Sunday, June 11, 2006

Background Noise #3

Artist/Album: Calexico/Feast of Wire
Drink: Pyramid Curve Ball K├Âlsch

Tonight, I had all intentions of answering the question, What is poetry? But, before attempting such a daunting task I decided to do some research. I did a simple Google search of what is poetry and read the numerous articles that have been written on the subject. I quickly realized there really was nothing I could add to the discussion. Poetry is inherently indefinable. My whole damn argument would probably end up being summarized by a single, nonsensical saying like: Poetry is the last dreams of a dying dog.

So, instead of writing about what poetry is (or isn't) I'll direct you to the articles and sites I think do a great job of trying to explain the unexplainable. Maybe we can gain a modicum of insight when we're done.

The first stop, certainly, is the dictionary. From there, you would, like I, probably go to an encyclopedia to see what they have to say on the matter. After reading what the encyclopedia and dictionary had to say, you'd probably test the academic waters. First, an historical perspective, then a more recent attempt, followed by another. Then you remember that has a poetry/literary site and you go over there to see what they have to say on the matter. After all this reading you'll come the same damn conclusion I came to. No one knows WHAT poetry is. Or at least they don't know how to define it, exactly. But, one thing that is for certain is that we all know what poetry isn't.

Poetry isn't litter on the side of the road.
Poetry isn't the loneliness of a homeless man.
Poetry isn't the bloom of an orchid in a muddy swamp.
Poetry isn't a vulture circling above a dying horse.
Poetry isn't the sound of your lover sleeping.
Poetry isn't any of this. But, in a way, it is all of it, really. Poetry is exactly that which it is not. Poetry is not life, but for some of us our lives wouldn't be much of one without it. Poetry isn't death, but for a lot of us poetry helps us come to terms with the reality of it. Poetry isn't necessary, except in the fact that culture would cease to exist as we know it. Poetry isn't, yet is, everything.

So, I don't think I'm going to attempt to define poetry, tonight. No, I'll leave that to the English majors in the universities across our once-fair land. I'll leave that to the philosophers and professors; to the historians; to the literary theorists. I'll leave it to those souls who are far more adventurous, far more intelligent and with far more time than I.

Instead, I'll let you in on a little of what poetry is to me.
The writing of poetry allows me to express myself; to get in touch with the inner self that all of us possess; to feel the primordial organism within me. Reading poetry connects me with the writer, with the endless generations of humans who've come before me and who will come after. It lets me know, on a level deeper than mere conversation and togetherness, that I am not alone; that someone else has had the same thoughts as I; that someone else has walked this path, and that it does lead somewhere. The writing and reading of poetry, to me, is the quintessence of humanity.

I am convinced there is life outside of our little sphere. But, I am not totally convinced that poetry would (or can) exist outside of it. Poetry is fundamentally human. Therefore, it is NOT the last dreams of a dying dog, however romantic or sentimental that may be. Neither a dog nor monkey nor bird nor whale can create or understand poetry. We are the singular owners of this particular aesthetic. We are the poetry-bearers of this world, and most likely of the universe.

If another race of sentient beings ever came to our planet, they would undoubtedly be struck by the variety and scope of our arts (paintings, movies, television, periodicals, music, etc.), but if they wanted to learn what it means to be human they could do no better than devouring the entirety of our poetries. All of our other arts, combined with our cultures and traditions, would give them a rough sketch of what humanity is, but poetry would be alone in giving that sketch color.

Enough with the sci-fi bullshit. What does this all mean? Well, since poetry is and isn't everything; since we as humans are the sole bearers of this aesthetic; since poetry is fundamentally human; since it is everything that all of our other arts and religions and cultures and traditions isn't, that means that poetry is the pinnacle of human ingenuity and passion. Poetry is the result of our attempts at forging a deep and final connection with the universe. Poetry is the zenith of humanity's struggle to understand.

And maybe that's the final definition of what poetry is: Poetry is humanity.


Blogger christopher cunningham said...

"Art is the clothing of a revelation" - Transformations of Myth Through Time, Joseph Campbell.

some more quotes (unsupported with footnotes, so...):

Poetry lifts the veil from the hidden beauty of the world,
and makes familiar objects be as if they were not familiar.
- Percy Bysshe Shelley

Poetry is just the evidence of life.
If your life is burning well, poetry is just the ash.
- Leonard Cohen

Poets utter great and wise things which
they do not themselves understand.
- Plato

Poetry ... should strike the reader as a wording of his own
highest thoughts, and appear almost a remembrance.
- John Keats

The artist does not tinker with the universe, he recreates it
out of his own experience and understanding of life.
- Henry Miller

I have nothing to say and I am saying it and that is poetry.
- John Cage

and one more from yours truly:

it is the cave painting, the violence of honesty, a pearl handled pistol cradled in the fading sunlight, a photograph of a dream.
- cc

man, j.b a great post, a "thinker," if you will. I agree wholeheartedly with your summation about poetry and humanity. indeed. the essences of ourselves distilled into a small enough form that it is able to almost immediately enter the memory, and become a part of our conciousness. and really, the poem is the "go-to" artform in all unpleasant, tragic situations, just as the song (poem) is the "go-to" in glad, happy situations. it is the one. it trumps the rest. it is what all artforms aspire to, the making of POETRY in music, painting, sculpture, etc. when something is good it is "like poetry."

well done.

