In the midst of my description of my installments on how poetry uses the rhythms of English to create meter and also free-verse rhythmic emphasis, I can’t resist offering this sidelight. I encountered it thanks to the poet Maureen McLane, who was visiting Northwestern last week, and who included this quotation among the others in the handout that accompanied her lecture. It is from Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition (University of Chicago Press, 1958, 1998, pp. 169-70). Below the quotation, I will offer a few responses to Arendt’s ideas.
Poetry, whose material is language, is perhaps the most human and least worldly of the arts, the one in which the end product remains closest to the thought that inspired it. The durability of a poem is produced through condensation, so that it is as though language spoken in utmost density and concentration were poetic in itself. Here, remembrance, Mnemosyne, the mother of the muses, is directly transformed into memory, and the poet’s means to achieve the transformation is rhythm, through which the poem becomes fixed in the recollection almost by itself…. Of all things of thought, poetry is closest to thought, and a poem is less a thing than any other work of art; yet even a poem, no matter how long it existed as a living spoken word in the recollection of the bard and those who listened to him, will eventually be “made,” that is, written down and transformed into a tangible thing among things, because remembrance and the gift of recollection, from which all desire for imperishability springs, need tangible things to remind them, lest they perish themselves.
1. “Poetry, whose material is language, is perhaps the most human and least worldly of the arts, the one in which the end product remains closest to the thought that inspired it.” I do very much agree with Arendt’s assessment of poetry as “the least worldly of the arts,” simply because unlike visual art and reproductions of such art, sculptures (and copies or photos of them), installations, graphic designs, musical compositions, recordings, buildings with architectural dimensions of originality and beauty and thought like those of art works, dramatic scripts and productions, with all their attendant design of different kinds, choreography and dance performance, etc.—unlike all this, poetry actually needs no materiality at all. Something that can be recalled in its full presence in one’s mind or heard when someone recites it from memory can’t be sold or bought, can’t be “worldly,” belonging to the world both materially and transactionally. So poetry does not become a commodity in the same way that the other arts do, but instead is sold in small editions (with few exceptions), and is presented in readings and preserved in memory. One of the trends of activist visual art, too, has been to produce work that can’t be sold—murals, some kinds of installations, art made of quickly perishable materials. (Yet someone is always thinking of ways to sell these kinds of things, too; and artists need to buy shelter and food and materials and clothing….
I think Arendt is at least partially mistaken, though, in thinking that there is on the one hand poetry, and on the other, “the thought that inspired it.” “Inspired” is the tricky word, here. And maybe I can come back to it, at some point, in one of these little essays. For now, I will simply say that the process by which a poet composes a poem (whether in one’s mind or on on a wax writing tablet 2,500 years ago or on paper) is a process of interweaving some initial thought (or phrase or single word or even rhythm—as Paul Valéry said of his own way of working—for these are the “materials” of poetry) with the discoveries one makes along the way (discoveries of a word or phrase, rhythm or rhyme, or discoveries of whole stages of feeling or the shape of the whole poem). And the initial thought, if there was one, is not necessarily the opening of a poem, but can easily become the ending. We can’t say that there is a thought, or even “thought” as an abstraction, here, that inspires a poem, over there.
2. “The durability of a poem is produced through condensation, so that it is as though language spoken in utmost density and concentration were poetic in itself.” Attempts to settle the question of what “poetic language” might be have accompanied poems perhaps continually since the ancient Greeks, and maybe before, and probably since the beginnings of poetic traditions in cultures outside the west, too. I would guess that such attempts are a part of all poetic traditions, at least from time to time. And I think that “density and concentration” have probably been a consideration in the history of most poetic traditions, from prehistoric times till now, everywhere. Not that the concept of “density and concentration” itself isn’t a point of disagreement; but even when it is, it remains as an idea about poetry that perhaps always guides some poets, however they may define it.
3. “Here, remembrance, Mnemosyne, the mother of the muses, is directly transformed into memory, and the poet’s means to achieve the transformation is rhythm, through which the poem becomes fixed in the recollection almost by itself.” But rhythm is not only an aid to memorization; it is an expressive resource, a meaning-making element of poetry—when particular poets choose not to use it they can take nothing away from its value as a resource; they are simply making their own aesthetic choice to avoid it, whether their motive is personal or ideological. (As poets know, any element of poetry can be, and has been, condemned, or praised, for reasons that are supposedly philosophical or political—whether that gesture makes any sense or not.) And meter of various kinds, on various principles, which my “art and practice” essays are looking at, is the first, and most sustained, and perhaps universally utilized, version of poetic rhythm. What Arendt leaves out is that whatever it is about poems that does make it possible for us to remember them, it isn’t rhythm alone. Sound and structure, paradox and metaphor—all sorts of things contribute to memorability.
4. “Of all things of thought, poetry is closest to thought, and a poem is less a thing than any other work of art; yet even a poem, no matter how long it existed as a living spoken word in the recollection of the bard and those who listened to him, will eventually be ‘made,’ that is, written down and transformed into a tangible thing among things, because remembrance and the gift of recollection, from which all desire for imperishability springs, need tangible things to remind them, lest they perish themselves.” Here is the oldest motive or (if the oldest motive was prayer or propitiation of the supernatural) then the second-oldest motive for poetry, and is well documented: the memorability of poetic lines preserves the fame of a king, warrior, chieftain, sometimes a woman. For this the best poets of the earliest times of poetry were rewarded. And my final qualifier: the best poetry is thought, is a mode of thought, a way of thinking (and of feeling). And as Arendt implies both here and at the beginning of the quotation, the pleasures of poetry don’t consist primarily in owning a material object but in the experience, I would even say the sensation, of thinking along with a poem as it moves from beginning to end. We reread a poem in order to think and feel with it, and to have again a particular sensation of thought and feeling, with the aid of the particular sequence of the “material” or at least sensuous properties of language itself: the forms and histories of words, the rhythms, sounds, images, figures, of the poem.