Friday, September 23, 2005


Interesting discussion on Bemsha Swing about poetics. I was struck by a comment criticizing poets “who have no other ambition than to replicate effects they’ve already experienced.” I know this is the standard criticism of “mainstream” poetry, but doesn’t every artist in some sense want to “replicate effects they’ve already experienced”? If they don’t, then they put down their pen and become a pastry chef or a gun runner. Isn’t it a question of what level (or meta-level) of experience one wants to replicate?

Sure, at one extreme you’ve got someone who wants to replicate the cozy feeling they got when they first heard “The Night Before Christmas,” while someone else wants to replicate the disorienting effect they got when they first read Pound’s Cantos. But every poet has taken some core “poetic” or “aesthetic” or “perspective-altering” or just plain life-changing experience from poems they love, and wants to recreate that core experience. Every good poem expands the definition of poetry, but every good poem also abides by some traditional definition of poetry.

Or . . . to put it much more entertainingly, here’s one of my favorite passages from Tom Stoppard’s play Travesties. Henry Carr, the civil servant with oh-so-bourgeois tastes, quarrels with Dadaist Tristan Tzara about the definition of art. Stoppard gives both of them some awfully convincing lines. If you’re wondering who wins the argument, well, Stoppard never quite resolves it. To the extent it’s resolved, it’s when James Joyce (that artist both utterly revolutionary and utterly traditional) puts them both in their place.
CARR: . . . I couldn’t be an artist anywhere—I can do none of the things by which is meant Art.

TZARA: Doing the things by which is meant Art is no longer considered the proper concern of the artist. In fact it is frowned upon. Nowadays, an artist is someone who makes art mean the things he does. A man may be an artist by exhibiting his hindquarters. He may be a poet by drawing words out of a hat. In fact some of my best poems have been drawn out of my hat which I afterwards exhibited to general acclaim at the Dada Gallery in Bahnhofstrasse.

CARR: But that is simply to change the meaning of the word Art.

TZARA: I see I have made myself clear.

CARR: Then you are not actually an artist at all?

TZARA: On the contrary. I have just told you I am.

CARR: But that does not make you an artist. An artist is someone who is gifted in some way that enables him to do something more or less well which can only be done badly or not at all by someone who is not thus gifted. If there is any point in using language at all it is that a word is taken to stand for a particular fact or idea and not for other facts or ideas. I might claim to be able to fly . . . Lo, I say, I am flying. But you are not propelling yourself about while suspended in the air, someone may point out. Ah no, I reply, that is no longer considered the proper concern of people who can fly. In fact, it is frowned upon. Nowadays, a flyer never leaves the ground and wouldn’t know how. I see, says my somewhat baffled interlocutor, so when you say you can fly you are using the word in a purely private sense. I see I have made myself clear, I say. Then, says this chap in some relief, you cannot actually fly after all? On the contrary, I say, I have just told you I can. Don’t you see my dear Tristan you are simply asking me to accept that the word Art means whatever you wish it to mean; but I do not accept it.

TZARA: Why not? You do exactly the same thing with words like patriotism, duty, love, freedom . . . .

Well, folks, I’m leaving for Paris tomorrow, so Tom Stoppard is going to have to be my final word for a while, but I trust a lot of activity will continue here in my absence. Au revoir!


C. Dale said...

Paris. How wonderful. Have fun.

Emily Lloyd said...

R, you're in Paris and I just got back from Boston and haven't read the Bemsha post yet, but I understand your snagging on the word effects. I'd put my own feeling this way: that I have little patience with poets who seem to want to replicate POEMS they've already experienced. There are poets of all stripes/aesthetics that do this, I think..