Three Perspectives on Poetry (and What It Is… or Isn’t)

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“Great poets are often proverbially ignorant of life. What they know has come by observation of themselves; they have found within them one highly delicate and sensitive specimen of human nature, on which the laws of emotion are written in large characters, such as can be read off without much study.”
John Stuart Mill, What Is Poetry? 1833

So says Mill (not a poet himself) in his analysis of poetry. To Mill, poets are men and women forged almost purely of introspection, of cloistered self-study. “Other knowledge of mankind,” he continues, “is not indispensable to them as poets”. Poetry is, after all, “the natural fruit of solitude and meditation”. Whilst Mill makes some fine points about how poets approach their work, and finer points about art-as-artistry and art-as-commodity (or perhaps, ‘art-as-commodity-isn’t-art’), and although he makes it clear that poetry is not limited to verses and stanzas but can be found in music, painting, sculpture and architecture, his notion of what a poet actually is seems both expansive (they can be artists, actors, etcetera) and restrictive (they are purely introspective beings). He seems to be telling us that poets, in all of their forms, are intrinsic supermen, capable of great artistic achievement by will alone.

Whilst at it Mill, a great philosopher and humanitarian in his own right, also takes an unfair shot at novel readers (“the shallowest and emptiest [of people]”), dismisses the French (“the least poetical … the vainest… and the least self-dependent [of nations]”) and implies that epic poetry, such as the work of Homer or Virgil or Dante Alighieri, is not really poetry at all. His reasoning for the latter isn’t clear, but he does explain that artwork created with an audience in mind will ultimately be lacking. To demonstrate, he uses a stage metaphor: “The actor knows that there is an audience present; but, if he acts as though he knew it, he acts ill.” This he applies to all the arts.

At first glance, it seems fair enough; but considering that Michelangelo painted the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel on a commission (it’s been said he was even strong-armed into creating it) would Mill tell his readers that there’s no poetry or true artistry behind the paint? He does concede that, “That [such work] should be poetry, being [created] under such purposes, is less probable, [but] not, however, impossible.” This admission comes with a disclaimer: the performing poet/artist/actor must never be “tinged” by the “desire of making an impression upon another mind”.

Austrian-Bohemian poet Rainer Maria Rilke was at odds with Mill’s definition of a poet and his poetry, defining them instead as the result of immersing oneself in the world: “You ought to wait and gather sense and sweetness for a whole lifetime,” he says, “and a long one if possible, and then, at the very end, you might perhaps be able to write ten good lines,” (thankfully, Rilke did not wait until his latter years to write anything, though his best work, the Duino Elegies, did come forth in a burst of creative spontaneity in his middle age.)

Rainer Maria Rilke

Rilke continues, in opposition to Mill: “For poems are not, as people think, simply emotions (one has emotions early enough) – they are experiences.” He sums up the ingredients for making poetry as:

For the sake of a single poem, you must see many cities, many people and things, you must understand animals, must feel how birds fly, and know the gestures which small flowers make when they open in the morning. You must be able to think back to streets in unknown neighbourhoods, to unexpected encounters, and to partings you had long seen coming; to days of childhood whose mystery is still unexplained … to days in quiet, restrained rooms and to mornings by the sea, to the sea itself, to seas, to nights of travel that rushed along high overhead and went flying with all the stars – and it is still not enough to be able to think of all that. You must have memories of many nights of love, each one different from all the others, memories of women screaming in labour  and of light, pale, sleeping girls who have just given birth and are closing again. But you must also have been beside the dying, must have sat beside the dead in the room with the open window and scattered noises. And it is not yet enough to have memories. You must be able to forget them when they are many, and you must have the immense patience to wait until they return. For the memories themselves are not important. Only when they have changed into our very blood, into glance and gesture, and are nameless, no longer to be distinguished from ourselves – only then can it happen that in some very rare hour the first word of a poem arises in their midst and goes forth from them.”

Rilke’s explanation, unlike Mill’s, does not gloss over the process of turning the interior of oneself into a poem. Mill seems to suggest that poets are these intrinsically talented people who can disappear inside themselves and produce great insight upon returning. To Rilke, a poet is not a closed system, he does not merely read off the wall and report what he has seen. A poet actively, painfully and blissfully lives in the world, and it in him.

Thousands of years before both Rilke and Mill, another philosopher, Plato, set his critical sights on poetry. In Book X of The Republic he argues that poets merely mimic reality, and the readers of poetry absorb this mimicry and mistake it for reality, before going on to propagate these illusions. Thus begins a spiral of imitation breeding imitation, with each iteration potentially wandering further from Truth.

“When we hear persons saying that the tragedians, and Homer, who is at their head, know all the arts and all things human -virtue as well as vice, and divine things too, for that the good poet cannot compose well unless he knows his subject, and that he who has not this knowledge can never be a poet- we ought to consider whether here also there may not be a similar illusion. Perhaps they may have come across imitators and been deceived by them; they may not have remembered when they saw their works that these were but imitations thrice removed from the truth, and could easily be made without any knowledge of the truth, because they are appearances only and not realities?”

Plato sarcastically adds: “Or, after all, they may be in the right, and poets do really know the things about which they seem to the many to speak so well?” He goes on to conclude that “all these poetical individuals, beginning with Homer, are only imitators; they copy images of virtue and the like, but the truth they never reach.”

Michelangelo Buonarroti, the sculptor of David and painter of the Sistine Chapel, said that “the true work of art is but a shadow of the divine perfection,” though he was never troubled by it, as is Plato, who continues: “The poet is like a painter who, as we have already observed, will make a likeness of a cobbler though he understands nothing of cobbling; and his picture is good enough for those who know no more than he does, and judge only by colours and figures.”

Plato then explains that the poet, along with that other great imitator, the painter, would have no place in his titular republic, because he “implants an evil constitution” upon the populace. Rather dramatically, he threatens that if the rulers of the Republic “allow the honeyed muse to enter, either in epic or lyric verse, not law and the reason of mankind … pleasure and pain will be the rulers in our State,” (Plato’s student, Aristotle, may have been less of a killjoy ruler: “Poetry and politics,” he said, “do not have the same standards of correctness.”)

Though Plato does express legitimate concerns, in that many people are happy to take fiction as fact, no matter how ludicrous the depiction –imagine Birth of a Nation was the sole artifact of mankind after a hypothetical apocalyptic scenario, and what that could lead our successors in this world to think of us– he brands poets and artists as being guilty of nourishing irrationality; worse, they enslave their readerships to the baser parts of themselves and distance them from reality. It’s rather ironic that Plato presents his philosophy through his own stylised version of his teacher, Socrates, and that what we know of the latter comes almost entirely from the former.

Most would agree that Plato’s ‘imitation’ of Socrates is preferable over the void that his absence from the dialogues (and thus, history) would leave — and taking a small step away from the Truth ain’t all that bad after all.

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