Tramps in Mud-Time

Only where love and need are one,
And the work is play for mortal stakes,
Is the deed ever really done
For Heaven and the future's sakes.

- Robert Frost, "Two Tramps in Mud-Time"

Some discussions over at the Harriet blog have distracted me from the Plumb, but also got me ruminatin' again.

To whit : do poets take poetry too seriously? Is there a perceptual disjunction between poets & readers? Do readers read for pleasure, & poets write for something else? Is what is play, for the reader, rather serious work for the poet? Or is the reader passionately searching for sustenance (as Franz Wright recently claimed), while poets are playing effete games?

A possibly related question : what happened to the ancient "dignity" of the poet? Dante thought of his poem as a work of moral edification. The works of Homer & the Greek dramatists served as benchmarks of public morality, the source of proverbial sententiousness, the foils for the Platonic Academy. Has poetry devolved to mere entertainment - diversion - pleasant pastime?

Is there such a thing as "serious play" anymore (a conjunction of opposites, there)?

This is a question which bears not only on poetry per se, but on the place of literature & literate culture in the world at large.

It also bears, I suppose, on the old mystery of the Person, the "status of the individual", "subjectivity" and common life. Is the individual person a phantasm of biological &/or economic forces, an accidental product of necessity? Or is the individual Person the measure of all things, the pivot of both freedom and responsibility? This bears on our conception of art : is it a purely social product, with a public function & a set of common, shared dimensions? Or is it the purest expression of individual personality, rising from the depths of (Proustian, say) subjectivity, and (Freudian, say) psychology? From the hidden places of childhood, of personal memory & desire, our emotional roots?

For the moment I just want to toss these questions out there... often however I sense this underlying unease or nervousness in American poetry culture, which might have something to do with an uncertainty about what is the right balance of seriousness & fun, responsibility & freedom. (Or maybe it's just me...)

1 comment:

Andrew Shields said...

-- I once said to a German poet that I like poetry because it's fun (weil es Spass macht), and she was quite taken aback. She was less taken aback when I talked about pleasure (es ist ein Vergnügen).

-- Somewhere I read something a while back about how jazz musicians are working hardest when they are really really playing. I associate the observation with Thelonious Monk, for whatever that's worth.

-- I keep coming back to a remark made by (I think it was) Brian Phillips in Poetry a while back, in which he compared poets to ham-radio fanatics. I go back and forth on this one: poetry is a "hobby," poetry is much more than just a "hobby."

-- In that context, this letter is a useful thing to keep in mind: