an ars poetica

As a student of philosophy in the newly forming post-postmodernist epoch, it is hard not to question the purpose and value of writing poetry.  What “work” is my poetry attempting to do?  What work should it be doing?  Does it need to do any work at all?  Does its meaning reach beyond the bounds of my necessarily subjective authorial point of view?  Does it need to reach beyond those bounds to have meaning for me and a different, though no less significant, meaning for others?  These are the types of questions I run into.

I will admit my greatest fear as a poet to you: I am afraid that my poetry has no purpose outside of myself.  In asking these philosophical questions about the purpose and meaning of poetry, I am struggling with the possibility that while the act of writing poetry may have great personal significance for me, the poems themselves, when sent out into the world, do nothing.  I am afraid that the beauty, complexity, and the deep emotional resonance in my poems exists only for me, the poet.  And it may be that as I age and change, the poems of my adolescence will lose their meaning, even for me, and simply become empty words put together by a naive teenager who thought they sounded good.

I am afraid, then, of an inability to reveal and explore certain universal, timeless, and essentially human themes in and through poetry.  Postmodernists tell me that such themes do not exist.  They tell me that every experience is inevitably subjective, relative, hemmed in by the bounds of its time and place.  “God is dead;” grand overarching themes that give our lives a sense of direction and purpose have been shot down; the gun is in the hands of Foucault and his contemporaries.

Despite the force of the postmodernist argument, I cannot deny my feeling that there is something we all have in common as humans, something that cannot be written off as a product of imperialist western thought.  Shakespeare wrote of love, and challenged us: “If this be error and upon me proved, I never writ, nor no man ever loved.”  And has anyone proven the error yet?  Has anyone risen to proclaim, “No, Shakespeare, your conception of love and your portrayal of it in poetry does not speak to my own human experience.  You are in error.  I have never loved.  So be it!”  I repeat his challenge; let the man who has never loved speak now.

Poetry is a tuning fork.  The poet carefully constructs it so that, when the tines are struck, it rings out and gives sound to a true, clear note.  Within every human, there is an infinity of strings, stretched to their fullest extent, and we pluck them from time to time and let a music flow out of our being into the world, and when a poem is brought close to us and sounds its note, a part of us resonates and sings out, in tune with the poem.  Perhaps we do not all possess the same strings.  Perhaps we are all tuned differently.  But can I deny that the poems that I hold closest to myself are those that make me think, “I have known this feeling in myself, as this poet once did, and knowing our commonality, our shared humanity, makes this feeling all the more beautiful.  It makes my being sing”?  Can I deny this?  Never.

Kurt Vonnegut, one of my favorite authors, said in his novel, Timequake, that “a plausible mission of artists is to make people appreciate being alive at least a little bit.”  The best poetry does this.  It makes us aware of things that exist both outside of us and because of us, of things that make us human and that we as humans make.  These are the things that give our lives meaning; they let us know that there is more to our limited experiences than purely subjective knowledge.  We are a part of something greater than ourselves; poetry shows us this.  It sounds a chord within us that we cannot mute.


6 Responses

  1. I’ve felt love of life and the universe but I’ve never felt Shakespearean love for another person. I am speaking up as commanded.

    • The only possible explanation is that you are not human. I’m kidding, obviously, but I will admit that while the notion of universal human emotions and experiences is appealing and romantic, it is difficult to say that anything is truly universal, even love. I do think, though, that if we act as though nothing is universal and that we cannot draw any common bonds between disparate human individuals, we are not allowing ourselves to believe in something greater than ourselves and perhaps, in doing so, denying ourselves the greatest comfort we can have.

      • Can we not be unified by the very subjectivity of our experiences? Together in our inescapable aloneness?

  2. Davis Tower Kingsley may come forward in response to your challenge.

    • I did think of him as I was writing this, actually. Perhaps he is the exception that proves the rule?

  3. I would argue that not all poetry is ‘carefully constructed’. You can see that in the ease with which so much of it can be deconstructed. And if you were to read my poetry, or discuss my poetic process with me, this is also evident. However, your poetry (and your prose – this is beautiful and provocative) does not fail to resonate. Post-modern me still holds that its resonance with me personally (and anyone else who reads this gem of a tentative manifesto) is subjective, yes, but it exists (maybe subjectively…but existentially). “These are the things that give our lives meaning; they let us know that there is more to our limited experiences than purely subjective knowledge. We are a part of something greater than ourselves; poetry shows us this. It sounds a chord within us that we cannot mute.” Being part of something greater than ourselves begins with one person beyond our solitary self, with a communication. Poetry is communication, on a pure level, and if we want to be pragmatic, its meaning is in its use of communication. Language succeeds (to what extent we can debate, if you wish), and poetry is language. Even visual poetry, the poetry of the body, the poetry of the melodic form, has a semiotics, which can communicate. This is all to say, I may not always read your poems exactly as you intend them to mean for you, but I read them and they resonate frissons of meaning all through my heart and mind.

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