

According to biblical account: pre-fall Adam was covered with an eminating light referenced as the Shekinah glory of God, a man on fire. In some biblical teaching, that loss of light was the nakedness of Adam and Eve.

I say all this to add to the question of, "do we think word first or picture first?".

Medievalist
01-15-2007, 12:00 AM
Keep in mind that language is much much older than writing. Writing is roughly, give or take a century, only three thousand years old.

It occurs to me that folks might be intrigued by this table of alphabets (http://www.bartleby.com/61/charts/A4alphab.html) and this chart showing the development of the Roman/English alphabet (http://www.bartleby.com/61/charts/A4alphad.html).