Sunday, June 05, 2005

The Formal Experience of Emotion

A few weeks ago, I proposed that poetry is the art of writing emotions down. Kasey Mohammad was stimulated but "finally unsatisfied". He noted that my slogan "suggests that poetry doesn't deal with concepts or philosophy with emotions." He also wondered whether it isn't possible that "concepts involve emotions, or vice versa". Continuing themes I've been dealing with lately, I want to try to defend my slogan against these objections.

The line I want to take is to distinguish the poetry from the poem. Poetry, then, is the essence of the poem qua poem "and not some other thing", in Eliot's phrase. Poems are only imperfect realisations of the poetry they aspire to be. I mean all poems, which by virtue of being realised at all, and always "in context", will necessarily find themselves embedded with strange fellas, and therefore will be, at the very least, imperfectly read and will, later, have only incomplete effects on the medium (language) that is the focus of its concern.

Every emotion actually written down, committed to the page, is a contribution to the poetry of the poem. While the introduction of a concept may not reduce its literary merit generally, i.e., while concepts might contribute to the poem qua "some other thing" like philosophy or writing in general, the presence of "conceptual notation" in a poem detracts from the poetry.

A poem may become a lesser piece of literature by the removal of conceptual matter even as it becomes more of a poem.

All experience involves concepts and emotions, but emotions and concepts can, and should, be precisely located, and then clarified (for concepts) or intensified (for emotions). When you are doing the latter, you are doing poetry, and when you are doing the former you are doing philosophy. In both cases you are engaging in a Poundian "charging" of language.

The great majority of writing does both. But the ambition to do primarily one or the other is manifest in almost all work.

Kitasono, whom I'm fond of taking out of context, talked about "pure and orthodox poetry". He believed the poet should find a nice, tidy, harmless place in "the system of literature". I think what I'm describing here is pretty much the same idea. (We mean "harmless" ironically, yes?)

And what this means is that the poet, working within the limitations imposed by a whole language, a language which is only intermittently poetic, tries to isolate and present the emotion in a precise, intense formula. The formulation of felt experience as emotion is the task of the poet. The formal experience of emotion, or the form of the experience of emotion itself, is called institution. It is the medium of the immediacy of power.

[Quick PS, 21:32: The second last sentence may need some some work. The formal experience of feeling is institution. Its form, I think, is institutional. So institutions are the form of the experience of the emotion itself in imagination, while the emotion is the form of the feeling as experienced institutionally. Like I say, a bit more work to clean up this transcendental aesthetic is probably in order.]


Laura Carter said...

The word formula send a red flag up for me.

Laura Carter said...

correction: sends, with an "s"

Thomas said...

does "form" also?

Laura Carter said...

It's beginning too. I think my approach is changing. Not that "form" isn't a useful way of approaching the thing, but... I think the dissection is too difficult to internalize. What's form? What's content? What's text? What's voice? The old questions can grate after a while. At least that's my feeling right now.

Laura Carter said...

Correction: remove one "o" from "too" in first sentence

Laura Carter said...

I suppose I'm partly arguing that too much concern about the separation between concept & emotion (which I tend to think it's "OK" to conflate) is dangerous for a poet to think about. I understand what you're getting at, but maybe "pure & orthodox poetry" isn't quite the end I have in mind? I think what gets remembered as "poetry" or memorable writing, etc., will perhaps be a surprise to all of us, not that we will have much concern for it then. I suppose I'm trying to broaden things, maybe loosen the poetic/philosophic divide a bit.

Laura Carter said...

At least right now.

Thomas said...


I always admire your earnesty in trying to understand things, but it also puzzles me. Why are you trying to "internalize" a notion of, say, form? Why is the difficulty of internalization a problem for the notion of form? Especially in this case, where, it seems clear to me, form is likely to take care of itself, out there in the institutions, while the poem is shaped in the freedom that remains open to it.

Conflating concepts and emotions is "ok" but "unorthodox" and "less poetic". It sometimes makes for wonderful poems (even if they are less poetic).

But I think you sell yourself short. What I've read of your poems are rigorously emotional (if that's an OK epithet) and hardly ever confused by the intercession of conceptual awareness. Just the straight goods.

I'm all for loose divides, by the way. I'm just trying to get a clear shot at what's on either side of it.

Old answers are often less grating than old questions. It's a bit too easy (sorry) to say "What's form?" (and then the string of related insoluables) when someone wants to talk about it.

Again, I'm trying to say something very specific about the formal circumstances that pertain to poetry.

This isn't the only problem. And if I had them I'd take your feelings of the moment over my formal exertions any day.

Maybe the surprise you're talking about is to be found in the difference between "what makes a poem" and "how a poem is made". I think I'm after the first of these, and your accomplishments are manifest in regard to the latter.

As always, thanks for getting me talking.


Laura Carter said...

O no! I'm not trying to be condescending or contrary (well, maybe contrary). I know what you mean, I guess I'm just in "work mode" lately & wanting to stretch myself to sort of "coinhabit" conceptual emotion? or philosophic impressionism? as I'm wont to call it.

Some of my best work, I think, contary to what my teachers may think (here is where the rub is for me) is loose and kind of rambly in a prodigious sense, rather than centered (at least in the act of production, but also the product I think) on an intensity & ease of "catch"---holding the moment, the "petals on the bough," in a compartment.

I tend to begin writing with a sense of compression, & I'd like to change that. "Linguistic prodigality" (to, I think, paraphrase Rasula's ? Byrd's ? critique of writing programs) has a special appeal, in that I need it right now. And I think my best work will probably fall into this category.

But I come here because I'm often inspired, not to be difficult. I think we're on the same page: Tost? Glenum? Does contemporary writing get much better?

Laura Carter said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Laura Carter said...

another typo: insert the appropos "r" in contrary

Laura Carter said...

"Linguistic prodigality" as a critique in that it's not often enough encouraged.

Thomas said...

Yes, when those questions were going around about tradition I thought, "Well, the tradition is whatever produced Tost." You go from there.

In the end, of course, I'd like to get in on it. I mean, I'd like to write some passable poems one day.

Or some philosphy in the key of the poetry . . . when I find out what I mean when I say that sort of thing.

Didn't take it a condescension. Always good to have you over.

Laura Carter said...

Yes, I would like to write passable poetry as well. I'll leave the philosophy to you.