“Poetry as investigation”, Landeg White

O investigador  Landeg White partilhou, no Coffee Break do CECC do passado dia 4 de Fevereiro, a sua pesquisa sobre a poesia enquanto método investigativo. Pode conhecer o projecto, no texto a seguir publicado:

Landeg White: Poetry as Investigation

The Idea for this presentation sprang from a conversation with Peter in which I remarked that the Fundação para a Ciência e a Tecnologia (FCT) doesn’t accept books of poetry as promoting ‘the advancement of knowledge. It doesn’t fund poetry, and you can’t include poetry in your list of publications. Portugal is not alone in this. In the UK, the Research Assessment Exercise (now called Research Excellence Framework) did exactly the same. When I was working there and presented my c.v. for various types of personal and departmental evaluation, I used to strike off my books of poetry as not applicable. I don’t do that any more – I leave them in, for other people to remove if they feel inclined.
But the situation is full of anomalies. You can’t submit a book of poems, but a book about someone else’s poetry is okay. In CECC, we have Stefan writing about Pessoa, Gerald about Ossian, Jorge & Peter on Baudelaire, myself on translating Camões, and of course you can translate poetry. I was able to submit my versions of The Lusíads and Camões’s Collected Lyrics for evaluation exercises. But if Pessoa, Baudelaire & Camões were to turn up at the FCT asking for support, they’d be shown the door.
There are other anomalies, such as the enormous respect still accorded to poetry by the general public. In Portugal, the death of a poet is front page news. In the UK, this is not quite so, unless the poet happens to be a celebrity like Ted Hughes. But courses in creative writing are among most popular of University courses, fully inscribed with people who want to be poets and hope there’s some shortcut to becoming one. Universities have discovered such courses are cheap to mount, and are real money-spinners. All that’s needed is a room with desks and a tutor with an MA in Creative Writing.
In the distant background to all this is one of oldest controversies in philosophy. Plato banned poets from his authoritarian Republic, arguing that poets were merely imitators, once removed from reality and twice from the ideal. The only sound basis for knowledge was Reason. To be fair, Plato admits in chapter 10 of Republic that he loves poetry, & invites someone to prove him wrong. Aristotle’s response was to stress the role of metaphor in all discourse, and of the imagination (that is, the capacity for thinking in images) as a route to knowledge. In this dispute, the FCT seems to be backing Plato. You won’t be surprised I prefer to follow Aristotle. At least he allows me to remain a member of society.
But I’ve a more immediate reason for raising this question. Since I joined this research centre, I’ve been made aware of work done in this area by linguists. They don’t talk about Knowledge, they talk about Cognition, which strictly speaking is about how the brain acquires and processes knowledge, but we’re in the same area. On the Web it features under various headings: ‘Cognitive Linguistics,’ ‘Cognitive Poetics,’ ‘Literary Cognition,’ ‘NeuroHumanities,’ ‘NeuroCognitive Poetics’ – no one has quite settled what it is. But it starts off like this (I’m quoting a piece by Arthur M Jacobs of the Freie Universität Berlin, posted in April last year):

When Russians read Pushkin or Germans Hölderlin their brains fulfill a miraculous process: they provide the neuronal bases of sounds and images, of more or less conscious feelings and thoughts emerging out of phonemes, syllables, words and word order, rhymes, rhythm, and more often than not, of readers’ subjective, self-rewarding experience of beauty and harmony….. Whoever listened to or read Dylan Thomas’ “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night” has little doubt that the goose bumps accompanying the reception of poetry, that Emily Dickinson and Robert Graves have told us about, are true; the muscles relax, while the mind can focus; one is closer to laughter than to tears, inhales more deeply and a light feeling of ebriety spreads around.

