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Poetry Comprehensions


Many years ago I knew a young girl, a teenage girl who for awhile was my step-daughter. We got to be good friends. One evening after dinner she wanted to show me a poem that clearly meant something to her. The meaning of the poem, its affect on her came through in her voice which was hushed. She wasn't a poet. At least, she wasn't a studied and self-consciously declared poet. She knew nothing about poetics, prosodics, and theory. I, on the other hand, was a self-consciously declared poet. I was certain in my sense of what makes for good poetry and I was categorical in my thinking.

The poem she wanted to show me was a Dylan Thomas poem that, for some reason, had moved her to her core. I guess she figured she could share her discovery with someone who said he was a poet. I hadn't actually taken on Dylan in those years. I hadn't taken his measure yet. And I certainly hadn't responded to his genius for language and for fleshing out the essentials of the human condition sensually.

I read the poem she put in my hands and I harshly panned it for being incomprehensible. My young friend was crushed in the way anyone feels crushed who has just made herself vulnerable and trusting, but who has been slapped down. Her mother roundly took me to task for being judgemental and closed in my thinking. I can still see that moment some twenty-six years later. Since then not only have I dove down into Dylan, absorbed his way, I have taken from him and leaned on him. I figure I have a young, unlettered girl to thank for righting my mind.

So what does it mean to have a certain capacity for poetry? What does it mean to possess a certain poetry comprehension? Is it innate? Instinctive? Are you born with it? Is it pre-conscious? Is it, as Housman maintained, an other-than-intellectual activity. Can the capacity for poetry comprehension get parsed, taught, enforced?

Since that evening I've met so many people, young and old, whose poetry comprehensions have blown me away. I've noticed they tend not to be overt intellectual types, or poets with an agenda or a program. At this late date I am inclined to think the capacity for poetry comprehension is, in fact, pre-conscious, something other than an intellectual activity, a capacity for as easily spotting the viable poem in a sonnet, a terzanelle, a haiku, in vers libres, or in free verse.

Of course my ramblings only beg the further question. What the f**k makes a poem a poem? What could my young friend respond to in her whole body at the time that I couldn't? I don't think there is any bigger, more essential question facing down poetry purveyors and poetry readers alike than this. And I am on the verge of deciding the question is unanswerable.

All these years later. And while I feel I have grown enough to be able to spot a poem when I see it, no matter the manner or bias, I still can't name its coordinates.

Tere
Sep/28/2008, 5:05 pm Link to this post Send Email to Terreson   Send PM to Terreson
 
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Re: Poetry Comprehensions


It strikes me, from your description, that your young friend responded to the poem viscerally, somatically, in her whole being. She experienced the poem.

This is what you and I have talked about a lot, as something essential to a poem, that a poem must have, in order to be a poem. It is somewhat hard to put into words exactly what that is, but it's there, and it's traceable.

For me, this is where metadiscussion fails: i.e. this is where words fail. I guess it's heretical for a poet to say so, and I certainly get attacked for saying it as often as I do, but there are some experiences that just don't fit into words. They're pre-verbal, or too complex, and a moment would take a novel to describe. (Think of Proust's madeleine.) I find for myself, as an artist, that words often fail. They're insufficient. I often turn first to other media, as a way of trying to share the experience.

But the soma experience is what it's all about, I still think.

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Re: Poetry Comprehensions


"innate, instinctive, pre-conscious..." I would add: common.

How else can you explain the following?

"...Auden became the surprise bestseller of the 1990s after his work was quoted in "Four Weddings and a Funeral."

from a June 2001 article in "The Independent"

I'm not posting this to be provocative or to take up an old argument. Just happen to believe it's true.

I think the placement of that poem within the
narrative and emotional context of the film demonstrates the relevance, even the necessity of poetry in our lives. Apparently
a lot of consumers of popular culture found it necessary to get some poetry in their lives. All they needed was a little push.

