Tuesday, January 02, 2007

We link ...

... you decide: Does Poetry Have a Social Function? (Hat tip, Dave Lull.)

What do I think? I think the question represents a category error. On New Year's Eve, one of our dinner guests, a beutiful Chinese woman, read several classical Chinese poems for us. This proved that Auden was right when he said that when you hear real poetry it doesn't matter if you know the language - you know it is poetry. Our friend also sang, with the voice of an angel, one of Li Bai's poems. It is this sort of experience of poetry that makes such a question as the one posed on this link seem so banal. The essence of poetry is enchantment, not utility.

5 comments:

  1. Susan Balée6:43 PM

    Hmm, Frank, I must disagree about the poetry-in-other-languages thing. To Americans, listening to French we don't understand is like listening to poetry. When I first moved to France and had minimal language skills, the sound of French people talking around me in cafes sounded like celestial music. I remember vividly the day that music turned into meaning: The people around me were talking about the price of cabbages, the big dog who shat in front of their house, the recurrent pain in one's ear, the overpriced tea in the Michelin Tea Room in Dijon (where I had my auditory epiphany).

    'Twas not poetry, sadly, but the most quotidian stuff. Whereas someone might be reading poetry aloud in a very guttural language and it would sound like Tolkien's Orcs gnashing out their nasty remarks.

    Other thoughts?

    ReplyDelete
  2. The precise line that Auden cited was from Rilke: "das ungewisse Licht von Nachmittagen." Were I there to recite it, you would hear what he meant. Just hearing French or any other language has never given me the thrill I get when I hear poetry. And I hear people speaking Chinese all the time in my neighborhood. When Queenie read Wang An-shih it was exponentially different from just hearing the language.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Hi Frank,

    I found the answers banal. I was hoping Major Jackson would kick the discussion into gear. Daisy Fried spoke too often about what she considers politically correct for poets to write about. Whereas the poet must write what the poet is given to write, hopefully having gold and not mud, and whether it agrees with Fried's politics or not.

    To Joseph Campbell, the poet of current society was the shaman of the past, still being born as ever. Inspiration, whether something is carried over from primordial soup, communicated by muse-gods, given by God, whether from an extra-sensitivity to the sounds of earth or some yet-charted waves from distant novas exploding, there is a constancy to what shamans and poets produce. Wisdom is wisdom. Art is art. And poetry is poetry.

    One social value of fresh poetry, then, is to say in current terms what had been said in classic poetry and scripture. For whatever the current society, it has inevitably misinterpreted its poetry, inevitably bringing about outdated customs and neurotic modes of thinking, but also grave consequences.

    Poetry does not have to have such meaning, though. It may have only its sound, or as you point out the sound and the poet present to speak it. I experienced this listening to Ko Un. As much enjoyment came from his speaking the poems as through the anticipation of what his translator would say in English. This is the music of poetry.

    It is not necessary for a poem to contain both wisdom and music. But in some of the best poems, these aspects work together, the rhythm, the sounds, and language.

    I want to take up the poem these poets were discussing, "The Mill-Race" by Anne Winters. Here is a link to the poem in full on the page:

    PoetryFoundation.org: The Mill Race

    And here is a link to Anne Winters reading it:

    New York Times: Books: Audio: Anne Winters Reads From 'The Displaced of Capital'

    I was struck by the "leisure water." It represents poetry. A complaint within the poem is that the bus riders are losing the poetry of their lives, that even this was being placed at the whim and utility of the current economy and politics. How extraordinarily anti-poetry.

    But this "leisure water" also answers the very question of a function of poetry. A thirst sure, but in the poem, the water reflects the sky, and it is in a glib stretch (italics mine).

    Here are excerpts wherein the poets discuss that poem:

    Daisy Fried:

    Anne Winters's "The Mill-Race," about office workers in lower Manhattan, contains virtuoso description of the urban scene: workers, weather, light, limos of the bosses, buses of the employees. Though its subject matter and politics are both clear and attractive, content has very little to do with why the poem is extraordinary.

