Words of one syllable
by Peter McCarey
Free online. Available on CD for £10 + postage
reviewed by Edward Picot
According to Peter McCarey The Syllabary started life as a list of monosyllabic words intended to show his daughter "how letters worked... dad, dead, did, dod, dud; bab, beb, bib, bob, bub. What was wrong with beb? Why was no sense attached to beb while bob was clearly overworked? I played with the syllabary, on and off, until my daughter was reading Balzac. By then I had every monosyllabic word in my language mapped on a 3-dimensional grid."
A couple of points about this deserve further comment. Firstly, McCarey refers to "every monosyllabic word in my language" rather than "the language" because he comes from Scotland, and his language, as even a cursory glance at The Syllabary quickly reveals, encompasses Scottish dialect as well as standard English. Furthermore, since he lives and works in Europe, under conditions, as he puts it, of "constant isolation from my speech community and daily immersion in other languages" he has felt the need "to batten onto my language in ways that rooted native speakers [don't] have to think about", and his poetry, particularly the sound-sense of his poetry, has thus become a way of exploring and reaffirming his Scottish identity. The self-imposed task of mapping every monosyllable in the language may seem like an odd and obsessive one, even for a poet, but for McCarey it has strong personal resonance. It helps him to define who he is.
Secondly, the "3-dimensional grid" to which McCarey refers was constructed by dividing all the possible monosyllables (whether real words or not) into three parts - the beginning, the middle, and the end. The initial sounds were mapped onto the Y axis, the terminal sounds onto the X axis, and the middle sounds (all vowels) onto the Z axis. Working in this way McCarey produced a three-dimensional grid originally containing more than five thousand cells - although he later condensed his phonetic system to reduce the number to about 3600 - each cell representing a possible monosyllabic word.
"Sixty per cent of the possible cells of this syllabary are vacant," says McCarey, "and of the fruitful remainder some contain more than one word." This is because the cells are defined by their initial, terminal and middle sounds: so "knight" occupies the same cell as "night" - but less obviously, "spit" also occupies the same as "sit", "silt" and "sift". McCarey says "The record-holder so far is “s*i*s”, which contains at least fifty (Swiss, stirps, splints etc)."
The Syllabary began to take its present form when McCarey, having constructed this grid, decided to write a poem to correspond with each of the meaningful cells. "Every text was to contain all the words in the cell and be as short as possible. Since each cell has a code number, I started with a cell whose number corresponded to the day and hour I began it. Once I had written the text I moved on to the neighbouring cell. Since each cell has six neighbours, I rolled a die to select which way to go: 1 up, 2 down, 3 left, 4 right, 5 inwards (on the Z axis), 6 outwards. I thus changed either initial, or vowel, or ending, one step at a time."
The Syllabary is a work in progress: in fact it may never be completed, since McCarey estimates that it will take him about 20 years to write all the poems required to fill the grid. Understandably, he has decided not to await its completion before publishing it. In 2002 he brought it out on a CD "programmed in Delphi by Bernat Karetka". This version attempts to take the reader through the Syllabary grid in much the same way that McCarey himself has explored it since starting to write the poems. When you enter the programme you are taken to a random starting-point within the grid. On-screen is a sheet of blue paper ruled into squares. Inside the squares are faintly-visible handwritten words. Presumably this is a map of one of the Syllabary's layers, but the handwriting is too faint for us to be sure. Assuming that the "cell" in which you have landed is not yet populated by one of McCarey's poems, you hear his voice uttering a monosyllabic word, and simultaneously the same word appears in the title-bar at the top of the screen. After a moment the screen flickers, the blue sheet moves slightly, and the computer randomly shifts you one space through the grid. A little black arrow in the bottom right-hand corner of the screen indicates the direction of your move. If it points straight up or down, the initial sound of the word is being changed while the rest is staying the same; if it points straight to the right or left the terminal sound is changing; while if it points diagonally, the middle sound is changing.
