The integration of poetry and life may be the most important question of all.
Interesting aspects of life, beautiful, useless glimpses of life—is this poetry? And the rest of it, life, as useful, as lived, or as the subject of philosophy or science, is this the life which is not poetry? Is this division valid?
Or is poetry a sub-category of philosophy in the division above, poetry not a “glimpse” of something “interesting and useless,” but rather a unique and useful branch of life understanding itself (philosophy)?
Or is this division not valid at all, since both sides are made of life, and poetry is something separate and apart?
And does poetry exist apart specifically in a world of words, interesting as a word-product, without any necessary connection to life?
And here we say “necessary,” because poetry may certainly use words which naturally signify life (because this is what words do) but in terms of what poetry is, it does not matter what is signified.
Yes. This is what poetry is: a word product without any necessary connection or reflection of life.
This is what Byron meant when he said:
“Poetry is nothing more than a certain dignity which life tries to take away.”
This is what Shelley meant when he said:
“A poet would do ill to embody his own conceptions of right and wrong, which are usually those of his place and time, in his poetical creations, which participate in neither.”
According to Shelley, poetry reflects the future: life which does not exist yet, and words have the unique ability to reflect life which is not life, what we sometimes refer to as the imagination.
The imaginative gardener can take what already exists: flowers and plants, and put together a garden which has never existed, portraying a unique dreamscape of beauty which is of this world, using the materials of this world, yet imaginatively invokes, and is, the future—a transformation of nature by poetic vision.
In so much as the gardener does this, the gardener is a poet. And in this way, anyone who transforms the material world is a poet. Note that we say transform, not merely reflect, or imitate—which is the traditional Aristotelian definition of poetry.
Aristotle’s definition is tepid, and Plato feared poetry precisely because his vision of it was greater, Plato deeply understanding poetry’s ability to not merely imitate, but transform. In fact, poetry fails at imitation (as Plato zealously pointed out) but poetry does something even more significant (and wonderful and dangerous): it creates the future, for good or ill.
Aristotle’s reasoning is so: poetry imitates good and bad people and it is perfectly reasonable and even good to do this, for how can we know the good if we don’t portray the bad? And out of this reasonable imitation springs the “freedom” to make art, and the justification for all destructive human freedom and license—since in Aristotle’s vision, the imitation of life is at the heart of all human making.
Aristotle’s famous qualification that poetry is more philosophical than history because poetry shows ‘what could be’ rather than ‘what is’ (as history does) is a monkey wrench; history and philosophy are both concerned (or should be concerned) with the truth; poetry is radically different; to give poetry (false) philosophical properties only furthers poetry’s (false) license to depict all sorts of bad things in the name of poetry’s freedom. The vision of Plato (which dares to radically critique poetry) is vastly different.
The wise know Aristotle’s oft-repeated and ubiquitous formula is wrong; the wise know that the whole Aristotelian project, adopted by the intellectual rabble of every cynical era, is misguided; and if we pay attention to visionaries like Plato and Shelley, to visionaries of the Renaissance and Romanticism, we will see that poetry’s power lies in making a new Good, not simply imitating whatever life happens to toss our way, or worse, abetting badness by cynically celebrating (with the cheering mob) its imitation in poetry, art, spectacle, learned books, etc.
As Poe points out, poetry is concerned with Taste, not Truth; and this quality, relegated wrongly to embellishment and triviality in our era, is a world of profound influence; Taste lives on the border of Truth, its province is Beauty, fed by Truth which is nearby, but Taste is grasped or understood by the instantaneous transmission of the Good (what we feel in our gut) which sidesteps the usual academic authorities—which is why academia balks at any consideration of Taste in cynical eras. “Give us the ugly truth,” scream the poets in cynical eras, “Beauty and Taste are old-fashioned and effete!”
Poets who cynically reject Poe’s poetry tend to also ignore Poe’s profound accomplishments in prose—for it is the whole of Poe’s project, seen and understood in its entirety, which proves the importance of qualities properly distributed and arranged across the whole range of reality’s projection in the transforming mind of the genius who serves humanity.
In our example of the gardener who profoundly transforms nature using her own materials, we find the poet, who is one step potentially more profound than the gardener, only because words can take and re-transform life in a manner potentially more significant than recombining the already existing beauty of flowers and plants.
Here is why 99% of poetry and its talk these days fails—poets and critics today assume a relationship, or an integration of life and poetry in which the two appear to serve each other, but do not: over here is some topic of life, interesting as a separate topic in a manner not connected to poetry whatsoever, and then over here we have the “poet” or the “poetry” and lo and behold! the two are yanked together in a manner which ostensibly brings more interest to both— but because the yanking together is utterly superficial, the interest is actually mitigated, and even dissolves, as the yanking exemplifies unconsciously a false idea of poetry. Poetry is, in the simplest sense, putting A next to B to create C, yes, but this alone is not enough, and this formula, when persisted in, quickly wears out its welcome. Arrangement requires a poetic purpose: the creation of a new Good, and without this purpose driving the project, the combining gesture is unfortunately a hollow gesture, and, problematically, not understood as such by the ignorant who merely go through the motions of what they assume is poetic activity. Because they are gassing on about some interesting aspect of life, the ignorant think that it will be all the more interesting because of its mere proximity to po-biz. It is like when someone introduces their poem with a long story and then the poem is read, and we wish they had stopped with the story. This is the state of poetry today.
The true poet has ‘no story’ to introduce his poem—for the integration is in the poem, and when, in error, it is displayed as ‘story’ followed by ‘poem,’ it represents the unnecessary split which signals the falsity and the error, persisted in by those who naively think ‘story and poem’ is twice as good as ‘poem.’
We might be accused of this error: we earlier said Poe is understood in the entirety of his productions; so we appreciate his poems in light of his prose. No. The poem of Poe exists for its own sake, and succeeds on its own, without the help of anything else ‘to make it interesting,’ and this is precisely how we are defining poetry. The crowding in upon poetry of all these other matters ‘to make it interesting’ is the very thing which kills poetry, and it is done because of the Aristotle project which sees poetry imitating, and thus sharing its existence, with our place in the world at present, and also having a philosophical aspect which, in the same way, makes it necessary that poetry share the stage with all sorts of interests which are really beside the point, and hopelessly dilute the poetic enterprise.
Poetry is not a vehicle to make life more interesting. There are those who constantly seek to make life more interesting and these are those who are not poets and will never understand poetry and generally do not appreciate good taste. They are bored by the placidly beautiful, even though an appreciation of the placidly beautiful is the secret to heaven on earth.
The riot is even now at our doors; the useless activity which seeks the interesting and tramples on taste.
Life is coming for us.
Take my hand, poet.
Let us quietly flee.