Sunday, February 24, 2008

Poetry as Massage.

Poetry is derived from poesis, to make. That simple fact prompted Susanne Langer (in the 1950s) to ask a very simple question: What exactly does the poet make? Not words, is her reply; perhaps, then an arrangement of words. Not a very satisfactory answer because (as Langer points out) someone could arrange plates on a table and that would not be art. (Though in 2008 it possibly could be art!) What the poet would appear to do is: create poetic elements that are double, at once referenced in an illusionary way to reality but also referenced to a real emotional response (in poet/maker and reader/maker). The emotion transmutes illusion to a point whereby the poet offers a significant experience.

Langer’s writings on Felt Form continually move in the direction of significance and a belief that poesis is a making of something new. As Christopher Middleton argued in Bolshevism and Art, the poem is a made space (a prosetic space) in which experiences are offered that are not in the everyday world.

Replying to I A Richards, Langer recognised that there were two responses to a poem, one was concerned with “understanding” (which Richards found problematical) and another related to “sentimentality” (which Richards found useless). Locked in this debate is one of the problems that faces contemporary poetry. For poets who create “prosetic” spaces (such a rare word that Google does not appear to possess it), poets such as Reginald Shepherd, Christopher Middleton, Robert Duncan, H.D. who ascribe meaning to the world that is born with the poem, the sentimental response is inadequate; and this, I begin to feel, is the root of the “difficult” slur and why it is applied with such venom to certain poets/poems/poetries.

The bookshelves of Borders and Waterstones, for example, are filled with anthologies, all of which support a certain kind of response. Poems that are known well. Poems that can be approached with sentiment. “Ah, I know that feeling well.” “Oh, I remember when I read that poem at school.” “Such a universal truth in that poem.” An ever-popular species of this is the poetry as health-guide. Poems for bereavement. Poems for depression. Poems for days of crisis. Poems for Love. Recently, I heard a modern (living?) poet make the claim that “Poetry is massage”, it calms the mind, eases the strains in life, such is its gift to humanity. Personally, I cannnot think of a definition more likely to knot every muscle in my body.

The poetry world, with all its talk of poems for well-being, has come into a very unhealthy splitting of consciousness. As Marechera once asked in Thrones of Bayonets, “Is verse the massage/And poetry the message?” The whole difficulty, elitism, anti-reader debate finds its substance in a belief that verse should massage the self…will confirm what we know of ourselves…convince us that our own narrow ego judgements (this poet is great, this tradition is great) are all that matters. Massage leaves us floating in the present, caressed by the past, not swimming to the future.


AlooFar said...

Have you got plans to make a book out of your brilliant posts?

I always enjoy your take on Poetry.
I feel massaged by this post.

BronzeBuckaroo said...

I wasn't "meassaged" by this post as much as I was challenged to really re-examine poetry and its various scribes. I don't mind a good sentimental poem functioning as some sort of salve, but I want to be challenged to think. If this means reading a poem over and over again, so be it. Then maybe I am all to willing to be confrontational in a David and Goliath way if that makes any sense.

Eshuneutics said...

Aloofar :) Your comment is a neat joke.

BB, meassaged, a hybrid? That is nice twinning. David and Goliath is ok...I mean, David won!

Id it is said...

Social engineering now for poetry! Why does something have to leave us feeling good in order for it to exist? Why can poetry not plow through my present eroding my past toward an ambiguous future? What if I choose to write free verse with a message, minus all the elements constituting a massage?

Eshu, I too am glad David won, and that you wrote this not-feel-good post!

Eshuneutics said...

Yes, social engineering. Truthful meanings are being replaced more and more by platitudes.