Digression ά: On Aesthetics
As an undergraduate, I made an exceptionally bad (by the standards of our times) English major. That is likely because I didn’t buy the literary composition and critical theories that dominated the program where I studied–and, in fact, are the dominant opinions, to the exclusion of almost all other thought, inside the world of academia. So this post is going to be in many respects a statement of purpose, but should also begin to outline, in a completely non-systematic way, some of my thoughts on aesthetics (particularly with regard to poetry, but venturing, I’m sure, to literature in general) and on literary theory. People fond of race-, class-, or gender-readings, or Deconstructionists, should check out now.
One of the first things about appreciating poetry is that we need to return to an understanding of what poetry is. In my philosophic heart of hearts, there is a big place carved out for Aristotle, so the following is going to be my examination of the first principle of poetry. At its basis, poetry is an art form that involves words–but more specifically, it is an art form that involves word sounds. The arrangement of sounds is far more important to poetry than the arrangement of words on a page; Imagists and their successors can take a dive. This means, when you read poetry, you should not read it silently; it should be read aloud, so the words can sing their songs through you. There is a sort of reciprocating joy to reading (good) poetry in this way. The poet has cast the word-sounds out into the universe in a coded message (that being the written words on a page), and when you speak them, you are deciphering the code.
Of course, the sounds themselves aren’t the total of what is encoded in the message. The meaning of the words, their arrangement, their interaction with other words, the layers of sounds they make, are of the utmost importance. The words on the paper are just the means of delivering the poet’s message. They are not the message itself. Too often, our commercial-based society sees the words on the page as the poem itself; this is part of our society’s constant confusion of meaning and means. The economy of words is more than about clever arrangement, nor is it an act of art to make some sort of activist political statement; man may be the political animal, and so our conceptions and ideas about the polis cannot be excised from our art…but neither can art be the slave of mere human ideology. When that happens, art becomes propaganda…and is worthless.
When we judge great art, particularly in the realm of poetry, we should remember that we speak these things, hoping to give them some sort of life in the world that goes beyond us. In this fashion, the poet is an imitator of God. Of course, there are two types of imitation that can occur; no one takes offense at a boy imitating the work of his father, in whatever crude or even silly way that might end up happening. However, we consider identity theft to be a great crime (as, indeed, it is); if the poetic imitator starts to think that he is the arbiter of reality, assuming the place of God, because he can craft clever phrases or cast words into verse–such a man is a criminal and a blasphemer. It can’t be allowed, because it casts a pall over the meaning of real poetry, as it has existed throughout the ages of human civilization.
I suppose that I am proposing something almost Neo-Platonic here; in Neo-Platonic philosophy, there is the theory of the Two Acts: the internal and the external. There are deeply mystical implications to this in that philosophic system, but for our purposes here, it is enough to see that it is a recognition that our internal acts (psychological or spiritual) do not always match up with our external (physical) acts. In effect, this is another way of restating that we confuse meaning and means over and over. Good poetry, then, is an attempt to remedy this. Poetry is a medicine for the soul. People often forget, though, that those with the knowledge and ability to heal also have the knowledge and ability to kill. Most medicines ares dangerous substances, not to be dispensed without clear direction and should not be taken casually (although, in our society, this is almost a joke). What is healing in one aspect might be poisonous in another.
The poet, then, in taking up the vocation of poetry has certain obligations. He is not free to do just as he wills, though his will plays a big part in the creation of the poetic act. If he is acting in imitation of God, he has to be extremely careful. He must, above all things, take his art seriously; it cannot be mere flippancy or treat great and weighty matters with casual disregard. He must, on the opposite end, avoid vainglory; taking himself so seriously that he cannot see that even his greatest work is merely a castle made of child’s blocks with respect to the enormity of the Universe.
There is more to say on this subject, but I think the digression has gone on long enough for one day.