Monday, June 14, 2010


Charles Dickens starts David Copperfield with a description of the hero's birth*.  He immediately gets distracted into a discussion of the neighborhood women's forecasts about his life.  Then he briefly gets back to his birth mentioning that he was born with a caul and then goes off again suggesting that people believed cauls prevented drowning,  and that the woman who bought his caul died in bed at age 92.
I have understood that it was, to the last, her proudest boast that she never had been on the water in her life except upon a bridge and that over her tea (to which she was extremely partial) she, to the last, expressed her indignation at the impiety of mariners and other who had the presumption to go "meandering" about the world.  It was in vain to represent to her that some conveniences tea, perhaps included, resulted from this objectionable practice.  She always returned, with greater emphasis and with an instinctive knowledge of the strength of her objection, "Let us have no meandering."

Not to meander myself, at present, I will go back to my birth.
We're only at page 2 of David Copperfield at this point and more than half of what Dickens has written so far is 'meandering' from the story of his birth.  Which I take as a signal that most of the book will be meandering.

I was struck by this note on meandering because I'm sure that some people might accuse me of meandering on this blog.  But I'm persuaded that the only true stories are told through meandering along all the side paths of the main story.  Otherwise, you have knowledge of just one path, but not about the woods through which it, dare I say, meanders.

You may notice this post comes after a post on haiku.  In hindsight, I would say the post was NOT about haiku, as I hinted at in the last three lines.  Rather it was about the structure of haiku and not the art of haiku.  I realized that as I was doing it - having checked a site on haiku and realizing I was focused on the form and leaving out the essence.  So I was both flattered and chagrined to have the haiku artist whom I mentioned in passing suggest where I might learn more about the art of haiku.  Michael Dylan Welch's link to Becoming a Haiku Poet beautifully distinguishes between what I wrote about - three lines of 17 syllables - and haiku.

He tells us that haiku is about capturing a mood using objective images, about being subtle, indirect.  And I was merely using the structure to force myself to get to the essence of a thought, to NOT meander.

Haiku, if I understand Welch, has a special purpose. It's about conveying a feeling.  It's not about summarizing an argument.  Thank you Michael for being gentle on me and for writing so well about haiku.  Using three lines of 17 syllables does not make a haiku. 

That said, using 17 syllables in three lines now and then to force oneself to distill the point of one's argument isn't a bad idea.  But a 17 syllable (and for those of you who didn't take the time to read Welch's post, let me say that he says that one shouldn't sacrifice natural English to stick to 17 syllables)  synopsis of a more complex tangle of thoughts is something like a bumper sticker aphorism.  It works for people who already think the way you do.  But it frustrates if not infuriates those who think differently.

Meandering, wandering here and there through the woods, NOT sticking to the main path that goes from the parking lot to the peak, is how you get to know those woods.  Through Dickens' meandering  readers get more than a plot.  They get all the blood and muscles and fat.  They get the smell of perfume mixed with sweat, the texture of the underwear, and color and style of the outerwear.  Not just the bare bones. 

A good poem, a good haiku, evokes a feeling the reader has experienced through imagery the reader knows.  Possibly a great haiku can transport readers beyond their personal experiences. A good essay evokes an understanding of an issue the reader hadn't already understood, through synthesizing points the reader hadn't yet organized or articulated in this particular pattern.

I think.   Though, of course, I'm mindful that ultimately feeling trumps reason.  So the effective essay needs also to connect to the readers' feelings. 

*Actually, Dickens starts by questioning whether David will even be the hero.  ["Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life . . . these pages must show."]

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