In this way, you move around the grid in a series of sidesteps and jumps, a bit like the king in a game of three-dimensional chess, until you arrive at a cell which contains one of McCarey's poems. When this happens the text of the poem appears, superimposed on the blue paper grid; and you hear McCarey reading it aloud. But as soon as the poem has been read, the little arrow points in a new direction, and you are stepping and jumping through the grid again.
From the reader's point of view, the main problem with this version of The Syllabary is that it doesn't give you much chance to appreciate the poems. Luckily there is a "pause" button which allows you to keep a poem on-screen until you have read it properly. There is also a "History" button which shows you a drop-down list of all the cells you have visited in a given session, allowing you to return to any cell on the list and re-start your random journey from there. Infuriatingly, however, what this list presents you with is not a sequence of words but grid-references ("15-3-10", "15-3-13", "17-3-13", "20-3-13"...), which are unlikely to be useful, in terms of navigation, to anyone less well-acquainted with the structure of the Syllabary than McCarey himself. Also, the drop-down list shows only the cells which have been visited in the course of your current session. Previous sessions are lost. Since no reader is ever going to read all of The Syllabary in a single sitting, most readers will want to revisit poems they have come across in earlier sessions. My own solution, whenever I come across a poem I like, is to hit the pause button, copy the verses and paste them into a text file: effective, but laborious and unsatisfactory.
Another difficulty is that when a poem materialises, the keyword to which that poem relates is not displayed anywhere. The titles of individual poems often do not include the keyword, and the texts themselves often do not make it clear what the keyword is. Here is one example:
The keyword here is "teak". Because the connection between poem and keyword is often an oblique one, as in this example, the effect of reading and listening to individual poems is that we tend to lose track of where we are within the Syllabary. This effect is further magnified if we happen to visit several cells with poems in them one after the other - which is likely to happen more and more, of course, as the years go by and McCarey adds more poems. The process of fleshing-out the Syllabary, in other words, has the effect of making it seem less like a grid of monosyllables and more like a conventional collection of poetry.
This is really another way of saying that McCarey had already completed a poem of a very unconventional kind when he finished his grid and recorded himself speaking the monosyllables from which it is made - "cob", "bob", "bib", and so forth. It seems to me that an ideal design for the Syllabary would keep this poem in the foreground and hold the smaller, more conventional ones with which McCarey has fleshed it out in the background, as a kind of enormous optional extra. But although McCarey agrees that "the random sequence of single syllables" is "a sound poem in its own right", he is not convinced that it should be fixed in the foreground: "I have swithered since the start, but I prefer at present that the structural principles remain in the background - within each syllable and in the matrix as a whole. The question remains open, as is evident from the approach in different texts: some of them foreground the syllable, others don't. It might be possible to give readers the choice, with good graphic presentation." He adds that "I want to add an option to zap texts that the reader really dislikes, replacing them with the initial monosyllable". Both these remarks indicate that McCarey is reluctant to force his readers to look at The Syllabary in a particular way. He would prefer them to be able to interact with the piece more, and by doing so to select their own ways of looking.
Obviously McCarey's ideas about the best way to present The Syllabary are not set in stone, and this is demonstrated by the way in which he has rethought the appearance and functionality of the piece in the last couple of years. Basically he has abandoned the attempt to reproduce the Syllabary as a grid. The model he has chosen instead is actually mentioned in his introduction to the 2002 CD edition: "The simplest way to visualize what happens when you're in the programme is to imagine a set of concentric dials on the door of a safe. The outer dial is the initial, the second is the vowel, and the third is the terminal."
In its present incarnation (again programmed by Bernat Karetka, but this time in Flash), the Syllabary is shown as a set of three dials with letters on them. At each "move" of the programme one of the dials turns while the other two stay still. One of the big advantages of this new version is that it shows you all the nonsense words in the grid as well as the "meaningful" ones, whereas in the CD version only the "meaningful" cells were represented. McCarey does not speak the nonsense words - they are passed over in silence, and the dial keeps turning until a "meaningful" word is reached - which means that the rhythm of this syllabary is slightly different to the previous one, because there are now three, rather than two, possible outcomes for each move: a silence, a word being intoned, or a poem being simultaneously displayed onscreen and read aloud. At times the programme produces quite long sequences of nonsense-words, which means quite long periods of silence. Another difference is that, because the concentric dials are always on-screen, it is now much easier to tell which word in the poem is the keyword. Furthermore there are seven text boxes on-screen above the concentric dials, in which the last seven "meaningful" words produced by the programme are displayed. Clicking on one of the boxes takes you back to that particular word, and the programme will then retrace its steps from that point onwards.
