Tuesday, April 15, 2008

What Is the Purpose of Poetry?

It's tempting to start with a flip, quasi-Zen answer: None. One could elaborate on that a bit further: There is no purpose. It just is.

While I think that at a very deep level this is true, let's spend a little time with the question. Are we questioning what we do? our reason for being poets? is this a question that gets to root of our very existence? Yes, yes, and yes. So, it's worth examining periodically. Life goes better if you have a purpose, and give life a meaning thereby: even if it's something you completely make up. Invented purpose is just as valid as discovered purpose; and possibly less prone to ego-inflation.

Let's start with a raw definition of what poetry is, before we get to its purpose.

Most typical definitions of poetry focus on the technical aspects of what separates poetry apart from prose. Poetry is almost always defined as not-prose. This is both superficial, and not. Among the list of how poetry is not-prose, I've heard (and quoted myself): poetry is heightened and exalted speech; poetry contains musical form and musical elements (rhythm, cadence, meter, repetition, sonic structures) regardless of formal linguistic elements; poetry doesn't have to follow the syntax and grammar rules of prose; etc.

Most definitions don't define their basic terms. What is meant by "musicality"? I've written an opinion or two that poets shouldn't have to turn to music theory to bolster their arguments; but I digress.

Lately I write mostly prose-poems, or haibun and haiku, or unidentifiable forms that have neither names nor an extant body of criticism. I straddle these definitions all the time. Who I am is an artist who has spent his entire life on both sides of the fences of all kinds of borderlines.

I think the best definitions of poetry I've ever read are those of Rilke, especially in the Sonnets to Orpheus and the Letters to a Young Poet.

A god can do it. But will you tell me how
a man can enter through the lyre’s strings?
Our mind is split. And at the shadowed crossing
of heart-roads, there is no temple for Apollo.

Song, as you have taught it, is not desire,
not wooing any grace that can be achieved;
song is reality. Simple, for a god.
But when can we be real? When does he pour

the earth, the stars, into us? Young man,
it is not your loving, even if your mouth
was forced wide open by your own voice — learn

to forget that passionate music. It will end.
True singing is a different breath, about
nothing. A gust inside the god. A wind.

Sonnets to Orpheus I, 3, trans. by Stephen Mitchell

That's one of the best definitions of poetry ever. Poets often use poetry to define poetry, of course, which can be maddening to the literal-minded, but it seems essential and correct to me.

What is the purpose of poetry? of art in general?

Is it to be entertainment? Surely mere passive entertainment is the most debased level of artistic appreciation. Can art actually change a person? make a difference to someone's life? Surely it must be able to.

This is one of those questions that's so big, you don't know where to start, and there is no answer that can ever completely satisfy. The question comes out of despair and frustration: it's really an existential question that is triggered by frustration around poetry, or art, but has nothing to do with poetry, or art.

Only you can determine if poetry is worth it, to you as the poet, to continue, or to quit. It's a thankless game, an endless road, and no one will love you for it. You might become a better person for having followed that road, but that is by no means certain either.

Having said all that, I believe this to be true:

If art can't change a person, it's not art. Perhaps I just eliminated the majority of my own poetry from being called art, but I think this is true nonetheless.

In my lifetime, with all the art I've made, I can name, perhaps, three instances of people who have told me that my art changed their life. Frankly, that felt great. (You usually never get to hear such feedback; so I feel blessed.) It was more than enough reason to feel like I should continue, when someone told me that. (Of course, such praise told me nothing about how to continue as an artist, only that I should.) So it's remotely possible that your art can make a difference to someone, somewhen, somewhere—it does happen, from time to time. Changing one person's life may be enough ambition, though; wanting to do more, hubris. You usually never find out about it, though. Can you continue, not knowing the outcome?

It's also true that the vast majority of all the art I've ever made amounts to exactly nothing. I'd even use harsher words at some darker times: études; scrap; masturbation. Any artist who looks into their own selves from time to time might feel the same way. It's human to have doubts. Again, this is existential rather than about poetry per se: Do I matter? will the universe miss me, or care, when I'm gone? am I making a difference in those things I believe in? does anybody care? will my work be remembered, even if I am not?

