What is music? It is a combination of harmonious sounds. What is poetry? It is a symmetrical collection of words. Therefore, they are pleasing through harmony and rhythm. Poetry is much more effective and complete than prose. It stirs more deeply, for it is of a finer composition. . . . . . they affect the heart and spirit.
(‘Abdu’l-Bahá in Bahá’í Writings on Music – pages 8-9)
. . . . the role of the fine arts in a divine civilization must be of a higher order than the mere giving of pleasure, for if such were their ultimate aim, how could they ‘result in advantage to man, . . . ensure his progress and elevate his rank.’
(Ludwig Tulman – Mirror of the Divine – pages 29-30)
As I brought Shelley back into the frame with Monday’s post, it seemed worth picking up this sequence from a year ago. It will also give me some much needed thinking time before my next new posts comes out! This post constitutes a slight break with the focus on Shelley but needs to be included, I think, for continuity’s sake.
What makes a poem?
For this project to work first of all I’ll need to have some sense of what makes a good poem for me, one worth not only understanding in its own right but also for learning more, in light of the poet’s life, about the creative process at the highest level.
Once I feel reasonably clear that I can reliably choose the best poems to focus on from my point of view, then I need to check out previous thinking for what I might need to know in devising my own pragmatic and at this stage tentative model.
Once I’ve done that perhaps I can constructively look at a handful of Shelley’s poems for what they can tell me, before I finally attempt to articulate my own model.
Assuming this is the best available approach I have divided my exploratory explanation into four sections:
- telling a good poem from a bad one, with some idea of what might be the purpose of lyric poetry in particular – that’s what this post will be about;
- looking at earlier models of creativity – that’s for next time;
- looking at three of Shelley’s poems – that’s for next week and will be in two parts; and
- a provisional model of creativity – the last post!
Telling a Good Lyric from a Bad One
Before we go any further I need to share a recent realisation. Readers of this blog may remember my rants against ‘brick-wall’ poetry. As I was researching in books from my shelves to help me with this section, I came across two poems.
The first was by William Stafford – not a poet I’d heard of before. His poetry was the focus of a chapter in Where Art & Faith Converge. It was written by Michael Fitzgerald, the editor of the book and a poet I’ve enjoyed reading in the past. The poem in question reads:
At the Bomb Testing Site
At noon in the desert a panting lizard
waited for history, its elbows tense
watching the curve of a particular road
as if something might happen.
It was looking at something farther off
than people could see, an important scene
acted in stone for little selves
at the flute end of consequences.
There was just a continent without much on it
under a sky that never cared less.
Ready for a change, the elbows waited.
The hands gripped hard on the desert.
Fitzgerald stresses how Stafford’s simplicity, combined with depth and resonance, has made him both popular as well as respected by most, though not all critics. I’ll quote a typical response of the ones I’ve read so far. It’s by Steven M. Molthan and can be found at this link:
In “At the Bomb Testing Site,” Stafford has us contemplate a small lizard that “waited for history, its elbows tense,” This tenseness is something humans ought to feel as well since the existence of nuclear weapons and their life-ending potential is ever present. In the poem, Stafford ascribes to the lizard an almost prophetic quality—it seems to see something is going to happen. “It was looking at something farther off/ than people could see, an important scene…at the flute end of consequences.” The poem brings home the fact that life is something precious and to be made safe. Under an empty sky, there are no guarantees—the poem implies that our choices will preserve our natural existence, or bring its end. “There was just a continent without much on it/ under a sky that never cared less./ Ready for a change, the elbows waited./ The hands gripped hard on the desert.” Keeping a grip on our planet as the panting, tense lizard does is important for the continuance of all life, human and reptilian.
I’ll discuss the second poem in a moment. Why am I bringing this one into the mix?
Well, I feel it raises serious questions about the possible over-simplification of my rant about puzzle poetry, and these questions are going to be relevant here when I come to discuss why I choose certain poems of Shelley’s and not others in my examination of the creative process.
As I explained before, I feel it is legitimate to distinguish between poems and verse. How should I do that though? How does this poem and the next one I am going to discuss help me decide?
The core point is simple. I cannot dismiss the Stafford poem as an irritating puzzle. It’s pretty clear what it’s getting at (though I did, for some reason that is still unclear to me, react against the phrase ‘flute end of consequences.’) Even though the theme is clear, and one I should like because I agree with what it’s saying, I don’t like the poem. I was even tempted, and still am, to feel it is not really a poem.
Why should this be so? I made myself question this because I respect Fitzgerald both as critic and poet, and if he likes a poem when I don’t something needs explaining.
