A Theory Of Poetic Aesthetics
© by Ben Smith, 6/28/12
We know that verse is made up of many elements, music, metaphor,
lyricism, wit, enjambment (how often this element is overlooked) and the
entirety of rhetoric. We can often
say when evaluating a poem that it has a promising beginning or an excellent
ending, two very important pieces of a quality poem. We can look into a poem’s tropes and their development.
We can see its symmetries in both word and meaning, and we can examine
its contradictions, whether they are ironic, paradoxical, or just contradictions
in and by themselves. Yes, we have
these many elements, so many that it would be time-consuming, if not nearly
impossible, to list them all. These
elements occur to us as we write or read a poem.
Yet there is something so much more to the well-written piece of
literature, and I shall try to point it out as adroitly as possible.
Let us remember that a poem usually has a theme or subject; even without
such, a poem must have a guiding principle or a certain form that brings it
together as one work. But we would
be mistaken to assume that this outer idea, this very much manifest matter, is
what makes a poem one, a singularity. No,
there is something else. There is a
concept, in the highest sense, that holds everything together. This concept, the archetype, if you will—and I mean
archetype in a higher sense (more like the spiritual use of the term)—a higher
sense than Jung’s—this archetype or concept is a whole, it is the poem
without its elements taken into consideration.
All of the elements of the poem come from and point back to this concept.
So, this concept is something by itself, yet it is the poem in its
entirety, everything taken into consideration.
No element or combination thereof makes up this concept, and because it
is so fundamental the concept is never directly stated, whether or not the theme
or subject or whatever other unifying principle is made clear.
You see, this is what separates a ‘real’ or quality poem from a
lesser work. The poem is very
confident, sure of itself. Why? Because of its connection to itself, to its core, to the
concept. Every line, every part,
every element must be for this concept, must express this concept in some way,
in a manner that gives a sort of solidity to the concept.
No matter how clever, witty, intelligent, lyrically pleasing your poem,
without this unifying thing, this concept, your poem will not be a quality work.
I often look through poems for quality writing, examining the elements,
paying especial attention to the beginning and end—I love clever endings.
I’ll notice the flow of the language, its lyrical quality, its twists
and changes affirming or refuting other parts of the work.
I may even weigh the narrative, if there is one.
Now character, plot, point of view, and dialogue may or may not be part
of a poem, but they are borrowed from storytelling; but these elements too can
be taken into account. One must use
ones aesthetic sense, or sensibility, if you will, to weigh the elements of the
work to try to assess its value. And,
of course, like I said, rhetoric, metaphor, music, and wit all come into play
when evaluating the worth of a poem. But
I cannot emphasize enough the ultimate unifying principle of the concept.
You can see it for yourself if you read through a quality poem with a
sense of the same. Something about
this type of poem, the poem that heeds its binding force, gives you a sense that
no matter what each section, each turn, offers, it is whole. It is confident of self because it comes directly from this
source at all times. It really is
an archetype, a source of gravity, that brings everything back in toward itself.
As Hegel might have said, the concept (Hegel would speak of Spirit and
the absolute, saving the word ‘concept’ for something else) is in itself,
and the details of the writing are for the concept, therefore rendering the
concept for itself. Go ahead; look
over a poem that you know to be great, or even good.
It doesn’t matter the poem, you will sense this concept behind every
line, every phrase and clause, of the poem.
No matter how the work appears to stray, even if the work seems to be
completely desultory, it will in some way convey a singularity, the concept can
be felt. The core of the work, yes,
is not only the source of the poem, it is the entirety of the poem.
The fact that writers in general and in particular do not recognize this
most fundamental principle, this fact of unity, the concept of a work, explains
why people have such trouble weighing one writing against another, trouble in
juxtaposing two works which on the surface may appear similar but underneath are
worlds apart. Some persons
obviously have an intuitive sense of this unity and are therefore more capable
of properly evaluating a work at the higher levels of skill and expression.
