Friday, 11 March 2011

Is poetry inside language or beyond?

You might consider this a theorist's question, of no consequence to practising poets, but it raises issues which divide poets. What's at stake is whether poetry should gravitate towards that which makes language unique (poetry being intimately involved with the language it's written in), or whether poetry should strive to escape language ("in its works of literature, a language is pointing towards its own change and development, its own becoming" - Maurice Blanchot). Is poetry beautiful or sublime?

Poetry has been used for many purposes, and competes with other genres, each having its strengths. A musical major-to-minor key change can do what words might take pages to achieve. A few images from 9/11 have an impact that no poem can match (and besides, the readers will already have seen the images). We no longer use verse as Dante or Erasmus Darwin did to expound facts because illustrated prose has taken over. In an increasingly visual age, when sound and moving images are becoming as easy to transmit as the written word, language faces even greater challenges than hitherto. Nowadays, poetry goes down well at funerals but that's about it. Poetry has to cede territory, but on whose terms?

Some poetry has retreated to the citadel, to what poetry alone can do. It draws attention to its medium - the appearance or the sound of the words - or emphasises the difference between words and the world - how a small difference in a word can have a big difference in meaning. The engagement with language is part of the poetic effect, or even the main part. In Rialto 71 Nathan Hamilton writes: "it's my feeling that, unless the primary subject of a poem remains language (directly or indirectly) ... it is likely to appear naive or drift towards unexamined cliché" In so doing it risks gives up the ground where poetry can compete on equal terms with other genres.

There's also poetry that tries to make language transparent - Holub's perhaps, or some of Hughes' Birthday Letters. Sometimes the transparency is so that a voice or events can show through clearly. Sometimes (as in Pauline Stainer perhaps) the hope is that something other than the visible shows through. The poetry tries to leap the frontier, strives to express the inexpressible. Like prayers, spells and mantras, they propel readers beyond words.

Richard Jackson in "The Cortland Review" (Winter 2006) described these tendencies more generally. As Earl Wasserman writes in "The Subtler Language", what I have called an idea-driven poem "directs us as modestly as possible to something outside itself," while language-driven poetry is real poetry "in which reference values are assimilated into the constitutive act of language; its primary purpose is to trap us in itself as an independent reality."

Ostensibly these 2 options betray radically different degrees of trust in language, but there's some common ground. The roots of language are unclear, but ritual has involved the use of words from the earliest times. And however language emerged, it evolved from grunts, roars and hisses. So both these approaches could be said to point back into language's past. The difference is that ritual-based poetry not only tries to transcend language but also the material world.

When poets discuss future trends, their own future is never far from their thoughts. Many poets don't have a range of styles in their arsenal. In particular, wordplay poets and mystics tend not to interchange styles. Fortunately there's a third way of interpreting the situation - viewing the mystics as attempting to expand the resources of language. Arguably Wordsworth did so, creating a readership for his brand of poetry. By expanding the realms of poetry the Romantics also expanded the scope of language. Richard Jackson goes on to say the experience of poetry is the very process of poetry, the struggle of language to discover what is buried within itself rather than to simply report what happened to the poet or what he or she thought or felt. Poetry is a language of discovery and transformation, not simply of "witness." One of poetry's abiding preoccupations is where to draw the line between the word and world.

As an answer to the title's question this may look like moving the goalposts, but in this case readers are both the referee and the crowd, and after all, poetry's only a game.


  1. Poetry, essentially, is metaphor – say one thing and mean another – and metaphors can, of course, be visual too. I’ve always considered poetry as something amorphous and poems as an artificial construct that we have devised to contain an approximation of that experience. Even where the poetry contains no metaphors or clever techniques the fact is that the circuit is not completed until another person reads that poem and combines what you have written with what they have experienced resulting in an interpretation of the words: they read one thing and think something else. This is also how prose works too but to a much lesser extent being inclined to literal descriptions and factual accounts. So I guess I’m agreeing with Jackson.

  2. Nathan Hamilton's comment sums up the citadel attitude in a nutshell, and demonstrates why no one cares about that kind of poetry (except the people who do it). I wonder if Hamilton has complained that no one reads his poems, either.

    Ritual-based poetry, that transcends language in the end, is anathema to the LangPoets. So your third way, which has been there all along (and you might want to look at Robert Bly's essay "Leaping Poetry," which goes into some depth on this thesis), is something that is essential to poetry, but not very fashionable right now. As someone who, like the mystics, often tries to expand the resources of language, I usually run afoul of poetic fashion.

    I can agree with Jackson that "Poetry is a language of discovery and transformation," although I disagree about one thing: there is nothing simple about witness. It can in fact be close to the profoundest heart of poetry. Poetry is no game—saying that puts everything else you say into question—in fact it's necessary to life, because it gives one way of figuring it all out.

  3. Jim: "So I guess I’m agreeing with Jackson" - me too, but sadly I agree with the other comments as well. I think the move towards language-involvement and the move towards transparency can both be viewed as movements towards a form of "pure poetry". It depends on which school of poets you belong to. As a reader I wouldn't like to stick to one school.

    Art: "there is nothing simple about witness" - agreed. What's rather harder I suppose is critiquing it, evaluating it, marking essays about it.

    Art: "Poetry is no game" - It often is for me. Sorry about that. In my defense I'd mention Wittgenstein's "language games" and Goethe's "True art can only spring from the intimate linking of the serious and the playful"

  4. Oh, you meant PLAY. Well, that's very different. (He says in his worst Emily Littella imitation.) :)

    I completely agree about playfulness, and that play is a necessary component in all the arts. I also would add improvisation, which some view as a form of play. I view improv a little more technically, but that's my jazz and classical music background speaking.

    I view improv for me, as both composer and poet, as a foundational element, a necessary (for me) part of the creative process. A lot of what I end up with starts as improv, in one form or another. There are almost always elements of improv in every artwork I produce. The playful mind is an open mind; Goethe was right.