25 October 2010

The Sound of Silence

John Cage, Edwin Morgan and the finding of meaning.

Christmas is coming. I can read the signs. There are sparkly decorations in the shops and department stores have started displaying bizarre ‘gifts’ such as electronic talking monkeys that you can clip to your shoulder…(Thank goodness there weren't 'gifts' like that 2000 years ago, or the Three Wise Men might have arrived bearing Gold, Frankincense and Talking Shoulder Monkey...)  What else? Oh yes, X Factor fans are thinking about the Christmas Number One. And on Facebook, a campaign against anodyne manufactured pop is once more underway.  There’s a group which wants to try and get John Cage’s 4’33’’ onto the Christmas Number One spot. I have to confess, I’ve clicked the Like button.

Born in 1912, John Cage was an American composer, philosopher and artist who became famous for stretching the bounds of music. His 4’33’’ is probably his most famous work. It was composed in 1952, and is for any combination of instruments. The score basically instructs the musician to not play during the piece’s three movements – it is four minutes and thirty three seconds of absence of instrumental playing. However, it is not four minutes and thirty three seconds of silence, but of environmental noise, of expectation, of aural space.

Cage had been considering the idea of silent music for a while, but was pushed into writing the piece by the example of the artist Robert Rauschenberg, who had produced a series of paintings which were basically large white squares. The point of this was that even if they just looked like blank canvases, they would change according to the conditions in which they are viewed: the quality of the light, or what other colours there might be in the room in which they were displayed. In a similar way, Cage’s 4’33’’ uses the silence as a background canvas for the ambient sound and atmosphere: the sounds to which we are usually too distracted to pay attention. Both Rauschenberg’s pictures and Cage’s music required the audience to pay hyper-close attention in order to experience them. Viewers and listeners had to make an effort: it wasn’t all laid out there in front of them. In fact, this requirement of effort meant that they had to become part of the creative process themselves.

White Painting (seven panel) by Robert Rauschenburg

John Cage said ‘I have nothing to say and I am saying it and that is poetry’. Edwin Morgan, the Scottish poet who died this year, and whose tribute event, organised by the Poetry Society is taking place at the Southbank Centre, London, on Nov 3rd, took those fourteen words and made his own poem of them. The poem, 'Opening the Cage', is a fourteen line variation of those fourteen words, each line creating new meanings through new combinations.

It takes effort to tease meanings out of these lines, and I’m sure different people will find different things. To me, the first line seems to state the poet’s need to write, his uncertainty about whether that writing has any worth, and the fact that this dilemma is what he is considering:
I have to say poetry and that is nothing and I am saying it
By line 7 the words seem to have assembled themselves into an invitation to strip away all the fripperies of life and perhaps also of language to get to the bare bones:
To have nothing is poetry and I am saying that and I say it
And after a sonnet’s worth of variations, the poem concludes (if a conclusion it is) with the decisiveness of a manifesto:
Saying poetry is nothing and to that I say I am and have it
John Cage was very interested in aleatoric music, the music of chance. Morgan’s poem is very much in that spirit – the randomness of word-shuffling produces chance combinations from which meaning can be derived. Morgan chose the fourteen he felt made the meaning he wanted. It’s an interesting paradox, however, that while the poem is punningly entitled ‘Opening the Cage’, implying the freeing of language and meaning, Edwin Morgan might be considered to have imposed a cage of his own by using the sonnet form. (If it is a sonnet – certainly Don Paterson includes it in his 1999 Faber Anthology 101 Sonnets.)  However, a more controlling poet might have added punctuation to clarify the meanings he wished his reader to derive. Morgan does not do this. He lets the meaning of each line stay fluid and free. (Have a look at the similarly constructed 'The Uncertainty of the Poet' by Wendy Cope, a poem also derived from another artist's work, to see how punctuation pins down meaning.) It seems to me, also, that implicit in the poem are all the other possibilities which Morgan did not use. For these reasons the sonnet-shaped cage is only an illusion. It’s a poetic Tardis: the inside is bigger than the outside.

