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Poetry is the Music of being human

No, I’m not sure what that means either. Carol Ann Duffy said it on the radio yesterday evening. Now, I have a great deal of respect for Ms Duffy, she and Andrew Motion before her have revitalised the meaningless position of Poet Laureate. She has also written poems around news events that still manage to be challenging and satisfying poems, a rare skill. Nevertheless, that particular statement is pure balderdash.

Anyway, that’s not the point. The point is that she came out with this remark while publicising Poetry Live for Haiti, which takes place tomorrow. A very worthy cause, and 20-odd poets gathering in a form of Live Aid would be worth seeing. But it still raises the question: what is art for?

I keep coming up against this question, and every time I feel I’ve found a satisfactory answer it slips through my fingers again.

Does art help us to understand life? But in that case, how explain surrealism or abstract expressionism? Is art meant to comment on life? But doesn’t that put it on a par with journalism, and I can think of many artists who would deny that is what they are doing. Is art political? A lot of artists would deny it. Is art non-political? An equal number of artists would deny that also.

You see, I keep thinking, however worthy the cause, is Poetry Live for Haiti something poets are supposed to do? Doesn’t that make poetry rather mundane and contingent? But maybe poetry is supposed to be mundane and contingent. If I were a poet would I want to take part in such an event? It’s where the cool kids are, of course. It might help my career, as Live Aid undoubtedly did for some performers (though equally it seemed to kill off some careers, and affected most of them not one iota). It might make me feel I’m making a difference. But doesn’t poetry make a difference in a very different way? In the end, I suppose I’d probably take part because it can’t hurt; but is it art?

What do we expect of the artist? What do we expect to get from a work of art? What does the artist expect of their work?

Is there any one thing that art is supposed to be? And if there isn’t, why do we have it?

22 thoughts on “Poetry is the Music of being human

  1. I think your last question is the easiest to answer: It’s part of the brain, we can’t escape it, it’s hardwired in, it may even be part of our evolutionary program. Art is biology.

    What arises from that biology–that is, all your other questions–that’s the hard part.

  2. There certainly isn’t any one thing that art is supposed to be, which is what keeps it timeless and essential. Just think how staid and uninteresting art or poetry would become if forced to be just one thing. The poetry that Duffy calls “the perfect art form for public or private grief” is an aspect of poetry, not the whole of poetry, but it’s the most relevant to current circumstances.

  3. The problem I have is that every time someone sets out to justify art, to ask for funding, to promote a new museum, to explain why art should be taken into schools, they do so in terms of art having a purpose.

    But I don’t believe that art does have a purpose. Art is, at best, some accidental evolutionary off-shoot of whatever biological processes gave us our senses. As Joseph says: ‘Art is biology’. But nobody today seems to feel comfortable defending art as simply something that we have to do; nobody today seems comfortable suggesting that art does not have a purpose.

    1. It may be that we’re head shy. We keep hearing about how people don’t read, about arts funding being cut, so we try to convince people that art is relevant to their lives. I don’t think that’s a bad approach, ‘reader response’ seems to turn a lot of reluctant readers on in the classroom (so I’ve heard from teacher friends), but maybe part of the trouble is stopping there, stopping at ‘relevance’ and not teaching art for art’s sake. It’s harder to get to, for one thing, art for art’s sake, especially in the classroom, and certainly in a news story. but if art really is biology, if it’s really inside us, then at some point you have to turn off the commentary and let the art wake up in people. a little scary, going that way, i’d imagine, though a lot of my best teachers were the ones who could do that.

      1. What you said here, Joe, reminds me of a passage from Rilke’s Letters that I’ve repeated to myself as though it were a mantra, and I think in a certain way you can even look at is as a “purpose” to art:

        “And let me here at once request you: read as few aeshtetic-critical things as possible,–they are either partisan opinions, become hardened and meaningless in their lifeless petrifaction, or else they are a skilful play upon words, in which one view is uppermost today,and its opposite tomorrow. Works of art are of an infinite loneliness, and nothing is less likely to bring us near to them than criticism. Only love can apprehend and hold them, and can be just towards them.”

        I tend to mix that mentality together with a good dose of Vonnegut’s, “Art is 50% a conversation,” and somewhere in there, I find my purpose of creating.

