Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Poetry: The Indispensable Art

The study of poetry is often seen as an archaic nicety, a cultural duty, or (in a utilitarian sense) as something merely psychologically helpful. By these models, those who practice or read poetry are encouraged to see themselves as either upholding a civilization against the barbaric tendencies of ignorance, or as well balanced intellectuals, superior to those who don't read or practice poetry. This 'us vs. them' dynamic, while true enough in many of the secondary arguments surrounding poetry in American culture, aren't the main issue, so far as I can see--nor are they particularly interesting in how they relate to poetry itself.

The problem is this: Instead of discussing poetry, and promoting the art, we all too often get sidetracked into discussions of sociology, politics, or even economics--in other words, we get bogged down in the cultural trends surrounding poetry. Such arguments have value, and I don't seek to disparage them entirely--only to suggest that if poetry is to be properly understood, we must put those secondary issues aside for a moment and consider why the study of poetry is an essential human activity. 

Our current world is one in which human activity is subjugated, on a regular basis, to technological and economic interests. For the past generation or two, school music programs in the United States have tried to argue for the study of music in terms of greater student achievement in math and science. Setting aside the comparative wisdom of this argument, what it demonstrates at the very least is a utilitarian model at work: if the arts can boost our technological (and therefore economic and military) prowess, we feel justified in the public expenditure on such education. Thus we make music subservient, out of seeming necessity, to cultural factors that would likely have left both Palestrina and Charlie Parker (among many others) indifferent; we have left the study of an art for surrounding concerns. Does music have a value independent of how it can be used for economic purposes? And if we are asking this question of musical education, what is the situation of poetry, which is fraught with far more cultural baggage?

When studying classical music, it is impressive just how quickly cultural baggage will be jettisoned. Mozart isn't held very accountable for the racial or gender issues of his libretti, Wagner's anti-Semitism is routinely overlooked in music history courses dedicated to his music, and Richard Strauss's membership in the Nazi party seems, oddly, to have had no substantially negative effect on his performance history. Apologists have been quick to make the reductive argument that the "meaning of music is the music itself", banishing all ethical difficulties of the real world for a facile option to study the mathematical relationships between black dots on a page.

Regardless of whether this is an exercise in political shrewdness or self-lobotomy on the parts of musical scholars, it doesn't work so easily for poetry. E.E. Cummings never belonged to the Nazi party, nor was he Hitler's favorite (as Wagner was), but he did explicitly write enough vile anti-Jewish words to make his formal admirers uncomfortable. Ezra Pound's fascist leanings, likewise, bar him from full entry into the esteem of the avant garde critics most inclined to praise him. John Milton's place as a giant was marred for centuries for his revolutionary, regicidal biography. Ironically, when it finally became the vogue to be a regicidal revolutionary, he was marginalized for his puritanical religious beliefs. It's a testimony to the thunder of his verse that he is remembered at all--but he is not easy to discuss: his verse comes with a lot of baggage.

Books, courses, conversations, and blogs could be filled to no end with the permutations of this way of thinking. PhDs are granted in literature routinely for arguments never leaving this cultural sphere. But of greater importance, to my way of thinking, is the essential nature of poetry as fundamental to how human beings relate to the world, the people around them, and to their own experiences.

The poetic function is foundational--studying the other arts is perhaps the first, easiest way to demonstrate. Architects, for example, talk about the "rhythm" of a building. At first, this might seem simply the interaction of music and architecture, but note that it is poetic thought which bridges the two: any person who uses the term "rhythm" to describe something which is not temporally performed, is engaging in a rather abstract metaphor. In other words, exercising the poetic function of the imagination is essential to even understanding what was said.

Go to any orchestra rehearsal, and you'll hear a constant stream of poetic references: synesthetic directions given by the conductor to the players. Music will be likened to emotions, colors, historical events, spiritual abstractions, psychological conditions: metaphor, allegory, symbolism will all be employed, relentlessly, for hours. It is essential for musicians to speak poetically to one another (even if they don't recognize it as poetic), just to get a piece together well enough to perform.

Politicians routinely use poetic devices, even or especially when trying to manipulate a voting public. Those refusing to study poetics will be far more at the mercy of poetic eloquence than those who can decipher the history of political ideas, expressed in metaphor, allusion, and their rhyming throughout history. It's helpful, for example, if an American public is aware that terms like "optimism","hope", "exceptionalism", and even "right" are used symbolically, metaphorically, and have a long poetic history in our discourse. The more one has prepared themselves poetically, the better their chances of making free decisions.

There is a poetic to business, a poetic to corporate lingo, a poetic to sports, a poetic of physics and chemistry (without which they couldn't be taught), and even a poetic of personal memory. Like it or not, poetry and the devices of poetry constitute an important means by which we communicate on a regular basis. And the best way to develop this essential human faculty is to read, recite, study, and even compose poetry itself. Far more than preserving anyone's idea of an ideal culture (which generally only serves a perpetual argument about which poet is better than which), this understanding and exercise of the poetic imagination has the capacity to empower free, self-aware, and thoughtful people, able to relate to themselves, others, the natural world, and history in a way that no other discipline can prepare them. In a day and age where great literature is more available to a general population than ever before; where a High School student with no asset but a library card can access, via Project Gutenberg, a vast library of great poetic thought, we are in a unique position. Provided we can avoid the pitfall of seeing poetry as primarily a device for exploitation of an audience, and so long as we can remember to set aside the political utilitarianism that always seems to creep into American discourse, we have a chance to do something important: promote a tool so basic to human thought that people have always utilized it as a means of exploring themselves and their existence.

Because poetry was cultivated so assiduously by the European aristocracy, Americans have tended to regard it with suspicion. "Fancy book learning" can seem the enemy of practical wisdom, and what is more fancy than an intricate poem? The trouble comes when ignorance of poetics makes it difficult for a person to function in this world, which is a great deal more profound than anything we might like to call "practical" (the very notion of "practicality" is often a misrepresentation of the reality of our situation as human beings). In short, whether we agree with Milton, Cummings, or Pound politically or theologically might not be the question: that we have exercised our poetic minds enough to dialogue with their art, and to experience it in some meaningful way, has the potential to empower us, or awaken us, to the miraculous lives we actually lead.

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