Perusing Poetics: You Write What You Know, Even if You Don’t Know You’re Doing It

So, I’m usually not a fan of big block quotes. They’re clunky, take up space and it’s REALLY HARD to dissect them properly. For this week’s post, however, I might have to make an exception. This is potentially just what happens when you’re quoting Toni Morrison. The following is from her book on literary criticism, Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination

“Writers are among the most sensitive, the most intellectually anarchic, most representative, most probing of artists. The ability of writers to imagine what is not the self, to familiarize the strange and mystify the familiar, is the test of their power. The languages they use and the social and historical context in which these languages signify are indirect and direct revelations of that power and its limitations” (15).

Morrison herself is speaking specifically about why she is looking at white literature to discover the effect of the constructed idea of African-Americans on the world at the time. If you’ve been following these blog posts, you might already see where I’m going with this post … in which case I hope you stick around to read this for my sheer sparkling personality.

First off, look at that. Writers with power. Just look at how she describes writers. Isn’t that beautiful? Okay, so Morrison herself is a writer and that might make her biased, but I don’t think that makes it any less true. (I am also a writer and I admit my own bias.) But just think about it. Why do we read at all? It isn’t to read the same story again and again (unless you have fallen into guilty love with some YA trend). We read to find some exciting story that at once captures our imaginations and yet also catches our heart. To be exciting, it must be new, but to capture our hearts it must be filled with some kind of emotion we recognize. Otherwise we’d just be confused.

Secondly, look at what she wants us to look at: languages used and social and historical context. This is SO IMPORTANT. Anyone who says that they can look at just the text and only the text and get the full meaning is a liar. Looking at just the text gives you ONE meaning–also, a one dimensional reading. If you remember back to my post about Whorf, I went on and on about how we understand our world and also how we construct it. These constructions don’t just exist in our lives. A writer constructs worlds, but no matter how fantastical they always reach back to something they know or at least believe in.

Morrison has some really great examples in her book about how white writers were writing about African-Americans and what it says–more about the writer than the actual constructed character. Ernest Hemingway makes such an effort to deny the black sailor in To Have and Have Not agency or speech that he writes this grammatically disastrous line: “I looked and saw [the black sailor] had seen a patch of flying fish burst out ahead” (qtd 72).

Love him or hate him, you cannot tell me that Hemingway looked at that line in editing and thought, “Yes, this makes grammatical sense.” He made the choice to leave it there, instead of allowing the black sailor to even shout a few words.

Does this mean Hemingway is a racist? No. It’s one quote from one novel and conclusions drawn from that would be factually inaccurate. But what it DOES say is that Hemingway felt that he had to write the scene and the character that way. It could be his choice, it could not be. After all, you can’t tell me that every YA author believes that every story should have a love triangle shoehorned in. But there they are, because they believe that’s what people want to read. (Hint, they are not but for some reason they sell.)

Yes, that’s a shallow example to compare to all the centuries of silenced African-American characters and writers, but my point here is not to enter into race politics. My point is that we can look at the way certain things are written and extrapolate massive amounts of information in the way that language is shaped and what it says about writing in the social and historical context of the writer. The difficulty of writing is that it must be both exciting and familiar, and people must also want to read it. Even in the most fantastical of settings, the human experience must resemble the majority of the readership or no one will read it, love it or understand it.

As a final note, if you’re ever looking for enjoyable, interesting and easy-to-read literary criticism, go pick up Morrison’s book. You won’t be disappointed.

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Perusing Poetics: All the World is Speech (and Humans are Really Strange Creatures)

When I was born, my parents got one of those dumb baby book things. Under family resemblances, my father wrote “Worf from Star Trek.” I HAVE A BIG FOREHEAD, OKAY?

This has absolutely nothing to do with this blog post, except for the fact that this week I’m talking about Benjamin Lee Whorf’s Language, Thought,and Reality and I keep thinking of Whorf from Star Trek instead of this really smart linguist. So now you know something really weird about me.

How I arrived at my topic for this week’s post is also kind of weird. It’s a convergence of three things, really. Firstly, there’s Whorf. One of his essays in this collection is titled “On the Connection of Ideas,” and it’s basically him writing to this compiler of psychological terminology asking for a better term for connected words and ideas than “association,” which he finds lacking for a multitude of reasons. The takeaway here is that he, a linguist, is asking for help not from another linguist, but a psychologist. Kind of weird, right? (Not to me, as you’re about to see.) Then, there’s this craft class I had today with poet Li-Young Lee. He said today that he thinks that art is really just another version of psychology, since all art comes from an inner psyche. Finally, there’s me, and my now three-year-long maintaining that if I wasn’t an English and Writing major, I’d be a psychology major.

