Friday, June 15, 2018

On poetry and other abstractions

Anthropologists tell us that the first artifacts that conclusively tell us that the creator or creators were “like us” were the cave paintings, those paintings described in this article for example:       

It seems unlikely that everyone at the time these cave paintings were created would have seen their value.  I don’t recall any anthropologists commenting on the cave-painter’s contemporaries, but I’m assuming there were such people, people who did not have the ability to think abstractly, to substitute one thing for another.  I wonder what they thought when they looked at him (or her) painting.  Some perhaps were impressed.  Some perhaps were not.

At what point and why did we become us?  Some anthropologists are now theorizing that we owe our ability to speak to the Neanderthal – some genetic material we picked up during some interbreeding – that enhanced our ability to create complex sounds – words which are for the most part abstract (sounds standing for things), but beyond that sentences. 

Anthropologists have no way of knowing when our ancestors began talking to each other in sentences, or even when they developed a fondness for poetry.  But in pre-literate cultures we know that they told stories and sang songs around campfires to rehearse their histories, great battles, famous ancestors, etc. 

The earliest poems that have come down to us are closer to what we imagine to be those camp-fire stories.  They were popular narratives, usually involving rhyme, because rhyme is a memory enhancer as is song. .

A modern-day detractor might at this point say that if poets still did that, did what they did around campfires, told stories that had “clear . . . arguments . . . open to standard assessments of logical validity and soundness” then they would have no objection to poetry.

There is no question about modern poetry being more abstract than early poetic forms.   And yet, when our first ancestor capable of abstract thought first painted in his caves, there should be little doubt that there would have been nay-sayers who would have objected that these paintings were “neither clear nor open to standard assessments of logical validity and soundness” – or whatever equivalent statements these naysayers were capable making back then.  

In regard to modern poetry, most critics are people who cannot themselves write, and one of them, Trilling perhaps, wrote that critics often forget that the poem precedes the criticism.  The critic does not get to say, “this is what a poem ought to do, say, or be.”  The poem, like a painting, or a piece of music is an abstract creation.  To say that any abstract creation is subject to a standard assessment would be like those who stood in the cave watching the first person who was “like us” painting and though they didn’t understand what he was doing, felt free to criticize him anyway.

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