Wednesday, January 08, 2014

What is a Poem?

A poem makes you feel better. It does not take away your sadness but makes you better able to feel it. It does not make you happy but makes your joy more precise. Since it is a work of art, a poem improves your ability to imagine—specifically, your ability to imagine feelings, your own and those of others. Poetry is the art of writing emotions down.

An emotion is a capacity to feel some particular feeling (as a concept is a receptivity to a particular thought). In order to have an effect on the imagination the poem must make the reader feel something. A poem does not produce an actual feeling, but a virtual one. It produces an artificial feeling in an artificial setting that makes you more capable of feeling the natural one in its natural environment. It works an art upon the "nature" of our emotions, which is really just our culture.

In the poem, you do not write "about" the emotion, you simply write it down. A love poem is not a poem about love. Nor is it about the beloved. It is the love, duly noted, presented to the imagination in writing. It is madness to suppose that a poem can make the beloved love the poet, but it can make whatever love there is more present, more felt, as a presence, an intensity. A good poem can also make the emotion unendurable, and thereby the act unavoidable.

It can, conversely, make the impossibility of the act tolerable. It can bridge the distance between the feeling and the action.

Just as any work of art must extricate a set of materials from the "everyday" environment in which they are implicated, so the poem must extricate the emotion from the historical forces in which it is willy-nilly implicated. This also has the effect of setting free "the subject" of the emotion, releasing it from the "personality" that has been constructed around it. It is a political construct. The poet, for example, meets a beautiful woman (a woman's beauty is intensely political) and the poet undertakes to compose a poem "to her beauty". His task here may be to free her lips from the policy that governs her face.

1 comment:

Andrew Shields said...

To me, there's a paradox here that I want to highlight, and it's focused on the idea that "poetry is the art of writing emotions down." Writing poetry is very much driven by emotion, or at least by problems that are much more a matter of emotion than a matter of intellect. And the best poetry generates emotions in readers, as you point out at the end of the third paragraph and in the fourth.

But the process of writing itself is not a matter of emotion. The more the writing itself is driven by emotion, the less effective the poem will be. There are a lot of things going on in my head when I write poems, but "expressing emotion" is not one of them.