10/1/13

“Life With Coffee Spoons”

This exploration of diction, amateur poetry, and T.S. Eliot was written by Angela, one of our new writers. If this piece's spastic brilliance is any indication of things to come, she'll be doing all of the writing from now on. A definite plus for readers.

As we have already established*, the purpose of language is to express one's thoughts, and, by extension, communicate, whether it be with others or with oneself. It follows, then, that the purpose of literature is to express an idea; as a natural consequence, it follows that extraneous words or phrases irrelevant to the piece's true message should be removed from their host literature. The purpose of grammar** is to cut down on syllable mass/general confusion while retaining meaning. 

Once one moves into the realm of poetry, however, wordiness becomes less a matter of syntax and instead a matter of diction. When comparing the writing of amateurs against that of the masters, one difference immediately jumps out: the language (obviously). A new hand at verse will say exactly what the matter is at its face value, very plainly, very literally, and often with figures of speech so simple that they don’t count as figures of speech at all. 

Meanwhile, a more experienced poet will mix the bag; they will evade ideas that can be stated in commonplace speech or word arrangements, and at times it will seem like they are ducking away from the meaning, relying on pretty words and rhythms to serve as sufficient entertainment. 

And some poets do that. It’s a natural reaction for an aspiring writer who compares his work to that of the masters, upon realizing that one of the biggest differences is unusual word use, to proceed to “improve” his work by tossing in all kinds of weird adjectives, much like that bartender who cuts her customers’ wine with grape juice. 

Sometimes it works. But most of the time, it does not; but what a great improvement it seems before the first sip, to have many bottles overflowing with purple liquid rather than paltry dregs in one or two!

The reason why good poets use funny wordings, much like the reason why good brewers add hops, is because the idea they want to express depends upon those additions; the idea simply cannot be put any other way without compromising meaning. When Eliot’s J. Alfred Prufrock describes himself as having “measured out [his] life with coffee spoons,” it would not do for him to instead lament that “[his] life is dull, mundane, pointless and everyday” because that, firstly, is actually more syllables than the original; and, secondly, loses the implication that his routine is automatic enough to seem continuous, among other things. Not only so, but it's just really goddamn boring. 

This is supposed to be a poem, not a grocery list. 

At the other end, this is a poem, not an embroidered wedding gown with a hundred trailing square feet of lace. And in some ways, poetry is like prose. Ultimately, they are species of literature, and literature exists to convey. Superb diction and original connections are useless in a piece where meaning is not conveyed with dazzling clarity and efficacy. Suppose a painting sprouts glitter just to sparkle and for no purpose innate in the artwork. One might as well brush the glitter off. 

Glitter takes up space. That space would be better spent showing the paint underneath.

* we have not yet established this. I frankly see no reason to do it, because the number of people who believe otherwise is extremely small.
** we will establish this later because people complain about grammar too much.

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