Sunday, February 1, 2015

To the Lighthouse: A Rhetorical Device, Defamiliarization

According to Aristotle, poetic language must appear strange and wonderful ; and, in fact, it is often actually foreign. -- Viktor Shklovsky, "Art as Technique," p. 19

Japanese Original by Tawara Machi

Saku koto mo chiru koto mo naku ten ni muku denshinbashira ni fuku haru no kaze

English Translation by Eiji Sekine

The telephone pole
stands straight towards the sky,
with no buds to bloom
or flowers to scatter.
Spring wind breathes around.

The telephone pole is defamiliarized here and viewed as a barren plant, which does not bloom nor play with the wind. It stands still, stiff, and indifferent to the arrival of the spring. The narrator's emptiness is thus expressed by identifying with this lifeless flower

-- Eiji Sekine, "Notes on the Tanka and Tawara Machi," Simply Haiku, 4:3, Autumn 2006

The term “defamiliarization” was first coined by Viktor Shklovsky in his 1917 seminal essay, “Art as Technique” (Crawford, p. 209), and essentially, he emphasizes that  “Poetic speech is framed speech ... Prose is ordinary speech" (Shklovsky, p. 20). For him, this fundamental distinction between artistic language and everyday language applies to all artistic forms:

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. (Ibid., p. 16)

For example,  in Sonia Sanchez's poem, "Under a Soprano Sky" (see Note 1), the sense of sound ("soprano") is employed to describe the sense of sight ("sky"). Throughout the poem, her use of synaesthesia to defamiliarize words and images is effective at shifting context to achieve emotional power.

The purpose of defamiliarization is to strip away "the film of familiarity" that blurs everyday perception in order to provoke the reader to see things in a fresh new way. To explain what he means by defamiliarization, Shklovsky uses examples from Leo Tolstoy, whom he cites as using the technique of defamiliarization constantly (Ibid., p. 16). For example, the narrator of  Tolstoy's 1863 story, Kholstomer, is a horse; and in  Shklovsky's view, it is the horse’s point of view (rather than a person’s) about the institution of private property that "makes the content of the story seem unfamiliar” (Ibid. see Note 2).

Below is the first haibun written mainly from the perspectives of non-sentient beings (the "dog-eared Chinese-English dictionary,"  the "attic wall," and "jars of salted bamboo shoots"), the poem in which I employ this technique of defamiliarization to foreground a acute sense of nostalgia and isolation experienced by the unnamed character, the "he' who is Taiwanese, living in Canada and can write in English.

And the Spring Will Come

He can write in English, states the dog-eared Chinese-English dictionary on the coffee-stained desk. A German Shepherd lives with him, says the attic wall with an old map of Taiwan on it. But he can't stand Canadian food, observes a line of jars of salted bamboo shoots. Except food, everything looks OK, they say in unison.

the stillness
of this morning . . .
tenth winter

-- excerpted from my Haibun Today essay, "What Happens in [David Cobb’s Conception of Haibun: A Critical Study for Readers Who Want More,"  a 30-page thematic, textual, and perspectival analysis of David Cobb's 2013 book, What Happens in Haibun:A Critical Study of an Innovative Literary Form, and anthologized in Contemporary Haibun, 15, 2014

Now, I conclude this post with two of my tanka, which were written in a traditional manner (which means a shasei/realist style with a strong juxtaposition) and in a new and defamiliarizing manner respectively. They are my poetic replies to Donald Keene's remark on writing haiku/tanka:

A haiku or a tanka without "rhetoric" was likely to be no more  than a brief observation without poetic tension or illumination. 

that morning
we shared soybean milk
and Chinese fried dough ...
facing the attic window
tonight, I drink wu-long tea

[Comment: The suggestive power of this tanka relies on both the contrasts established between the two parts of the poem and a strong sense of one's cultural identity conveyed through ethnic food consumption ("soybean milk and Chinese fried dough," equivalent to Western "bread and butter") and one of the most famous Chinese teas, wu-long]

black coffee
and Chinese fried dough ..
in my mouth
a foreign tongue
licking these lips

[Comment: I use the rhetorical device of defamiliarization -- through the collocation of "foreign tongue" and "these" lips -- to convey the speaker's sense of estrangement, which is enhanced by the opening lines, this 'weird' food combination (of "black coffee/and Chinese fried dough")]


