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Прошу прощения у тех, кто не читает по-английски, но ни времени, ни желания переводить у меня нет. Под катом - мои ответы на анкету журнала Fulcrum, опубликованные в его последнем выпуске, о природе поэзии.

Fulcrum Questionnaire: Poetry and Truth


Alexei Tsvetkov


1. What is and what isn’t poetry? What is poetry's essential nature (if any)?

One is almost tempted to give the famous answer about pornography: I know what it is when I see it. But this won’t do for an obvious reason: pornography tries to appeal directly to our physiology, poetry does not and cannot; thus, what I know is not necessarily what someone else knows; our opinions are not vouched for by our common bodily functions.

If I try to recall what was, for me, the most important thing when I first discovered poetry and thought it was cool, I can come up with a definition which was then and still seems valid: poetry is a linguistic composition that I want to know by heart. This is not quite the same as wanting to learn it by heart: I would gladly know by heart Virgil’s Aeneid, Dante’s Inferno or Pushkin’s The Bronze Horseman, but I am not mad enough to try and memorize them. The definition would fail, however, if one were tempted to reduce this requirement to the barest minimum and say that poetry is something one wants to be able to quote from: it is easy to imagine someone who is fond of quoting Edmund Burke.

This definition seems to me the best because it involves the two sides that are required for poetry to exist, the author and the reader. The author wants to create a piece that an envisioned reader would want to know by heart; the reader wants the author to create such a piece. Poetry exists at the convergence of these two desires, so it is relational by necessity.

A different take: poetry is a way to tell a story while applying more or less severe linguistic constraints. Somewhat like dance which is, at bottom, an intentionally complicated kind of walk. This, I think, would be a definition complementary to the first one, not an alternative. In the end, all art is a way of constrained communication, music obviously representing the outer limit.

What isn’t poetry is morally harder to define because it would entail leaving some people who deem themselves creative in the cold: it’s like saying, “whatever it is that you produce, you are no poet.” Still, I know very well where I would draw the border, since I do it all the time in my everyday life. It lies where most ties with the spoken word are ruptured and language itself ceases to be the predominant medium. What lies beyond could sometimes be called poetry in a figurative sense, like a poetic landscape; and it could still remain art without being poetry, like the Tondichtungen of Richard Strauss. One might imagine calling a woman a poem in a non-obligatory sense.


2. What is the most important poetry? Who are the greatest poets? What do they accomplish?

Poetry must have lost more than the other arts in the second wave of desacralization—the postmodernist phase of Romanticism—perhaps because it is one of the most conventional, most contrived arts. In my view, the way to save it is not to abandon or break the convention but to rehabilitate it. ‘Perish the reader’ must be our motto. The reader will have no choice but to come back, and we have the stamina to wait, provisionally supporting each other with timely praises. After all, poetic production is not a money-making trade in a democracy, no matter how one sucks up to the reader. This does not contradict the previous position: there is always the reader-to-be; when I run out of Bordeaux, I cannot remedy the lack by insisting that Chardonnay is as good.

So I have stayed on the side of convention, except that I can only give praises to those poets whom I can read in the original, knowing all too well that most poetic translation is a confidence game. Thus Shakespeare is the most important—which does not say much, because he is a universe apart. What he has accomplished has been explicated by Harold Bloom to the point of triteness, but there is another side to Shakespeare that fascinates me: he owns the language like no one else before or after him.

Other favorites include Virgil, who also serves as a reminder that art is not eternal, that it dies when its language dies; John Keats, for showing us the importance of what we are trying to do. When we come to the last century the crop is richer, simply because that was when many literatures, marginal before, had come of age: thus Rainer Maria Rilke, Wallace Stevens, Osip Mandelshtam from my native Russia, and Boleslaw Lesmian—a poet who is forever destined to stay within his native Polish tongue, such being his punishment for using it so expertly.