At another level, however, even knowing that some of my art did affect someone, is suspect as a motivation for doing art in future. I can't afford to think about that as I continue to do art; I can't afford to think about it at all.

Don't do art for all the wrong reaons: fame, glory, vanity, pride, the plaudits of your fellow poets. The lack of those doesn't mean you're doing anything wrong, in your poetry. It also doesn't mean you're doing everything right, either. It may mean you're truly original, and no one understands; it may also mean that you're going down a blind alley that will be forgotten. More despair will arise from attachment to either of those beliefs.

Don't make art because you want to change people's lives. That ambition is hubris. You can't control what people do when they receive your art, even with the best of intentions. You might very well be changing people's lives with your art—but you may never hear about it. It doesn't affect you, in return. So it's irrelevant to you as a writer. Either you find a better reason to keep making art, or you let your desire for applause stop you, when there's no applause. Lots of artists do stop, when they feel like they're shouting down a well and not getting an echo back.

Believe nothing. Do art because you do art. "Why?" is the most suffering question in the world—because it always takes you back to unanswerable questions, and you'll never get the response(s) you crave. That itch won't scratch.

I do think that, on average, great art does tend to disturb more than soothe, shake up one's world more than reaffirm it, give one a new way to perceive the world rather than underline what one already believes. It certainly has the power to make one pay attention, in any case.

But it's not always what one needs, in those times when one is already rocked by circumstances or life-changing events. Sometimes "bad art" is just what one needs, for solace. At those times, the well-meant insistence by others that "good art" is always better for one than "bad art" can come over as an attack from the Aesthetics Police, rather hurtful, and breathtakingly and ignorantly insensitive.

All this certainly affects the poems we write, too, does it not?

How's that for purpose?

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Blogger Jim Murdoch said...

One function of poetry is to clarify. I wrote a poem once which likened poetry to breathing wherein the narrator for a while thinks he has to choose between writing and breathing. I posted it on a forum a good few years ago and one of my fellow poets wrote to tell me he'd printed out a copy and pinned it to the cork board that sat beside his writing desk because I had put into words what he felt about writing.

In another instance, although it was a short story this time, the man who read it (who I neither knew nor ever met) responded; "How does this man know how I feel?" It all comes down to the lines by C S Lewis that I often quote: "We read to know we're not alone." I don't think poetry has or should have the monopoly on that but it is an important and necessary aspect of it.

Here I'm talking about the effect of poetry. There is another aspect of poetry that is causal, the writing of it in the first place. I write because the words come to me and it feels better to get them out of my head and onto a bit of paper. Writing is therapeutic. I've always held the view that writers – all artists in fact – are broken people. Normal people don't need to write or paint or whatever. They don't have this build-up of words in their heads. And yet, there was a period when I wrote nothing for three years and I felt wrong. I missed my brokenness. I suppose it's like my glasses. I've been asked in the past why I've never considered eye surgery and the answer really is that my glasses have become part of who I am; I wouldn't feel like I was me without them.

I tend to agree with you that "great art does tend to disturb more than soothe" and I think this comes from the fact that negative energy is more creatively potent than positive. When I feel bright and happy I want to go down the shops or to see a movie; I don't write many happy poems.

Purpose is an interesting word. Some fellow might take a lump of wood and make art out of it. Another might pick it up and clobber someone over the head with it. A piece of wood has no purpose – it just is, to use your expression. It's important to remember that a poem is only half of the equation – everything hangs upon the needs and expectations of the reader; they complete it, they make something of it, they give it a purpose.

8:06 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

I appreciate the thoughts, and I also want to be clear that "disturb" to me does not imply anything negative. It's a neutral term that describes one process of evolutionary change; or its instigation.

I no longer subscribe at all to the belief that artists are broken, or that negative energy is more creatively potent than positive. I think that's a myth about artists and art-making that our culture has carried for a long time, that it's time to let go of. Not all artists create from negative-energy instigation; and not all art that's made from positive inspirations is either shallow or bad.

