Thursday, May 12, 2011

AN AMATEUR DEFENSE OF POETRY


What follows has no footnotes, no scholarly apparatus. Just my own faulty memory and groundless, amateur speculations.

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When did poets begin writing "defenses"? My guess is that Philip Sidney's was one of the first, in Elizabethan England, around 1600. The Renaissance (or post-Renaissance) was in full swing, the Reformation was underway, the Enlightenment would be arriving soon. The Middle Age of faith was giving way to the Modern Age of reason & science. Prose was splitting off from poetry. Prose leaned toward facts, practical utility, rational argument, scientific evidence and explanation. Poetry leaned toward Art & Beauty (in caps), toward the emotional life, the life of the spirit, toward everything that could not be quantified & examined with objective detachment. The "defensive" stance, signaled by essays like Sidney's, represented a reaction against new pressures brought to bear on the traditional role of the poet-as-seer, as bearer and enunciator of ancient & communal knowledge - an immediate kind of understanding, outside the frameworks of rational argument or scientific proof. & I would say the division, the polarization, between the rational & the poetic approaches came to a head, was crystallized, in the shift from the discursive rationalism of the Restoration poets, to the imaginative vision of the Romantics (epitomized & defended perhaps most stoutly by Coleridge & Blake, with some help from Wordsworth).

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But why does any of this matter now? The Romantics were a long time ago. Modern and Postmodern thought found other & seemingly more relevant ways to challenge any simplistic versions of rationalism or scientific positivism. But perhaps that is the crux of the problem. Poets have relinquished the debate to philosophers, physicists, biologists, commentators, theologians... to everybody except poets themselves. A defense, then, would have to involve a re-assertion, a new expression, of the cultural-intellectual authority of poetry. & poets themselves are variegated into all sorts of distinct groupings based on style, or on poetic theory, or by specific ethnic-cultural-historical-linguistic identifications. Often it is claimed that there is no such thing as poetry, only poetries. An intellectual defense such as I am suggesting, then, sounds like a tall order.

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There will be no "return to Romanticism." But there might possibly be a return to something more venerable than the Romantics : a sense of poetry as matrix of cultural understanding, as source of vision. It seems to me that there are ways to step tentatively in this direction, from various points on the circumference. So here I will toss around a few hunches in that regard.

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We could start by thinking of poetry as a kind of living monument or textual distillation of a culture's language. This is not a popular notion in these times. The focus today is on the immediacy of vernacular engagement : people find odious the idea of poetry as a kind of textual crypt of language. Yet something in the back of the mind nags every real poet like a guilty conscience : the language we speak is objectively beautiful; thus poetry ought to build lasting containers, expressions, exemplifications, of that language. Poetry ought to seek both the exquisite & the necessary - the best verbal equivalents of both experience & thought.

But to accept that challenge is to be confronted with considerably difficult consequences : for it means that new (or perhaps old) thematic demands are applied to poets & poetry. The "beauty of language" is not just sound-music, not just elegant wit & ornamentation. There is also the profound dimension of meaning & thought - forsaking which, poetry has already relinquished any claim to cultural authority.

To meet these demands, however, poetry brings to bear some surprising strengths. Because a poem is a kind of playful, seemingly-purposeless end-in-itself, it is capable of modeling the ends of things : forms, shapes, distinct entities, in their particularity, their integrity, their wholeness : in their identity as ends. The integrity, the self-fulfillment of things is echoed, modeled, sanctioned by the harmonious, inherent integrity of poems. This is a specific kind of verbal modeling (Aristotle called it mimesis) which is peculiar to poetry.

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For Blake & Coleridge, Wordsworth & Whitman, Keats & Dickinson & others, poems are the verbal distillation of human acts of imagination. Imagination is a specific faculty, a power of the human mind : essentially a power of invention & synthesis. The human power of invention is likened (especially by Coleridge) to a supernatural creative Power (the origin of reality itself, as a cosmic whole, in the divine "I Am"). The problem that these Romantics had with the rationalism of the Enlightenment (Voltaire, Rousseau, Locke, et al.) was what seemed to them a split between mind & heart, mind & soul, mind & spirit - between the reasoning, analyzing, abstracting mind, & the inspired imagination - its "sacred" representations of the whole of life, of life as wholeness.

The modern development of free-standing scientific rationalism, as the centerpiece of human thought meant the inevitable sidelining of the imagination, and hence of the purpose of poetry and the role of the poet. These are, of course, far from new ideas! But I think they represent the fundamental cause for the essentially ornamental & trivial social status of poetry in the contemporary world. It is, in sum, a question of two things : 1) the growing alienation of poets themselves from a sense of poetry as a distillation of the best (most memorable) language of their culture; and 2) the historical shift from imaginative (verbal) modeling of truth, to its rational analysis & (mathematical) verifications.

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Is it possible today to counter these two trends - to rebuild, in a new mode, some of the intellectual confidence of, say, a Blake or a Coleridge? Many poets, in very distinct ways, have certainly made the effort. My own sense is that there is no method, no workable approach built on rational discourse or stubborn will-power. I think back, rather, to Wallace Stevens' notion, expressed in many of his poems & prose "adagia", that individual written poems are merely traces of something larger, more pervasive - some "poetry" inherent in the marrow of life itself. Poetry is thus some kind of basic aspect of "nature" or of the human, which comes to the fore by its own power - the faculty of imagination somewhat in Coleridge's sense. The human mind synthesizes experience - its ultimate or "authorized" expression - not in discursive prose tracts nor in mathematical formulae - but in poetic invention, the insight of the human imagination, the vision of the whole. The All (though of course poetry, being pervasive, is also visible, lurking, active, in prose & science & mathematics too).

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& I predict that as historians, anthropologists, archaeologists & scientists persist in digging through the deep layers of human origins and the history of the planet, they will discover more & more evidence of the imaginative leaps of the human mind, which have emerged even in prehistory, to visualize & foresee amazing, "incredible" phenomena of the future (the vast, galactic, cosmic future), which we today find difficult to conceive or conceptualize.

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