Chris




Sep/29/2008, 9:55 am Link to this post Send Email to ChrisD1   Send PM to ChrisD1
 
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Yes, Dragonman, we've discussed somatic knowledge, or simply knowing with the whole body, disregarding the body/mind split, a number of times. And it seems to be what we both continue to return to in discussing everything from art to knowing itself to spirituality. I don't know how you came onto soma knowing as the way. For me it was through an author and thinker popular in the eighties. Morris Berman. I read two of his books in the mid-eighties. "Coming To Our Senses: body and spirit in the hidden history of the West." And "The Reenchantment of the World." In both cases he looked to get beyond, or before, the Cartesian paradigm, what has amounted to a dichotomizing of how people think, feel, sense perceive. (Thank you Morris Berman.)

And I agree with you. In some respects, when it comes to expression, words are both limited and limiting. I sometimes think music is the highest form, art a close second, poetry a distant third, and prose a basement bargain. Unfortunately, while musically talented, I am not disciplined or trained. Nor am I artistically talented. So I've chosen to work within the limitations of words while, at the same time, borrowing from music's rhythmicality and from art's visual insistence on the sensual.

And, Chrisfriend, the point is taken. I get passing tired of the (really) high browed avant garde attitude that looks to self-consciously promote its program by way of putting down the comprehensions of pop culture. It isn't that I think Billy Collins, say, is a memorable poet. (truth be told I am not sure he is a poet at all.) But I think there is a third way of approaching the thing.

You mention the Auden example of the poet suddenly getting attention because of a popular movie covering a poem of his. Let me add to your list. In Russia of the nineties when Yevtoshenko gave readings in sporting arenas it was in order to accomodate the number of people who came to hear him. Lorca continues to be read by workers and lower class people in Spain. The same is true of Neruda in South America. And I love this story. Edna St. Vincent Millay always gave readings to SRO (standing room only) crowds.

Your example and mine point to both a poetry comprehension maybe pre-conscious, certainly unexplainable, and to a certain thirst for poetry. I still can't explain poetry comprehension, even if I am certain it is real and, I think, instinctive. But I think I know something about the thirst for poetry. I think it has to do with how poets can say things many people think, feel, sense, but don't know how to say or capture as affectively as poets can.

Tere
Sep/29/2008, 6:50 pm Link to this post Send Email to Terreson   Send PM to Terreson
 
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I'm okay with "common" if by that you mean shared experience, common responses, common ground among people, the universal human condition. Yet I'm not at all in agreement if you meant "lowest common denominator." Billy Collins is a LCD poet, and I find it hard to call him a poet at all. I'm not arguing that obscurity for its own sake is good, nor that poetry should be "hard." I don't find most "difficult" poetry particularly difficult myself, and have often wondered where that criticism came from. There are parts of Auden that I very much like and respect; I also think he went out of his way to pander, at times, and I have no use for pandering.

But I do agree that lots more folks would probably like poetry a lot more than they claim to, if they had the occasional push like the Auden example shows. A similar phenomenon happened with Neruda's poetry after the movie "The Postman (Il Postino)" came out; in fact, there was a CD recording of various actors and others reading Neruda poems, that was released after the movie became a success. So the hunger for poetry is definitely there, among the "common" people.

My difficulty with LCD poetry is not elitism, it comes from a place of believing that there's so much more available, so much more inspiration out there, that LCD poetry just is inadequate. It strikes me as settling for something less than great, and making do. This is like saying, sometimes, "Oh I'll just make the best of things," instead of looking for the best of what's there. There are some poets who are common poets who DO give us the best of things. (I'll put up Pinsky as a far more interesting poet than Collins on precisely this criterion.)

I'm not into the high-brow "fine art literature" thing per se, not for its own sake; but reverse snobbery I am also not into. I find both extremes to be problematic. At the same time, I don't deny that I have eclectic tastes. That means I like fine art as well as pop art, with no apologies. I am as comfortable in a blues bar as I am at the classical concert hall, and I've played both in my time. I'm not comfortable with pretension and snootiness in the arts, no matter what medium it turns up in. I've had plenty of discussions with smart people who posed as anti-intellectuals because they wanted to be "common." So there's a bit of baggage around that word.