I say that having lived through, in my own experience, all four poles of the wheel of growth that Matthew Fox outlines in his work, "Original Blessing": the via positiva, via negative, via creativa, via transformativa. I don't dwell full-time in any one of these; none of us do. When we move from one phase to the next, we carry them all with us, and carry them us the wisdom we've learned from each one. I had my dark night in the desert (via negativa), and I use my creativity to change the world as much as to express myself (vias creativa and transformativa). I'm perhaps at the start of another cycle, where I am blindingly aware that much good art comes from being positive, and acting positively, in life. I think of Monet's exquisite paintings of his water gardens at Giverny; at that time, his life was prosperous, if not perfect; he had a good situation, and his art was making him wealthy and fit. Not all great artists are psychologically tormented; that's a myth our culture carries about artists, but it's wrong as often as it true.

I don't at all deny you have to go through the dark night to get here; I've been through more than one episode, which I have mapped out in detail elsewhere in my writings, so shan't repeat here. But I do deny that one must always be forever wounded thereafter in order to make art. Some things DO heal; even as other things do not.

10:08 AM  
Blogger Jim Murdoch said...

We could tie ourselves in knots talking about this but I feel the need to clarify what I mean by 'broken' - it's not quite the same as 'damaged' or 'scarred' although it can be. It's the old idea of having a screw loose. This is an opinion based purely on what I've read about writers from all different cultures, that there needs to be something wrong with you to if you need to write. And that means there's something wrong with a lot of people. There's something wrong with everyone. The thing about a writer as opposed to a hobbyist is that the writing is necessary to make him feel better; it hurts if he doesn't write and it shouldn't. I once didn't write for three years and I felt lost without it. Normal people don't hurt if they don't write. They hurt if they don't pee. It's the same with positive and negative energy. Happy people can and do write about happy things but the better books, in my opinion, come from darker places.

9:32 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Thanks for the clarifications, they're very useful.

My purpose here, and it's not really a direct response to your specific point, but a more general one, is that I think it's time all artists realized that they're nothing extraordinarily wrong with them, and it's more than time to get over the woundologies they've built around themselves. Your point that everyone has something wrong with them is exactly correct: we are none of us perfect, we live in an entropic and imperfect universe, and we all struggle with this. My point is that creatives have no more wrong with them than anyone else, and it's time we stopped viewing ourselves as exceptional examples. As much great art has come out of overcoming the wounds of life, as come out of wallowing in them. So, I would like to see more artists shift their focus from the negative aspects of inspiration and need towards the positive aspects of inspiration and need.

My other point, and forgive me for being a stickler about it, is that writers and poets of all creatives need to be exactly careful and specific with the words they use. Sorry to be a language cop at times. I used to get into arguments all the time on some of the boards about asking poets exactly what they meant when they were talking about their poems; some poets can be incredibly sloppy and lazy in their discourse outside of the poems themselves. I'm not saying you're doing that, or that anyone else here is doing that—I just think it's incredibly important to be specific and precise in one's terms, and also to clarify what one means as best one can. It's never made much sense to me that writers and poets, whose very work depends on words, would be anything less than scrupulous with how they use words. (And again, no offense intended, Jim, I'm not really singling you out. This is a general comment.)

I don't totally agree that the better books all come from darker places. I would say that deeper, richer, more resonant books often seem to come from writers who have inhabited those darker places, or been through the dark night. But in no way does that mean that their works which dwell on the darker places are inherently better than those books which are written from lighter places—not forgetting the existence of the shadows, but not dwelling on them either. In other words, writers who do deny their own shadows, who in fact mine them for good material, but who don't dwell there forever after.

For specific examples of what I mean, I can mention Forster's "A Passage to India," which all in all is a hopeful book, even though the mystery of what happens in the cave—and Mrs. Moore's dark existential vision that also happens there—is never fully resolved or explained. So, it contains light AND shadow, and in a good balance of the two.

