WHERE WILL THIS END?

One of the obstacles to suspending one’s studies
In order to finally appreciate good poetry as a mature person
Is the general feeling that poety is a useless item.
No matter how many times we read a critic extolling
The “virtues” and “uses” of poetry, no matter how eloquently
And how often such a defense is put (whether self-interested or not)
Let the argument be psychological, scientific, spiritual, political,
Even economic, the feeling (a universal one) remains:
Poetry is not a useful art, it is not a practice
Which furthers the world in a material sense, nor does the practice
Of it alone deserve any direct material award.
This humbling fact prevents the student from ceasing to be a student.
The inner voice which keeps insisting that poetry is trivial
Prevents the reader from securing his unspoken right–
And it is a right, ironically enough, in the highest political sense–
To enjoy poems, instead of learning from them.

For learning (aside from learning the mechanics of the art itself,
Which should be poetry’s chief study, if we are honest)
Is continued, with the unconscious hope that all this education
Will some day make it matter more, since poetry itself,
Says the student to himself, is of so little use in itself.
This is not to imply that poetry is without content, without history,
Without a potentially endless learnable context;
The point is, that these do not define poetry, per se.
The poem qua poem does not find them necessary.

Another obstacle is the belief (now a cliche) that we’re always learning.
It is one of those sentiments expressed, as a matter of procedure,
Everywhere we look: just one example is the talented person
Who humbly protests during an interview or an award ceremony:
“I still have so much to learn.  I’ll be learning until the day I die.”
This is true, but at some point the show must go on.
The rehearsals end and the performance begins.  The performance
Is an entity to be judged or enjoyed; it has a necessarily
Finished or completed existence.  The painter cannot add
More paint, the director cannot shout out to his actors
In the middle of the performance, the poet cannot
Amend a line while the published version is scanned by a reader.

But as the distinction becomes more and more blurred
Between the study of poetry and the enjoyment of poetry,
The result is precisely what we would expect in poetry now:
Poems with an unfinished quality, as if the poet did not want
The process to end, was reluctant to let his poem go,
As if the poet could, in fact, have continued writing the poem
Forever, so that the length of the poem (the ultimate form of any
Poem being its length) is determined by “rehearsal time,” not by
The “poem’s time.”  Anything can happen in rehearsal.
That’s the point of rehearsal.  Learning is always artificially timed.
A professor must always determine how much time there is to
Cover the subject.  “Sorry,” the professor says,
“We don’t have time to talk about that.”

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9 Comments

  1. Marcus Bales said,

    May 2, 2010 at 12:15 pm

    It has always seemed strange to me that in our endless discussions about education so little stress is laid on the pleasure of becoming an educated person, the enormous interest it adds to life. To be able to be caught up into the world of thought–that is to be educated. –Edith Hamilton

  2. Al Cordle said,

    May 2, 2010 at 3:30 pm

    Patty Turrisi comments on Facebook:
    There has been so much lip service paid to the so-called fact that we humans use only 10% of our brains. The speculations offered in justification of this fact range from ” we’re lazy and just not trying to use our own special natural resources for the greater good” to “the other 90% must be there for a reason– let’s find out what it is.” I have a… See More different view. Human beings work hard in spurts to assure their material success as organisms. We seek food, shelter, reproductive opportunities. But none of these activities really consume much time or attention. What then do we do with our big brains? We play. And playing has further adaptive advantages, including enforcing useful social networks by supplying ersatz reciprocity opportunities. However, i suspect our main human activity isnt survival in mo’ better ways, but play itself. Play for no reason whatsoever other than the joy of expression. We call this joy of expression by many names, but poetry is as good as, if not better than, any of the other names. 90% of our brains are actually reserved for useless things like philosophy, poetry, art, storytelling and so on. The true fact us that the useful serves the useless: the useful is a means to an end; the useless is an end in itself.

