Thursday, November 20, 2008

The clarity of poetry

My dear students,

POEMS are not for reporters, to read. Though I like poetry, that is what I used to prescribe in class. And also believe today, because poems do not consist of facts. But recently some of my students, especially Gauri Gharpure of Kolkata (who plays a cool blog, where “Life rules”) and some readers of my blog (who are into the “imagination” touch), have provoked me into re-thinking my stand.

Gauri shared with me a thought by a Russian poet, Mikhail Kuzmin (1872-1936), in which he calls for fellow poets “to seek beauty in the natural and physical world of their environment – to be industrious in language and vision in order to reflect the realness of the subject.”

This is what Kuzmin said in a 1910 address, “I beg you be logical in the design and structure of your work, in syntax . . . be a skillful builder, both in small things and in the whole . . . love words, as Flaubert did, exercise economy in your means, thrift in the use of words, precision and authenticity – then you will discover the secret of a wonderful thing: beauty clarity."

Those words became part of the mainfesto for a trend in poetry called “Acme-ism”, whose significant leading poets were Anna Akhmatova, Nikolai Gumilëv, and Osip Mandelstam. The link to Kuzmin is from the website of the Academy of American Poets http://www.poets.org/, which itself is a treasure. The Kuzmin collection, at Dalhousie University in Canada, available in electronic form and compiled by John Barnstead, can be accessed at this link. Dive into its riches.

Shown the quote without being told it was by a poet, I would have sworn it was by a journalist. For, as a journalist, I believe and practise what it says. I have been re-writing this piece with “thrift in the use of words, precision and authenticity” and when a word goes false, I cancel it out.


An editing tip I draw from Kuzmin is, “Omit needless words”. That was an advice William Strunk Jr. gave E.B. White, who was a student at Cornell in 1919. Strunk collected his advice in a “little book” called “The Elements of Style”. White revised his teacher’s textbook in 1959. Besides R.P. and T.J.S. George, Strunk & White should also permeate our style, stripping the text of needless gossip. Here is the link to Strunk's astute guide on the Elementary Principles of Composition


Now reporters, I dare say, ought to read poems. Unlearning, for me at 58, has been fun. But aren't reporters becoming endangered in today’s TV-driven world? There are the poets who can sing like the birds. But where are the poets who can describe like the reporters?

Warm regards,

- Joe.
Pune, 20 November 2008.

12 comments:

Glassbeads said...

Dear sir,

Kuzmin's ideas on writing poetry do carry a very important message of clarity. However, how can one restrict such expression to realness? Does this realness mean writing about real things (not imagination) or is it about making the subject seem real?
Many a times, unfortunately though, one may not be aware of the syntax and styles that exist and yet wish to write what comes to the mind -- in free-form. Wouldn't that help to create a new style?
However, I do agree with 'in clarity lies beauty'.
--NM

Joe Pinto, Pune said...

Dear nm - Go ahead, full steam ahead and in free-form!

As long as you can see sense "in clarity lies beauty" my purpose has been served.

The Japanese have the "haiku" to express their notion of distilled imagination. May you make your own path!

Warm regards,

- Joe

Gauri Gharpure said...

Sir,
I am glad Kuzmin's words have compelled you to look at poetry, poets and the poet-journalist equation a little more sympathetically.

On a different note, the new layout you have set is adding its own charm to your blog.

feddabonn said...

my two bits:

poetry and the language of adverbs and adjectives [grin] describes one 'type' of reality, while the language of science describes another. good journalism, i would think, describes yet another. for example, the language i use with my close ones is dependent not only on the relationship, but also on the time and space we are in. i think it would be unfair to ask that poets speak the language of journalism or science, though i admit it would be a very interesting exercise!

Joe Pinto, Pune said...

dear feddabonn,

thank you for the delayed provocation. since you have taken off -- on science, good journalism and poetry -- maybe you ought to fly in full flow.

three instigatory ideas stand out in your polemic. with your permission, may i annotate your comment?

The first, "poetry and the language of adverbs and adjectives [grin] describes one type of reality, while the language of science describes another (reality)." which are these different realities you face, dear poet? why this surprise counter point between poetry and science? and why the grin?

the second, "good journalism describes yet another (reality)." which reality here? and what is "good" journalism, dear poet? then an example, "the language i use with my close ones is dependent not only on the relationship, but also on the time and space we are in."