This idea of the concept explains why I can look at the elements of a
poem and see that they are pretty much all well-done and yet feel there is
something missing from the work. Even
if a work proves to be confident of itself at every turn, it may lack the
loyalty or dedication to its foundation, its concept; the confidence of self is
merely an adjunct of the traces of the concept, so it can be artificially
rendered as well, but it still can’t fool a reader who has honed his sense of
what is quality in writing. And
what is quality in writing in the highest sense comes of the poem’s trueness
to its concept. Poems that shirk
the call of this higher order often seem upon reading that they could break into
pieces or turn to dust at any moment; they are arranged like heaps instead of
parts of the whole that in themselves are whole, as if the proper groupings of
things is ignored or denied, connections are precarious, the structure
vacillating, wavering, wobbling on weak wigways.
Now, one can’t go looking for a poem’s concept as if it were the
theme; the theme is an element like any other and therefore merely points toward
the concept. In fact, the concept,
the deep foundation that touches everything in the poem and is the poem in its
entirety, is sensed and understood as more of a deep-seeded feeling, which can
be sensed in the wholeness of the work. This
is why it can only be understood through the aesthetic sensibility of the mind
that has found the sense of such a thing. The
mind can see that the poem is whole, not a result or completion of its parts but
a whole. Indeed because such a
phenomenon exists as the foundation of a quality work, this work could go on
indefinitely and not lose its impression of cohesion, its singularity.
The length of the poem is for the most part arbitrary, another outer
factor that leads back to the center, the core, the foundation.
Structure and form are just guidelines within which the mystic
possession, the guiding force, can take hold and draw by gravity every separate
idea back toward itself, uniting all. One
gets the sense that his work has reached a conclusion, or he may get the sense
that the poem must continue. It is
somewhat true that the poet is always looking for the perfect ending and the
perfect point of ending; it only lends more sense of completion to the whole, it
makes what is already completely whole known to be whole.
This affirmation is one of something that already existed; even without
the ending the poem is whole, but the ending is like a point of punctuation that
reaffirms this completeness.
One could easily accuse me of simply pointing out that there is an
unspeakable element to art. But
know that without speaking of this ‘unspeakable’ something, this concept as
I am calling it, we are not recognizing the hidden ingredient, the main
ingredient, of a quality work. Yes,
I write of something that seems to those who can’t sense it a vague specter of
a supposed reality (unreality?). But
this specter is at the heart of every great work.
You would do well to take note of this comprehensive feeling that you get
from a great work next time you read one. Once
you have the sense you can also feel its absence as a void.
The lack of gravity in a lesser work points to this idea of the concept.
It is as if the lesser writer is stabbing at random imagined things in a
dark room; he must create direction, cohesion, completion, where there is none,
where the gravity that pulls the elements into place is absent. He is faking the thing, his work is ultimately derivative, a
poor imitation of the real thing, a phony fake, if you don’t mind.
Even if every line at first seems captivating, if you think for a moment
or two that you’ve stumbled on something special, if this concept is not there
to hold everything together, you will sense its lack.
To tell you my reaction to such poems, it feels as if they are not
actually alive. Quality poetry
feels very living, indeed like a living thing in itself.
Like a living being there is a quality of wholeness regardless of the
elements that ‘make it up,’ for we know that the living being is not its
parts but a singularity, the singularity that stands for life itself, for all
Yes, the sense of a dead thing, of wooden words arranged so and so,
possibly pleasing, even witty or touching, indicates the lack of the that,
that thing, the thing I am calling the concept.
Something that does not start out whole can never be so, no amount of
adding part to part can create a whole. A
whole is a whole, in the same way a man is a man until he dies.
As I indicated, from these lesser works that in some ways resemble a
superior work I get a sense of woodenness, of lifelessness.
I would say of these lesser works, these almost-good works, they resemble
illusion without the magic, the mark of reality, the impression of artlessness.
Oh, this last reflection, that great art in its artifice glosses itself
artless, seems to point in the direction of which I am trying to write.
And the only way such a semblance of reality or life can exist is
by way of the concept, the gravitational foundation.
It’s not that everything touches in great poems, it’s more that
everything is the same thing with a different face or aspect.