If one accepts this notion, ‘Opening the Cage’ is a poem that could continue, inside the reader’s head, for a lifetime. With 14 words there are 14! (that is, 14 factorial: 14 x 13 x 12 x 11 x 10 and so on down to x 1) possible combinations – in other words, 87,178,291,200 different ways of arranging those words. Well, you might say, some of those combinations will just be gobbledygook. Okay, let’s go for a gobbledygook one: the purely alphabetical
am and and have I I is it nothing poetry say saying that to
Is there any meaning to be found in that? Of course there is, of you look hard enough. The ‘am’ separated from its implied ‘I’ has a plaintive, questioning tone, while the repeated ‘and’s and ‘I’s reinforce this feeling of uncertainty. Then we have the question around which this line revolves, the shaky, inverted ‘is it nothing, poetry?’, followed by an imploring ‘say’ – tell me the answer. Next comes a phrase that implies no confidence in the received answer, ‘saying that to…’. This seems to me to question the motives of the unheard speaker: You’re just saying that for some other motive. Whatever it is, it means I can’t rely on your answer to help me in my search for whatever I’m searching for.

And I’ve derived that ‘meaning’ from listing those fourteen words alphabetically. You, dear reader, might derive a completely different meaning – it’s up to you. All it takes to derive meaning is a reader with the willingness to do so.

Edwin Morgan

This kind of poetry, poetry that demands so much of the reader’s participation in the act of creativity, reminds me of the writing of someone I once met in a critique group. She was severely dyslexic, and had come to poetry, and literacy in general, quite late in life. For her, her poetry was mostly therapeutic, but for her readers, it became something quite exciting by virtue of her dyslexia. I can’t give any actual quotes, because I’m not in touch with her now, but, for example, in a poem about domestic violence, she might write things like ‘meating’ instead of ‘meeting’, and ‘burned’ instead of ‘born’ – changes which often added a startling and completely unintended complexity to her poems. When she was alerted to this, she was often delighted with the effect that she had created, and would let it stand. Her meanings were created in an aleatoric way, and the initially chance significances found by her readers were then fed back into her later revisions of the poems.

I’m not sure that Cage’s 4’33’’ will make the number one spot. Nearly sixty years after it premiered it still provokes angry responses, as can be seen by some of the comments on the Daily Mail's coverage of the Facebook campaign. One person even rants about how the people who support the campaign should be locked up. What amuses me, though, and would probably have pleased both John Cage and Edwin Morgan, is the fact that the Cage piece must have suggested itself for this year’s campaign simply because of its chance sonic relationship with last year’s successful campaign band. Rage Against the Machine – Cage Against the Machine. A chance rhyme from which such appropriate significance and meaning has been derived. How could it have been anything else?

Recording of the BBC Symphony Orchestra performing 4'33'' at the Barbican, London, in 2004. 

‘Opening the Cage’ can be found in 101 Sonnets, ed Don Paterson, Faber 1999.

20 October 2010

Writings on the Wall

Robert Frost and the Berlin Wall

This time of year, when all the green stuff is beginning to die back, the bones of the countryside start to become more visible. Here in Devon, the networks of hedgerows and dry stone walls are suddenly foregrounded; their structure and relationship to the land revealed now that the lushness of summer is receding. They seem organic, these boundaries, part of the nature of things, since many of them have been in place for hundreds of years or more, but of course they are all man-made and need to be maintained.

In Robert Frost’s great poem ‘Mending Wall’ two neighbouring farmers walk the length of the dry stone wall which separates their properties, each on his own side, repairing the holes after the winter weather, making the boundary between them once more complete. ‘Something there is that does not love a wall’, muses Frost’s speaker, pondering the damage that occurs when no one is there to see. But he still goes though the spring ritual of mending: one day a year to ‘set the wall between us once again’. 'Just another kind of outdoor game,' he says.  