Another example is Samuel R. Delany's "Stars in My Pockets Like Grains of Sand."

A very good example of what I mean is Rilke's combined "outpouring" of February 1922, his completion of The Duino Elegies, and the writing of the Sonnets to Orpheus. Rilke's poetry always contains a lot of darkness, but it's shot through with ecstasy and light. The Sonnets in particular are written from a very positive and exalted place, and I think that one cannot say that the Elegies are better poems simply because they come from a darker place. They are equal masterpieces.

10:10 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Speaking of sloppy . . .

That should have read:

"In other words, writers who do NOT deny their own shadows, who in fact mine them for good material, but who don't dwell there forever after."

My own sloppiness hopefully won't give the lie to my argument about sloppiness. LOL It's what I get fro typing haste and not re-reading enough times before posting.

10:24 AM  
Blogger Jim Murdoch said...

No offence taken.

I think what I should have said is that I a) can't imagine anyone who is not broken in a specific way being a writer and b) I can't imagine anyone who taps into positive vibes writing a better book that someone who's given in to the dark side. Or something like that. It's always tempting to come out with generic statements and you are quite right, a writer should choose his words with a little more care without feeling he needs to devolve into legalese to make sure he covers his backside.

Your examples are all fine but I really do believe that the greater works of literature come from painful places. I have been known to pen the rare – okay, exceedingly rare – happy poem myself.

Opinions don't need to be right though – it's nice when they are – and I'm entitled to think what I like as long as I'm not trying to convert people; in that case I really do need to be able to substantiate my claims.

I do however believe that we need to acknowledge that everyone has certain natural talents. I have a certain facility with words but I also have two left feet. Mozart was a whizz with a keyboard but couldn't bake a soufflé to save his life. There are people who come along every now and again who are naturals, people like Pablo Picasso or Spike Milligan – men like these are rightly placed on pedestals. (I would point out, just to cover my backside, that that was an opinion which I am entitled to hold).

12:40 PM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

I agree that everyone has natural talents. I do believe in the democratic ideal of creativity: everybody is creative in some way. It's just that, as you say, and I agree, we're not all equally creative in the same arenas. I have found, though, and this does affect my opinions and beliefs, I admit, that I seem to be able to turn the creative force of my attention to almost anything and become creative at it; I'm also very good at acquiring new kinds of skills. But I have to really want to do it, and practice, or it will always be lackluster. I don't claim to be great at anything I do—most artists who claim to be great at something have inflated their egos just a bit too far, in my opinion—but I do claim to be good at several things. I can back that up: I've won awards in several unrelated creative disciplines. So, I DO tend to believe that most people ARE creative, if not all equally or in the same arena. I honor the creativity of good cooks, and carpenters, and bricklayers. I honor the creativity of all people who approach their lives and work creatively, whether or not they directly engage in one of the "arts."

But all of that is just my opinion, too, of course.

UPDATE: I was reading Ron Silliman's blog earlier, he was talking about the process of judging for a poetry contest, which is named after William Carlos Williams. Ron wrote this in his comments, which I've been thinking about all day:

Thinking of Williams & his relations to presses & to kinds of poetry gave me a template for thinking through these 19 volumes. His idea that the function of art is to create additions to nature, to make of the world a more abundant place, seems to me almost the baseline of what should expected from a poet. If you’re only going to write poems that look just like the poems that existed before you got here, what is your value? All of the nineteen volumes move poetry forward in ways that should make a reader optimistic about poetry, even on a blood-drenched planet that is devouring the last of its major natural resources.

I like this idea of adding to nature, of increasing the abundance of the Creation itself. That seems to me to be another good purpose for poetry.

6:10 PM  
Blogger Amy said...

I really appreciate your post, and the Rilke poem as well. This subject has been on my mind lately. I've always written poetry, but I'm currently taking a Creative Writing class and my professor has questioned what my "purpose" is to my submissions.
I don't really have a purpose, sometimes I'm simply capturing a moment or a memory. It's something that is important to me, but as far as defining purpose? Is another reader supposed to retreive my feelings or recreate the moment? Shouldn't I just be writing for myself?

