Tuesday, October 14, 2014

On the nature of poetry: Guest post by Jason David Peterson, #BLauthor15

"ReyKjaVerK II," by Randi Ward
As the term poetry grows loose in the popular culture, there are countercultures who strive with commendable spirit to redefine it, to draw defensive perimeters between what poetry is and that which mocks and mistreats it. But much like pulling light from a room with bare hands, it cannot so easily be stuffed into a knapsack. If we look to seasoned authors to help us map the territory of poetry, we may be told it is “at least an elegance and at most a revelation” (Robert Fitzgerald), a “way of taking life by the throat” (Robert Frost), or to be more exact, a “synthesis of hyacinths and biscuits” (Carl Sandburg). While we can take this recycling of the poetic modality as evidence that poetry has many pet-names because it has entertained so many lovers, it does not provide much grounds for definition. Holding to the theory of a Proto-Indo-European language, one might argue that the word poetry is rooted in the concept of kwei, or the piling up of things. This is equally nebulous, but if such spirit gives me license to add to the stack, I submit: Poetry is the tang of our most productive sweat, and the distillate of our affective experience (clearly I am not exempt from poetry’s orgy).

In light of the fact that poetic elements are an invasive species, having colonized every form of communication, it is no surprise that a classification of those collective elements is difficult to make. One might even propose that attempting to define poetry in its entirety is like spitting on a window and calling it wet—a task best left to those who take more pleasure in their own influence. Yet, as with any concept, there is a core essence in poetry, what we might call the source of its sovereignty, both as a form of art and method of communication (which I take to be the morning and evening stars of expression; both the same star, and neither a star at all but a bold, fiery planet doing what it can to be acknowledged and understood). If poetry inhabits such a dominion, it is on account of what it allows a writer to create and a reader to comprehend—not because it has rules apart from other genres, but because of a lack of rules, which provides a more direct path for the intention of the work to come across.

For some poets, this freedom is embraced by forcing disagreeable words into the same cage only to let their readers gawk at the spectacle. While the intention is liberated from the rules of language in this case, it is willfully subjugated to a new rule: the poetic form. The poem becomes the cage, and the experience (though perhaps provocative) becomes artificial. This is not to say that forms are counterproductive to poetry—much to the contrary, they create an environment where the stringent selection of words, landscape of syllables, and appliance of patterns require us to describe our ideas in new ways. And without the luring comfort of the familiar, there is opportunity to reinvent the language of our experience with more accuracy. However, if a poem remains solely an exercise in form, and bereft of content, it cannot honestly portray an idea—in the sense that honesty is the most accurate representation possible of one’s own personal understanding of things (not Truth, but truth).

Ultimately, when content/honesty is the intention, the lack of rules/forms increases the potential for accuracy. Now, this may seem like an antithesis to language in general, which is nothing more than a set of rules, but as these rules allocate space for an ever-extending vocabulary, adding layer upon layer of subtlety, specificity, and variety to the concepts we discuss, through time the words themselves become imbued with more distinctive personal, cultural, and historical indicators—the more precise the language, the more precisely a particular word, combination of words, or sequence of words, regardless of whether or not they follow the rules of language in their new application, can represent the truth of our experience. The more rules we allow ourselves to break in the effort of this representation, the less likely contention will arise (about what or how we should write) and contaminate the process. In the Derridean sense, when the rules of language are temporarily extinguished, diffĂ©rance seems to remain a governing force among the orphaned words, and plays a significant role in purifying the connections between words and our experience. In essence, the progression of language is vital to the progression of poetry, because poetry thrives on the temporary deconstruction and reclamation of language.
"ReyKjaVerK V," by Randi Ward

Inherently, this view of poetry predicates that there is value in accurately representing our understanding of things. If our eyes are open to the moments when we feel resonation with others, this argument presents itself in each of us: the sinking of blood when you hear a terrifying story and know that it is true, the unexpected sliver of sadness you feel when someone tells you they love you and really means it, the lifelong bonds that form when an experience is shared and no words need be spoken, even the duende of a song that draws you in because you cannot deny that it has tapped into the same unknown something that singers, musicians, and audiences mutually recognize and openly mourn. This resonation is what relationships are born of, how revolutions begin, and where our memories seat themselves. It is as if the great struggle of humanity is to be born divided and walk the ages trying to reunite, and the bounty of life is the great reach of experiences we bring to each other only by virtue of such division.

An analog of this lies in poetry, where language is the state of division (the parts and pieces, the rules), and words borrowed and removed from the structure are the experiences we bring to each other (the pure emotive symbols). The closer we get to reunification, the less present language becomes, and the more valuable are the words themselves. As poets struggle to understand the full and growing weight of each word, the social, psychological, and spiritual effects of their various combinations, and apply them to the page, they are acting in a great and honorable service of humankind: to remind us of who we are, the importance of our mutual connections, and—in a world of perils and inescapable decay—to tell us in-between the lines, no matter what happens, it’s going to be okay.

About the artist: Randi Ward is a writer, translator, lyricist, and photographer from West Virginia. She earned her MA in Cultural Studies from the University of the Faroe Islands and is a recipient of The American-Scandinavian Foundation's Nadia Christensen Prize. Ward is a Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net nominee whose work has appeared in Asymptote, Beloit Poetry Journal, Cimarron Review, World Literature Today, Anthology of Appalachian Writers, Vencil: Anthology of Contemporary Faroese Literature, and other publications. For more information, visit: www.randiward.com/about.

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