Thursday, 31 May 2018

Poetry and compression

I like poetry. That's probably pretty obvious. I'm going to use this post to write about some of the things that I value about it. There 's some token RPG stuff at the end, but don't hold your breath.

Image result for geoffrey hill poems

The text I'm going to use is the first four lines of Geoffrey Hill's historical sonnet, 'Requiem for the Plantagenet Kings':
For whom the possessed sea littered, on both shores,
Ruinous arms; being fired, and for good,
To sound the constitution of just wars,
Men, in their eloquent fashion, understood.
These lines are dense with meaning. Let's take them one at a time.

For whom the possessed sea littered, on both shores,

'The possessed sea' here must be the English Channel, the sea which the Plantagenet kings laid claim to both sides of. So it's 'possessed' in the sense that it's owned (by them). But 'possessed' can also refer to spirit possession, especially by evil or demonic spirits. This sea does seem to behave like a thing possessed, as we'll see in the next line. But it's not enough to say that there's a double meaning, here: the phrase is not simply a compressed way of saying 'the sea which the kings owned, which also behaved as though it was possessed'. By using a single word here that can be understood in two ways, the line also opens up the possibility that the meanings are inter-related: that it is because the sea is possessed (by the Plantagenet kings) that it behaves as though it is possessed (by demons). As I'll try to demonstrate, this technique of using language to suggest not just two things at once, but two things at once and the relationship between them, is fundamental to this piece of poetry.

Let's move on.

For whom the possessed sea littered, on both shores,
Ruinous arms; being fired, and for good,

What are these 'ruinous arms'? Weapons, most obviously: it was under the Plantagenets that gunpowder weaponry first came into use in Britain. Such weapons may be 'ruinous' both in the sense that they are capable of causing ruin, and in the sense that they have been ruined themselves. Then again, though, these 'ruinous arms' might also be actual human arms: the kind of body parts you might expect to wash up on beaches after battles in which 'ruinous' weapons have been 'fired'. The same double-meaning of 'ruinous' can apply in either case: these arms could be 'ruinous' in the sense that they've been ruined by injury and mutilation, or 'ruinous' in the sense that they have brought ruin down on others. Or both.

The same ambiguity extends to the word 'fired', which can mean that these weapons have been fired (i.e. used to shoot at people), and/or that the weapons (or the arms) have been 'fired' in the sense that they have themselves been set fire to. Similarly, 'for good' can be read as meaning 'in the service of virtue' and/or 'once and for all', either of which could conceivably apply to any combination of previous readings. So the 'expanded-out' meaning of the line would be something like this:

'On the shores, the sea scattered guns (and perhaps severed limbs) which had been ruined and which had been the cause of ruin, which had been fired and then burned, the use and the destruction of which may have been in the service of virtue, but which was also permanent and conclusive'.

But, again, the double meanings go beyond simple compression. They suggest the way in which these wars have made human bodies and the weapons they wield almost interchangeable, all just so many 'arms' for the creation of ruin. They suggest the way in which the destruction of such 'ruinous' weapons and their wielders is already implicit in their usage - that he who lives by the sword shall perish by the sword - and the way in which the pretense that all this violence has been conducted for a good reason may in fact have simply made it more final and permanent. What the line really communicates, I would suggest, is the way in which, under the Plantagenet kings, all of these meanings have become implicit within each other. 

OK. Line three.

For whom the possessed sea littered, on both shores,
Ruinous arms; being fired, and for good,
To sound the constitution of just wars,

'Sound' here can mean both 'announce with noise' (as in 'sound off!') and 'test the depth of' (as in 'take the soundings'). These 'ruinous' guns have been fired to proclaim 'the constitution of just wars', but their use (and their destruction) have also tested its depths, its limits. 'Constitution' can mean both the law code which supposedly establishes the legal legitimacy of those wars - a law code which those guns and arms are at once being used to test and to declare - and 'constitution' in the sense of 'make-up': it is through the process of being 'sounded' by those guns, that we find out what 'just wars' are really made of. (Mutilated corpses, mostly, as the previous line implied.) And 'just wars' pivots in the same way as 'for good' in the previous line: the Plantagenet kings may insist that they are 'just wars' in the sense that they are morally and legally (constitutionally) validated, but those who suffer in them know that they are 'just wars', just so much violence and terror, blood and gunpowder, fire and death. The line communicates, through a kind of verbal montage, how easily the guns proclaiming the legal constitutions of the Plantagenets give way to the guns destroying the physical constitutions of their victims, demonstrating yet again that 'just wars' have a horrible habit of turning out to be 'just wars' in the end. 

