What Is The Purpose Of Poetry?

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I think Michael Hamburger’s book, The Truth Of Poetry, provides a good excuse for talking about the PURPOSE of Poetry.

Some read Poetry for discovering and exploring the deeper meanings and connections of the world. Those who expect philosophical insights from their poetry might often prefer poetry that is mysterious—even esoteric or arcane.  Something that forces them to look and think twice, not just at the poem, but at the world around them.  For poets like Baudelaire, says Hamburger, the external world is a forest of symbols.  Poets can use these symbols to speak of the world in deeper ways than we are accustomed to thinking.  Mallarme believed that Art “simplifies the world.”  Hamburger, speaking in Platonic terms, explains Mallarme’s statement in this way: “the artist reduces external phenomena to their single parent idea.”  Boris Pasternak believed that, in poetry, “meaning—content—must always lead.”

Some read poetry for self-understanding.  Robert Frost, Hamburger tells us, felt that his job as a poet was “to give people the thing that will make them say, ‘Oh, yes, I know what you mean.’ “  Frost felt the poet’s task is never to tell people something they don’t know, “but something they know and hadn’t thought of saying. It must be something they recognize.”  For poets like Frost, the idea of writing poetry merely for one’s self is ludicrous.  As Hamburger quotes Valery’s Le Solitaire, “as soon as there is only myself, there is nobody.”

Some read Poetry for Moral strengthening.  Baudelaire felt that poetry should have meaning—emotional and morally.  “The puerile Utopia of art for art’s sake,” states Baudelaire, “by excluding morality and often even passion, was inevitably sterile.”  Although Baudelaire disliked poetry with an exclusively moral aim, he did believe that “every work of art that is well-made naturally and necessarily suggests a certain morality.”  Of course, Hamburger points out, Baudelaire is the same poet who wrote that “poetry is sufficient unto itself,” and that “the object of poetry is not truth; the object of poetry is poetry itself.”

Some read Poetry for escape and/or revolt from this world.  Hamburger tells us that Rimbaud’s poetry came from a place of “active rebellion against society, morality, and even God.”  Poetry for Rimbaud was a weapon of revolution.  “When Rimbaud recognized his spiritual defeat” in that war, says Hamburger, “[…] the mere weapon became a worthless thing,” and the great young poet gave up poetry altogether.

Some believe Poetry is powerless to change the world.  “The ultimate effect of poetry,” Hamburger quotes Laura Riding as saying, “is to clarify nothing, to change nothing.”

Hamburger quotes Valery as saying in Le Solitaire:  “If words could express it, it wouldn’t be much.  Everything that can be said is nothing.  You know what humans do with what can be expressed.  All too well.  They turn it into base currency, an instrument of imprecision”… “Reality is absolutely incommunicable.  It resembles nothing, signifies nothing; nothing can represent or explain it.”

Sometimes Poetry is for discovering Truths, even ugly ones.  As Laforgue put it, “We shall never be more cruel than life/ which authorizes the existence of animals unjustly thrashed/ and of women forever ugly.”  Hamburger quotes W.H. Auden’s remark that:  “All I have is a voice to undo the folded lie.”  Eugenio Montale, in Non Chiederci La Parola, asks us not to expect TOO much from poets… “Do not ask us for the formula to open worlds.” And in Mediterraneo, he writes, “I am no more/ than a spark from a beacon./ Well do i know it: to burn,/ this, nothing else, is my meaning.”

Some believe Poetry allows us to transcend some of the limitations of normal speech.  Hamburger says that Poetry, by speaking in heightened forms, can remind us that, as Sigurd Burckhardt puts it, “language falsifies.”  In our everyday speech, language becomes misleadingly “transparent,” Burckhardt says;  and the more that words are unquestionably accepted, the more their distortions are ignored.  Poetry reminds us that language “is not windowglass, but rather a system of lenses.”  Thus, says Burckhardt, “the first purpose of poetic language, and of metaphors in particular, is the very opposite of making language more transparent.  Metaphors increase an awareness of the distortion of language.” … “If there were a language pure enough to transmit all human experience without distortion,” says Burckhardt, “there would be no need for poetry.”  Hamburger believes language is “a medium that resists the purification required of it.”  Like Valery, Hamburger feels that Art endeavors to speak uniquely, but suffers from “the inescapable commonness of words.”

Some read Poetry for Beauty, to enjoy language at its most sublime.  This is why poetry is so bound-up with pleasing rhythms and sounds.  Of course, there are many varieties of beauty.  Hamburger quotes Ezra Pound as declaring that “one definition of Beauty is aptness to purpose.”  On the other hand, Baudelaire warns us not to get too caught up in the pleasing FORMS of Poetry… “the immoderate love of Form produces monstrous and unprecedented disorders.”

Some feel that Poetry should be a performance art.  However, Hamburger is not exactly the most enthusiastic supporter of poetry slams and the like.  He denigrates a popular poetry-reading as something from the “entertainment industry,” intended for “instant consumption”—presenting us poems which very well may not outlive the night in which they are performed.  “Bad or mediocre poets have long tended to have a larger public than good ones,” he says.  ”[…] Even now a good many poets owe their reputations more to the aura that surrounds performers than the quality of their work.”  At its best, states Hamburger, the “pop” poetry of the crowd “has a spontaneity, ingenuousness, and imaginative ease rarely to be found in the laboratories or the academies.”  And as Hamburger, himself, points out, “what is pop, beat, or underground today” may become more respectable over time and become “academic tomorrow.”

Personally, I like best what Matthew Arnold had to say about Poetry:  “Poetry is simply the most beautiful, impressive, and widely effective mode of saying things.”

Whatever the purpose of Poetry is, Hamburger makes a good point when he states that there is more money made from books ABOUT poets and poetry than money made from books of poetry, themselves.

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To see Hammering Shield’s other post on Hamburger’s The Truth Of Poetry, click below:

What Makes Modern Poetry “Modern?”

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