Battle in Print: Of the one who must be happy: an argument for poetry in relation to pleasure

Ion Martea

Is there any room left for poetry that is purely for pleasure? The answer seems to be yes, based on quick reference to the fact that poetry is by definition the most aesthetic of all literary genres, and hence is nothing but pleasure. The argument seems simple enough to end debate on the subject. The fact that poetry has a multitude of uses in contemporary society is therefore due to the effects pleasure has on our ability to understand - and accept - the world. Therapy culture, political campaigning, propaganda of any sort - all seek to make you feel better to achieve their ends, and hence poetry becomes a most obvious tool.

Poetry should be for pleasure, but the argument above suffers from a number of misconceptions. What do we mean by pleasure? Are we talking about the pleasure of the poet, that of the reader or of the listener? Is aestheticism synonymous with pleasure and mandatory for poetry? Does an art’s art form dictate its social use? Are there different ways of appreciating poetry and is poetry a matter of aptitude? All of these are pertinent questions, which can be answered only if we understand poetry as a serious art form in its own right. Poetry should not simply be a matter of definition, where only formal structures matter (and any writing that has a poetic structure is classed as poetry by that feature alone), but must be given its raison d’tre.

Ovid, Bhartrihari, Dante, Hitomaro, Shakespeare, Goethe, Ibrahim, Akhmatova, Tzara, Scott-Heron - all are outstanding poets, all constructing a diverse canon of poetry based only on one unifying factor: their creative use of language. The best poets seem to identify poetry with its Greek etymology of ‘poiesis’ (i.e. making, creating). A poem’s structural pattern, characterised by rhyme, rhythm and page layout, tends to be used only as a tool in the act of creating a full poem. The paramount principle driving poetry, however, is a quest to construct emotion via language, something Sargecciu called a ‘gurgling of the heart’.

Given that fictional prose and dramaturgy also use language creatively, what makes poetry special? It is precisely the idea of form that gives us the clue (but not the definition) to understanding what poetry is. One recognises poetry through its layout on the page, the use of rhyme, and, most significantly, rhythm. Yet nursery rhymes must not be considered poetry because they are solely technical constructions. The same cannot be said of William Shakespeare’s ‘Sonnets’ or Mihai Eminescu’s celebrated ‘One Wish Alone Have I’, which explode with intensity from within their strict structures:

One wish alone have I
In some calm land
Beside the sea to die;
Upon its strand
That I forever sleep,
The forest near,
A heaven clear
Stretched over the peaceful deep.
No candles shine,
Nor tomb I need, instead
Let them for me a bed
Of twigs entwine.
(Mihai Eminescu, ‘One Wish Alone Have I’, translated by Corneliu M. Popescu)

What this shows is a use of technique that makes language transform and gain momentum with each individual syllable. The best poetry leaves language in a universe of its own, making the juxtaposition of words and pauses inimitable and linguistically necessary. The poem is more than a creative use of language characterised by inner rhythm: it is something akin to a living organism, which lives in-between the page and the mind of the reader. The poet (at the moment of writing) is also a reader, and she tries to tame and metamorphose the text from its metaphysical to its physical structure on the page.

The search for meaning, which can ultimately lead to emotion, is not necessarily a rational choice for the author. Poetry begins in the process of teasing out inner mental language into a precise literary output, and this is the driving element that dictates the final amalgam of ideas delivered on the page. In this, a poem’s structure is the motor, but not the agent. The poet is not the agent either; rather he resembles a potter, who guides himself by technique, shapes the pot, but never loses his belief that he dictates the inner structure of clay. Poetry is not the result of writing in a particular literary structure, but is rather a process that the writer - equipped with all the poetic tools - undergoes inevitably. Writing poetry then is not a matter of the clichŽd divine inspiration, but one of technical aptitude and intelligence.

Emily Dickinson could achieve poetry because of her strong belief that poetry is independent of the author, along with her natural instinct in understanding poetical tools. However, the plethora of so-called poets abounding websites of free poetry rarely exhibit even a basic knowledge of basic poetical principles or complex conceptual content. The popularity of free verse in contemporary poetry is often misleading to all those that consider writing poetry. For example, Gil Scott-Heron’s ‘The Revolution Will Not Be Televised’ may seem at first a straightforward monologue, one that is so fluent that it emerges as naturally as speech. Yet its brilliant style materialises primarily through its consistent inner rhythm. Compared to 50 Cent’s rhymed verses from ‘5 Heartbeats’ -

Your stuff I’ll make it hot
You want I’ll get ya shot.
You’re just open your coffin,
You’re dead men walking.
(50 Cent, ‘5 Heartbeats’)

- Scott-Heron shows that poetry drives the structure and not vice versa. His free-style beat poem transgresses the initial shock that we are reading a poem, and lets us inhabit his world, and experience the poem through his unique speech:

You will not be able to stay home, brother.
You will not be able to plug in, turn on and cop out.
You will not be able to lose yourself on skag and skip,
Skip out for beer during commercials,
Because the revolution will not be televised.
(Gil Scott-Heron, ‘The Revolution Will Not Be Televised’)

Poetry, then, is unquestionably a matter of aptitude on the behalf of the writer. In-depth knowledge of poetic tools allows the author to achieve his quest for meaning seamlessly through an act of contemplation by using language creatively. The whole experience of writing skillfully is what a poet should do. Poetry is a process, defined by the activity of a true poet, which essentially will translate into a state of Aristotelian eudemonia. Defined in this way, pleasure (in its highest form of happiness) in poetry is not simply optional for the poet, but unavoidable.