In meditation, an explanation came to mind. I don’t like the absence of music in this poem. It’s a left-brain poem, in that sense, for me. It seems flat and prosaic. It triggers my prejudice against the minimalist in modern art of all forms, but which I find most irritating in poetry, my favourite art form after song. Even the imagery does not resonate for me. The poem has a purely intellectual impact and only tells me what I already know. It does not create an experience from which I learn something new: there is no ‘solving for the unknown’ to use Robert Hayden‘s take on Auden’s idea of the algebra of a poem (cf From the Auroral Darkeness: the Life and Poetry of Robert Hayden – page 17).
In an article in the Washington Post Charles quotes Mark Edmundson who nails it for me:
In “Poetry Slam, or, The Decline of American Verse,” Mark Edmundson, an English professor at the University of Virginia, upbraids our bards for being “oblique, equivocal, painfully self-questioning . . . timid, small, in retreat . . . ever more private, idiosyncratic, and withdrawn.” That’s just for starters.
“Their poetry is not heard but overheard,” he laments, “and sometimes is too hermetic even to overhear with anything like comprehension.”
And he names the names. After studying Paul Muldoon for years, Edmundson complains that he still has “barely a clue as to what Muldoon is going on about.” Jorie Graham is “portentous.” Anne Carson may be Canadian, but that’s no defense; her verse “is so obscure, mannered, and private that one (this one, at least) cannot follow its windings.” John Ashbery “says little” in his “perpetual hedging.”
“One can’t generalize about it all,” Edmundson warns, before generalizing about it all in a nuclear assault that leaves no poet standing.
Sharon Olds, Mary Oliver, Charles Simic, Frank Bidart, Robert Hass, Robert Pinsky — they’re all brought into Edmundson’s office for a dressing down. Their poems “are good in their ways,” he concedes. “They simply aren’t good enough. They don’t slake a reader’s thirst for meanings that pass beyond the experience of the individual poet and light up the world we hold in common.”
I can now recognise that Stafford’s lyric will appeal to many readers in our machine-minded age. It may even really be a poem to whose beauty and power I am blind. But I don’t think I am ever going to like such poems, nor are they therefore going to change my sensibility or raise my consciousness as I re-read and reflect upon them.
This clarifies for me that it is not simply the puzzle of a poem that repels me. Both left-brain and right-brain poems can be puzzling. I just don’t like left-brain poems, puzzling or not.
Left-brain readers may wish to bail out at this point.
In addition, for me, left brain poems tend to take puzzling to a cryptic extreme, as I have already discussed at length on this blog (see earlier links). Right-brain poems can puzzle me, but the music keeps me engaged, and the mystery gradually dissolves because the problem posed by the poem can be solved by the experience the poem creates rather than by the crossword exercise of the intellect.
In the end, left-brain poems may not be poems at all, and in many cases, may not even be verse.
A Test Case
What helped me come to this conclusion was reading a poem by Sandra Lynn Hutchison in this same book (page 198) called The Art of Nesting. To convey a sense of what it is like I’ll quote the opening stanza:
Commit yourself to transience, yet stay conversant with the world
of things. Choose a leaf – aspern, birch, willow – small enough to weave
into the fabric until winter is over and the idea hatches, vibrant with
trilling life. It will appear mysteriously as the fuzzy dawn of feathers.
The poem’s focus is again not human but in this case a bird not a lizard. It’s unusual perspective upon the cycle of life and its empathic engagement with the bird’s point of view is, for me, made more powerful by the music of the lines. Because it is giving advice to the bird, readers also cannot help but feel the advice is directed at them as well in some way. The connection with nature it creates, for me at least avoids sentimentality, except for the word ‘sweet’ in line14, and is just as crucial to develop as the awareness Stafford seeks to evoke.
(I also think the word ‘indigent’ in line 12 could be a publisher’s error: I’m fairly sure it should be indolent. It reads: ‘Look, some clippings lie below/on the lawn where someone, too indigent to do the work, left them.’ Not the poet’s fault, that one, I suspect.)
For me, Hutchison’s is a right-brain poem, of the kind I will tend to choose when I am seeking to understand creativity. Whether the processes and triggers of these two kinds of poetry are the same I will probably never know. Perhaps the factors I will be eliciting will generalise to both. Given my scepticism about whether left-brain poems are poems at all, I doubt it.
A Final Legup
I have been further helped along my path of understanding by Mark Edmundson’s thinking.
