Friday, 18 June 2010
What's poetry for?
Today's issue of The Guardian carries a long piece by Stephen Moss (himself a poet) about what poetry is for. I think I am the only one interviewed who attempts to answer the question directly since, as the article says, I have been thinking about it for a while now. It would of course be possible to answer the question put as a challenge (Don Paterson talks about it as possibly a form of challenge, to which in that case the poet is not bound to answer), in the form of a practical demonstration of what is affectionately called 'a Glasgow kiss', because, after all, you don't find people asking 'What is music for?' and 'What is dance for?', if only because one is presumed to know. If you have to ask what jazz is, said Louis Armstrong, you'll never know.
Yes but, no but, yes but... I do think it is a question that can be asked about poetry, music, anything because, if for no other reason, the 'arts' have been with us from the beginning and things don't hang around for ever without a reason. Also because I distrust mystification. There are mysteries of course, but one should pursue them to the ends of the earth before bowing down to them. So I try to answer, though the answer as given in the article is, inevitably and understandably, short - certainly very much shorter than the one given in the conversation with Stephen.
Poetry, I say in it, is about trying to capture a reality that is deeper than language.. That requires expansion, a considerable expansion, an expansion that requires an essay or even a book, so this is not that expansion: it is only an amplification.
We human beings first confront the world pre-linguistically. Things home in one us and we must encounter them. Our first response is the involuntary pre-linguistic cry. It is the shock of the world - the shock, as has been said, of the new. But each thing that homes in on us is different, demanding its own specific cry.
I have argued before, and want, at some stage, to develop the argument, that the two key pre-linguistic responses to the shock of the world can be summed up in two phrases: 'What's this?!' and 'What happens now?!' The first question is about state: the second about action. The first question results in poetry, philosophy and religion; the second in story, science and morality. The first response tries to name the sense of shock because naming is a key human instinct. The second tries to resolve a course of action because life obliges us to act in order to survive.
Naming helps us control events. The poem is the complex name of the complex experience. Action moves past the shock and into sequence. If I do this, then that, what happens? Fiction and experimental science are related through their specialised forms of syntax. Poetry too employs syntax, so it is not entirely distinct from the story, but its use of syntax is different.
Syntax assumes a logical sequence of events. The sequence is the point. Poetry seeks a few simple movements to understand whatever is at the heart of the phenomenon encountered. The often noticed 'unworldiness' of poets is a product of a decreased interest in action. In a highly mechanistic, utilitarian society poetry seems to have little use, because everything is presumed to exist in order to produce something else, ideally as quickly as possible.
But human beings don't stop having the encounter experience. They are brought face to face with it at various moments of life whenever the syntax of life seems to stop for a moment. Then we are not primarily interested in a chain of events, but in the event that is there before and seems to have been there for ever, before language started. It is why people particularly want poems for birth, weddings and funerals and great occasions. Life is as much occasion as event. Time works differently in poems. In poetry we are faced with mortality as language.
it requires no great cleverness to understand this. It is hard-wired into us all. It is when we are not distracted by our comforts and needs that poetry comes into full play. István Vas, the Hungarian poet, said that when people had no shoes they needed poems. Once they had shoes the poems seemed less important. It is when we cannot manipulate the world, when we can't simply surf its channels, that poetry comes to the fore.
How useful is channel surfing, you might ask? Poetry is the opposite of channel surfing. People think they don't have the time for it. They don't understand how to understand it. One needs to stand still for it. Standing still can be scary when confronting the active world. So people get on with something else and feel they are doing something more worthwhile simply by doing something. Anything. Because, generally, most of the time, in our culture at least, doing is considered to be better than being.
Poetry's job is to half say-half sing the world into almost comprehensible being, being rather than doing: to register and shape the shock of the world while retaining the shock. That is the real shock of the new. That is why poetry, as Ezra Pound said, is news that stays news.
Almost comprehensible, I say. The sense of almost comprehensibility is, I firmly believe, something we genuinely understand. The best poems carry this sense around in them like a form of radiation, you might almost call it a soul, or a heart. In any case, it is a human thing and that is why we need it. That's what it's for,