Aut prodesse volunt aut delectare poetae.
(Poets wish either to instruct or to delight.)
—Horace, Epistles, “Ars poetica”
Delight is the chief if not the only end of poesy: instruction can be admitted but in the second place, for poetry only instructs as it delights.
—John Dryden, An Essay of Dramatic Poesy
[A poem] begins in delight and ends in wisdom.
—Robert Frost, “The Figure a Poem Makes”
“Delectare” can also be translated “to please,” and the overwhelming consensus about all the arts, and not just verbal art alone, is that they must please us. “Il faut plaire,” according to Flaubert, and one section of Stevens’s Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction is subtitled, “It Must Give Pleasure.” But what is aesthetic pleasure, and how does a text provide it? First by appealing to one or more of the five senses. Painting appeals to the visual sense, music to the auditory, and so forth. Texts first and foremost appeal to the auditory sense, and poetry in particular is designed to do this through verbal rhythm, the harmonious or artfully cacophonous placement of consonants and vowels, the changes in voice pitch and amplitude, and the management of semantic tone. Texts can also appeal to the other senses indirectly by finding verbal equivalents to, for example, visual information, as when Marvell speaks of “the fountain’s sliding foot,” or describes oranges hanging on an orange tree as “golden lamps in a green night.” Verbal analogues for visual experience are most effective (as in the preceding examples) when they use tropes, metaphors, or figurative language. Who can say why, but a release of surprise and pleasure occurs when the mind deciphers a metaphor and reconstructs the image that first imprinted itself the poet’s mind. Something like, “Oh, I never thought of that similarity, but how apt it is!” In the same way, a poem can find verbal equivalents for all the senses, and when these do seem accurate and fresh, the reader experiences an incidental or considerable uprush of delight.
To the auditory pleasure mentioned above could be added another, something we could call “visceral pleasure,” experienced by someone who reads a poem aloud. Vocal performance involves a large number of muscles, beginning with the diaphragmatic muscle that pushes air up the throat into the mouth and around tongue, teeth and lips to produce sounds we recognize as language. This aspect of verbal pleasure is available only to those who read aloud, which may be why we get an extra increment of pleasure when we perform, say, a poem by Hopkins, whose lines call for an unusual expenditure of articulate energy. The audience for such a performance may of course vicariously construct the visceral experience of the performer, but the construction stands at one remove; so it’s fair to say we haven’t received all a poem has to offer until we have read it aloud.
Works of art have to go beyond the purely physical or sensory domain, though, and appeal to the mind—to thinking, to emotion, to the information-seeking faculty, to reason, and to the irrational or dreamy part of the psyche. And verbal texts can do this more effectively than any other art form because their medium is language, and obviously language goes beyond simple sensation; it is inseparable from thought and from the interpretation of perceived events.
Texts appeal to the mind by representing events that are unusual or interpreted in unusual ways or brought to mind by word combinations that we have not heard before. At this point the instructive part of artworks enters in. A poem provides us with fresh “information” or access to experience. It seems to be innate with human beings that we hunger for new information, a profounder grasp of what is happens to us, a more nuanced reading of circumstance than the understandings we already possess, and a sharpened sense of how words behave and create meaning. Kinds of information may be exalted, as with religious vision or philosophical insight; but they may be less imposing than that. One of the strengths of English-language poetry after the Second World War was its use of autobiographical fact to make available to the reader kinds of experience not part of the familiar mainstream of middle-class life. Where marginalized groups were concerned, the conveying of fact, and feeling about fact, was useful in the task of self-definition for members of those groups and probably contributed to social progress in the form of legislation against discrimination based on class, race, gender, or sexual orientation or, again, to a more enlightened approach to treating the mentally ill or those whose childhood experience left psychological scars.
(An aside: to those objecting that legislators and Presidents don’t read poems, I submit that some of them do—Bill Clinton, for example, with whom I exchanged a couple of letters during his Administration. Furthermore, statesmen all follow the news. Journalists all read novels. And novelists read poetry, at least, all the novelists I’m acquainted with do so. An insight first brought to light in a poem can be adapted for fiction and may then strike a journalist as something that could be turned into a news story. And so on.)
The instructive content of poems is not of course always concerned with personal or social issues. We have many valuable poems dealing with scientific, or religious, or philosophical subjects. We have poems that help us to see the natural world more clearly and presumably to care more actively about its preservation from destruction. We have poems that shed new light on historical topics or geography or cities or on other works of art or illness or animals or psychology or sexual experience. We have poems that explore the dreamworld in a way that makes it valuable to waking life as well. We have poems that examine language itself in all its variety. The conveying of various kinds of new information and insight is part of what we expect from art, so that, when we don’t find it, we are disappointed, displeased.
That said, we can’t get past the truth that instruction is in itself not enough to make a good poem. There must also be pleasure. (Or pleasures: not only those described above, but others as well that I hope to touch on in later blogs.) As I survey the citations put at the beginning of these comments, I’d like to add another: Poets must instruct and delight. A poem that doesn’t instruct will fail to please; and a poem that doesn’t please will fail to instruct.