The first thing to strike me is that it’s decades since you heard literary critics talking like this! The aim of Post-Modernist Deconstruction (which appeared in the late 1970s, and was still around when I retired five years ago, though admittedly on its last legs) was to insist there was no distinction between good and bad literature, no role for the author who was declared ‘dead’ as ‘texts’ (as they called them, not works of literature) wrote themselves, determined by language itself, endlessly re-cycling old tropes, and with no correspondence between those ‘texts’ and any observable reality. I’m parodying these guys slightly, but since parodying earlier critics was one of their key tactics, they shouldn’t complain.

Now here at CECC I find myself attending conferences where, under the rubric of cognitive theory, people are talking about literature as literature, as something rather marvellous, and requiring investigation.

Margaret H. Freeman (of Myrifield Institute, Los Angeles Valley College), another of these investigators whose work I follow on-line, has commented:

Literary critics have been dismissive of linguistic approaches to literature, cognitive or otherwise, either because such approaches fail to account for what the critics consider significant or because the ‘scientific’ apparatus simply recasts in technical jargon what they have said, and said more clearly.

I confess I partly share this suspicion. Reading, as I was advised to, George Lakoff’s Metaphors We Live By (1980), I didn’t find anything I didn’t know when I was 20 years old – ideas that go back to Aristotle, and are marvellously articulated in the poetry of Robert Graves. What’s new in Lakoff is that it’s a linguist saying it, linguists having dodged metaphor until he addressed it in 1980, since when he’s become known as the ‘king of metaphor’.

But there’s no avoiding the conclusion that Cognitive Linguistics is currently where the most interesting things about poetry are being said, far more interesting than in what remains of literary criticism, where the best scholarship seems to be historical and biographical. These seem to be predominantly American scholars, with American poets their focus. I find it revealing that they ignore Walt Whitman and Alan Ginsberg as linguistically null, and prefer to focus on Emily Dickinson, that wonderfully subtle poet, along with Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Frost, judgements I entirely concur with.

So the question arises, is this field of scholarship to which I can contribute, rather than just enjoy reading? I’m afraid the answer is, No! I can participate in the discussions of the poems they deal with. But ultimately, their real interest not poetry itself but cognition itself, and there I’m quickly out of my depth. I also feel they’re ignoring something of utmost importance, namely, poetic form. It’s the combination of language & form that creates the effects these scholars trying to analyze, and you can’t get at it through the linguistic analysis of metaphor alone.
When I watch Margaret Freeman reduce an Emily Dickenson poem to a diagram, she’s actually substituting a form of her own for the poem’s original form, and it takes her analysis in the wrong direction. She actually says that, according to her diagrams, the poem (Dickinson’s “My Cocoon Tightens – “) should have an extra stanza. What better illustration that she’s imposing meaning on the poem rather than extracting meaning from it?

I could talk at greater length about the supreme importance of poetic form. What should I call the topic? ‘Cognitive form’? ‘Cognitive Prosody’? That has the right air of academic pretension. But I prefer to continue by focusing on what I’m currently doing.
For I haven’t given up on Poetry as Knowledge. Just over twenty years ago, I took early retirement from the University of York to come and live in Portugal. There were multiple reasons for this, but one was my intention to translate The Lusíads, which I did over the next three years. Had I stayed in York, in the Department of English and Related Literature, I probably wouldn’t have tackled the Camões. I’d have continued working on the relationship between Oral and Written literature, following on books I’d already published on African Oral poetry.

This area was dominated in those days by Oral Formulaic theory, the theory that the chief division in literature was not between classical and romantic or between tragedy and comedy, but between the oral and the written. Further, that oral poetry differed from written poetry by being composed in performance with help of certain repeated formulas, which helped poet when his memory failed. The originators of this theory were the Homeric scholars Milman Parry and his student Albert Lord, based on research done in Bosnia in the 1930s, where they claimed to be investigating a tradition of oral epic performance descending directly from Homer’s time. Parry died in 1935, but Albert Lord in The Singer of Tales (1960) went on to claim that all oral literature worldwide was composed in performance, with the aid of formulas. Marshall McLuhan & Walter Ong built on this to claim that oral cultures generally were formulaic, until writing and especially the invention of printing released mankind from an endless cycle of tedious repetition.