So, if "common" means inclusive and universal, shared experience, then I'm all for it.

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I've read Morris Berman, and re-read him. Very important thinking, and I'm glad you mentioned him, because I think his points are very relevant. In fact, there may in Berman be an answer to your original question.

It's funny about the inadequacy of words. I have been actually yelled at, pretty much called a traitor, by poets, when I mentioned how words fail us and can't be trusted. It's funny because bards and skalds and great poets have all said the same sort of thing. So did St. Thomas Aquinas, at the last, the great man of words saying that everything he's written was inadequate.

I know a poet who thinks that poetry is THE highest art form. Mind you, I think the whole ranking of art forms is ridiculous, because they all have strengths and weaknesses, and such rankings are pointless. Some poets, though, seem so committed to their ideas about this that an outsider observer can only conclude that they are prejudiced by their emotional investment in their own artform. Either that, or they really don't have a clue about music or visual art or anything else. This poet I mentioned thought words were more abstract than any other medium, therefore poetry had to be the highest artform. But I think there music is far more abstract than words, and all artforms that don't rely on words can be thought of as more abstract. Obviously the argument gets a little silly, ennit?

Anyway, good to think about.

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Sep/29/2008, 9:59 pm Link to this post Send Email to Dragon59   Send PM to Dragon59
 
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Re: Poetry Comprehensions


Dragon,

Yes: "inclusive and universal, shared experience..."

No: I'm not in favor of poetry which appeals to
the lowest common denominator.

I think it is significant that it was Auden and
not Billy Collins who elicited that response. I don't know about Auden's pandering tendencies, but I'll take your word for it.

Chris
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quote:

Dragon59 wrote:

I've read Morris Berman, and re-read him. Very important thinking, and I'm glad you mentioned him, because I think his points are very relevant. In fact, there may in Berman be an answer to your original question.

It's funny about the inadequacy of words. I have been actually yelled at, pretty much called a traitor, by poets, when I mentioned how words fail us and can't be trusted. It's funny because bards and skalds and great poets have all said the same sort of thing. So did St. Thomas Aquinas, at the last, the great man of words saying that everything he's written was inadequate.

I know a poet who thinks that poetry is THE highest art form. Mind you, I think the whole ranking of art forms is ridiculous, because they all have strengths and weaknesses, and such rankings are pointless. Some poets, though, seem so committed to their ideas about this that an outsider observer can only conclude that they are prejudiced by their emotional investment in their own artform. Either that, or they really don't have a clue about music or visual art or anything else. This poet I mentioned thought words were more abstract than any other medium, therefore poetry had to be the highest artform. But I think there music is far more abstract than words, and all artforms that don't rely on words can be thought of as more abstract. Obviously the argument gets a little silly, ennit?

Anyway, good to think about.



Dragonman, without trying to be snippy, I have to assume that any poet who doesn't get that words, in the end, are inadequate to the task of containing, conveying, expressing, or comprehending the viscera of existence hasn't pushed his ken of experience far enough. Mind you, I say this speaking as a committed poet. I am sure you know what I mean. Recognizing the limitations of poetry is exactly what incites me to both work within the limits and push against them. I figure this is true of all committed poets.

Tere

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Re: Poetry Comprehensions


quote:

I think it is significant that it was Auden and
not Billy Collins who elicited that response. I don't know about Auden's pandering tendencies, but I'll take your word for it.

Chris



Auden's tendencies were to want to be loved. His early successes were hard to duplicate later in life, and some of her later verse suffers for the desire. That's all I meant.

You're quite right that it's significant that it was Auden who elicited that response; and his worst poem is still better than Collins.

