Sunday, February 18, 2007

Poetry Like Chess: The Opening

(Disclaimer: By objective standards, I qualify as "advanced amateur" in both poetry and chess)

Accept for this discussion that a
chess game develops in a series of known phases: The opening, the midgame and the endgame, with definable transitions between each phase pair. I know some will resist this idea, but this is really not a bad analog for a poem. Poems require compelling openings, precise and developing middles, and impactful (or at least calculated) endings.

Though poetry has the advantage over chess in number of potential openings, it is greatly similar in one way: a wildly unconventional opening portends either genius or the beginning of an unpredictable uneven ride.

Let us take "opening" in this case to mean "stage setting". On offense or defense in chess, a good player is thinking several moves ahead, positioning pieces not for where they need to be now, but where they need to be in the future. And anticipating where the opponent expects them to be and meeting that expectation in one of two ways: Either by presenting the opponent with something different, something surprising but still part of her plan, or by accepting the opponent's expectation, but with a level of preparedness that leaves no square of the board unaccounted for in its depth of planning.

Is this all that different than writing a poem? I know we want to believe that we follow the poem to where it wants to lead us, but I think this isn't entirely dissimilar from playing off a good opponent across the chess board. You have a plan, and you execute that plan, adjusting it continuously as you receive input and opposition. In the case of a poem, we often provide the input and opposition internally, maybe subconsciously, but we are reacting in real time to our own words as they develop on the page before us - the point at which they stop being our property and start belonging to the poem. It is that point at which they are most like the moves of our opponent on the chess board; even if we have anticipated their move perfectly, we are still reacting to it - choosing to keep with our plan or depart from it.

Some chess openings are accepted convention (Ruy Lopez,
Ponziani), some are more radical than others, and some require more skills (particularly those that develop the queen early). Again, here, this isn't all that different from the writing process: We can choose to employ standard, or favorite, or accepted openings, or ones that are challenge the reader (the opponent?) to play along with us. A good chess player will decide by the 4th move if the opponent has the skills to make the game competitive. How many times have you decided by the 4th line of a poem that it was not crafted with sufficient skill to be meaningful or useful to you? How many of your own poems have you tolerated past a weak 4th line, ignoring your own awareness that it was weak?

Understand I'm not saying that an unconventional opening, or an aggressive or challenging one is a bad thing - merely that it requires greater skill to pull off effectively. And that discarding convention merely as an act of anarchy is a sure way to lose the reader, and make the challenge of completing the poem very, very difficult.

If I can figure a way to do so meaningfully, next up will be examples. Down the road a piece is: Transition one: The first sacrifice.


Tom Chivers said...

You're not entirely accurate on the chess parts there - the Ponziani is an obscure opening that attracts a few specialists only, mostly in correspondence chess, for instance, because it's very dangerous...

But I guess that's really just nitpicking. I don't know. Here are some thoughts:-

-There is imagination and technique required both to play chess and write poetry. Both games and poems have a beginning, middle and end. So there are prima facie some commonalities.

-On the other hand, 'openings', 'middlegames' and 'endgames' for the most part imply a certain type of content in chess - what you might call 'routine', 'imaginative', 'technical' - but the same can't be said of the corresponding parts of poems.

-Incidentally, one detail that's not correct that isn't nitpicking: you write, "A good chess player will decide by the 4th move if the opponent has the skills to make the game competitive". This isn't true - even fairly weak players can have theoretical knowledge that reaches to move 20, i.e. well into the middlegame.

-This reveals a difference: in a chess opening, you can copy Kasparov for as many moves as you can remember. In the opening of a poem, copying Shakespeare for as many lines as you can remember is plagiarism (or possibly The Waste Land.)

-I think the main problem is that 'reader' and 'opponent' are quite different things. The 'opponent' is not interested in the aesthetic quality of your play; they are interested in looking for its flaws to exploit - 'the worse the better', so to speak. A 'reader' has quite a different disposition, hopefully...

-But still, the question remains - are the types of decision-making involved in choosing a chess opening in a game and starting a poem comparable in some way? To make them so, one should probably think of 'chess opponent' as analogous to 'poem subject'. Maybe there is room for some comparison here.

ejh said...

Of course, in East Coker Eliot considered the end and the beginning to be much the same thing.

David Vincenti said...

Excellent points, Tom. Two quick comments back:

RE: Ponziani, what's interesting is how it relates to "obscure" references that are "common" in certain circles. Among the people I played with frequently in high school, this was a fairly common opening. I wonder how I can relate that to the influence of other poets.

Re: "opponent", I hope to argue more clearly that the opponent is internal (subconscious editor or experience), but you're right, of course, we don't write for "opponents".

I'll have to ruminate more on your other insights. I may have exaggerated about "4th move", I realize...

EJH: True, but Eliot was more of a backgammon player....

Tom Chivers said...

There are certainly different 'pools' of chess players, within which different openings tend to crop up more or less. At my level, the fashion after 1. e4 c5 is 2. c3 or 2. Nc3. At the top level, it's either 1. e4 c5 2. Nf3 with 3. d4, or a system based on Bb5, for instance.

There have also been revolutions in chess openings, perhaps akin to new stylistic turns in poetry. Romanticism was replaced by Classicism, which was augmented by Hypermodernism, for instance. In poetry, the 20th Century saw the invention of modernism and free verse, but whilst these related to various 'schools' (and there are 'schools of thought' in chess) these never really made their predecessors out of date, or made themselves 'necessary', in the way new styles of openings did. And of course also, modernism and free verse are styles of whole poems - not just their opening lines.