This particular wall serves no useful purpose as far as the speaker can see, since all it does is separate one kind of tree from another, and as he says ‘My apple trees will never get across/ and eat the cones under his pines…’. His neighbour sees things differently: insists, as his father did before him, that ‘Good fences make good neighbours’, and as readers we may smile at this old cliche, this unsophisticated parochialism. But then we read Frost's description of him picking up the fallen stones ready to put them back in place and mend the wall:          
...I see him there
Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top
In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed
and we realise that to the neighbour this is something far deeper and darker, more primeval, than just a game.

There’s something very ancient in this need for boundaries, for marking one’s territory. History is criss-crossed by the bones of boundaries: Bronze Age field systems on Dartmoor, castle walls, city walls, Hadrian’s Wall, the Great Wall of China. Frost’s wall, like all these walls, is a social and psychological construct as well as a physical one: to the neighbour it is a representation of ownership, and of tradition, of something which must remain fixed. For Frost as poet, it seems to represent the barrier between two people’s points of view.

Point of view about boundaries and territory is addressed in another Frost poem, ‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening’.The poem starts

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.
The speaker is riding through some woods which are not his, but the trespass seems to be implied not in the passing through, but in the stopping and looking. Perhaps taking pleasure from something that is not yours is a crime, even if by doing so you hurt no-one? Certainly Frost seems to feel that his speaker has crossed some kind of moral boundary. ‘He will not see me stopping here/ To watch his woods…’ has a very different implication from a possible alternative that Frost didn’t use: ‘He will not mind me…’. So even without walls, the social boundaries of territory exist.

In English, the word ‘wall’ is a kind of catch-all. We have to use the same word, whether we mean the internal vertical surfaces of a room, or an exterior dividing agent. German is kinder, and allows speakers to distinguish between an internal wall (Wand) and an external one (Mauer). The most famous German wall is of course the Berlin Wall, a barrier between two diametrically opposed points of view – those of Communism and of Capitalism.

The division of East and West Berlin took physical form on the night of 12th August 1961, when East German troops and workers tore up the streets adjacent to the border, and laid barbed wire and fences to prevent anyone crossing. The first bits of actual wall (concrete and blocks) were laid by August 17th, and soon there was a wall along the whole border. In 1975, however, the East German border troops started building a new type of wall along the border: the Grenzmauer 75. This was made from 45,000 sections of reinforced concrete, each 3.6m high and 1.2m wide. It was painted a bright, inviting white. Graffiti was of course forbidden in East Germany, but by the beginning of the eighties, artists had decided that the Western face of the wall was a massive canvas waiting to be filled. Many artists, known, unknown, or anonymous, painted on the wall. Sometimes a painting was only there a day before it was painted over. Anyone could paint. The wall, a symbol of oppression, became a place of expression – but only to those on one side. The Western side was riotous with colour, the Eastern side plain and greying.

In the Bible, (Daniel 5: 1-31) the ‘writing on the wall’ foretold the demise of the Babylonian Empire. While it would be pushing it rather to pretend that this is directly analogous with the Berlin Wall and its graffiti art, given the events of 1989 and after it’s quite a pleasing idea to prop, rather like some flimsy but decorative ladder, up against it.

More than twenty years after Reunification, few parts of the Wall remain, although on those stretches that do, the Eastern face is now covered with graffiti too. Pieces of the fallen Wall have made their way all over the world and can be found displayed in embassies, parks, schools, hotels and museums. But there is still a vestigial wall, albeit invisible. Germans talk about the ‘Mauer im Kopf’: the wall in the head. (Incidentally, it’s interesting how the spatial specificity the German noun – its externality – makes its paradoxical placing within an internal space – the head – so much more striking.)  Polls have indicated that some Germans regret Reunification, and feel that the erosion of cultural differences between the East and West is a negative thing. In other words, they wish the Wall was still there.

Which brings us back to Robert Frost’s neighbour, who wanted the boundaries kept solid, visible, unbroken. Knowing that the boundary was there in abstract was not enough. To him, the wall in the head needed be made manifest by the wall on the land, even though to Frost’s more pragmatic persona, there seemed no point at all.

