SOMETHING ABOUT POETRY
What is physical in poetry comes from the voice. Paul Valery coined the phrase “Voice in action”, for the voice in poetry doesn’t just exist in space, creating vibrations in the air which ripple through the three dimensions of space; it also exists in time and undergoes a temporal unfolding, following a trajectory through time, which of course is not divorced from its occupancy of space. So poems exist in space-time; they don’t just exist in the head. Indeed a poem’s ability to exist in space-time for longer than it takes to read it depends very much on the way its physical space-time properties generate sufficient pleasure for us to want to repeat it and install it in our ‘memory-banks’. Which implies a kind of seamless continuity between the physical and mental aspects of poetry in relation to that organisms which is ourselves. Of course, none of this can be divorced from its meaning or ideational content. In fact, it is this coming together into a unity of its different ontological aspects which makes poetry a force to be reckoned with. So much so, in fact, that the Pentagon has issued a warning against it. “Poetry presents a special risk to national security because of its content and format.”
The real question however is how this unity of many apparently diverse ontological realms comes into being in poetry. How can the ideational fuse with the physical in such an intimate way? Personally, I don’t think this has anything to do with the rather overblown ‘art’ of poetry. It is not just a technical accomplishment; it is an ontological one; it pre-exists technique. Technique is what follows on from a much deeper level of fusion. Nothing special about this. This deeper level of fusion in fact operates everywhere. The apparent division between the mental and the physical is an illusory one, a product of the way we perceive things and divide them a la Descartes into separate spheres for the operational convenience of thought – especially in realms like the empirical sciences. The table is hard, therefore it doesn’t think. Well, of course it doesn’t think, but does that mean it is so radically different from ourselves? The universe wasn’t constructed from inert building blocks, then sent on its way for these inert building-blocks to interactwith each other in random ways to produce brains like ours capable of supporting thought. It embodies the principle of self-organisation at a fundamental level; and, although this principle operates in a vastly more complex way in ourselves, it is not alien to the rest of the universe. So if the physical and the ideational can fuse in an apparently miraculous way in poetry, it is because poetry itself encapsulates a universal principle working throughout the whole of nature and is itself only one particular expression of that principle. Another is ourselves and our sojourn through life and yet another is the self-organisation at work in atoms and molecules, and also in organic life-forms.
So poetry has an ideational content, but this ideational content takes on a physical form, not because we consciously weld them together, but because that’s just how it comes into being.. Form and content emerge together and are not separate from each other in poetry. This reference to form inevitably brings us to such purely ‘technical’ questions as rhyme or metre. Is it a question of Thou Shalt Rhyme or Though Shalt Not? And likewise with metre? My answer can only be, “Well it really depends on the poem.” Because the physical form of the poem emerges with its ideational content, there are no pre-existing thou shalts and thou shalt nots to be obeyed. After all, it is not the poet who sets the agenda, but the poem and what that poem needs to be a good poem adequate to itself and the promise within it. The rest is dogma. The poet only lends his or her services to the poem as it is emerging from his or her pen. Personally, just as I have never written a poem simply at will, I have never been able to dictate to the poem I’m writing what form it should arrive in – whether it should rhyme or be in free-verse. Usually it begins with a line popping into my head or an idea that I must get down on paper and then I take it from there, exploring the possibilities immanent or pregnant within that beginning. Thus the question of form in poetry can’t be divorced from content, for it is no more than the physical expression of it in the world.
By ideational content, I do not mean merely intellectual ideas. Poetic ideas are not intellectual and poetic ideas are not supposed to be intellectually but aesthetically satisfying. Nonetheless, poetry may make use of intellectual ideas for its own ends. What is implied by the word ideational include images, symbols, metaphor, metonymy, as well as bare ideas of an intellectual nature. Images are especially important because they anchor poetry to the empirical world. Nevertheless, a transcendental element enters here as well, which raises the poem above the merely empirical. As Paul Valery once put it, what matters is not the image on its own, but the energy of image-formation borrowed from the universe of difference – i.e., different registers operating simultaneously in the poem. It is the successful fusion of these different registers which matters in imagery, not the images themselves. These registers may be intellectual, emotional, visual, aural and so on. That is to say that the energy contained in images derives not just from the empirical realm, but also the transcendental realm of ideas conveyed by them, along with the emotions and feeling-tones they express. Needless to say, images convey this ideational content much more succinctly than if you had to explain in prose.
I am being Kantian here when I talk of a transcendental element in poetry. I am not being Emersonian. I am merely referring to the fact that the synthesis poetry arrives at is one which includes ideas and transcends the realm of merely empirical association. However, in a poem, these transcendental ideas are not simply creatures of the mind. They come from the body as well, especially the voice - though you also might like to gesticulate or dance to it. These two elements act in harmony together to produce something whose potency depends on the fusing of different registers.
As for the question of the ideational content itself, it is always impossible to determine it beforehand. There are no a priori criteria here. Everything is after the fact (of the poem), not before it. Poets are not thinking machines churning out work to a programme. They live in the moment, often blindly feeling their way through the maze of contingencies life happens to throw in their way, reacting to situations here, responding to stimulae there, without ever being able to find a more than provisional solution - outside the poem that is. This of course is not just true of their private lives; it also has a public dimension. Furthermore, the ideational content of a poem is never devoid of some kind of feeling tone, which may be as facetious as it may be melancholic or ecstatic. So the ideas we are talking about here, whether implicit or explicit, are not simply intellectual ideas. In fact, the very term “ideational”, is one I have lifted from Freud, who connected it with his theory of the Unconscious. In other words, the ideational content of a poem is invariably charged with certain affects emerging from an encounter with the Unconscious. Of course, a poem which is charged with unconscious affects will encounter resistances among certain readers. For example, a homophobic person will respond negatively to a poem which has a certain homo-erotic content. And this will be the case no matter how good it is. If its ideational content is unsettling to someone, the response to it will never be neutral. The important thing is what the poem embodies as a total response to the world which includes unconscious impulses and stimulae. After all, as I have said, poetry does not emerge from conscious intent. It knocks – sometimes gently, sometimes rudely - on the door of consciousness and insists on being let in.