Taking these ideas into the field (as McLuhan and Ong never did), I quickly realised they were nonsense. Recording the same song in eighteen different villages, it was perfectly obvious it was not being composed in performance. Hearing an old man, preliterate and speaking chiSena, describe at the junction of the Shire and Zambezi rivers how the Shire once flowed into the sea at this point, and that the whole Zambezi delta had been built up over the centuries by successive annual floods, It was equally obvious that oral cultures contain their own intellectuals.
Oral formulaic theory was not just nonsense, it was pernicious nonsense, and racist to boot. When McLuhan claims the printed word had a “crucial role in staying the return to the African within”, one wonders how he retains his status as a respectable authority. These conclusions were presented at some length in the opening chapter of Power & the Praise Poem.
Had I remained at the University of York, I had the idea of following up this work with a collection of essays, broadening the argument to other areas of oral literature. I began collecting material for a book consisting of nine separate essays, as follows:

an essay on Percy’s Reliques, that collection of old English ballads published by Bishop Thomas Percy in 1765: an essay on Ossianic poetry (the subject of the conference held here in CECC in 2010): an essay on the Arabic origins of Troubadour poetry, building on the seminal work of the late Maria Rosa Menocal: an essay on Isaac Watts, who adapted the ballad form to Nonconformist hymnology, and who has claims to be the best-known worldwide of all English poets: an essay on James Hogg’s novel The Private Memoirs & Confessions of a Justified Sinner, interesting for telling the central story twice, first as recorded in the oral testimony, and secondly in a manuscript exhumed from the grave of the main character: an essay on the Homeric debate, & another on a novel called The File on H, a hilarious satire by the Albanian novelist Ismail Kadare, based on the experiences of Parry and Lord in Bosnia: an essay on Trinidadian calypsos which I came to love during my years teaching at the University of the West Indies: and finally, another look at Africa, where oral poetry is still the dominant form.

That book never got written because I moved instead to Portugal and began translating The Lusíads. Last January, however, when I’d finished other projects & was casting around for what to do next, I returned to this twenty-year-old topic. I decided to do it not as a series of academic essays, researched & footnoted, but as a series of poems making up a book. I needed a suitable poetic form, something accessible, pithy, capable of conveying information and carrying an argument, without being too ponderous.

The result is a book called The Fate of Bards & Minstrels in 193 Tweets. The first draft is done, though I want to make revisions. It’s divided into 10 sections, an instruction plus nine others, corresponding to the nine topics just mentioned. Separating each section is a longer lyric reflecting on the larger issues, that the complete title is The Fate of Bards & Minstrels in 193 Tweets and Nine Meditations. The book will be illustrated by António Araújo, who designed the cover for my Translating Camões and the brilliant illustrations last year for Letters from Portugal.
What follows is the introduction, explaining the form and introducing the content, and headed “After Jack Dorsey”, one of the two men who claim to have invented Tweets:
After Jack Dorsey

140 characters, not symbols
just keyboard strokes,
a giddy discipline I hug after
elegies, letters, odes,
the translated epic
& LOL.

Not an oral form
but txd spontanteously
on aps & smartphones,
that substitute
for contact F2F.

The first thing bards must do
is hold their audience,
or no performance;
a matter, I guess,
twettiquette too
must address.

Most are followed
for having followers,
like U can B famous
for being famous;
but given talk’s
the essence of what’s oral,
let’s not quarrel.

Not synthetic
like epigrams,
not encompassing
like a haiku,
inconsequential gossip,
opinionated as marginalia,
happening like birdsong.

Useful for tracing
through bird of mouth
what’s befallen bards & minstrels
at the hands of those
whose profession
is what’s written.

193? I’ve friends
for whom 50 a day
can’t quench their thirst
for small talk;
I start where it starts for us Brits
with Percy’s Reliques.


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