Making the World Strange, Ways of Seeing, and the Purpose of Art
Probably you haven't been exposed to much poetry since you were forced to read Simon Armitage or Carol Ann Duffy in secondary school. Not many people care for poetry, I can accept that, even as someone who finds it to be one of life's most enriching pursuits.
Even though most of what follows relates to poetry, that is only because it is the artform that I feel the most affinity for. Where I have written “poetry” or “poem”, you can substitute “art” or “artistic expression” or “artwork”. This discussion is by no means limited to the poet (as this would indeed be a limited discussion).
These are the thoughts that have occured to me in my reading, writing , and thinking about literature in general and the poetic in particular. Hopefully there will be something of us here for the painter, the sculptor, the musician, the performer, the novelist, even the general reader.
An obvious place to start would be a definition of poetry, but I'll avoid this for the main part. Definitions often fall short of what they promise. How we use terms and what they do for us is more important than pinning them down with other terms. How can we describe a word without words, after all? They are much more slippery things than we allow.
It may be more helpful to begin with what poetry is not: the arrangement of words on a page. Poetry, as described in great detail by Seth Abrahamson, is a meta-genre, which means that it is an artform which appears in other artforms. This underlying structure which creates and evokes meaning is called poetics.
To condense Abrahamson's article, poetry is a “reflexive language system”, which simply means that it is self-aware, has formal qualities (words, strokes of paint, musical notes), and constitutes a structure. Poetry as conceived of here can be found where ever there is artistic endeavour.
I won't go into a definition of poetry any further than this. We can get carried away with the attempt to define things by their description, as if this makes them known. If you enter the debate about what formal elements constitute a “proper” poem, then you’ll be down the rabbit hole for a long time, and to no end.
Rather than attempting to define poetry in abstract terms, or determine what a poem should be, perhaps it is more enlightening to think about what poetry does, how we use it.
In short, poetry is less about the formal composition of words than it is about presenting and exploring a way of seeing. A good poem is one that shows me something as if for the first time. Poetry has the potential to take the usual stuff of everyday life and recast it in a strange light, so that we look at this commonplace object or occurrence again and find a new perspective.
This function of art is known as ostranenie, a Russian word usally translated as “defamiliarization”, which originates with a 1917 essay by Viktor Shklovsky on the art of making things strange:
Habitualization devours works, clothes, furniture, one’s wife, and the fear of war… And art exists that one may recover the sensation of life; it exists to make one feel things, to make the stone stony. (in Lodge, 1992: 53)
The idea of “making the stone stony” has not featured in the English literature curricula of today, which has instead done much to undermine these readings of poetry and in doing so deterred the general reader.
In schools up and down the country, poetry is presented as the gold-standard of language, exceptional above other forms. We are taught that poems are not poems if they do not contain certain specific elements.
Moreover, we are taught to look for the meaning of a poem or a novel. What is a writer trying to say through their work? What is their philosophy? Noble as this aim is, it ultimately leads us to a position where poetry (and art) become a puzzle to be solved, and we are left frustrated by poems that we can’t “understand” or “work out”.
Imagine if the same were said of music. We hardly appreciate songs because we comprehend them intellectually. We listen because something about a song simply appeals to us, resonates emotionally, evokes a response. The satisfaction of a song isn’t in its end, when we realise what it was all about or discover the “message” of the message. The enjoyment is in listening to the music, allowing the music to happen to you.
By contrast, we have turned poetry into an intellectual exercise whereby we seek to extract philosophical formulae. Instead, a poem is an invitation to see something new, or to see something old in a new way, as if for the first time. It is not concerned with answers so much as a response.
Has this composition evoked you? What feelings do you notice in yourself when you read? Which formal aspects in particular are provocative? What does the piece remind you of in your own life? These are the questions are much more suitable questions to ask when reading poetry, or consuming any other kind of art. Not just “what is the artist trying to say?” It is much more sophisticated to ask not simply what does it mean, but how does it go about making that meaning.
The key to “getting” poetry, and indeed the true appeal of any art, is that it is more like a question than an answer. A poem is not interested in presenting the facts, but asking us to think about those things which we call facts. Art is an invitation to look at the world, at the mess of reality, turn your head a bit to the side and say, “huh?”
This is partly because poetry presents us with a different notion of truth. I’m aware that this is a somewhat contentious statement in these days of fake news, lying presidents, the liberal media, the spectre of alternative facts and post-truth society.
