Tuesday, 27 July 2010

Butterflies | Poetry | Pareidolia

“The caterpillar does all the work but the butterfly gets all the publicity”
             George Carlin

Butterflies are poets. We stop to admire them. They are frivolous. They take control of our imagination. We feel a desire to pin them down into groups. They are part of nature.

More importantly though, they protect themselves with impressive lies.

I am talking about automimicry. Those owl-eye things that appear on their wings. They ward off potential attacks by trying to appear far more weighty and threatening than they really are.

It all boils down to the idea of pareidolia – the mind’s compulsion to make sense and find patterns in meaningless, random stimulus – like cloud-watching. Did you know that your brain is wired to recognise human faces with minimal stimulus? Picture two eggs, a black pudding and a sausage in your mind. Do they look like a bemused face? It’s pareidolia.

Let’s get back onto butterflies trying to make themselves look like owls though. Poets are always doing this. The degree-educated brains knows what a poem is supposed to look like… moreover it knows what a good poem is supposed to look like. So it is that we are at the mercy of certain nifty typographic tricks that con you, the unsuspecting reader, into thinking that you are reading a poem rather than thrown together old pap.

Allow me to elaborate on the tricks of the poetaster trade before giving you an example which shall con you, through paredolia, into thinking that you are reading a poem.

PLEASE NOTE: This is not a list of things that only bad poets do; it is a list of things that people do when they are trying to disguise themselves as poets.

1. Epigraphs
We’ve all seen them, lurking around under the title. They come from Dostoevsky  or Shakespeare or a quaintly out-dated periodical which has long since been proved wrong. They create the illusion that the poet has read more than they have. They add a gravitas that would be otherwise lacking in the writing itself. They are not the sign of an intellectual but the trappings of a poseur.

2. Line-Breaks
These are a firm favourite amongst those who got into poetry because they don’t have the effort to fill up 50 pages of writing the old fashioned way. Bukowski loved this… three words per line for 32 pages. I’m all for the idea of the blank page around a poem being literary ‘silence’, but if I buy a book to discover that it comprises of 80% silence I want my money back.

3. The After Party
Out of ideas about how to pretend to be a poet? Take a famous poet’s name… let’s say Dylan Thomas. Put the words ‘After Dylan Thomas’ underneath your title and hey presto… you have our attention.

4. Wardour Street
For more information about ‘wardour street’ in poetry, see James Fenton’s book ‘The Strength of Poetry’ – he puts it much better than I do. Basically, it’s the idea of using antiquated language in the belief that it will put you on par with Thomas Wyatt. Needless to say it doesn’t.

5. Write a Sestina
We’ve got creative writing courses to blame for this. Just… stop writing them. Please. We’ll try again as a society in 80 years, but until the official revival lets just leave this form alone.

6. The Average Amount of Weirdness
This often comes in an out of place mention of pubic hair or sex or a swear-word or just a plain old ‘where the fudge did that come from?’ image. Actually, it often contains all of these. It’s not idiosyncrasy, it’s vacuous.

If all this is somewhat un-clear to you, here is a poem I have composed using all of the above rules (apart from no.5… no sestinas until 2090, got it?)

Play Jury
after Ovid

“If he has a conscience he will suffer for his mistake. That will be punishment as well as prison.”
-          Crime and Punishment, Dostoevsky

There was
she, waiting for
that which can only
be describethed

as thine only
assailable bounty
sans scruple nightward
up-curves opening

onto a thinly thorned
pile of yesterday’s
souvenirs – a fistful
of fucking pubes.

Phil Brown
Poetry Editor


  1. "Epigraphs are awesome."

  2. Careful - this might end up in the Forward Prize shortlist for best individual poem.

  3. Ha... I'd bloody love to be the first recorded case of 'Victory by Apophenia' in the Forward Prize!

    -Phil Brown