Tuesday, September 21, 2010

A Concentration Which Will Persist Uncomfortably until It Is Removed

I have said that the purpose of a poem is to make us "feel better", that is, better able to feel. A poem does this, I have argued, by "noting emotions", that is, by writing them down. Poetry is emotional notation to foster precision in feeling. Precision in thought is clarity. Precision in feeling is intensity. It all still sounds right to me. But I recently read Robert Graves's "November 5th Address", given sometime in 1928 and published in X, volume 1, number 3, June 1960.

It is a rejection of literature that is written to please, whether the public or the critics. And while this is never what I have consciously meant, I can see that positing a "purpose of poetry" that is centered on the reader (what a poem should "make us" do) is more in line with with this "literary" approach than what Graves is after (Graves rejects all "literature").

Not only is poetry not a science, says Graves, it is not an art. This is really where he challenges my views, and he does it most effectively in this passage:

Poetry is not an art. It does not even begin as words. What happens is that there is a sudden meeting in the poet's mind of certain incognizable, unrelated and unpersonified forces; of which meeting comes a new creature—the still formless poem. The poet feels this happening at the back of his mind mind as an expectance, a concentration which will persist until it is removed. First, he objectifies it by writing it in in such a way that it has a general, not merely personal, context; then removes it as far as possible by putting it into circulation. (174, my emphasis)

Graves says that poetry is a "serious activity" for "serious people", people whose first goal "is to be themselves and please themselves" (172).

So to apply this to my own formula: A poem must, first of all, make the poet feel better (please the poet, if you will). And it is only in the pursuit of this aim that poem must be published ("put into circulation") so as to "remove it as far as possible". Poetry responds to a need, first of all in the poet, for greater emotional precision. This need no doubt exists in the so-called "public"; the "incognizable, unrelated and unpersonified forces" do not impose themselves on the poet in a vacuum. But the poet does not (should not) respond to a presumed (projected?) need for pleasure in the public. Rather, public life, which does much to determine the parameters of what Graves calls "the huge impossibility of language", is, in part, the source of the imprecision. The notes of the poet does all it can to move it. That is emotional notation.

I think I have, perhaps inadvertently, let myself get distracted by my hope that poetry could serve a civic function. It has been "hugely impossible" for me to write poems that, however unconsciously, were ultimately "literary" in the sense Graves disparages. At some level, my protestations notwithstanding, I did not want to circulate a poem that I did not see the civic utility of. I have, in an important sense, tried too hard to please other people. I take as evidence the presence, "at the back of my mind", of a concentration that persists uncomfortably. It needs to be removed.

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