Culture Nature Other

The ternness of terns

George Szirtes discusses people’s need to identify things – flowers, birds – something he doesn’t share. Indeed he sets up (but slightly backs away from), an opposition between the botanist’s way of looking and the artists’s way. He ends like this:

Yet all the time I am aware that even an urban citoyen of the imagination should be able to tell a kingfisher by its silhouette as it flashes across a narrow stream or be able to name at least a hundred stars. One should be able to do that really, as well as trying to render the flashing sensation in language and learning to define the starness of stars.

I can’t help feeling that those people – the vast majority – who can’t distinguish a gull from a tern, a swallow from a swift, or a bee from a wasp or a hoverfly, are completely failing to appreciate the ternness of terns.

Being able to recognise something and distinguish it from superficially similar things seems absolutely central to any attempt to learn something about its thingness. The ability to attach a name is secondary to the process of coming to know a thing the way you know a familiar place or a friend.

Conversely, any birdwatcher could tell you that gaining some sense of a bird’s thingness, its inscape, is a key part of learning to identify it. Of course, being a prosaic bunch, they don’t call it ‘inscape’, they call it ‘jizz’. But if there’s a distinction between saying ‘I knew it was a tern because of its tern-like jizz’ and ‘I knew it was a tern because it had ternness’, it would take a better philosopher than me to elucidate it.

8 replies on “The ternness of terns”

Hi Harry,

‘The immediate, characteristic impression given by an animal or plant’ – says the definition of ‘jizz’ you link to. So – inasmuch as ‘immediate impression’ precludes us from any assumptions about objecthood, even ‘that’s a tern’ – we’re talking sense-data-style surface phenomena, sensory experiences which suggest a tern. Tern jizz is a name for sensory impressions. But ternness is, by definition, an essential characteristic: it describes a tern’s essence; and its extension is defined by the fact that only terns have it. Sensory experiences aren’t terns; therefore tern jizz (which is made up of sensory experiences) is never ternness (which is never made of sensory experiences).

On the other hand, if the etymology given for ‘jizz’ is correct (from ‘Gestalt’), it ought to correspond fairly closely to ternness (an essential quality like ternness is _one_ of the qualities a Gestalt might have in addition to the some of its other charcteristics); which means the definition given at the link is either misleading, badly phrased, or wrong; or the word’s meaning has developed perversely.

Either way, none of this is relevant because you’re using ‘ternness’ not to refer to any essential characteristic, but, precisely, to mean ‘jizz’. As an essential characteristic, ternness _ought_ to be completely undetectable by sensory experience. If it were detectable, it would be some specific characteristic, not an essence. (This is one reason why the notion of essences is so suspect.)

Ah well. Must get back to work.

Best wishes


I don’t think ‘jizz’ comes from gestalt. The earliest usual reference given is from a book about birding by some chap in the 20s or 30s who claims to have picked up the word from fishermen somewhere (the Shetlands? the west coast of Ireland? I can’t remember now).

I do appreciate that if ‘ternness’ is used to indicate some kind of Platonic essence of tern, then it won’t be accessible to observation by definition. I probably should have resisted the temptation to mention philosophy. But apart from the fact that I have little sympathy with the idea of essences, I was really using with reference to what I gather Szirtes meant by the starness of stars – something specifically related to art/writing, and to do with a deeper imaginative understanding, an attempt to find meanings rather than simply atttaching labels to things.

And my point, really, is that being able to identify a bird is more than just knowing the name – it’s knowing the bird, as an animal and a thing and a part of the landscape.

Most people will have distinct groups of concepts in their minds attached to the words ‘bee’ and ‘wasp’ or ‘seagull’ and ‘tern’ despite not being able to actually distinguish the animals by sight. Does that mean their concept of those animals is false? No, not necessarily, but it does make it all a bit, I don’t know, shadows built on shadows. Ideas should be made to rub against things from time to time.

Do I think all poets should therefore take up birding? No, of course not, though I do think there’s value in learning ways of looking. You don’t see things unless you look at them. Szirtes trained as a painter, which is one training in looking at things; birding is another. Different ways of looking, different ways of knowing; there are after all different ways of writing.

Yeah, I take your general point – and the excursion into systematic philosophy, is, as so often, a red herring.

But I am slightly suspicious of Szirtes’s implication that art involves a deeper understanding. I’d go along with that at the output stage – a poem should enlarge the reader’s/writer’s sense of or knowledge of the world. But here we’re talking input – that the writer has or needs a privileged access to the world (as opposed to just being observant) _before_ sitting down to write the poem.

Practically, I’d go along with all you say, but the talk of essences risks elevating the artist’s heightened quality of observation to a different order of perception, which seems to me a romanticist obfuscation.

Incidentally, re naming and recognition, it’s interesting how disorientating it can be when you find out you’ve got a naming wrong – that you’ve been applying ‘tern’ to herring gulls, for example, based on the behaviour you’ve seen – and you have to de-learn or at least reconfigure your experience.


At the risk of putting words into his mouth (as well as the post linked to above, it’s worth reading his T. S. Eliot lecture if you haven’t), I read it not as the artist having a privileged access to meaning by virtue of being an artist, but that the process of creating art is one of looking for meaning.

He’s keen generally on the idea of a mass of inchoate, pre-linguistic meaning beyond (or below, or outside) language, and that putting things into words is an unreliable act that creates a false sense of clarity. So I guess from that point of view that act of ‘identifying’ things – pinning tidy labels onto them as a leisure activity – is almost the exact opposite of what he thinks poetry should be, which is a more exploratory, interstitial kind of activity. I actually have some sympathy with that POV; the whole trainspotting side of birding (the need to identify, the ticking, the listmaking, the discussion of relative amount of primary projection on Icterine and Melodious Warblers) is a rather anti-imaginative way of thinking. But it’s not the whole story.

Fair points, Harry, that I try to address in the most recent post. Naturally, iit is not my case that we should know as little as possible about things. That would be plain idiotic. I like a shower of fine particulars. possibly more than most. My reaction to the gardener – it was a gardener that set me off, and it was more reaction than argument – was to what I perceived as particularity excluding anything else, seeing only one thing rather than several at once. What you describe as ‘trainspotting’.

I suspect most artists do see several things at once, even if they see some of those things in a faint and blurry fashion, more presence than description.

You pick the point up yourself in your last comment here. ‘Interstitial’ is, I think, pretty well right. But then we generally respond – and possibly go on to argue – out of first hand experience.

Hey there. I hope I didn’t misrepresent you too badly at any point above. I didn’t really imagine you thought that identifying things was bad (or anti-artistic), I just thought I’d stick up for birdwatchers.

Not at all, Harry. I wondered about that aspect of it myself while writing. My brother is a keen ornithologist so a little has rubbed off on me too.

This is a very nice site by the way.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *