11 May, 2015Issue 28.2LiteraturePoetryThe Arts

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Notes Towards A Character-Based Poetics

Leo Mercer

This is the second instalment of a three-part series on contemporary poetics. The next part will reconsider the Faber pamphlets from the standpoint of a character-based poetic

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thjs’s a prediktiv text:
in time (not long!) tek
nology’ll b affirmd
as naturall & daffodilick
as th worldd:look!
where’re th wireroots?

* * *

Like new planets, formed when a significant force acts upon a mahussive and unstable mass of raw material, the largest poetic leaps are taken when a new body of unstable linguistically-raw material is taken and given form. Chaucer’s raw materials were his own spoken language; Wordsworth’s were the everyday speech around him; the twentieth century was dominated by the encounter with raw materials from regional dialects and nonstandard Englishes. Cumulatively, it seems to implicate a spatial narrative, a constant expansion which entails the inclusion of more language and languages over time.

By contrast, the screen is a space which increases resources by imploding them: against the lack of space, it doesn’t seek to rocket to new planets, but to spark big bangs in the small space of a screen; against the lack of time, it doesn’t work to increase life-span, but to increase what is possible in a single moment. In a similar way, the linguistic raw materials of the internet are not about expanding out to incorporate unnoticed languages, but a sudden implosion of language from within. All the elements of written language—letter-orderings, punctuation-formations, sentence-structures, and so on—feel up-for-grabs now, like pixels waiting to be grouped together, in a way that disregards the laws that governed non-virtual space.

The resulting poetry can seem chaotic and whimmed, the poetic principle behind it seeming to be that if the internet is a splurgical, sprawling, unformed space, so is the poetry that arises from it. Imagine reading a poem more extreme than the one at the head of this essay: you begin reading it, and you’re not quite sure how to make sense of it, why certain choices have been made, what art has gone into it, what you’re supposed to get out of it. You count syllables, and they’re irregular. You tap for metre, and it’s irregular. You search for intertextuality, and there is none. What next?

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The fundamental unit of poetry is normally conceived as either the syllable or the beat, thus resulting in syllabic or metrical conceptions of poetry, and leading to a certain way of evaluating poetic craft. This implies a primacy of the music of poetry over the art of poetry. Look at a page, translate that into sound (whether out loud or in your head) and if that works, it is successful.

Now, imagine an earless world, where there is language but no sound, where communication is achieved by the written word alone. Can there be poetry in this world? What would it take for language to be beautiful? The poetic canon as we know it would offer the shape of forms on the page and perhaps elements of typography as the answer; that, plus the actual meanings of the words, would be the stuff of poetry.

This earless world is ours—the text-centred screen-world of social media—and has a significant role in conceptualizing a more detailed response to this question. It is only with our current technology—widespread and wordy and public and visual—that the written word is alive enough to fully create what Charles Whalley has termed the “textual vernacular.” Unlike the specificity of the telegram text, the audio-centricity of phone, and the non-textuality of the TV screen, social media has accompanied a significant change in what words look like in public, and provided a force to challenge the restrictive standardization of English spelling. In short, social media has meant that the written word, through the spontaneity of millions of users, has erupted into a mass of raw materials which can be poetically registered, developed, and beautified.

The fundamental feature of this written communication is that the single character is entirely central. Some of the ephemeral features of our time indicate this: the typewriter/computer keyboard, with its clearly distinguished letters in front of us; typos and emoticons, with their individual idiosyncrasies of symbols; most of all Twitter, where the literary boundary is the number of characters.

This, then, creates the basic premise of a character-based poetics: that the character is the fundamental unit of poetry on the page. This means, when we look at a poem, we are looking at the letter combinations: are they beautifull, unexpectitudinal, evocacious, implicative, humouric, symbolicking, suggestible? Looking through the poetic canon, few poems can be said to be breathtakingly beautiful in this way; rarely have poets been concerned to sequence and more importantly create beautiful looking words in the same way that they might sequence and create beautiful sounding words.

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There are many ways to make words visually beautiful, most of which I don’t know yet; most of those that I do know come from observing what occurs in popular language use and trying to repurpose them to less-expected feelingful ends. The most fundamental is simply respelling the word, which I have written about at The Missing Slate. Respelling a word has emotional impact which can be played into. It can tap into the phonetics of a word, the historical or culturally specific ways in which they are spelt (what can be termed “textual accents”), purposeful misspellings, poetic flourishes. If a respelt word is a different way of arriving at a familiar word, there is also ‘letterplay’, which (like in wordplay) is a playful repurposing of letters to mean other things.

