A friend of mine, a poet, and someone who attends the WWP regularly, received two contradictory bits of feedback. An editor told him that his poems were well made, but they needed to mean more, and a professor told him that the editor was full of crap, that poems don’t mean anything. He asked me what I thought. So here’s me diving into the pool, based on the philosopher Susanne Langer – someone poet Steven Dobyns encourages all poets to read.
By the way, I’m talking about lyric poetry – just thought you ought to know.
Audiences, readers, who engage in a dialogue with “art” – i.e. with “made things” that are created purely for the purpose of engaging human sensibilities, are doing so for a specific reason. They’re doing so in order to have an “experience” that must in some way be different from what they would get out of having other experiences, like, there must be some difference between engaging with a still life painting and looking at the bowl of fruit and bottle of wine on the table; between reading brief instructions on how to set the date and time on the plasma television and reading a lyrical poem about setting the date and time on the plasma television. If there’s no difference in the experience, then there are other things we could be doing than writing/reading poems. I hope you’re with me so far.
So if we’re seeking a particular kind of “experience,” then you could ask, “what kind of experience are we seeking?” And you could ask, “how good is this particular poem at giving us the experience we seek?”
I think the bottom line for lyric poetry is that it is an intensification of experience. And when the reader engages with that intensification, then the reader is potentially enlarged, at least for the moment, maybe longer, through that poem’s potential to transform experience.
Many things can be beautiful and well-made – assembly language code, an exceptionally well-done job of installing a sheet-rock wall, a pot turned on a wheel, and we can even enjoy them as exceptional examples of their craft, even put them in a museum as examples of “found art” (objets trouvé), but in general we don’t grant to their making the purpose of bringing us to transcendence like we do when crafting art or partaking in it.
Speaking personally, if I, as a poet, am asked to choose between two values: a) my poems mean nothing, and b) my poems mean something, I choose “b” (postmodern philosophy, cynicism, deconstructivist philosophy, and a poet’s tendency to be self-denigrating about the place of poetry, aside).