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.



Poetry, Ambiguity and Puns

Recently — I think I was reading Laura Riding’s poetry — it occurred to me that one of the things that appealed to me the most about poetry was its ambiguity. But: there’s a question about what the word “ambiguity” itself means. Suppose I claim that a poetic passage is ambiguous: I could mean either that its meaning is so vague as to spark nothing more than a cloud of associations in my mind, or that there are two (or, in rare cases, more) definite referents, either of which could be meant, without much mixing between those meanings.

The latter case, I’d say, is typified by the pun, which — especially if it’s embedded in a larger piece of writing — is a type of play with language that I find very honorable. Far from being “the lowest form of wit”, the pun means to me a form of humor that easily pushes away the temptation to mock anything, and results in a laughter of, instead of cruelty, delight at the coincidence it exposes. I also find the use of puns very valuable to me in my own poetry (example: “Before I went off to Wall Street to study the ways of the Dow”). They’re great for packing as much meaning as possible into a short passage, and also for “exposing” connections between things, perhaps on a subconscious level — such connections being, I would say, one of poetry’s important hallmarks.

The pun is also clean in another way: the ambiguity it produces is itself unambiguous. There exist a definite, small number of references each pun can point to. Those afraid of becoming too unmoored from meaning can still relax at the sight of a pun. One could even say that what a pun means is its exact multiplicity of meanings. And, therefore, complete ambiguity cannot be achieved by a pun.

The type of ambiguity that is itself ambiguous — whose set of possible references is itself open to interpretation — may, I think, be often denied, with respect to either its poetic value or its credentials as passable writing at all. But, I think it’s of immense worth to poetry. Otherwise, for example, what do we make of something like Wallace Stevens’ “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird”, one of my favorite poems:

Icicles filled the long window
With barbaric glass.
The shadow of the blackbird
Crossed it, to and fro.
The mood
Traced in the shadow
An indecipherable cause.

… Soon, too, after realizing that what one of the things that appealed to me most about poetry was its ambiguity, an inversion of the thought struck me with a kind of horror: maybe one of the things that appeals to me the most about ambiguity is its poetry. Horror because, if ambiguity is primarily a feature of poetry, well, then (following Laura Riding herself), poetry doesn’t really model the world. Riding, who gave up poetry as an art and a career when she was in her thirties, insisted that poetry’s aim towards aesthetic surfaces waived any claim it had to truth.

Yet, I still think that I believe the many poetry fans who must still be out there, who (sagely nodding) understand that there in fact is truth in poetry. Here are the stakes as I see them, then: does the ambiguity that I find so important to poetry itself form part of that truth? Or, to put it another way: is ambiguity a feature of the world?

Poetry, Up Against Philosophy

Last Sunday, at my poetry-reading group, I read an excerpt from G. K. Chesterton’s Ballad of the White Horse, his epic-style poem about the ninth-century English King Alfred’s repulsion of a Viking invasion.  I read what I found to be the most moving part in the entire poem: the song of the villain, the Viking King Guthrum.  It begins:

He took the great harp wearily,
Even Guthrum of the Danes,
With wide eyes bright as the one long day
On the long polar plains.

For he sang of a wheel returning,
And the mire trod back to mire,
And how red hells and golden heavens
Are castles in the fire.

“It is good to sit where the good tales go,
To sit as our fathers sat;
But the hour shall come after his youth,
When a man shall know not tales but truth,
And his heart fail thereat.

“When he shall read what is written
So plain in clouds and clods,
When he shall hunger without hope
Even for evil gods.

“For this is a heavy matter,
And the truth is cold to tell;
Do we not know, have we not heard,
The soul is like a lost bird,
The body a broken shell….”

It’s a stunning expression of a pessimistic philosophy.  Not that I would call myself a pessimist — and, part of the pleasure in reading this section was knowing that Alfred himself, who has come into the Viking camp anonymously as a minstrel, would soon rebut it with his own song — but, the actual rebuttal I found disappointing after imagining what a potential rebuttal might consist of; and Guthrum’s song remains my emotional high point of Chesterton’s Ballad.

It also reminds me a bit of W. H. Auden’s “As I Walked Out One Evening”:

But all the clocks in the city
Began to whirr and chime:
“O let not Time deceive you,
You cannot conquer Time.

“In the burrows of the Nightmare
Where Justice naked is,
Time watches from the shadow
And coughs when you would kiss.

“In headaches and in worry
Vaguely life leaks away,
And Time will have his fancy
To-morrow or to-day….”

