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By Ange Mlinko

This villain, who puts words together with no intention of stating, hoping, praying, or persuading … only imagining, only creating … is to many immoral, certainly frivolous, a trivial person in a time of trouble (and what time is not?), a parasite upon whatever scrofulous body the body politic possesses at that moment. And roses are intolerably frivolous too, and those who grow them, snowmen and those who raise them up, and drinking songs and drinking, and every activity performed for its own inherent worth.
That’s William Gass again. I have to go back to this essay (“Carrots, Noses, Snow, Rose, Roses”) once in a while to remind myself that the writing that really brings me to my knees almost never has to do with politics, “memory,” or any moral imperative. But I was surprised — not unpleasantly — to find a persuasive ethical account of “pure” poetry in W.H. Auden’s 1957 essay, “Music in Shakespeare.”

The kind of voice [Ariel] requires … is as lacking in the personal and the erotic and as like an instrument as possible.
Suppose Ariel, disguised as a musician, had approached Ferdinand as he sat on a bank, “weeping against the king, my father’s wrack,” and offered to sing for him; Ferdinand would probably have replied, “Go away, this is no time for music”; he might possibly have asked for something beautiful and sad; he certainly would not have asked for “Come unto these yellow sands.”
As it is, the song comes to him as an utter surprise, and its effect is not to feed or please his grief, not to encourage him to sit brooding, but to allay his passion, so that he gets to his feet and follows the music. The song opens his present to expectation at a moment when he is in danger of closing it to all but recollection.

Furthermore, Auden goes on to say, Ariel’s song not only prevents Ferdinand’s grief from foreclosing on the present, but on the future too, in the person of Miranda who shows up soon after.
The “seriousness” of poetry isn’t found in its subject matter, but in its function. And if sometimes that function seems amoral — or, downright immoral, given that this is a “time of trouble” — then Auden is definitely the man to commune with for spell.
To be continued.

Comments (2)

  • On July 26, 2007 at 8:28 am Kwame wrote:

    Dear Ange, interesting–this business of the “function” of the poem was the subject for an intriguing debate in poetry recently, and the “purist” seemed to suggest that the very idea of function is deeply prescriptive and limiting. What I am saying is that if camps were created, your holders to the function (and not the “seriousness” of poetry) would be expected to fall into the camp of the idea of no-function poetry that spoke in the Poetry article. So I am happy to be in both camps and none. Poetry is functional because we use it. It turns out to matter little hat the purpose of the poem may have been. But let’s not forget that Prospero was trying to charm everyone in ways that can only be described as diabolic–it is not the art that charmed, but the magic outside the art. Thanks for your post.

  • On July 27, 2007 at 7:54 am Ange wrote:

    Hi Kwame – Your comment about Prospero is really at the heart of Auden’s inquiry in his poem “The Sea and the Mirror” as well as his lectures on Shakespeare. In them he wrestles outright with the question of whether the inventive arts of Prospero/poetry are deceitful at best — a mirror not of truth but of nature, which is just another mirror. (He had gone back to the Anglican Church by this point.)
    I’m still reading this stuff myself, so I don’t have a strong take on it yet, but as a Christian you might be interested in Auden’s struggle.
    As for whether this puts me in a camp, quite probably. I take the position that poetry is an autonomous zone, but I don’t necessarily object to poetry that does otherwise. There’s an irrational element to poetry that can never be circumscribed by dogma.
    Oh, and thank you for your wonderful idea of reading a lyric poem as “adopting a memory.” I love it.

Posted in Uncategorized on Monday, July 23rd, 2007 by Ange Mlinko.