Sunday, September 14, 2008
Is poetry work?
Do you think of poetry as work?
If so, do you think of it as a particular kind of work?
If not, do you think of it as another kind of activity (that is, other than just poetry)?
I’m influenced enough by Wittgenstein that I don’t think of poetry inherently as work. Instead I’m interested in what happens to poetry if we define it as work, and what happens to it if we don’t. Thinking of it as work or not might change, and probably does, how we write poetry and how we feel about its importance.
There’s a long history, both in what became the United States and elsewhere, of distrusting poetry. That distrust has often been based in thinking of poetry as something that is not work, or as work that may not be all that valuable. Puritan culture, for instance, often looked skeptically at poetry. As one Puritan divine of the time put it, “It is as if words should elect to dance and caper, instead of to speak plainly.” In this view, poetry is playful and wasteful and an inappropriate manner of celebrating. The Puritans were no simpler than we are though, and one of them, Edward Taylor, wrote poems full of ornate artifice and linguistic playfulness, dancing and capering with quite marvelous results.
If we consider poetry to be work, is it possible that we’re looking to justify it by giving it the dignity of labor, dignity that perhaps we feel that poetry simply as poetry doesn’t have? When we use the phrase “work of art,” have we, in a subtle fashion and perhaps even unknown to ourselves, sought to justify art through the productive aspects of it as labor?
If we consider poetry to be work, what role does humor, feeling, playfulness, ornamentation, and artifice have in the poem as work?
If we do not consider poetry to be work, what role does effort, thoughtfulness, difficulty and developed skill have in whatever kind of activity we imagine poetry to be?
Which is to say, I wonder what aspects of poetry become more emphasized or more forgotten when we consider poetry as work or as something that is not work. And when we consider poetry as work or not, I think that probably changes the relation of poetry to the kinds of work we’re doing, work we may have to do or may want to do. Does poetry become less important or more important to us as we imagine it as more work or as something other than work?
And by the way, I’ve been working a lot these past few weeks. If you haven’t heard from me recently, that’s why.