Wednesday, 30 April 2014

Murder, Murder, Dinnerparty.

(This is one of the ones that isn't really about anything, but that didn't stop me from writing it apparently.)
(Oh and its not about D&D either.)

Dinner parties and quiet poetry are useful in a similar fashion.

If you are writing a piece of fiction, a dinner party provides a particular kind of social space that can highlight and present certain kinds of social information like few others.

Firstly, you have a lot of people in one place, they are expected to converse, the subject is not set. They are expected to improvise, within bounds. (The skill with which you learn and reproduce the unstated bounds is your skill at dinner parties). They are semi-locked into physical space (where they are seated) and do not have complete choice about with whom they are expected to converse. There are complex rules governing how they act. There is a lot of structure to a dinner party. Physical, social, verbal, temporal, spatial. Structure piled on structure piled on structure. For almost any given moment or space there is a thing that must be done.

Secondly, this pushes down the cost of communication. Because everything is communication. You are angry with someone and wish to communicate this. If you see them across the street you shout out. If you are next to them but not in conversation you must at least gain their attention, perhaps even begin a conversation. If you are already in conversation and you do not know them then you may need to directly say “I am angry with you” or words to that effect. If you know them well, or the conversation has been going for some time, only then can you begin to be assured of communicating your displeasure with a look, or a silence.

In a dinner party you have this level of communication with everyone present.

Thirdly, they show negative information. The more structure there is, the more the absence of a certain thing means. So more can be show or implied with a silence, a lack of response, a lack of movement, a lack of attention. Because there is always a way you are meant to be responding to someone, choosing not to communicate in the correct form sends a message.

Forthly the rules are broadly know to the reader. You may not know much about the rules of a Jane Austin dinner party, but you can tell very clearly when someone fucks up and/or embarrasses themselves.

And fifthly there is a lid on it.

If someone loses their shit at a dinner party, that’s probably the end of the dinner party. People are expected to contain their emotions. They are expected not to raise their voices. This means, if something bad happens then the ramifications of that bad thing can unspool for as long as possible without the reaction destroying the social milieu, and affect as many people as possible.

But it also means that because the emotional tone is set and bound, and all that structure is there, you can get much more of those very slight shifts in emotion, if that’s what you are into. So if you are telling the kind of story where very mild, almost imperceptible changes in what people are feeling is very important, then fucking bang them in dinner parties son.

 Austin sends people to Dinner parties to bring out quiet information. The things you might not usually sense or see. “I seem to like you but am quietly tolerating you.”

Or “I like A but spend most of my time with B, A sees this and assumes I like B more, there is no way for me to directly change A’s opinion of me without crossing important social boundaries and lowering my status in their eyes.”

 Dostoyevsky sends them to compress and intensify loud information.

 “Hey, murder that old Jew, then go to this dinner party. You will be sitting next to a policeman.

Or “Hey, you want to go with me to this dinner party in your murdered father’s house with a bunch of people, one of whom may have murdered him? Or maybe it was you???

“No thanks, instead I’m going to sit here, pass out and fantasise that I am a dinner party. I will be sitting next to the devil. And he’s a bore.”

In poetry, syllables and timing and metre have a similar kind of thing going on. Generally highly metrical poetry with strong bold regular stresses is pretty good for loud information. I’m thinking Tennyson, Milton.

Into         the valley of death rode the six hundred.
dada       da  dahda da  dah   dah   da  da  dahdah.

It’s not that that’s all heavily metrical poetry can do. But it’s fucking good at it. It likes to declaim, to speak about large things, to describe big things happening. Milton is the exemplar of this because he chose the biggest fucking thing ever.

Of mans first disobedience and the fruit
Da  dahs  da   dadadada       dah  da da

Of that forbidden tree who’s mortal taste
da dah da da da    da   dahs   dada    dah 

There’s subtlety in there, but more there is that metrical drumbeat, pounding out line after line after line.

Whereas your later English poets prefer quiet verse. Wordsworth will dodge a heavy meter if he can. He would rather talk of small, daily, lived things. He has other forms of structure in his work but they are quiet forms and if he has a drumbeat in there it would drown them out.

                                 Once again
     Do I behold these steep and lofty cliffs,
     That on a wild secluded scene impress
     Thoughts of more deep seclusion; and connect
     The landscape with the quiet of the sky.
     The day is come when I again repose
      Here, under this dark sycamore, and view
      These plots of cottage-ground, these orchard-tufts,
      Which at this season, with their unripe fruits,
      Are clad in one green hue, and lose themselves
  'Mid groves and copses


It’s still there but its soft and low. Check out all the S’s on the end of lines, the soft ending on ‘connect’. William will never slam a door closed as he leaves a line.

And poetry is good at that. This whole poem is basically a guy doing nothing, sitting down and being as quietly aware as possible. I certainly don’t object to that.

But I am not a quiet man. (I mean I am actually quite quiet, but not in my head.)

Shakespeare will pull us back and forth across this divide smoothly when different characters speak. Listen to them, not the volume of their voices but the volume of their speech;

Or if there were a sympathy in choice.
War, death or sickness, did lay siege to it;
Making it momentary, as a sound:
Swift as a shadow, short as any dream,
Brief as the lightning in the collied night,
That (in a spleen) unfolds both heaven and earth;
And ere a man hath power to say, behold,
The jaws of darkness do devour it up:
So quick bright things come to confusion.

If then true lovers have been ever cross’d.
It stands as an edict in destiny
Then let us teach our trial patience,
Because it is a customary cross,
As due to love, as thoughts, and dreams and sighs,
Wishes and tears, poor fancy’s followers.