And the third, "it would be unfair to ask that poets speak the language of journalism or science", though i am glad you "admit it would be a very interesting exercise!"

Now that you have taken off, maybe you should feed the "unfair" and fly in full flow!

warm regards,
- joe.

p.s. : did you have a look at e.e. cummings? writing without caps was a torment.

feddabonn said...

>>which are these different realities you face, dear poet? why this surprise counter point between poetry and science? and why the grin?

-poetry, and most creative works, seem to deal with an 'imaginary' reality, a reality of metaphors and illustrations, not one of cold facts/figures/measurables. let me try an example-sunrise. poetically, the sun could peep over the mountains. in the language of journalism, the sun rises. scientifically, of course, neither of these is true. but the sun CAN be seen to 'peep' over the mountains, even though this is not a scientific fact. and though a journalist may speak of the sun rising, s/he is unlikely to use the 'peep over the mountains' in a serious report if s/he wants to be taken seriously.

the grin was because i seem to remember you exhorting someone to avoid adjectives and adverbs in their writing! :)

>>and what is "good" journalism, dear poet?

-i may have put my foot rather deep into my mouth here! :) what i mean by good journalism in this particular context is merely journalism that uses an accessible language, not falling into extremes either of scientific/technological jargon or fanciful poetry, nor for that matter ANY extreme that hinders understanding.

>>then an example, "the language i use with my close ones is dependent not only on the relationship, but also on the time and space we are in."

-while i may use a particular tone/verbiage with my wife in private, i may not use the same tone in public (space/time). also, while i love both my wife and sister dearly, i do not use the same tone verbiage with them (relationship).

>>And the third, "it would be unfair to ask that poets speak the language of journalism or science", though i am glad you "admit it would be a very interesting exercise!"

-the language of science is very specific, very 'measurable', poetry need not be. if someone says that their love is as deep as the ocean, it makes poetic sense, but is utter nonsense from a scientific standpoint. for starters, how does one measure love? and if one DID measure love, how does one convert it into the same measure (meteres) one uses to measure the depth of the ocean?

-i still think it would be an interesting artistic exercise to use the specific, jargon infested language of science in a poetic form. similar work has been done in 'concrete poetry', where the visual and the verbal aspects of the poem interplay.

Joseph M. Pinto said...

dear feddabonn,

thank you for your very detailed reply. i appreciate that poets like you engage in prosaic discussions. i will keep your comments and include them in a piece that i am writing on poetry for my students.

i eagerly await your piece, introducing poems and poetry to full-time professional journalists and students of journalism.

Warm regards,
- Joe.

Joe Pinto said...

My dear baruk feddabonn,

Subject: The Intersection of Poetry and Politics.

The New York Times has reported on 24 December 2008, that Elizabeth Alexander will compose a poem to recite at Barack Obama’s inauguration as the President of the USA on 20 January 2009.

My friend in Tokyo, Dr Vivek Pinto, sent me the link http://www.nytimes.com/2008/12/25/books/25poet.html , because he was astounded at the response to my post on poetry.

I have to thank you, baruk feddabonn, for your wonderful contributions to my post.

I hope you have not forgotten that my readers and I are waiting for your piece on poetry for journalists.

Warm regards,
- Joe.

feddabonn said...

dear joe,

your assignment is not forgotten-i am still working hard on it. just that it is turning out a lot more difficult than i initially imagined-especially trying to keep the piece honest. hope to have something concrete soon!

Joe Pinto said...

my dear baruk,

working hard, more difficult.
honest, concrete.

with such keywords surrounding your piece on poetry, our wait will be worth while.

warm regards in the months so cold,
(if winter comes, can spring me far behind? - shelley)
- joe.

feddabonn said...

dear joe,

the piece on poetry is ready (phew!) pending the final edits. may i have an email ID to send it to? mine is barukATprovoke.co.in

thanks!

~baruk

अब्द said...

Dear Sir,
This is one of my favourite posts on your blog. Today, I read it for the second time. ह्या विषयावर तुमच्याकडून लेक्चरमध्ये ऐकायला किती मजा आली असती!