Literature as Play

As far as I can make out there is only one rule to the game of literature that we can say with any degree of certainty. That rule is play.

Play consists of saying much without really saying anything. It is not the job of poetry to clarify. Poetry should suggest and ambiguate. To play with words, to juggle with concepts and ideas is the business of the poet. And freedom is the condition necessary for this kind of activity to flourish.

This is not to say that literature can’t have a message. Only that the message be conveyed in a way that isn’t direct or obvious. And that that message not be the only message.

All good literature is an interplay of light and dark.

Play is omnipresent in our language, in the way we communicate on a daily basis. We don’t always talk in a clear, transparent way. We suggest, allude and insinuate. They say this notion of play is at the heart of our Post-Modern society and culture, but the truth is it has been with us since the beginning of language and certainly since the beginning of literature.

Probably the best examples of literary play are in dramatic works, hence the name ‘play’. The best plays are those that don’t have a direct message. This is the difference between literature and propaganda. It is fascinating to witness how the drama works itself out. The dramatic work of Samuel Beckett is probably the best example of pure play there is. Waiting for Godot is an astonishing achievement of pure dramatic play: a play without any message at all.

Why is drama the best literary form for playing in? It is because drama mimics our own everyday speech. Our monologues and dialogues. And, as we have already pointed out, play is inherent in our language and the way we communicate. It is part of the human condition and the human condition is every poet’s concern.

There are rules to every game. These rules change over time. All except that one essential governing principle: to play. Once you start playing, you are on the road to making good poetry.

Getting to the ‘Good Stuff’: the Art of Creative Writing.

They say there is prose and verse and you can have poetry in either. This williamblakeartstrikes me as true.

Literature is an art, not a science. Living is an art, not a science. This is why the term ‘Arts’ is often associated with, and even interchangeable with, the term ‘Humanities’.

The American poet, Jim Morrison, was once asked about the cross he wore around his neck at the Doors’ famous gig at the Hollywood Bowl in 1968. He said, ‘it’s just a symbol. It doesn’t mean anything.’ At first this might seem a contradiction: you might argue that a symbol is all about meaning. You might say that a cross is a symbol of suffering. That is its meaning. I think what Morrison was trying to indicate was the difference between a fact and a symbol. Facts have an exact meaning. They are scientific. Symbols don’t have an exact meaning. In fact, they don’t say anything at all. They suggest. They have multiple aspects. Symbolism is at home in verse but it should be present in prose also, or any prose that sees itself as literary.

Yes, there is logic and science in literature, only it should serve the symbolic, the imaginative and the poetic. I believe a writer achieves maturity when he comes into awareness of the symbolic. When he begins to manipulate symbols in order to suggest and play with possible meanings. The mature writer knows how to strike a balance between symbolism and logic. The concrete nature of symbols allows him to play with them in his art. You can’t play around with abstracts because they can’t be visualized or imagined. That is why too much abstraction is a flaw in literature – it goes against the imagination and the imagination is paramount in literature in all its forms.

Consider Homer, the first poet of Western Civilisation and then consider Seamus Heaney, one of the greatest poets of the last fifty years or so. They both worked with concrete. With that which can be visualized and imagined. They worked with symbols.

Life is mysterious and writers can only capture a portion of that mystery through symbols. Life is messy and mixed up and confusing an only the mirror of art can reflect this. A good story, just like a good poem, shouldn’t have a precise meaning. It should only give you something to think about. It should suggest, allude and indicate. It should never impose itself. It should never enforce. It should never moralize except in the most general of senses e.g. it’s wrong to take another life. Good literature is an invitation to play – play with the intellect, the feelings and the emotions. Only when you master this will you become a good writer. Some of us master it at a young age. Some of us have to wait a few years and some never master it at all. It is a mixture of imagination and intuition, two terms that are alien to science and even craftsmanship. No matter how much you read and discover, there is no formula for it. You must simply write to get to it, to get to the ‘good stuff’, and, if you are lucky, you will.