  3. Poetry Police said,

    May 2, 2010 at 4:25 pm

    Steven Augustine wrote here:

    Tom Brady is a strange and interesting case: a guy who oscillates between the insightful and the near-retarded at a very rapid rate. Maybe he’s best explained by American Millenarianism; I have no idea what his background is but some of his richer rants make me wonder. He can be engaging-yet-naive as a questing student of Poetry, then perversely-fascinating as a nascent cult-leader-type and, suddenly, kind of ridiculous as a wannabe founder of some quasi-scientific system of Lit.

  4. thomasbrady said,

    May 2, 2010 at 7:36 pm

    “the pleasure of becoming an educated person…”

    “90% of our brains are actually reserved for useless things like philosophy, poetry, art…the useful serves the useless…”

    “oscillates between the insightful and the near-retarded…”

    Nicely put everyone. Hegel once said it was precisely because philosophy was useless that it was worth our greatest attention…as much as Hegel’s formula makes no logical sense, so do we find it deliciously attractive…the near-retarded and the insightful combine to gain entrance into our hearts…

  5. notevensuperficial said,

    May 5, 2010 at 6:49 am

    The mind happens linguistically, whatever other modes or states cognition exists in. Given the ubiquity of language in thought – or thought that can be communicated and (I think) understood, anyway -, language is more than simply a medium of thought; if they’re not identical, then they compose a dialectical equiprimordiality: they’re the conditions for each other’s possibility.

    Poems are among the distillations or tuning forks or x-ray spectrographs of what can be understood of being a person, of what a person can understand at all – or perhaps a poem concretizes the ball that tosses you in the play of paying attention. They’re not separable from one’s attention (except in a falsely broken objectifying), but rather are ineluctably a product of attending, of taking a perspective as opposed to merely standing where a perspective is called for.

    I don’t think utility or instrumentality are rational, much less practical, gauges or tests of poetry – though defenses of poetry in the terms of “use” and instrument are worth making.

    Considering the ‘uselessness’ of poetry to an end of “education” – or (yikes) to a purpose of life – is like questioning whether extension or matter are “useful” to a body.

  6. thomasbrady said,

    May 7, 2010 at 12:42 pm

    Notevensuperficial,

    You defend poetry very well…

    Your formula is nice: Thought = Language, Poems = Person Understood

    But this does raise some questions.

    I’ll just say first: The great error in our era re: Poetry, seems to be that we confuse the category, Language with the sub-Category, Poetry. We always seem to be doing this, and I wonder if it is not doing great philosophical harm.

    The poem will always be a sub-category and understood, and felt, as a sub-category.

    Isn’t there a little gap between your ‘Language as Thought’ and your ‘Poem as Understood (or Understanding) Person?’

    Might not poetry be more a social or even a biological construct more than a metaphysical one?

    Tom

  7. notevensuperficial said,

    May 9, 2010 at 4:55 am

    Tom, I’d say, “Language is thought that can be understood,” – rather than that ‘language = thought’ – though, if I did say the former, I’d be justly accused of ripping off Gadamer. Better might be “language is one mode of thought’s appearance”, or – if you have a catholic definition of language, one that would include wordless music, visual marks, and so on – “language is the appearance of thought”.

    But I’m pretty sure I meant that language and thought are not “identical” – whatever blah blah can be kneaded into philosophical shape regarding their inward unity.

    That a poem is a distillation of what a person can understand – that seems to me hard to argue against. But “distillation” is a pretty, um, general term, and there are surely other modes of “understanding”.

    But definitely yes to not smearing the distinction between any language event and those best called ‘poems’.

    I like Habermas’s tripartite division (Germans love splitting things into threes) of linguistic expression into 1) instrumental, 2) emancipatory, and 3) world-disclosive functions or capacities-to-cause.

    Except in the ways of feeling and thought, poems make disappointingly flaccid tools, and as political catalysts, they’re notoriously damp petard. But the disclosure of ‘world’ – that’s an indispensable occasion — surely worthy of “defense”, whether against Philistines or the muscularly haughty too-smart-to-be-intellectual scamsters.

