The Importance of Knowledge to Creating

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The Importance of Knowledge to Creating
– Jan. 28, 2015
– originally posted to the PDC Feb. 13, 2013

A 'Best Of' post from the Best of the Poetry Daily Critique page.

"The Waste Land" – T.S. Eliot (or, at least, the opening thereof)


The Waste Land can be found pretty much everywhere online; Bartleby tends to be very good with formatting


the importance of knowledge to creating


I had an interesting thing happen this last Sunday. My daughter (who is 6) made mention of the cup and balls trick (without really knowing what it was), so I showed her Ricky Jay's performance of it on youtube (here). She found it an amazing feat of magic. (She knows it's a trick, but was dumbfounded by it.) So I also showed her a video of Ricky Jay demonstrating card control (this one). It flew right over her head. She did not at all understand what he was doing nor could she see the "magic tricks" he was performing.

The reason why is that she knows very little about cards. So the fact that he is shuffling away and yet the aces are magically right side up in the middle of the deck was beyond her. It was, very simply, an issue of knowledge: she did now that that would not normally happen. She did not know enough to see the event so she was blind to the event.

This is actually demonstration of a very important idea about the arts: to be able to see what an artist is doing you have to have knowledge about the medium. To say it another way: sophisticated artists/writers/musicians are creating for other sophisticated artists/writers/musicians, because those people are the people who will be able to perceive what they are doing in their respective mediums.

Another example: Martin Scorcese's version of Cape Fear. When it first came out, I caught discussion on some of the more intellectually oriented film shows about how Scorsese, through the film, was using picture-on-a-picture techniques in conjunction with the deep focus filming to flatten the image and create certain atmospheric and visual effects. This was the first time I had ever heard cinema people talk about depth of focus, and ever since then I have much more alert to such manipulations and effects. Before then, I was wholly oblivious to them. (Unfortunately, I don't have that film on hand, and I cannot find a good enough still online to serve as an example. The Tale of Despereaux is an animated film that uses focal depth to wonderful results – something which most movie-goers probably don't even see.)

Let's move to literature, and The Waste Land. From the opening stanza:

Summer surprised us, coming over the Starnbergersee
With a shower of rain; we stopped in the colonnade,
And went on in sunlight, into the Hofgarten,
And drank coffee, and talked for an hour.
Bin gar keine Russin, stamm’ aus Litauen, echt deutsch.
And when we were children, staying at the archduke’s,
My cousin’s, he took me out on a sled,
And I was frightened. He said, Marie,
Marie, hold on tight. And down we went.
In the mountains, there you feel free.
I read, much of the night, and go south in the winter.
My cousin’s, he took me out on a sled,
And I was frightened. He said, Marie,
Marie, hold on tight. And down we went.
In the mountains, there you feel free.
I read, much of the night, and go south in the winter.

Both Eliot and Pound liked to play with Anglo-Saxon prosody [FN], which at its core is made up lines of four strong stresses, two on each side of a ceasura. The above is built around that idea of splitting a four beat line with a caesura, with some variation at work.

[FN] To be straightforward, you will hear it called "Anglo-Saxon meter" or "Anglo-Saxon prosody," though in truth it is a looser variation of the prosody of Old English poetry, which was a very tight prosody, involving not only stress but also consonance.

Here's the point: most people who do not know about this kind of prosody, or know enough about prosody to deduce the presence, miss the sound of the lines. This is because their ear is not developed enough to hear the prosody to begin with – it has never been trained to hear it. The reader doesn't have the knowledge to hear it. I can tell you I was missing it until it was pointed out to me. (And it was with The Waste Land where I first learned about Anglo-Saxon prosody.)

One of my favorite structures in literature is chiasmus, which at it most simple is ABBA structure. Off the cuff example at the aural level:

That's when I came down and found May.

I took a glance at wikipedia and found an obvious example at the grammatical level:

Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.

Chiasmus at the rhetorical level usually also involves an inversion of meaning. Another example from wikipedia, from Samuel Johnson:

By day the frolic, and the dance by night.

It can be used large scale to organize plot, presentation, everything. (It's a very old structure. For example, quite a bit of the Old Testament of the Bible is structured around forms of chiasmus). It is a commonly used trope in the poetry of poets who attend to sound. Yet, I have frequently been surprised by graduate level readers who miss it completely even at the level of the simple, aural ABBA. (Which is only in the lesser part a jab at MFA students; to the greater part it is a failure on the part of English departments: it shoudl not happen that a student should get a BA in English and not know what chiasmus is.)

But to the point of this brief demonstration. Such events are put in works for the pleasure of the experience of the text. If you do not know enough to be able to see the techniques at play, you will miss out on them.

More importantly, if you do not learn, explore, study technique, prosody, poetic form, rhetoric, everything you can about the medium of language and the endeavor of poetry (or aesthetic writing), your writing is – quite plainly stated – limited.

That word: limited. Let's link that back to what was said before:

Sophisticated writers create
for other sophisticated writers.

Connect the dots and what do you get? You cannot write literature if you do not study literature. Which does not mean reading poetry. You can spend your days reading piles upon piles of contemporary poetry and you will learn nothing about writing except how to mimic what you have read. You have to read criticism. Read theory. Buy some real books on prosody. Buy a book on narratology. Read Seven Types of Ambiguity or Rhetoric of Fiction or Image — Music — Text or Revolution in Poetic Language. Read Fletcher's Allegory or Frank's The Idea of Spatial Form or Rimmon-Kenan's Narrative Fiction. Don't just read Wallace Stevens, read criticism about Wallace Stevens. (Vendler's On Extended Wings and Bloom's Wallace Stevens: Poems of our Climate taught me a lot about poetry in general.) Read books on the plastic arts and on musical structure.

I could go on, but you get my point. Language is a damn complex thing. Your poetry will never exceed your own knowledge of poetry. You're not going to be brilliant unless you give yourself the knowledge to be brilliant.

But it needs to be said a different way, an aesthetic way, which is the active way:

Giving yourself the knowledge to be brilliant
is being brilliant.

Anything else is hardly worth the mention.


(Connect the dots a different way and you get an indictment of the contemporary culture of poetry. Hopefully you see that.)