3. What is the relationship between poetry and truth? Is there such a thing as poetic truth?

For those who still trust it poetry remains a way of truth that is not based on religion and stays outside science or philosophy. Whether “beauty is truth” has any meaning can only be discussed if the very notions of both truth and beauty, not to mention the notion of meaning, have not been abolished as completely as some self-appointed authorities contend. But they have not, just as one cannot deconstruct one’s own arm or leg: they are something we live with no matter whether we define them or not.

Poetry, among all arts, probably comes closest to the search for truth since it expresses itself in language, which is the truth medium.

Shakespeare has shown how poetry can be used in our quest for truth directly, at least in the Socratic way, by learning who we are. By “we” I understand something more than any particular Joe or Cindy, unless they are my close friends, and even then. Any effort on the part of a Joe or a Cindy to let me know who they are would be the opposite of the search for truth, which is universal; so-called “self-expression,” akin to a bodily function, is best left unwitnessed, no matter how eagerly my presence is invited. I would define “self-expression” as the clearest indicator of non-art. The truth about ourselves lies outside our selves, the same as with any other object, except that only man could be defined as a truth-seeking object.

Keats constructs an ideal world that makes our particulars more apparent, in the way physics is the abstract way of learning the outward aspects of a universe where everything is strictly particular. Lesmian, whom I mentioned above, builds an even more striking poetic universe, one ruled by a fallible God, one that defies all abstractions and contains only particulars. This is a curious parallel to philosophy, with Keats occupying the position of an idealist and Lesmian that of a phenomenologist.


4. How does poetry relate to the human condition?

Poetry is a tool to try to make sense of the human condition directly, not piece by piece as science does. This happens because it treats language not as an instrument but as a medium, thus eliciting meanings that usually fall between the words. Language is discrete, but truth is contiguous.

Poetry produces the only kind of truth that is applicable immediately and directly, not as a part of some endlessly erected truth edifice. In this way it is more like revelation than like discovery.


5. Is there (or can there be) a meaningful philosophy of poetry?

Technology yes; philosophy hardly. No such thing as a philosophy of walking is possible, at least in the sense that could be useful to actual walking. Such a philosophy, if ever developed, would theoretically let us tell a good poem from a bad one. This would be self-defeating since we already know how to do it, and for those who do not know any measuring rod will be useless.


6. Does the fundamental nature of poetry change over time?

It is difficult to judge how fundamental such changes are, but they are real and easily observable. The best example would be the history of Greek tragedy. Aeschylus was felt to be sacred enough to require a special act by the Athenian authorities to allow posthumous performance of his plays, whereas Euripides was already entirely secular and profane, entertainment as we understand it today. Somewhat similar was the evolution of poetry during the Romantic era, within a comparable timeframe.

On the whole, it is fair to observe that poetry, one of society’s central preoccupations in the so-called “heroic” age, has dwindled to the most marginalized under the conditions of democracy—for reasons that are rather simple but require too much space to be listed here. Would it mean that a poet should yearn for a return to a barbaric age? On the face of it I am prepared to say that it would. It would be preposterous for a Seamus Heaney to pretend to be a Homer, for all his Nobel Prize. Will Homer come again? Perhaps, but most people would not be happy to see the return of the conditions required for his reappearance.


7. Is there one “poetry” or are there “poetries”?

Either case could be defended, but the latter would require a natural or self-imposed ignorance about the origins of poetry, which are fairly uniform in most societies. The fact that you define some form of activity as poetry does not make it so in the eyes of another person. Besides, poetry is not self-referential: in the absence of readers it does not exist.


8. What makes a genuinely great poem?

You know it when you see (or hear) it. But the very idea of greatness requires that poetry should be accepted as a single entity. Once there are “poetries”, there are “greatnesses”—in “a poetry” one could simply postulate what constitutes its “greatness,” e. g. a particular focus on ecological issues or minimized usage of the letter “e.”