Compare the line “This is a predictive text” with “thjs’s a prediktiv text” and this should be come clear. The word “thjs’s”, for example, taps both into the historical interchangeability of i and j as well as appearing as a believable typo, compounded by the intensity of removing the space and adding an unexpected abbreviation. When “this is” becomes “thjs’s”, it goes beyond the cryingly dull “this is” as it has been used in the poetic past: Donne’s ‘This is my play’s last scene’, Edward Thomas’ ‘This is no case of petty right or wrong’, Williams’ ‘This Is Just To Say…’, Eliot’s ‘This is as I had reckoned’, Hill’s ‘This is the durable covenant’. With this in mind, the first is colourless, bland and prosaic. A free-spelt phrase is poetic, creating a sense of a living language, of a poem wrought out of a new language. A standard spelling in a poem is just another form of cliché.

Yet it is not simply a question of free spelling; there is also an expansion of the alphabet. Judging from the visual combinations of characters, non-alphabetical characters become central methods of providing colour, not eccentricities. This can involve the incorporation of emoticons into the linguistic alphabet. A smiley “:D” can brighten a poem, but it’s as much a cliché as any internet metaphor; go a step further, and invite your muse, “:Drink with me Luke” and the language, again, has been given a visual colouring by a mark which cannot be reduced to a punctuation mark. The colon has been made an integral part of the language.

Thinking visually as opposed to aurally, and of characters as opposed to letters, the binary between language and punctuation crumbles, for it is not letters alone that convey meaning; a word cannot be defined as something that can be given sound to. As anyone who writes on the internet will know, a well placed “:)” can stand for a thousand phrases. including “thank you” or “thats amusing” or “i really, really like you”, depending on the context. Emoticons are as much language as the alphabet. It’ll only be a matter of time before the OED puts “:)” as the first word in the dictionary. ;).

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All sorts of other analogies with shifts in artistic paradigms illuminate what adding character-based poetics could allow in future poetry. Think of the alphabet as a palette you can paint with: as we spell poetry at the moment, we are realists, as if there are supposedly clear forms of words that we have to point to in our word-painting. Now: be impressionistic with the alphabet.

Or take a musical analogy, that of harmony and dissonance. This is a tonal sentence; everything you, as an educated reader, have learned about spelling is obeyed. A phrase like “I’ll liaise with the naiads” is, within the tonal sphere of correct spelling, a beautiful one. But in most cases, colours can be inserted by adding non-tonal harmonies: put in a seductively glorious ‘ae’, a few extra jazzzy zeds, or a grumphsome, heady gh. If you want to go Arabian, type alfabetical; if you want to go historical, type alphabetickal; if you want to make someone laugh a little, type alphabetickle.

A further advance is when you can invent colourful combinations of letters that have rarely or never been seen But the real advance is in imagining entirely new letter combinations—can you make a poem with a triple h, with an l before an f at the beginning of a word, where ‘sdf’ is incredibly expressive? The possibilities are endlessish.

Or take a philosophical analogy: believing in the dictionary’s spelling is like believing in spellingular Platonic forms. But as long as we know the generic word “cat”, we can recognize the word “kat”, “catt”, “qatt”, perhaps even “c@”, and all manner of variations on cat. A key to good poetic spelling might be retaining the prose norms of spelling and then being far enough from a word that the spelling has some element of interest, but close enough that it’s recognizable.

The result is a poetry which is entirely at home on the page, in the same way that spoken word is entirely at home in the ear. Yet this does not mean the music is unimportant. Rather, it means that a poem should work well on the page as well on the ear. Someone on a chat room should have beautiful letters to type-shout, just as if someone could shout Keats’ “Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard, are sweeter!” to the hills. Keats, writing to Fanny Brawne, once wrote “I want a brighter word than bright”. He could’ve tried ;brite.

Engaging fully with the visuality of the word is not an abandonment of the poem’s sound, but a transformation of it. Just as (what with accents) the look of the word cannot dictate how the mouth performs it, the sound of a word shouldn’t dictate its look on the page. Sound and image are two axes of a poem, the combination of which has to be consciously decided by the poet. A poem can work on either axis; a poem can be written as a text which can be performed in many ways; but equally, an audio-poem can be taken and performed in ten different alphabetical styles.

As far as I can tell, character-based poetics offers an axis of poetic craft which, when added with existing techniques, can create a more linguistically complex, intense, life-full poem. Like every poetic technique, it is slave to the contingency of the alphabet and the language it is being used in. But perhaps this is particularly true of English whose complex, absorbant history of spelling becomes its poetic grace.

Leo Mercer is doing a Masters in Creative Writing at Kellogg College. His work is published on Twitter, Facebook, and Youtube.