Thursday, January 17, 2008

What do poems do in the world?


Occasionally brilliant, more often not so much, Stanley Fish has written a recent article claiming that “it is not the job of the humanities to save us” and that the humanities “don’t do anything, if by ‘do’ is meant bring about effects in the world. And if they don’t bring about effects in the world they cannot be justified except in relation to the pleasure they give to those who enjoy them.” You can find his comments on his original article, his original article, and the comments by 484 others on his comments here:

http://fish.blogs.nytimes.com/2008/01/06/will-the-humanities-save-us/

At least he seems to understand the value of thinking again.

Now, I’m not so interested in what the humanities, understood as some kind of singular whole, do in the world. Probably there is no such whole and probably a lot of people are doing a lot of different things with the idea of the humanities. Probably different uses of the humanities do different things for different people.

But I am interested in what people think poems do, either in the world or in some small portion of it. And I don’t mean poems generally, but what this or that poem specifically does or doesn’t do, to whom or to what. My sense is, that if one was being specific, one could reach some literal conclusions about what this or that poem has done, and one would find that there are some ways in which it is impossible to know what a given poem does or doesn’t do. And we’d probably find that some poems have done this, some that, some a lot of this and nothing of that, and etc.

Have any comments or stories about what a specific poem or poems have done in the world, or any small portion of it?

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

I struggled to understand what you are asking readers of this blog entry to comment on…… my understanding is “what does a poem do for you?”, so my comment will be answering that question…..and I like that question…..

just recently I went out for a lunch with a colleague and we were talking about how we could have more fulfilling – less stressful – lives….amongst other things she was suggesting meditation as a way of calming and de-cluttering the mind ……I do think mediation can make that happen but I wasn’t sure I needed/wanted to calm or de-clutter my mind as such to have a better quality of (inner)life…..I actually like when my mind is working……

backtracking even further……I was in a turmoil over a big decision months ago and my mind reached a serious overheating point……I was burning myself to the ground……it started to affect my health (heart mainly)…..looking for help to snap out of this state I came across a great advice that I knew immediately would suit my personality: instead of trying to calm myself down or tell myself I need to stop thinking about the problem that’s eating me from inside I just had to refocus my mind by engaging it in something totally different which would automatically take it away from the stress and the problem.

In my case that “something totally different” was….is poetry…..when I read poetry I enter this intense state of mind……poetic acrobatics with language and meaning set my mind off into another realm millions of miles away from any life problem I might be otherwise grappling with……and this process not only takes me on a thrilling and profoundly satisfying (inner) journey but it also helps me come to the problem’s solution without putting me through the horrible stress I used to endure for it in the past……

Dan / Daniel Gutstein said...

I think poems operate in, as you put it, some small portion of the world. I mean, in this country anyhow, almost nobody *reads* to begin with, and then when folks do read, it isn't automatically poetry -- and who can blame them? A lot of what gets pushed on students or litmag readers isn't just written by dead people, but it's dead, the poetry is, itself. Artificially forced into archaic forms, full of cliches, terribly self involved, or rife with a politically correct agenda ... etc. ...

Still, there are people who read poems, in a variety of subgenres, and to them, certainly poetry does matter, in many ways. I remember liking a Mark Strand poem, actually, once, as a kid, in a deep kind of way. At dinner before a reading, he told a group of us that it was a joke, to him, the poem was. That didn't change how I felt though. It was a creepy poem, either way. The best poems, for me, anyhow, mostly follow the Charles Olsen model in that they (loosely paraphrasing from memory, here) "constantly turn" in terms of their carpentry or language. So it may be that poems matter most to poets. The best poems remind us to "pitch a good ballgame. Mix up your pitches. Fool the reader's expectations, as it were."

My grandfather (an immigrant with a thick Old World accent) once cried after reading aloud Dudley Randall's "Ballad of Birmingham," a poem that I like, too. Many poems are "moments" and otherwise non-readers may come across them in "moments" and be affected in that way, too, which is fine. Sometimes I think we can get a bit callous about all kinds of stuff and forget the sort of uncomplicated emotional commitments that good poems ask of us, that are not difficult to honor. --- Blood And

Olgasmic said...

Brian Phillips, in the September 2007 issue of Poetry (old-ladies-trying-to-be-hip) magazine, had some pretty awful things to say on the issue. Subdividing the "poetry community" into a bipartisan camp of "activists" and "anti-activists", he proceeded to rally against the terming poems as "working" or "not-working". Check it out, you'll laugh, you'll cry (I cried), and ridicule...

http://www.poetrymagazine.org/magazine/0907/

http://www.poetrymagazine.org/magazine/0907/