9. What is the relationship between tradition and innovation in poetry?

I do not believe there is any solid relationship of this kind, unless one believed modern poetry to be the crowning achievement of the ages. This would presuppose a preposterous idea of progress which I cannot share. In the age of classicism little innovation was esthetically possible or desirable. On the other hand, the kind of massive innovation we see in Shakespeare is nothing any of us could ever aspire to, no matter what theories we develop.

The best I can come up with by way of a rule of thumb is that a poet should not be innovative to a point where most readers are left behind: readers should be cut some slack. But neither should we ingratiate ourselves with the reader immoderately, the reader’s essential nature being reactionary.


10. Is a particular poetic method (e.g. the “lyricist,” “formalist,” “free verse,” “experimental,” or any other approach) preferable?

This is to a large degree determined by the times and the social conditions. We cannot, for instance, hope to produce any meaningful epic poetry in our time. In general, any method is best applied toward achieving a goal; otherwise all discussion becomes purely scholastic. It seems to me that the current situation in English language poetry calls for more, not less formalism, but mine is the view of an outsider and I may easily prove erroneous.


11. Are there deep associations between poetics and politics? Please give some evidence.

I do not feel any such associations now, but things could change in a time of political upheaval or deep stagnation. Historically, dissident political poetry does not age well. On the contrary, some pieces we may describe as sycophantic have a better chance of surviving. One could list examples almost to infinity, such as Virgil’s famous Eclogue IV.


12. What fundamental misconceptions about poetry annoy you most, and how would you correct or refute them?

That it is possible to write poetry without serious schooling or apprenticeship. Ideally I would introduce something like a seven-year publication ban from the moment of the first submission.

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Virgil ... serves as a reminder that art is not eternal, that it dies when its language dies

The mind bogggles. Veuille rappeler que l’œil austère appartient au vieux Platon, pas au mort Platon.

Re: Virgil ... serves as a reminder that art is not eternal, that it dies when its language dies

Well, unboggle the mind then and count those who are still able to read Virgil.

Re: Virgil ... serves as a reminder that art is not eternal, that it dies when its language dies

What sort of reassurance are you proposing to derive from popular consumption?

Re: Virgil ... serves as a reminder that art is not eternal, that it dies when its language dies

Virgil was once recognized and cheered by a crowd in a stadium. He did not write just for the few of us.

Re: Virgil ... serves as a reminder that art is not eternal, that it dies when its language dies

My lawyer would accuse you of being non-responsive.

Спасибо за интервью. Спасибо за чтение, одно из лучших в моей жизни. Теперь весна означает и "Шекспир отдыхает". Скорее бы!

Вопросы все такие - дельно не ответить: во всех просьба провести какой-нибудь рубеж; - сравнить и вычленить. Как по мне, границы здесь везде проводятся произвольно, а можно и не проводить, ибо хаос. Я стараюсь обойтись без разграничений, где возможно.

Забавно -- отчасти о том же с другого боку.

...so-called “self-expression,” akin to a bodily function, is best left unwitnessed, no matter how eagerly my presence is invited. I would define “self-expression” as the clearest indicator of non-art. The truth about ourselves lies outside our selves...

Спасибо вот за это в первую очередь. Очень это - не подходит как-то слово "приятно", может, просто "хорошо" или "правильно" - увидеть столь важную (по сути дела центральную в последнее время) для себя мысль столь замечательно, точно, безошибочно выраженной.

"...poetry is a way to tell a story while applying more or less severe linguistic constraints... all art is a way of constrained communication..."

I agree with the second part, but, even if we assume that the poet communicates rather than expresses, is communication ALWAYS a telling of story?

Of course (s)he does. If you have no story to tell, what is the point in accosting the reader? Yep, self-expression.

Только что добралась до интервью. Очень хорошо получилось - вопросы были нестандартными, но они помогли Вам, пожалуй, очень выпукло все сформулировать.
Становится ясно - все, что Вы пишете - это не случайно, это цельная, зрелая система взглядов.

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