Recent discussions with a few colleagues brought up the question of what poetry “should” do. This question is seldom considered philosophical–it generally occurs among inquiries more aesthetic or educational in nature. Any time we have a “should,” though, we may be more clearly looking at an “ought.” Which brings us to philosophy. Or to poetics.
A friend stated that poetry should have aims, aims that relate to society. She prefers the poem that speaks to “all” to the poem that speaks to (or of) the individual. This is a rather grand and ambitious “ought” for poetry, but it strikes me as valid.
Another colleague defends what she calls the “quiet” poem, the one that circles in on itself with some kind of reminder that interior reflection is occurring in the poem. This sort of poem also has, it seems to me, an ambitious project (I hate that term, but I’ll go with it for now): getting the unknown reader to feel he or she is authentically inside that poem’s quiet, particular, individual world. Have you ever tried to convince another person to understand your perspective on anything? It is never an easy project. It can be accomplished sometimes. To accomplish it through a poem is, frankly, marvelous. So this poem is as ambitious as the poem that endeavors to speak to all.
Donald Hall has a significant essay on this topic, ambition and poetry, and edited an anthology of essays on various views of what poetry’s ambitions might be. I turned to it again last night when mulling over the topic of what poetry “ought” to be, or to do, or to say.
Hall begins, “I see no reason to spend your life writing poems unless your goal is to write great poems.” And that is certainly ambitious. I do feel that is my goal; I don’t expect to attain it. Heck, if I produce even one poem that is great, I will be happy. Hall also writes, “We develop the notion of art from our reading.” Those texts are our models of what great, ambitious, lasting art (poetry) is.
So we develop the idea or aesthetics of what great art is through our enjoyment, study, acculturation, through the models we choose–or reject–ourselves.
Hall wanders into the controversy over writing workshops (the essay is from 1983). I’m not interested in that discussion for this post. But I constantly remind myself of this section from his essay:
Of most help is to remember that it is possible for people take hold of themselves and become better by thinking. It is also necessary, alas, to continue to take hold of ourselves—if we are to pursue the true ambition of poetry. Our disinterest must discover that last week’s nobility was really covert rottenness, etcetera. One is never free and clear; one must work continually to sustain, to recover. . . .
I’m prepared, on my best days, anyway, to accept that I will never be free and clear, that as a poet and as an amateur philosophe (is there any other kind?) I will always be working, continually taking hold of myself, trying again and again to become better by thinking. For me, this is what poetry ought to do.
It would be wonderful to include a couple of examples of the different types, say one of your favorite ‘all inclusive’ poems, and then one which is ‘quiet’ in voice. I wonder how you or your knowledgeable friends here would classify say, Mary Oliver? She seems both to me. thanks for the nudge to read more poetry again! SB
Oliver’s work is perhaps both, though its initial push seems to stem from the quiet interior, as is often the case with Dickinson. Oliver’s work is seldom obviously political in nature, but one could make the case that her call to human understanding and of full respect for the natural world are ‘larger aims.’
Look to Adrienne Rich for one example of the poem that’s ambitious with its “for all” purpose. But of course, this may be setting up a false dichotomy. I think poems that are lasting work on both levels and press upon more than these two aims.
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