Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Redefining literary techniques and devices

It’s back to the classroom for the storyboard after a whole semester away. And what better way to re-kindle the undying savannah flames of creativity than to re-visit the views of the sage when considering the terms literary techniques and devices?

So what are literary techniques? And what are literary devices?

They may mean the one and the same thing, but they are not.

And where is the best place to look for a good definition of either one? Why, Kwamra, of course. Those of you at the Waigani campus doing Creative Writing this semester must own a copy of Kwamra: a season of harvest. Refrain from heavy reliance on photocopies, borrowing a copy from a class mate, or simply bothering your lecturer for a spare copy or lecture notes after class. You are on your own now and that means starting to relish the respite of owning a library of your own. After all, you are studying literature, and that in itself is a calling of a lifetime.

Let us now get down to the business of defining the two literary terms.

Firstly, those terms referred to as literary techniques. What are they? Let us look at the denotative aspects of the term “technique”. That means – and don’t be shy about this – consulting the dictionary right away. The Oxford English Mini Dictionary defines the word “technique” as follows: 1 a way of doing something. 2 practical skill. What we want here is the first definition offered: “a way of doing something.” “Technique” in our case now becomes “a way of writing about something.” Further, the term becomes a way in which we use language to describe, or more precisely, write about something. In Tok Pisin, we refer to this process of creative writing as “yu mi stailim tasol.”

Secondly, we do the same with literary devices. The mini dictionary referred to above defines the word “device” as follows: 1 thing made for a particular purpose. 2 a plan or scheme. What we want here is the second definition offered: “a plan or scheme.” The word “device”, therefore, becomes a plan or scheme to follow when setting out to write about something. In Tok Pisin this is referred to as “igat sampela stail kamap yet.”
You can now see that although the two terms “techniques” and “devices” may appear to mean the same thing in creative writing and generally imaginative literatures they are, in essence, not. The Preface of Kwamra best explains the rest, as follows:

Kwamra... introduces the reader to some tentative definitions of the terms literary techniques and literary devices. Although the two may mean the one and the same thing in imaginative literature, they do have their distinctions which deserve scrutiny in order for us to arrive at some reasonable definitions of each. In the first instance both serve the purpose of appearing merely as appetizers to further interpretation and criticism in given imaginative literatures.

“Somewhere along the line one loses its interpretative value while the other persists in causing the reader to read into an imaginative piece of literature. It is at this point that a distinction needs to be drawn: that a literary technique deals exclusively with the denotative aspects of an imaginative piece of literature whereas a literary device deals exclusively with the connotative aspects of that same piece of literature.

“A technique deals with talent and style, whereas a device deals with the inner necessities of a literary creation. Any literary creation that is pleasing to the ear or sight must indicate an instance of some literary technique being used. Any literary creation that intrigues or disturbs the inner compartments of the mind and human sensibilities must likewise indicate an instance of some literary device being used. Thus, an alliteration can be viewed as a literary technique whereas an allegory or maiba as literary device.

“With literary techniques we read to enjoy, whereas with literary devices we feel we are being invited to think.”

And that much the sage can give us, on the definitions of the two literary terms. But, he cautions: “It is worth noting that both literary techniques and devices constitute the form of imaginative literatures and not necessarily the content of these. Their purpose is to help us better understand the content (i.e. the main idea, the author’s intention and the moral lesson) of a poem, short story, novel or play.”

With the above definitions given, let us now apply that knowledge to the following Haiku, usually attributed to Edmund Conti:

OK, all you frogs:
Everyone out of the pool
And form three lines

Now, at the top corner of your exercise book write the heading Literary Techniques. On the right hand corner of the same page write the heading Literary Devices. Under the heading Literary Techniques jot down the following points: that a haiku poem consists of three lines; it runs for 17 syllables; 5 syllables in the first, 7 syllables in the second, and again 5 syllables in the third. Here, of course, we are looking at technique and style of writing.

Here’s the exciting part. Under the heading Literary Devices, and as you jot down your notes, you will notice that Edmund Conti’s treatment of the haiku form does not follow the rules noted above. In fact, his haiku runs for, at best, 16 point something short of the required 17 syllables. And that is the intriguing part. That is when we start looking at literary devices. And we ask: “Why would a poet, perhaps an American one at that, choose to treat a Japanese style of writing that way, by almost looking as if he is deliberately breaking rules?”

Welcome to the storyboard’s literature classes, semester two, Waigani campus, 2010. (All bilum photos on this blog courtesy of Nicolas Garnier, Visual Anthropology, UPNG.)