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Terreson Profile
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How would Montaigne ask the Question


I've been thinking about this question for awhile, off and on for a good number of years. But before asking it I want to ask it in the right way, and so Montaigne's way comes to mind.

He invented the essay, intending it as an investigative tool. ~On Friendship; On Repentance; On Presumption; On books; On Cruelty; On the Power of the Imagination; On Experience ~ These were the sort of experiences he wanted to figure through for himself, not relying on received wisdom. When he could, he used himself as the ultimate lab rat. Sometimes he couldn't, as when he was trying to figure through cannabilism. But when he could he did.

I could ask my question this way: Why do poets spend so much time thinking about poetry, about what makes poetry poetry and not a specimen of prose, what makes for a poem, what makes a poem a successful poem, and so on. Asked this way, however, and the question immediately gets falsified. Immediately I am going to speak for all poets and for all poetry. About bee keepeers I have this saying that, when spoken, tends to shut down bee keeper conversation: every bee keeper has found the right way for keeping bees and no two bee keepers agree. The same is essentially true of poets I ween. I'll take it a step further. Find two poets who say they agree on what makes for good poetry and I'll call them both liars with motives having less to do with poetry, more to do with career advancement or, worse, group acceptance. It is a wonder, when you think about it, that when actually faced with the animal in front of them, usually a little feral, two poets will recognize it for what it is: a poem.

So Montaigne is at my back. I am looking to skin the question down to the flesh. Why do I think so much about poetry and about all parts of the question involved? To be clear, many poets do not. Even more clearly, most poets do not. In my experience the gifted few don't need to, at least for awhile. Most poets need to and don't and the deficit catches up with them sooner rather than later. But here too their business is none of mine.

I didn't always think about poetry, about what makes poetry poetry, what makes a successful poem a successful poem. I was making it for two decades before I actually started thinking about it. What then happened is unclear. With my second collection I suspect I sensed I was at a dead end. The stuff was good enough, most of which poems I can stand behind today. But I sensed something wasn't auguring well for the future. At about the same time I made an essay on Modern American Poetry. Essay itself, the reading it required, kind of opened my brain to possible, prosodic, poetic, what?, solutions and engagements. The reading hugely impacted. Suddenly I was thinking, god damn it, what makes a poem a poem? I sense it is its own species, I thought, but how do you I.D. it?

That's when it started, this active thinking about poetry, about two decades ago. Pretty much it came out of a moment of reckoning when I got I was spent, drained, with no new way of saying the old things. And with no different way of saying the biggest things.

Question still remains, right? Why do I think about poetry? Why do any of us? A few convenient answers come to mind, so convenient they amount to Hallmark card cliches. My answer runs like this: next collection must outdo the last, the one before that, the one before that.

Tere
Dec/7/2010, 11:52 pm Link to this post Send Email to Terreson   Send PM to Terreson
 
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Re: How would Montaigne ask the Question


Back to the question. First round answer being less than satisfactory.

The answer may be as simple as that, after all these years of thinking about poetry, I still don't know what makes a poem a poem. I think there is more than a modicum of truth here. Over the years I've gotten good at being able to i.d. the thing when I see it, always the rare specimen. I can identify it no matter local coloration, taste, style, and one literary convention or another that may dominate...for awhile. I've gotten good at culling through my own stuff, separating out the failure from the success. It may take years doing so, but inevitably the unleavened thing falls to the bottom. But this sort of i.d. is always made on the pre-conscious level. And in the same way that in biology animals have the innate capacity for shape identification. Gestalt of form biologists call it. Animals can recognize shapes without having first experienced them. So it is for me when it comes to recognizing a poem, without knowing I know what I know. But again the process is pre-conscious, occurring before any sort of sorting system comes into play. On the conscious level, however, with some sort of sorting system in hand, and with all the elements I might recognize as going into what makes a successful poem a poem, I think I am forced to admit I don't know.

By now, if not all, I've read almost all the experts and authorities who have hazarded a definition of poetry. Starting with Aristotle, whose treatise on poetics is still relevant, well into the 20th C. And I've taken from more than a few of them, especially from those whose definitions have come across as oracular. No one single definition has covered the whole of the case, and patched together there still seems to be something left over, something left unsaid. It is as if, synergistically, the whole of a poem keeps as something still greater than the sum of its parts. Once or twice I've even thought I have finally pinned the case down. For example: A poem is neither comment, complaint, or consolation; it is a seizure and a shiver. Another time I thought the successful poem has about it the holy trinity of gestalt, organic unity, kinetic energy. Not bad. Just not enough. I only know of one other human activity, for lack of a better word, as inexplicable, as less subject to definition. The religious sense. And here too it is either there or it isn't, you either have the oceanic sense, as a Jungian put it, or you don't.

