Why do we read poetry? Why should we?
April is National Poetry Month, so it makes sense to take advantage of it to introduce a new series on poetry at Mere Orthodoxy. Its objective is simple: to read some poems, discuss them, think about them, enjoy them.
We begin with a poem that acknowledges the difficulty many people have with the medium: Marianne Moore’s “Poetry,” first published in Others for 1919: An Anthology of the New Verse, and subsequently revised by Moore several times until only the first three lines of the poem remained. I quote and discuss the version in her 1924 collection Observations, which consists of a five-line stanza surrounded by two pairs of six-line stanzas and which can be found here.
Moore begins disarmingly, somewhat confidentially, bringing the reader in, as though he is having an intimate conversation with her:
I, too, dislike it: there are things that are important beyond all this fiddle.
“Yes,” she says, “many people dislike poetry; and so do I. Mustn’t there be other things more worthwhile?”
And yet, even if one hates it as he reads it, he may suddenly find himself struck. She goes on:
Reading it, however, with a perfect contempt for it, one discovers that there is in
it after all, a place for the genuine.
“A place for the genuine”–this is a term she will return to later in the poem. But already she gives us some examples of what she means:
Hands that can grasp, eyes
that can dilate, hair that can rise
if it must…
Though Aristotle says in the Poetics that poetry is superior to history because of its ability to express universals, it comes to those universals by way of particulars. Moore here gives us some images of just the sorts of particulars to which a poem can give voice, and, in giving them voice, draw our attention to them.
The reason we should attend to such quotidian realities, moreover, might come as something of a surprise. Moore continues:
…these things are important not because a
high sounding interpretation can be put upon them but because they are
useful; when they become so derivative as to become unintelligible,
the same thing may be said for all of us, that we
do not admire what
we cannot understand…
These everyday objects are significant not because they are susceptible to highfalutin language and verbal display, Horace’s purpureus pannus, but rather because they are “useful.” A funny thing to say, that. What does it mean? Perhaps we cannot yet understand for certain, but can only speculate. Useful to think with? Useful for getting a grip on the world as it is? Useful for cultivating the capacity to notice?
But her meaning cannot be absolutely up for grabs. We must be able to understand something of what she means, for, as Moore says just afterwards, “we/do not admire what/we cannot understand.” But the reader in his turn might object: Is that true? Surely we can admire things we don’t fully comprehend–the human brain, for instance, or, as Agur says, “[t]he way of an eagle in the air,…and the way of a man with a maid.” One could be forgiven for finding himself in a state of aporia.
Aporia, the sense of being at a loss, should provoke further reflection. So let’s look again at what comes between the claims about the useful and about the relation between admiration and understanding: the contrast with what is “useful” about these images is their “becom[ing] so derivative as to become unintelligible.” So we can say something more: when a figure or image becomes “derivative”–a cliché, for instance–it no longer provides an aid to understanding the thing it is meant to elucidate. Think of a dead metaphor: writers often have “deadlines,” but for how many of them does that word conjure the image of “a line drawn…around a prison that a prisoner passes at the risk of being shot”?
Perhaps “understanding” is different from “comprehension” as I used it above, then. Perhaps to “admire” something, to be struck with amazement at it, requires some understanding of it, even if it is only partial, for that partial, or even piecemeal, understanding can form the bridge that connects us with the object in question. Poetry done right, Moore seems to say, can help to do that, to form that connection. We may be inching closer to a sense of what she means by poetry’s having “a place for the genuine” in the first stanza.
Not fortuitously does Moore immediately return to a catalog of the real, as she proceeds to give a longer list of the kinds of images a poem can show us:
holding on upside down or in quest of something to
eat, elephants pushing, a wild horse taking a roll, a tireless wolf under
a tree, the immovable critic twinkling his skin like a horse that feels a flea, the base
ball fan, the statistician–…
An intriguing combination: four animals, followed by a critic who resembles an animal, and then onto further pedestrian examples of humanity. Moore knows she could go on ad infinitum (in an earlier version of the poem she says, “[C]ase after case/could be cited did/one wish it”). “Heaven and earth are full of more things” etc., Horatio says to Hamlet.
Her mundane examples, it should be emphasized, are meant to be mundane. Such ordinary things ought to be the stuff of poetry. One might say, then, that part of what poetry can do is render the ordinary visible in a way it previously was not. Moore goes yet further:
…nor is it valid
to discriminate against “business documents and
school-books”; all these phenomena are important.
Poetry deals with things that appear, as they appear to us: with “phenomena.” One gets the sense that these phenomena are significant simply by virtue of being in the world. And it is not “valid,” she says–almost as though it would be illogical, for validity has to do with reasoning–to show prejudice against them as having no place in art. The least remarkable things around us–“‘business documents and school-books’”–are, after their fashion, in fact remarkable.
Moore’s quotation marks around that phrase, by the way, are not incidental. Who is her interlocutor? As has often been pointed out (indeed, Moore herself tells us), she is citing the Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy.
In an undated note written between 1851 and 1853, Tolstoy dilates upon the seemingly permeable “boundary between prose and poetry”:
Lamartine says that writers neglect the composition of popular literature; that the greatest
‘number of readers is to be found among the masses; and that writers write only for the circle in which they themselves move, despite the fact that the masses, which comprise persons hungering for enlightenment, have no literature of their own, and never will have until writers shall begin to write also for the people. This does not refer to books written with the aim of finding many readers: such works are not compositions, but mere products of the literary cult. What is meant is educational and erudite works which do not come within the province of poetry.’