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quote:

Dragonman, without trying to be snippy, I have to assume that any poet who doesn't get that words, in the end, are inadequate to the task of containing, conveying, expressing, or comprehending the viscera of existence hasn't pushed his ken of experience far enough. Mind you, I say this speaking as a committed poet. I am sure you know what I mean. Recognizing the limitations of poetry is exactly what incites me to both work within the limits and push against them. I figure this is true of all committed poets.

Tere




It's cool to be snippy, because I know you're not being snippy at me. emoticon I agree with everything you say above. I completely agree about artistic commitment, and recognizing the limitations as being essential to poetic maturity. I still marvel that any poet would have ever attacked me in the way I described. It's truly indicative, in my opinion, of an poet who really needs to get more.

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Re: Poetry Comprehensions


quote:

ChrisD1 wrote:

Dragon,

Yes: "inclusive and universal, shared experience..."

No: I'm not in favor of poetry which appeals to
the lowest common denominator.

I think it is significant that it was Auden and
not Billy Collins who elicited that response. I don't know about Auden's pandering tendencies, but I'll take your word for it.

Chris



Chrisfriend, I've always loved the Zhivago story about a best loved poet. You know the story about a gifted poet whose commonality was universal to the Slavic soul. This is the spirit in which I read your comments.

And think about it. Think about what Pasternak did. Zhivago didn't have two great loves. He had three. He had his wife-friend, he had his warrior-lover, and he had his mother Russia. Thus the trifold inspiration for his Slavic commonality (universality).

Another favorite story comes to mind. Some years ago, soon after the collapse of the Soviet Union, because of circumstances I got to meet a bunch of Russians having come to America. I remember this one teen-ager, a young man who was half Slav, half Tatar. One day his American sponsor asked him a question. "So who do you figure is Russia's greatest poet?" With some disdain at the dumbness of the question the young man answered, "Pushkin, of course." Commonality again.

Tere
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Tere,

Sorry for not responding sooner, I didn't know
you'd posted the previous comment.

Now I need to think about my use of the word, "common." Off the top of my head, I meant the
ability to respond to poetry with energy and appreciation is 'common'. Not something limited
to a few. So it was the ability to appreciate poetry I was referring to as 'common'; not the poetry itself.

Now I think you're suggesting it's the embodiment of commonality/universality in some poetry which elicits the response. Two sides of the same coin?

Chris
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quote:

ChrisD1 wrote:

Tere,

Sorry for not responding sooner, I didn't know
you'd posted the previous comment.

Now I need to think about my use of the word, "common." Off the top of my head, I meant the
ability to respond to poetry with energy and appreciation is 'common'. Not something limited
to a few. So it was the ability to appreciate poetry I was referring to as 'common'; not the poetry itself.

Now I think you're suggesting it's the embodiment of commonality/universality in some poetry which elicits the response. Two sides of the same coin?

Chris



I think so, Chrisfriend, that they are two sides of the same coin. I think the ability to respond to poetry is, in your sense, common. In my sense, instinctive, and reaching back to the very first songs and chants of primitive, village based society. I also think that poetry, along with music and painting, are tied to the roots of civilization. So tied, so common to the human animal. Conversly I think that to the extent to which society is non-traditional, industrial and commercial and non-agrarian based, the common or instinctive ability to respond to poetry gets sorely challenged. Reason being: the more advanced the society the more removed from natural interactions; the more removed, the less instinctively responsive to the same. (If nature is on the run, as they say, and she is, the same is true of all the arts.) A hundred years ago we wouldn't be having this conversation as it wouldn't even be an issue. Now for the otherside of the coin in my view.

