Wednesday, 3 February 2010

A Cooking Egg

My evenings are currently spent curled up on the chair in my room with young Tom Eliot. He is wonderful company and he loves his mother very much. He is, at the moment, rather worried, now he has a collection of poems coming out in America, about how she will react to certain of them. 'Sweeney Erect' especially. He thinks Americans will find him 'disgusting.' I'm looking forward to finding out.

For now, though, I am pondering:

Whether one writes a piece of work well or not seems to me a matter of crystallisation – the good sentence, the good word, is only the final stage in the process. One can groan enough over the choice of a word, but there is something much more important to groan over first. It seems to me just the same in poetry – the words come easily enough, in comparison to the core of it – the tone – and nobody can help one in the least with that.*

To be on the safe side I looked 'crystallisation' up in my dictionary:

‘to gi
ve definite or concrete form to: to crystallise an idea.’

And I looked up 'core':

'the central, innermost, or most essential part of anything.'

Is he saying that the tone is the core of a piece of writing, or the tone conveys the core?

I looked up 'tone' and now I'm reeling. What does he mean by 'tone' and how can it be separated from one's choice of words?

How can crystallisation – making an idea concrete – be separated from one's choice of words?

What am I missing? I seem to be in a bit of a pickle.

*In a letter to Lytton Strachey dated 1 June 1919, in The Letters of T.S. Eliot (London: Faber and Faber, 1988) pp 298

Earth's core picture from: http://www.oup.co.uk/oxed/children/oise/pictures/earth/earthcore/

Crystal pictures from: http://chemistry.about.com/od/growingcrystals/ig/Crystal-Photo-Gallery/


Conan Drumm said...

Tone can be very hard to convey from the page. I think tone is a quality of speech (like intonation) rather than a quality of a writer's 'voice'.

As a possible example - a sentence may be read off the page by two different people, but as spoken by one of them it may convey irony. That, to me, is tone.

Conan Drumm said...

By the by, 'Sweeney Erect' must be a reference to the old Irish tale, Buile Suibhne (the madness of Sweeney). That was given a refit by Seamus Heaney in Sweeney Astray. It was also a major influence on Flann O'Brien's At Swim Two Birds.

Lulu LaBonne said...

I like the crystallising metaphor, when something comes together coherently and has a distinct form, that's what happens with a nice raised pie ... and when a Comté cheese is perfect .. and a good collection of words ... and images ... and ideas .... and ...and all kinds of stuff

Eryl Shields said...

That's how I think of tone, too, so perhaps I'm over complicating things.

I wondered if it was the same Sweeney. I don't know the original old tale (ought to find it, I think) but knew the Seamus Heaney poem was based on it; if that makes sense.

I've not heard of Flann O'Brien but will look out for him. So many poets!

Nice to see you Conan.

Eryl Shields said...

Lulu ~ you've made me long for a raised pie now, and my form has just been made concrete by trying to perfect a salted caramel sauce for ice-cream: no substitute for constant tasting.

The Pollinatrix said...

Interesting post!

When I first started reading it, I thought Tom Eliot must be your cat or something, until you said he had poems coming out. I'm a little slow today, don't mind me.

I can't help but make a cooking analogy here. Two cooks can make the exact same dish, but one will be better than the other because of some mysterious quality of THE COOK. And not just their essence, but how the cook feels that day, why they're making the dish, who they're making it for, etc.

I think that connects to what he's saying about tone. It's like the soul of the poem. The part you don't see on the surface (thus the core) that informed the purpose of the writing in the first place, and how the poet feels about it himself.

And then I put the "crystallizing" idea kind of in the same realm as "simmering." You can have all the right ingredients, but if they aren't simmered together properly, it won't come out well.

Ok, now I'm just rambling in typical English-teacherly style. I'll stop.

Pat said...

I guessed it was T.E.
With words I mostly use my instinct but often check my dictionary - especially spelling these days.
Have you noticed how there are fashions in words? Core seems to be a buzz word just now - especially on dancing and skating progs on TV.

Titus said...

I think I'm with Eliot. Tone, to me, is at the core of a poem - how you wish to convey your words to affect a reader/audience before you have chosen the words. It's the mood of a poem, or the mood you wish to conjure. It's there in your head before you start to write. To capture that tone is often the hardest work. So I think I disagree with Conan at the start - the tone should ring through, whomever the reader.

