Unacknowledged Legislators

Unacknowledged Legislators

I haven’t discussed poetry around here much lately, mostly because I already know that I disagree with everyone in my particular reading circle. I expect a lot from poetry. Mike Snider wrote:

It’s no small achievement to express a common experience in such a way as to make that way the one people remember. It can be better, though it isn’t necessarily, when a poet can expose some usually neglected part of experience to consciousness. Poets don’t, as a rule, have the training or think rigorously enough to do anything original on those lines, and when they try, it’s usually embarrassing: Goethe and perhaps Milton are the only exceptions I can think of, and not in their poetry. The only thing about which poets have privileged information is making poems, and, in common with all artists, paying attention to the feeling of being human.

So I don’t expect poems, even great poems, to surprise me intellectually—the Stevens Gould, Hawking, and Pinker can do that. I do expect great poems to help me pay attention in ways I hadn’t before, to help me recognize and feel and empathize with the humanity of others—including of, course, the humanity of their intellect and wit.

Many great poets have surprised me intellectually in their poems, William Blake and Percy Shelley in particular. Some have surprised me intellectually in their prose—I would count Coleridge in that column. The key word in Mike’s appraisal of those who try to combine philosophy/theology in poetry is embarrassing. I don’t find anything embarrassing about Shelley or Blake or Yeats, though most people more aligned with the modernists do. I don’t care for the experiential turn in contemporary poetry, particularly when it turns away from confronting deeper issues for fear of “embarrassment.” I despise Browning and Tennyson’s turn to role-playing in their poems as a way of sublimating the real meat of poetry— its power to express the most complex philosophies in tangible experiential form— in more comfortable dialogic constructs. So there you have it. Odd man out—Romanticist to the core.

What really triggered my wanting to spit that out was a post from Aaron Haspel though:

When I started to read poetry I stayed away from Keats and Shelley and Christina Rossetti: that shit was for the girls who liked rainbows and ponies, not that I had anything against rainbows or ponies, just the girls who liked them, who wouldn’t go out with me anyway. Even now I can’t read any Keats besides the Grecian Urn, am notoriously unfair to Shelley, and can admire one or two poems by Rossetti only from a discreet distance.

I have spilled my share of pixels here defending objective values in art. Some art is good, some bad, and confusing them is like thinking that the earth is flat or that there’s a fortune to be made in buying real estate with no money down.

I really don’t care for Keats’s Odes much at all, particularly Grecian Urn. I think his poetry is the weakest of the romantics because his philosophy was the weakest. A few good concepts (negative capability) but for the most part incomplete and imperfect executions. I don’t believe in objective values in art, and believe that all art is an engine for thought. I spent months thinking about Shelley’s Mont Blanc when I first encountered it, and as I write a section in my thesis about the interface of semantics and pragmatics, I’ve been thinking of it again. Shelley’s argument is so delicately nuanced when compared to the “Man is the measure of all things” offered by Protagoras. It is physically tangible, a feeling of one man looking into a valley crossing centuries of poetic tradition, steadfastly refusing to impress the fallibility of man on God.

But that’s just my opinion. I find most experiential poetry past the romantics a load of wank. That doesn’t mean that it is, it just means that I don’t learn from it the way that I learn from other poetry. It’s a personal thing, not a position I’d care to defend—what would be the point? Each person should take what they can use, and leave the rest behind. Poetry shouldn’t be ranked on a scale—though it can sometimes be thought of as return on an investment. I think the years I’ve spent with the romantics has been an investment gloriously repaid, with intellectual surprises beyond measure.

2 thoughts on “Unacknowledged Legislators”

  1. I suppose you already know how I feel about this, Jeff, which is why I didn’t reply the first time I read it.
    I guess if I didn’t feel that way I’d be writing about philosophers and not poets on my web page.
    Unfortunatley, too often I’ve found modern philosophers about as relevant to my life as astro physicists, and I don’t find the “big-bang theory’ all that important in deciding how to lead my life.

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