Monday, December 22, 2014

Poetry as a force of destruction

This is an essay about the limitations of poetry and the potential for the poetic process to destroy the information it intends to preserve. I think the ideas could also be applied to other forms of art. I wrote it in January of 2011, and revised it just now. I don't think this is by any means the last word on this subject (it's barely even the first word), and I welcome discussion.




I used to think of poetry as a way to record emotion. I thought that poetry and music could record the nuances of the complex feelings of the author and transmit them to an audience, or back to the author should he want to recall it. When my close friend died tragically in young adulthood, I began to realize how wrong I had been. No combination of words or words and sounds would do him justice or do justice to my feelings about him and his passing. To write a poem about him would be to try to force something vast, complex, and magnificent to conform to the crudeness of language and my ability to handle it, and to the limitations of the page; like drawing a picture of God, taking what was previously felt as an omnipresent force permeating through creation and turning it into something finite, something which I can point to and say, “here it is,” or that I can roll up and throw in the trash bin; like cropping a panorama image of a lightning storm or a sunset down to a pixel.

To translate complex emotions into words is far worse than to crop an image file. Even if the original image is overwritten with the cut down version, the artist still retains a mental memory of the original. Raw emotion does not lend itself to transcription, so to record it, a poet must first alter his perception of his own feelings and in the process of refining, much of the emotion is irrecoverably lost (perhaps that is why poets write poetry, to transform their emotions into something more easily understood).

Writing poetry is not just a creative process. It can also be a destructive process. The difference between poetic expression of emotion and the actual experience of emotion is more like the difference between a photograph of a sunset and the actual experience of a sunset than like the difference between a cropped picture and a full picture. The photograph is a static visual image, it can’t record the fresh breeze, the sound of the birds, the feeling of a girl’s hand in yours, or the way the lights in the city slowly come on one by one. To get into a photo-taking mindset, the photographer must ignore most of what makes the sunset so special to focus both his lens and his attention on what he can preserve. In doing so, he lessens his own experience of the sunset. Nor will anyone viewing his photos in the future have any but the vaguest notion of all the myriad of extravisual sensations that made that particular sunset so unique and wonderful.

I do not take pictures of the sunset because I feel I have more to lose by not experiencing it to the fullest than to gain by preserving a crude representation of it. I did not write a poem about my friend because the distortions and oversimplifications inevitable to the process of poetry writing would be destructive of my memory and feelings towards him.

I don’t mean to say that poetry is inadequate to record any emotions; only that the poet must be conscious not only of the intended effects of the poem on his audience, but also of the inevitable effects of the poetic process on himself and his perception of the subject matter. I think a skilled poet is able to capture more, and lose less than an amateur, but no poet can possibly hope to be able to take a decade long friendship and the countless experiences and emotions involved in that friendship and compress them into a poem, or even a shelf of poems, about which he can confidently say, “here is what my friend means to me.” And, in some cases, I think it would be disrespectful to the subject and harmful to the poet to try.

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