Tuesday, March 07, 2006

The why of poetry (part 2)

I came across this post by Josh Corey which is sort of similar to my post yesterday inasmuch as I was looking for some way to categorise how people consume poetry and Josh seems to be looking at the different types of poetry. Of course, my musings (which have been sploshing around my head for a while now) were triggered mainly by the series of posts by RJ McCaffrey on what he calls Airy Poetics. So yesterday's post was not my fault at all!

I ended up in yesterday's post defining some models for exploring how poetry got consumed. To make it more scary, I added some classifications by dividing poetry into social and commercial, and then further dividing it into formal, informal and personal realms.

Let's try doing a table to summarise all these models:

























 Social poetryCommercial poetry
Group entertainment or ritual - formal social eventsSocial meme modelPoetry reading model
Social gifts or study - informal social eventsGift modelBook club model
Workshop model
Discussion-down-pub model
Personal entertainment, targeted interactionJingle modelBook publishing model
Magazine/anthology model
Self publishing model


The first thing that stands out is that the nomenclature needs some work.

The other thing that sticks out is how much all the other blog discussions I've seen over the past 6 months or so have concentrated solely on what I'm calling "commercial" poetry, and in particular on the poetry reading, workshop and book publishing models. Just for the sake of a laugh, I'll try some categorisations:

Ron Silliman's Avant and Post Avant classifications would seem to me to fit squarely in the poetry reading model, assuming that these poetics are in effect long, drawn-out conversations between practitioners. I wouldn't place them in the book publishing model - even though practitioners publish books - because publishing doesn't seem to be the main purpose of the endeavour. Rather, the conversation is more important, and this is done through performance on stage, video, tape and paper.

Equally, Ron's school of quietitude mob would seem to be clearly in the book publishing model, in that publishing, fame and acclaim are the key reasons for them to be writing poetry.

For what it's worth, I would classify my own work in the workshop model, as I write most of my poems as a by-blow of my participation in online workshops (and now blogs). My activities in the self-publishing model are incidental and subservient to my workshopping activities, and I have long refused to suffer the boredoms associated with the poetry reading model.

But I think playing that game is not important compared to the question I asked in the title of yesterday's post: why poetry?

Because there has to be a reason for poetry, and I believe that reason will have nothing to do with god, art, truth or beauty.

Rather it will have everything to do with human evolution.

Because every society that has been investigated to date demonstrates some form of poetry. Just as every society has some form of art, some form of dance, some form of spiritual belief. They may differ in form, but they all seem to play similar roles in their societies.

Poetry, for instance, is different to normal, everyday speech. It's seen as being somehow more special, more rare, more pure, more honest, more evocative, more something than everyday speech. Poems are reserved for special occasions. People who read poetry put time aside to sink themselves into the poems they read. People who attend poetry readings - be they the high tea variety or the slam variety - are looking for something more intense than a chat about this or that.

It stands to reason that poetry has evolved just as human language has evolved, as human society has evolved. It stands to reason that there must be some evolutionary advantage that the existence of poetry confers on the species.

It seems clear to me that the social aspects of the poetry models table are where we find the reason for the why of poetry. The social meme model shows us that poetry is one of the key threads used to identify groups and societies. It is used as one of the basic tools used to teach babies and toddlers the language that the group speaks, and later on it is used by individuals to demonstrate to the rest of the group their adherence, their right to belong as part of the group. These poems are the poems that help build society.

The poems that are used for these purposes are, firstly, the nonsense and nursery rhymes, the playground rhymes of childhood. And secondly they are the Great Poems, the canon of poems which society - somehow - decides are the poems that represent that society. In England, this is specific poems written by Shakespeare, Blake, Keats, Wordsworth, Tennyson, Kipling. I'm not convinced that any poems beyond the Great War have yet made it to National Canon status in England. I desperately want Wilfred Owen's poetry included, but I don't meet many people on the streets of London who can recite Dulce et Decorum Est alongside Shakespearean Sonnets or Jerusalem.

Equally, the gift model would indicate how people formalise bonds between each other on the individual level. Witness the outpouring of poetry from people following the death of Diana, or the murders in Soham. Witness the deluge of verse following 9/11, the Challenger disaster, the invasion of Iraq. In all of these cases we have people who normally never try to write poetry, well, attempting to write poetry. This is an extension of something that's always gone on: writing poems for parents, friends, people we love, people we want to love, people we want to make an extra connection with above and beyond buying them little presents to mark special occasions.

And we can see the subversion of the gift model in the jingle model - just as printing begat flyposting and the postal service begat junk mail and email begat spam, so social poetry begat spam poetry: the use of poetry to sell commodities, services, beliefs. A good thing? No, but a very human thing, I think.

More questions: what the dribbling parsnip is the relationship between social poetry and commercial poetry?

I'm not sure. I do know there must be one, but I haven't yet worked out how the two sides of the poetry coin might interact. My suspicion is that just as some people are naturally better runners, or better hunters, or better flint chippers, so some people are better poets. And just as fast runners sort of club together to train and compete between themselves, so people with a hint of rhythm and a love of language seek out each other to develop, explore and perform poetry.

In the old days (ie prior to 1980), the very best poets were able to make a living solely from poetry, performing at the formal social events of the day (or from advertising: Salmon Rushdie was responsible for the tagline Naughty, but nice! used to sell cream in England). The most popular poems - note I didn't say the best poems - writtten by these people could find a long-term home in the National Canon.

So the commercial side of the poetry coin developed from the social side, which in turn took what it wanted back from the commercial side. Poets on the commercial side of the coin could despise and belittle the poetry written and used on the social side - both the personal poetry and the canonical poetry, while everybody else on the social side could get on with their lives using and making poetry to fit their needs as and when it was required. Everyone was (relatively) happy.

The last question of the day is: does this supermodel of poetry hold up to close scrutiny - especially for poetry in the 21st century?

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