Misplaced Leisure Water: The Displaced Function of Poetry
In a Books Inq. blog post from yesterday, the Philadelphia Inquirer's books editor, Frank Wilson, linked to this item in Poetry Magazine:
Does Poetry Have a Social Function?
Here is some of what he wrote:
On New Year's Eve, one of our dinner guests, a beautiful Chinese woman, read several classical Chinese poems for us. This proved that Auden was right when he said that when you hear real poetry it doesn't matter if you know the language--you know it is poetry. Our friend also sang, with the voice of an angel, one of Li Bai's poems. It is this sort of experience of poetry that makes such a question as the one posed on this link seem so banal. The essence of poetry is enchantment, not utility.
What follows, is a response to both Frank Wilson's blog post and the article on Poetry's web site, which is a conversation among poets Stephen Burt, Daisy Fried, Major Jackson, and Emily Warn.
I found the answers banal. I was hoping Major Jackson would kick the discussion into gear. Daisy Fried spoke too often about what she considers politically correct for poets to write about. Whereas the poet must write what the poet is given to write, hopefully having gold and not mud, and whether it agrees with Fried's politics or not.
To Joseph Campbell, the poet of current society was the shaman of the past, still being born as ever. Inspiration, whether something is carried over from primordial soup, communicated by muse-gods, given by God, whether from an extra-sensitivity to the sounds of earth or some yet-charted waves from distant novas exploding, there is a constancy to what shamans and poets produce. Wisdom is wisdom. Art is art. And poetry is poetry.
One social value of fresh poetry, then, is to say in current terms what had been said in classic poetry and scripture. For whatever the current society, it has inevitably misinterpreted its poetry, inevitably bringing about outdated customs and neurotic modes of thinking, but also grave consequences.
Poetry does not have to have such meaning, though. It may have only its sound or, as Frank Wilson points out, the sound and the poet present to speak it. I experienced this listening to Ko Un. As much enjoyment came from his speaking the poems as through the anticipation of what his translator would say in English. This is the music of poetry.
It is not necessary for a poem to contain both wisdom and music. But in some of the best poems, these aspects work together, the rhythm, the sounds, and language.
I want to take up the poem these poets were discussing, "The Mill-Race" by Anne Winters. Here is a link to the poem in full on the page:
PoetryFoundation.org: The Mill-Race
And here is a link to Anne Winters reading it:
New York Times: Books: Audio: Anne Winters Reads From 'The Displaced of Capital'
I was struck by the "leisure water." It represents poetry. A complaint within the poem is that the bus riders are losing the poetry of their lives, that even this was being placed at the whim and utility of the current economy and politics. How extraordinarily anti-poetry.
But this "leisure water" also answers the very question of a function of poetry. A thirst sure, but in the poem, the water reflects the sky, and it is in a "glib stretch" (italics mine).
Here are excerpts wherein the poets discuss that poem:
Anne Winters's "The Mill-Race," about office workers in lower Manhattan, contains virtuoso description of the urban scene: workers, weather, light, limos of the bosses, buses of the employees. Though its subject matter and politics are both clear and attractive, content has very little to do with why the poem is extraordinary.
Is it a useful poem? I like political poetry; it acknowledges that politics are part of life. Certainly at this historical moment, many of us are hungry for poems that look outward, not just into the self or into what seems like another kind of narcissism, a turning away via the knee-jerk (therefore empty) "avant garde" linguistic gesture. America's crimes may be forcing poets back into the world. It's not as though it's optional. Eventually it becomes political necessity.
"The Mill-Race" by Anne Winters serves as proof text. How can its content not matter? How can one not relate to the drained faces of the women office workers on an evening bus, to their scant hope that, despite their misspent, dwindling hours in the service of Labor, they have preserved a shred of self?
. . . .It won't take us
altogether, we say, the mill-race--it won't churn us up altogether. We'll keep
a glib stretch of leisure water, like our self's self--to reflect the sky.
But we won't (says the bus rider now to herself). Nothing's
left over, really, from labor. They've taken it all for the mill-race.
