The Activity of Poetry

Now, the point of this essay is to consider what it is that poetry does: what its function is in relation to the human organism. This discussion will have to meander down many paths and may be somewhat more extended that previous essays so far. I must beg the reader’s attention for some space.

The first thing to consider is that poetry can have a tangible effect on the reader or the listener. If it were not for this effect, it would never have been produced in the manner that it has been, as it takes a rather great expenditure of energy to produce in a qualitative way that which will garner an audience within a culture that has perhaps come to expect a certain kind of product of a particular quality. Today we live in an era where the sheer diversity of poetic forms being invented are legion. Add to this our cosmopolitan and global context, and it becomes difficult to define what exactly anyone expects poetry to do in all its particular senses without saying too much. And if one commits and generalizes too much about the workings of poetry, then there is a danger of saying too little.

Nevertheless, let us give it a shot. I will begin with an observation by Owen Barfield as to the effect of poetry:

Thus, an introspective analysis of my experience obliges me to say that appreciation of poetry involves a ‘felt change of consciousness’. The phrase must be taken with some exactness. Appreciation takes place at the actual moment of change…. So it is with the poetic mood, which, like the dreams to which it has so often been compared, is kindled by the passage from one plane of consciousness to another. It lives during that moment of transition and then dies, and if it is to be repeated, some means must be found of renewing the transition itself1.

Barfield is providing here a phenomenological account of poetic experience. That is, he is providing an account of what it is like to be affected by receiving poetry. We might not be affected at all by it. Perhaps we are not in the mood, or our mental tastes don’t know how to take in the content, or maybe we don’t understand the words we are reading: whatever the reason is, all the magic of a poem exists in its entering into the consciousness of an individual and having an effect there. Dormant on a page it means nothing. Writing is merely a tool for getting information to others, and so it is with poetry (Though writing does serve as a useful tool for literary construction. Being able to set down many different versions of what one is writing and then comparing these to each other is of course almost impossible to do in just the head.).

If one takes the time to notice the contents of consciousness moment by moment, one will be impressed by the fleeting nature of its processes in our awareness. There are many distinct qualia, or different kinds of content that we separate from each other at a fundamental level in our awareness. For example, there is a difference between seeing the color blue of a certain shade and hearing the sound of a songbird outside. We might be able to have some kind of qualia suggest by association with another qualia (the cause of which is generally unknown, though not always). I might associate the sound of the violin with the color red. Some of the most significant qualia are obviously the emotions of which there are basic groupings, but a remarkable amount of shading, combination, and interaction within and between the groups.

There is a somewhat useful metaphor between all the various qualia of experience and the keys of a piano. Let us imagine that, rather than having only 12 chromatic notes combined into 12 auditorily distinguishable 7 note scales, we have quite a lot more keys to deal with, each one representing a different kind of possible experience. Let me provide a list of qualia types:

  • 1. Feelings
  • 2. Thoughts
  • 3. Sights
  • 4. Sounds
  • 5. Smells
  • 6. Tastes
  • 7. Textures (the sensation of touch)
  • 8. Imaginations

Within these categories, there is an almost countless number of individual qualia. I have no way in this present context to even run a back of the envelope calculation of how many potentially unique qualia there are. If I did have a way of calculating this, then I suppose one could run the numbers on how many combinations of qualia there could be. Let me estimate that is would be to us functionally infinite, as in none of us will ever live our mortal lives long enough to exhaust experience (I leave aside questions of immortality for the time being). Drawing out our analogy, we have countless keys to combine and play our music. Look what can be done with just the few keys of the piano! How much could be done with our own nature if we were to consider ourselves and our experience a kind of instrument on which our wills can learn to play remarkable compositions of unending complexity, wonder, and depth.

I won’t detail each of the qualia categories much beyond this, except for the final one. 3-7 are the five senses and the experiences associated with them. But imaginations are those internal recreations of sensations, which either recall memories or form new “imagined” contexts.