When I first had a little wonder, as a freshman, if I should major in psychology (preferably educational), I threw it out of hand almost instantly. “I’m not science-y!” I said. “I’d never survive. The connection makes no sense!” So I continued on my merry English-and-Writing way. And I’m glad for it.

Me. Doing science.

But the thing is that there is a major connection between art and psychology. A BIG ONE. I’m going to focus on writing here, because I can’t art in any other way, but I’m sure an artist or musician–for example–would probably have a connection to make as well. What is a writer, but a creator of character? When you’re in a writing class, one of the major things you are told you have to figure out is “What do your characters want?” Writing–especially, for me personally, fiction–is simply accessible psychology. (The good stuff, anyways.) You sit down, you read a story, and you understand step by step why a person or a group of people do what they do within the story. You learn how people change, grow, fail or succeed through story arcs. To me, it’s pretty bloody magical. It’s why I write. The human brain fascinates me. Psychology is only one access point to the crazy questions humanity poses about WHY. Writing is another.

Whorf, however, is a linguist, so we have to break this down a little bit further. Sure, the connection between stories and psychology might make sense, but Whorf is operating on the word level. He’s seeing a connection to humanity through not just whole stories but single words and syllables. He suggests this hypothesis about how someone’s language is a major part of how they understand reality and behave within it. This collection basically admits that this hasn’t been proven, but it hasn’t been disproved.

To me, what he’s saying just makes sense. (Okay, well, not some of the time. But what I can understand from him, I like.)

It’s why I still wish I’d gone into psychology sometimes. It’s why I want to find some way to get a PhD where I can explore the links that Whorf talks about, between language, society, culture, etc. It’s because when I engage in my area of specialty (the young adult book world), I see the connection between cultural norms, young adult reception of these stories, and society at large. YA novels work in massive trends, but it’s fascinating how the slightest shift in language can make or break one vampire novel to the next.

At the reading by Li-Young that I attended tonight, he said that he was currently engaged in a massive back and forth with a minister friend of his because Li-Young is trying to convince him that all the world is speech. Well, that’s the world I choose to see, too.

speech-bubbles-world-map-vector-306917

Moments

Moments

In the moment
Words fade
To useless nothings
That have no hope to express
What I feel

In the moment
I faltered
I fell back
I stalled
For my thoughts had abandoned me

In the moment
I had no idea what to say
Or what I wanted
How I felt
Or where it would lead

In a moment
You were gone

In a moment
I knew

Choose to Lose

Choose to Lose

Teetering on a knife’s edge
Threatening to fall
Words are all we need
To send us sprawling
To either side

What will you say?
My words hide behind a lock of fear;
Fear of heights and fear of tumbling
Fear of choosing
Fear of losing

We’re here now
There’s no going back
Someone has to speak
I’m frightened it will come to me
But God forbid its left for me to seal it

We’ve gone too far
The choice is the only way
But I’m afraid
For I see loss on either side
So what do we choose to lose?

Double-Edged Sword

Double-Edged Sword

Words
My dear
Are a double-edged sword

With one blade you cut your adversary
Giving them no time to block
Slicing open their pride
Their heart
Drawing their life blood
Allowing it to drip on the floor
In small measured increments

Laugh
My dear
I know you enjoy it but

Words
My dear
Are a double-edged sword

You are never prepared
For the whiplash
The wound you open in your own soul
Where the darkness you’ve shared
Festers and burns
Causing you pain
Which you can never quite relieve

Cry
My dear
But it won’t make it better

Words
My dear
Are a double-edged sword

July 28th – My Words

Heyy, look! A single poem appearing on the day it is supposed to! Gee, what a NOVEL idea, no? 😀

My Words

I put a pen to paper
And told it to write me
A sonnet
A haiku
A limerick
An epic
A rhyme
Anything that spoke to souls
With meaning deeper than the sea
And words that flowed like rivers
But when I put the pen to paper
None of that flew out
Instead came choppy verse
With heartfelt words
That pleased me even more