Thursday, June 22, 2006

Thoreau on Pedantry

Stumbled across while surfing poetry blogs, a quote from Thoreau:

When I hear the hypercritical quarreling about grammar and style, the position of the particles, etc., etc., stretching or contracting every speaker to certain rules of theirs, -- Mr. Webster, perhaps, not having spoken according to Mr. Kirkham's rule, -- I see that they forget that the first requisite and rule is that expression shall be vital and natural, as much as the voice of a brute or an interjection: first of all, mother tongue; and last of all, artificial or father tongue. Essentially, your truest poetical sentence is as free and lawless as a lamb's bleat. The grammarian is often one who can neither cry nor laugh, yet thinks that he can express human emotions. So the posture-masters tell you how you shall walk, -- turning your toes out, perhaps, excessively, -- but so the beautiful walkers are not made.

—Henry David Thoreau, Journals (January 2, 1859)

Right on, Hank.

Most pedants in this realm tend to equate the dropping of even one comma, or the use of even one moment of irregular syntax, with the "abandonment of all grammar." They frame it as an either/or: either you're strictly and totally following the rules of prose grammar, or you're a hack. Ignoring for the moment the irrelevance of prose grammar rules applied to poetry—they are different realms, with different rules, and the most common mistake on this topic is to state categorically that poetry must use prose grammar—which on the other hand might explain why so much contemporary poetry sounds like prose arranged oddly on the page. The problem with grammatical pedantry is that it is a closed-loop, self-referential universe.

No one ever said that one is free to abandon all grammar, although in the cases of even some successful poems, that has been approached in a close orbit. Thoreau's points reamin valid, in that he is discussing openness, the willingness to let the world in, unruly and chaotic as it is, and to let go of the illusion of total control.

The argument that "you have to know the rules to break the rules" is the same argument, stated more or less exactly, of both the grammatical pedants and the formalist zealots. It's usually presented as a Fact, or an Absolute Truth, which tends to close minds, close mouths, and shut down discussion. The fact that there may be exceptions to the rule, or an alternative style/means, or even an alternative syntax which remains internally logical, is usually dismissed out of hand, with no entertainment of the possibility. And since "you have to know the rules to break the rules" is such a hoary cliche, itself, it seems reasonable to reply to that with yet another hoary cliche: "minds are like parachutes, they only function when open."

The argument is then made that it's difficult accept a claim for innovation when the poem presents evidence that the poet has only a shaky understanding of the poetic form they are trying to depart from, or innovate away from.

The problem with this argument has always been that it assumes guilt rather than innocence. A skeptic's viewpoint may serve one well, a priori, in scientific and rational endeavours. The problem is, in less rational realms, such as art and literature—which despite all attempts by some to rationalize them remain unruly—skepticism can quickly harden into prejudice; thus, we get (neo-)conservative, even reactionary, criticism, which dismisses all experiments out of hand as ignorant failures. That hardly seems to serve us well, any more than does wimpy "accept anything" criticism. A little more insight is often useful, along with a little more balance.

In some cases, of course, it's certainly true that ignorance is at play. The evidence is usually fairly clear, in the case of ignorance, especially willful ignorance. However, if one does not treat each piece on a case-by-case basis, one is indeed likely to  (since we're using critical cliches today, here's another:) throw out the baby with the bathwater.

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