Line four, and the end of the sentence:

For whom the possessed sea littered, on both shores,
Ruinous arms; being fired, and for good,
To sound the constitution of just wars,
Men, in their eloquent fashion, understood. 

This line modifies everything that has come before it. 'Being fired, and for good' now has another possible referent: it could be the men rather than the arms who are 'fired', either in the sense of being physically burned or in the sense of being 'fired up', to 'sound (declare or test) the constitution of just wars'. In this case, the referent of 'understood' might be 'wars', and the meaning would be something like 'being fired up to do good, men understood (in their eloquent fashion) the just wars whose constitution they sounded', which sounds like the way in which the Plantagenet kings would probably like to describe themselves. (Indeed, in this reading, 'eloquent fashion' could refer to the symbolic eloquence of their court dress.) But if the 'men' are 'fired' in the sense of being burned, then their 'eloquent fashion' is probably the screaming of men being burned alive, and what they 'understood' about 'the constitution of just wars' would be something very different. And if it's still the 'arms' doing the sounding, as the first three lines implied, then the referent of 'understood' must be 'for whom': what these 'men' really understand, in their eloquent fashion, is for whom the 'possessed sea' has littered its 'shores' with weapons and corpses. And for whom did it do these things? Most obviously for the Plantagenet kings, its supposed owners: but perhaps also for God, casting up upon its beaches this mute evidence of violence, refusing to let it lie hidden. (This is a theme the rest of the poem takes up, but I'll spare you the last ten lines.)

What these lines do, brilliantly and insistently, is to simultaneously show us the royalist propaganda and the horrible realities underneath it. According to the party line, the sea belongs to the Plantagenets, and serves them: their wars are just, the weapons fired in them only inflict ruin in the service of virtue, and men, being fired up for goodness, eloquently understand the justice of the constitution which enables them. But at the same time, and in the same words, we can hear a very different story: the sea is demon-driven, the wars are just meaningless bloodshed which permanently ruin the people who fight in them, and men understand that the Plantagenets are to blame. In prose you could present those points in series, but you'd struggle to present them in parallel: to show the ruin already built into the artifices of state propaganda, demonstrating how the gun fired to announce a war-enabling constitution already implies the sad, mangled bodies washing up on the shores, or allowing us to hear, in the same words, the eloquence of court sycophants and the screams of burning men.

Yet even here we haven't finished, because poetry is an art of sound, and half the meaning here isn't really being carried by words at all. Look at the long vowel sounds in the first line:

For whom the possessed sea littered, on both shores,

Long, open vowels in a line about the sea are always going to evoke the sound of water: here, I think, the ebb and flow of the tides, with the stacatto rattle of 'littered' marking the clatter of objects deposited on the beach at the point when the tide ceases to come in ('foooor', 'whoooom', 'seeeea') and starts to flow out ('ooon', 'booooth', 'shoooores'). Those long vowels continue into the second line ('aaarms', 'fiiired', 'gooood') as the arms continue to drift on the sea, only to shift quite quickly after 'sooound' - which here is probably the mournful boom of a far-off gun 'sounding off' - into the very different sound-patterns of the last two lines. 'The constitution of just wars, / Men, in their eloquent fashion, understood' asks to be read much more quickly: the oceanic drift of the sea has given way to a human voice speaking rapid legalese, the point of the poem being to make us understand how these two things connect. Or look at the work being done by the rhymes, which cut across the flow of the text to link together first 'shores' and 'wars' (as the Plantagenet kings do), then 'good' and 'understood' (because the question of what is understood to be good, and by whom, is at the heart of the whole poem). Or look at the way in which the pentameter rhythm, which in line one is all but inaudible, drowned in all those sea-sounds, gradually gathers itself into an unmistakable drumbeat by line four, as human eloquence asserts its ability to understand the sad, mute wreckage of the opening lines. Or...

