Friday, July 16, 2010

Paths of Poetry

Recently I was speaking to an acquaintance about some of the fundamentals of poetry, especially if the making and dissemination of poetry had any use in today’s society. Several aspects we agreed on: the value of poetry as cultural and personal expression, and poetry as a philosophic and moral record of time past. Where we disagreed most fundamentally was in the proper function of poetry.

He argued that it was the purpose of the poet especially, as a custodian of language and broker of its many functions, to explore all the possibilities of language, to stretch what and how ideas can be expressed in the forms (or lack of forms), shapes, and other attributes of poetry. Quite vigorously he claimed that, since no one else was pushing the boundaries, the poet must.

In a way I agree with him. I can understand the urge of a poet to experiment with the sounds and colours of language, to find new ways of expressing the old. “To boldly go where no (poet) has gone before.” Certainly the poet should be free to find new ways through the jungle that is language and usage. But.

It is this “but” that I raised that he seemed to disparage; he seemed so wrapped up in his own argument that he could see no other truth. (And truth wears as many faces as there are ways of looking at it.) I offered the argument that the poet also, and perhaps more importantly, has an obligation to preserve the past and to work with it, to expand what has come before prior to rushing into uncharted spaces.
I offered him two analogies, two metaphors if you will. I asked him to consider orchestral music, saying that there were experimental composers doing fine work that finds an audience but that the most popular and still quite valid works were those of years gone by, and those written today in the styles of those times. When he looked confused, I offered him a simpler one. It’s all very well, I told him, to go exploring, to hack new paths through the undergrowth of jungle or forest. Those who feel the need to do so should. But. And here is that “but” again.

Using the land is more than making one’s way through or around obstacles, more than making paths and drawing maps of them. In the age-old tradition of cultivation we plant what we know we can harvest, what we can use. We shape the landscape to our need, whether that need is utilitarian or simply for appreciation of beauty. A garden is a garden, whether laid out in row upon row of vegetables or plot and cluster of flowers and ornamental vegetation. And the path between their beds are as valid as a trail though the densest part of the forest.

I think he finally got what I was trying to say. He became calmer and changed the subject. I certainly hope that he doesn’t think that I believe his efforts to be worthless, I only hope that he can see the importance of tradition and its relationship to what he wants to do. Such are the functions of poetry: different directions, equally valid.

Changing language, I think, has little to do with poetry as such; poetry probably only reflects change. The changes happen in the street, in everyday usage and media adaptations. I will leave him to hack his way through the jungle of undergrowth as he finds it. I will tend my more formal garden, adding a little bit of colour in one place, a different shape in another. And each one of us walks his own path.

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