Friday, 19 September 2008

Moor Fields and writing-- further

I said (previous Moor Fields posting) that I couldn’t agree with Harold Rosen that in writing about it I was ‘structuring my experience’ of playing on Moor Fields when I was 9. If I was structuring anything, it was a representation of that experience; the experience itself was something quite distinct from a piece of writing that I might do about it. It seemed to me that my experience had not originally registered and had not persisted primarily in words, though it might have been partly shaped by my literary experience.

(I'm aware there’s an argument to be made that even the original experience, or what ‘registers’ and leaves a memory from it, was constituted in language or some semiotic based on language:

“[Wilfrid] Sellars rejected any non-cognitive, non-linguistic conception of conscious experience and awareness: ‘all awareness’, he said, ‘is a linguistic affair.’ There is no such thing as simply taking in the world in experience, as if the senses themselves had some kind of magical ability to latch onto the world: this is the myth. Every episode of taking something in is really a case of conceptualising it, and conceptualising requires being subject to the norms which can only come with the acquisition of a language.” (Tim Crane, 2008, ‘Fraught with Ought’, London Review of Books, 30(12), 33-35.)

Nevertheless, I should have said that Harold was quite right in a more general way: in writing that piece, I wasn’t just producing a composition, doing something nice with words, I was doing something to my experience, or rather on my experience or in relation to it; I was going back to it and working on it, or with it. This work was mainly looking hard at it to ‘catch’ its character and important elements. ‘Putting the experience into words’ meant scrutinising.

Ted Hughes, commenting on the best children’s poems submitted to the annual Daily Mirror Children’s Literary Competition, remarked that they were typically characterised by fresh, sharp observation; the kids were looking at flowers and animals and people working as if those sights had never been described before.

To produce a symbolic correlate for an experience, for instance in words, involves looking at it hard and coming to know it better. In fact, can’t we even say that to penetrate and gain a deep knowledge of something means producing an equivalent in a semiotic medium? It’s most plainly true of painting. Van Gogh invented a new ‘language' of colours and brush strokes, one in which the world looked different from how it had ever looked before. But that’s not what he was most aware of doing; his letters make it quite clear that what obsessed him was what the corn was like. What he was doing, in his own eyes, was identifying the colour and texture of a field of cornflowers disturbed by wind and catching them in paint. The two were the same thing: to identify was to catch in paint -- or vice versa. Van Gogh knew there was something out there that existing visual languages had failed to register and to address which he had to innovate; but his focus was corn and cornflowers, not paint. Painting was the means of observation.

Writing about Moor Fields -- as Harold Rosen rightly saw -- was a cognitive operation, an operation on knowledge, on the state of my head in relation to the phenomenon; it could be said that as a result I knew the experience better, or differently. Moor Fields would henceforth feature somewhat differently in my inner landscape. ‘Sunsets, broad views, wind, street lighting, clear water, the way turf came up in whole sections when you pulled’, which I'd put side by side in a list for the first time in the writing, would from then on be connected, if only in some barely perceptible resonance.

Rosen’s general point -- a true one -- was that writing can have cognitive effects; it’s not just working with words, it’s working on something that’s already in some way in the mind (by virtue of its having featured in experience), in such a way that our knowledge of it is changed, refocused, selectively sharpened, rearranged. (I'm aware I haven't quite got that issue sorted out.) On occasion the change that the writing process induces can be important -- the writer can arrive at a new perception that makes a difference to his or her life; so that English teachers should always reckon with the possibility that the effects of writing can potentially be transformative and ensure that assignments and environment always open up opportunities for that to happen.

At the very least, what I think we learned from Rosen, Britton and Martin was that writing, if engaged in wholeheartedly, could be a process of exceptional intensity and could change one’s mind: we should not fritter away those few opportunities for intense cognitive activity by setting compositions that were trivial or merely conventional.

But Rosen et al, John Dixon, all that generation of theorists of English, also missed something crucial. At one point in my little composition I wrote:

‘from our fields we looked down particularly on one cluster of mill buildings with lines of sloping glass skylights, big ventilation cowls, a square dam walled round and a great chimney--the predominant architectural feature of Bradford was chimneys -- from which the smoke rose vertically and undisturbed above the buildings, above the trees at the back, above the distant glowing moors which seemed like the Scottish border, and into a grey and then a blue sky.’

That strikes me as a nice sentence. I like the concatenation of syntactic subordinations and additions: the chimney from which… , and then the adverbials with both repetition and variation: ‘vertically’ (adverb), ‘undisturbed’ (participle), ‘above the…, above the…, above the…’ (adverbial phrases) -- the last with a dependent ‘which’ clause; and finally ‘into a grey and then a blue sky’ (two adverbial phrases, the second with the conjunction omitted). I could also point to felicitous sonic effects: smoke rose glow, moors border , smoke sky -- and I like ‘smoke rose vertically and undisturbed above the buildings’ -- the two stressed monosyllables followed by three poly- and duo-syllables. What stops one calling that effect ‘aesthetic’ is that the sound connections also bring the meanings into connection.

So, yes, I agree that in the process I'm working on my experience -- reworking it, if you like -- but mainly I think I'm trying to write a good sentence. The urge that motivates writing may often be less the desire to learn (by making ‘more adequate representations’ as part, ultimately, of our adaptation to our environment in the interests of surviving and prospering) than the impulse to create satisfying verbal artefacts; in writing, the thinking (scrutinising, learning) may be less important than the making. It’s the distinctive nature of literary art that those early theorists of English never adequately faced up to.

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