  8. thomasbrady said,

    May 9, 2010 at 11:47 am

    notevensuperficial,

    Happy mother’s day.

    “Language is thought that can be understood.”

    But this begs the question: understand what?

    Unfortunately, the understanding gets in the way of understanding.

    We understand (and convey with our language) so much that is not fully true, that the vehicle to truth actually becomes a block to it. And there are those ‘language philosophers’ and ‘experience mavens,’ who, in addition, say, ‘ah, but that’s the whole point—this ‘vehicle’ isn’t really one at all; in your truth-arrogance you think ‘understanding’s’ a ‘vehicle,’ but it is, in fact, a block, and when you cease thinking of it as a vehicle and study its block-ness, you will at least understand how much you don’t understand, and further, you will eventually see that understanding is futile and language, the ‘vehicle-which-is-really-a-block,’ is the signifigant ‘order’ of things; the bricks are everything; there’s no heavenly mansion; only brick-ness; there’s no building, there’s only brick-generosity and brick-philosophy and brick-poetry. There’s only two choices: the backward-looking rightwinger who foolishly believes in mansions or the bleeding-heart avant-garde who intuits brick-limitation.

    To escape this state of things, which is wretched indeed, I go back to the question: ‘understand what?’ and forget all questions of language v. understanding.

    Two things are necessary for the truth. Solitude and coffee. The Germans would add ‘universe’ or ‘love,’ or ‘God,’ the English would add ‘garden’ or ‘brick’ or ‘tutor,’ the French would add ‘croissant’ or ‘croissant with butter’ or ‘absinthe,’ but let’s stay with my two.

    Thinking, for me, is: witnessing the past. My thesis begins with: Everything has already happened. All thought immediately throws us into the past, even if it’s the moment which just occured, but the moment which just occured is attached to ALL moments which have occured, and here is where I find what we have always meant when we say God, this one-ness of the whole past which is done, and already finished, and of which anything we call thought must contemplate as itself (the already finished past) to be thought, or what we call understanding.

    To avoid philosophy and jump right to poetry: ‘Yesterday’ is the most popular song of all time because of its subject, and it is fitting that it was written by a 25 year old at the height of Giant Fame beaming out of the Future, in a cultural wave of young and fresh and new, a new-ness greater than the world had ever seen.

    A child does not begin to think until aware of a past that is gone. The fear of death would seem to be an example of how thought contemplates the future, but not so; thought cannot exist ‘in the future’ or even ‘in the present;’ the fear of death can only be ‘thought’ in terms of the past disappearing; even the grandest ‘future act’ of all, our death, does not exist as a contemplation of the future; it is eclipsed by past-thought; the past looms up, clouds of nostalgia around its head, and the genius is the one who turns away from future considerations and finds truth finished, done, absolutely stable and serene, whole and complete, simple and accessible, spoken and unspoken, understood and not understood, alive and dead, friendly and indifferent, dream-like and real, perfectly ready, waiting for him.

    Tom

  9. notevensuperficial said,

    May 10, 2010 at 5:29 am

    “[U]nderstand what?

    Well, Tom, I’d say: ‘to understand what’s already leaped upon one’.

    I don’t think you can try to find something to understand; I think you can attend more directly, or less, or (especially) differently.

    Attend what? Again, I think that’s given, what is and therefore can be given – “always already”, as (some of) the philosophers say.

    Maybe if we think of poetry as an occasion for attention, guided by or in the company of another attendee – with craft being the dreadable “vehicle” -, we’ll have made present a shimmer of what’s “waiting for” us.

    My “heart” bleeds, or can be made haemorhoeic — but I don’t sneer at bricks, or brick-mongering, or brick chemistry. Substituting substantia for “brick”, I think of Spinoza, and doubt that the ubiquity and ultimate uniformity of “brick” is any “limitation” at all – at least to my small but interested mind.

    Though I’d have to grant that experiencing the co-existence of that smallness and interest as “wretched” would be . . . disheartening.


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