Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Poetry is not

just the activity by which poets achieve their fame. A vast amount of literary criticism can be dismissed outright on this basis.

Consider pop music, by contrast. The technique and technology of pop make the pop song available as a vehicle to the ambitious young man or woman who wants to become famous. It is like any other tool. You buy it and use it to some end. There is no guarantee that you'll succeed, of course; the point is merely that the song's only value lies in the end it achieves for the would-be star. It has no aesthetic value, only an instrumental one.* A poem, however, lacks the institutional immediacy to present itself to the public as a temporary means to the end of the poet's destiny. The poem is itself the poet's destiny. It is permanent or it is nothing.

The surrealists wanted to put poetry (art in general) at the service of the revolution. They were half kidding, of course. The impossibility of revolution does not render artistic activity meaningless. It is meaning.

The situationists reversed it: they wanted to put the revolution at the service of poetry. Again, the impossibility of revolution does not undermine the possibility of poetry.

*Before you defend one or another gem of a pop song as "art" in its own right, keep in mind that I'm thinking of pure forms here. Some songs accomplish, within the technical and institutional framework of pop an "aesthetic" quality that is often admirable. (I can enjoy any number of popular songs.) But in these cases poetry (art) struggles against "the industry" (commerce). And the artist is, damn blast yer intellex, complicit in the compromise. You cannot record a popular song for purely artistic reasons. But you can (and must) write a poem for such reasons.


Andrew Shields said...

Pop is a tool to become famous, whereas poetry is not. That's the first time in a long time that anyone has made any point that might convince me that there really is a distinction to be made between lyrics and poetry (which I see as both being verse).

Reminds me of my thoughts about hardcore (which I probably shared with you already, but here they are again):

Andrew Shields said...

How does this connect to the previous post, by the way? Poetry (and hardcore?) on the side of intuition? The anxiety that so many poets (at least in America) have these days about the institutionalization of poetry (of intution?) in the academy?

Thomas said...

Poetry always engages with institutions. It liberates the emotion from the immediacy of the felt experience.

My standard simple case: the young poet's love poem to his mistress is an attempt to liberate her from her reticence in the face of her attraction. The reticence is grounded in the institutions of courtship, and the institutions of sexuality in general.

Obviously the pop lyric operates in the same space. But, but, but ... pop songs are depressing (when you think about them) because they do not liberate us from institutional immediacy but, on the contrary, presume we are wholly beholden to it. (E.g., " shoulda put a ring on it", etc.)

More importantly, the songs are written to accompany the sentiments of entirely conventional situations (first love, break up, marriage, etc.) and so tie themselves to our memories. Everything about their composition and promotion plays into this.

Hardcore is probably a bit like folk or the "singer songwriter" scene. It can easily be converted into pop, but in its pure form its aesthetic austerity forces it be poetic ... on pain of just being crappy.

Poetry only succeeds as art, we might say. And I suppose this could be said of folk and hardcore too. (Though now that I see that sentence I'm full of doubt.) Pop can succeed well short of attaining the status of art.

Andrew Shields said...

"on pain of just being crappy":

There's art, and there's fluff (or "pop").

Good art is great.
Good fluff is fun.
Bad fluff is annoying.
Bad art is crappy! :-)