In Chapter 4 of his thought-invoking book, Why Poetry, Matthew Zapruder quotes a Russian literary scholar, essayist, novelist, and memoirist no one’s heard of: Viktor Shklovsky. Viktor’s eureka moment? He claimed that the language of artistic texts is no different than the language of texts used to convey information. Asterisk.
Make that BIG asterisk. In artistic texts like poetry, writers do something quite different with this same plain language. They make it strange. The Russian word is “ostraneniye,” which, Zapruder writes, “most often [is] translated as ‘defamiliarization,’ though a more literal translation would be something like ‘strangeifying.'”
In Shklovsky’s view, as we live our lives, the ordinary objects we are surrounded by become “habitual” and “automatic” in our minds until we begin to think of them as abstractions. The Russian writes, “Habitualization devours work clothes, furniture, one’s wife, and the fear of war… And art exists that one may recover the sensation of life; it exists to make one feel things, to make the stone stony.”
Let’s pause right there. What a wonderful reminder for every creative writer out there: “make the stone stony” again. Because, you see, we’ve grown so accustomed to stones that they’ve lost their stoniness. There’s no wonder to them. They’ve become, quite frankly, an abstraction, one we simply walk by and pay no mind, one we all think of alike. For the poet, thinking of some ordinary thing “alike,” or like everyone else, is the death knell for his or her creativity.
More Shklovsky: “The purpose of art is to impart the sensation of things as they are perceived and not as they are known. The technique of art is to make objects ‘unfamiliar,’ to make forms difficult, to increase the difficulty and length of perception because the process of perception is an aesthetic end in itself and must be prolonged.”
The key line? “To make objects unfamiliar.” Make it strange, friends. Make it strange.
Zapruder comments: “Poetry exhibits the purest form of defamiliarization. This is because, in a poem, other tasks, such as telling a story, or fully and exhaustively expressing an idea, never take priority. Therefore, it is in poetry that we see most clearly and powerfully, without any other ultimate distraction, how language can be made deliberately strange, how it becomes especially ‘a difficult, roughened, impeded language,’ in order to jar us awake.”
If this sounds easy–jarring readers awake by hitting them over the head with the ordinary–it isn’t. But it isn’t impossible, either. We’ve all seen it done when we read our favorite poets. In fact, it’s one of the reasons we return to poetry again, one of the reasons prose just isn’t filling enough for our artistic hungers. To see the ordinary used in extraordinary ways is a basic need. To say, “Gee, that was weird–but it’s true, now that I think about it!” is a basic joy.
Poetry. Nothing fancy. Nothing crazy. Just the literal used in strange and wonderful ways.