The poetic question

Whoever wants to become a Christian must first become a poet. That’s what it is! You must suffer. You must love and suffer–suffer for the one you love.

Holy Elder Porphyrios

What a subject to write upon; it is difficult to even know where to begin. There is no doubt that most people believe – rightly or wrongly – that poetry is pretty much dead. Now, I don’t think I can definitively agree or disagree with this opinion, and not because I have no opinion on the matter, but rather, far too many for a simple assent or denial.

The problem is simple: no great poet has arisen in our generation, or at least, none that we know of. We cannot tell the difference between the Great One laboring in obscurity and the Great One having been aborted as a fetus when his erstwhile mother was a co-ed at Berkeley. Our lack of knowledge is an impenetrable wall, but not for lack of information. Certainly there are thousands writing poetry, if not millions… and how many would love to vie for the title reserved for Dante or Virgil? It may just be that there is a lull, since every generation is not equally blessed in any department.

But furthermore, most people feel alienated from poetry itself; not that we cannot find a poem we like or a poet we like — but rather, what seems to be thought worthy of being poetry – say, not that rhyming stuff – is to most of us academic, almost purely intellectual, ‘revolutionarily conservative‘, or even obscene or objectionable in content, and us with no real good argument that ‘this isn’t what poetry should be’, other than our own lying philistine eyes.

Hadley Bennett asked me if I ought not to write on restoring poetry, how to think about poetry, whom to read, and so forth. But what I have ended up writing on is the question – the Poetic Question – why should we not dispose with poetry altogether? This is the sort of way one should think about the subject, but let us not think about why that is just yet.

My own question that sparked such a response was wondering where the reactionary – or at least, neo-reactionary – poets were. Among the new reactionaries I know of, many are highly talented verbally, disproportionately so. But no poets! It is a question I ask from time to time.

My own ‘arrival’ at the art was accidental (it may be that poets, like bonus babies, are accidental) so it may be hard to seek a formula for restoration from reading the tea leaves of my activity. Thus, I have instead taken the faux-revolutionary stance of – What Shall Be Done With All of This Poetry!?

*****

You, that write, either follow tradition, or invent such fables as are congruous to themselves.

Horace, Ars Poetica

The root problem is this. In a sense, nobody knows what the heck poetry really is. It is vaguely defined as ‘the form of literary art that uses rhythm and aesthetic qualities of language to evoke additional layers of meaning’. This is of course a nonsense definition, since it is trying to define poetry only by what it does, not knowing, of course, what it is. In a sense though it is at least a somewhat useful definition, since it does tell you something about poetry, to wit, that it is a constructor of new meanings.

Given this, it would seem that poetry, being a constructor of new meanings, would be perfect for the eternal revolutionary, always seeking the novel, the avant garde, progress towards the future, and so on. But yet his poetry is utter dreck. The rub with our definition is that poetry is not free to create new meanings as it wills, but does so through aesthetics and rhythm, or more properly, through order. And as we know, order is exactly what the revolutionary ultimately opposes, for the freedom he desires is from all restrictions, and order front-loads restrictions in.

But about this order that poetry requires – it is aesthetic and rhythmic. Neither of these presupposes a moral order; we all know of a deceptive beauty, and of an intoxicating rhythm. Even within the confines of this order, yet still much evil could be done.

*****

A poem should not mean
But be.
Archibald Macleish, Ars Poetica

In my view, poetry is one of the fundamental modes of human thought. This is not to say that I necessarily believe everyone can or should be a poet by profession, though like our old culture had a conceit that all people should play musical instruments, it may be possible to have such a culture regarding poetry. It is not unfeasible in my view, not because I think everyone capable of great heights of complexity (far from it) – but because poetry is one of the modes of human thought, it has expressions ranging from the sublime to the mean.

The definition in the section above seems to imply – and perhaps disproportionately – that poetry is summed up as a ‘beautiful, rhythmical metaphor’. The generation of new, non-prosaic meanings is a side effect of poetry, in the same way that food is actually a side-effect of farming. It is possible, because of the necessity to eat, to get into planting things because the side effect of planting and watering is food, but creating food is not what the farmer does. Nor is ‘creating new, non-prosaic meanings’ what a poet does.

