Posts Tagged ‘Stephanie Burt’

Auden wrote, ‘The primary function of poetry, as of all the arts, is to make us more aware of the world around us . . . I think it makes us more human, and I am quite certain is makes us more difficult to deceive.’

(Quoted in Ian Sansom’s recent Guardian article: see link)

Probably because I simply can’t let this matter drop, I just had to buy another book purporting to tell me what makes a poem a poem. Stephanie Burt’s book Don’t Read Poetry sounded really promising, because her starting point was (pages 7-8): ‘Don’t assume poetry ever means only one thing, other than maybe a set of tools for making things with words. . . . Instead, find ways to encounter kinds of poems and learn different reasons to read poems, realising various ways by various poems.’

And, to be fair, she delivered on this promise.

On the way she delivered a bombshell. Readers of this blog would already know of my Hearth dream, the most important thought-provoking dream I’ve ever had. For those who don’t here’s a brief taster (see link for the full picture).

This is the dream. I am sitting on a rag rug, the kind where you drag bits of cloth through a coarse fabric backing to build up a warm thick rug.  The rags used in this case were all dark browns, greys and blacks. It is the rug, made by my spinster aunt, that was in the family home where I grew up. I’m in the living room, facing the hearth with its chimney breast and its cast-iron grate and what would have been a coal fire burning brightly. I am at the left hand corner of the rug furthest from the fire. To my right are one or two other people, probably Bahá’ís, but I’m not sure who they are. We are praying. I am chewing gum. I suddenly realise that Bahá’u’lláh is behind my left shoulder. I absolutely know it. I am devastated to be ‘caught’ chewing gum during prayers but can see no way of getting rid of the gum unobserved.

In examining the imagery I concluded ‘More richly significant [than the chewing gum image] was the image of the hearth. The fact that it was in a chimney ‘breast’ helps convey the power of the realisation that came to me. The word ‘hearth’ is comprised of several other key words: ‘ear,’ ‘hear,’ ‘earth,’ ‘art’ and most powerful of all ‘heart.’ All of these words were separately of huge significance for me though I had some sense of how they might all fit together.’

Imagine then my astonishment when I came to page 120 of her book and was blasted by the sight of a poem by Ronald Johnson, part of his ‘beams’ sequence in ARK.

The sceptic in me had to ask, ‘Was the dream yet another example of possible cryptoamnesia?’ Had I read this poem somewhere before my dream in the late 90s? The poem dates from before then. 

I checked all my anthologies and also my books of criticism to see if I could find any references at all to Johnson’s poem and drew a blank. For now, it’s an open question. Maybe I had encountered the poem in a library book sometime. If so I have no memory at all of that event. Possibly it is just a coincidence. My creative dreaming had come up with a rich vein of imagery that another creative mind had already discovered.

Who knows? I don’t. 

For the purposes of my quest to discover what I felt made a poem a poem it did have interesting implications. 

Johnson’s poem looks as though it was exactly the kind of brickwall puzzle writing I have already explained I find difficult to accept as poetry. Even so, I had to accept that in the process of producing it he had nailed in a few cryptic lines exactly what my gift of a dream was about. 

When a poem is as baffling as my dream initially was until I decoded it, is it still a poem? Or can a poem be too individually esoteric to qualify for the title? 

I’ve dealt with that recently.  I wrote:

Montague Ulmman, in Working with Dreams, the book he co-authored with Nan Zimmerman, expands on this (page 73) when he speaks of ‘those qualities a dream has in common with art, especially with the art form which relies heavily on metaphor: poetry.’ He spells out where the incompleteness of dreams as poetry exactly resides (page 80):

‘. . .whereas the poet is addressing himself to an audience outside himself, the dream is a private communication intended to be personally, not universally, meaningful.’

Or is it still a poem if any readers anywhere understand and respond to the code that shuts out the rest of us?

Burt does deal with that kind of problem  in her chapters on Forms and Difficulty. Poetry can (page 174) reflect ‘the difficulty the poet herself has had in making sense of an unjust, incomprehensible, obdurate world.’ Also (page 181) a poet might want ‘to use difficulty two help us reexamine, slowly or painfully, what we already think we see, so that we can notice either the injustice or the beauty that we would otherwise overlook.’ Difficulty can even be a form of protest again an unjust state of affairs. Difficulty, or at least its twin, obscurity, can also arise when a poet is writing as the voice of a minority who speak in their unique way – a way not shared by the mainstream.

Clearly, my casting a blanket of doubt on the value of all such kinds of demanding poetry is at risk of seeming or being rooted in the defensiveness of a narrow mind, blind to the predicament the poet is articulating, some sort of cultural tunnel-vision.

Yes, I’ve been through periods of rebellion myself and resonated, for example, to protest songs and poetry. That does not mean my consciousness has kept up with reality in this respect. What it does confirm is that my resistance to accepting obscurity as legitimised by protest against reality’s unfairness and complexity has always been there, even when I strongly shared the protester’s sense of injustice. A level of accessibility has always been necessary to confirm poetry as poetry in my mind.

It needs to communicate as widely as possible if its message is to be effective, it seems to me. Rebellion and protest become ineffectual, as well as somehow too self-centred when their expression is not comprehensible to a sufficient number of people.

So, a sufficient level of accessibility is plainly a key criterion to meet if a poem is to be poem in my eyes. I do recognise, though, that if a poem needs to help raise our consciousness to a higher level, as Frost, Hayden and Auden would have it do, then it should not be completely accessible at the first or even the tenth read. I captured that point in an earlier post:

There was also something else that Frost valued (page 77), something akin to what Robert Hayden quoted as Auden’s version of it, that poetry is about ‘solving for the unknown’:

‘No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.’ [Frost] said that he never started a poem whose ending he already knew, for to have done so would, he believed, deny a fundamental purpose in poetry: that writing is an act of discovery. ‘I write to find out what I didn’t know I knew.’ Other times he phrased the idea slightly differently, but always the same basic premise: surprise leading to discovery. It was a thrilling and courageous approach to poetry . . .

That though may not be all there is to it.

I have always been concerned that art, in seeking to express reactions to the increasing chaos and dislocation in some aspects of our modern world, should not in any sense capitulate to that chaos so completely it loses coherence, music and pattern altogether. In my recent discovery of the full value of Edvard Munch’s work (more of that some time soon), I recently read Sue Prideaux’s excellent biography – Edvard Munch: Beyond the Scream. She describes him  as influenced in the early 1890s by the New Romantics who felt that (page 123):

To acknowledge that there was chaos did not mean that there would be no form in art.… A positive form that accommodated post-Christian chaos; that was the task.

I shall be returning to Munch’s take on art in the context of his troubled life shortly. As for poetry, I had planned to say more until I got derailed by Prideaux’s book. So, that will have to wait for now.

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