    2. “Art is, at best, some accidental evolutionary off-shoot of whatever biological processes gave us our senses.”

      I wonder about this. It seems maybe… not useful? as a definition?

      I want to argue that while the ability to make or appreciate art must, of course, be biology — well, so is everything else humans do. Is it meaningful to take any of it back to that root?

      And while biology may be a basal origin, certainly the forms and contexts of art are highly contextual. It is not true that because we have eyes we therefore have realist art, or because we have ears we therefore have tonal music. And when we talk about art in a context like this, we’re not talking about the capacity for art, really.

      The meaning of poetry is not the meaning of art-as-capacity, it’s the meaning of art-in-context, and art-in-pretty-darn-specific-context, too. So then — does art in context have purpose beyond “we are made so that we can appreciate it?” Surely it must, if only in terms of the knowledge that aesthetics are historically contingent.

      While what you’re saying is true, I’m not sure it’s useful or meaningful.

      But then “what’s the purpose of art?” strikes me as too generic a question to be usefully answered at all.

      1. Hi Paul– Nice food for thought here. These are some of the issues I wanted to raise with my post about Poetry magazine.

        I agree with Rachel that context–particularly historico-cultural context–is terribly important. We really can’t essentialize poetry and talk about a single purpose.

        I mean, sure, “we turn to poetry at intense moments in our lives,” as Carol Ann Duffy claims, but then again so did Timothy McVeigh when he chose “Invictus” as his final statement before his execution. I applaud Poetry Live for Haiti and think it’s a great event. I do get nervous though about how some folks may ONLY think about poetry “at intense moments in our lives”– you know, the same way that some people only think about God when they get fired and suddenly feel the need to pray. Why not think about poetry in other contexts?

  4. from wikipedia….

    Purpose of art

    Art has had a great number of different functions throughout its history, making its purpose difficult to extract or quantify to any single concept. This does not imply that the purpose of Art is “vague”, but that it has had many unique, different, reasons for being created. Some of these functions of Art are provided in the following outline. The different purposes of art may be grouped according to those which are non-motivated, and those which are motivated (Levi-Strauss).

    Non-motivated functions of art

    The non-motivated purposes of art are those which are integral to being human, transcend the individual, or do not fulfill a specific external purpose. Aristotle has said, “Imitation, then, is one instinct of our nature.” In this sense, Art, as creativity, is something which humans must do by their very nature (i.e. no other species creates art), and is therefore beyond utility.

    1. Basic human instinct for harmony, balance, rhythm. Art at this level is not an action or an object, but an internal appreciation of balance and harmony (beauty), and therefore an aspect of being human beyond utility.

    “Imitation, then, is one instinct of our nature. Next, there is the instinct for ‘harmony’ and rhythm, meters being manifestly sections of rhythm. Persons, therefore, starting with this natural gift developed by degrees their special aptitudes, till their rude improvisations gave birth to Poetry.” -Aristotle

    2. Experience of the mysterious. Art provides us with a way to experience ourselves in relation to the universe. This experience may often come unmotivated, as we appreciate art, music or poetry.

    “The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science.” -Albert Einstein

    3. Expression of the imagination. Art provide a means to express the imagination in non-grammatic ways that are not tied to the formality of spoken or written language. Unlike words, which come in sequences and each of which have a definite meaning, art provides a range of forms, symbols and ideas with meanings that are maleable.

    “Jupiter’s eagle [as an example of art] is not, like logical (aesthetic) attributes of an object, the concept of the sublimity and majesty of creation, but rather something else – something that gives the imagination an incentive to spread its flight over a whole host of kindred representations that provoke more thought than admits of expression in a concept determined by words. They furnish an aesthetic idea, which serves the above rational idea as a substitute for logical presentation, but with the proper function, however, of animating the mind by opening out for it a prospect into a field of kindred representations stretching beyond its ken.” -Immanuel Kant

    4. Universal communication. Art allows the individual to express things toward the world as a whole. Earth artists often create art in remote locations that will never be experienced by another person. The practice of placing a cairn, or pile of stones at the top of a mountain, is an example. (Note: This need not suggest a particular view of God, or religion.) Art created in this way is a form of communication between the individual and the world as a whole.

