Genre and the pick-up truck

February 12th, 2015

What’s the relationship of poetry and prose? I dropped in (via Skype) to my friend Suzanne Steele’s creative writing class at the University of Exeter last week. The group had reached the point of discussing that very question and Suzanne asked me what my thoughts were.

Which brings me to cars and trucks.

But first … I used to take a certain pride in being able to do anything as a poem – tell a story, explore a scientific idea, create a mythology, convey an ethical opinion, express any mood. If something could be looped into words at all, then I could do it poetically. It might make me feel at times as though I had set the limbo bar awfully low, but I liked that challenge.

Then I reached the point where I found that trying to do everything as a poem could be cumbersome. Especially when I got to the point of wanting to talk about poetry and its relationship to science. It always seems to me that writing about writing tends to lead to distinctly insular poetry.

And, although a poet like Lucretius has been able to sum up a huge body of knowledge in his epic poem De rerum nature, I have found that observing the constraints of a poetic form sometimes makes me say things I actually didn’t intend to say.  This is a source of invention and surprise that is very joyful in poetry, but it complicates your life unnecessarily when you are trying to express a specific idea without getting sent down rabbit holes.

Now to vehicles: I live in a part of the world where cars and trucks are so ubiquitous a part of life that you don’t notice them. They come in all different shapes, sizes, colours – the differences blur into the common denominator of movement from A to B.  However, I’ve been thinking that there is a genuine difference between the genres of pickup and sedan.

They both have the same fundamental body plan – four wheels and a steering device, engines, doors and windows. The difference comes down to differences in the function they are expected to serve.  The pickup is expected to carry things, the car is mainly for carrying people.  The sedan’s trunk is elongated in to the long, open bed of the truck. The truck’s cab is compressed to leave only enough room for driver and a passenger.

The functions blur, of course. Car trunks carry grocery bags and suitcases. Some pickups are designed with extra seating squashed behind the driver. There are demure little city pickups no longer than the average parking space; there are sedans as long as limousines, as square as pickups, as noisy as the rumbling four-by-four beside me at yesterday’s stoplight. There is a whole range of van-like vehicles that occupy the continuum between the two.

But, though there is no one feature that distinguishes car from truck, you can’t say there is no meaningful pattern of difference between the two forms of transport, that you can’t tell one from the other. And the difference goes back to what they are intended for.

The vehicles of language have similar patterns of purpose. A piece of writing can be ‘mostly’ for carrying specified information – the price of petroleum, an opinion on bicyclists. It can be ‘mostly’ for making unexpected connections of  sound and metaphor.  However, the two ends of that continuum are never entirely separate, because the continuum derives from language itself.

Language can never be without a degree of poetic pattern, because it is built from our ability to recognize the statistically significant, regularly recurring patterns of sound. We have to know what those patterns are if we are to derive meaning from a phoneme like ‘ing’ or ‘’s’. To be competent users of language, we have to know how frequently sounds occur – that, in English for instance, that little schwa vowel at the end of “vowel” is far more common than the ‘ow’ sound in the first syllable. We have to know the typical stress patterns of a word, a phrase, a sentence.

As poets, we can play with that intuitive awareness in order to surprise, to focus attention. It’s what makes lines memorable, distinctive.  In doing so, we can create joy, attention, through the serious play that we first learned as babies. But as babies also learn from the get-go, certain combinations of sound have meaning, significance; they attach themselves to patterns out there in the world.

Experimenting with language’s sounds can only take us so far, just as the unicycle – being a device that only one person can ride on at a time – is fun to watch in action but not practical for large-scale transportation.  Language is meant to move more than an individual babbler from A to B, just as our cars and trucks are meant to move more than one individual at a time. (For the purposes of metaphor, we’ll leave the sad realities of the automobile-dependent society to the side for now.)

For a writer, choosing a genre isn’t about choosing to use a specific set of tools like alliteration or iambic pentameter, any more than the car designer defines what she’s doing by deciding it will require a size four wrench. Instead we need to decide on (or discover) our intent, the function we want to fill – and ultimately means asking ourselves what relationship we want to have with an audience. Do we want to fit 12 people in a passenger van or are we happy twirling on a unicycle? How much information load do we want to fit in the trunk?

I think this applies even to subdivisions of genres. Creative non-fiction – that grab-bag into which my book of essays, Intersecting Sets: a Poet Looks at Scienceis lumped – is the subject of constant quest for definition. How does an essay differ from a memoir? From a biography? From fiction itself? As just one example, look at the tangle posed by Mark Abley in Conversations with a Dead Man, in which he imagines conversations with the ghost of Duncan Campbell Scott. Scott was an esteemed poet of his time, but also the overseer of the Indian residential school program which has left a horrific legacy for Canada’s aboriginal people. Abley uses the techniques of fiction along to explore a ‘real’ subject.

Abley wrote a biography; I wrote a series of essays; other writers produce  memoir or how-to books. We all reach into the same tool kit – the wrenches of imaginative story-telling, the pliers of personal memory, the tire patches of fact and the buffing pads of patterned sound – but what we intend to do with this collection of tools differs.

So first, like any designer, we need to know who we want our vehicle to serve.

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