The literary poem, a definition (at last).

A while ago I had some fun attempting to unpack what Neil Pattison might mean by the above term when he writes “the contested place and role of literary poetry”. I wasn’t very happy with the conclusion that I got to but now I’ve come across some more definitions to mull over. In my pursuit of all things Middle English, I’m currently reading J A Burrow’s ‘Medieval Writers and Their Work’ in which he contrasts current ideas of the literary with those of the medieval period. He cites several contemporary definitions and I want to think about each of these in turn:

  • it is not committed, in any ordinary, straightforward fashion, to the truth of the events which it reports or the ideas which it propounds. It does not ‘propose truth for its immediate object’;
  • in literature the standards of outward meaning are secondary, for literary works do not pretend to describe or assert, and hence are not true, not false, and yet not tautological either;
  • a form of communication which tends in part to convert itself into an object of contemplation;
  • The distinctive feature of poetry lies in the fact that a word is perceived as a word and not merely a proxy for the denoted object or an outburst of an emotion, that words and their arrangement, their meaning, their outward and inward form acquire weight and value of their own

The last part of the first definition is apparently a quote from Coleridge and is therefore not at all contemporary. Many, many poetry readers and teachers would assert that literary poetry stands in a privileged position with regard to the ‘Truth’ and that skilled poets have a duty to express that truth is poetic form. As someone who is making poetry from archival material relating to real events in our recent past, I would argue that literature can and should examine notions of the truth from a non-fictive (awful phrase) perspective. The ‘is not committed, in any ordinary, straightforward fashion’ qualifier implies of course that there most probably is an unordinary and rather crooked way in which truth might be the subject of literature but this (cunningly) isn’t specified.

The second definition (apparently from Northrop Frye) is more promising but only really succeed in telling us what the literary doesn’t do. ‘Outward meaning’ as a quality is massively complex and contentious and many would argue that some poems that do ‘describe and assert’ can also be literary. Geoffrey Hill’s nature poems are some of the finest poems in the language and yet attain that status by their ability to describe. Keston Sutherland’s @Stress Position’ describes the havoc wrought by Western foreign policy and asserts his opposition to it yet remains firmly within the late modernist vein with all its literary ticks and foibles.

The problem with negative definitions is that they avoid saying what are the attributes of the literary. Frye would seem to suggest that the literary is very far removed from the real and is in fact concerned with the ephemeral and the whimsical. Whilst this might be a populist view of the writer as angst-ridden dreaming idealist, it bears no relation to the works of Beckett, Celan, Hill or Prynne, all of whom might be said to be concerned with literature.

The third definition (from Gerard Genette) holds more promise because it talks about what the literary does rather than what it is. It seems reasonably sensible to assume that the literary gets to be that way by transforming the words on the page into something else. It’s also reasonable to see this effect at work more in poetry than in fiction which might lead us to believe that the poem is inherently closer to literature than the novel. I do however have more than a few problems with Genette’s ‘object of contemplation’ because I don’t think that I contemplate either poems or novels. I’m now going to be pedantic because I think that definitions need to be as clear and succinct as possible. The OED defines ‘contemplate’ as:

  • to look at with continued attention, gaze upon, view, observe;
  • to observe or look at thoughtfully;
  • to view mentally; to consider attentively, meditate upon, ponder, study;
  • to consider in a certain aspect; to look upon, regard;
  • to have in view, look for, expect, take into account as a contingency to be provided for;

I’m guessing that it’s the third of these that Genette is using but even here the definition relates to vision, albeit ‘mentally’. I don’t visualise poems or novels when I’m pondering them or giving them attentive consideration, I may run the words through my head but visualising how they look on the page is not usually part of what I do. I’m also deterred from ‘contemplate’ because of the meditation angle. I like to think of myself as a reasonably hard-nosed materialist and the ‘m’ word just strikes me as redolent of wooly-minded nonsense. So, the literary poem transforms itself into something else but that thing remains elusive.

In terms of the medieval, Burrow identifies ‘eloquence’ as a literary quality and I think this has some mileage because the sense of being clear and succinct with an element of the credible does seem to encapsulate how I evaluate the literary providing that it also transforms the words on the page. I’d like to take Elizabeth Bishop’s ‘One Art’ as an example of eloquence and of transformation. The poem is a villanelle which is one of the trickiest forms to do well but it’s also an encapsulation of how Bishop felt about the various lovers in her life. The poem makes use of the complex form to transform words of self-pity and complaint into something wonderfully humane and poignant. For me, the poem is the epitome of technique and eloquence because it is self-laceratingly honest and expressed in a way that we can all relate to.

One final thought, is it possible for a poem to be too literary? Can the integrity of a poem be sacrificed at the altar of literature? Is there a point where things become too mannered for their own good? Is the recent work of Geoffrey Hill a case in point?


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