12:59 AM  
Blogger christopher cunningham said...

and I forgot to mention the interesting link to the Drake equation and the Rare Earth Theory. very interesting stuff. I myself hold that the universe is a vast motherfucker, therefore, we can't possibly think we are the only LIFEFORM (intelligent is VERY goddamn open to discussion).

there is too much our little shortlived brains do not understand, cannot understand, i.e. dark matter, GW Bush, etc.

3:12 AM  
Blogger christopher cunningham said...

one more:

Kaye: And what do you think is the role of the poet in this world-mess?

Bukowski: I don't like the way that question is phrased. The role of the poet is almost nothing...drearily nothing. And when he steps outside of his boots and tries to get tough as our dear Ezra [Pound] did, he will get his pink little ass slapped. The poet, as a rule, is a half-man - a sissy, not a real person, and he is in no shape to lead real men in matters of blood, or courage. I know these things are anti to you, but I have got to tell you what I think. If you ask questions you have got to get answers.

Kaye: Do you?

Bukowski: Well, I don't know...

Kaye: I mean in a more universal sense. Do you have to get answers?

Bukowski: No, of course not. In a more universal sense, we only get one thing. You know...a head stone if we're lucky; if not, green grass.

Kaye: So do we abandon ship or hope altogether?

Bukowski: Why these cliches, platitudes? OK, well, I would say no. We do not abandon ship. I say, as corny as it may sound, through the strength and spirit and fire and dare and gamble of a few men in a few ways we can save the carcass of humanity from drowning. No light goes out until it goes out. Let's fight as men, not rats. Period. No further addition.


4:03 AM  
Blogger j.b said...

good stuff. thanks for the comments Chris.

i completely forgot to mention, as you did, the saying "like poetry"'re right. all art aspires to be like poetry.

regarding the science of the world, there is so much out there that even the physicists on the cusp of science's frontiers don't understand. and some stuff they do understand don't really make much sense (e.g. quantum mechanics).

love those quotes you listed. good stuff. just proves my point that poetry is inherently indefinable. not that there's anything wrong with that.

9:57 AM  
Blogger Luis said...

poetry is an ingrown toenail-
or so I thought in a poem I
wrote when I was 19 or so. But
poetry is many things to many
people. Great post, Justin, and
the Drake equation caught my interest.

poetry is a way to record our past, the present, and future-

through poetry we can study
the thoughts of the ancients;
those civilizations that came
before us...

from Octavio Paz-
"Spanish-American literature
(poetry) is an enterprise of
the imagination. We are resolved to invent our own reality...
Our dreams are waiting for us
around the corner."

probably strayed off the subject
a bit here...but I agree with
your assessments

and great quotes listed by Chris

4:16 PM  
Blogger j.b said...

thanks, Luis.

I don't think you strayed off the path. You'll notice that most of the formulae used to define poetry use "imagination" "aesthetic" "beauty" and other such words. there lacks key words in the human tongues to define exactly what poetry is. and THIS is what poetry finally is: a way of defining itself. and it inevitably, always, fails; else it would be unnecessary to ever write another.

i'm glad, too, that the little bit of science i tossed in there was interesting. i learned about the Drake equation while studying Astronomy in college (minored in it, actually) and it has always stuck with me. maybe in the next installment i'll get all scientific.

5:29 PM  
Blogger Kat said...


Sorry I haven't said a word until now. I'm been busy thinking about this, actually, I was thinking about it before you asked the question. And I was sort of distressed because I could not come up with an answer. I still don't have an answer but you've given me something to think about, as usual.

Going to drink my Ovaltine and keep thinking. ;)

7:50 PM  
Blogger j.b said...

well, with the Ovaltine it's not really fair, Kat.

try thinking WITHOUT the Ovaltine! :)

well, i'm glad i could give you something to think about. i really didn't answer any questions, but i hoped it could give everyone a pause; maybe a "hmmm". that's all.

8:31 PM  
Anonymous MOM C said...

All I know is that when I need a release of a multitude of emotions and I cannot seem to find the words to express them, I call on my favorite poet to put the words down for me so they will live on forever, not only for me, but also for anyone who also needs to find that release of multitudes of pent up emotions within.

12:25 PM  
Blogger christopher cunningham said...

very well said. when properly done, it is the best of the artforms.

thanks much for posting. we love to hear from you.

12:37 PM  
Blogger j.b said...

sounds as if your mother, chris, gets it. too bad more aren't like her. i can only assume this is why you are the way you are (either nature OR nurture).

mom c is right. when emotions need to be released, the act of either writing or reading poetry can do that better than any other aesthetic around.

7:01 PM  

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