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,


Gwil W said...

George, hello! You ask the unanswerable.

I think we might as well ask "what's anything for?":-
What's war for? What's football for? What's life for? What's George Szirtes for? Or, come to that, what's it ALL for?

Tim Love said...

What is poetry for? For remembering how many days are in each month, for impressing a prospective mate, etc. More generally The human brain is an amazing organ, one that's developed through evolution from being able to clobber mammoths to knocking off sonnets. However, evolution never does any more than necessary. As sight evolved, there was no survival advantage in being able to deal with situations that didn't happen in real life - our eyes might be able to help us distinguish friend from foe at a hundred yards, but they're easily tricked by optical illusions. Thought and language processing is even more complex than visual processing, so perhaps it's not surprising that poetry can create an illusion of depth and meaning by short-circuiting the normal routes (much as stereograms give the effect of depth though they have none), exploiting a loop-hole that evolution has left open. As with stereograms, surface obscurity may be necessary to produce the effect, and there's a lot of skill involved in producing an effective illusion. Indeed, I'd say that not merely skill is involved; it's an art.

Gwil W said...

Agreed that poetry is an art requiring skill, experience, a sense of the divine etc. but the question remains: what is poetry for?
I know what food, air, water is for. I consume it. It keeps me alive.
But poetry; what's it "for"?
And apropos why did George's fellow panelists, or whatever they were, dodge the question?

Jonathan Wonham said...

When I think about what I use poetry for, the only honest answer I can come up with is that I use it to preserve things. I use it to preserve the things that matter to me. Like any preserver (taxidermist, pickler) I have to be careful about the methods I use. Preserving things can be a challenge, but the challenge is not the point - it is something incidental. The final product may look a little odd and bear only a passing resemblance to the raw materials that went into it, but that's not the point. What's important is the special alchemy between what is being preserved and the method of preservation.

George S said...

Gentlemen, I don;t think you are understanding the meaning of for. In the sense you take it it is the same as asking what music is for? A simple answer might be: pleasure. Then you might ask what pleasure is for? It is true: something just are, or appear to be so.

But poetry as spoken, sung or chanted, has been with the human race since speech. Football hasn't. George Szirtes hasn't. When you say 'for' you are asking, in effect, why anyone would invent it. We didn't invent rain either, but we know what use it is. We invent poems and poetic structures, but poetry itself is not an invention in the same sense.

I can't answer the question why anyone would invent poetry. However, since it has been with us since we began it must serve some purpose. Things don't survive unless they do. Try to come at it that way.

My simple suggestion is that poetry has remained with us because it actually registers the strangeness of the world as it acts on the consciousness, a process vital to human well-being. I suspect the poetic sense is pre-linguistic, but that language, being an equally strange thing, offers us a way of communicating the world to our consciousness. I suggest we might need to do that. The sense of experience is the ghost in the language machine.

Let's not give up. If poetry that useless - in other words it's not for anything - why not just abandon it? It seems people never have.

It is therefore a question worth asking and I am trying to give a reasoned answer.

Adele Ward said...

This is such a perfect answer. I also love it that you point out that poetry has always been with us - and that justifies it in itself. You have described the indescribable. There's nothing more for me to add!

Mark Granier said...

Excellently put. Great aphorisms:

'Naming helps us control events. The poem is the complex name of the complex experience.'

'Poetry seeks a few simple movements to understand whatever is at the heart of the phenomenon encountered.'

'Time works differently in poems. In poetry we are faced with mortality as language.'

'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.'

The initial question reminds me of MacNeice (in his intro to his book on Yeats):

'Too much criticism is founded upon the fallacy that all activity is utilitarian.'


'People often speak as if the sole motive for all actions whether of animals or human beings were to go on living. This is an inadequate explanation and not even a truly utilitarian one. One has merely to ask "WHY should they wish to go on living" and one introduces a question of value that has nothing to do with utility; food may be useful because it keeps you alive but what is life useful for?'

George S said...

'What is life useful for?' is, I suspect, a tautology of sorts, since usefulness may be hard to define outside the framing concept of life. This is where language is at the very edge of breaking.

Utilitarianism is, of course, a different thing. In Mill's argument it is about happiness (and what is the use of happiness, pray?).

More narrowly - which is how we usually understand utilitarianism - we associate it with short term pragmatism. We relate it to a chain of events and make a distinction between the useful and the beautiful. Never mind how it looks, find out if it works! is the question. We need to get home. Does it matter whether our taxi is blue or green?

It implies a pressing need that we must satisfy. Given that pressing need, it is the appropriate fiction-science-morality complex we generally draw on.

What I would like to argue is that there are great areas of life in which the distinction between the beautiful and the useful is not at all clear. The question of the taxi being blue and green is to do with decoration, and many think poetry is decorated language - a vain, immoral luxury to a puritan. Usefulness, for such people, is getting from A to B. Poetry is a distraction from a straight pragmatic choice. Straight talk. Putting it straight. A to B.

The problems arise when we consider the meaning of A and B, the value of A and B, the sense of A and B, if only because, in wanting to move, we are either at A or B and it might help - help in a perfectly utilitarian sort of way - to know where stand, what we stand on and where we are going. We might actually need a sense of such things (the poetry-philosophy-religion domain) in order to survive, not at the immediate but at an important long term level. And indeed perhaps, most importantly (cf MacNeice), to find reasons why we might want to survive.

Oddly enough it is often people in genuine pressing need who best understand and desire poetry. Everything is moving away from them so fast , it might be that they need to understand what it is they have and what they lack. Poetry gives them the intensity, the proper dimensions of their predicament. They sing their way through it.

So never mind just A and B - sing the journey too. The journey perhaps most importantly.

Mark Granier said...

'Oddly enough it is often people in genuine pressing need who best understand and desire poetry...'

Yes, and others fill that space with religion/god, which, unlike poetry/art, comes in a range of one-size-fits-all.

George S said... size fits all...

I don't know that I'd be too quick to sum up the religion of those in pressing need, Mark. I think the condition is understandable, indeed natural. Religion is the framework but the varieties of religion are considerable in number, and varieties of belief in those varieties must be much greater than still. Religion can indeed be the opium of the masses; it can be a terrible instrument of oppression, - but the religious imagination has a broader and deeper base than that. There is, after all, a good deal of religious art and poetry.

Gwil W said...

Mark's question: "Food may be useful because it keeps you alive but what is life useful for?" begs the same or a similar answer. My (for example) mouse?-jerk reaction to the initial question was in the vein of some of Ruth Padel's thoughts on poetry -
"there's a real appetite for poetry" , "readers are hungry" and such observations. And yet at the same time RP is claiming that poetry is a living creature under the spotlight (but presumably one we can all safely or otherwise eat in varying portions according to our pleasure - bardic digestive juices allowing).
So what we have is a poem: an edible living creature crafted by a poet and presented publicly for the non-paying audience to devour with emotion and imagination for as Padel says "the point is pleasure afetr all."
And probably that's the answer to the questions; both Mark's and George's. What it's for.
IT'S FOR PLEASURE! YES, PLEASURE DAMMIT! And to think we all thought it was a nourishment for the soul, a kind of philosophy, and more than birdsong...

Mark Granier said...

I was too glib. There are of course many kinds of religion and varieties of faith, including faith in the numinous qualities of poetry.