Sunday, July 25, 2010

The poetic motive -- a few thoughts

            I may have confused everyone  by trying to deal in an earlier note with both the need for old people (as a survival strategy) and the poetic impulse.  But there is probably a parallel.  While old people were necessary in hunter-gatherer times for the passing along of "practical wisdom," i.e., how to make spears, knives, clothing, and how to find or hunt food, the Poet was the story-teller who sang the tales of a heroic past.  Surely the poet was as important as practical old people, but would he have needed to live as long?
            Our knowledge of early poets is spotty.  Was Homer a single individual or a collective?  Did Homer write the Iliad and the Odyssey or were there heroic stories "out there" that he assembled into the epic poems that we have today?   Virgil wrote the Aeneid as a Latin response to the Greek Homer.  There are also heroic tales in Hindi and other languages.  Beowulf is another example. 
            When we come forward in time, the poetic motive changes -- at least in Europe.  Aside from Christian tales, there were the Troubadours singing of courtly love.  Love remains one of the most important motives for poetry, but what do such poems "pass along"?  When one reads of the non-dramatic poets of the Elizabethan period, the love poems were probably written to or about a beloved.  Consider Wyatt's poem "Whoso List to Hunt":

Whoso list to hunt, I know where is an hind,
But as for me, hélas, I may no more.
The vain travail hath wearied me so sore,
I am of them that farthest cometh behind.
Yet may I by no means my wearied mind
Draw from the deer, but as she fleeth afore
Fainting I follow. I leave off therefore,
Sithens in a net I seek to hold the wind.
Who list her hunt, I put him out of doubt,
As well as I may spend his time in vain.
And graven with diamonds in letters plain
There is written, her fair neck round about:
Noli me tangere, for Caesar's I am,
And wild for to hold, though I seem tame.

            Here we have a bit of courtly love.  The courtier, Wyatt, follows the lady "vainly."  He uses the image of a hind giving rise to the belief that he was probably courting Anne Boleyn.   One could not hunt deer in the king's preserve any more than one could with impunity court the king's mistress -- rather, the two things were equally dangerous.  If I remember correctly "noli me tangere" was the "do not touch" sign that pertained to the king's deer.  The poem is very clever.  Maybe his need to show it to his friends outweighed his fear of Henry VIII.  Whatever Wyatt intended with his poetry, it doesn't seem that he was concerned about passing along wisdom or truth.  He was probably interested in impressing his friends with his cleverness.  And, alas, he only lived 39 years.
            Modern poets seem more like Wyatt (although few are as good) than Homer.  No one (probably) today is trying to write an epic, but many enjoy amusing their friends with a casual or occasional poem, and they are often about love. 
            T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound were very consciously "serious poets."  They rather pompously started a school of poetry and (Pound) managed who would be published and who wouldn't.  Pound doesn't seem interested in passing along either truth or wisdom.  He looked down on almost everyone and didn't seem to think more than a handful could understand or appreciate his poetry.  I've worked from time to time at understanding his Cantos but can't say that I appreciate any of them.  As to Eliot I do appreciate some of his poetry, and while I believe I do understand most of it, I doubt that I could describe my opinion about any of his poems without having my opinion disputed.  Eliot may have been even more of a poetic snob than Pound. 
            Poets in the Lowell era were just as desirous of achieving a "reputation," even Berryman who seemed to take nothing seriously, took "being the poet" very seriously.
            And Sylvia Plath screamed her Aerial poems to no one in particular while her husband, Ted Hughes, neglected her in England.  Plath committed suicide and Hughes lived on to be "the poet" in England.  Being a professional poet, whether in England or America, seems never to have demanded writing top-quality poetry -- at least that is my impression of Hughes and a host of others.  Poets like Hughes have been interested in their reputations and in their legacies, but what good are such motives when their poetry isn't good enough to survive them?

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