Understanding Poetry and Expression

On Mark Edmundson’s piece in Harper’s Magazine


On Expression

One of the many reasons why the idea of individualistic expression has become such a paradox in terms, it would seem, is that expression itself has to be lent to understanding. Expression for the sake of existence is one of those vanity induced narcissistic things that postmodernist artists have been accused of. The key phrase here would be ‘It does not make any sense’. It is not so much a comment on the merit of the art or the work of the artist that I would like to reflect upon in this piece. It is this emphasis on some sort of model socio-cultural sense that Mark Edmundson wrote about in his Harper’s piece ‘Poetry Slam – Or the decline of American verse’ that must be discussed in a more elaborate fashion. In order to explore the various connotations of this argument, it would be worthwhile to think about the poets that he talks about and then perhaps think about transposing this socio-economic and cultural context upon the one that Wordsworth and Yeats were writing in.

He says,

Most of our poets now speak a deeply internal language not unlike Merwin’s. They tend to be oblique, equivocal, painfully self-questioning. They not only talk to themselves in their poems; they frequently talk to themselves about talking to themselves

From the time Sir Philip Sidney wrote about an Astrophil who is writing a poem about his love within writing a poem in the Petrarchan tradition of Elizabethan poetry, the idea of poets writing about the act of writing a poem is perhaps not that anachronistic. It has a distinct and documented history of the self-consciousness of an artist. The same consciousness that made the Renaissance painter put himself in the frame of a painting in the mirror or anything that reflected his own frame is not unknown to art. Where this is exaggerated in our century is the way that self-consciousness of an artist, painter or a poet is no longer a background that used to be hidden in the main subject being represented. It becomes the subject. The beast of modern existence is the self that cannot seem to be contracted within the frame of one’s constitution. In websites or even government verifications, the self is the sole focus. The identity that you are born and raised with becomes a strange ghost of exaggerated monstrosity. So if there is reason if poets have become, in Edmundson’s words, ‘private, idiosyncratic and withdrawn’, the reason is unique to our civilization: an oblique and obscure or even eccentric way of existence is the only private thing that the self has been left with. Edmundson understands this perfectly and says,

The lines, one suspects, are an attempt to evoke the sheer strangeness of being alive and abroad in the world. But to me (other readers may surely disagree), their vatic quality (they sound like the pronouncements of a latter-day oracle; they could be no one else but Graham) isn’t at all matched by their power of revelation.

Where one will never question that Edmundson is right about the fact that being alive is being evoked in the strangest of verses in poetry where one can challenge him is this overarching idea of a powerful revelation at the end of a verse. What if, if one should imagine the reasons why poets write the way they do, poetry being the expression of a strange life, is built into making it a mundane idea – therefore, it cannot by definition be a revelation. It is just that – a life in art. His contention here lies here:

Their poems are so underdetermined in their sense that the critic gets to collaborate on the verses, in effect becoming a co-creator. This is a boon to critics, but readers rightly look to poets to make sense of the
world, even if it is a difficult sense— and not to pass half the job off to Ph.D.’s.

There are two ways that one can challenge this. On one hand, in a world where poetry and drama, two ancient art forms, are disappearing from the public eye, it would be interesting to look into the internal language of the poet as a reaction to this cultural context. The poets are the invisible mirrors in this society. It is highly idealistic an image where Edmundson is trying to paint the poet as the legislator of men when the men are simply no longer engaging with the poets of this generation. On the other hand, one cannot but look into the language that Edmundson himself is using; that of the reader who ‘rightly’ looks at the poet to make sense of the world. The onus of making sense that is interpreting, one must remember, is not inherently a part of the creative process of a poet, painter or an artist at all. In fact, it would be interesting to ask the poets themselves if there is such an assumed audience that anyone anticipates or reacts to in the creation of a literary piece. Creation of poetic senses, one can suspect, lies in the very personal domain of negotiation with the world. It can be shaped by the context and the audience but not dictated by the sensibilities of one.


On Identity and History

Edmundson has extensively written about Seamus Heaney writing with the voice of a young Irish girl. He has said that the politics of identity somehow makes poets incapable of writing with the plural. He has written

What cultural theory seems to have taught the younger generation of poets is that one must not leap over the bounds of one’s own race and gender and class. Those differences are real and to be respected…

How dare a white female poet say “we” and so presume to speak for
her black and brown contemporaries? How dare a white male poet speak for anyone but himself? And even then, given the crimes and
misdemeanors his sort have visited, how can he raise his voice above a
self-subverting whisper?

There is a sense in the tone of these lines that Edmundson is trying to understand the politics of identity and how it works in the trends that come with the publishing industry. Or rather dare the writers to defy the norms that they are supposed to follow in order to be published. This again has had its own precedents in every age of publishing history. That notwithstanding, I suspect, that the subject of identity has become more and more refined in this age. And the fact that literature acknowledges that subject position is not necessarily a bad thing. The cultural theory of our age has made us more sensitive to our respective cultural histories and therefore when a black female writer is very focussed on her heritage as a black woman and does not give a voice to a white woman, it is not because the aforementioned leap is not dared. It is because we are growing more and more conscious of a subjectivity that is within us. Any great work of literary art that can bridge this race-culture divide, and there have been many in our own discipline of literature in the last few decades, is written in the conscious of this duality of the voice that you are and the voice that you are trying to represent.

What Edmundson gives us instead is the very public idea of a poet in his article. But the use of ‘we’ and the plural that has decreased in the poetics of postmodern poets is not just a reflection of modern existence, it is also to be seen as an act of establishing their own subjectivity in a unipolar world where the metanarratives of culture and identity have already become a structure of meaning that cannot be altered in the concrete sense. History, in that light, is already there. A personal narrative that counters or ignores that history seems to become something that Edmundson does not see as an act that is deliberate. Instead, he writes:

I often think that our poets now write as though history were over and they were living in a world outside collective time. They write as though the great public crises were over and the most pressing business we had were self-cultivation and the fending off of boredom.

There is a great question of the location of the poet in this world that one must ask of this article. It pleads to the poets to make more sensible poetry that is not internal while it does not consider how to locate the poet at all. It speaks of the poet as a legislator of men while the article fails to see that the poet might not be obligated to the society to create art for it. The poet may, of course, write about the crises and, if one reads carefully, much of poetry is informed by the context. However, it is an aberration to say that it is a deliberate attempt to fend off boredom which contradicts the meaning of creating art. In fact, it may of course be fending off boredom and, I believe, there is nothing to be criticized in that. As I mentioned earlier, this right to create poetry which is internal, obscure and completely eccentric is a right that has to be defended in every age as an essential form of expression that one can read with history. For the poet can be a legislator of man, as Shelley said, but the poet is also the Thales who must leave London as a private act of rebellion against the age where he lived; as Johnson, who came before Shelley, wrote in the satire London.


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