War, Death Sick
Making  Moment
Swift  Shadow
Brief  Lightning
That Spleen
And Ere Man
Jaws Dark
Quick Bright Things
If then true
It stands as
Then let us
Because it is
As due to love
Wishes and tears

Look how ridiculously typically gendered they are as well. Two people talking about love. For the man there is weather, light, dark, shadows, death, lightning, jaws. Big natural things, active things, outside things.  And metre, bam bam bam.

For Hermia everything is quiet, still metrical but much less strongly metrical. Her syllables are rounded. Back come the soft dying endings to the lines. Out go Jaw and Death, in come destiny, patience, fancy’s followers, dreams and sighs. The stress lessens and the syllables even out. Less drums, more flow.

I suppose Shakespeare can have the murder and the dinner party happening inside different people at the same time in the same scene. (Although it should not be forgotten that, like Dostoyevsky, he also murders a shitload of people and then actually literally has dinner parties.)

I am not sure where I am going with this, though it seems I was when I started out. That it’s good to have both? That it’s very hard to have both? That seems a depressingly mealy point to go to the trouble of highlighting. I think there was something about the war of quiet and loud which is a little like the long conversation we had about genre and its opposite a while ago on G+. The quiet information and the loud information kind of annihilate each other, they find it hard to exist together.


  1. Jesus fucking fuckhat! That is brilliant.

    Looking at not just the type of meter but the relative intensity of the meter. Did you ken to that on your own or is this just an normally considered element of prosody I wasn't aware of or is it from some obscure branch of Russian Formalism or something?

    Then you went loosely tied it to language typically categorized as feminine/masculine. Which is something I'd intuited but had never been able to fully realize into rational statements.

    Thank you! I haven't been this excited about literary analysis in a while.

    As you pointed out, the quiet and the loud don't necessarily have to annihilate each other, as long as there is at least a semblance of a barrier (different characters, different stanzas). It can in fact give you another sort of rhythm to exploit, the flow from quiet to the loud stanza to stanza.

    Like in Swinburne's "Dolores" some stanzas have soft, sibilant quiet meters while others are declamatory and LOUD. It leaves one the opportunity to observe (or possibly craft) a sort of meta-rhythm into a work.

    Dinner Parties and Games are both composed of structures. And when you set up an abundance of structures, it automatically makes doing things outside or against those structures very LOUD. It can be fun and loud, like using barely modded dnd rules for a cyberpunk game. Or it can be annoying and LOUD, the guy that always goes lone-wolf and doesn't really do anything but skulk about.

    Anyway, I'm gonna reign in this rant now.

    1. I got the stuff about Miton and Wordsworth out of a bokk, but I don't have it any more and had to replicate it from memory. There was a lot more in there about what Wordsworth does with the quiet tone of voice but I forgot most of it, regrettably. And the name of the book too.

  2. I've somehow found myself transitioned from an MA in English lit (OE, colonialism, and grammar) into a PhD in Global Studies (depictions of Lost Japan by Neoliberals in US economic discourse) and see this same clash of quiet and loud in Keynesian/saltwater economists vs Friedman/monetarists. At a dinner party with Ayn Rand, the 'undertaker' Greenspan, Hayek and Friedman you bring your own cutlery, elbow others aside for the choice of meat, with no recriminations or cries of injustice, but rather the solidarity of the mosh pit. Prose is strident and muscular and bombastic:

    “Do not let your fire go out, spark by irreplaceable spark in the hopeless swamps of the not-quite, the not-yet, and the not-at-all. Do not let the hero in your soul perish in lonely frustration for the life you deserved and have never been able to reach. The world you desire can be won. It exists.. it is real.. it is possible.. it's yours.”

    Eating with Keynes, Krugman, and Carl Sagan, you line up, chat pleasantly, excuse yourself if you've butted in, and keep an eye to make sure all get enough food. Prose is mellifluous yet erudite and cultured:

    “We inhabit a universe where atoms are made in the centers of stars; where each second a thousand suns are born; where life is sparked by sunlight and lightning in the airs and waters of youthful planets; where the raw material for biological evolution is sometimes made by the explosion of a star halfway across the Milky Way; where a thing as beautiful as a galaxy is formed a hundred billion times - a Cosmos of quasars and quarks, snowflakes and fireflies, where there may be black holes and other universe and extraterrestrial civilizations whose radio messages are at this moment reaching the Earth. How pallid by comparison are the pretensions of superstition and pseudoscience; how important it is for us to pursue and understand science, that characteristically human endeavor. ”

    The clash comes when these two types dine together, when we ask them to choose the menu, or distribute the food. It is a cacophony that had drowned out thought these past few years.

    1. I think that analogy is too simplistic to be meaningful - I suspect you find the writing of Keynes or Krugman mellifluous, erudite and cultured because you agree with it. And I suspect Ayn Rand sounds strident and muscular and bombastic because she was mental and also a really bad writer.

    2. To a degree that is true, but Rand and Friedman are known for their bombastic writing while Sagan is full of wonder and Krugman has a bit of liberal arrogance. I suspect someone on the opposite side of the ideological divide would find them equally distinct.

      Agree that Rand was terrible - followers are more attracted by her ideology than her prose.

  3. I think the main thing to take from it is that good poets choose their meter carefully according to what they're trying to convey - or, perhaps, they just intuit it. It's hard to tell whether Tennyson deliberately used "loud" meter for the Charge of the Light Brigade because it's an action poem or it just came to him that way simply because of what he was trying to express. And in the Lotos Eaters his meter is "quiet" because the mood is melancholic and dreamy, but did he choose it that way or did it just turn out to be the case organically during the writing process?