Thursday, June 16, 2011

Poetic Existence: A Personal and Social Imperative

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The topic of this lecture strikes one as puzzling because it has an air of familiarity and yet it seems to startle one into trying to figure out what poetry is. Then one wonders what poetry has to do in the lives of individuals and society. It is quite easy to relate poetry to poems but what makes poems cardinal to existence seems unclear. Does it transform or enrich individuals and communities? How is this done?

As one ponders these questions, some commonly held ideas, derived from impressions of poetry the study of prescribed poems in schools begin to come to the fore. One recalls how “poems canonized by scholars” were thrust on students and how they were expected to respond enthusiastically to these classic in the poetic tradition of Literature. But alas, one could neither muster nor feign the required feeling of excitement; most of the poems seemed to parade verbal puzzles that proved quite formidable. How could such writings as obtrusively affronted one’s senses be responsible for indicating a worthwhile life style?

If poetry presents one with this high measure of unease, then how desirable would a poetic life be? Is poetry not a collection of pieces of writing that are notorious for the uneconomic use of space on pages of paper? Are the uneven lines on paper, not a result of dislocations of normal linguistic patterns? Is the stock of trade of poetry not the distortion of conventions word, phrase, clause and sentence order? Do poetic manipulation of sounds, images and meanings ever facilitate communication? Is poetry not a recondite method of transmitting experience? If one is unable to grasp the poetic import and is successfully denied involvement in the transmitted experience, how can he benefit from the supposed bounty provided by poetry? These questions not only suggest the reader’s notion of the formidability of poetry, they underscore his frustration.

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The reader’s frustration stems form the manner in which the “outer form” of poems places obstacles on the reader’s attempt to gain entry into the secret bowers of poetry. The situation is worsened by the fact that teachers of poetry openly declare that the daunting linguistic paraphernalia constitutes the hallmark of real poetry. Is it not normal that many readers naturally react negatively to poetry from their perceptions of the technical or formal linguistic machineries or devices in written texts? These devices, all too often, rudely confront and force many a reader from a rewarding poetic adventure.

Not even well intentioned explanations of the technicalities of poems can successfully change these fairly common perceptions of poetry. Neither explaining that what is referred to as “uneven lines” are specific arrangements of “sounds of words” that constitute lines or verses nor demonstrating how metre as measured movement verse ad the length of lines can generated any renewed interest in poetry. Ask the reader if he did enjoy the rhythmic effects produced by systematized deployments of stressed and unstressed syllables in intonational languages as well as structured emphasis on syllables in tonal languages, the response would be, how can one enjoy what cannot be accessed in the first place? No one could blame such a reader because iterative structuring of sounds through peculiar lineation configurations in the written text constitute graphic representations poetic effects that become truly manifest only through performance or oral re-creation. Thus the frustrated reader is cheated out of being part of rhythmic impetus of poetry by written texts even though this rhythmic impetus remains an indispensable vehicle for the poetic experiences that connects man with the essence being.

Modern critical theories do not ease the pressure put on the reader either. For example, Russian Formalism postulates “literariness” as what distinguishes poetry from other discourse because it “defamiliarizes” by making language draw attention to itself. By insisting the poetic experience be seen virtually as mere sensitivity to the distinctive devices by which meaning is either deployed or subverted rather than a participation in the meaning implicated in poetry, formalist approaches to poetry subvert the fervour necessary for a poetic involvement in life. Is it any wonder that that poems are regarded as obscure propositions that have little or no reward to offer for the great effort they demand? How then can these kinds of discourse generate attraction towards poetic existence?

This uncomplimentary view of poetry, which is based on the premise of impenetrability, seems quite logical but it is also important to not that it originates from “restrictive or specialized” consideration of poetry as a distinctive kind of verbal discourse. Futhermore, this attitude is underscored by a total reliance on the “formal cause” in utter disregard for the “material cause” of poetry. To have a full understanding of what poetry is, not only should both causes be taken into consideration, their coalescence is a vital function of the formation of poetic visioning which is reflected in the Coleridgean concept of an organic form that flows naturally from the matter to compel the desired poetic involvement. Thus poetry, even in this more restricted sense of being verbal artifact, intensely communicates what resonates in the soul of man.

While the Greek word poesis (which etymologically spun off such words as poem, poet, poetry, poetic and poetics amongst others and denotatively means “making or to make”) supports this specialized consideration of poetry as an artistic verbal construct, it also recognizes a wide array of creations or products. Poesis as “making or to make” implies that poetry can be applied to any object fabricated by human beings or even any action or activity that stands in contrast to a natural phenomenon. This explains why Plato, in the tenth book of The Republic, correlates products of verbal fabrications with those of carpentry and warfare and proceeds to apply the same standards in evaluating their usefulness. In effect while it is acceptable to regard those who artistically produce oral or written works as poets and their products as poems in the specialized sense, it is also acceptable to regard, in a general sense, all things produced by man as poems while all humans are poets because they produce things and initiate actions that can be regarded as poems.

If the core attributes of aesthetic verbal discourses form the base of all human products and activities, then it follows that the products and activities are poetic. For example the rhythm, which flows from the measured movements or “metred language,” creates an aesthetic harmony that showers forth intense experiences and profound insights. When this aesthetic harmony is infused into all other human products as well as into the lives of individuals and social groupings, they become poetic. Other verbal discourses (be they literary - prose, drama, fable- scientific treatise, philosophic musings, or historical records), mathematical equations, artistic types like painting, music, architecture etc and other non-verbal and sign-related texts are poems, in the general sense, if they thrive on the poetic thought and impulse. In like manner, all human products, activities and visions are enriched and made more worthwhile by being poetically realised.

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