There are still problems, however. You can't pause the programme in order to re-read a particular poem more slowly - you have to keep re-loading the poem instead. Words you came across more than seven turns ago, or in previous sessions, remain unretrievable. Tantalisingly, the on-screen dials seem to offer the possibility that you might be able to dial up the word of your choice, but it can't be done, and McCarey says that although he might be prepared to offer this as an option later on, he doesn't feel ready for it yet: "at this stage, there aren't enough texts to make it something satisfactory for the readers: I'd rather get half the texts written before offering that..."
But whatever its merits or demerits as a piece of new media, The Syllabary undoubtedly succeeds as a piece of writing. The originality of its concept and the "sound poem" of monosyllables would make it worth a visit by themselves: but what makes it worth going back to time after time is the unfailingly high quality of the little poems it contains. Given the fact that one of the tasks McCarey has set himself is to write the shortest poem he can manage containing all the words in a given cell, it is perhaps unsurprising that one of the virtues of his poetry is a haiku-like use of imagery:
- but as the lines above demonstrate, he also tends to combine sensory precision with Metaphysical complexities of thought, particulary in his closing lines. A shiver of cold and the moon in a hedge both seem straightforward enough, but when we gather that the hedge is made of words - in fact the hedge seems to be the poem itself - the poem suddenly becomes more complex. Here is another example:
"Shores the colour of Canada geese" is strongly evocative of shorelines patched with snow - drab grey, brown, black and white. Being able to tell snow from salt sounds like a proverbial phrase for having common sense, but it also bring to mind both a cold climate and a coastal scene (salt water, salt stains on the rocks, snow further up the shore). "I can't tell Auden from augustan" is paradoxical, because it implies that the speaker is on the outside of learned culture looking in, while at the same time the references to Auden and augustan seem to indicate just the opposite - that he knows as much about literature as anyone else. The last line is difficult to interpret, but assuming that "thirldom" is a Scots version of "thralldom", it suggests being in thrall to making grammatical or other blunders. The poem as a whole as seems to be about how Scottishness equips you for a common-sensical life but tends to exclude you from the literary mainstream. But the meaning of the poem is only half the story: there is also the strength and compaction of the language, the sound of the words, and the very clever control of rhythm.
Here is another:
The line "Does the rood dream spook branches that spark like beaten nails" demonstrates how important sound-links are to The Syllabary: "rood", "spook", "spark", "like", "beat": the sequence of monosyllables here could be an outtake from McCarey's "sound-poem" itself. So even though the smaller poems interrupt the sound-poem and break up its rhythm, they refer us back to it through their insistence on sound-sense and wordplay. But they also offer us a play of ideas in a way that the sound-poem cannot: here, McCarey is making a reference to The Dream of the Rood and thus to Christian ideas about death and rebirth, especially the iconography of wood and trees which was so important to devotional poetry in the Middle Ages and Renaissance. The keyword in the poem is "log". A log or felled tree symbolises death - but a tree which has been cut back to the stump can still contrive new shoots and leaves, which suggests rebirth - and the poem thus becomes a contemplation of mortality and religious faith. These are themes which crop up regularly in McCarey's poetry.
