medium and meaning: an argument for poetry
August 2, 2011

I recently came across this article in the New York Times and wanted to share it.  In a sense, it is a defense of poetry.  And why does poetry need defending?  Because people are always asking why it is that what is said in a poem can’t be said more simply and clearly in another way.  Poetry is unclear and inaccessible, or so it would seem to many people.  And even philosophers and linguists ask (according to Ernie Lepore, the author of this article), “How do we figure out what a poem means if its words do not carry familiar learned meanings?”  So many of these cultured despisers (to borrow a term of Kierkegaard) of poetry seem to think that a poem can be turned in prose – translated and paraphrased into a more easily understandable summary.  Why not just say exactly what you mean, they all seem to ask.

The problem with asking most poets to answer this question is that they will go out and write a poem in response and leave the philosophers and linguists just as confused as before (perhaps I exaggerate, but you get the idea).  Lepore makes an appeal to the poetic authority of TS Eliot to answer this infuriating question that gets to the heart of why paraphrasing poetry defeats the purpose of poetry entirely.  Eliot was asked to interpret the line “Lady, three white leopards sat under a juniper tree in the cool of the day…” His response? “It means ‘Lady, three white leopards sat under a juniper tree in the cool of the day.”  The point here is that poets do say what they mean; a poem says something that can be said in no other way and through no other medium.

Poetry shows us the power of the medium itself – the very articulations and presentations of the words and the meanings attached to them.  These articulations themselves can take on meaning, and this extra layer of meaning would be lost in a translation to another form of language.  Lepore gives the example of italicization: this practice allows the poet to present a word in a manner that cannot be carried over into the medium of the spoken word.  The full force of the italicized word is only there when we can see the word on the page, untranslated.

All this is to say that some things can only be said with poetry (and that you should read this article).  In Lepore’s words, “it is…in and through a chosen medium that the poet intuits the object in the first place,” and if the medium of the poet’s intuition is poetry and is articulated in a poem, paraphrasing this expression of the poet’s intuition through the use of a different medium can never do justice to the full force and meaning of the original expression.  Not everyone intuits their lives poetically (and indeed, even poets are never constantly thinking and feeling poetically…or perhaps there are some who do, but that is  a different blog post in the making), and those disinclined to poetry may not be able to appreciate the beauty or harshness or tragedy or joy in a perfect rhyme scheme or a surprising word choice.  But that does not change the fact that there is so much more unspoken meaning in saying, “My candle burns at both ends / It will not last the night,” than a “translation” of these two lines into “I’m getting tired” or “I’m wearing myself out.”  It is generally accepted that the sense and meaning of photographs and music are never fully re-expressed in words, and what skeptics of poetry must fully realize is that like these other forms of expression, poetry is communicating something that relies on the very medium itself to be revealed.

Kierkegaard on poetry
May 31, 2011

I am currently wading through Soren Kierkegaard’s work, “Philosophical Fragments,” which he wrote in 1843 under the pseudonym, Johannes Climacus.  Because I have been reading and rereading this piece for a paper I have been working on, his theological ideas have had a significant impact on my work for the past few weeks.  Interestingly, in a section of the work that is somewhat like an aside to the reader, Climacus discusses the issue of originality and poetic authorship, so I thought I would share his thoughts on the matter:

“After all, every poet who steals, steals from another poet, and thus we are all equally shabby.”

“Or is this poem perhaps like a proverb, of which no author is known because it seems as if all humanity had composed it?”

“…since we both are now standing before this wonder, whose solemn silence cannot be disturbed by human wrangling about what is mine and what is yours, whose awe-inspiring words infinitely drown out human quarreling about mine and thine, forgive me my curious mistaken notion of having composed it myself.  It was a mistaken notion, and the poem was so different from every human poem that it was no poem at all but the wonder.”

At first, it might seem like Climacus is perhaps not giving poets enough credit.  It is tempting to assert that not all poets are thieves and that we are capable, occasionally, to manage something other than shabby plagiarism.  Surely not everything we write is simply stolen from the ideas that humanity holds in common.  But perhaps what is original about poets’ works are not the wonders that our poems reveal, but simply the words we use to reveal them.  The trappings of the poem, then, are original; poets are the true authors of the words they choose to form the poem.  But the ideas that underlie those particular lines of poetry are everyone’s.  In fact, I would go so far as to say that if that spark of common humanity is not present, then the poem falls flat.  Poetry that reveals only the particular can have meaning only to those few people who know that particular, but true poetry is that which, through its particulars, can show us something that we knew all along and held so innately within ourselves that we didn’t even realize was there.

free verse
April 10, 2011

Awakening

The lightning is asking me to shout thunder back at it,
and the wind is telling me to let my hair fly long and loose,
and I am listening to the entire world as it speaks to me!
I am opening every window of my house
and beginning the spring cleaning
and sweeping everything old and dusty and dank
out from under the carpets
and over the threshold,
and the wind is taking it all away.

In the night when the moon seems brighter
than every star combined,
I will sleep on the dewy grass
and leave a crumpled outline of my self
for you to find in the morning.

Won’t you join me here?
Won’t you let me bring you close to my self
and embrace you with my long bare arms
and let you see that this is part of
whatitmeanstobehuman?
Let us be human together!

In the night when clouds blow past the moon
and cast shadows that remind us that
light must be noticed,
I am noticing you,
you and your green eyes shining in starlight,
and you and your feet stepping silently on packed earth.
Stand with me at the brink and
hold my hand
and you will be alive with me
and we will feel the life of every bird and river
rumble through our bodies,
and I will kiss you once and
it will feel like a thousand times.

an ars poetica
April 5, 2011

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.

free verse
March 27, 2011

Undone

They are taking apart all the cathedrals.
They are undoing the mortar.
Brick by brick, and stone by stone,
they are shouting,
“This can be broken!”
They are taking each
brightly brilliant pane of glass
from every rose window they can find
and letting them shatter across the earth
into more meaningless minuscule shards of light
than can ever be recovered.
“Look,” they tell us, “this is not real.”
And they are proving it.
They are making all the cathedrals unreal;
I am standing in the empty spaces
they are leaving behind.