Although you can see the many, the multiple, the differences, they are
all the same sameness, completeness, one thing.
Every swing of the hammer is simply that, regardless if the hammer hits a
nail or your head. Even editing is
really an act of making the poem more like itself, making it more itself.
And when the poem is as it as it can be, it is finished.
I only write of this because it is something I feel when I read poetry.
I have wondered at these almost-good poems for a while now, and this is
the conclusion I came to when asking myself what these poems lacked.
It may seem that I am saying that poetry has some sort of soul, but
really I’m just pointing to a process that takes place in the writer—and
later, reader. This cohesiveness
that seems all too mysterious could be written about in another way, less
metaphysical, but I think something would get lost.
Why? Because I am saying,
more or less, that this concept comes of the writer’s soul, or his higher mind
or mental faculties; it is, in fact, a process of these higher faculties, the
higher mind in action, at creation. But
look and see. If you don’t see
it, you’re either not looking or it’s not there.
About the poet’s mind, I do not know which parts of the brain are
working in concert, or alternately, but I do believe that the quality poet is
working on a higher level than normal functioning, which may be the reason some
people consider their work inspired by whatever force or forces.
The fact that this more comprehensive thinking, this working of the
concept, can only take place at levels higher than what we would normally
consider normal goes almost without saying—but I said it.
Yet something is missing in this theory of what is whole, something is
incomplete about this delineating of true completion.
It is this. One could say
that I am trying to privilege the few. And I am. Why? Because creative work,
art, works within a hierarchy. Mastery
of craft, a lasting intuition of the substance, the foundation, the concept that
unites, is not a common thing. One
can witness this in the fact that even the reading of poetry with a proper sense
of the undergirding structure is reserved for an elite. Many people can read a great work of poetry without actually
seeing the greatness; they most likely take the notion of the work’s greatness
from what he has garnered of others. This
is why certain classics that are considered great by historical-minded critics,
but indeed are not great by any stretch, are reaffirmed as being great or
quality works by those of the common sight.
These people fall back on cultural affirmations.
One can see this in the many foolish critics who fail to recognize the
many great poems and poets of the twentieth century while they exalt the more
ancient works (which are actually pale shades of the better more modern works).
One glaring example of this occurs in the related realm of the
playwright. There are academics who
consider the ancient Greek plays great; this is inane to any true lover of
literature who has read these works. I,
for instance, have read every ancient Greek tragedy, and I say they are hardly
any better than a silly soap opera. All
of these plays, no matter their intentions, are underpinned by a desultory
disconnect; there is no force, no gravity pulling the elements together.
I find it funny that pretentious academics love to reference these works
of crapola, having no knowledge of anything aesthetical.
One can note that all of these usurpers of ‘aesthetics,’ none of whom
has any idea what aesthetics really is in its simple glory, fight amongst
themselves, as if such a poor imitation in any of its contrived forms can
replace the real thing, the real fake.
Yes, I have offered what I find a viable theory that I, of course, expect to be rebuffed in short order by most who in their lack of courage will offer nothing in its place. The truth is that most don’t even care. Editors of poetry journals are cowardly self-contented hacks, the writers themselves are mostly clueless, and the poor reader is at the end of this manufacturing line haplessly awaiting what most often turns out to be an ingenuine fake, a half-baked and inferior artifact or work of artifice, the general, if not generic, dross of art; this is, no doubt, the illusion that no skeptic proper can believe, even in his patronistic and mocking credulousness. The fact that art itself lives by these mostly feminine values, that is to say, values that skirt truth, the genuine, the reliable, is one of the virtues of art. It is not a recounting of what is true, a rendering of what is actual, but an even more daring delineating of what should or could, shouldn’t or couldn’t be. Yet this art, the artificial creation, must rely on the concept to convey itself as a whole, something that resembles perfection, which is really a form of completion. Until a better description of the ‘unspeakable ‘ element of poetry in particular and art in general comes my way, which it won’t (how many years have my enemies had their chance?), I shall stand by my working theory of the concept and its innumerable implications.
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