...I mean, my point is, there is a lot going on in these four lines. 

As I've tried to emphasise, I feel strongly that the point of writing like this is not just to show off how clever you are, but to enable qualitatively different forms of communication than would otherwise be possible. Enormous amounts of work have been devoted, here, to allowing a handful of words to say lots of things at once: not just in the interests of concision, but in order to articulate the otherwise-inexpressible interconnectedness of things. It's a way of pushing back against the relentless linearity of text, its insistence on progressing only in one direction, as though a world of holistic experience could possibly be described adequately by addressing one object at a time. The prose commentary I've given here may express the same ideas as the four lines of verse it describes, but the actual lived experience of reading the two is completely different. Hill's verses linger in the ear, and the mind, and the heart in a way that my prose commentary cannot possibly emulate. 

This isn't the only way to write poetry, of course. Not all of it is quite this complicated. But all poetry has, at minimum, two interconnected levels of simultaneous communication going on, via form and content. The best poetry sometimes achieves the near-magical feat of apparently using words to push beyond language, creating effects which seem to defy the very possibility of paraphrase or explanation.

OK. Onto the token RPG bit.

The relationship between form and content in poetry is, I would suggest, analogous to the relationship between system and fiction in RPGs. In the same way that the most exquisite lines of poetry can sound utterly banal when reduced to their 'meaning', so many fantastic RPG sessions would sound boring and stupid if reduced to their 'story'. 'We went into a cave, and we killed some goblins, and then we killed some hobgoblins, and then we ran away from a troll, except for the wizard who fell down a pit' is hardly the stuff of epic drama, but could be wildly exciting and scary and tense and funny if played out at the table. What is missing in both cases is a sense of how form allows that content to be communicated in a qualitatively different fashion to the way it would be transmitted via ordinary prose narration. When your beloved PC has one hit point left, and your GM describes how the orc in front of you raises his axe to strike, you are going to feel the dread and anticipation as they pick up the d20 for an attack roll, in a way that would be difficult if not impossible to emulate precisely through the use of words alone. Stripping out those interactions, and pushing RPGs back towards straightforward collaborative storytelling, means losing those unique resources for generating meaning and emotional response. You might still be able to generate those things in other ways, but it will never be quite the same.

I also think that RPGs are, in their own odd way, very good at compressed transmission of meaning. Standard RPG concepts like 'the elf' and 'the orc' and 'the dungeon' persist precisely because they can mean lots of different things at once: so the dungeon, for example, is simultaneously a physical descent into the earth and a journey over the Frontier into a kind of mythic wilderness and a journey back into deep time and a symbolic descent into the subconscious and a spiritual journey into an Otherworld / Underworld realm, all communicated and understood so intuitively that encounters with wild tribes and walking corpses and dinosaurs and primordial slime-monsters all make equal amounts of intuitive sense once you've crossed its threshold. But whereas Hill had to work very very hard to make each of his lines transmit so many different meanings simultaneously, in RPGs the structure of the game does most of the work for you. You read a good entry in a monster manual and you think: I could use it like this. Or like this. Or like this. Or like this. I could construct a setting in which these creatures played this symbolic role. Or this one. Or this one. All those multiple meanings are already simultaneously present, in potentia, waiting for the process of actual play to call them into being.

A lot of clumsy RPG commentary attempts to assign single, fixed meanings to game elements, asserting that orcs mean this and dungeons mean that and if you think they mean something else then you are wrong. But it seems to me that it is precisely because of the ease with which they can pivot between multiple meanings, especially with the formal assistance provided by the interactions between system and fiction, that people keep coming back to them.

An elf, a dwarf, and a wizard walk into a dungeon.

Men, in their eloquent fashion, understood. 

1 comment:

  1. This is immediately one of my favorites of your posts, and I like a lot of your posts.

    Kind of makes me want to try fusing these two things and try to render our recent game sessions into poetry.

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