Saturday, August 2, 2008

James Wood On Forgery

What are verbal fingerprints? Style, for one thing. In his latest work of criticism, James Wood mentions a test the poet Glyn Maxwell and perhaps W.H. Auden would use in their poetry writing classes. Maxwell would present Philip Larkin's poem "The Whitsun Weddings," with some of its words blacked out. (The poem recalls how Larkin's otherwise perfunctory train ride happened to coincide with the departure of newlyweds from their wedding parties in village towns, the train repeatedly leaving behind a confusion of family and guests on the platform.) Let's give Maxwell's test a try here, using one stanza, blacking out certain adjectives, adverbs and nouns:

All afternoon, through the XXXX heat that slept
For miles inland,
A slow and XXXXXXXX curve southwards we kept.
Wide farms went by, XXXXX-XXXXXXXXX cattle, and
Canals with floatings of industrial XXXXX;
A hothouse flashed XXXXXXXX: hedges dipped
And rose: and now and then a smell of grass
Displaced the reek of buttoned carriage-cloth
Until the next town, new and nondescript,
Approached with acres of XXXXXXXXXX cars.

Maxwell would tell his students the syntax of each missing word and how these words filled out the meter of the line. His students then had to fill in the blanks. Call it MadLibs for poets.

Wood focuses on one line. "A hothouse flashed XXXXXXXX: hedges dipped..." We're missing an adverb with three syllables. The line depicts the view out Larkin's window as he travels.

It's not clear to me what Wood means to illustrate with Maxwell's test. So far as I can tell, it's a brilliant way to demonstrate style, particularly as it concerns diction. The test forces us to appreciate the missing word. And it's a testament to Larkin's ability how surprising each choice is. But what the test doesn't do is measure the talent of the aspiring poets in Maxwell's class--for only Larkin was on the train that day and therefore only Larkin knew what the hothouse looked like as it passed by him at some 50 miles per hour. And even if we were there with Larkin that day, we wouldn't have seen it the same way. That's where the poem's genius lies: the play of mind upon world.

As it happens, Wood reports that not one student has ever filled in the correct word in the hothouse line. For Larkin, the hothouse flashed "uniquely." The students have all grasped at straws. Larkin's use of "uniquely", Wood then concludes, is unique. Which is cute, but it's no mark against others that they haven't supplied the same adverb. For one thing, I imagine they're sitting in a classroom when given the test. Would it be different if the test were given on a train traveling the same route Larkin took? The longer I consider Maxwell's test, the more it seems it's a test for forgers and not for poets. And ultimately it raises some interesting questions about artistic value. Would a student's poem, which had replicated Larkin's verbal fingerprints all over it, be of the same value as a poem by Larkin? I don't think so, but I'll have to spell that out another time.

Think of it another way. Consider an artificial intelligence that spews out versions of the poem. And suppose further that with each iteration, the program learns how to make each word choice more Larkin-like, as based on an extrapolation from every word used in Larkin's corpus and the teacher's feedback. Is there any point at which the machine would produce poems of commensurate value with Larkin's?

What's confusing is that the experience said to underlie the poem could be fiction. Maybe Larkin never rode the train that day and therefore the hothouse never flashed. In that case, is there any difference between Larkin producing the poem and an artificial intelligence programed to imitate his style?

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