Friday, April 24, 2009

Playing With Words

I'm reading a collection of pieces by James Elroy, Destination: Morgue. Intriguing as usual, but ... The man uses so many short phrases and sentences; they come at you like alliterative headlines from the worst of the supermarket tabloids. And even when he's not in full voice tabloid mode, he still alliterates. It became too much. I had to set the book aside.Now alliteration in moderation is a good and powerful tool for the poet, more so than for any other writer (except the producer of tabloid headlines!). Old English poetry was founded in alliterative four-stress lines. The sound of a sound repeating itself is often a baby's first attempt at language. Alliteration and assonance, its concomitant construction, (two deliberate examples of alliteration) are a vital part of the language. The question still remains, When is it a game and when is it poetry? Nursery rhymes that depend on word play, are they considered lasting poems comparing favourably with Old English riddles? Lewis Carrol's "Jaberwocky" can be found in anthologies of Victorian poetry. Why then isn't Joyce's Ulysses a great poem of the twentieth century? Closer to home is Christian Bok, an experimental and "sound" poet. What makes his Eunoia such a popular and critical success? His gathering of words, divided according to their use of one vowel, is the ultimate in word play - the result of years of making lists. Sound (and assonance, therefore) is everything; sense and meaning are far down those lists!

On CBC radio they held a contest for the best haiku about Toronto; it had to be five syllables / seven syllables / five syllables. There was nothing said about the spirit of haiku, the satori or moment of enlightenment that is crucial. We are left with form but no substance, a useless exercise. We might as well arrange words on the side of the fridge.Abstract art: abstract poetry. You endow the words and sounds with whatever meaning you want to fit. So play word games. Play Scrabble, do anagrams, acrostics, crossword puzzles. I like them too. I just don't call it poetry.

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