Somewhere in his late journals Yeats said a thing I read a good thirty years ago and that has stuck with me. Paraphrasing from memory he said that the ancients (poets) spoke to the whole man. The moderns speak to only parts of a man. Man!, this has stuck with me, trying to figure out what Yeats meant. I think he meant that the ancients spoke to a universality in the human condition. That the moderns speak to conditions peculiar to the poet. For me at least, Goethe speaks to the whole person. Starting with Poe and Baudelaire modern poets have been inclined to speak to the specifics of their own conditions. (Exceptions such as Lorca and Neruda noted.) Sappho and even as late as Dickinson and Akhmatova the poem is written to the whole person. I am not sure the same can be said for the likes of Sexton, Plath, Oliver, etc. This change may be a good thing and it may be a bad thing. I am not passing judgement. It just is what it is.

So yeah. There is a certain commonality to the instinct for poetry. Just as there is a certain universality to the instinct for poetry. But I am not sure if this means every person has an instinct anymore for either.

Now you got me to thinking. I am going to say something I am sure I should get heat for. I figure the greatest danger to poetry right now, and to all the arts, is and has been the tendency to over-intellectualize. Poetry doesn't speak to the head alone for the very good reason that the head doesn't own the body.

Tere
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Over-intellectualizing is exactly what's wrong with contemporary poetry. It's come loose from it's moorings in the whole person, and mostly speaks only to the head. That's why LangPo is what it is: it's purely mental.

Auden wrote in his study of poetry, "The Enchafed Flood," about the difference between the City and Desert, and he made some very similar points to yours, Tere, about the change from an agrarian to an industrialized culture. He didn't think it was necessarily a loss, but a change. The values of being connected to natural interaction are still available, even if one has to work a bit harder to find them. I'm not convinced it's a loss, either, but rather a change one must accept. Not all aspects of it are life-enriching, but not all are life-denying either.

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Interesting, Dragonman. For me the alert came by way of Graves and his White Goddess study. And Graves, as you know, deliberately turned his back on what he called the urban industrial complex.

I have an essay published on line some years ago treating with a consequence of what to me has become a city/country split in poetry. The essay came out reading a debate between two poets, one living in NYC and the other living in the mountains of Colorado. In brief the two poets challenged each other on the material each respectively drew. I remember the city poet especially saying, 'I would draw on nature too if I had some.' My sense is that the city poet, and the city poetry reader, cannot connect to the pathos the country poet draws out of natural interactions and what tends to get built into the country poet's metaphors. A hawk in flight, say, a heron in a creek, or the seasonal dramas bundled up in harvesting and sowing. On the other hand a city poet tends to be inclined to human interactions played out in the interior of rooms, hallways, even on the streets. Inclined also I think to trade less in metaphors and more in images made to objectify experience, make it concrete so to speak.

Anyway, if there is any thing to my thesis it may simply point to the extent to which artists are limited by their immediate environments. Just like everyone else I suppose.

Side note here. Six years ago I was living in the mountain wilderness of the north Olympic Peninsula. To a large extent my poetry drew on that habitat. Moving to a city while, at the same time spending a good portion of my working week in the bayous and Louisiana country side, much of my poetry has recently sought to bring a naturalist's eye to what I find in an urban environment. I suppose in some way my intention has been to try to bridge a certain environmental divide.

Tere
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One reason I like Loren Eiseley's poetry so much is that he was able to bridge that divide. One thing he pointed out over and over again, to your city poet's possible chagrin, was that the city is still part of the natural world, and interfingers with it. There is no real separation.

Auden's argument was in part that these are mental constructions, limitations we impose upon ourselves and our perceptions. Auden talks about tropes and patterns within Romantic literature that set up the assumptions we continue to make about such separations. We assume, if we live in the city, that we're separated from "nature." But all of life is nature. The city is part of nature.

I think the problem is perhaps that the city poet, in your example, suffers from being overwhelmed by too many people, too much distracting input, and can't see through them to anything else. Foreground vs. background, dominance of attention. Eiseley pointed out in several poems how simply shifting one's attention can get one past this perspective, this human tendency towards narcissism, and expand one's awareness of nature coinhabiting with the city.

Peregrine falcons nest on the skyscrapers. There is a pack of wild coyotes living in Chicago. Bald eagles fly up the Mississippi River valley through downtown Minneapolis. I have seen all of these things.