Auden’s stanzas, and many of Chesterton’s, are in the classic form of a ballad: the so-called common meter, rhyming ABCB.  And there’s a reason, too, why “ballad” is a word applied to songs as well as to poems: this type of thing sticks in your head.

Here’s my point: Chesterton and Auden reach me with their pessimistic philosophy in a way that a mere exposition of such a philosophy wouldn’t.  Now, this reach doesn’t actually consist of making me think pessimistically about life: instead, it’s poignant.  But, the lines of their pessimistic philosophy are ones I already know by heart.  Guthrum and Auden’s clocks sing a well-known song, make it beautiful, and make it ring in your head.  Philosophy is the preparation: with these ballads, you live with what the philosophy is saying — encapsulated as an element in your life.

Is it too much to say the same for all poetry?  Even though it often wants to introduce philosophical ideas to its audience, I don’t think poetry is nearly as good at it as philosophy itself is.  In poetry, things are more relative: we have to deal not only with the meaning of the words themselves, but with the meaning of the fact that the poet is saying these particular words, which, I find, often offsets the literal meaning.  If you want to take a position and mean it, you’re better off with philosophy.  And, as someone who so often thinks the structure of one’s internal ideas determines one’s life, well, that’s pretty important.  What does poetry have to give, instead, up against philosophy?

And, let me argue exactly this: that it makes philosophy itself stick in your head.  It takes the elements of a familiar philosophy and translates them into an earworm, or, if not literally, at least a mind-worm.  And, it can make the dourest of philosophies beautiful.

And what’s a poem, anyway?

… It’s something that’s been a contentious topic at times for the poetry-reading group I’ve been a part of for over a decade now.  Is something someone brings to the group actually too prosy to be a poem; does it in fact not qualify, even if it might be a good work of literature, as a good poem?  I struggle, too, with the joint pressures of poetry and philosophy for my own writerly ideas: if my first question is why I seem to fill up my writing time with poems instead of philosophical arguments, the followup tends to be why poetry can’t itself be as precise as philosophy, anyway.

Maybe the question of where the boundaries of poetry lie is especially relevant in this age of free verse; I suppose Alexander Pope, e.g., could in fact get away with his essays being counted simultaneously as poetry.  And, I’ve held the contention for a while that free verse has been the most significant development in the history of poetry.  But, maybe something that unites the poetry of today with that written pre-free verse is this: poetry, by very virtue of being the original form of literature, should count as the default form of literature.  And, it’s true: I’ve sometimes asked the question, in my poetry group, of: if this isn’t poetry, what else is it?  … Poetry, unlike any other form, can represent unbound trains of thought.  (And what’s an unbound train?  A train that runs without tracks?  Well now — isn’t that a miracle!)

… I suppose I count myself as unusual in that my own poetic development somewhat mirrors that of English, in that I began writing formal poems and only later branched out into the free verse I write most of my poems in now.  But, as I’ve become more comfortable with free verse in my own writing, I’ve simultaneously lost a facility with fiction.  Fiction… ah, now there’s an uncharted continent!  The interactions between characters… isn’t that just applied improvisations of thought into action, applied poetry?  Yet: it’s always the application that seems to drag me down…!!

A philosophical poem to kick things off!

There is always more to say….

Quid Est Veritas?

And after the magic’s been sifted through like a dream
curtain: what, again, is truth?
Father Time’s funky sibling clad in the hippest
shorts, tap-dancing ‘long a comet’s beard — you can’t catch
me!  O, it’s a long, long weekend by the mathematicians’ sea-
shore cave, and they’re ingenious with their pebbles
and sand-reckonings; let our Platonic Deity tenderly hand them
up to (well…) some heaven or other.  But Heaven holds no, holds
no enlightenment channel, and truth is Nirvana: Nirvana, the god
who vanishes.

Clouds are not spheres, quoth B. Mandelbrot, mountains are not cones.
So what the hell is a sphere or a cone in the first place?  The Greek
geometers were mystics, and so when they moved the earth,
it, obeying, brought forth factorial enslavements — while
two refugees, sick of time, fled to the Surreal as if
abstractions might dissolve their poison….

There is always more to say.  There
is always more to mean.  Awake
from a snuffly sleep and let the constituents of
the Art, which is your life, settle.  R. Fripp’s Lizard of
Kundalini energy dissolved into Discipline thereafter.  Mandelbrot,
at fractalism’s invention, had outlived the prescribed thoughtspan
of his kind by a decade or more.  What is truth?
It is the man who is before you.