1  "under a soprano sky" by Sonia Sanchez


once i lived on pillars in a green house
boarded by lilacs that rocked voices into weeds.
i bled an owl's blood
shredding the grass until i
rocked in a choir of worms.
obscene with hands, i wooed the world
with thumbs
                        while yo-yos hummed.
was it an unborn lacquer i peeled?
the woods, tall as waves, sang in mixed
tongues that loosened the scalp
and my bones wrapped in white dust
returned to echo in my thighs.

i hear a pulse wandering somewhere
on vague embankments.
O are my hands breathing?    I cannot smell the nerves.
i saw the sun
ripening green stones for fields.
O have my eyes run down?    i cannot taste my birth.


now as i move, mouth quivering with silks
my skin runs soft with eyes.
descending into my legs, i follow obscure birds
purchasing orthopedic wings.
the air is late this summer.

i peel the spine and flood
the earth with adolescence.
O who will pump these breasts?    I cannot waltz my tongue.

under a soprano sky, a woman sings,
lovely as chandeliers.

2 Below is excerpted from Leo Tolstoy's 1863 story, Kholstomer

  I understand well what they said about whipping and Christianity. But then I was absolutely in the dark. What’s the meaning of ‘his own,’ ‘his colt’? From these phrases I saw that people thought there was come sort of connection between me and the stable. At the time I simply could not understand the connection. Only much later, when they separated me from the other horses, did I begin to understand. But even then I simply could not see what it meant when they called me ‘man’s property.’ The words ‘my horse’ referred to me, a living horse, and seemed as strange to me as the words ‘my land,’ ‘my air,’ ‘my water.’
     But the words made a strong impression on me. I thought about them constantly, and only after the most diverse experiences with people did I understand, finally, what they meant. They meant this: In life people are guided by words, not by deeds. It's not so much that they love the possibility of doing or not doing something as it is the possibility of speaking with words, agreed on among themselves, about various topics. Such are the words ‘my’ and ‘mine,’ which they apply to different things, creatures, objects, and even to land, people, and horses. They agree that only one may saw ‘mine’ about his, that, or the other thing. And the one who says ‘mine’ about the greatest number of things is, according to the game which they're agreed to among themselves, the one they consider the most happy. I don’t know the point of all this, but it’s true. For a long time I tried to explain it to myself in terms of some kind of real gain, but I had to reject that explanation because it was wrong.
     Many of those, for instance, who called me their own never rode on me –– although others did. And so with those who fed me. Then again, the coachman, the veterinarians, and the outsiders in general treated me kindly, yet those who called me their own did not. In due time, having widened the scope of my observations, I satisfied myself that the notion ‘my,’ not only in relation to horses, has no other basis than a narrow human instinct which is called a sense of or right to private property. A man says ‘this house is mine’ and never lives in it; he only worries about its construction and upkeep. A merchant says ‘my shop,’ ‘my dry goods shop,’ for instance, and does not even wear clothes made from the better cloth he keeps in his own shop.
      There are people who call a tract of land their own, but they never set eyes on it and never take a stroll on it. There are people who call others their own, yet never see them. And the whole relationship between them is that the so-called ‘owners’ treat the others unjustly.
     There are people who call women their own, or their ‘wives,’ but their women live with other men. And people strive not for the good in life, but for goods they can call their own.
     I am now convinced that this is the essential difference between people and ourselves. And therefore, not even considering the other ways in which we are superior, but considering just this one virtue, we can bravely claim to stand higher than men on the ladder of living creatures. The actions of men, at least those with whom I have had dealings, are guided by words -- ours, by deeds.
    The horse is killed before the end of the story, but the manner of the narrative, its technique, does not change.
      Much later they put Serpukhovsky’s body, which had experienced the world, which had eaten and drunk, into the ground. They could profitably send neither his hide, nor his flesh, nor his bones anywhere. 
But since his dead body, which had gone about in the world for twenty years, was a great burden to everyone, its burial was only a superfluous embarrassment for the people. For a long time no one had needed him; for a long time he had been a burden on all. But nevertheless, the dead who buried the dead found it necessary to dress this bloated body, which immediately began to rot, in a good uniform and good boots; to lay it in a good new coffin with new tassels at the four corners, then to place this new coffin in another of lead and ship it to Moscow; there to exhume ancient bones and at just that spot, to hide this putrefying body, swarming with maggots, in its new uniform and clean boots, and to cover it over completely with dirt.


Lawrence Crawford, "Viktor Shklovskij: Différance in Defamiliarization," Comparative Literature, 36, 1984, pp.209-19.

Viktor Shklovskij, “Art as Technique,” Literary Theory: An Anthology, ed.,Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan, Malden: Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 1998.

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