It is certainly true that environment plays a huge part in any artist's life, in terms of local inspiration, materials to hand, the things that make up daily life that end up in the art, and so forth. (Pat and I have talked about this.)

But so does imagination, which is not limited to one's immediate surroundings. If a country poet writes only about the country, using only natural metaphors, and the city poet writes only about human relationships, the dramas within walls, then perhaps both are suffering from a lack of imagination. Trading places temporarily might be good for both of them.

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I get your point, Dragonman, and Eisely's. Of course you are right. Upthread, and mentioning a most recent collection of poetry just finished, I have in mind what you mean when speaking of bridging a certain environmental divide.

Having said as much, however, two thoughts come to mind. First, in the urbanscape when nature, for lack of a better word, does show the appearance is furtive and guarded and wary, in a sense looking hunted, as indeed it is. Maybe it is a little different in more enlightened cities, such as in the Pacific Northwest, where greater breadth is given to green space. But generally such is not the case. For example. I live in an apartment complex. I took it for two reasons. Rent was cheap and the buildings were perfectly inside the canopy cover of big old trees. With a change in landlords the campaign has been to entirely denude the property. So I think it is right to say that nature, when found in the urbanscape, is kept on the run.

Second thought and something we've talked about before: Robinson Jeffers' notion concerning his "inhumanism."

From his Roan Stallion poem:

"Humanity is
the start of the race; I say
Humanity is the mold to break away from, the crust to
break through, the coal to break into fire
The atom to be split."

About his philosophy he called Inhumanism "a shifting of emphasis from man to not man; the rejection of human solipsism and recognition of the transhuman magnificence."

I know you know all of this stuff. Still, I guess I find very little transhumanly magnificent in the urban experience for poetry, for any art, to draw on.

Anyway, in one of the poetry forums maybe I'll show a poem that I think plays with what you and Eisely point to.

Tere
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I think you're right about how people try hard to exclude the wild from the tamed, nature from the city, the wilderness from the landscaped. There is no good reason for manicured green lawns in desert Arizona's sunbelt; it's pretty much insane, but it speaks to this attempt to dominate the land. John McPhee's book "The Control of Nature" is all about grand attempts to control natural forces, and how they almost inevitably fail. The Taoist's had it right when they said, essentially, flow with it, don't fight against it.

But control, dominance, and separation are all illusions. One is tempted to call them outright delusions. They're all attitudes that have grown up in our culture as a direct result of the formulations, "spirit good, matter bad." You read this in philosophy and theology constantly, all the way from Augustine to Descartes, picking only two of the best-known formulators. If matter isn't enspirited, then need have no guilt about exploiting it. Anyway, you know what I mean.

The point is, and lots of poets and other visionaries have said it millions of times: we too are part of nature, we cannot divorce ourselves from it. So it's hard not to see these attempts to remove nature from the city as neurotic, or worse. As Joni Mitchell once wrote, "They paved paradise and put up a parking lot."

You wanna hear one of the silliest examples of this I've ever encountered?

When I was living in the SF East Bay area in California for those two years, there was a mall in our suburb that was where we went for grocery shopping. There was the usual strip of fast food joints along the highway. Well, one month they tore down an old Taco Bell building, there at the turnoff. A month later they had erected . . . a new Taco Bell! Um, excuse me? What the hell?

So, every time we drove by there afterwards, we couldn't help but misquote Joni, "They paved Taco Bell and put up a Taco Bell." Go figure.

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Not sure what this post might have to do with poetry comprehensions, except that it may have everything to do with poetry comprehnsions.

I read a report today that makes small the present economic and global crisis. Up to a quarter of mammallian species are put down for extinction within 100 years.

I think Joseph Campbell had a point when he said that, if there is a way out of the modern crisis, it will come through poets.

Tere
Oct/6/2008, 7:32 pm Link to this post Send Email to Terreson   Send PM to Terreson
 


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