2:37 PM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Your professor is asking if you have a purpose for doing your poems.

It seems to me, though, that you already understand that the purpose of poetry is not doing, but BEING.

12:23 PM  
Blogger DreamerBee said...

I would just like to thank Art Durkee and Jim Murdoch. I came on here, as I have always felt that, although I would love to be a writer, that I am lying to myself. You guys actually inspired me to write my first poem, based on these feelings.
You've really made a difference to me.
Thank you so much!

5:34 AM  
Blogger Jim Murdoch said...

@DreamerBee – I am delighted to hear that. I started writing before I was seventeen but I count my first adult poem from then, my 453rd poem in fact. That’s how long it took me to write a half-decent poem. But that’s me and I’m still learning. I remember being seventeen though at a time when there was no Internet and I was very much alone as a writer. No one I knew wrote—or even read that much (and certainly not poetry)—and it was years before I ever made contact with another poet. The Internet is a great boon. You have no idea how lucky you are to have been born now despite all the economic and ecological crises that we’re having to live through; I can assure you that the seventies weren’t exactly a rose garden here in the UK either. If you are keen to develop as a poet could I also recommend you follow Tim Love’s blogs? You can read about him on my blog here. Also check out some of the links on my blog. There are some excellent poets out there that you can learn from. There’s also a lot of crap online and it’ll take you a while to learn the difference. You will also write a lot of crap but you won’t be able to tell for ages. I can assure you that most of my early efforts are groanworthy in the extreme. And there will be a lot of people with a lot of opinions and after a while your head will be spinning but let me leave you with one piece of advice: You can’t please all the people all the time, heck you can’t usually please most of the people most of the time. If you can please some of the people some of the time you’re doing well but if you’re not pleased by what you’re doing then what really is the point?

1:28 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

It's interesting to come back to this essay that I wrote almost three years ago, because of these recent comments. Re-reading what I wrote earlier, I'm fairly well pleased. I think I wrote out my thoughts pretty well, for once, herein.

I sometimes feel like I'm stumbling around in the dark, thinking things through as I write. Sometimes indeed we do write to know what we think about something, rather than to express already-formed ideas.

I'm glad you got something out of this, DreamerBee, and hope you continue on. You probably already know that the best way to learn how to write is by doing it, and by reading. Jim's advice is advice I agree with. The main thing, though, is to just persevere. It will eventually get you to a good place to be.

11:58 AM  
Blogger TheDreamerBee said...

Thanks for the advice. I often feel so overwhelmed by other people's work, and can't imagine even approaching the standard they set!
I'm glad you said about writing garbage... nothing I've ever written has been anything special, although I do have one stanza of a poem that I am reasonably proud of. It makes me feel optimistic that some day, I'll finally feel satisfied, and less conflicted.
I just wondered WHY you guys choose to write? I personally do it because of the excitement of creating a world all of my own, breaking the boundaries and doing the impossible. I also love to discover my own ideologies, and spread my beliefs to others. In my opinion, one of the greatest things about our world is that it allows us to enter so many others! So I'm interested as to why others write.
I'll definitely buy that book Jim, your review has made me extremely enthusiastic about it. I do enjoy reading poetry, although I've never found a poem (outside of my those I read for school) particularly enjoyable or enlightening. In fact, many were simply incomprehensible, although that may be simply my inexperience.
Do you have any novels you could recommend to me, as that is my greatest interest?

3:11 PM  
Blogger Jim Murdoch said...

