The obvious way in which ideas imprison us is where people try to impose their own ideas on us. The word ‘idea’ is a hard one to pin down. A convenient synonym for it would be ‘thought’ – ‘I’ve had an idea’ and ‘I’ve had a thought’ being acceptable alternatives to each other. I see an idea more as a series of thoughts that reach a conclusion, something like an equation. The difference is that the steps don’t necessarily need to be logical and the answer doesn’t have to make sense. An idea is like a theory, something that needs testing, whereas an ideal is more like an axiom, a general statement accepted without proof. Some ideals can be proved and so are more akin to theorems.
The earth is flat. That was a neat idea someone once had and it gained some popularity especially when some smart-alec pointed out that the Bible said that God dwelt about the “circle” of the Earth. Ah ha! A circle is flat ergo the Earth is flat. Er, no. The Hebrew word, chûgh, can also be rendered as "sphere" apparently. In The American Pageant Thomas Bailey asserts that "The superstitious sailors [of Columbus' crew] ... grew increasingly mutinous ... because they were fearful of sailing over the edge of the world"; however, no known historical account substantiates this. His proposition is highly unlikely because, sailors were probably among the first to notice the curvature of Earth from everyday observations, for example seeing how mountains vanish below the horizon on sailing far from shore. The crew of the Santa María’s main concern would more likely have been whether or not they would run out of food before they reached their destination.
There have been plenty of good ideas. The wheel was a pretty good idea and it’s been the fulcrum of thousands of other good ideas like roller skates, bikes and go-carts.
An idea is like a route. There are plenty of ways to get from A to B. Most people opt for the direct route these days but the scenic route has a lot going for it. And then there’s the route avoiding low bridges. You can drive, cycle, skate or walk, fly if it’s far enough away, or get someone to give you a piggyback. All these ideas have something going for them. And some may be ideal: they may suit the traveller’s needs to perfection.
People have ideas about writing: stories should have beginnings, middles and endings; poems need to rhyme and an actor really oughtn’t address the audience directly. Ideas are not rules. Yet many people think that the natural progression from idea is to rule. In some cases it is. Newton had an idea that apples fell to a ground because they were obeying an unknown rule so he worked it out. And now everyone accepts that apples, saucepans and little old ladies career earthward at a rate of 32.2 feet per second per second, the law of gravity says so. So where do laws fit into the scheme of things?
There is a popular school of thought that purports that laws are meant to be broken. That is why someone came up with the idea of escape velocity and worked out an equation to take it right through to a theorem. (Actually it’s a speed and not a velocity, so there.)
Once an object has achieved escape velocity it hasn’t actually broken the laws of gravity; it’s circumvented them. Laws only apply under certain conditions. They have limits. If Newton’s apples had decided to head up instead of down at 25,000 mph he might never have discovered gravity at all.
What’s the difference between a rule and a law? Like ‘thought’ and ‘idea’ we think we can interchange them at will. Here are some rules that aren’t laws:
1. To join two independent clauses, use a comma followed by a conjunction, a semicolon alone, or a semicolon followed by a sentence modifier.
2. Use commas to bracket non-restrictive phrases, which are not essential to the sentence's meaning.
3. Do not use commas to bracket phrases that are essential to a sentence's meaning.
4. When beginning a sentence with an introductory phrase or an introductory (dependent) clause, include a comma.
5. To indicate possession, end a singular noun with an apostrophe followed by an "s". Otherwise, the noun's form seems plural.
6. Use proper punctuation to integrate a quotation into a sentence. If the introductory material is an independent clause, add the quotation after a colon. If the introductory material ends in "thinks," "saying," or some other verb indicating expression, use a comma.