Another thing which crops up regularly is the figure of the child which appears at the end of the poem. Reading the poem in isolation, and depending on how we interpret the last two lines, we might take this child to be the infant Jesus, leading adults an "endless shortcut" which may or may not enable them to jump the river of death. But we are also reminded of McCarey's account of how he first dreamed up The Syllabary: he was trying to teach his daughter about words. The first words he mentions in this account are "dad, dead", and he goes on to tell us that by the time he completed his grid of monosyllables his daughter was reading Balzac. The adult and the child: the sense of mortality: the engagement with words as something which measures, fills and devours the years - reading The Syllabary, one comes across these motifs again and again, either separately or in combinations. There is one particular poem, a poem about The Syllabary itself, which puts them together particularly clearly and poignantly:
The Syllabary isn't really a three-dimensional grid, where to travel along any axis far enough is to be brought to a halt by one of the boundaries, because consonants and vowels - or words for that matter - do not occur in fixed sequences, with one invariably at the beginning of the row and another invariably at the end. The axes, as McCarey says, "loop back on themselves", as the concentric dials of his new design suggest. So when the Syllabary is imagined in three dimensions again, "the cube becomes a sphere" - a grid which magically folds over on itself to achieve a "placid orbit". A sphere is a place "where parallels meet" - they meet themselves when they have completed a circuit of the orb. Yet parallels can never meet each other - in that sense, the place "where parallels meet" is non-existent - so the lines above suggest that the "placid orbit", a state of perfect balance and repose, is both possible and impossible to achieve. As soon as it is mentioned it is undermined by mention of "the die" which "never comes to rest". This is a reference to death, of course, as well as to McCarey's method of working on The Syllabary. Time and mortality come into the picture: the sphere becomes the world, rotating through days and years: "Let Z be the changing light from equinox to equinox..." At the end of the poem the child/daughter reappears, to ask the poet/daddy what's the matter, to which the answer is "That who and you and I will meet again or maybe not". In the world of The Syllabary, the words "who", "you" and "I" are all connected, and may meet each other if a throw of the die or a turn of the concentric dials brings them together. In the mortal world outside the Syllabary, a world in which the effort of completing The Syllabary is munching up the years, the question of whether the poet will meet his loved ones again after death - "or maybe not" - cannot be avoided forever. The Syllabary itself is "nothing much" - an invention, a solitary obsession, a hobby - yet it has come to involve all these ideas and concerns.
The examples I have given above leave many aspects of The Syllabary unexplored - the sense of place which often emerges from it, the frequent use of Scottish dialect, the flashes of humour, the personal anecdotes and memories - but perhaps they will serve to suggest the way in which what might seem like a very theoretical, almost mathematical approach to the business of writing poetry has actually produced something very inventive and human.
For anybody who has seen a lot of new media work, The Syllabary may seem unfinished, not only in terms of its content but of its design and programming. Because of this we may feel inclined to jump to the conclusion that McCarey is an oldfashioned writer who finds himself a bit out of his depth in the multimedia environment of the Web: but this would be wrong. In some respects The Syllabary is far more at home on the Web than it could be on the printed page. One reason for this is its nonlinear structure: as McCarey says himself, "I'd like to see it on a palm pilot: it would work!... It WON'T work properly in a book, because a book, by its nature, has a beginning, a middle and an end. The Syllabary doesn't. I've chosen the [digital] medium not because it's new, but because it fits."
Furthermore, the mathematical way in which the Syllabary is mapped out, the self-imposed constraints under which McCarey's poems are written, and the way in which he has moved around the grid using a die as his pathfinder, are all very reminiscent of the working methods of the Oulipo, the French-based experimental group of mathematicians and writers set up in the 1960s to explore new forms of literature. François Le Lionnais, one of the group's founder members, wrote that "Every literary work begins with an inspiration... which must accommodate itself as well as possible to a series of constraints and procedures". The Oulipo's working method was often to dream up "a series of constraints and procedures" first, and then try to use them as a means of producing works of literature. Their experiments were heavily influenced by the science of computing, and they in their turn have exerted an enormous influence over the development of new media literature. Viewed in the context of this tradition, The Syllabary seems more thoroughly experimental than a good many more technically accomplished new media pieces.
Igor Stravinsky once wrote that "The more constraints one imposes, the more one frees oneself of the chains that shackle the spirit... the arbitrariness of the constraint only serves to obtain precision of execution." There are other ways of working, of course: but constraint and process certainly seem to suit McCarey. They have enabled him to produce a work of literature which is experimental, elaborate, simple, mathematically precise and deeply personal all at the same time.
© Edward Picot, February 2006
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