Problems of poetry, language, civilization

The following has been re-edited. Toward the end of its original appearance, I began saying nasty things about the nature of American capitalism which were too sweeping. All I can suggest is that the reduction of poetry to ‘aesthetics objects’ for commercial consumption (rather than a powerful tool of rhetoric) effectively cauterizes it from common public discourse where its writing and reception would have the most powerful impact.

But first, from William Carlos Williams:

so much depends
upon

a red wheel
barrow

glazed with rain
water

beside the white
chickens.

It is the case that all civilized cultures must be literate. However, not all literate cultures need be civilized. One discovers this in those cultures where literacy is imposed on speech in opposition to it. What is at issue is whether language is allowed to flourish in all its possibilities as a form of life, or whether it shall be reduced to a tool of use. To be sure, all language has use, all language has teleology, and thus is directed to the accomplishment of an end. But for a language to achieve civilized status, it must be available to art directed at language itself, as the means of discovering the possibilities within language. In other words, in a civilization one always finds those who generate language use in order to discover the possible teleologies of language. In the West, this task has always been given over to poets and philosophers; those who are allowed, who allow themselves, the freedom to initiate the linguistic sequencing of thought with no prior determination of the ultimate goal of that thought; the unfolding sequence of language thus becomes the ultimate goal of that thought; but I am not here referring to an aesthetics of language. I am not here suggesting that poets and philosophers generate art objects to be used in contemplation; since this sequence of thought that is the poetry or the philosophy is itself the contemplation; in which case for readers, or other audiences, what is at issue is not contemplation, but discovery.

Cultures primarily concerned with power and wealth have little capacity for this; all language spoken or written is intended as a tool for the acquirement of things to consume; and when it cannot be used in this manner it is destroyed. Poetry when it occurs, philosophy when it occurs, in such a culture, is always composed by those at the margin; those who in discovering the true value of literacy discover their own possible value as human beings. Within a civilized culture the possibility of freedom of thought is always maintained as the possibility of achieving the greatest perfection in our humanity. Freedom of thought is the only real freedom human beings have; all other human endeavors reduce to necessity, of the body, or of social power.

A language reduced to the gain and implementation of power is always a grammar of predetermination and of inescapable necessity; which is always why it reads as though dead. Hitler said of the Second World War that it was the inevitable final conflict between the Aryan and the Jewish people, with the understanding that the term “Aryan” was merely a stand in for the first person singular pronoun; all Jews needed to be destroyed in order to enhance his own value as a self. Hitler, for whom life was always a “final reckoning” in the struggle for power, was able to recognize that this barbaric grammar could achieve its ordering in writing as well as in a speech, in radio messages as well as in print. Thus literacy and command of language in a social setting are not themselves assurances of a civilized society. What is needed is the ability to express freely one’s own freedom of mind in language, in a manner that attracts the attention of others and yet permits them their own freedom of mind.

In America, the general determination of the 20th century, that language use would be decided by economic issues of one sort or another – the “materialist” determinism of so-called “left-wing” politics, or the “forces of the marketplace” asserted by convinced capitalists on the “right” – nearly cauterized the power of language to effect civilized social change. Although many academic theories asserted the importance of language, they did so on the assumption that language provided some one or some group with some sort of social power, that it was fundamentally yet another tool for the acquirement of things, or of the social status needed to make the acquisition of things ‘easier’.

I will not address the problematic position of philosophy in this context, because it is extremely complex, in the relations philosophy has with other intellectual pursuits, both within the academy and in society as a whole. But we can briefly discuss the status of poetry as language not intended for economic purposes, since it has been effectively marginalized through commodification as aesthetic object.

Indeed, ultimately, the only space allowed to poetry, as a language developed in a manner not of immediate usefulness, has been aesthetics; and unfortunately, language makes for poor aesthetic objects, for the simple reason that it does not immediately appeal to the senses. William Carlos Williams’ poetic “image” of a “red wheelbarrow” – Try to imagine a picture of this; and then try to look at this picture – that is, with the eyes, not “with the mind” (which is physically impossible). Well, alright, that’s really very silly; how about the sound of the words? Those aspirational consonants, those open vowels! Very well, except that when we recognize that we are listening to consonants and vowels, what we are doing is analyzing the words as a sequence of letters, and then into a sequence of phonemes, except that, as we’ve mentioned before, there are no phonemes except in consciousness. All right, so let’s not analyze this! Let’s listen to it “holistically”. Very well; then shall we hear it as “rahd whee-ill bare-oh!” or as “reed whell-boar-hoh?” or perhaps “re-dweelb-arrow…”? Part of the argument defending such literary “aesthetics” asserts that a phrase such as Williams’ is open to a number of different “readings,” thus contributing to a “democratic” poetics and criticism. Such an assertion evades my fundamental issue, which is whether or not a word or sequence of words can be contemplated as an aesthetic object at all. The image of the red wheelbarrow, the idea of the red wheelbarrow, the sound of the words ” red wheelbarrow “, however we wish to pronounce them – none of this amounts to an appeal to sensate enjoyment, the first criteria of any aesthetic. Williams’ phrase, “red wheelbarrow”, functions as a rhetorical device; in the poem, Williams’ asserts that “everything depends on” it. But what is this “everything” other than the poem itself? Williams’ poem is a demonstration of self-referential rhetoric, obscured by being tagged to a reference beyond itself, to a material object. All poems are demonstrations of rhetorical finesse (although certainly not all function in a manner similar to that of Williams’ “red wheelbarrow” poem). But the essential point remains that poetry is the exercise of rhetoric for its own sake and for its own enjoyment; in the process, many other purposes can be deployed teleologically, in any given poem; but to be poetry, it must, in the first and final instance, consist of this rhetorical demonstration and finesse. And it does not need to be enjoyable; it only needs to be interesting, to make some claim on our interest, to draw the reader’s attention, the listener’s ear, to itself. That is the first goal of rhetoric; it is the principle goal of poetry.

But to those for whom the primary interest of life are power and wealth, if rhetoric cannot get power, persuade others to perform an action, to surrender their goods for the in the exchange of wealth, to die foolishly in war protecting the exchange of wealth, then it is useless.

The assertion that poetry could be “enjoyed” (i.e., “consumed”) as an aesthetic object (i.e., a “commodity”) helped to preserve poetry for a time; but the effort may be doomed to failure. As an object, a poem has very limited value (one reason so few read it these days). The real art of poetry is communication that moves our thoughts and our feelings, first and primarily to do just this. Poetry is rhetoric unleashed.

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