The nature of poetry does challenge our notions of truth. Is a poem a work of fiction, or fact? Is a poem necessarily autobiographical? Does everything in a poem have to be true for it to create meaningful meaning?
If I wrote a poem about watching a violent film and then going home to see my daughter cover herself in tinned tomatoes, does it matter that this sequence has not happened and that my daughter did not cover herself in tomatoes and in fact I don’t have a daughter? The evocation is “real” in that the contrast between on-screen violence and the innocence of everyday life is “true”.
This is truth of a different kind, one equally valuable as the fact-based truth which is so hotly debated in public discourse. At the risk of invoking Kellyanne Conway’s “alternative facts”, I would call this a subjective truth.
It is true in the way that you may read a poem about how depression takes away the ability to express feelings in words, and think “something like that happened to me” or “yeah, I can imagine that”.
A poem presents a perspective which is not a verifiable fact, but instead something humanly true, common to a way of feeling and of being human. For all the technological revolutions and transformations of our world, we are fundamentally the same people as those who painted the walls of caves, facing the age-old realities of love and loss, beauty and death.
In a way, the Shklovsky’s defamiliarization is also concerned with notions of truth: in this, the poem seeks to re-present the world to us and remind us of the truths which have become so familiar that we have forgotten how to acknowledge them.
Again, however, poetry is not about making things discoverable or known. It is not about crystallising the world into words and fixing reality. This comes back to the preoccupation with answers.
This is the inherent tension of the poetic and the artistic: that we are in search of truth with the knowledge, and acceptance, that we cannot find it.
Approaching art in this way has been characterised as “the new sincerity”, “the new romanticism”, or (my new favourite -ism) “metamodernism”. I will likely write something on this emergent cultural paradigm, but for now suffice to say that Timotheus Vermeulen and Robin van der Akker’s seminal essay on the subject illuminated in the tension of seeking and not finding.
In “Notes on Metamodernism”, the authors liken various cultural paradigms to a donkey chasing a carrot on a stick. According to modernism, the donkey chases the carrot because it thinks that it can get the carrot, and by trying hard enough it reach the goal. Postmodernism ridicules that fact that the donkey is chasing a carrot, says that the carrot probably doesn’t exist, and if it does exist then the donkey will still never get it.
In the new cultural trend of metamodernism, as Vermeulen and van der Akker (and others such as the aforementioned Seth Abrahamson) see it, even though the donkey cannot chase the carrot, it is still worth chasing, because the pursuit takes us to places that we have not been before.
This belief is at the core of our ideas about art, and certainly a key tenet of my poetic ethos. The aim is not to discover the perfect artistic forms or to answer the most confounding questions in a poem. We know the limits of the artistic, and yet our lives will still be enriched in its pursuit.
This is partly why I did not want to get into the myriad of definitions of poetry at the beginning of this essay. Not just because I’m lazy and there’s too much to write about, but because finding a definition is tied up with the desire to find an answer or discover the “true” form of the poem. Poetics (the structure of art) is not a definition; it is a way of engaging with definitions.
The aim is also not necessarily to produce a work entirely new and “original”, either. As David Lodge observes, originality does not usually mean that an artist has created something entirely new, without previous influence, but rather
That she has made us “perceive” what we already, in a conceptual sense, “know”, by deviating from the conventional, habitual ways od representing reality. (55)
This, then, is the appeal and significance of the arts, and the reason I enjoy poetry enough to write essays about it in my free time. A poem or an artwork doesn’t need to show us something breath-takingly new; the power of art is in the way it reveals to us what we already know, the truths we have forgotten by way of familiarity.
I am not naive enough to suppose that this tract on the merits of poetry will win over fans, and that isn’t really the point here anyway. As I said at the outset, what I’ve described need not be restricted to poetry and can easily apply to other artforms and creative expressions.
Poetry is one of the ways that I imbue life with meaning. I enjoy reading poems, I like reading about poems, I get value from writing them, I like to hear poems performed on the stage. A poem can be like a song that you hear and then it goes round in your head even while you’re not listening, so you go back and listen again.
In these days of rationalism and reason, scientific and technological advances, and public discourse that has descended into a shouting match, the arts invite us to look again. They encourage in us a sense of wonder. They provide an opportunity for us to stop fighting about the answers and take a moment to reflect on the questions. They have the potential to enrich the lives that we lead. That is the purpose of art, and it need serve no other.
Lodge, D. (1992). The Art of Fiction. London: Penguin.
Vermeulen, T., van der Akker, R. (2010). “Notes on Metamodernism”. Journal of Aestetics and Culture 2(1), 1-14.