A formal approach to poetry

How close does the “history of ideas” approach come to data-mining as the study and criticism of literature? I was rereading Christopher Tilmouth’s Passion’s Triumph Over Reason, and I began thinking about this. I met the author a few years back, in his Cambridge room in a turret of Peterhouse, when I was planning on undertaking a PhD (on the poetry of John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester) there. We discussed the various approaches that are common now, and while he is not necessarily a party to the more theory-laden schools of thought, he certainly was familiar with their content and understood their attraction to many. I was there to talk to him about the possibility of taking a more formal approach to literature (which is in keeping with my techno-functionalist interests in philosophy!), one which did not make the text merely a conduit to discuss a particular theory of discourse, one which, incidentally might be anachronistic. At the same time, however, I felt that there was something about the historical scholarship approach to poetry that didn’t resonate for me.

It seems to be the case here that literature is taken as but one discourse among many. This is true in the banal sense. For the theorist, the poem is a case that manifests certain things that we might hold to be true about discourses as a whole. For the historian, the poem manifests certain currents of thought. Nobody can really object to these projects. What I would note, however, is that they are curiously restricted. To labour a point I have made in the previous two posts, this is an unliterary way to read literature. Why so? Well, what if we take that question which Martin Heidegger took to be most fundamental question in philosophy: “why is there something rather than nothing?” What if we use this as our model for a pared back, formal, techno-functionalist approach to poetry, and ask “why is there a poem rather than nothing?” Why did the author choose to write a poem, rather than a play, or a screed, or a pamphlet, or whatever else? What does a poem allow her or him to say, to communicate, that otherwise would have eluded them? This is the question that I do not believe that either theory or history can adequately account for.

Undoubtedly, the poem will be a nexus of elements referring to the external world, and so we will find echoes with theological works, tracts, philosophical speculations, sermons, elements of newspaper gossip, etc., but the poetic work is more than these elements. This is the discursiveĀ content which suffuses an entire intellectual context, a network in which a poem or corpus of a poet’s work will be but a node of relative significance. The next question we should ask is that if this atmosphere is the context, and the poem is but one element, then what is it that differentiates it from the other types?

The formal perspective is one way of expanding upon this question, one which allows a return to a serious engagement with aesthetics, without the baggage of a century of knee-jerk reactions against ‘aestheticism’. It’s an alternative approach which would allow us to ask of literary texts what it is that they seek to do. What is the specific problem which the poet seeks to address? This in itself cannot be the whole of an approach, and it is something of an ‘engineering’ perspective on poetry, but thankfully it is an approach for which poetry makes difficulties. It does not have all the answers, which I find encouraging – interpretation that claims all the answers is not rigorous, but is religion by any other name. Poems, mercifully, take problems, paradoxes, contradictions, challenges as their points of departure. This is true of art on the whole, and overly-neat theoretical frameworks can only gloss over this to their own eventual destruction.

There is not necessarily a telos in the form of a solution to what we can term “the problem”. It may be that through this functional, formal view of poetry is not quite the aesthetic view of poetry as poetry, and rather the broader view of poetry as an element of literary discourse. BUT! The buck stops there, more or less. Implicit in this are a number of presuppositions: (i) that there is such a thing as literary discourse, (ii) that we have an idea of it, such that (iii) it has a specific function to justify its differentiation from other discourses, and that finally (iv) there may thus be a type of psychology of literary creativity. The last of these points is a difficult one to make, because psychology of creativity has been abused as a hope for a grand unifying theory of creativity (v. Jonah Lehrer). It need not be this. What I am implying is that that particular aspect of a poem being the work of an individual rather than an agglomerate of a society’s prejudices and preoccupations. The poet is actively engaged in the decisions they make, their intentionality cannot be removed without making our interpretation essentially “unliterary”. This is the psychological element.

Are there further assumptions made within the above approach? Undoubtedly. Another is probably the picture of literature (and all art) as engaging with a type of questioning which would put it at an adversarial distance from the society in which it is created, if it is to go beyond the mere recording of events or attitudes. Indeed, this aspect of the diary or annal is an important function. I do wonder, however, if in the ‘realism’ of certain authors ever actually manages to transcend mere observation in this regard. I am not suggesting that the romantic, rebellious artist is the preeminent model of the artist. Certainly not. This adversarial distance, this standing at a critical remove is to be seen in all the forms and genres a poet has at their disposal, be their tradition classical, romantic, post-modern, modern, avant-garde, or whatever else.

For example, the pastoral as ideal space in poetry serves a different purpose to the utopia in philosophy (or indeed the ‘state of nature’), and so the ‘Hobbism‘ of Rochester, which Tilmouth’s book outlines, is not simply the debasement of Hobbes’s philosophy. In its incorporation within a literary context, it becomes something rather different. Similarly, the form of satire is different again to the pulpit haranguing of a divine. (Incidentally, Philip Larkin missed the point somewhat in his opposition to satire, and Seamus Heaney indirectly addresses the reasons for this in “Englands of the Mind”)

One final presupposition (which may be entirely personal to me) runs through the above, and that is the difference in ontological assumptions that I believe is particular to literature. It is found in my use of words such as field, nexus, node. Is literature then the voice of a counter-tradition within the history of discourse as a whole? I believe it is so, given that it takes the problem as its centre, and not for the purposes of resolution, as other discourses may or must. As such, the set solution, the static ontology, the creation ex nihilo, make no sense to literary discourse. This singular, particular aspect of artistic and literary creation is what I believe is lost when we do not ask the question “why is there a poem/painting/concerto/novel/comic/play rather than nothing?” I think this formal approach is how we might best attend to art, music, and literature.

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