Monday, May 19, 2008

Ars Poetica

Writing poems about poems has a few distinct subsets, it seems to me. On the one hand, it can be the worst sort of self-referential, navel-gazing, confessionalist form of literary recursion, self-serving and self-indulgent. On the other hand, it can be an ars poetica, a genre of poems as ancient as writing itself.

Ars poetica refers to poems that are about "the nature of poetry" or "the art of poetry." Such poems can be a poet's self-justification or reason for writing. They can also be treatises on the nature and practice of poetry, or statements of personal belief, personal myth. Such poems can be very dry and didactic on the one hand, or cringingly self-revealing and confessional on the other. It's rare to read an ars poetica that doesn't take itself too seriously, or try to be profound, or be a definitive statement of the poet's personal aesthetic: As a poet, this is what I believe/know to be true. ("We hold these truths to be self-evident. . . .") Occasionally, one finds an ars poetica that is humorous, doesn't take itself (or the poet, or Poetry itself) too seriously, and leaves one with a sense of what poetry can be but without feeling like one has been beaten over the head about it. And very occasionally, the rarest bird of all, one encounters an ars poetica that is actually a good poem, purely as a poem.

Many (most?) ars poetica poems are dictums: lists, like Archibald MacLeish's, which gave us a list of things that a poem is or is not, famously ending in the oft-contemplated, oft-contested phrase: A poem must not mean / But be.. What a poem is supposed to be is of course open to discovery; while I suspect that MacLeish intended to say something along the lines of (paraphrasing Adrienne Rich some decades after MacLeish) A poem should be an experience itself, rather than being a poem about an experience, MacLeish leaves this unclear; he may also have meant, in the true Modernist sense, that a poem is another kind of art object with its own substantial existence, like a vase that you pick up to look at from all sides.

Many ars poetica poems are definitions: what is a poem, and what isn't. many ars poetica poems are similar lists to MacLeish's. Many rehash or respond to other existing lists, as well.

Far too many ars poetica poems are creeds: Credo in unum cantus. The problem with creeds is that they often become screeds. Or they require an act of faith on the part of the reader, with the poet standing in as preacher, if not prophet; the reader is expected to take the poet's belief on faith. The tone can become self-justifying, even defensive, is the poet is not too sure of herself. This sort of ars poetica, at worst, can become strident, a political poem in the worst sense.

Writing poems about poetry is metalanguage, language re: language. Poetry-as-metalanguage can become a game. (And a finite game, at that, rather than an infinite game.) One sometimes feels that the entire contemporary "post-avant-garde" poetic genre of Language Poetry is a game of metalanguage (the effectiveness and resulting quality of the game's products is a topic we'll get around to, eventually). Metalanguage can be fascinating, even useful in that it holds up a mirror to the art itself, but for the most part it's dull and recursive in the worst sense. Poets talking about their poetries can be paradoxically interesting when done in prose, as in review essays or critical writings, but many poems that attempt to do the same job end up reading like prose anyway. A lot of ars poetica is literary-criticism with line-breaks, and might as well be prose.

Occasionally you get an interesting oblique approach, that uses the poem as metaphor, or creates a meta-meaning by not discussing the topic directly but rather by illustrating the idea via action. In other words, embodying the argument via example, rather than by talking about it. These are often much more interesting ars poetica poems.

Self-justification and self-definition are acts of projection. Most poets succumb to the urge now and then. (Myself included.) It is a form of ego, of course, although there are worse forms. Perhaps the most useful form of ego for an artist or poet to have is the self-confidence in one's own abilities and message that allows one to get up onstage and perform. Inflated ego is almost always a bad thing for artists, not least because it deflects from the art onto the artist, usually to the benefit of neither. A certain amount of ego is necessary and beneficial, when it takes the form of self-confidence and self-respect. It's when the ego starts to believe it's the most important poet at the reading, that trouble soon follows.

