As promised, here are some ideas on how the apparently high-cultural activity of writing poetry might survive the “end of culture.”The problem posed by high culture to our era is its one-many structure; we don’t want to subordinate our individual imaginations to the mastery of an Artist. But if this problematizes the novel and the theater, it leaves an out for lyric poetry. For unlike epic narratives that address an undefined audience, or drama where the characters address each other before such an audience, lyric poetry is, not necessarily but typically, addressed to a single reader. Most poems, in other words, are “epistles.” The most common type is the love-poem, where the poet writes to his beloved, but friends, the King, even nightingales, winds, and urns, are possible addressees. For the lyric originates in prayer directed from the human periphery to the sacred center, and the center is originarily conceived as the source of language. As opposed to other literary forms, the lyric voice is in virtual dialogue with its interlocutor.
If I write a poem for someone, my writing is validated if she likes it, regardless of the rest of the world. (To write a novel for one’s bien-aimée is not merely un-cost-effective, it’s unfaithful to the structure of the genre.) Even if I don’t send her the poem, my imagination of her reading it provides a testing-ground for judging its quality. Or when I address my poem to a nightingale, it becomes the incarnation of a divinity always potentially capable of responding. Anyone to whom I show my ode can stand in for this figure as my reader, or for the implied (single) reader if it is addressed to no-one in particular.
Let us pursue the reception of love-poetry a little farther. To imagine my beloved reading the poem in the way I would like is to think of her as being “impressed” by it. It must appear to her as a product of labor, neither a spontaneous expression of desire nor a facile piece of doggerel that rhymes “moon” with “June.” Her “impression,” one presumes, will allow her to interpret the sentiment it expresses as appropriately respectful of her freedom to respond to it. The poet’s respect may be equally well described as directed to her as the reader-recipient of the poem or as its principal character.
The ostensibly concrete aim of most love-poetry is seduction. It is no accident that the best-known poem in the French language is Ronsard’s “Mignonne, allons voir si la rose…” which, like Marvell’s far superior “Had We But World Enough and Time,” puts to good use the old theme of carpe diem. However, the seductive danger of the seduction model is that it appears to take the biological enterprise of sexual reproduction as a satisfactory goal for cultural activity. My “sociobiological” point in the last two Chronicles on this subject is not this at all. The biological basis for culture is its “goal” only in the external sense that the function of culture is to permit us to maintain this basis. But this explains the internal functioning of cultural phenomena about as well as saying that the aim of football is to let the spectators vent their aggressive impulses helps you to follow the Superbowl. Making a poem into a performative whose “illocutionary force” is to get a woman into bed raises questions about the practical efficacy of poetry as compared with flowers, strong drink, diamond necklaces, etc., but not about poetic technique or quality.
On the contrary, if we consider the origins of high-cultural love poetry in the West (and, once again, Sappho provides a powerful anticipatory model), the love-poem is typically written to someone far away, whose physical seduction is now, or has always been, unthinkable. Sublimation is the very stuff of love-poetry. What is exemplary about the “Mignonne” poem is that it is a minimal model of sublimation. The poet shows his beloved the short life-span of the rose as an inducement to “cueill[ir] votre jeunesse.” Presumably she will appreciate his delicacy in not merely comparing her with the flower but in proposing that she use it as a model for her own freely chosen behavior. The Other is, as they say, empowered as an agent in “her” poem. The minimal nature of this empowerment coincides with a minimal degree of poetic elaboration: the discovery and, we might say, cultivation of the flower-metaphor. The agricultural figure inherent in the word “culture” reveals what has been the specific aim of high culture ever since the Greeks invented paideia, one that can be summed up as just the opposite of providing sexual satisfaction: as askesis, deferral of desire. This is what schooling is supposed to provide, and still does more often than we think, as the means of controlling the animal impulses of youth.
The poetic marketplace today, unlike that which obtained in the Romantic and even the early Modernist eras, is highly insular, largely limited to poets themselves and a few camp followers, except in the few cases where some personal or collective factor, not necessarily linked to literary talent, sets a poet off from others and propels him or her to stardom. To the extent that awareness of the perennity of the lyric would lead to greater poetic output and more frequent reading of poetry by lovers, friends, etc., it would skew the poetry market away from the narcissism of (personal or collective) “self-expression” to the refinement of one-on-one communication. It would thus lead to a general improvement of poetic taste and, for published poets, a wider and more literate audience.
To give an example, I thought I’d end this week’s Chronicle with a poem of my own. Pour n’offenser personne, it is addressed to my late mother.
Corpse on a stone table
chilled to latency
prime object of my
Cadaver at the altar
bride of entropy
my last kiss bestow
There will be no column next week; I’ll be in Michigan visiting my son & his family. See you again June 21!