Edmundson, in a piece he wrote for Harpers, spells out what he wants in a lyric poem:
We might say that three qualities are necessary to write superb lyric poetry. First, the writer must have something of a gift: she must be able to make music, command metaphors, compress sense, write melodiously when the situation demands and gratingly when need be. She must be versed in irony; she must have control of tone. But there is more — a second requirement. She must also have something to say. There must be some region of her experience that has transfixed her and that she feels compelled to put into words and illuminate. She must burn to attack some issue, must want to unbind a knot, tighten it, or maybe send a blade directly through its core.
Given these powers — the power of expression and the power to find a theme — the poet still must add ambition. She must be willing to write for her readers. She must be willing to articulate the possibility that what is true for her is true for all. When these three qualities — lyric gift; a serious theme, passionately addressed; real ambition (which one might also call courage) — come together, the results can be luminous.
He laments the limitations of most current lyric poetry: ‘What is a poem now? It is, to speak very generally, a moment of illumination. . . . [Poems now] don’t slake a reader’s thirst for meanings that pass beyond the experience of the individual poet and light up the world we hold in common.’
And as for what the poet we have been examining would hope for, well that’s almost completely out of bounds: ‘Poets now would quail before the injunction to justify God’s ways to man, or even man’s to God. No one would attempt an Essay on Humanity. No one would publicly say what Shelley did: that the reason he wrote his books was to change the world.’
He fulminates powerfully against what he regards as the current habit of ‘hedging,’ which he feels is the ruination of a poem:
Sylvia Plath may or may not overtop the bounds of taste and transgress the limits of metaphor when she compares her genteel professor father to a Nazi brute. (“Every woman adores a Fascist.”) But she challenges all women to reimagine the relations between fathers and daughters. The poet-prophet, says Northrop Frye, may do many things, but he never hedges. From the point of view of the reader who hopes occasionally for prophecy, Ashbery’s work is a perpetual hedging.
If I now throw into the mix Shelley’s recommendation for the purpose of great poetry, I may well have all the criteria I need to guide my choice of great lyrics (Shelley – from the Preface to The Cenci):
The highest moral purpose aimed at in the highest species of the drama, is the teaching the human heart, through its sympathies and antipathies, the knowledge of itself; in proportion to the possession of which knowledge, every human being is wise, just, sincere, tolerant and kind.
Basically then I will be looking for consciousness-raising alongside Edmundson’s poetic triad: ‘the power of expression’ (for me that includes music appropriate to the meaning), ‘the power to find a theme,’ and ‘ambition’ in his sense of those words.
Shelley unarguably emphasised music in his poetry. Ann Wroe proves this by quoting from his notebooks (page 245-46):
In the ordinary way of composition – if there was, with Shelley, any ordinary way – his ear was for rhythm first. He found the metre, then the rhymes, leaving gaps, as was necessary, when words would not come. . . . . . Testing a metre, he would often mark it as small lines on the page, |||||||, set out imperiously at the start like the tick of a metronome. He . . . . made them into a hum:
Ham, Humb um haumb haum, aum
na na, na na na na / na
or again (playing with the rhythm of ‘Ah time, oh night, oh day’ and dreaming of Emelia, who was writing in the notebook with him),
Ni na ni na, na ni
Ni na ni na, ni na
Oh life o death, o time
There was no doubt he often chose deeply important themes and he certainly did not lack ambition and was very concerned to change the way people thought. He would seem a very good candidate therefore to test whether this combination of characteristics can create great lyric poetry. Assuming it does, I can then perhaps begin to unravel what contextual conditions are most conducive to eliciting such poetry and what definable processes are involved.
I perhaps need to spell out that consciousness raising is not the same as preaching. Didactic verse is not poetry, in my opinion. And this cuts both ways. A religious poet should not moralise, for if she does the poem dies. Similarly, even if a poet sees life as apparently meaningless chaos, that does not mean that he is justified in calling polemics, which mimic that vision, poems. That’s a form of indirect didacticism just as unwelcome as a religious moralising.
Life is light and dark, order and apparent chaos. Art should capture the blend not select only one end of the spectrum for representation. To capitulate to human destructiveness, for example in response to war, by replicating only the discord and dissonance, as I feel Vaughn Williams did in his symphonies written in reaction to World War II, abdicates the role of art in counterbalancing the darkness with the possibility of light.
Last of all I perhaps need to explain why I am ignoring Shelley’s dramatic poetry and will, in any subsequent posts on these issues, neglect epic and dramatic poetry. I am playing to my relative strengths. I write lyrics, albeit minor ones in comparison. But at least I know something of what it feels like from the inside. Epic and dramatic poetry is completely beyond my powers, however much I may admire it. I therefore think my judgement is more likely to be correct in my examination of lyrics. So, that’s why I’ll be focusing on lyric poetry.
So what do other people feel creativity is? More on that next Monday.