Thursday, June 29, 2006

Visionary Poetry 3: the heirarchy of media

Some literary critics have argued that poetry is a minor artform compared to the novel. I find that as absurd as saying that poetry is the most exalted of all artforms, but let's look into it. A novel, the argument goes, can build and build towards an enlightening catharsis; it can immerse the reader in an entire universe of imagination and invention; it can reveal sublime, detailed emotion, evoked by the actions of its characters; it can present complex truthes so thoroughly, with such illumination, that a reader might be changed forever. Prose style be exalted, and it can be sublime.

But, a great visionary poem can do all that, too. Matthew Arnold accomplished just that with his poem Dover Beach. (This is a poem that, the first time I encountered it, as a teenager, did change my life, because it showed me how a poet could both share and articulate the same feelings about existence, that I myself was having, at that time.) Compression can be as powerful a tool as expansiveness. (And the list of novels that are overwritten, and could have been much compressed, is a long one.) A moment of complete, engaged insight can be as powerful as hundreds of pages of stream-of-consciousness fragments. Basho's shortest haibun are just as profound as Proust's long discursions. A novel keeps us in the thrall of the author's vision; poetry engages us somatically, physically, such that we re-experience what the poet felt, for ourselves, in ourselves.

Furthermore, poetry, in rhythm and style, harnesses the power of music. A poem can be multi-layered in meaning, and thus can reveal deep resonances behind the words themselves (the actual words of the poem lie on the surface of these waters), and the transcendance and immanence beyond the veil of rationality.

I also feel that the argument in favor of novels fails to take into account narrative poets such as Robert Browning, john Milton, and others, whose longer works could be considered "novels in verse." Prose style can indeed be sublime—at which point it crosses over into poetic prose, elicits a response akin to poetry. This is that numinous realm where prose-poetry dwells, as well.

Not too long ago, I discovered at a thrift store an anthology of The Major Poets: English and American, second edition, ed. by Charles M. Coffin and Gerritt Hubbard Roelofs. Rather than one poem by many poets, this anthology contains several poems by twenty-five or so poets. John Donne is in there, too, with his religious poetry, and Hopkins, of course. The anthology takes us from Chaucer to Auden via the lake Poets, Whitman, Dickinson, etc., all the way to Frost, Eliot, and Lowell. Reading through this anthology one realizes how many of the poems considered great, now, fall at least partly into this category of visionary poetry—or could. If I read this anthology with the attitude of looking for visionary poems, I find them often in here. And yes, Dover Beach is also anthologized herein.

Now, having said all this, since we are in some way outlining a hierarchy of creativity here, I am not one who claims that poetry is the highest artform of all. As irritating as it seems to be to some poets of my acquaintance, I don't find poetry to be the highest artform of all. Then again, the hierarchical placement of media can quickly become a subjective assessment, all too quickly. So, I merely state what is true for me, realizing full well that others will choose differently.

I feel that music is the highest artform, because it is the medium that, despite a lack of programmatic or textual presentation, can nonetheless communicate profound, emotional, visionary, personal experience to the listener. Music is abstract and ephemeral relative to the other arts. Along with dance, music leaves no trace: once the live performance is over, it cannot be repeated. (Recording technology changes all this, of course; but that's a discussion for another essay.) The musical score is the notation of performance: but it is not, in itself, the music, it is only a representation of the sounds that the composer intended. It is a good way of getting performers to work together, in synchronization, to produce an aural experience. It's relation to music, however, is that of trapping a fly in amber. Notation is transcription.

The visionary experience, the inutitive insight, is a human birthright experience, that is available to all who seek it out. It can be described, transcribed (notated), recorded, and told about, in all the various creative media we have available. Poets do not have a lock on intuition, and for many, intuition is a completely non-verbal or pre-verbal process. Where is the poem when you don't actually need words to share the experience? The arts are very interconneceted, and feed each other, to generate an actual hierarchy of creativity that is anything more than a personal hierarchy, rather than a universal one. Exalting one medium over another quickly degenerates into opinion and personal taste. The fact that so many different coexist alongside one another is, in fact, evidence that different people get the same story in different ways, and that this is not a bad thing.

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