@TheDreamerBee – I define a writer as a person whose natural response to life is to write about it. Art agrees with me on this but doesn’t regard himself as a ‘writer’ because writing is only one of a number of ways in which he feels compelled to respond to things he sees and experiences. I could be facetious and say I write because I cannot not write but that really is it: I feel better when I get this stuff out of my head. I’m not a storyteller; I’m not an entertainer; I write to work things out on paper that I can’t work out in my head. For me the poem or the story is something I cast off after I’ve done working with it; it’s of no use to me anymore; it was the process that did it for me. That said we live in a green world and thousands of people use each other’s castoffs so if other people can make something out of what I’m essentially done with then that’s fine by me. I am my one and only ideal reader. I write for me, not to get published or make a name for myself or even try and make my way in the world. For many years I wrote and put what I wrote in the proverbial drawer and never bothered trying to get published or anything. That’s me.

Everyone is different and there is no ‘right way’ to be a writer. Yes, there are techniques and skill sets but I have mixed feelings about writing courses. I think there is a danger of losing yourself in order to meet someone else’s standard of what good writing should be like. When Philip Larkin—a poet who was a major influence on me and one I would recommend you check out—was asked about studying poetry this was his response: “Oh, for Christ’s sake, one doesn’t study poets! You read them, and think, That’s marvellous, how is it done, could I do it? and that’s how you learn.” I would suggest the same applies to prose. Read. It’s the first piece of advice any writer will give you. Some say read anything and everything but I say, “Read well.” Unlike Art I am not a voracious reader but I am well read. It makes a difference. Yes, you can learn a lot from bad writing but read the good stuff first.

What novels would I recommend? Why does a certain piece of music make the hairs on your arms stand on end when other people in the room are complaining about the ‘noise’ and asking you to turn that racket down? Someone just asked me to explain what Samuel Beckett meant to me and I ended up talking about love at first sight because that’s the closest analogy I could come up with. I can list a few books that have meant something to me—which I will—but each and every one of them could leave you cold. There are many great writers whose work does nothing for me—Dickens, for example, or Austin—but that’s me. Be you. Follow your instincts.

Novels that have a special place for me are: One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Billy Liar by Keith Waterhouse, pretty much any novel by Richard Brautigan but I have a soft spot for The Abortion: An Historical Romance 1966, A Scanner Darkly (don’t let anyone tell you that science fiction author’s can’t write—Philip K Dick can), Gut Symmetries by Jeanette Winterson, The Trick is Always to Keep Breathing by Janice Galloway, The Body Artist by Don DeLillo, The Little Girl Who was Too Fond of Matches by Gaétan Soucy and I could go on and on. No doubt Art will be able to provide a completely different—and equally valid—list.

1:53 PM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Oh, I call my self a writer sometimes, just not all the time. Jim knows that I practice several different artforms, so it's just that I am not ONLY a writer. Writing about life isn't always my first response; it's often third on the list. On the other hand, sometimes it does come first. I've known for a long time that if I am busy with writing music, i write a lot fewer poems. That's all.

There is indeed no right path to being a writer. The only thing that everyone really agrees on is what Larkin said: Just read, read, read, and respond with, "how is it done, could I do it?" There's no better way to improve as a writer. And I do agree that reading well makes a difference. I may be voracious, but I don't really have any time for reading crap—life's too short to waste time on reading stuff I don't really want to read.

I absolutely agree that anyone who tells you that science fiction writers can't write is full of crap: not only can many SF writers write well, some of them write WAY better than those mainstream fiction writers everybody praises to the skies. I'll take Philip K. Dick over Philip Roth any day of the week. I'll take Kate Wilhelm over any bestseller writer any day, except maybe Margaret Atwood.

As for lists of novels, anytime anyone tells you that they are compiling a list of "best" novels, all that really means is that they liked them best. Don't let any critic tell you what to think or how to read. "Best of" lists are only lists of favorites.

Some of my favorite novels of all time:

Neil Gaiman: "American Gods"
Samuel R. Delany: "Stars In My Pocket Like Grains of Sand"
William S. Burroughs: "The Western Lands"
Ernest Hemingway: "The Nick Adams Stories"
Hilbert Schenck: "A Rose for Armageddon"
Raymond Chandler: "The Long Goodbye"
May Sarton: "Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing"
Charles de Lint: "Greenmantle"
any of Jim Harrison's books of linked novellas

2:16 PM  

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