(Where the boundary between prose and poetry lies I shall never be able to understand. The question is raised in manuals of style, yet the answer to it lies beyond me. Poetry is verse: prose is not verse. Or else poetry is everything with the exception of business documents and school books.)
Something very interesting is happening here. Tolstoy paraphrases Lamartine, who laments the lack of a truly literary literature with mass appeal, and who explicitly excludes poetry from his consideration. This prompts a parenthetical remark from Tolstoy about the blurry line that separates poetry from prose. Perhaps, he says, it “is everything with the exception of business documents and school books.”
Back to Moore. Moore in every respect one-ups Tolstoy: she writes a poem that blurs the line separating it from prose while nevertheless remaining a poem; she commiserates with an imagined ordinary reader (“I, too, dislike it”), thus attempting to extend the beneficent effects of poetry (not prose) to the common man; and she extends its possible subject-matter so widely that it must not “discriminate against ‘business documents and/school-books.’” Where Tolstoy had said that that exclusion was perhaps the one characteristic that separates poetry from prose, Moore says, “No, even those things can make fitting material for poetry.” And why? Again, “all these phenomena are important.”
Still, one must be careful here. There is a way of talking about real things that makes them unreal, a kind of poetry-manqué that is not real poetry, but rather the domain of “half poets”:
One must make a distinction
however: when dragged into prominence by half poets, the result is not poetry…
Instead, what we need are what one might call “full poets,” whom Moore designates “‘literalists of the imagination.’” The phrase–once again, Moore tells us–is another quotation, this time from the Irish poet William Butler Yeats. It comes from his Ideas of Good and Evil (1903), from the chapter called “William Blake and His Illustrations to The Divine Comedy.” There, Yeats observes:
The limitation of [Blake’s] view was from the very intensity of his vision; he was a too literal realist of imagination, as others are of nature; and because he believed that the figures seen by the mind’s eye, when exalted by inspiration, were ‘eternal existences,’ symbols of divine essences, he hated every grace of style that might obscure their lineaments. To wrap them about in reflected lights was to do this, and to dwell over-fondly upon any softness of hair or flesh was to dwell upon that which was least permanent and least characteristic, for ‘The great and golden rule of art, as of life, is this: that the more distinct, sharp and wiry the boundary-line, the more perfect the work of art; and the less keen and sharp, the greater is the evidence of weak imitation, plagiarism and bungling.’
Moore, unlike Yeats, seems to like this description as an artistic goal–but with a twist. Moore does not wish for poets to invent imaginary concrete symbols and raise them to the ontological status of “‘eternal existences,’” but to provide the opportunity to observe, to notice, really concrete objects in an imaginary context, to depict things that, while in some sense unreal (because they are images in a poem), are nevertheless real (because taken from, and representative of, the real world)–to recognize, that is, the exalted ontological status of the ordinary.
What she wants, in other words–and what a fine phrase this is–are “imaginary gardens with real toads in them”:
…nor till the poets among us can be
insolence and triviality and can present
for inspection, imaginary gardens with real toads in them, shall we have
“It” here is, of course, “poetry.” The phrase “for inspection” is doing some heavy lifting in this passage: as I said just above, one of the functions of poetry is to help the reader attend to the world–the one that actually exists–in a new and deeper way. Or, put it this way: poetry gives voice to the things that are, and thus in a sense speaks the world into existence for the reader. And by so doing, it helps us to see. Powerful speech leads to clarified vision.
In this way poetry gives us the “genuine.” Our English adjective comes from the Latin genuinus, “innate, native, natural.” Poetry gives us what is natural to the world; it takes what was always there and, by speaking it to us, allows us finally to see it for the first time.
It would of course be possible to engage in a theological juke here, and point out how, in performing this role, the poet imitates God as Creator, who speaks the world into existence in a divine poiesis. It would be possible; but is it really necessary?
The redeemed Christian looking at creation anew, with as it were second sight, supposes that such a claim about poiesis has the sort of necessity that belongs to the truth; but, on the other hand, many poets and many readers of poetry would not accept the formulation and are nonetheless capable of making and enjoying poetry, so that the recognition of this truth does not have what we might call the necessity of use. More succinctly, poets work out their craft whether their souls have been redeemed or not. This is simply another way of saying that poetry belongs in the first instance to the order of creation rather than to the order of redemption. It is a common good that serves a common purpose.
In any case, it is past time to conclude. I leave Moore with the last word:
…In the meantime, if you demand on one hand,
the raw material of poetry in
all its rawness and
that which is on the other hand
genuine, then you are interested in poetry.
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- On this opening the poet Donald Hall comments: “In her well-known poem, “Poetry,” Miss Moore begins, “I too, dislike it.” This line has been interpreted as ironic, as an attempt to disarm, or as evidence that she practices her art only half-seriously. Quite obviously, however, her reasoning is serious. She refers to a kind of poetry that is neither honest nor sincere but that has found fashionable approval by virtue of its very obscurity.” ↑
- He says: “Poetry, therefore, is a more philosophical and a higher thing than history: for poetry tends to express the universal, history the particular.” ↑
- George Orwell discusses this phenomenon in “Politics and the English Language.” ↑
- To quote Donald Hall again: “The raw material for poetry abounds, it is everywhere, is anything, but it must be imaginatively grasped.” ↑