Monday, September 15, 2008


John Gallaher had a great post Friday of an essay by Reginald Shepherd - On Difficulty in Poetry. It's worth checking out.


Michael said...

Yes, it is a good piece. I wonder though if he's a little too facile in dismissing people who read/judge poems, even in part it seems, by their "content" or subject matter.

My problem with such assertions goes back to a very old idea: the unity of truth, goodness, and beauty. You can't really have the fullness of one without the other two. A poem might be formally, semantically, etc. complex and sublime, and yet could be concerned uncritically with hatred or nihilism... (Fascist art being the most obvious, maybe cheapest example.) And I think a good, thoughtful reader can judge fascist poetry as ultimately falling short of being "good" or "interesting" or whatever, not because of the flaws of the poem qua poem, but rather because of the flaws of the poem qua meaning.

A poem whose meaning is a lie, or a moral evil, is a poem that has betrayed its own beauty.

(Obviously I'm not saying poems can't be confusing and ambiguous.)

-Mike S.

Charmi said...

But "good"? "Good" is rarely an objective measure. I mean, it's what we argue about, constantly.

Michael said...

Mm, yeah. But taken in the limited sphere of a particular person's beliefs. So, I, being true to what is "good" in my best understanding of that, will say that a poem whose content involves a unavoidable rejection of "good" so understood, is a poem that fails in its mission. It isn't beautiful, because it isn't good. In the moral sense of the word.

Roger Ebert of all people has written some interesting things in defense of taking account of the moral content of works of art, in making a judgment on the overall success or failure of the work of art. And I can refer you to him because he won a pulitzer. Which means he should be paid attention to.

That's how it works, right?

Charmi said...

Oooh, I wish you were here. It's so hard to do this on the blog. I'm missing the "good" aspect insofar as the "content" you're talking about in the article.

I thought a lot of what he was saying had to do with this aspect of "I don't get it", not necessarily "I don't agree with the poet" or "I hate what the poet is saying."

But point me in the right direction. I just finished Louise Gluck's "Disruption, Hesitation, Silence" which seems to me to be saying many of the same things that Shepherd is saying.

God, I wish we were in class together right now!

Michael said...

Yeah, agreed. Ah well. One last stab:

I'm thinking of the part where he says, "Those who define or evaluate a poem in terms of its content or subject matter are making a serious category mistake. Poems are utterances, but they are first and foremost aesthetic artifacts, events and occasions in language. They often contain propositional statements, but those propositions are, in Susanne Langer’s term, virtual statements, the form of content, the shape of saying."

So what I'm doing is saying:

OK, Reginald, by using the words 'aesthetic' and 'form' and 'shape' you are essentially talking about beauty as distinct from truth, goodness--form as distinct from content. And you're saying we should evaluate poems based only or almost only on our appreciation of their form, i.e. their beauty. But I say that their content/subject matter is just as important as their form because *form and content are unified* in poetry. That's the whole point. So a good read *should* consider the "goodness" of the poem's content, and not just its form, when evaluating the poem.

Don't know if that makes things clear. But I do have to say this is my only big point of disagreement with this guys essay--everything else is spot on and very, very illuminating.

Except: I don't if any of the "popular poetry" partisans actually think Joe Football is going to start reading poetry. I think what they lament is the fact that even the vast majority of highly educated don't like, or want to read, poetry any more. And that really is different from the way it used to be, and different from the way it is with other art forms (especially cinema and maybe drama). Poetry is largely irrelevant even to the hyper-educated.

Charmi said...

Okay, I see your point, but I'm still not sure that an aesthetic, form or shape must necessarily equate to beauty. But I'll let that lie.

We had a long debate in a workshop about "why even write poetry" one evening. I guess, for poetry to be important, it doesn't have to be relevant to even the "hyper" educated. There will be some who do engage, and those some count for a lot. They carry the germs of poetry around with them.

Perhaps this is a poor analogy, but I'm not too into the particle collider, although I know it's out there. But what it does and is all about will affect my world. Can art be equated to science in its effect? I don't think art has to have mass appeal to germinate thoughts and ideas in sort of subterranean ways.

Michael said...

Yep, I'd say you're right about that.

I think maybe some of the "poetry should be more popular" sentiment comes from people not wanting to accept how lonely being an artist is. The only way not to be lonely as an artist is either to have a small community around you, or to be "popular." And small communities are so mundane...

Saying that ironically of course. I think small communities are the way to go.