It is an unfounded hypothesis of mine that the reason why we are able to imagine things we have never experienced ourselves (a function of ours absolutely essential to art) is because we evolved the ability to not only remember the past but to also anticipate the future, which would require our minds to be able to not only recall past events in order to prepare for future occurrences, but to also anticipate how future events might be similar but distinct to past events. I.e. we can not only remember things in the past, but we can “play” with rearranging the contents of memory to develop “unreal” scenarios that might take place (we can even form counter-factuals of the past). This ability is so remarkably developed in us that a we can come up with whole other worlds in our head, as Tolkien perhaps most famously did. No doubt these “other worlds” are nearly infinitely limited in content compared to the actual world. Nevertheless, the actual world as it is represented in our heads is already nearly infinitely limited compared to that true original foundation from which it rises. But we humans really only need to recreate our relatively immediate environment in our minds in order to survive, so our power of recreating, or simulating, the world in our heads only needs to meet that need.

But, though my hypothesis is unfounded by any rigorous psychological investigation, still, it is this capacity to imagine differing sensual contexts that helps our thoughts and feelings to deal with extra content beyond our past experience. And without this ability, we are not human. This is the root of our creativity, and, thus, of our poetry as well.

Returning to the piano metaphor, it is my contention that it is the desire to make an art of our experience that has led to every the existence of every art. The real instrument of all art is the soul. We only use external instruments: be they language (as in the case with poetry), or musical devices, the colors and shapes of the painter, or the marble of the sculptor, the point of all these proximate instruments is the same – to play the instrument of the human heart. It is our desire to increase our capacity to play our proximate instruments and our capacity to be played by the effects caused by those instruments. I.e. we wish to increase our capacities for expression and perception both.

Now, I believe I have summed up all human experience, almost accidently, within that last paragraph. But, using what we have reflected on so far, we can conclude that what we achieve in our minds has very much to do with what we are attempting to seek. If we desire truth, we use language to exercise our intellectual faculties, which formalizes itself as logic, and then we wish to consider the contents of our conscious experience in light of these formalizations. As such, we engage in philosophy, mathematics, science, and history. But when we desire pleasure, we turn to the arts and use the instrument of the external world to play the instrument of our internal soul.

So far so good. Let us turn to poetry specifically as a sub-category of the arts. Poetry’s instrument is language. How this functions in relation to the imagination is somewhat straightforward at first. Language is connected to every part of our conscious mind, as well as to our unconscious depths. But, it by no means is equal to conscious experience, nor to discursive thought as an internal experience. Language is all about communication. It is a development for us human beings of those auditory modes of communication that other mammals have used to function as social groups. We humans are not just social, we are essentially social. Isolate a child from social groups and, thus, linguistic communication, and they will be unable to function at all as a human being, since there bodies and minds are expecting communication with other humans to take place in order to then develop along expected pathways. Such is the function of our genetics.

The point of all this is to say that language touches upon all our experience while not being the sum of our experience. It is not the only way we communicate. In fact, it seems as if we communicate in a combinatorial way, using body signaling along with language to indicate what we mean when communicating to someone else. Indeed, the written word suffers the disadvantage of not being able to draw on all the rich resources of speech, with its intonations, emphases, punctuations, etc.

But, this may be an advantage to poetry, as it allows the meaning of a poem to be more ambiguous, and, thus, more open to flexibility or range of interpretation. If I were to extempore give a poetic piece, then the way in which I pronounced it aloud could actually indicate more clearly what I meant than if I were to write it down. This ambiguous flexibility is not infinite: there is a range of potential meaning that some particular poetic content will fall into, and it has a finite and, compared to all the resources of a language, a quite limited sphere at that. Some poetic statements may be open to far more ambiguity than others. Such is its suggestive magic.

This ambiguity, combined with the permanence of the written word (assuming poetry by modern times is generally written down and not just kept in the head), allows for that careful reflection of the reader on what has been received. And, though I believe that authors very much generally do intend to communicate something precisely, I also recognize that sometimes authors have more control over this intention than at other times. An author may intend to be clear, but fail to be so; they may intend to be ambiguous, but be too successful in their clarity. And always an author communicates more than they intend, since the conscious self cannot keep up with the flow of mental reality in its entirety at all times. The best the conscious self can do is participate in training the mind of which it is a part to be more and more capable of communicating more and more meaning. And, after all this, readers are always going to receive more in the reception of a written work (as well as a spoken one) than was given to them by the author. It is the marriage of an author’s experience and intent and the reader’s experience and intent that sparks to light the fire of literature.

