Once again, Mike Snider’s comments have perked my interest and spurred me to write. He says:
“Of course we can choose whom we entertain, and the more ambitious of us try to mix some instruction into the delight we try to give, but who of us has done the hard work to actually develop the knowledge and wisdom behind that instruction?
And is delight such a small thing?”
To what extent is poetry a hedonistic and to what extent a didactic art? Certainly poetry has evolved significantly from the days of tribal bards or traveling minstrels, but whether it has been an evolution or devolution may be somewhat in question. The bards served two purposes, of equal importance: They preserved the history, mythology, and traditions of the tribe, and they provided entertainment to the people. These two purposes can be talked about separately but they could not be performed separately. The hedonistic aspect of the bard’s song facilitated the didactic one. With the decline of poetry as an oral tradition, came the rise of modern verse, which seems to have abandoned poetry’s hedonistic purpose to focus solely on its didactic purpose. “The epic singer brings together a powerful memory and a strong voice– to build an epic tale in song and verse” (Hirsch 212). Repetition was key to building a mnemonic atmosphere, and so stock phrases abounded. The modern poet, in contrast, feels the need to make every word count, to burden his poem with layered meanings and multiple interpretations, to create the ultimate condensation of thought and emotion. In the process of doing so, he or she often lets aural considerations fall by the wayside and with the aural, much of the pleasure of poetry.
Modern criticism has also excluded from consideration any verse that does not aspire to this heavy burden, any verse that subordinates the didactic purpose to the hedonistic one, in short any verse whose primary purpose is entertainment. Thus we have an abundance of terms that ridicule the entertaining: fluff, doggerel, light verse, poesy, and even, almost unbelievably, verse itself. But let’s not stop with ridiculing the object. Let’s ridicule the creator as well with terms like versifier, poetaster, lyricist, etc. In fact, of Aristotle’s three types of poetry–lyric, dramatic, and epic–we have relegated all but the first to oblivion.* The fact is that criticism has become too concerned with “what a poem means” and has forgotten to address “how a poem means” (Hyles 175, emphasis added). We have forgotten that what a poem tells us about the external world is not its only importance. Of equal, or perhaps more, importance is how we get there. In poetry, the signifier is at least as important as the signified, the journey as important as the destination.
So how do we return to a poetry that fully fulfils its dual nature? How do we inform our poetry with instruction, entertainment, and wisdom? How do we transform the reader? For me as a reader, the transformational process is what draws me to poetry. Both the pleasure and the instruction are conveyed through the experience of being, for however short a time, a poem. And the journey that I take will be valuable as long as the poem is well crafted and informed by the experience or ideas of the poet. I grant that a poem might be well-crafted and informed by said experience and not move me, but I don’t think that any additional criterion can be applied. Are the experiences of the Oxford educated earl of any more validity for either my entertainment, my enlightenment, and my transformation, than the experiences of the Havana field worker, or vice versa? No. So in the end what is it that makes poetry great? I can only revert to cliché and say that it is “A life well lived,” captured in text well-written.
* In fact, I would argue that modern poetry has gone so far as to divest itself of even the descriptor “lyric.” Hyles says of modern poetry: “Rhyme became suspect and meter especially was discouraged and it had been those two sound devices in particular that had supplied the life force for most supernatural poetry, with its hypnotic, musical effects that echoed the incantatory force of magic, superstition, and ritual. Fantasy themes were rejected also” (7) With the abandonment of rhyme and meter, modern verse is hardly “1 : of or relating to a lyre or harp 2 of verse a : suitable to sing to the lyre b : suitable for being set to music and sung” (www.m-w.com, “lyric,” def. 1 and 2).
Hirsch, Edward. How To Read A Poem: And Fall In Love With Poetry. New York: Harvest, 2000.
One of the more accessible books I have read on understanding and interpreting poetry, How To Read A Poem teaches close reading while providing the reader with a basic literary glossary and a discussion of meters, feet, symbolism, theme, metaphor… It also provides a broad sampling of great poetry through the ages.
Hyles, Vernon. Afterword. Murphy and Hyles 171-75.
The Afterword to Poetic Fantastic discusses the purpose of criticism in relationship to poetry, arguing that “good criticism has [always been commited] to illumination, to being ancillary to the work,” a thing that I think many modern critics have forgotten.
—. “The Poetry of the Fantastic.” Murphy and Hyles 1-9.
Discusses the relationship between Poetry and Fantasy, and draws parallels between the analysis of the two.
Murphy, Patrick D. and Vernon Hyles eds.The Poetic Fantastic: Studies in an Evolving Genre (Contributions to the Study of Science Fiction and Fantasy). Westport: Greenwood Press, 1989.
In the forward, editor and contributor Patrick Murphy notes that “Fantasy has existed as long as thought and fantasy poems as long as poetry. … while modern criticism has largely mimicked a puritanical prejudice against the fantastic.” This book attempts to rectify that defect, collecting several previously published essays on poetry of the fantastic.