Monday 5 April 2021

Why is poetry uniquely embarrassing?

My premise is that poetry stands clear of the other art forms in that it is nearly always embarrassing. 

A thought experiment: Which would you prefer somebody to show you, asking for your opinion, watching for your response: a painting or a poem?

Which would you rather somebody did in front of you? Played you a tune he wrote on the piano, or recited one of his poems?

Gave you a present of a ceramic pot she had made, or a slim volume of her own verses? 

Now, I am talking here of would-be serious poetry - my point does not apply to light verse or to comic verse (and also to 'poetry in translation'); which are very different in both intent and effect. 

But you may well agree that there is something especially excruciating about nearly-all poetry. 

Or, to phrase it differently: 

1. There is extremely little real poetry, it is always culturally rare and often absent altogether; and 

2. Real poetry is qualitatively different from the mass of what might be termed failed-poetry

Most art forms have a much higher proportion of successes than does poetry, and a gradation of successes - so that it is far likelier that you will get some genuine enjoyment from somebody's sub-optimal sculpture, acting, novel-writing, musical composition... or almost anything; than from their failed poetry.

In brief: almost all attempts to write poetry fail; and failed poetry is not enjoyable

Indeed, there is something actively unpleasant about failed poetry, something that grates and embarrasses.

Why? Well, often it is self-revelatory in ways that are embarrassing; often it tells you things about the would-be poet that, quite honestly, you would rather not know! 

Failed poetry is either pretentious or bathetic in ways that often reveal that desperate craving for a kind of status which characteristically evokes a painful mixture of pity and disdain - emotions we would rather not be forced to feel. 

It is a bit like catching someone in a lie; but they don't realize it - and just keep-on lying, eagerly expecting you to go along with the lie. 

So many have tried and failed to be poets (and this includes nearly-all professional and 'recognized' poets) - that this whole area is one fraught with embarrassment. 

(Not many memories are so embarrassing to me as my own attempts at poetry, and realizing retrospectively how excruciating they must have been to other people!)

To try and fail at something so incredibly difficult as real poetry is no disgrace! 

Yet, it seems most are unable to learn from their own experiences; most are extremely resistant to the fact of their own failure - and although they can easily see the embarrassing failures of others; somehow continue kidding themselves that they-themselves are real poets - because of some external validation, or because they so much want to be a poet. 

Why this should be, I don't know; because even real poets write very few poems, sometimes just one poem. And having written one, or three, or thirty real poems clearly does not positively transform a person's life - and may even go totally unrecognized. 

All that can be boasted is: I have written a poem, a real poem

After all; 'Anon' has probably written more great poems than anyone else in history - including Beowulf, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and The Border Widow's Lament


R.J.Cavazos said...

Per the sage of Baltimore: “Once, after plowing through sixty or seventy volumes of bad verse, I described myself as a poetry-hater. The epithet was and is absurd. The truth is that I enjoy poetry as much as the next man — when the mood is on me. But what mood? The mood, in a few words, of intellectual and spiritual fatigue, the mood of revolt against the insoluble riddle of existence, the mood of disgust and despair. Poetry, then, is a capital medicine. First its sweet music lulls, and then its artful presentation of the beautifully improbable soothes and gives surcease. It is an escape from life, like religion, like enthusiasm, like glimpsing a pretty girl. And to the mere sensuous joy in it, to the mere low delight in getting away from the world for a bit, there is added, if the poetry be good, something vastly better, something reaching out into the realm of the intelligent, to wit, appreciation of good workmanship.”H.L. Mencken — from “The Poet and His Art,” Prejudices, Third Series.

Bruce Charlton said...

@RJC - Another thing is that most people are not capable of detecting poetry - that lyric quality that is distinctive to real poetry. I could not detect it until I was 21, so I have seen it from both sides. Some famous critics of poetry could not, in my opinion, detect poetry - CS Lewis for example. Some poets can detect it but not do it - Robert Graves. Others can do it but not reliably detect it - Robert Frost (who thought RW Emerson was a great poet...). These are, of course, my personal judgments - but with poetry what else is there?

Wm Jas Tychonievich said...

Homer is never embarrassing, not a single line. One feels that poetry was his native idiom, that when he opened his mouth, hexameters and extended similes are what came out. (Vico makes the case that this was literally true!)

I wonder if the hardness of writing real poetry, and the embarrassment that goes with failed attempts to do so, have to do with changes in consciousness. Poetry must be natural, and spiritual, and spirituality no longer comes naturally.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Wm - My point is not that all poetry is embarrassing - there are plenty of real poets who aren't.

But 'poetry in translation' is a different category from real poetry in one's native language - nearly-always it is not itself real poetry but (when effective) something that serves as a kind of mental bridge by which the reader can *imagine* the poetry (and the world) which lies-behind the translation.

This 'bridging' is apparently not always possible - for example, it seems to be impossible to write haiku in English - whether in translation bridging to real poetry, or as real poetry in English. As we once discussed; this may be related to haiku being (approximately) a hybrid form of poetry and ideogram calligraphy, for which there can be no equivalent in English.

But - my intention with the above post is to set-aside translations. Indeed, translations of poems do not share the same embarrassing quality as failed poetry; perhaps because they are much less self-revelatory.

Karl said...

Yeats said:
A line will take us hours maybe;
Yet if it does not seem a moment’s thought,
Our stitching and unstitching has been naught.
Better go down upon your marrow-bones
And scrub a kitchen pavement, or break stones
Like an old pauper, in all kinds of weather;
For to articulate sweet sounds together
Is to work harder than all these, and yet
Be thought an idler by the noisy set
Of bankers, schoolmasters, and clergymen
The martyrs call the world.