Kona’s Column 5: Tribes and diatribes

February 10, 2010

Have you ever heard of the Gossip Test?  Contrary to what you might imagine, it’s nothing to do with your awareness of juicy celebrity rumours, or the number of text messages you swap with your friends.  It’s not some new app that’s busily infecting teenagers on Facebook. It’s not even a test, in the conventional sense.  Rather, the Gossip Test is a useful and simple yardstick for gauging what you might want to be doing with your life. It was described not by a marketing guru or self-help author, but by the scientist Francis Crick, co-discoverer of DNA.

In essence, Crick’s Gossip Test is simply the idea that your true interests lie in whatever it is you most like to chatter about.  Is there a subject that you could happily sit and talk about all day?  What topic of conversation gets you most involved, most energised, most eager to talk some more?   It’s that subject, says Crick, that should be the focus of your life’s work.

I’m sometimes described as “a scientist”, presumably because my academic qualifications are in Computer Science (although CS is as much an engineering discipline as a scientific one), and because I’ve earned my living writing science-related computer software.  However understandable, the label is inaccurate;  in fact, I’ve always been a fence-sitter, my interests blithely spanning that so-called divide between Snow’s Two Cultures, the Humanities and the Sciences.  English was always my “best” subject at school, grades-wise, and it was also the subject I found easiest, the subject in which I had the most confidence and the least anxiety. (Physics was the polar opposite, with Maths close behind it).  Despite this evident bias towards English, I never once contemplated studying for a degree in it, and the Gossip Test has helped me to understand this apparently strange omission.

I can identify my own Gossip Test subject without hesitation – it’s Psychology, and particularly the “Depth Psychology” that emerged initially in Freudian Psychoanalysis and was further developed by Jung, Rogers and their fellow twentieth-century explorers of the inner psyche.  I’m never happier than when deep in discussion about the ways that past experiences intrude on present behaviour, or about the hidden layers of intention and emotion beneath our conscious sense of ourselves.

Literary Theory, on the other hand, I find very difficult to get enthused about.  To be fair, I’m unforgivably behind the times;  the last vaguely scholarly tome I read on the subject was Terry Eagleton’s Literary Theory, back in (yes, I admit it) 1989.  I have forgotten most of that book, but I do remember coming away with the sense that “Biographical criticism” – the use of real-world details of writers’ lives or characters in analysing their works of literature – was thoroughly old hat, and much to be deprecated.  That perception alone probably torpedoed my engagement with Literary Theory, because there’s nothing I find more fascinating than discovering the echoes of a writer’s life in his or her work:  musing about the origins of those recurring symbols and preoccupations, or speculating about those real-life events and relationships that might be echoed or foreshadowed in a particular piece.  I love the fact that even my own creative writing can be revealing, showing me things I hadn’t realised about myself.  Biographical criticism, with a Depth Psychology flavour to it, is just so interesting.

It seems to me that here in the UK, poetry is the written artform most tied up with Literary Theory – perhaps because many of our higher-profile poets are also academics in English departments, perhaps because most poetry reviews (those golden opportunities for displaying one’s erudition – or for inadvertently revealing one’s lack of it) are written by poets rather than professional critics.  To be a practising poet in this climate, and yet to confess to a lack of interest in Literary Theory, can feel like heresy – or at least an act of stupidity somewhere between gape-jawed naïveté and wilful career suicide.  Perhaps it is, but how could I possibly hope to hide it?

My lack of expertise in Literary Theory presumably has an impact on my work that’s discernible to the more switched-on, since there’s a whole swathe of theoretical/political “discourse” about poetry with which I’m not consciously engaging. Some commentators will see this as a fatal flaw and find my work reactionary and uninteresting.  On the other hand, my writing is profoundly informed by my Gossip Test interest, Psychology – and theory-soaked poetry that deliberately attempts to avoid “communicating” or “imposing meaning” often leaves me cold (apart, of course, from the intriguing questions it raises about why particular writers become attached to particular theoretical or anti-theoretical stances…)

My point is, of course, that neither Literary Theory nor Depth Psychology, nor any other primarily intellectual field of discourse, is a necessary foundation for the production (or indeed, in my opinion, the appreciation) of good poetry.  The unavoidable complication is that “good” is a deeply subjective term that inevitably becomes slanted, leaning in the direction of each literary tribe’s own canonical intellectual preoccupations – and even worse, the relevance of a given stance is rarely assessed from outside of the circle of tenets and opinions that it comprises.  (For example, when I find a particular poem good, I can’t always state precisely why I like it – but my theories about why I do are inevitably informed by my understanding of my own psyche, an understanding which in turn is informed by my abiding interest in Psychology.)

With characteristic directness, brilliant and hyper-creative physicist Richard Feynmann once bantered that “Philosophy of science is about as useful to scientists as ornithology is to birds.”   Poets, as a genus, seem particularly liable to regular outbreaks of vituperative inter-tribal warfare.  You’d think that we, of all people, might remember that the gift of writing is a gift of wings – and stop wasting time and precious energy in firefights about ornithology.

Kona Macphee is a UK-born, Australian-bred poet now living and working in Scotland.This column is the start of a monthly feature. She is facilitating the Poetry Society Poetry Surgeries. There will be a third batch of sessions here in the library on Wednesday 21 April. You can now hear Kona on the SPL podcast ‘Witching Hour’ and  follow her on Twitter.

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