What Does Poetry Do?

 

 

I’m wondering if there has been anything written about the kind of heightened attention to the world that reading poetry can lead to.  In other words, I know that people have described reading poetry itself in and within the context of aesthetic contemplation, the “aesthetic attitude,” etc.; but has there been anything published about the way in which reading a poet broadens our horizons almost literally, so that, in putting down the book, the world itself is fresher, unadorned, newer, more interesting?  For example, for me, looking at Bern Porter’s Founds has given me a new appreciation for, and opened up the worlds of, advertising and design as a purposive and thoughtful aesthetic of form and text.  So for example, when I find myself driving behind or alongside a truck, say, I am much more engaged with the truck’s logo, and pass by it without the earlier blindness.  (This strikes me as sounding silly or unimportant, but I don’t think it is.)  Reading Ashbery also often has a similar effect – I feel opened up somehow, made more aware of the things that constitute my world, as if the sheer act of poetic naming introduces into our consciousness a greater sense of awareness.  If you think about it, it’s not that far-fetched – there has to be a vital connection between our experience and our language, so that the more words we are familiar with but are barely made aware of – if we are made more aware of these words – I wonder if there is a corresponding natural heightening or widening in our awareness that happens both while we are reading the poem and after we read the poem, giving the world that newness, that interest, perhaps that fascinating strangeness.

In keeping with this hunch or tentative argument, I want to look at an Ashbery poem, and then record my observations after reading it, since Ashbery has for years been my go-to poet for this kind of experience, this sort of increase in wonder and appreciation, not just of the poem but of the world around us.  I’m going to choose a poem at random from his Library of Congres Collected:

What is Poetry

 

The medieval town, with frieze

Of boy scouts from Nagoya?  The snow

 

That came when we wanted it to snow?

Beautiful images?  Trying to avoid

 

Ideas, as in this poem?  But we

Go back to them as to a wife, leaving

 

The mistress we desire?  Now they

Will have to believe it

 

As we believe it.  In school

All the thought got combed out:

 

What was left was like a field.

Shut your eyes, and you can feel it for miles around.

 

Now open them on a thin vertical path. 

It might give us – what? – some flowers soon?

 

I’m happy that this poem showed up when I opened the book.  Because in its very title, it gets at questions that are nagging at me behind the scenes of this blog, questions like “What is poetry?”  “What is the point of poetry?”  “Why do we read poetry?”  “What does poetry actually do?”  And I think my tentative answer to these questions is that poetry is a heightened attention to language, and therefore a heightened attention to thinking, to thought.  (Which might explain why, after reading a poem, in a sort of active-passive synthesis, there is a vestigial sense of heightened attention in the reader, since we are employing to and on the page the same kind of active-passive concentration that we use to enter into a more “aesthetic attitude.”)  A poet shapes his or her thought through the form of the poem; again, it is a heightened attention, a concentration of and on language itself, which is a pretty amazing and sort of mind-bending feat, if you think about it.  A kind of artfulness of attention.  So poetry: a greater awareness pivoting around, infusing, imbuing, words.  If this is all remotely true, then how do we understand Ashbery’s poem as an answer to his title’s question?  And how does this relate to the way that poems can somehow give us a more interesting world?

Ashbery answers his question in an interesting way; what he does is, he does not answer the question discursively, as a kind of academic or overly formal answer to the question.  In other words, he does not tell us anything.  What he does do is show us what poetry might be (and therefore what life might be?) through its very different and surprising images.  Therefore we have the wonderful and unexpected image of “the medieval town,” and the very perplexing and strange “frieze / With boy scouts from Nagoya,” strange because we normally associate friezes with ancient architecture, although here we have a frieze of boy scouts from Japan!  What a wonderfully different image!  And, as we begin to go through this poem, highlighting the various images that seconds before were not conceivable – I cannot imagine myself every being able to come up with that specific image – we begin to see how the poem is stretching us somehow, imagining what we could not imagine on our own, and giving us these imaginings as gifts.  Wonder then enters the picture – both at Ashbery’s imaginative abilities, but also, more generally, at the strangeness and newness of the world that Ashbery’s imagination brings to our attention.  One feels we are encountering in the poem an aesthetic awareness that insists upon perceiving the worlds around us with the same kind of intense attentional appreciation that is brought to the page.  

I don’t think this idea is that strange – that the poet somehow has a (more? very?) expansive or sensitive sensory perception (Romantic poets would probably speak of this as something related to child-like perception), and that this sensitivity to sensory perception, this aesthetic attitude, translates into a greater sense of awareness in the written poem.  Perhaps this emphasis on perception over conception is the reason why Ashbery talks in “What is Poetry” about “avoiding ideas”, this suggesting that he writes what comes to him instead of writing what he thinks he ought to?

Another thing we can see in “What is Poetry” is that Ashbery treats the poem as a form of experimental inquiry.  He asks questions about what poetry is, without necessarily trying to answer them (although his questions are of course tentative answers to the title’s question).  His answers are therefore sorts of conclusions, but in another way they are openings, possibilities, as if Ashbery were saying that the poem is an opening of possibilities, a vast linguistic ocean of potential, and that this feeling of possibility and potential might and may and can translate over into our experience itself, away from the book, so that more of our experience is also interesting instead of just numb and boring.  

This is, (I think) what Dewey wrote about in his book on aesthetics, Art and Experience.  Dewey tried to make experience itself something full of interest, attention, appreciation, strangeness, weirdness, compellingness.  He wanted to say, as I understand him, that art does not reside solely in museums but is all around us, right now, although it takes a certain shift of focus to enter it.  We spend so much of our time living in the practical world, the world of “instrumental reason,” the world of doing what we have to do to live and get by; so our shift of focus into a more aesthetic attitude involves stripping ourselves of our will, in a way, (Schopenhauer would like that turn of phrase), or at least divesting ourselves momentarily of our desire to manipulate something else for our benefit or interest, in order to perceive something the way it is, and not the way we want it to be….?  I guess that’s my argument for today; that poetry, because it involves a interest that is not exactly instrumental, gives us the gift of experiencing the poem, and therefore the world, in a disinterested, sympathetic, somehow aesthetic way.  What does a poem actually do?  A good one will therefore help to literally enrich our lives, and provide us with new ways of thinking/living.               

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