So, what is the 'something' that makes the gaps, the something that doesn’t like a wall? The something that

…sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun;
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.
It’s frost.

17 October 2010

Poetry and Maths

(Benoit Mandelbrot, 1924 – 2010)

Benoit Mandelbrot first started thinking about complexity when he was contemplating, as a young researcher, the length of coastline of Britain. The answer, he realised, depended on how closely you looked. Measure the sweep of a bay, and it might be a mile long; include the ins and outs of the craggy inlets of that bay and you might get a length of two miles; zoom into each indentation of each tiny irregularity that you might feel when you run your fingers over the surface of the rock, and how long might that measure? So, how long is that coastline? In an interview with the New York Times earlier this year, Mandelbrot said that the question was an impossible one. "The length of the coastline, in a sense, is infinite."
I first heard of Benoit Mandelbrot in the pages of a book. Arthur C. Clarke’s The Ghost from the Grand Banks has a character, a nine year old maths genius called Ada who becomes obsessed with the beauty and complexity of the Mandelbrot Set. The M-Set is basically an equation: Z = z2 + c. Well, I got my O level maths, so I can see that it’s in the language of maths, but it means little to me. I need a translation. And the translation comes when someone plots that equation on a graph. And what you get, is this:

And the thing about this, is when you zoom in on any part of it, what seems at first smooth becomes more and more complex, and eventually that complexity starts repeating itself. Think of a cauliflower – a kind of blobby brain shape. But it’s made up of little florets that are miniature versions of the whole. And when you look at the florets, they are made up of even tinier little mini-florets. Now if you keep zooming in on the M-set, you will find those complex Mandlebrotian florets budding off the line of the equation, for ever and ever and ever.  In Clarke’s book, Ada explains:

‘The boundary of the M-Set is fuzzy – it contains infinite detail: you can go in anywhere you like, and magnify as much as you please – and you’ll always discover something new and expected – look!’

The image expanded: they were diving into the cleft between the main cardiod and its tangent circle. It was […] very much like watching a zip-fastener being pulled open – except that the teeth of the zipper had the most extraordinary shapes.

First they looked like baby elephants waving tiny trunks,. then the trunks became tentacles. then the tentacles sprouted eyes. Then, as the image continued to expand, the eyes opened up into whirlpools of infinite depth… […] Flotillas of seahorses sailed by in stately procession. At the screen’s exact centre, a tiny black dot appeared, expanded, began to show a haunting familiarity – and seconds later revealed itself as an exact replica of the original Set.

I’m a words person, not a numbers person. But it seems to me that Mandelbrot’s investigation of the complexity of apparent smoothness, its fractal nature, can be seen as analogous with poetry. Take a ‘simple’ poem by Charles Simic:

Evening Chess

The Black Queen raised high
In my father’s angry hand.

Two lines. Not even a sentence in grammatical terms, since there is no verb. But if we start zooming in on the poem, we find all sorts of complexity. Sonic complexity, with the repeated, stabbing short vowels (black/angry/hand) and the long threatening vowels (high/my). Then there is contextual and connotational complexity: zoom out and think about what a game of chess might signify: a quiet civilised evening pastime, or a ritualised battle? Semantic and syntactic complexity: the word ‘black’ is placed by both sonic and grammatical echoing, in apposition with ‘angry’ – calling up to me, simply through those relationships, the image of a face darkening in rage. And of course you can look inside the meanings of individual words and find more complexity. The word ‘father’ has so many connotations: the OED has thirteen main definitions of the noun, all of which, by the nature of language, are underlying in some way its use in this poem.  I could, like the Mandelbrot set, go on for ever!

Mandelbrot died yesterday. And that’s given me the push I needed to start this long-planned blog. Coastlines, language, maths, poetry, life: they’re all fascinating in their complexity and their simplicity. This blog will be my ‘little room’, for zooming out, and zooming in.