It is important to remember that aestheticism is never considered in the argument above. Poetry may be the most lyrical of literary genres, but its musicality is not derived from aesthetic principles. The poetry of Sylvia Plath or Samuel Beckett can hardly be described as ornamentally beautiful, yet its power to engross is undeniable. The reason is that aestheticism, despite its overwhelming presence in the poetic canon, is not necessary for the creation of art. The relationship between the two can be found in Keats’ famous words:

Beauty is truth, truth beauty, - that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.
(John Keats, ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’)

Beauty finds its way into poetry by default, purely because the poet in the process of writing is always in search of meaning, hence truth. This existential credo (that truth and the ultimate good are synonymous through their splendour and purity) is shared by all, resulting in a poetic canon that is essentially highly aesthetic. However, poetry’s pleasure doesn’t derive from its beautiful words and images (though it is still a widespread misconception that it does), but from the contemplative act of creating with words. Therefore, it can be safely assumed that aestheticism is only a conceptual tool specific to a writer, and not a defining feature of poetry.

Having established the quintessential link between the process of using language creatively, pleasure and aestheticism, it is easy to see that we are forced into a unique form of appreciation of poetry, equally applicable to the author, reader and listener alike. A reader can only experience poetry if he is well versed in poetic techniques and has an inner desire to understand the state of things. It is not surprising therefore that someone continuously reading non-poetry (or mediocre poetry) has by default a limit to appreciating poetry and hence finding any excitement in it. From a listener’s perspective, this educational requirement becomes more evident. A poetry reading is fulfilling only if done by the right reader. A good actor will be able to masterfully deliver a poem with a complicated structure, therefore allowing the meaning to emerge naturally. In consequence, an individual will experience pleasure both as a listener and as reader if he has an intimate relationship with poetry.

If appreciation of poetry is a matter of aptitude, then its application towards other aims is a difficult task because all three participants in the process (the poet, the reader, the listener) must share sufficient poetic and analytic background to be able to contribute actively in order to make a worthwhile impact. Poetry could be used as a political tool in Ancient Greece because the writers of the time minimised their audience to those that were literate. The demise of using poetry for political reasons coincided with the widening of suffrage, which sadly did not materialise with an improvement of educational standards for all members of society. Art forms of any kind were essentially the first to suffer. Seen as elitist, and only available to a limited strata of society with access to education, they are now taught only superficially. Given the desire to make education ‘inclusive’, ‘poetry to the masses’ is just another misconceived slogan. Everyone can suddenly write, everyone is given the space to get published, all one needs to do is speak about something that is popular, and make sure the text looks like a poem on the page.

The poor state poetry has become should not be blamed on writers, however. The desire to make art is instinctive; to make it well takes good practice. If from an early age only a few are taught the difference between rhymed or rhythmical verse, or about Dickenson’s approach towards the ‘circumference’, then writers and readers are better off not knowing anything at all, as developing in mediocrity could never be more than a damnation to perpetual regression. Unless the government sets an agenda to make poetry accessible through reopening its complexity then there is little sense in organising politically-driven events that pretend to respect poetry, when all that is really meant is kitsch in poetic form.

To apply poetry in today’s therapy culture is even more challenging. Reading poetry and finding your way through it is a process that can bring happiness in the absolute sense. However, what therapy culture has in mind is not this ultimate good, but using poetry as a tool to make one feel better to do other things. This is a problem as poetry is essentially a process that requires alienation from the self in order to achieve a pure active state of exaltation. Given a less practiced writer, the only possible result is self-delusion. In the case where poetry does succeed as a therapeutic tool, the effect is simply the realisation of an aptitude previously unnourished, but nothing intrinsically poetic. 

Is there room for poetry that is purely for pleasure? There is nothing but poetry for pleasure. Having defined poetry as a process that a poet (or more generally a reader) undergoes, it emerges that we cannot apply it for any other aim than the achievement of eudemonia, and the flourishing of the individual. And surely this is a better aim than producing superficial feelings of happiness or ‘comfort’ that can be used to manipulate us for other ends. Poetry that is not done for itself is simply not poetry, but worthless text.

Oh, you friends,
poetry is not a tear
it is the weeping itself
the weeping of an uninvented eye
the tear of the eye
of the one who must be beautiful
of the one who must be happy.

(Nichita Stãnescu, ‘Poetry’,
translated by Thomas Carlson and Vasile Poenaru)

Ion Martea is an award-wining author writing in English and Romanian. His literary debut was awarded the Prima Verba Award and the International Creative Writing contest and he has edited three poetry anthologies and has translated English, French and Russian poetry into Romanian, and Romanian poetry in English. His Essential Films series on Culture Wars (where he is also a commissioning editor for film) aims at constructing a cinematic canon that is driven by conceptual analysis of the art form versus the more established entertainment criticism widely applicable to individual films.

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