Response to Madonna’s thoughts about poetry

December 5, 2010

When we had our discussion a few weeks ago about what the definition of poetry should be, I became a little bit frustrated. I don’t think I necessarily have the words to describe, without leaving loopholes, what poetry is, but I balk at the idea of attempting that kind of summary, simply because people tend to poke holes in things with unsound definitions and reasoning. When I heard what Madonna had to say in class/read what she wrote on the blog, it seemed to me that she felt similarly: poetry is not something that really has a definition. She goes further and says that poetry is all around us, and even attempting to put all this gloriousness into words is useless because we don’t ever quite capture what life itself has already done.

But, when I think about it, I don’t like that idea at all. It is vague and abstract, and I’m frustrated by that. To say that poetry is an “elusive thing” is avoiding the question of what poetry is, and saying that people can’t write poetry is patently untrue. Great writers create work that resonates with us, and we have read plenty of it in Contemporary Poetry this semester. Certainly, poetry can’t completely capture sunsets, or a really brilliant view, or the concept of loss,  but nothing does. Looking at a sunset or mountains makes us feel a certain way, as does losing something or someone. We use language to gesture toward these experiences, not to recreate them in totality. The distance between what the poet sees/experiences and the reader is bridged by the poem itself when the reader interprets it. We bring our own thoughts and feelings to bear on a work and go from there. Some poems won’t mean anything to you, but others will be special because those poems say things that you truly understand, not just in an, “Oh, I get that” kind of way. There is a wildly famous and over-quoted part of the play The History Boys by Alan Bennett where the teacher, Hector, explains that “The best moments in reading are when you come across something – a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things – that you’d thought special, particular to you. And here it is, set down by someone else, a person you’ve never met, maybe even someone long dead. And it’s as if a hand has come out, and taken yours.” I don’t even think it has to be something that you think is “particular to you,” just something that you know and feel and understand.

I think we reduce the act of writing poetry, or writing things in general, if we try to expand the definition of poetry to be anything beautiful or wonderful in the world. I don’t think poetry is a symbol: it’s an attempt to capture some part of the human experience in such a way that it strikes a chord in another person, yes, but it becomes its own object, like Kristin said in her comment under Debbi’s post. I still think poets are trying to capture something, be it a feeling or an experience or an image, but like I said, they’re not trying to make you feel the same way you did when you saw that really great sunset or whatever. The importance is not the recreation of an image, but the connection between the reader and the poet through the poem, the hand reaching out and taking yours.

(These are some pretty unfinished thoughts, so please bear with me.)

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I know we aren’t reading Heaney, but…

September 5, 2010

Here is a link to an intriguing review of Seamus Heaney’s most recent collection of poetry, Human Chain. The reviewer, Nick Laird, writes:

Human Chain is stranger – and much greater – than a cursory glance would suggest. Though here, as expected, are exquisitely turned poems about rural events and childhood incidents, the collection also revisits (and sometimes redirects) earlier work, and there is a chilly, other-worldly aura hanging over the whole enterprise.”

Along with some dreamy, vaguely hero-worshipful criticism (the kind Gioia might vomit over), there are some pretty intense spoilers in the review: there are excerpts from four or five different poems, intriguing enough to pique my interest, but short enough to irritate. I suppose copywright laws prevent full texts of the poems from being posted in The Telegraph, but extracting what are ostensibly the best bits and telling readers about how great they are seems tantamount to saying, “Oh, you want to read this book? Well, _____ dies.”

Anyway, Laird’s point seems to be that if you are allergic to “passages of enormous lyric power,” you probably shouldn’t read any Heaney, especially not Human Chain. The book comes out in the U.S. on September 14th, and, like a big nerd, I have already pre-ordered it.

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On the Relevance of Poetry

September 1, 2010

I must admit that I am deeply moved by the arguments posited in Adrienne Rich’s What I Found There. Rich reminds us to be careful what we wish for. While many poets, today, lament the perceived impotence of poetic forms, most would probably not feel comfortable in a society where writing poetry could lead to internment in prison or a mental hospital, and even death. And yet, this is the price some have paid, for popularity among the common public, in non-democratic societies.

Dana Gioia argues in his essay, Can Poetry Matter?, that the very freedoms of which we are so proud, (Those that enable free trade and relatively free speech, without fear of reprisal) are at least partially responsible for the public’s loss of interest in poetry. He points to the political and economic climate, referring to the close involvement of academia and the rewards system that permeates the university.   He goes on to blame the close subculture of poetry, mentioning among other things, loss of the critics’ voice.

I do not, however, believe that academia is solely to blame for poetry’s downfall, but that the decline is more closely linked to Adrienne Rich’s argument. As a group, American’s are spoiled. Although, we can say what we like without fear of reprisal, we have lost sight of just how precious that right is. Likewise, as Gioia suggests, we take our poetry and our critic’s voice for granted. Rather than say and print that which is necessary we succumb to the free market pressures of our society, leaving behind a wreckage of barely recognizable self- congratulatory propaganda.

Which leads to Rich’s most important arguments, “We must use what we have to invent what we desire” (215). “A revolutionary poem will not tell you who or when to kill … It reminds you … where and when and how you are living and might live __ it is a wick of desire. .. A revolutionary poem is written out of one individual’s confrontation with her/his own longings … in the belief that its readers … deserve an art as complex, as open to contradictions as themselves” (241). This desire, then, to create a complex and contradictory art that relates common humanity is what will continue to hold poetry in a place of relevance within society and within the hearts and minds of its readers, despite any monetary value, large or small, that our free-trade economy chooses to place upon it, now or at anytime in the future.

Works Cited
Gioia, Dana. Can Poetry Matter? Essays on Poetry and American Culture. Saint Paul: Graywolf, 1992. 1-21.

Rich, Adrienne. What I found There: Notebooks on Poetry and Politics. NV: ww.Norton, 1993.
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