2.10.2009

Professionals & Amateurs

I participated in a reading yesterday at the Brush Art Gallery at SLU. There were about ten of us reading, a fairly even mix of professional* poets and amateurs. That terminology is highly problematic along several axes of meaning, I think, but I'm not sure how else to characterize the obvious differences between those who have mastered certain techniques and attitudes and those for whom poetry is not a matter of mastery but of expression.

That distinction between poetry as a set of practices and poetry as a mode of (self) expression seems basic to me and it raises an underlying question about value and pujrpose. The professional poet implicitly makes a claim about the value of the work based on his / her mastery of the canons of poetry; the amateur poet, on the other hand, makes a claim for the value of his / her poetry based on the degree to which it satisfies the human need for self-expression. The reading I participated in yesterday embodied this pair of categories with hardly any overlap. Now, it would be easy -- as with all binary pairings -- to put a positive valance on one side and a negative valance on the other, but I don't want to do that.

Speaking from the professional side, I want to honor the impulse to express oneself in poetry, however one understands poetry; at the same time, my sense that the poem must always exceed the poet's personal situation runs counter to the self-expressive mode. It's not that my own poems don't express something about my "self," whatever that may be in this contingent, post-modern world, but the poem must ultimately float free from the self and take its place as an autonomous cultural object.

What is the nature of that object? It is not the independent, shimmering, well-wrought urn of the New Critics, certainly; it is embedded in history and is no doubt a captive of an evolving cultural matrix that at least partly animates it. An organism in an environment? Perhaps that's as good a metaphor as any for describing the relationship of one of my poems to the world.

There was an audience in the room yesterday, each of whom came to hear a poetry reading. Matthew Schmeer has raised the issue of what the audience gets from contemporary poetry. Some (fairly large) percentage of the audience were themselves poets, either on the program or not, but there were also ordinary readers of / listeners to poetry. And what about those "ordinary" readers? What's in it for them? The answer depends, I think, on how they conceive poetry: If they think of poetry as self-expression, they want one sort of thing and are likely to be disappointed by poetry that fails to deliver self-revelation; if they are interested in poetry as an expression of particular cultural values produced according to certain aesthetic assumptions, the auditors / readers will want another sort of thing, more like what the "professionals" produce.

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*Isn't the act of writing a (modern) poem, by virtue of its inevitable skepticism about its own language, the antithesis of professionalism, which is about the acceptance and deployment of power?

4 comments:

Henry Gould said...

We're talking about balance & synthesis here, & what you describe, Joseph, seems to fit that theme - I mean an event that combines these two aspects (amateur & professional). Maybe that's the best kind of reading - reminds the professionals that they're not just writing to each other, & reminds the general reader that poetry is more than self-expression.

This post sent me back to an essay by TS Eliot, "The Three Voices of Poetry". Eliot complicates the usual pedantic categories (how does that Shakespeare bit go? "lyrical-tragical, epical-tragical-lyrical..." something like that - in Midsummer Night's Dream? Can't remember). The "first" voice, which is basically lyrical, is the poet talking to him- or herself, or to no one. Eliot gives a lot of latitude to this voice - since the poet is struggling with what TSE calls an inner "angel or octopus". It's the OTHER 2 voices - the poet talking to other people, and the poet speaking through a fictional character (dramatic poetry) - which he links to pre-arranged plots, themes & rhetorical techniques - those techniques which you appear to be aligning with the professional poet.

I guess what I'm getting at is that we might find an overlapping gray area here, a range of balance, in Eliot's view, between amateur & professional - since the poet of the "1st voice" is, like the amateur self-expressor, struggling with something essentially inward & formless, to begin with anyway.

Here's another (vague) thought that occurs to me. Say there is this range or scale between lyric & dramatic poetry. Say the notion of professional objectivity, in part, has to do with the poet's seeking a "representative" image - something shared, not just personal. Say the whole interest in personae & masks (in Eliot, Pound, Yeats, & everyone who came after) also has to do with this tending toward dramatic objectivity, disinterestedness, the autonomy of the work of art. & say all this also relates to Matthew's question of the audience (since dramatic poetry presupposes same).

I think what I'm TRYING to articulate here is a kind of hypothesis... that is, what if we thought of dramatic poetry - rather than lyric - as the ground or frame for poetry in general? What if both ordinary life and official "history" were understood as themselves essentially dramatic? And of poetry as reaching toward a synthesis or fusion with (or analysis of) that common or universal dramatic situation?

It seems, anyway, that this would entail some consequences for our notions of the "fitness" or adequacy of certain phases of poetic style.

Reminds me of Wallace Stevens poem, "Of Modern Poetry" :

...It has
To construct a new stage. It has to be on that stage
And, like an insatiable actor, slowly and
With meditation, speak words that the ear,
In the delicatest ear of the mind, repeat,
Exactly, that which it wants to hear, at the sound
Of which, an invisible audience listens,
Not to the play, but to itself, expressed
In an emotion as of two people, as of two
Emotions becoming one." etc. etc.

Even as Stevens, in this poem, sets the theater to one side, he does so IN TERMS of the theater.

Really rambling here, sorry.

Henry Gould said...

Just a vague follow-up to previous vague idea...

I believe Eliot, in the "Three Voices" essay, does propose that the "voice" of dramatic verse in a sense comprehends or includes the other 2 voices - so that dramatic poetry, in his schema, is in a sense the benchmark, fulfillment of poetry's aims (this would obviously correspond with his own trajectory as a poet - writing plays for the London stage at the end).

Basically, he argues that the hard-won objectivity of the lyric (1st) voice, and the rhetorically-fashioned poetry of the 2nd voice ("speaking to others"), are taken to another level in drama - a kind of super-objectivity which is expressed in rounded, independent dramatic characters.

Anyway, I think this idea of dramatic poetry as the measure, the benchmark (the plumbline?) for poetry's aims in general, might be worth exploring at some point.

Andrew Shields said...

This seems to me to be a "primary" difference between poets, one that the "professionals" often forget exists! (For a few more thoughts on the poet, see my post in response to yours.)

Joseph Hutchison said...

"Self-expression" and "beyond self-expression" strikes me as a distinction without a difference. Of course, poets who believe their words are dictated by God, or Angels, or the Muse, or Martians may kid themselves about the process; but every word in a poem springs from the poet's imagination and expresses that imagination. If we want to parse the language and call the "self" the "ego" and argue that imagination is a larger, more comprehensive aspect of being, well ... ok. But it's still the ego-bound poet who decides which word goes where, chooses what strands of the poetic tradition to draw on, etc. The idea of "objectivity" in poetry makes no sense. Poetry isn't science, and even science isn't "objective," because ego-bound scientists choose up front what phenomena to study and how to study them. And when it comes to drama, there are (of course) no such things as "independent" characters, although if the dramatist is good we imagine the characters are independent creatures. As Joyce so correctly put it, "We walk through ourselves, meeting robbers, ghosts, giants, old men, young men, wives, widows, brothers-in-love. But always meeting ourselves."