    Is it a useful poem? I like political poetry; it acknowledges that politics are part of life. Certainly at this historical moment, many of us are hungry for poems that look outward, not just into the self or into what seems like another kind of narcissism, a turning away via the knee-jerk (therefore empty) "avant garde" linguistic gesture. America's crimes may be forcing poets back into the world. It's not as though it's optional. Eventually it becomes political necessity.


    Emily Warn:

    "The Mill-Race" by Anne Winters serves as proof text. How can its content not matter? How can one not relate to the drained faces of the women office workers on an evening bus, to their scant hope that, despite their misspent, dwindling hours in the service of Labor, they have preserved a shred of self?

    . . . .It won’t take us
    altogether, we say, the mill-race--it won’t churn us up altogether. We’ll keep
    a glib stretch of leisure water, like our self's self--to reflect the sky.
    But we won’t (says the bus rider now to herself). Nothing’s
    left over, really, from labor. They’ve taken it all for the mill-race.

    Will this poem end drudgery? No. Does it disclose the pathos of other human beings and the source of their suffering? Yes. Is it this capacity that will help us, better than ammo or dollars, find a way through these harrowing times? Absolutely.


    Daisy Fried:

    Emily Warn seems to argue that content supplies poems' utility. Content matters--poetry is far more than a formal game--but does not supply utility. Quality does. "The Mill-Race" is good and useful because it presents in extraordinary language an aspect of the human condition, not some false solution having to do with feel-good "relat(ing) to drained faces." Emily should reread the very lines she quotes if she thinks this poem is about workers "preserv(ing) a shred of self." The poet is there on the bus, we are there, we are all in the mill-race.

    Emily Warn:

    Poems such as "The Mill-Race" make us aware of the social conditions that shape our relations; their language helps us dwell in, puzzle out, and feel the conditions and the relations, no matter how terrible, making a change in them more possible. It is this possibility, this hope, that makes poetry as necessary as a paycheck.

    "The Mill-Race" ends on the word "salt," ("but it's mostly the miller's curse-gift, forgotten of God yet still grinding, the salt-/mill, that makes sea, salt"). The salt sting is both our empathy for the workers' weariness and the fact of their individual lives ground to salt. Over centuries, the poem also says, these workers have raised cathedrals, invented art. The work, "the curse-gift" of the poet, is to tell the story of a person who has no story other than the story of relations. As Celan wrote, "I am you / if I am."


    Stephen Burt:

    Rather, my point is that different poems do different things, and good poems (such as "The Mill-Race") do many things at once. If there are universal truths about the communicative functions in poems—truths about all good poems, not just about "The Mill-Race"—they are so universal that they do not count as social, by my lights: they concern communication among just two persons at a time, whether the two meet face-to-face, or whether implicit author and genuine reader live thousands of years apart.

    ___

    They never merge the point of the discussion with the point of the poem. It is almost as if the poem worked its way into everyone's subconscious, but they never worked out why. No one mentioned that this poem is about a social function poetry can have. They simply used it as if it functioned.

    This is part of how we participate in the art or poetry that we make of the sounds, clay, landscapes that we have. We take sounds and make music, fields and make golf courses, food and make fine cuisine, words and make poems, and so forth--and we use them in our lives. And just as sometimes the poet cannot fulfill the muse, the reader does not either. Thus more poetry needed.

    I went to the web to get support for this point, and found it made in a most unlikely way by Dan Chiasson here:

    Slate: The Anne Winters Challenge: Should a Marxist poet be stylistically ornate?

    He quotes the last stanza:

    It’s not a water-mill really, labor. It’s like the nocturnal
    paper-mill pulverizing, crushing each fiber of rag into atoms,
    or the workhouse tread-mill, smooth-lipped, that wore down a London of doxies and sharps,
    or the flour-mill, faërique, that raised the cathedrals and wore out hosts of dust-demons,
    but it’s mostly the miller’s curse-gift, forgotten of God yet still grinding, the salt-
    mill, that makes the sea, salt.