7. Make the subject and verb agree with each other, not with a word that comes between them.
8. Be sure that a pronoun, a participial phrase, or an appositive refers clearly to the proper subject.
9. Use parallel construction to make a strong point and create a smooth flow.
10. Use the active voice unless you specifically need to use the passive.
11. Omit unnecessary words.
On the whole they’re not very good rules, are they? Because they’re not clear, there’s wiggle-room. Who decides whether a word is unnecessary or not? When exactly might one need to use a passive voice?
The problem with English is that it’s not Maths. No sooner have you made up a rule like
than you have to start listing exceptions:
beige, caffeine, casein, cleidoic, codeine, conscience, deify, deity, deil (Scots, devil), deign, disseize, dreidel, eider, eight, either, feign, feint, feisty, foreign, forfeit, freight, geisha, gleisation, gneiss, greige, greisen, heifer, heigh-ho, height, heinous, heir, heist, inveigle, keister (slang, buttocks), leisure, leitmotiv, monteith, neigh, neighbour, neither, obeisance, peignoir, prescient, rein, science, seiche, seidel, seine, seismic, seize, sheik, sheila (Australian slang for "girl", not capitalized), society, sovereign, specie, species, surfeit, teiid, veil, vein, weight, weir, weird
Because of this people have suggested a few qualifications to this particular rule:
- The rule only applies to digraphs, so words like "deity" and "science" don't count.
- The rule "i before e except after c" should be extended to include "except when said 'ay' as in 'neighbour' and 'weigh'".
- The rule only applies to digraphs that have the /i:/ ('ee') pronunciation, as in 'piece'. (Note the conflict between this and the previous item.)
- The rule doesn't apply to words that are recent imports from foreign languages, such as "gneiss", "dreidel", and "enceinte".
- The rule doesn't apply to the large number of plurals of words ending in "cy" ("fallacies", "frequencies", "vacancies", ... ) because in the UK – in traditional RP – "cies" is pronounced with the "i" of "pin", even though it is pronounced with the "ee" of "feed" by most World-English speakers and by younger UK speakers.
which is all well and good but in all seriousness who is going to remember them?
So, we start to see the problem with English. If its rules for spelling and grammar are so shaky then once we move onto forms of written and spoken English it’s pretty obvious that we’re going to encounter similar obstacles. For example: what is a poem? Okay, okay, let’s make life easier: what is a sonnet? A sonnet is a type of poem with fourteen lines and a prescribed rhyme scheme. Here are a few examples:
abab cdcd efef gg
abab abab or abba abba + cde cde or cdc cdc
abab abab cd cd cd
abab bcbc cdcd ee
Then of course there was Francesco Berni's caudate sonnet which has fourteen lines plus a coda and Gerard Manley Hopkins' curtal sonnet which somehow managed to limp home with only 10½ lines; it consists of precisely ¾ of the structure of a Petrarchan sonnet shrunk proportionally.
There are plenty of people who want to come along an enforce laws when it comes to writing. Most laws come under the ‘thou shalt not’ umbrella. And the thing I find about telling people that they can’t do something is that suddenly they want to do it as if their life depended on it. The law says that a sentence should have at least one noun and one verb, for example, “Jesus wept.” I think that’s a good general rule of thumb. We don’t talk that way though. Why should we write that way? We talk about prison sentences. I think sentences can also be prisons. But people say we have to use them. And for the most part I have, faithfully. My sentences begin with capital letters and end with full stops. Every now and then, however, I have tried to break out of that prison. Here’s an example:
incensed like lambs
they to war go
pubic farm girls
hold guns like dolls
bloody bits of men
bone white cross
2 May 1977
It has its flaws – hell, I was only seventeen when I wrote it – but the idea behind it is sound, to mix up images, girls playing with dolls that have missing limbs and men being blown apart in a war. There are times when things need to be stated explicitly but not always. The important thing about this poem is that I decided beforehand what the rules were going to be before I wrote it. The problem is that I never wrote them down so I couldn’t tell you what they were. Or why. (Oh, look, a sentence without a noun or a verb.) Here’s one where I do remember the rules:
True Love II
My father had a heart transplant.