    5. Ritualistic and symbolic functions. In many cultures, art is used in rituals, performances and dances as a decoration or symbol. While these often have no specific utilitarian (motivated) purpose, anthropologists know that they often serve a purpose at the level of meaning within a particular culture. This meaning is not furnished by any one individual, but is often the result of many generations of change, and of a cosmological relationship within the culture.

    “Most scholars who deal with rock paintings or objects recovered from prehistoric contexts that cannot be explained in utilitarian terms and are thus categorized as decorative, ritual or symbolic, are aware of the trap posed by the term ‘art’.” -Silva Tomaskova

    Motivated functions of art

    The purposes of art which are motivated refer to intentional, conscious actions on the part of the artists or creator. These may be to bring about political change, to comment on an aspect of society, to convey a specific emotion or mood, to address personal psychology, to illustrate another discipline, to (with commercial arts) to sell a product, or simply as a form of communication.

    1. Communication. Art, at its simplest, is a form of communication. As most forms of communication have an intent or goal directed toward another individual, this is a motivated purpose. Illustrative arts, such as scientific illustration, are a form of art as communication. Maps are another example. However, the content need not be scientific. Emotions, moods and feelings are also communicated through art.
    “[Art is a set of] artefacts or images with symbolic meanings as a means of communication.” -Steve Mithen

    2. Art as entertainment. Art may seek to bring about a particular emotion or mood, for the purpose of relaxing or entertaining the viewer. This is often the function of the art industries of Motion Pictures and Video Games.

    3. The Avante-Garde. Art for political change. One of the defining functions of early twentieth century art has been to use visual images to bring about political change. The art movements which had this goal – Dadaism, Surrealism, Russian Constructivism, and Abstract Expressionism, among others – are collectively referred to as the avante-garde arts.

    “By contrast, the realistic attitude, inspired by positivism, from Saint Thomas Aquinas to Anatole France, clearly seems to me to be hostile to any intellectual or moral advancement. I loathe it, for it is made up of mediocrity, hate, and dull conceit. It is this attitude which today gives birth to these ridiculous books, these insulting plays. It constantly feeds on and derives strength from the newspapers and stultifies both science and art by assiduously flattering the lowest of tastes; clarity bordering on stupidity, a dog’s life.” -Andre Breton (Surrealism)

    4. Art for psychological and healing purposes. Art is also used by art therapists, psychotherapists and clinical psychologists as art therapy. The Diagnostic Drawing Series, for example, is used to determine the personality and emotional functioning of a patient. The end product is not the principal goal in this case, but rather a process of healing, through creative acts, is sought. The resultant piece of artwork may also offer insight into the troubles experienced by the subject and may suggest suitable approaches to be used in more conventional forms of psychiatric therapy.

    5. Art for social inquiry, subversion and/or anarchy. While similar to art for political change, subversive or deconstructivist art may seek to question aspects of society without any specific political goal. In this case, the function of art may be simply to criticize some aspect of society. Graffiti art and other types of street art are graphics and images that are spray-painted or stencilled on publicly viewable walls, buildings, buses, trains, and bridges, usually without permission. Certain art forms, such as graffiti, may also be illegal when they break laws (in this case vandalism).

    6. Art for propaganda, or commercialism. Art is often utilized as a form of propaganda, and thus can be used to subtly influence popular conceptions or mood. In a similar way, art which seeks to sell a product also influences mood and emotion. In both cases, the purpose of art here is to subtly manipulate the viewer into a particular emotional or psychological response toward a particular idea or object.

    The functions of art described above are not mutually exclusive, as many of them may overlap. For example, art for the purpose of entertainment may also seek to sell a product, i.e. the movie or video game.

          1. Dylan wrote the musical poetry of our windblown weeping soul, laughing the whole time.

            BTW other people, I like poetry. I am publishing poetry in my journal. I just like to dick around, especially with Shya these days.

  5. Balderdash or no, I’m pretty sure she’s referring, directly or indirectly, to what Emerson writes in his essay “The Poet.”