    Here is the question he is asking:

    What to do about this "faerique in the flour mill" issue--the frisson between subject matter and poetic language?

    Aha! Nice. Here we have a discussion of the disconcert between the language in the poem and the lives of the bus riders. That's what's missing in their lives, the poetry. Specifically this poem. Point made in the asking of a question. Thank you, Mr. Chiasson.

    But here is what Chiasson says:

    But when you start bringing these kinds of objections up--when they start interfering with your enjoyment of works of art—you realize what an impoverished discussion we've all been having, these past years, about art and its connection to experience. We've come to imagine that there needs to be a traceable, obvious connection between "style" in art and subject matter. An art of the people better have lots of swear-words and spitting in it. And honking horns. An art of the intellect should be about Big Ideas. An art of theoretical density has got to be unintelligible. An art of great beauty should mention snow fields and sunsets. Art by Southerners should be full of dirt-roads and hounds. If this sounds parodic, read around in contemporary literature with my inventory in mind. Contemporary literature is parodic.

    Oh well.

    By the way, the poets took up the idea of the "Hard-working Roto Rooter reading poetry." But none of them mentioned that it is that guy writing it.

    Yours,
    Rus

    ReplyDelete
  4. I'd have to read "The Mill-Race" a few more times, but I can't say I'm terribly impressed after the first couple of readings. This may be because many years ago, when I first worked for The Inquirer. I used to get on a bus at 6 a.m. with a bunch of people from the neighborhood - factory workers, maintenance workers, cleaning ladies - and we had a great time chatting about this and that and we didn't feel we were oppressed and I don't even think we lacked a certain measure poetry in our lives. The speaker in this poem seems to me to be making all kinds of assumptions based on no direct knowledge of the people described. They have to be the way the speaker feels they are because that's how the speaker would feel if the speaker were any of them.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Hi Frank,

    I worked for 3+ years in a factory in my thirties, make printed circuit boards. The conversation on the bus represents the self-debate of ethics that I might take up from time to time.

    Sometimes I would wonder what use the military would put the circuit boards to, whether I was making something that would be used to bomb a village or keep track of payroll, and who was I to wonder in the contract I made for the paycheck. But my focus at work was to get all the jobs through plating, when I was a plater, drilling, when I would be drilling, and get the images perfect when I was a photo tech.

    After work, it is Miller time. But during work, I was contracted to give myself over to whatever the corporate project was, no questions asked. That said, I am not going to say that I worked for a bad company per se, but that I had to give myself over to what Anne Winters has her speaker call the mill-race.

    I thought what was missed by the conversation was that the poet was on the bus. When Daisy Fried said this:

    The poet is there on the bus, we are there, we are all in the mill-race.

    I took it to mean that Anne Winters rode around the busses of Manhattan and some of what comes into the poem are her languagy, artsy impressions. But here you say you were in fact on the bus, which supprts what I was saying about the Roto Rooter guy: that's where the poet is. They aren't just worker/riders, who may or may not read poetry, but who quite possible are poets.

    When I read the poem, do I accept the Marxists undertones of it? No, but I accept that a Marxist wrote the poem. Frost wrote in displacements that he never wanted to talk about, so many poems of his having a breakthrough level to be about poetry itself. His subject matter, though, is more palatable and would not grate with undertones of disagreeable politics. breaking through to the displacement becomes easier for Frost poems.

    Also, Winters works with artsy language, something I think that can get overdone in poetry nowadays, as if each sound from each syllable has to roll richly off the tongue, in a near twister. This aspect of her poem grates with my ear a bit. But I get beyond that when I see that it has the function of representing poetry and drawing the reader from the surface of the pulverized self to the pulverization of poetry.

    Yours,
    Rus

    ReplyDelete