Why News Reporting Is About Clarity, Not ‘Poetic Flights of Fancy’
We live in an age of ‘self-expression’ on social media that’s followed an age of ‘reportage’ in media.
Poetry makes a statement, but poetry is not a statement. This can be said of literature in general. Unfortunately, we are living in an age of ‘self-expression’ on social media that has followed an age of ‘reportage’ in media. Both are essentially based on different kinds of statements.
Media news reports make, or made, statements, as precise and clear as possible, about the matter being covered.
As a stringer and then a staff reporter, I remember keeping the Five W’s in mind – What, When, Where, Who, Why — more or less in that order. Of these, for a staff reporter, the ‘why’ was far less important — as it was often a matter left to senior journalists and editors who had the space to write analyses of the news. We trooped up, dodged the tear gas if required, described what had happened, perhaps quoted a few people on the ‘why’, and filed our reports on time.
It had to be a report full of clear lines and statements — not poetic flights of fancy, which of course is not fair to poetry, but, alas, that is how it was put.
Why Many Associate Poetry With Making ‘Straight Statements’
The rise of social media accompanied changes in the mainstream media — as it got heavily capitalised and corporatised, and also lost its independence in other, ‘political’, ways (for instance, the trend of ‘embedded’ war reporting). Soon news reports became less investigative in many cases, and acute editorial analyses were crowded out by ‘opinion pieces’. These opinion pieces were a reflection of what was happening on social media and internet media: they were crawling with opinions. But this change shared an element with previous reportage-media tendencies: it still made statements.
After decades of these two overlapping trends, it is little wonder that poetry is associated — by many — with making straight statements. Statements that are admirable. Statements that one agrees with. Statements that repeat comfort bytes.
This is not even the 18th century neo-classical insistence on “what oft was thought but never so well expressed”. There is little concern for craft, tradition, complexity, language. There is no real respect for the tears, and often the years, that go into thinking and expressing well. This is transparent, consumer poetry. If I agree with your statements, I hail your poem as a good one. If I feel strongly about an issue, I put it down as a set of sculpted statements and, coz I kinda like craft, y’know, I chop up the lines a bit: hey presto, a poem!
Not Everything Can Be Communicated In Statement-Like Language
Some of this might be a genuine and understandable reaction to the celebration of ‘ambiguity’ in elite literary circles, especially white academic ones, in recent decades. There was always a subterranean resistance to this kind of waffling celebration, a resistance I share and that the South African poet, Roy Campbell, best expressed in his short poem, ‘On Some South African Novelists’: “You praise the firm restraint with which they write — /I’m with you there, of course:/ They use the snaffle and the curb all right,/ But where’s the bloody horse?”
I have never believed that good literature, including good poetry, is ambiguous, though there are some partial exceptions.
True, it does try to address those aspects of life that cannot be reduced to clear statements. This sometimes gives it the impression of ambiguity, particularly in the readings of critics who do not want to face up to privileges. Transparent statements are not the only way to avoid real thinking.
We have long known the mutual and mutually structuring relationship of ‘language’ to ‘reality.’ Not everything can be communicated in statement-like language, and sometimes, the very act of putting it all into language distorts the reality out there. Moreover, reality always impacts on and changes language, which also means that what I write might not be exactly the same as what you read in a different space.
Literature: Language Used With the Full Awareness that Language is Both Essential & Insufficient
What happens, then, to those aspects of ‘reality’ that cannot be communicated, due to historical, social, political or even ontological reasons? To give an example from the easier genre of prose fiction, Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw provides evidence of both. It is, as you will recall, a novella that can be read in two ways:
- the heroic acts of a governess who saves two innocent children for an absolute and invisible evil, though one of the children dies in the process
- the shenanigans a deeply disturbed governess who imagines things, terrifies two innocent children and finally kills one of them
As James’s commentary on his work indicates, ‘absolute evil’, like the concept of ‘God’, is impossible to bottle into words. This is an ontological matter that evades language and will probably continue to do so as long as language exists. On the other hand, the difference between James’s reading of the ‘ghosts’ in his text (‘yes, they exist’) and our tendency to read it (‘no, they are just psychological’ or ‘I remain undecided/it is ambiguous’) is a historical matter. We tend to think differently than James’s generation often did: language says different things to us.
This is where literature steps in. Literature implies a particular use of language; it sets out to ‘communicate’ but is not premised on transparency.
It is language used with the full awareness that language is both essential and not sufficient. Both these aspects play into the creation of literature, and hence the role of not just ‘words’ but also silences, paradoxes, noise, contradictions, etc. in literature.
Is Literature Necessarily ‘Ambiguous’?
It is essential to stress that literature is not necessarily ‘ambiguous’, though it might be so in some cases. The inordinate stress on the ambiguity of good literature is more a reflection of our own socio-political and hence moral state as largely middle class readers who, by definition, need to sit on the fence regarding so many matters. It is evident, for instance, that James is not ‘ambiguous’ about his aims in The Turn of the Screw: he clearly states that he is writing about ghosts, imps, demons. He wants to frighten the reader with ‘absolute evil’. There is no doubt in his mind, and none whatsoever even ten years after publishing the novella, when more or less ‘Freudian’ readings were already available: he insists on a supernatural reading in an essay written a decade after the publication of the novella.
What makes the text ‘ambiguous’ to many of us is the fact that James knows, as the great writer he is, that language will not suffice. He knows that he has to use language, but allow space for silence, slippage, difference of imagination, etc.
This cannot be done without ‘craft’ – which also involves sufficient knowledge of what has been done (tradition), what can be done, and other complexities. James knows that great evil slips the net of language, and that different readers will imagine it differently. It is in negotiating this problem that he creates what we like to call ‘ambiguity’ at times.
What Literature Really Is
But the description is misleading, because there is finally nothing ambiguous about the novella: James has achieved exactly the end he sought to achieve. We close the novella burning with rage at a great wrong, an ‘absolute evil’: it is only that we attribute it either to ghosts or to the warped psychology of the governess, or to some combination of the two. And this happens because James knows what literature qua literature can do – and that what it can do arises from its distinctive usage of language and its awareness, occluded or bracketed in other fields, of the relationship between language and ‘reality.’
Literature is this distinctive, contextual, complex and changing usage of language, which is neither ‘ambiguity’ nor ‘transparency’ of statements.
I suspect that any writer who sets out to pen ambiguous literature will end up writing inanities. But the reverse side of this coin is also valid: good literature is also not making or celebrating obvious statements that one utters or agrees with. To forget this is to forget the nature of literature – and poetry. But more than that, it is to forget a defining element of language-reality. The negative consequences of the latter are not just literary but political, social and intellectual ones.
No One Can Raise a Good Building by Lowering the Standards of Construction
Nothing excuses the diminishment of standards in any field. Expanding the given standards is not the same as ignoring them. Even if you question the given standards, which can be necessary, you need to engage with them – and build an alternative edifice to stand on.
Dismissal, ignorance, diminishment are not your options. If you do so in the name of your difference, in religious, national, cultural, racial and other terms, then you are insulting the best amongst you.
You are also degrading your difference, not celebrating it. To put it in practical terms, I would say that, as a writer, I want to make good buildings, and as a reader and critic, I admire good buildings. But no one can raise a good building by lowering the standards of construction. You can find other alternatives, you might evolve new strategies and devices, but they will have to match the standard of whatever you want them to replace. Or your building will not hold. No matter how loudly you acclaim it, finally you will be left standing in rubble.
(Tabish Khair, PhD, DPhil, Associate Professor, Aarhus University, Denmark. He tweets @tabish_khair. This is an opinion piece, and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)
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