Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Is Every Lyric Poem a Poem about (Making) Poetry?


There is at least one great poem that could be construed to be about the inability to write poetry, Hopkins' Thou art indeed just Lord, but there is no meta problem, That is like saying that Othello is very odd, ie he can speak great poetry in iambics. The convention is that we are overhearing a speaker who did not write (or speak) the poem we are reading.

I think your point about the poet sort of making do is a good one. One should ask, which is the interpretation that makes the poem best without straining credulity to do so. Interpretation sans a sense of how good-making the interpretation is doesn't matter aesthetically and since the point is to write a good poem, not just some words that can be construed one way or another. So one would have to go over each reading to decide what it did to the poem's value. And that is more work than I am willing to do these days.


Thanks for your comments Roger and I'll have a re-look at Hopkins's poem.

But as a matter of sheer logic, if I have this right, every poem--I'm not so sure about other genres and maybe save for really long poems like epics and so on-- I'd contend is at least implicitly, but integrally, about writing poetry. For what is a poem after all but the progression of concsiousness to some resolved wholeness over the course of the poem by its means: highly charged language in compact form marked by rhythms and meter and so on and the technical meaningfulness of each poetic line. The idea making of poetry is indistinguishable, I'd argue, from the poetic/mental journey from the poem's begining to its ending. That's why I think a poem about the inability to write poetry is a meta conundrum,--at a minimum a paradox and possibly a contradiction.



I think I hold the opposite view, ie no poem can be about poetry. Most lyric poems (non-occasional ones) are fictions and so are not about (referentially), but portray someone saying something (saying being the action imitated if one wants to go back to Aristotle's brilliant insight).

A poem can portray a poet musing about poetry (Ode on a Grecian Urn) and we have to know the content of those musings and we may want to take those musings seriously, but we need not. I think the speaker in Keats's poem wants us to take seriously that beauty is truth and truth beauty, and the poem portrays (beautifully) someone having complex thoughts that lead to that conclusion, which he wants us to think is implicit in the urn's very existence.

I think the thought is dead wrong, but the poem is deeply moving because I am moved by the eloquence of the speaker. That someone should be so moved by beauty as to believe it is truth is itself very moving when said so eloquently, but I do not take it seriously as an idea about poetry. MacLeish's "Poetry" offers a sort of truth about poetry, i.e., it does not speak but is an object for contemplation, but the speaker is much less eloquent than Keats's. But very few poems are even "about" poetry in that way.

Poems may however lead us to wonder about what makes them work or not, just like arguments, but all arguments are not therefore about arguments.


Roger, you make an excellent and clear point that I in my obtuseness overlooked, conflating as I did the poem as necessarily the expression of the poet about himself and the poem as detached art and not necessarily the expression by the poet about himself. So you are right, and I am sheepish: the poem’s voice is not necessarily the poet’s voice and the poem is about what the voice, artistically external to the poet, is saying. That is elementary, I think.

So a poem in these terms could be about, be the portrayal, your noun, of a poet lamenting his poetic impotence, his muse’s failure or whatever. But I’d want to suggest, with your needed qualification in place, that the conundrum I tried to make out still has some legs. Because even granting that qualification we have a poetic voice, where this is the theme, in great poetry talking about his—the depersonalized voice's—artistic impotence. I’m, as I say, going to have a look at Hopkins’s poem, when I have a better moment, and see what brief few things I might be able to say about it given how we have joined the issue.

But aren't your point, my concession to you and my stab at holding to a version of what I first said something different from whether any “…poem can be about poetry”? I tried to give a reason for why I think it is always. What I’m not putting together, right now at any rate, is the nexus between poetry, particularly lyric poetry, as fictions or the portrayal of someone saying something about something and whether, and why or why not, lyric poems are always about making poems.

Can you help me further with this?


My only thought is this: poetry, like the other arts, involves people in the materials themselves the way that other communicative acts don't. Philosophers don't care about the words (so they say) but the conceptual content. (There is some argument about this but it does not involve the material but the expressive aspect of the writing) In arts like painting, the materials have even been thought to be the central concern, the subject matter.

So abstract painting can (sort of) be said to be about itself, i.e., what is the artist doing with his materials? Sometimes this is called the formal dimension of art, and it first got people's attention in music, when that became separated from words and extrinsic (not formal) purposes. This has never worked with words for the obvious reason that words are not just material the way that paint and notes are.

But all poetry has a formal dimension and insofar as the poet is concerned with that one can say that the poem is "about" (the poet is concerned with) the art itself. In some poetic traditions the main concern is the intricate rhythms (sounds, etc.) and Greek poets were known by the feet they used (though sometimes those were associated with content, eg satire).

I would not say that the poems were about these things, but that the poet was centrally concerned with the object itself and not what it said (implied) about the world or what it expressed. This is all based on the once very standard idea that representational art has three dimensions, the thing represented (portrayed), the attitude taken (expressed) toward that, and the formal arrangement (usually divided into sensuous and structural). Aristotle more or less figured this all out, though he did not like the expressive dimension.