Starting to ramble too now, so I'll go, eh?

steven said...

hey eryl i'll chuck a thought in here on tone. i think it's the essence beneath whatever is happening in a moment. the words or images or your food or whatever is on the surface point to it like direction markers. i don't see it as synonymous with "the message" of whatever you're doing. i've probably muddled your thinking with that haven't i!!! write on. steven

Anonymous said...

was/is a wonderful poet
quite magic with words.
I have never read his letters. Letters are so revealing and wonderful see TE Lawrence's
and now all we do is write e-mails and delete them.
I saw Lawrence of A (movie) when I was 13, became obsessed, lived at 2, Polstead Rd. as a student
and ended up learning Arabic (sort of)
re Natalie P. yes she was an astonishing looking child
went to the high school where I taught on LI
(didn't teach her)
I have quite a problem separating art and life.....

Eryl Shields said...

Polli ~ yes, I can see that. Your cooking analogy has definitely helped crystallise this idea in my mind.

Pat ~ I tend to use my instinct with words too, you can't stop and look every word up all the time, but I usually find when I check my dictionary there is much to a word than I thought.

I haven't noticed the trend for 'core' but will now look out for it. I wonder if it's indicative of us trying to get past the superficial tone we embraced with unfettered consumerism before 'the crash'?

Titus ~ so the core is conveyed by the tone which is conveyed by the words. I guess this isn't just by the individual words but how they are placed and react with each other in terms, not just of meaning, but of rhythm (and other sounds) and what they refer to, and how they've been used before?

Steven ~ my thinking is already muddled! But all these different takes on tone are helping a lot to clarify. Which reminds me of the Rothko quote on your side bar about 'eliminating all obstacles' between the artist and the work to attain clarity.

I like 'direction markers'.

Elizabeth ~ I have a bit of a thing about artist's letters. I have Dylan Thomas's to read next, and Philip Larkin's which I dip in and out of. Not to mention Ted Hughes's which are my bible equivalent.

I haven't read T.E. Lawrence's but I'll look out for them. I, too, love the film. The line, 'the trick is not minding' has had a big impact on the way I deal with life.

Art is life, isn't it?

Kim Ayres said...

I do know that T S Eliot is an angramme of Toilets

Or is that the wrong tone of comment for this post?

Rachel Fox said...

Kim made me laugh, Miss!

(from back of class).

Eliot liked to mess with people a little I think...


Golden West said...

An instigator, that Kim!

Crafty Green Poet said...

tone to me is about a certain consistency, something that rings true, that marries the words and form with the message they contain. crystallisation is an excellent way of looking at it.

Very nicely creative post

Anonymous said...

It's hard to beat a great writer for company. They can refresh the parts most people don't even acknowledge.

Advice on writing is another matter, though. One writer's issues, their way of conceptualising, are particular to them. Just because Eliot thought he had a problem with tone doesn't mean that you have. As far as your blog posts are concerned, your tone is just fine.

Eryl Shields said...

Kim ~ that's exactly the sort of tone that's appreciated. Maybe because it's the only sort that's understood.

Rachel ~ I think you're right, X

Golden ~ he knows just the thing to say, doesn't he?

Crafty ~ thank you, I think I'm beginning to grasp the concept, not I just need to learn how to put it into practice.

Jenny ~ that's because I don't post my poetry! I know what you mean though, and agree, we all have our own foibles.

The Weaver of Grass said...

Thanks for visiting Eryl - I keep meaning to put you on my blog list and shall do so now. Interesting post today. I belong to a writers' group and we had coffee this morning and discussed more or less what you are writing about. We came to the conclusion that the anser is "just write" - we have all found that the more we write and the more we discuss the more our thoughts crystalise and the better our writing becomes - we use fewer words, we think more carefully about which word to use and we also become more critical of our work.
Do caLL again - we can't live all that far apart.

Eryl Shields said...

Weaver ~ you're right, there is no substitute for practice, practice, practice. I just need to get on with it and stop looking for a holy grail; but I just can't help it.

I will pop in whenever I can - not far apart at all, I think.

Titus said...

Eryl: not quite, in my head. But tone must be consistent with core.

I think I'll stick with toilets.

Leigh Russell said...

I love TSE - the poetry, not the man who I don't think I would have liked much. His poetry is sublime, even the poems I don't understand. I do understand what I think he means - there is the idea, the expression. The two don't always arrive in a writer's head at the same time.

Mary Witzl said...

Americans would find someone vulgar? Seriously? I know he was born in America, but did he ever spend much time there?

Creating good poetry is all about getting every single word perfect. Get just one wrong and the whole thing is flawed. Not unlike crystallization, now that you mention it.