The way to see a star is to attend to its ray.
We may be loved for our ray–our poetry, for instance–and not our star–our physique and face.
The civilized cultivates the ray.
So what is poetry? What is poetry’s ray? A ray can say a lot of different things as we analyze its spectrum.
In this spirit, observe this comparison, which has nothing to do with poetry, per se (star) but illustrates a truth about poetry (ray).
The newest airplane will be better than an airplane made fifty years ago.
The newest poem will most likely not be better than a poem made two thousand years ago.
Do we need to go further, and ask why recent airplanes improve in ways that recent poems do not? Is it because airplanes are practical objects and poems are not? Or, that airplanes have a measurable practical use and poems do not?
It is good to realize that we perhaps err in pursuing this line of reasoning, for it takes us away from the ray and back to the star: the poem as object. To compare the physical poem to the physical airplane would make us blind, would wreck ourselves upon a star. The critic moth would die in the poem’s flame.
Can we assume poems serve no practical use? No, we cannot.
But can we still ask the question: are poems practical—but unable to improve, or: do they not improve—precisely because they are not practical? Since airplanes do improve, are old airplanes worthless in a way that old poems are not? To those interested in airplanes, old airplanes do have value, just as old poems interest those who are interested in poetry; but old poems can do the work of new poems, and perhaps even better, but we cannot say this of old airplanes.
Is the practicality of something its ray?
But if the poem is not practical, does that mean it has no ray for the poem-obsessed critic; if every star has a ray, what is the poem’s ray? Can we say the poem’s impracticality is its ray? That is, is its ray its essential difference from airplanes?
How do we know the airplane improves? We need to place the airplane of yesterday beside the airplane of today. Without this comparison, we could never comprehend from outside the improvement itself, and without building on the old model, the newer model could not improve.
Since poetry does not improve, is it necessary to compare new and old poems?
It is necessary to build on old models if we are building airplanes, since we build new airplanes for practical improvements, guided by that reality; comparing old and new poems only shows us the truth that poems do not improve.
In order to be informed of this fact—that poems do not improve—we compare old and new poems—and this does seem to be an important truth about poetry that we would be foolish to ignore. Since gaining an understanding of improvement is only possible by comparing old and new models, poems still need to be compared, in hopes that one day we will notice improvement. So the critic compares old and new—just as the airplane builder does—only the airplane builder builds towards a different, practical result; the airplane builder receives “good news,” while the critic keeps getting “bad news;” the result for poetry up to the present time revealing that new models are not improving.
A poem becomes a poem when “it works,” to steal a phrase from the New Critics, and the poet surely is aware when the poem has gone from beginning to completion, as an object—or is this vanity? Is the truth really that we are never sure the poem flies in someone else’s judgment—even if they praise it? Words are elusive; even when someone hears our words and obeys, the circumstances, not the words, finally contribute to the obedient result. The airplane builder, however, can measure the speed of an airplane, and be certain the airplane has been improved upon.
Even on the micro-level, then, of poet and his poem-object (his “star”) the “ray,” (truth) shines forth: the poem’s worth is mysterious.
But to return to the examination of poetry’s ray; we might go so far as to state it thusly: the poem does have a practical use, and poets over time are incompetent, or: poems simply have no practical use.
Might something have a practical use, be manufactured, and yet never improve?
But how is this possible? Even something as simple as a ladder can be improved upon.
Or, does poetry improve, but in such a manner that steady, visible improvements over time do not occur?
Or is it possible that poetry is large and complex enough, or belongs to something so large and complex, that over time it changes what it is, so that its practical character changes?
Human communication is practical, but its practicality is ubiquitous and vast, such that improvement is not in its nature—in order to belong across so many fields to so many, the many interacting with the many cannot suffer itself to improve as a practical reality.
If poetry belongs to the great river of human communication in a manner that is not defined, we would expect its fate to be the same as language—improvement over time simply doesn’t happen, in the way we can observe the airplane improve during a relatively brief window of time.
Poetry does not improve, and would seem to belong to the other arts in this regard, painting and music, unless we think of a film as painting (or photography) improved.
Another “ray” observation: Painting, music and poetry can vary widely in terms of excellence and accomplishment; it is a mystery how broad differences can exist between aesthetic objects—yet improvement over time never occurs.
Is poetry like human beauty, then? Beautiful creatures have always existed, but the quality of beauty itself never increases. Beautiful faces have certain measurements, but beauty itself cannot be measured; aesthetics contains the substance of measure, but deflects measured results.
If we give up on the star (unknown) but study the ray (known, but indirectly) we find ourselves in accord with the following: Plato, the ancient Athenian, and the modern Athenians, William Shakespeare, Alexander Pope, John Keats, Percy Shelley, and Edgar Poe.