This of course explains the rash of revolutionary poets, since poetry is a way of ‘creating’ new meanings. There were also a lot of revolutionary artists, since propaganda requires art – painting, music, film, and so on. Poetry requires technique and thus may be viewed as an art, but as the counter-point to prose-writing (an art, but not ‘art proper’) it does not seem to fit the bill other than metaphorically (it is not an unqualified art, but is one by analogy.) One may make works of art that employ poetry, but poetry itself is not art. It is thought; it remains lexical, it is not a medium.

This view is, to my knowledge, mine alone. (There may be others that hold it, but I am ignorant of them as of this writing.)

*****

“If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.”

– Emily Dickinson

Back to our original question. We have already established that poetry attracts revolutionaries and is capable of great evil. Even if we feel that it has done more ill than good and needs to go, how would we then, get rid of poetry? It seems impossible, though it also seems we have already somewhat succeeded. If poetry is a natural form of thought in man, deform man enough and he will cease it. If a lion can be made to no longer roar, then man can also be made to cease production of verse.

It is incorrect to assume that the deadening of sentiment leads to the loss of poetry. Far from it, since generally the order is the opposite; poetry leading to sentiment and not the other way around. As a form of thought (and thus a function of language as well) poetry emerges as a response to experience, sentiment may thus then only be begrudgingly included as one of the things one may experience. Those who deaden their own sentiments can no wise assume they will evade poetic irruption. It will just be a non-sentimental poetic irruption.

And this is another important point about this form of thought. When a man sees an object, he may think to himself, “that is a cat, that is a ball, that is a Mercedes Benz S-Class.” Thus the experience leads to a thought, not invariably, but causally. Poetry begins where the space between prosaic, factual thoughts and experience diverge harshly. In short, when the cat is for some reason, not what you thought a cat was at all. Therefore, the ‘new meanings’ in poetry are not clearly created at all, but found.

Thus we can come up with a theory of how you could completely destroy poetry: to live in a perfectly explicable, predictable world. Let’s be honest; most of us may actually want this world in some fashion. We really want poetry dead, we just didn’t know it.

How would we do this, given our world’s penchant for defying our frail logic? Simply put: we do this by degrees when we do things to increase the predictability of our life. For instance, Air Conditioning. I’m not opposed to moving heat from the inside of buildings to the outside of buildings en masse, but it is worth noting that the goal of climate control is CONTROL. It is to render the climate in an area predictable.

This is not necessarily a bad thing, but with a passion for such solutions, one could step by step construct such a strong buffer as to remove the possibility of a poetic thought from forming.

*****

The chink of money, lure of love,
Will fill your straining ears,
And you will hear your own voice whisper,
“All is all as it appears.”

Gerard Van der Leun, Sleepwalking in the Narrow

Poetry of course requires reflection, so we can generate a second theory of how to get rid of it. Ensure men have no ability to reflect on the divergence of thought and experience.

This could be done a couple of ways; one is a return to nature, “red in tooth and claw”, where man has all of his time spent concentrating on survival. He would have no time to reflect on his own thoughts and experiences except to correct errors that may have nearly cost him his life.

Other systems where man does nothing but work and consume will also do, since what he next needs is always right in front of him, or never is, and so his time is spent in either ceaseless misery or elation. Reflection would be unnecessary or too painful; he would avoid it.

The possibility still exists, of course, that during sleep he might have some time for reflection. Suppress his dreams (perhaps he will do so willingly) and this will not be a problem anymore.

*****

To feel that waking is another dream
that dreams of not dreaming and that the death
we fear in our bones is the death
that every night we call a dream.

Borges, The Art of Poetry

I am of the opinion that the visionary form of dreams and poetry are connected. Since dreams do with memory what poetry does with language, it would seem that dreams are indeed in some way ‘the poetic mode of thinking’ itself.  Dreams are often confused with wishes, so we should be careful not to treat them sentimentally.

I one day dream to be an astronaut” is not a dream in the sense that I mean a dream. That dream is a wish, and that wish is in some sense therefore a vision, but it is a vision after a thought – a wish, (such as a plan) not vision-as-thought. If you fell asleep and dreamt you were on the moon as an adult, you would say, “I dreamt I would be an astronaut” – the vision is a priori, not constructed from the wish. Poetry is this sort of dream, then.