The very practical, common sense question is this: why continue to think about something you are reasonably sure you'll never be able to pin down? Here too the answer must come back: I don't know. While along the way I think I have gained incrementally, step by small step, in poetry comprehensions, it is still no answer. Little more than a by-product, even if it has made all the diffference.

Small story. A couple of weeks ago I was sent two poems by a poet friend who wanted a critical reading. First poem was a failure. No tension, no gestalt, no stand-alone quality, no rhythmic logic to line breaks at best arbitary, no instress, to borrow from Hopkins. In brief it was the kind of poem one finds in a thousand journals. Second poem was just the opposite. It was a poem, fully realized. I told my friend what I thought. In his reply, and about the first poem, he said: You know? It never works for me when I try to force it.

Resolved. There is no answer to my question. A provisional best answer I'll borrow from Socrates. "The life not thought about is not worth living." That is how I feeel about the vocation of poetry. My vocation and nobody else's

Tere
Dec/8/2010, 4:04 pm Link to this post Send Email to Terreson   Send PM to Terreson
 
Christine98 Profile
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Re: How would Montaigne ask the Question


hi Tere,

"next collection must outdo the last..."

In what way? What's the goal? What are you pursuing which each, successive effort must bring you closer to?

While it may be impossible to define what poetry is or should be in the abstract, a focused inquiry along these lines might be more
useful and productive. Just a thought.

Chris


Last edited by Christine98, Dec/9/2010, 2:58 pm
Dec/9/2010, 12:56 pm Link to this post Send Email to Christine98   Send PM to Christine98
 
Terreson Profile
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Re: How would Montaigne ask the Question


Good question, Chris. Closer to what? And I am pretty sure I haven't a good answer.

I've told the story before of how you once saved a poem of mine from the trash heap. It was the Wandering Jew poem. Your comment was simple and succinct. You said the poem gave you the shiver. Instantly I knew the poem had passed the crucial test, that it had succeeded to, but to what? To speaking to your body maybe. To causing an uncontrollable reaction. To, as the saying goes, giving you the sensation of someone stepping on your grave, which sensation also produces a shiver, right? More and more I try to avoid big words when it comes to defining or describing poetry. But if I have to say what successful poetry succeeds to I would say it succeeds to the numinous experience. The closer I get to that the closer I am to getting it right.

As for the second part of your comment, that is precisely what I've spent a good portion of the last two decades doing, defining and describing the elements of the successful poem, which pursuit is what gave rise to the thread's reflection in the first place. I've brrowed from others and devised my own sorting system. I've told the story before of how I used to accept invitations to judge online poetry contests. First time I realized I needed to devise some kind of sorting system in order to keep as objective as possible. So I made a list of the elements of what I think constitute a good poem. Image impact, texture, line rhythm, authentic language, inscape and instress (the Hopkins thing), tension, and the all ready mentioned holy trinity of gestalt, organic unity, and kinetic energy. I can still go with the list. All the more so as it allows me to read a poem in any form, from sonnet, to haiku, to vers libres and judge them all equally, by a criteria that I feel is universal to all successful poetry.

But there are so nmany others elements to think on. For Mallarme the dream of poetry, what gives the greatest pleasure, is to suggest the "thing" and not objectify it. I like that. Poe had his poetic principle involving the brief, effective conveyance of beauty. For Aristotle the big thing was to master the metaphor, something he said could not be taught. And the list goes on.

I guess in sum I come back to what I call the holy trinity. Does the poem have gestalt of form? Can I "see" the shape of it projected, hovering just above the page? Does the poem have organic unity? Do all of its parts relate to each other organically? When they do the poem becomes a thing-in-itself, a whole world self-contained, standing on its own. And does the poem have kinetic energy? Does the charge of it carry it all the way over from you, the poet, to me the reader.

So this is some of what I look for. This is certainly how I judge my own success and failure. Still, I am forced to admit that and all sorting systems cannot comprehend the whole of the poetic body, what I view corporealy. Whitman said something huge late in his career. No rule can abide, he said, so that some great exception doesn't come along and overturn it.

Almost forgot. The numinous or the noumenon. Here is what the notion scared up in Baudelaire's poem "Correspondences." This is how he tried to describe the kind of numinous experience poetry can bring about.

http://fleursdumal.org/poem/103


Tere

Last edited by Terreson, Dec/9/2010, 5:53 pm
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