Jun 032003

Special thanks to AC Douglas, for flagging this bitter little resumé of the state of poetry. And extra-special thanks to “Abiyah,” “a locally acclaimed hip-hop artist,” for touching, in one ill-written paragraph, on everything that has gone wrong with aesthetic theory in the last couple of centuries:

Certainly, there are basics of poetry that may need to be learned, but the learning of these techniques may inhibit rather than enhance the Hip Hop poets ability to express himself or herself. Academia or academic settings tend to discourage the Hip Hop poet, especially those who are innovative and experimental. Poems cannot and will not be created by recipe. In a classroom setting, particularly one focusing on creative writing, pre-emptive judgment calls by an instructor on the validity of a students poetry can be extremely detrimental. The instructor must be well-versed in cross-cultural contexts in order to fairly interpret each individual students poems.

Put aside the question of how one is to know that one is original by cultivating a studious ignorance of the history of poetry. Like Keynes’s proverbial madman who hears voices in the air, Abiyah assuredly has no idea what a profound debt she owes to academic scribblers, a bunch of late eighteenth-century German and English aestheticians in her case. “Innovation” and “experimentation” did not spring, like Athena, fully armed from Zeus’s breast. Until quite recently poetry was generally conceded to give words to the familiar: “what oft was thought but ne’er so well expressed.” Folk poetry like The Iliad is this way practically by definition.

The Elizabethans did not especially prize originality. They often rewrote each other’s poems, trying to improve them. (This tradition, ironically, survives in hip-hop in the remix, although for rather different reasons.) One of Ben Jonson’s best lyrics, “Drink to me only with thine eyes,” is a translation of Philostratus, an accurate one, the scholars say, though lacking Greek I cannot judge. The theory of the organic imagination originated, probably, with Herder and Schelling at the end of the eighteenth century, and was popularized, plagiarized, and jargonized by Coleridge — “esemplastic imagination,” “assimilative power,” “coadunating faculty,” and the like. The mind of the genius was supposed to be not like a mirror, reflecting an agreed-upon external reality, but like a plant, taking mere nourishment from reality and recombining it in strange and wonderful ways. (Shakespeare, its best illustration, largely owes this theory his exalted reputation.) Hence originality is the true mark of genius. It is a small distance from originality to shock, and from this theory to épater les bourgeois.

Our locally acclaimed hip-hop artist is certain the purpose of poetry is to express oneself. I’ve got a news flash for you, cupcake: nobody cares about your precious personality except your mother, and maybe not her either, if she’s anything like my mother. Self-expression, too, is a relatively recent development in aesthetic theory, heralded by the ever-grandiose Wordsworth in the Preface to the Lyrical Ballads, in which he defined poetry as “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings,” which makes it sound a good deal like road rage. The more spontaneity, the better, according to J.S. Mill: Natural poetry, the best kind, “is Feeling itself, employing Thought only as the medium of its utterance.” Naturally technique and study are positive hindrances to spontaneity; our hip-hop artist reminds us that “poems cannot and will not be written by recipe.” This whole business so irked T.S. Eliot that he called for “the extinction of personality”; too late. The spiritual descendant of Wordsworth and Mill is Picasso, with his “Whatever I spit — that is art.” And here we are.

*The definitive work on the evolution of these ideas is M.H. Abrams’ The Mirror and the Lamp, although Abrams appears not to recognize the disastrous consequences of the ideas that he chronicles so thoroughly.

  8 Responses to “Madmen Who Hear Voices in the Air”

  1. Thank you! Beautifully put and, if you don’t mind me saying, superbly expressed. One thing that comes w/ maturity as a writer is the realization that sometimes what one writes is essentially shit and no matter how or in what way it is expressed it is still shit. I’ve had this debate with some younger "writers." These are the impressionable descendants of Kerouac who believe that to edit is to destroy. My constant plea is to at least give that which you express one pass through an objective filter.

  2. I got through about four or five paragraphs of that piece before I wanted to track down Barney F. McClelland and smack him around a bit. Not that he’s particularly wrong or anything (although the main impression I got was of a gatekeeper who was insulted that somebody didn’t want to join his little club…), but sheesh, what a supercilious little weaselly sounding guy….

  3. Good post. And it reminds me of something else Eliot warned poets against — trying to express new emotions. There are no new emotions. Good poets express the emotions we all already know. Bad poets sputter inarticulate musings that reach for things that are not there.

  4. Ken: I know what you mean about McClelland; who can stand those supercilious know-it-alls anyway? Seriously, though, he needs to get out some.

    Howard: I’m sure Eliot said this, since he managed to say something quotable on both sides of almost every question, but I don’t recall the passage you have in mind. Do you have a citation?

  5. Dude, I am totally calling you "Mr.-Genius-Hegel-blah-blah-Schopenhauer" from now on.

  6. I should hope so. I’m considering petitioning for a name change.

  7. God, I read that in college … I have a collection of his literary essays, and I’m pretty sure it’s in there, but it’s buried in a box in a box in a box.

  8. Aaron,
    Here’s part of Eliot’s quote Howard was talking about:
    …."One error, in fact, of eccentricty in poetry is to seek for new human emotions to express; and in this search for novelty in the wrong place it discovers the perverse. The business of the poet is not to find new emotions, but to use the ordinary ones and in working them up into poetry, to express feelings which are not in fact emotions at all….."
    This is from Eliot’s great essay,
    ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’
    Eliot did what he is talking about too, as all the great ones did, as in from ‘The Waste Land’:
    "Madame Sosostris, famous clairvoyante,/ Had a bad cold, nevertheless/ Is known to be the wisest woman in Europe,/ With a wicked pack of cards. Here, said she/…………"

 Leave a Reply

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>