Saturday, July 19, 2008

Pure Poetry: Can of Worms or Net Full Of Butterfies?

Both. The subject of pure poetry--or they used to say back in the Pre-Postmodern era, art-for-art's-sake--is a sort of Pandora's Box of questions, problems and conundrums, and therefore a can-of-worms. On the other hand, pure poems when you know what to look for, and have conquered your aversion to anything that smacks of High Art, are like butterflies. Which may be why Nabokov who certainly believed in High Art as much as anyone, was an avid student and collector of these improbably beautiful creatures.

Eliot's poem (see previous post) is pure poetry, i.e. it defeats criticism, and so (I would guess) is Baudelaire's. (Auden said, in a famous poem about Yeats--September 1939 which was when he died-- that "poetry makes nothing happen"). Let me say, before proceeding, that Baudelaire and Poe got it right, more or less, in rejecting the idea that poetry has anything to teach or promote--the "didactic heresy" they refer to. The term 'beauty' has gone out of fashion, and Baudelaire's semi-theological (and pre-symbolist) notion of 'correspondences' belongs in the dust-bin of history, but his (and Poe's) rejection of the traditional theory--that the purpose of poetry is, by giving us pleasure, to give us moral instruction--is right on. If you are curious, you can find this theory well laid out in Sir Philip Sydney's 16th century essay "In Defense of Poetry." (He was defending poetry against the puritanical types of his day who distrusted pure art and poetry just as much as the post-modern puritans of yesteryear.)

Now for the can of worms. The trouble with any theory of pure poetry is that there are some indubitably great poems that have a lot to teach: Lucretius' On The Nature of Things, for example. And how about Paradise Lost? Bk.I is some of the purest and greatest poetry I know--it doesn't get much better than that. Too bad it's too long to quote. (It is possible to write pure poetry that says nothing at all and is of no interest.) But Shakespeare wrote some of the purest poetry there is--not so much in the blank verse of the plays themselves, which always have a dramatic context, but in the songs that are included by the way, as in Twelfth Night and Cymbeline some of which I shall show you. First though I want to show you one of Shakespeare's purest poems. It is called "The Phoenix and Turtle" and it may be that only specialists know about it these days. ('Turtle' is a dove.) No one knows much about it or who it refers to. Like all pure poetry, it defeats criticism yet its meaning is clear.

Let the bird of loudest lay,
On the sole Arabian tree,
Herald sad and trumpet be,
To whose sound chaste wings obey.

But thou shrieking harbinger,
Foul precurrer of the fiend,
Augur of the fever's end,
To this troop come thou not near!

From this session interdict
Every fowl of tyrant wing,
Save the eagle, feath'red king:
Keep the obsequy so strict.

Let the priest in surplice white,
That defunctive music can,
Be the death-divining swan,
Lest the requiem lack his right.

And thou treble-dated crow,
That thy sable gender mak'st
With the breath thou giv'st and tak'st,
'Mongst our mourners shalt thou go.

Here the anthem doth commence:
Love and constancy is dead,
Phoenix and the turtle fled
In a mutual flame from hence.

So they lov'd as love in twain
Had the essence but in one;
Two distincts, division none:
Number there in love was slain.

Hearts remote, yet not asunder;
Distance, and no space was seen
'Tiwxt this turtle and his queen;
But in them it were a wonder.

So between them love did shine
That the turtle saw his right
Flaming in the phoenix' sight:
Either was the other's mine.

Property was thus appalled,
That the self was not the same;
Single nature's double name
Neither two nor one was called.

Reason, in itself confounded,
Saw division grow together,
To themselves yet either neither,
Simple were so well compounded;

That it cried, "How true a twain
Seemeth this this concordant one!
Love hath reason, reason none,
If what parts can so remain."

Whereupon it made this threne
To the phoenix and the dove,
Co-supremes and stars of love,
As chorus to their tragic scene.


Beauty, truth, and rarity,
Grace in all simplicity,
Here enclos'd in cinders lie.

Death is now the Phoenix' nest;
And the turtle's loyal breast
To eternity doth rest,

Leaving no posterity:
'Twas not their infirmity,
It was married chastity.

Truth may seem, but cannot be;
Beauty brag, but 'tis not she:
Truth and Beauty buried be.

To this urn let those repair
That are either true or fair;
For these dead birds sigh a prayer. 1601

I realize, now, that this may be tough to swallow for those unaccustomed to reading poetry, pure or impure. So, for another pure poem, on similar but less philosophical lines, look up Edward Lear's "Owl And Pussycat."

1 comment:

  1. Music, the greatest of the arts, has no content outside of its internal structure and meaning. Poetry is the most musical of the arts, especially if it has rhythm and rhyme. Shouldn't one, therefore, be able to straddle the line between poetry and music by creating works with no meaning—poetry without words?

    Here is such a poem:

    A LIFE
    by George Jochnowitz

    JIGGLE jiggle
    jiggle JIGGLE jiggle

    JIGGLE jiggle
    jiggle JIGGLE jiggle

    jiggle jiggle jiggle jiggle JIGGLE
    jiggle JIGGLE jiggle

    jiggle jiggle jiggle jiggle JIGGLE
    jiggle JIGGLE jiggle

    JIGGLE jiggle
    jiggle JIGGLE jiggle

    JIGGLE jiggle
    jiggle JIGGLE jiggle