The Elusive Function of Poetry

I’ve been reading poet Gary Snyder’s book The Real Work: Interviews and Talks 1964-1979.  In the interviews and talks, Snyder puts up such a coherent worldview concerning aesthetics and, indeed, how to live, that I find it amazing, sometimes while reading, that poetry fits into his life at all.  Indeed, in one of the interviews, Snyder is asked, “As you see it, what is the function of poetry?” Snyder responds:

You ask me what is the function of poetry so I think, “What is the function of poetry since 40,000 years ago?’ In all cultures of the world — total planetary overview.  And in that sense the function of poetry is not only the intensification and clarification of the implicit potentials of the language, which means a sharpening, a bringing of more delight to the normal functions of language and maybe making language even work better since communication is what it’s about.  But on another level poetry is intimately linked to any culture’s fundamental worldview, body of lore, which is its myth base, its symbol base, and the source of much of its values — that myth-lore foundation that underlies any society.

One thing I do appreciate about this answer is that it’s descriptive rather than prescriptive — that, when asked what the function of poetry is, Snyder’s impulse is basically to say, “Well, let’s look at what its function has in fact been.” And, one can indeed imagine that for most of the history of poetry, poetry has fulfilled the functions that Snyder lists.

But, one question that Snyder seems to dodge with this answer is that of what the function of poetry might be today — a question about which I have long wracked my brains.  If the answer is still to be that it is “linked to any culture’s… myth base, its symbol base, and the source of much of its values”, I find that answer lacking with regard to a culture whose poets are, for the most part, individuals committed to individual expression, competing with each other, whether they like it or no, for people’s money, time and attention.  I’m all in favor of individual expression, mind — just not the competitive aspect that always seems to follow.  The idea that the symbol base of our society should depend on who wins out in this competition not only is rather abhorrent to my sensibility, but also fails to even answer the question of what the poetry that doesn’t win out, that doesn’t manage to link itself to this symbol base, is for.

I’ve realized recently, I think, reading over much of my own poetry at the same time as reading through The Real Work, that for much of my own history of writing poetry, I’ve found in it a way to create or intensify a community, believing that through poetry, the deepest and most interior voices of individuals come out and can be shared.  (That doesn’t even necessarily mean that my favorite poetry is “lyric”, confessional poetry; instead, I would say that each person’s own decision about what to put forth as poetry is itself a function of what they deeply care about, in itself a self-expression.) This has held true for the high school class in which I first got to love poetry, for the open-mic scene I was involved with for a few years, and for the current poetry reading group I’m a part of.  But, I think, there’s a problem with that too, which is that it doesn’t seem to imply anything about poetry’s being necessary.  In the world we live in, in which some of the most ambitious and far-reaching self-help programs around find their way into the business section of the bookstore, ways of creating community that have nothing to do with sharing interior voices are at least as valued, if not more; and, I would be a snob to say they were less real.

What I want to propose instead is Snyder’s first function of poetry, which he almost appears to skim over: “intensification and clarification of the implicit potentials of the language, which means a sharpening, a bringing of more delight to the normal functions of language and maybe making language even work better”.  This, I think, is a better argument for the continuance of poetry, as long as language forms the basis of our interactions.  In an earlier entry in this blog, I wrote that “poetry, by very virtue of being the original form of literature, should count as the default form of literature” — literature whose atoms are mere words, not the characters or plots whose internal consistencies are such an overarching worry in the construction of other forms.  The structure of a poem is allowed to unfold from the words themselves.  The enhancement of the normal use of language thereafter seems like a natural thing.

Sometimes, thinking about the best poems I heard on the open-mic scene that decade or more ago, I think of them in these terms: these poems created a weavery of language that could, at its most transcendent, momentarily take the place of the society that I found myself so confined in, with its ploddingly uniform value systems and no forward motion.  But, that weavery of language isn’t sustainable in anything close to the long run.  Like Joseph Cambpell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces, we need to seize the linguistic treasure of the poetic otherworld, and bring it back into this world.  It just might be that the cultivation of poetry as a skill into the future depends on that retrieval.



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