Years ago, before I was born,
out his broken heart
and gave him a machine instead.
The strange thing about this machine
was it was
powered by sadness.
Of course he was always just "Dad",
but, when I discovered the truth,
at first I
hated the sadness
then I became thankful for it
because as long as I could see
him be sad
he would be with me.
And so I made it my job to
make him the saddest dad in the
whole wide world.
What else could I do?
21 July 2003
The poem consists of five stanzas each containing four lines of 8-8-3-5 syllables. The first lines of sentences are flush left and the rest indented. This structure wasn’t one I decided on a whim. It doesn’t have a name. I will probably never use it again. If I do it will be because the poem falls naturally into that shape. Of course it started out with each line containing eight syllables. The reason for splitting the final line was to give ‘What else could I do?’ its own line to provide emphasis. Having done that with one stanza my “rule” says I have to do it with every other one.
I don’t think anyone reading modern poetry needs to have it pointed out that you don’t stop reading at the end of a line. The breaks in the lines for me primarily are there to emphasise the underlining shape of the piece. The punctuation is there to tell you when to pause and breathe. I don’t format every poem this way but I find this helpful where the sentences are a bit on the long side, as a visual aid.
There are no universal rules for formatting poetry. A part of me wishes there were because I look at some poems and wonder why on earth the poet has arranged the piece the way he has. No doubt, like me, he thought it was a good idea at the time and it made sense to him at the time but what about thirty-three years later as in the case of ‘England Expects...’? All we have is what’s left on the paper, no memories, no working notes, no nothing.
I have held on
to your passport. No, it doesn’t
give me a sense you’re still
alive -- inside the passport
your face is more ghost
this is your stone
face, you had said. It’s like this
with all photos of you --
picture after picture
a stone wall
but I’m not stopped --
memories of you move me --
I know what was behind --
your face --
I hold the passport, travelling
I picked this poem pretty much at random out of a pile of poetry books I happen to have sitting beside me. He won the 2004 Robert Graves Award so I have no doubt that he can write a decent poem or two. The thing I don’t get about this piece is why he’s chosen to use the formatting he has. Is there an underlying logic at work here that I can’t see or has he just arranged the piece this way because it felt right?
I tend to come down a bit hard on ‘it felt right’ which I concede is a little narrow-minded of me but I can’t help it. This is because to a certain extent I’m imprisoned by my idea of what good poetry should be. I wouldn’t say I was close-minded, that’s going too far, but I’m not as open-minded as I’d like to me. Those who read this blog on a regular basis will realise that I regularly expose myself to all kinds of writing hoping that, as if by osmosis, I start to get where these other writers are coming from. Mostly I don’t.
I don’t know about you but once I have an idea in my head it can be hard to shake it. I do recognise that I’ve an unfortunately blinkered view of poetry. You could say that I’ve no one to blame but myself but I don’t think that’s strictly true. I’ve read a lot over the years but there’s a lot of stuff I don’t understand. What I do understand it that a poem is a form for containing poetry. Poetry is something else. Prose can contain poetry.
I can’t play a guitar despite being very musical. This is because I learned to play a keyboard before I tried to teach myself the guitar and I kept translating guitar chords into keyboard chords. It was the only way I could understand them. And could someone tell who whose bright idea it was to have six strings on a guitar when we only have five fingers on our hands?
I know there are plenty of people who can move between instruments from all kinds of families with ease – and I hate them – but I’m very much a one-trick pony and have learned to live with it. Poetically I can manage two or three but I’m only really good at the one. Perhaps one day the voice of the poet inside me will break.
The Weakest Link
A long time ago
someone bound me
to the pillar of reason.
It might even have been me:
I can't remember now.
But don't think me tamed
after all these years.
When was the last time
you looked at my eyes ?
When was the last time
you really looked
at my eyes ?
Even the finest chains rust in time.
6 August 1989