There is another skill that poets, and artists in general, can become quite good at, and that is the deliberate attempt to create a certain conscious experience in a recipient. To quote Barfield again, “Appreciation takes place at the actual moment of change2.” That change he refers to is a shift in conscious experience from one state of awareness into another and so on, the motion of which in a calculated direction results in aesthetic experience. We are always passing through time in our conscious life, moment to moment, thought to thought, experience to experience. The poet wants to take the time in which you read a poem and create a series of compounding and passing experiences that culminate in a certain effect over the totality of the poem.

In my own experience, it often takes getting to the end of a work of art of any sort, taking it in its fulness, before one can be wholly affected by it. You might be affected by it in its parts, but the collective effect that can strike after the whole has been received can be remarkable. And that effect can linger for some time, like ripples in a pool of water after a stone has been tossed into it and has already disappeared. And part of the enjoyment of the parts is the recognition that there is an end to reach that one has not reached yet but that one anticipates in the partial reception of the parts moment to moment. And this entire process is, simply put, enjoyable.

When I read a poem, from start to finish, some part may affect me. But that effect has its effect because I am pushing into the next section. Were I to know that I was going to stop reading there and then and never pick it up to finish again, then I would be disappointed in the reading of the moment. I usually find that there are portions of a poem I enjoy more than others, like oases in a desert (though it is rarely that severe a distinction!). Take this passage from Wordsworth in The Prelude in which he considers mathematical abstraction:

With Indian awe and wonder, ignorance pleased
With its own struggles, did I meditate
On the relation those abstractions bear
To Nature's laws, and by what process led,
Those immaterial agents bowed their heads
Duly to serve the mind of earth-born man;
From star to star, from kindred sphere to sphere,
From system on to system without end3.

I love this and many other passages more than I do every portion of this poem. I look forward to reaching them and thinking about them, experiencing them. But I would be saddened in my enjoyment were I to never go beyond these points to the end. And culmination of the whole may in fact increase the enjoyment of each part prior to the end in my memory. And, of course, if I were to reread the work, I could see things in a whole new light of hindsight.

But just what is that effect poetry causes? The answer is almost endless. That the experience of poetry can be pleasant, none doubt. It is surely not painful, not in the normal sense. If it touches upon tragedy, pain, or the macabre it does so in that pleasant way that only art can, and which may indeed be one of the reasons at least that we value art as we do. It can be a meditation on suffering, and even the horrific, that redeems suffering into the pleasure of contemplation.

So, the reception of poetry is pleasant. What kind of pleasure are we speaking about? There is no easy answer to that. The fact of the matter is that pleasure is a matter of the qualia of feelings. Now, these feelings arise in response to a whole host of other qualia suggested to us by the words we read. But having arisen in response to certain perceptions, they then enhance our perceptions even further by causing our minds to more intently focus on the reception of further meaning. Poetic pleasure opens up the soul to more experience; it makes us exceedingly receptive. One psychological principle (not put too rigorously here), is that one function of “pleasure” is to draw our attention toward some experience or towards seeking it. Or, rather, it is just this allocation of attention that itself is pleasurable. Likely, this process is a positive feedback loop of sorts.

The sheer number of combinations of certain shades of feelings and other qualia that poetry could intensify cannot be numbered or all discussed. So I will not do so here. That this is what it does is enough to note for now. Individual critical discussions of how certain poems have affected us can help fill in this gap for ourselves and others. But that is not what I will attempt here.

I think that there is a related subject that must be tackled in the next essay. I must return to the subject of the origins of poetry, but from an evolutionary perspective. It should be useful to reflect on ways in which it might make sense that poetry has come to function in the manner that it does with relation to our feelings of pleasure. Of course, this means we have to touch upon the origin of art generally, as always. And it will also likely be impossible to avoid the subjects of mythology and religion again. But I will attempt again to be as parsimonious as possible.

Featured image: ‘Inspiration,’ by William Adolphe Bouguereau (1898)

  1. Owen Barfield, Poetic Diction (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1973), 52 []
  2. ibid., 52 []
  3. William Wordsworth, The Prelude (New York: Penguin Classics, 1995), 215 []

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