Saturday, August 16, 2008

What is poetry for, how does poetry work, why does poetry bother

This week I've looked at:
A poem written by a Japanese empress, now used as a fortune;*
A poem with serious philosophical content that also - actually, mostly - functions as a pedagogical syllabary;
A poem about painting that is itself a sort of painting;
A poem in Chinese characters that is in some sense mainly about those characters;
Poems improvised and recited by a murderous Viking at key moments in his life.

That last one is not quite the swerve that it might seem. Each of these examples is a challenge to my idea of what a poem is, how a poem is used, what is the point of the exercise. I could add more examples, some of which I have mentioned in recent weeks - Japanese poetry anthologies on long, decorated scrolls, art objects themselves. Or Arabic poems with calligraphy so abstract that the original words are nearly lost.

I see myself sitting in my armchair, leafing through an issue of Poetry, or reading through a selected poems of one famous poet or another, or trying to crack** the poems tucked away in some random corner of The New Republic or The New Yorker. Yes, this one's very nice; no, I don't really get that one. What possible relationship can there be between what I do and 1,000-year-old scrolls inscribed with the complete results of Heian-era poetry contests?

Very little, frankly. An arabesque, an untranslated piece of calligraphy, signify to me only as visual art, even if there is an added charge in the knowledge that I'm looking at - although in no way reading - a poem. George Herbert's altar poem and "Easter Wings", or Apollinaire's Calligrammes, are attempts at bringing some visual interest to poetry, but I don't recommend putting one on the wall next to your Japanese wall hanging. The contrast will not help you appreciate Apollinaire, unless you began by translating the Apollinaire into Japanese characters.***

Songs are the one area for most of us, certainly for me, where poetry moves off the page somehow. Many of the greatest German poems, by Goethe and Heine and others, are now irrevocably tied to Schubert and Schumann and Wolf, at least for listeners with some German. English literature has not been so lucky, the lieder tradition less successful. (Recommendations very welcome here).

So I mostly, almost always, read better poems than I hear. Cole Porter's best lyrics are better poems than many of William Wordsworth's poems, but they are sure not better than Wordsworth's best. Lil' Wayne sometimes, when not rapping about pointless garbage, puts together a long string of slant rhymes that are remarkable things. But heck if I'm going to sit in that armchair reading a book of Lil' Wayne lyrics.

The world is always bigger than I think it is.

* My luck was quite good today. The fortune I bought at the Tsuru-ga-oka Hachiman-gu Shrine in Kamakura tells me that my marriage will soon be settled, if I listen to advise, but that I'll have a slight illness. Overall, pretty good news.

** Like a nut, or a safe.

*** If I were a better blogger, I would find links to some examples. Poems about a cat that look like a cat, that sort of thing.


  1. I keep hearing that Lil Wayne is gifted. I'm completely unfamiliar with him. Can you point me in the direction of a few songs full of those "remarkable things" you refer to? I'd really like to see what he's up to.

  2. Finally, someone asks for Lil' Wayne recommendations. Finally!

    This wiki page ( includes links to download the two discs of "Da Drought 3", a free and legal "mixtape", which also happens to be Lil' Wayne's best record. Try "Swizzy" for a string of rhymes, in the service of nothing but the joy of rhyming.

  3. I've seen one scholar, Kari Ellen Gade, who describes slanderous Icelandic poems as being used to "destroy an enemy"! She notes that, "a man who heard a slanderous poem recited about him was entitled to a large financial compensation and under certain circumstances he could kill the offender with impunity." Of course, you were supposed to kill him the same day, so that he wouldn't sit around the fire that evening, teaching everyone else the slanderous poem (if it was a really good poem and very catchy, by the next day everyone would be repeating it and you were doomed). Now that is what I call an appreciation of poetry.

    But as you note, this hardly seems to belong in the same category with lyric poems.

  4. I don't think that poetry has to be about anything profound, so it doesn't even bother me if Lil Wayne raps about crap, because he does it so well. It's very impressive, if you ask me.

    The exception is homophobic, misogynistic, or otherwise hate inspired language. That IS crap.