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Monday, February 27, 2017

The Thing That I Study

The thing that I study, poetry, is something that, for me, occupies the highest scale of value. In other words, it is valuable for its own sake, not because it props up something else more valuable than that. So the argument that reading poetry makes you a better citizen if fine. If you want to make that argument, go ahead, I think it is fine, though I might not agree (it would depend on how you frame it and how well you argue it.) But the fallacy here is that we need poetry to serve some other end before we accept is as valid, when actually poetry already occupies the highest tier, since it is a supreme exercise of the human intelligence and imagination. Citizenship is also a fine thing, one that occupies the highest tier as well, but it can do that with or without the support of any particular art form.

Once I realized that, I was able to devote myself more wholeheartedly to what I do. It doesn't matter to me much whether other people share this high estimation of poetry. Many won't. But when I am this enthusiastic then something rubs off on the students.


Thomas said...

What about the idea that poetry makes us "feel better", i.e., more accurately, i.e., hones our emotions to precision? I think something like this can be seen in Lisa Robertson's idea of a "prosody of the citizen", according to which poetry is the beginning of conviviality. To me this is so close to the essence of poetry that to value a poem for the emotional precision it affords me (not just the emotional precision it manifests) is really just to value it for its own sake. What Robertson (to my mind plausibly) argues is that this is also the essence of citizenship.

"To really love literature is to love how it rewrites your subjectivity," you have said, "how it kicks your ass with its transformative power." We find it in the lyric's moment of apperception, when it shows me where I am and who I can become. (Think of Rilke's "You must change your life!") We find it also in the epic's historical moment, when it shows us who we are are and where we are heading. Good writing, said Pound, keeps the language efficient. A poem, he said, "provides data for ethics". Again, I'm happy to say that these all these functions (providing data, kicking ass) are so essential to literature that to value poetry for carrying them out is to value poetry "for its own sake". But it does suggest putting it to some sort of "civic" use, doesn't it?

Jonathan said...

That is a beautiful ideological fantasy, but poetry couldn't even make Pound and Rilke good citizens. In other words, this notion of the poem has to be shared by enough people, but in actuality even the avant-garde poetic community of which Lisa and I are members is too fractured.

These poetic functions are intrinsic to poetry, and whatever you find them to be is great. I had in mind cruder arguments than yours about studying humanities to create better workers or citizens (Nussbaum.).

Thomas said...

I like that way of putting it. Robertson is, in fact, my "ideological fantasy". In my utopia, the technocrats are directed by her melancholy.