Friday, March 16, 2007

words from a cranky old man

I took out my dusty old copy of The White Goddess by Robert Graves this winter and found in it, these passages which give me food for thought:

Indian mystics hold that to think with perfect clarity in a religious sense one must first eliminate all physical desire, even the desire to continue living; but this is not at all the case with poetic thinking, since poetry is rooted in love, and love in desire, and desire in hope of continued existence

.... 'What is the use or function of poetry nowadays?' is a question not the less poignant for being defiantly asked by so many stupid people or apologetically answered by so many silly people. The function of poetry is religious invocation of the Muse; its use is the experience of mixed exaltation and horror that her presence excites. But 'nowadays'? Function and use remain the same; only application has changed. This was once a warning to man that he must keep harmony with the family of living creatures among which he was born, by obedience to the wishes of the lady of the house; it is now a reminder that he has disregarded the warning, turned the house upside down by capricious experiments in philosophy, science and industry, and brought ruin to himself and his family. 'Nowadays' is a civilization in which the prime emblems of poetry are dishonoured. In which serpent, lion and eagle belong to the circus tent; ox, salmon and boar to the cannery; racehorse and greyhound to the betting ring; and the sacred grove to the sawmill. In which the Moon is despised as a burned-out satellite of the Earth and woman reckoned as 'auxiliary State personel'. In which money will buy almost anything but truth, and almost anyone but the truth-possessed poet.

3 comments: said...

I worry about cranky old men (and women) who theorise about things like poetry, especially when they position poetry as antithetical to philosophy, science and "modern" civilisation. As if poetry were a branch of learning and not an effect and a feeling. Isn't there poetry in aspects of philosophy, science and civilisation? Of course, Grave was writing just after WWII, amidst the rubble, smoke and blood caused by science and technology harnessed to philosophies gone mad. But that last line is worth querying. Are poets more likely to be truthful and incorruptible than scientists, philosophers, and you or I? Philosophers (like the Buddha) might say when poets choose to say use "this word" rather than "that word", they have already compromised truth. So, long live the "wordless" arts--painting, music, and dance!

sufeh said...

I read his reference to "truth-posessed poet" with the emphasis on "truth posessed" rather than "poet". So, truth-posessed as opposed to delusional? Because god knows, there are plenty of delusional fakers out there. More importantly, in our commodity-driven world, perhaps, truth-posessed as opposed to success-posessed. “The only problem with failure is that not everyone wishes you well, the only problem with success is the smell”
I chose to equate "poet" with "artist". In fact, poetry with dance. Because, in the most broad brush-stroke kind of way, dance is poetry as theatre is prose, I suppose. In a more macro kind of way though, I think it is more interesting to read Graves' statement as an exhortation to artists in general - be they writers, painters, musicians, dancers, actors - to be true to the power that runs through them. How to know that you are in touch with the truth and not floundering in a web of illusion is, of course, the great dilemma.

Anonymous said...

Amen to that.