What is poetry for?
Page from The Consolation of Philosophy (detail), by Boethius, 1395.
Note: Earlier this year, Anthony Madrid began composing quasi-koans on the theme “What is poetry for?” a first collection of which was published in the summer issue of The Point. This post includes the first of two sets of additional gongan, or public cases, that will appear during his stint as a Daily correspondent. The second set will appear in September. (The original title of this piece, too long even for the infinite web, was: “Both Speech and Silence Are Involved in Transcendent Detachment and Subtle Wisdom. How Can We Pass Through Without Error?”)
Public Case 1
A fool said: “I shall define for you all the Mystery of Art. It is that despite all our experience and despite all our philosophy, we do not know how to make good art. We can make art, we can do our best, we can work whatever magic is at our disposal. But we cannot simply decide to make it good.
“You would think somebody who wrote a good song ten minutes ago would be specially qualified to write another. She just did it, so she must know how. Except she doesn’t. She knows how to make a song, that’s all. She makes it and hopes it turns out. This, and none other, is the Mystery of Art.”
Comment. If it is the great joy of the wise to make fools of others, perhaps it is also the great joy of fools to make others wise. If so, the person quoted above was no fool. She must have been one of those wily persons who style themselves fools the better to catch people out. But I want to ask you: Who is really exposed here?
Are we to imagine that the mystery of cooking is that we do not always have access to the necessary ingredients? And I suppose the mystery of gravity is that it cannot be used to boil water.
Public Case 2
One of the students said: “There is an old paradox that goes, The person who writes a novel cannot write a poem, but whoever writes a poem can certainly write a novel. I don’t understand that.”
Our teacher said: “Poetry, unlike prose, demands a primary commitment. She will not be a mistress. She will tolerate a mistress, but she will not be one. This is the meaning.”
Comment. Nobody in real life tolerates mistresses. The teacher is probably a double agent. Anyhow, his primary commitment is obviously to novels and storybooks. Superheroes.
Meanwhile, it’s easy to prove that the paradox the student cites must have been coined sometime in the past hundred years. Why does she try to pass it off as something old?
The teacher tries to pass off writing as sex. The student tries to pass off now as forever. And everyone is always protecting something. This is how we go astray.
Public Case 3
Our new teacher, attractive, humorous, perpetually in the wrong, said: “My new phrase is poets who get you right where they want you. It means poets who do it for you so much you don’t really mind when they don’t. You don’t praise their bad poems, you just ignore ’em. Emily Dickinson is like this for most people. Her inert poems don’t bother anybody.
“I’m doing a lot of work lately, trying to teach myself not to be a baby when poets let me down. It’s just fate—you get let down. The thing is to find the poets who get you right where they want you, so you don’t even know you’re being let down. Or just barely.”
Comment. A venerable sage who is hardly ever listened to today once defined happiness as “the possession of being well deceived, the serene peaceful state of a fool among knaves.” If the sage is right, the attractive teacher is urging us toward felicity. But one may be forgiven for noting that our friends much more routinely annoy us with their enthusiasms than with their negative evaluations. I want to say that our friends’ tendency to worship poets may indeed do these friends a world of good, but, unluckily, when they enter into conversation, they vex, exhaust, and contribute to the “general degradation of human testimony.”
Public Case 4
A student—intransigent, gloomy, and universally disliked—was grandstanding. He snatched up a Complete Shakespeare and read a random speech, heavily stressing every other syllable, in a way that no actor would. He said: “No one wants it read that way, so what does it matter that it can be? The so-called iambic pentameter in these plays is stupid. Surely the poet could have spared himself the trouble … ”
Everyone was angry. Someone said: “You are behaving as if meter is either the absurd thing you just did or nothing. What about performing the lines with some subtlety?”
The grandstanding student said: “That’s just it. The meter is so subtle it’s beneath the range of human perception. You wouldn’t notice if it were gone. I’ll prove it.” He then read, in an actorly style, two speeches from the same play, one in verse and one in prose, and challenged the person who had called for subtlety to distinguish. The person hesitated.
“You see! You can’t tell the difference!”
Comment. Driven to gloom and intransigence by the way prosody is taught, our vexing student becomes what he ought to hate: a scold. However: if it may be asserted that everyone else in that class loved poetry a great deal more than truth, it can also be said nobody loved poetry more than the scold.
Public Case 5
Our old teacher, clearly speaking from personal experience, said: “I shall speak in a parable. A little boy was playing with his grandfather. The grandfather was amusing himself by stealing the boy’s nose and making him cry. Years later, the boy’s mother reminded him of this, joyously marveling at how stupid children are. The little boy, now grown, said: Can’t you see I was not crying at having my nose stolen but at the disgusting spectacle of my beloved grandfather wanting to see me cry?”
One of the students said: “You are going to assert that this is the real objection to [a notoriously abrasive and provocative poet]. His fault lies not in the particulars of what he says, but in the fact that he clearly and evilly wants to make us cry.”
Comment. The old teacher supposed that it was disappointment in his grandfather’s morals that prompted those memorable tears. But I wonder if it were not rather the case that he was insulted by his grandfather’s low supposal of his intelligence, imagining it was possible to make a fool of him in this infantile way. At any rate, for every drop of salt water shed on account of moral disappointment, a large bucket’s worth is loosed by wounded vanity.
And the same goes for the other thing.
Anthony Madrid lives in Chicago. His poems have appeared in Best American Poetry 2013, Boston Review, Fence, Harvard Review, Lana Turner, LIT, and Poetry. His first book is called I Am Your Slave Now Do What I Say (Canarium Books, 2012). He is a correspondent for the Daily.
Last / Next Article