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Friday, September 12, 2014

The purpose of a poem is to be wonderful

"The purpose of a poem is to be wonderful."

That's the statement that Andrew Gelman attributes to me (by implication, and as a summary of a post I wrote). Let's first assume that I agree that that sentence represents my views. I think it does, in fact. Let's break it down a little more.

Andrew thinks that this excludes other uses of poetry, so to speak, other purposes. I would think that in order to fulfill these other purposes, it first has to be a poem. In other words, it has to be that before it can do anything else. But does it have to be wonderful?

Obviously not. For example, there are lousy poems that fulfill other functions, and quite well. In fact, a propaganda poem is probably going to fulfill its purpose not so well if it is a wonderful poem.

So this leads us to a strange usage, in which we only want to call poems those that are "wonderful" as poems. Suppose I have a pencil case, but not a good one. You might say, "You call that a pencil case, that's not a pencil case, it's a piece of crap!." You would be wrong, because even bad examples of the category still belong to the category.

With poetry, though, the idea is that not every random utterance will be a poem, but that a poem will be language heightened in some way. Something has to be going on in the language for it to be called a poem. A poet might ironically write a poem that has nothing going on, to make a point. We call this "conceptual poetry," in fact. That is, to make a point about how it is no longer possible to write poems with a lot going on, rhythm, metaphors, etc... This conceptual poetry (or the branch of it that does this or similar things) does not disprove my contention that poetry is language where something interesting is going on. In fact, it proves my point, since it is making a meta-literary point based parasitically on the more traditional definition.

A math professor and I were talking about what he did last night, at a faculty reception. He said he counted stuff. I'm sure it's more technical than that, but basically he told me that his branch of mathematics involved counting things and comparing results, looking for patterns.

So, to be super non-technical here, the study of poetry is the study of "what's going on" in the language of poetry. How it communicates emotion, meaning, how it is structured, etc... The purpose of the poem is to be a poem, wonderful or not, and then also do whatever else any poet or reader wants it to do, like change the world, or win the heart of a lover. Since language is used for many other purposes, then it follows logically that we want poetry to do something extra special, not covered by those other uses.

There's an implicit Poundian ethos in this viewpoint. What I mean is that Pound said that poetry was language charged with meaning. Language + some heightened or improved elements. We are all Poundians, in that everyone more or less agrees that interesting rhythmic structures, or concrete images, etc.. provide the shortest route to making a poem wonderful. It seems like Andrew, whose blog I greatly admire by the way, shares this ethos, because he is able to find these poems mediocre in a similar way as I do, pointing to clichéd language, for example. I don't particularly care if anyone agrees with my particular judgments about poems or poets, since those judgments will always vary anyway.

A poem that's not wonderful is still a poem trying to be more wonderful than it in fact is. When we read a bad or mediocre poem we want it to be better than it is, more fitting with what the purpose of the poem might be. It's no different from what the purpose of an Eric Clapton guitar solo is. It's purpose is to be a great solo, right? Or do we want to say that it's purpose is to fill up 16 measures?


Thomas said...

I'm trying to understand how the formula "The purpose of X is to be wonderful" applies in some special way to poems. Surely the purpose of everything we make is to be a "wonderful" exemplar of it.

Jonathan said...

A key opens a door. It doesn't have to be wonderful beyond that. Suppose keys did not open doors. Then they would not be keys, but we could ask what they are for. Or I could have a key collection without thinking of what doors they might open. Then I would have to think about what makes them wonderful or worthy for my collection.

Suppose I had a perfectly good key but I was dissatisfied with it. I might have troubles making myself understood. You would first ask me if it worked. I say yes. So is the texture wrong, the size of the part that doesn't go in the door. No, nothing is really wrong with it, it's just not "wonderful." I can''t balance it on a table. You shake your head in despair. Who the hell expects that out of a key?

Grognor said...

Keys can definitely be wonderful: http://steampunk-street.tumblr.com/post/63085533410/keypers-cove

I agree, though. Keys can be wonderful, but they don't have to be.

Thomas said...

@Jonanthan: But are you saying that the purpose of a poem is to be wonderful because there's nothing like "the purpose of a key is to unlock a door" when it comes to poems? I guess that's sort of the implication of your old Bemsha Swing epigraph: "The very existence of poetry should make us laugh. What is it all about? What is it for?" (Kenneth Koch)

I guess I'm less hip (if that's the right word) about the utility of poetry. The purpose of a poem is to make us feel better. When it does this well, of course, that's wonderful.

Jonathan said...

Well, it makes us feel better because of its wonderfulness. It could make also make us feel worse (we are jealous of the poet, it evokes bad memories) or evoke a whole host of reactions from us, of which "feeling better" is only one possibility. Its very existence is what evokes that feeling of awe in us. Only a wonderful poem can do that, it seems to me. A poem that doesn't evoke aesthetic awe cannot do this, so its functionality depends on its awesomeness, in a way different from other things. (but similar to paintings, pieces of music).

Thomas said...

Interesting. I think I object to this idea of being in awe and wonder of art. In my aesthetic, the awesomeness of art depends on its (aesthetic) functionality (i.e., its ability to make me better able to feel something, i.e., its rewriting of my subjectivity.) When a work of art does this to me, I'm in awe. But there are pieces of music and works of art that seem to ask me to stand there in wonderment at its awesomeness first. That rarely works for me. (With music, this happens sometimes in particular performances.)

Dominik Lukeš said...

This seems like a very constrained view of poetry. Heightened language, imagery, etc. Poetry always exists in context. The author's and the readers' intentions matter. A list of names in the right context can be a poem. So can a list of words simply rearranged in different ways.

Saying "something has to go on in the language" is kind of like criticizing a conceptual painting by saying that "a child could have painted it".

Some poetry is better read, some better performed, some sung, some drawn. Some is poetic because of its originality, other because of its connection to something else, or even repetition.

Poetry does not have to be anything. All it takes is one reader taking it with a poetic frame of mind. Poetry is not a thing. It's an act. It's an act of creation and recreation.

That does not mean that it could not be studied rigorously. But I have yet to see any such rigor on this blog. Just judgement.

Jonathan said...

I think my conception allows for anything to be going on, not any one specific thing or set of things. Conceptual poetry is just poetry where what is gong on is something at the metalinguistic level. In other words, the fact that "nothing is going on" is itself the point. But that is just parasitic on more traditional conceptions. Obviously found language can have something going on too, or deliberately bad poetry as in flarf. I am a veteran of many of those wars and know all about them. You have to come at me with better stuff than that.

el curioso impertinente said...

Le but de l’art est l’émotion artistique; la constitution des moyens la donne. ~ Max Jacob

Jonathan said...

Exactly right, Max Jacob.