Sometimes an ars poetica is a poem with a moral, as has been said of Marianne Moore's poem called, simply, Poetry, which begins:

I, too, dislike it: there are things that are important beyond
          all this fiddle.
   Reading it, however, with a perfect contempt for it, one
          discovers in
        it after all, a place for the genuine.

This is a poem that functions like an essay, with a thesis, argument, and conclusion. Genuineness is Moore's measure of success. Nonetheless, it's a poem about poetry, not prose about poetry. It works, somehow, as a poem, even though it's language is sparse, spiky, and a little curmudgeonly. (Like Moore herself, one is tempted to mutter.)

The most interesting ars poetica poems, for me, are those that come at the project sideways. Such poems may not even mention Poetry, or the muse (or, worse, why hasn't the bitch-muse been around lately to inspire me?). They enact and embody, rather than lecture or dictate. They demonstrate how the action of being-in-poetry can occur, rather than talking about poetry: they make the ars poetica into a verb. They talk around the topic, rather than addressing ti directly. They might present themselves as illustrative fables rather than didactic theses—lemmas, dilemmas, and counter-lemmas.

I like Sam Hamill's oblique, deflating and self-deprecating poem Arse Poetica, which ends in humor, reducing the highfalutin' expectations of Fine Art Poetry to a glimpse of "Chaucer's bare red bum." Hamill speaks in the middle of his poem about the poet's self-inflation, and its consequences:

You cannot escape
your own original face.
The Greeks called this
excessive ego hubris,

consequence of the sin being
violence brought down
upon one's own head:
karma—pride's other twin.

Hamill's poem is a send-up and critique of the whole genre, while also participating in it. It's not his best, most profound poem; but it does clearly state many things one can find in the rest of his poetry, from the references to Zen truths, to a sense of the historical classics, to a profound awareness of the fragility and ephemerality of life. Very Buddhist sentiments. Karma is indeed pride's other twin, when pride leads one towards self-inflation: the pride that goeth before the fall.

Perhaps the urge to make an ars poetica is because of a sense of (literary) history. A sense of one's own place in the loom of time, where poems and other artworks are markers and signposts and gravestones strewn along the roadside. A marker that the poet, like Kilroy, was here.

I'm guilty of everything I accuse other poets of doing above. Je m'accuse! Here's one of my own ars poeticas, from around a decade ago:

Ars Poetica

Your words must be strong enough
to live on their own:
apart from your hand, your body.

There must be air enough in them
for flutes, clarinets, and eagle-bone whistles.
You’ll have to make room in your lungs.

Words unloved will leave you,
fluttering birds, a startled flock.
But words well-tended will hover close, and tremble.

And here's another, earlier poem, made into a poster (originally undertaken to be carefully typeset and illustrated by yours truly as a presentation piece, a bit of self-marketing). This is more of what I like to read in an ars poetica, something less direct. The poem is very much about poetry, as much as it is about all art-making, and about guidelines for living a proper life:

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Blogger Dave King said...

One of the most interesting posts I have read in a long while. My own favourite from the genre is Hugh Macdiarmid's The Kind of Poetry I Want. It seems to me to have all the faults you mention, and all the virtues. typical MacDiarmid, in fact. You might be interested in Jim Murdoch's post on the same subject.

6:12 AM  
Blogger Jim Murdoch said...

I agree with Dave though I'm afraid I don't have anything wise or even witty to add and I've looked at this for a couple of days now but the well is dry. Nice of Dave to give me a plug and nice of you too. Your first poem's all right actually. I've read worse. I've certainly written worse.

7:16 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Thanks, Dave. I'll look up the Macdiardmid as soon as I get a chance. Perhaps it's only the coincidence of being Scottish, but I also think of Edwin Muir and George Mackay Brown's rare forays into poems about poetry. Brown being a particular favorite of mine, in general.

Jim, thanks for your post that I linked to here. You got me thinking about the topic, and this is what came out. Sometimes I need to dig back into my archives, and look at stuff, and think about it, examine it again to learn more. Thanks for being the trigger for that process, this time out.

11:43 PM  

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