Wednesday, 19 March 2014

Poetry, Art, and Objectivity: An Exploration

I have written about poetry before. Those of you who have had the good fortune (mirabile dictu) to hear one of my many rants will know that I have said much before about poetry. So why do I turn once again to this art emeritus? Simply because it need not be an art emeritus: it need not have retired, to be replaced by the self-indulgent trite which passes for modern poetry. It can rise once more, like Beowulf returning to arms after years of peace to defeat the dragon, to show once again what a true hero may be. So too can poetry return once more to the realm of art and appreciation, slaying the dragon of self-indulgence and esoteric subjectivity, showing once again what art may be.

I do not write to rant. Not this time, anyway. I write, as per the title, to explore what it is we mean when we talk of art in poetry, and what place objectivity has in making these two meet. My thoughts here are not didactic, but rather initially Socratic, in the sense that they seek the answers to the questions laid out above, and ultimately exhortational, that we may begin the ascent once more to the heights of Parnassus.

So what do we mean when we speak of poetry as an art form? Indeed, what do we mean when we speak of anything as being art? This is of course a huge question in itself, and far greater minds than mine have written hundreds of pages on the matter: far be it from me to add a drop to the ocean, or to engage in a detailed abstract discussion of the nature of art. Rather, I hope to point to two aspects of art which I feel would be generally agreed upon as characteristic of art. 

First, I think we can all agree that art must be, to some extent at least, public in form. This does not mean that art must be displayed in public, nor even that it should be the sort of thing that would be popular were it to be so displayed. I do not mean that sort of 'public'. Instead, I mean that it ought to be public in that someone who has no experience of this art could examine it with an open mind and find something in it to understand its 'artistic beauty', even if that person doesn't agree with it. Take, for example, the main building of the University of Technology, Sydney:

Now this building was design as a work of modernist architecture, modernist art. Most people find it an eyesore (I must confess I myself am extremely fond of it, but that is neither here nor there). Nevertheless, anyone could either think through its features and find aspects of it in which they can understand its beauty, or they could read more about modernist art and architecture and see how it exemplifies that. They could, in a word, appreciate the UTS building for what it is, irrespective of their own opinion of it, or indeed of modernist art in general. This is what I mean when I say art should be more or less public.

Second, art is emotive. This is distinct from emotional, which can be seen as emotive run wild. Rather, art is emotive insofar as it appeals to the emotional side of the subject. Much has been written on this in the past, and on what exactly this entails (Kant, for example, argued that art connects Man to the Sublime, and I personally am  inclined to say it connects us to or points us towards Objective Beauty, but these are controversial topics), but we need to bother with that here. We can afford to remain fairly general, and say that humans have an emotional side, and art always appeals in some fashion to that side, whether it be to shock it, console it, or otherwise. My distinction between 'emotive' and 'emotional' is important, however, so I will explain: art is emotive inasmuch as it touches the emotional side of humanity,  but, given the first characteristic of art listed above, it must remain intellectually 'public', and thus it can not roam free, so to speak. 'Emotional', then, is that which appeals only to the emotional side, that which Plato would call the Appetite, to the detriment of the rational side, Plato's Intellect.

Given these two characteristics or, if you will, criteria of art, we may now proceed to draw certain conclusions about how this applies to poetry. Given the first criterion, art, and therefore poetry, must be formal, even if only internally. What I mean by this is it must have structure. Why? Because for something to be intellectually or rationally 'public', it must be able to be analysed, and this can only be the case if there is structure or form of some kind. One simply can not analyse that which has no form or structure, because to analyse is to pick apart under headings, so to speak. The Chaos Theory is a perfect example of the mind's inability to analyse without at least positing a form or structure. Now, while I personally have a strong dislike, even disdain for free verse as a general rule, my statements do not preclude it; as I say, it must have at least internal structure. Given this, I do in fact quite like some free verse, such as some of e e cummings's work.

From this, if a poem has form and structure, and is given this by the poet's choice, then it must be rationally justifiable. Once again, this doesn't mean everyone needs to agree that it was the best choice, but one must be able to argue rationally that it is a legitimate choice made for some reason other than 'I may as well' or 'I felt like it'. This may seem overly rationalistic to some; some may reply that I'm ignoring the second criterion, that it be emotive; not at all. I am once again drawing the line between 'emotive' and 'emotional':  but perhaps it is better to work from an example.

e e cummings wrote a poem entitled Cruelly, Love, a classic example of free verse. The lines are broken up at sometimes unexpected or awkward moments; indeed, there are certain places in this poem where I disagree with his choice of line-break, but I can nevertheless appreciate and understand his choice. I can see his rhythm, such a crucial aspect of poetry. That is not the case with Originally, a poem by the current UK Poet Laureate, Carol Ann Duffy. In this poem the line-breaks certainly seem less awkward, but they are also pointless; the rhythm is such that it can only be read and understood by ignoring the lines, in which case why break the lines up at all? Or why not break them up after every word? This, then, is the difference between 'emotive', which remains rationally justifiable, and 'emotional', which does not.

This is but a brief word or two on poetry and art, so I leave it incomplete, but it seems to me that with these two criteria in mind we can return once more to the heights of Parnassus from which we have fallen; we can see the beauty of John Donne or Thomas Hardy, and understand just how much Peter Skrzynecki falls short of their art. Art is always justified in the subjective, the emotional: we must learn to justify it in the emotive which, while it retains subjective character, touches also the objective, and is intrinsically connected with the intellectual side. Only then can we truly understand why Shakespeare and P. G. Wodehouse are great authors, and why Yeats an excellent poet; why Byzantine art deserves the name, and why Bach that of an artist.

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