Of Poetry

  • If I were asked to compare poetry with a city, I think I will be confident about Anastasia. As Italo Calvino says, “the description of Anastasia awakens desire one at a time only to force you to stifle them, when you are in the heart of Anastasia one morning your desires waken all at once and surround you, The city appears to you as a whole where no desire is lost and on which you are a part, and since it enjoys everything you do not enjoy, you can do nothing but inhibit this desire and be content. Such is power, sometimes malignant, sometimes benign, that Anastasia, the treacherous city, possesses; your labour which gives form to desire takes from desire its form, and you believe you are enjoying Anastasia wholly when you are only its slave.”You, as poet, or a reader, are just poetry’s slave. You think you are enjoying it, your perceptions take forms, and misty winds caress your bosom, tress sing their sorrow to the night, skies fall on the demise of a lover in Venice, and perhaps you become everything that is not including yourself. For you the world becomes less foreign, you feel less alienated, less extremely other perhaps and all that is created in your mind by this treacherous mist called poetry.

    I wonder if Aristotle was right in saying that the basis of all poetry is metaphor. Nothing can be freshly seen in itself until it is seen first as something else. It is this image making that now, perhaps unifies world poetry and its readers.
    We live in an age of modern poetry. Before we take the argument further we need to expound upon this ‘modern’ age of ours. Since the evolution of the art of writing there have been as many modernities and antiquities as there are epochs and societies: the Aztecs were moderns compared to the Olmecs, as Alexander was to Amenophis IV.

    The “modernist” poetry of Rubén Darío was an antique for the ultraists, and futurism now strikes us more as a relic than an aesthetic. The modern age, said Ocatvio Paz in his Berkley Tanner Lecture,  cannot help but be tomorrow’s antiquity, But for the moment we have to resign ourselves and accept that we live in the modern age, conscious of the fact that the label is both ambivalent and provisional.

    That brings us to the main argument of how one should consider a poetic work.

    I am of an opinion that we are to consider poetry in its essence, and apart from the flaws which in most poems accompany their poetry. We are to include in the idea of poetry the metrical form, and not to regard this as a mere accident or a mere vehicle.

    And, finally, poetry being poems, we are to think of a poem as it actually exists; and, without aiming here at accuracy, we may say that an actual poem is the succession of experiences—sounds, images, thoughts, emotions—through which we pass when we are reading as poetically as we can.

    Of course this imaginative experience—if I may use the phrase for brevity—differs with every reader and every time of reading: a poem exists in innumerable degrees. But that insurmountable fact lies in the nature of things.

    I wish to drag your attention towards the consideration of ulterior ends, that is whether by the poet in the act of composing or by the reader in the act of experiencing, tends to lower poetic value.

    It does so because it tends to change the nature of poetry by taking it out of its own atmosphere.

    As a mentioned earlier, its nature is to be not a part, nor yet a copy, of the real world, but to be a world by itself, independent, complete, autonomous; and to possess it fully you must enter that world, conform to its laws, and ignore for the time the beliefs, aims, and particular conditions which belong to you in the other world of reality.

    Thus, no doubt, one main reason why poetry has poetic value for us is that it presents to us in its own way something which we meet in another form in nature or life; and yet the test of its poetic value for us lies simply in the question whether it satisfies our imagination; the rest of us, our knowledge or conscience, for example, judging it only so far as they appear transmuted in our imagination.

    1 believe, to anyone who reads poetry poetically and who closely examines his experience.

    When you are reading a poem, I would ask—not analysing it, and much less criticizing it, but allowing it, as it proceeds, to make its full impression on you through the exertion of your recreating imagination—do you then apprehend and enjoy as one thing a certain meaning or substance, and as another thing certain articulate sounds, and do you somehow compound these two? Surely you do not, any more than you apprehend apart, when you see someone smile, those lines in the face which express a feeling, and the feeling that the lines express. Just as there the lines and their meaning are to you one thing, not two, so in poetry the meaning and the sounds are one: there is, if I may put it so, a resonant meaning, or a meaning resonance.

    And poetry, if we ‘do’ it, we do it wrong, and we defeat our own purposes, when we try to bend it to them, the readers for it is as the air invulnerable, and our vain blows malicious mockery.

    It is a spirit. It comes we know not whence. It will not speak at our bidding, nor answer in our language. It is not our servant; it is our master.

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