Will this poem end drudgery? No. Does it disclose the pathos of other human beings and the source of their suffering? Yes. Is it this capacity that will help us, better than ammo or dollars, find a way through these harrowing times? Absolutely.
Emily Warn seems to argue that content supplies poems' utility. Content matters--poetry is far more than a formal game--but does not supply utility. Quality does. "The Mill-Race" is good and useful because it presents in extraordinary language an aspect of the human condition, not some false solution having to do with feel-good "relat(ing) to drained faces." Emily should reread the very lines she quotes if she thinks this poem is about workers "preserv(ing) a shred of self." The poet is there on the bus, we are there, we are all in the mill-race.
Poems such as "The Mill-Race" make us aware of the social conditions that shape our relations; their language helps us dwell in, puzzle out, and feel the conditions and the relations, no matter how terrible, making a change in them more possible. It is this possibility, this hope, that makes poetry as necessary as a paycheck.
"The Mill-Race" ends on the word "salt," ("but it's mostly the miller's curse-gift, forgotten of God yet still grinding, the salt-/mill, that makes sea, salt"). The salt sting is both our empathy for the workers' weariness and the fact of their individual lives ground to salt. Over centuries, the poem also says, these workers have raised cathedrals, invented art. The work, "the curse-gift" of the poet, is to tell the story of a person who has no story other than the story of relations. As Celan wrote, "I am you/if I am."
Rather, my point is that different poems do different things, and good poems (such as "The Mill-Race") do many things at once. If there are universal truths about the communicative functions in poems--truths about all good poems, not just about "The Mill-Race"--they are so universal that they do not count as social, by my lights: they concern communication among just two persons at a time, whether the two meet face-to-face, or whether implicit author and genuine reader live thousands of years apart.
They never merge the point of the discussion with the point of the poem. It is almost as if the poem worked its way into everyone's subconscious, but they never worked out why. No one mentioned that this poem is about a social function poetry can have. They simply used it as if it functioned.
This is part of how we participate in the art or poetry that we make of the sounds, clay, landscapes that we have. We take sounds and make music, fields and make golf courses, food and make fine cuisine, words and make poems, and so forth--and we use them in our lives. And just as sometimes the poet cannot fulfill the muse, the reader does not either. Thus more poetry needed.
I went to the web to get support for this point, and found it made in a most unlikely way by Dan Chiasson here:
Slate: The Anne Winters Challenge: Should a Marxist poet be stylistically ornate?
He quotes the last stanza:
It's not a water-mill really, labor. It's like the nocturnal
paper-mill pulverizing, crushing each fiber of rag into atoms,
or the workhouse tread-mill, smooth-lipped, that wore down a London of doxies and sharps,
or the flour-mill, faërique, that raised the cathedrals and wore out hosts of dust-demons,
but it's mostly the miller's curse-gift, forgotten of God yet still grinding, the salt-
mill, that makes the sea, salt.
Here is the question he is asking:
What to do about this "faerique in the flour mill" issue--the frisson between subject matter and poetic language?
Aha! Nice. Here we have a discussion of the disconcert between the language in the poem and the lives of the bus riders. That's what's missing in their lives, the poetry. Specifically this poem. Point made in the asking of a question. Thank you, Mr. Chiasson.
But here is what Chiasson says:
But when you start bringing these kinds of objections up--when they start interfering with your enjoyment of works of art—you realize what an impoverished discussion we've all been having, these past years, about art and its connection to experience. We've come to imagine that there needs to be a traceable, obvious connection between "style" in art and subject matter. An art of the people better have lots of swear-words and spitting in it. And honking horns. An art of the intellect should be about Big Ideas. An art of theoretical density has got to be unintelligible. An art of great beauty should mention snow fields and sunsets. Art by Southerners should be full of dirt-roads and hounds. If this sounds parodic, read around in contemporary literature with my inventory in mind. Contemporary literature is parodic.
By the way, the poets took up the idea of the "Hard-working Roto Rooter reading poetry." But none of them mentioned that it is that guy writing it.