    Emerson writes, “For poetry was all written before time was, and whenever we are so finely organized that we can penetrate into that region where the air is music, we hear those primal warblings, and attempt to write them down, but we lose ever and anon a word, or a verse, and substitute something of our own, and thus miswrite the poem. The men of more delicate ear write down these cadences more faithfully, and these transcripts, though imperfect, become the songs of the nations.”

    Hence, Whitman’s “Song of Myself.”

  6. I’ve actually been thinking a bit about this, too, lately–though not in a prescriptive sense, rather in a personal one. Why do I personally write, and what do I hope to achieve? I think it’s because I grew up in a progressive, rather politically active household, but as a young writer, I normally defended my choice of avocation to myself by reasoning that, through helping people experience alternate worlds/perspectives, fiction helps reduce hatred and actually expands people’s capacity for tolerance, sympathy, and forgiveness.

    I return to this often, in part because it seems to me that it is a VERY unpopular attitude among my peers, most of whom have a very “art for art’s sake” approach to their work, and view politics as a kind of infectious disease artists can contract, the primary symptom of which, goes the feeling, is bad art.

    1. I think what sets your particular perspective apart though is that it doesn’t create an overtly political bend to your work. It seems more in line to the thinking that every work of art is inherently political, rather than say, creating art in direct protest or approval of a political figure or ideal.

      It becomes more “art as political” instead of “politics as artistic.” Art created with the former mentality I find to be much more enjoyable than art created with the latter mentality.

      1. Well, but it introduces a host of concerns–like “communication”, or “morality”–that themselves don’t seem to be in vogue with the league of writers I’m talking about. The very idea that someone might create characters or scenarios that have an instructive moral dimension–and by instructive I don’t mean pedantic–seems like a very unfashionable objective.

        I don’t know, maybe I’m wrong about seeing this as a trend. I can certainly think of exceptions–even heroes of these younger authors, like DFW or Saunders or Evenson–who are very concerned with the moral dimension. For some reason, however, many of the people who champion these authors don’t themselves seem particularly interested in the moral dimension–would much rather talk about pure language, or “complexity” as a kind of amoral puzzle or problem solving. I’m basically too chickenshit to name names.

        1. Nah, I wasn’t trying to say the trend you mention doesn’t exist; I’ve definitely noticed that trend as well, and noted the irony that the philosophy kind of flies in the face of some of the noted favorite authors/inspirations of the people heralding it.

          Your mention of DFW in this context makes me think of the quick video of him at Le Conversazioni 2006, where he’s talking about how some of the greatest writers of the time are finding a middle ground between traditional story-telling and experimental/innovative conventions. This vid:

        2. Hi Shya, interesting… I’m often surprised at how many people see the linguistic and the moral and political as mutually exclusive domains.

          Whoever claims to be interested in “pure” language is doing so at great peril unless he or she is operating in a made-up language without a culture–I mean, working with language is so exciting precisely because it’s so impure– I love, by the way, the Ashbery quote, “What need for purists when the demotic is built to last.” Besides, language interfaces with the political, the ethical, the moral, and the social in direct but also not so direct ways.

  7. This is a very interesting conversation and I have enjoyed all the different points of view about poetry. I like the idea that art is biological, though it makes it sound too scientific and sterile and the word organic seemed a better fit for my mind. I don’t mean this to direct towards “organic poetry” the movement or style, but I mean organic in the natural sense. It comes from human minds, thus organic.

    I find that art/writing has a lot to do with confidence….self-confidence. I know many people that claim they are not artistic in any way, but if we say “art is biology” then some part of it is false if everyone cannot participate. Having said that, I think that art requires encouragement to think outside the box, to express oneself regardless of what others think and say, and it needs nurturing.

    I started writing when I was 10 years old only because I found a box of my father’s poems from when he returned from Vietnam. It changed me. I looked at him differently. I looked at myself differently. My bunsen burner was lit, so to speak. From there encouragement happened and I began recording the world according to me. I don’t think a poet can do anything else but show others what they see and how it is processed through their brains. What I see will be different from what the person next to me sees based on their own personal environment and history of life. I think that is what makes art and poetry unique, but only when the person finds their own “voice”.

    I’m generally not into crit as this post may reveal. I believe we all want our expression, whatever the medium, to be validated as real. I liked the video of DFW. I like his idea of blending old and new. It gives me something else to think on.

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