For my part, real poetic work started with examining photos and constructing strange metaphors for them in the form of a haiku. These ‘strange metaphors’ were not necessarily metaphors at all, sometimes they were just puns, odd observations, or really stupid jokes. The point however, was that by constraining myself to the haiku form (more or less; I was not at that point following all of the rules) the effect of simple structuring on the content became evident. Simply enforcing the form in a basic way was transforming the content.

This is to say, I began to experience the reason why poetry is structured (and why the proem is not good) – because its ‘unnecessary’ structure is what the poetry is – in the same way that the dream differs from the plain sight by the odd way in which it is experienced. The form and content are interrelated in a hard to define way.

To exemplify why this is so, we can take a metaphor and turn it into a poem. This could be considered one technique for writing poetry, as there are generally two writing approaches and they apply to poetry as well. (The first is the scrap approach and the second is the plan approach.) Let us see our metaphor.

“The dog looked like a missile. He was running quickly and his black nose was as pointed as a warhead.”

Obviously, not a great metaphor. But as it stands, it is not a poem, it is just a metaphor that creates a strange comparison: dogs and missiles.

Let us do some Haiku magic to it, currently under the hat, and get:

“A missile flying
Swift, black nose pointing ahead
The fetching dog goes.”

I did a lot of things there, and I can’t begin to talk about the properties of poetry which give rise to the arrangement I chose. Obviously, it is not a ‘vera icona‘ of the original metaphor, because like I said above, it’s not really just a pretty, rhythmic metaphor. The metaphor is merely one property of poetry; and since the haiku is so short, you can see a particular device (or two–) very clearly in it.

Generally the distinct property of poetry is therefore its quality of being a vision; but not a vision in the sense of a ‘sight’ but in the sense of a dream. Its weird recombination of parts does follow rules, rules which produce dreams of more striking and memorable (and meaningful) quality, but calling them ‘rules’ does not indicate that those who write poetry know these rules consciously. They infer them by writing what creates the effect inspired in them most powerfully.

This also explains the conflicting views of ‘what is poetry?’ or ‘how do you write poetry?’ or, in general, ‘ars poetica‘. The specific content of these word-dreams differs based on the thoughts AND the experiences of the poets.

The poem is trying, therefore, to somewhat re-create the poetic thought in the reader or hearer of the poem. Didactic poems are possible, as all knowledge is revelatory. There is the point of using certain memorable qualities in verses (such as rhyming) to teach, but these are not used without having an effect on the content itself. Done properly, one might have a didactic poem on say, gravity, which re-creates the internal reflection Newton had when he got drubbed by the apple.

However, the alteration of content required to fit a rhyme (and/or rhythm)  is itself part of the poetic process – it therefore renders a ditty about gravity slightly more visionary, even unintentionally:

“Newton sat and Newton thought under the apple tree
Though an apple hit his head, what he found was gravity.”

*****

Yet if hope has flown away
In a night, or in a day,
In a vision, or in none,
Is it therefore the less gone?
All that we see or seem
Is but a dream within a dream.
Edgar Allen Poe, A Dream Within A Dream

And maybe that is the best reason to be rid of poetry – it is the invasion of the waking world of dreamers, not dreamers as in people with wishes, but those who have visions rather than thinking thoughts.

Since the rules of the dream are, to the waking world of survival, duty, responsibility and progress, insane, how could this invasion of our world by dreams not be destructive?

Now, of course, the quickest way to be rid of poetry is to shoot all of the poets. Not with cameras, either; I, however, you may notice, am not recommending this method for obvious reasons.

I will continue in the next installment to speak more about this odious subject and its practitioners, that you may more fully understand why it must be done away with, for good.

That you sneeze out and blink and tear
O you who drink! Harken now here
When you sing love you spit out death
It tarries along with the spit in your breath
And sweats out thick from every pore
And does into each listener bore:
If only men loved! You spit with a sigh;
But what have you said but, Why don’t you die!?

E. Antony Gray, Spit

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