In his poem, ‘Ars Poetica’, Archibald MacLeish famously stated that a poem should not mean, but be. Of course, he also said it should be wordless as the flight of birds, so it’s likely best not to take him too literally.
Several months ago, a good friend of mine challenged me to explain why I like poetry, something he says he detests. I declined his challenge at the time as he and I had both had far too much to drink for any good to come of it. But I think the question is a good one. I think all poets – and all those who love poetry – should be prepared to defend it from time to time. Here, then, is the beginning of my attempt (or my attempt at the beginning) of a defense of poetry.
Without entirely disagreeing with MacLeish, I don’t think separating the fact of a poem from ‘meaning’ is a useful or even possible thing. For me, while poetry isn’t merely, or even primarily, a vehicle for the straightforward communication of ideas, it is inherently meaningful, in a more profound way than prose, or any other use of language I can think of.
For me, a poem is a way of understanding being, a lens for viewing the world – not entirely unlike a microscope or a telescope. Several years ago I rode my motorcycle through the desert, and the whole time lines from The Waste Land and ‘The Hollow Men’ rattled around inside my helmet (along with lines from Paul Simon’s ‘Hearts and Bones’ when we rode through the mountains in southern Colorado and northern New Mexico). I cannot see a crow without thinking of Ted Hughes’s cycle of poems, or a blackbird without Wallace Stevens coming to mind.
It goes deeper than that. There are things that cannot be so much thought as felt, and this is really where poetry excels. As E.E. Cummings put it, we are ‘nobodybutourselves’ when we feel, but everybody else when we think or know or believe. The job of the poet is to be ‘nobodybutyourself in words’, which is no mean feat. After all, the words do not belong to us. They are public. They are everybody else’s more than they are ours.
Words, for poets, are not mere ‘signifiers’, and their use of them is not a kind of ‘discourse’, as the philosophers of language would have it. They are raw materials, out of which not ‘signification’ but ‘meaning’ is made, a meaning that is not about being, but rather is a type of being itself, per MacLeish.
Words, of course, are a difficult material to work with. As I said, they are public, and have public uses, significations, that are distinct from their use in poetry. I am not suggesting here that they have different definitions or connotations than in their public use, or that they become emptied of those; but that their everyday meanings, and their sounds, their rhythms, in a poem combine to create something beyond mere signification, in much the same way that our synaptic firings combine to be not just brain activity, but consciousness, which seems to resist reduction to its material cause. (More on that, perhaps, another time.)
T.S. Eliot touched on the difficulty of the raw material of poetry in his Four Quartets, describing the ‘intolerable wrestle with words and meanings’ as ‘raids on the inarticulate’ with ‘shabby equipment’ and ‘undisciplined squads of emotion’. The end result, for Eliot, is only learning ‘to get the better of words/ For the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which/ One is no longer disposed to say it’. It is this sort of ‘failure’, to use Eliot’s word, that Auden likely had in mind when, paraphrasing Paul Valery, he said that poems are never finished, but only abandoned.
I could go on, but I’ll leave it there for now. I’d be interested to know your thoughts, though – whoever is reading this.