(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.
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
And Ere Man
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.