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Friday, 1 May 2009

The Geography of the Imagination

Last week I was shown a series of plans for novels by Arvon students. Discussion of such plans are useful but a plan - or (dread) a synopsis - is only a way of thinking about the novel. It is not the novel itself. A plan is as like the intended novel as a map of France is to France itself - it is like, but not like.

This isn't to dismiss the usefulness of planning. Maps are very useful: we get lost without them, errors in them cause neighbourly disputes, wars even - but to put their usefulness into perspective.

This week, the analogy came back to me while reading a posthumous collection of Michael Donaghy's prose - a benign and only seemingly quirky series of reflections on poetry - I came across his account of work with a number of deaf poets who, introducing their craft, gave him a photocopy of a poem by the American deaf poet, Clayton Valli.

He found himself 'acutely embarrassed by the apparent mediocrity of the work' until he was shown a video of Valli performing the piece.

Donaghy realised that it was:
...a clear example of Frost's dictum 'poetry is what's lost in translation,' for this performance was the poem. the photocopied sheet on my lap was no more a work of literary art than a choreographer's stage direction can be said to constitute a ballet or pediscript a pavane.'
It was so in the same way that a clock is merely a diagram of time, a means of measuring and representing it and yet so different from time as we experience it, or that these ice dance charts:

resemble this:

Donaghy quotes R G Collingwood who called dance 'the mother of language':
We get still farther away from the fundamental facts of speech when we think of it as something that can be written and read, forgetting that writing, in our clumsy notations, can represent only a small part of the spoken sound, where pitch and stress, where tempo and rhythm, are almost entirely ignored... the written or printed book is only a series of hints, as elliptical as the neumes of byzantine music

Neumes, Donaghy explains, are the little strokes indicating pitch and ornament accompanying the chats in ancient missals that gradually modify into musical notation that we use today.

Donaghy's point, to simplify, is that the poem exists to provoke its real life in the reader's mind - the (successful) poem, on paper, is as like in the reader's head as a a map of France is to France itself.

It is my point, too. The book exists to provoke a world inside the reader's head. And even for the writer this is true. The book as it comes into being is only a shadow - a map - of what it feels like in the writer's head.