The power of the formal idea is that once we admit that abstract music and art are really art, then it looks like the main shared attribute among the arts is the formal, and thus its essence. Some people even refused prose fiction as an art precisely because it lacked this formal dimension (Mill among them).

The loss of just about all formal interest in much modern poetry, however, meant that it looked less and less like an art, and so one had either to say it was not art or to redefine art, or just to give up the idea that there was such a thing. That seems to be what has happened.


Your “only thought” is quite a thought.

To try to maintain my point—about lyric poetry being always in part, but integrally in part, about poetry—and to try to engage the argument of your “only thought” as I understand it, I’d say the following.

You draw a distinction between the more physical materials of painting and music and the material of poetry—words. And with painting you focus more on abstract painting over representational art. You say: “In arts like painting, the materials have even been thought to be the central concern, the subject matter. So abstract painting can (sort of) be said to be about itself, i.e., what is the artist doing with his materials?" The closest you come to seeing poetry being about poetry is noting some poetic traditions which stress certain intricate rhythms and sounds and uses of meter and so on which then gets you to some similarity to the physicality of the painter’s materials and the sounds of notes. (I guess concrete poetry is an example of that too.)

But while it may be easier say that in abstract art the focus is on form itself because form is the content, still in representational art how can the painting be any less about light, and shadings of colour, and perspective, and structural relationships in the architecture of the painting, even the quality of the brush strokes and so on than it is about what is being represented? And so in poetry too, poems may more or less concentrate on aurality and other formal aspects as such, but—and this is my central point—form and content are one. Northrop Frye formulated that oneness as “form as meaning, holding the poem together in a simultaneous structure.”

A poem is not, I’d want to say, just about how London looks in the early morning hours; it’s about the formal--poetic if you like--means of enabling its theme. It’s about how form is indistinguishable from meaning.

Also, I tend to think that every lyric poem is a kind of narrative quest. We don’t know where the evolving consciousness of the poem will go as we read it from beginning to end, but that evolving consciousness is embedded, constituted by, a certain form, which projects it forward.

To engage such an evolving consciousness is to follow its aspiration to a certain unity or coherence. I think of that unity as a kind of world, a universe of integrated meaning. And in the way Frye talked about “form as meaning”…the poem is about the formal processes making that world possible, constituting it.

So I can’t see how every poem is not in part, but an integral part, about it being a poem,about its own "poem-ness", about how a poem comes into the wholeness of its own meaning.


If being "about" means form supports or enables content, then poems are about poems. That just seems like an odd use of "about" to me. However, I have always been weak at that. My wife does that with poems all the time when she teaches, and it seems to work well. I never even mention it. What I do is pursue the nuances of content without ever mentioning form. So the poem becomes rich by virtue of richness of implication. Thus, if a word comes at the end of a line it might be emphasized more and that will effect what one thinks is represented. Putting the word there is a formal choice, but what the choice led to was some implication for the state of mind of the speaker. But I never say, "note how clever the poet was in putting the word there and thus making us emphasize it more," I just say (or ask) what the implication of doing so is. It is the speaker's state of mind and the attitude we are to take to it that is the content.

By the way, my guide in these matters, Francis Sparshott, has a chapter in his great book on criticism on the word "about" in literary criticism. The Concept of Criticism is the title.

One other thing we clearly agree on, that many good lyric poems are about (portray in my word) the evolving, or at least changing, consciousness, and following that is the fun for the reader. We watch or experience a person as he encounters and responds to something or other.


I'd push that point further Roger and say every poem and every piece of literature are comprised by the evolution, perhaps the flowering, of a certain consciousness from beginning to end, some, most, egregiously weak and bad, some, the most brilliantly complex works in world literature.

Analytically, and given the medium of literature, language and its necessary connection to thought, I don't see how it could be otherwise. It is expressed in Frye's dictum which I cited, or in this by Wellek and Warren--I'm just digging out things that seemed meaningful to me about 40 years ago that I have a note of:

"The fourth and last stratum, that of the 'metaphysical qualities', we have closely related to the 'world' as equivalent to the 'attitude towards life' or tone implicit in the world."

They go on to speak of form as naming "the aesthetic structure of a literary work--that which makes it literature..that which aesthetically organizes its matter".

They say further, "The novelist offers a as overlapping the empirical world but distinct in its self-coherent intelligibility."

I have always thought these ideas express the conceptual foundation of the New Criticism, which I understand derived from Russian formalism, but that--Russian Formalism--is something I know next to nothing about.

But I think these notions are right and stand antithetically to what I understand of post modernism as literary criticism or deconstruction.


What you emphasize I would call the expressive dimension of lit, which is especially strong in lyric poems, but also present when characters speak and in the author's voice or implied attitudes to what is depicted. But the plot of a story is something else, it has a logic, connections, and we care about it. Plots can be of actions, but also about a character's changed attitudes (a modern thing especially), but they have a logic and pattern that aren't included, it seems to me, in what you say below, unless, for example, Hamlet's unfolding consciousness (and the actions it is joined to) (and not just Shakespeare's, which are mainly to look with sympathy--mostly--upon the characters, who do the main development). If Hamlet's consciousness and not the author's counts as what evolves then we seem to agree.

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