Friday, December 4, 2009

Poetry, Aesthetic and Moral

Though I went again to New York this month and again engaged in pursuits that might be interesting to report here, to vary the texture of the blog I think I will focus instead on an article by D.H Tracy in the current (December 2009) Poetry. In his essay, titled "The Moral and Aesthetic, Recently," Tracy is taking up the issue of aesthetics and ethical content in poetry, his point of departure, poems by Frederick Seidel and Robert Hass, but also citing poems by Adam Kirsch, Anne Winters, and one of mine titled "Coventry."

The ethical aspect of poetry, its role in shaping character, was considered a given in the classical period, but Tracy believes it didn't resurface in the Western tradition until Shaftesbury. I think it comes earlier, explicitly in Jonson, who spoke of "the impossibility of a man's being a good poet without having first been a good man." Nor can the ethical aims of 17th century religious poets like Donne, Milton, Crashaw, Vaughan and Herbert be overlooked. But perhaps Tracy is referring to critics, not poets, when he makes this observation. (Incidentally, I've read articles by Tracy for several years now and find him one of the best of the younger critics, well read in the tradition, judicious, and in command of an elegant and elevated prose style.)

So then does poetry have an ethical dimension that is at one with its aesthetic nature? I see no reason why it can't. Begin by observing that "aesthetic" derives from Latin and Greek aisthesis, which simply means "sensation." An anesthetic is a chemical that deprives you of all sensation, especially pain. Yet an art that consists solely of pleasurable sensation is experienced as somehow lacking, at least, by most readers. "Oh, for a life of sensation rather than thoughts," Keats exclaimed in one of his letters. But he never attained to that, and we're glad he didn't. What he did attain was a poetry filled with sensations, but, in addition, thoughts a-plenty, so that he is immeasurably more than the figure Yeats imagined as a young man with his nose pressed against a sweetshop window.

By the late 19th century the battle lines were drawn on this question, with Arnold on one side claiming an ethical role for poetry, which he called "a criticism of life," and on the other, the Esthetic School, notably Pater, Wilde, and George Moore, who argued that art had no obligations to fulfill, no social function to perform, except to embody to perfection the canons of art itself. This view has been epitomized as "Ars gratia artis," a post-classical Latin tag coopted with enormous economic irony by MGM Pictures. Closely examined, though, the phrase "art for art's sake" has almost no meaning. It is quickly deconstructed, beginning with the notion that art is a conscious entity, separate from human subjects, a Platonic Idea that expects things to be done for its sake. Art is made for people, not for Art, whoever he might be; and people have many needs and expectations, including the desire that the import of experience be clarified so that human beings are given the insights and means to choose more vitally and effectively.

But a poetry that consists of a series of commandments hasn't generally won an audience of adherents. It is almost true that, given modern habits of self-assertion and antinomianism, bald injunctions demanding good behavior are likely to be met with anger and negative obedience. Hence the recommendation that we avoid "didactic" poetry, often phrased in reviews as a sneer at "preaching." We might also recall that a culture's sense of "good behavior" changes over time and that much of what might be praised as good behavior in 1859 would now be ridiculed or despised. I sense that even Marianne Moore doubted she'd got away with the line, "So he who strongly feels, behaves."

On the other hand, we believe Flannery O'Connor means it when she says that for her art is best when "the author's moral sense coincides with his aesthetic sense." What she doesn't tell us is how to manage this, I mean, apart from the implicit lesson of her fiction itself. One clue might be Willliams's "No ideas but in things," which can be revised for our context here as, "No moral insights detached from observation and sensation." Ethical inferences must be arrived at after considerable observation, the resulting emotions, and then reflection on them; if presented to us pre-cooked, we are likely not to accept ethical directives. All the more, considering that these are most likely going to cost us something, maybe our very lives. (Or the ethics we arrive at may, on the contrary, help us realize we've been wasting our lives in a pointless, destructive conformity to moral norms we don't actually believe in.) Anyway, we like to feel that the author didn't begin with a priori moralities, but arrived at them after undergoing a series of direct, concrete experiences, their significance, and significance for decision, emerging only gradually. "In dreams begin responsibilities," according to Rilke. If the poem is insufficiently perceived and dreamt, it might not lead us toward any sense of responsibility--indeed, may (if only temporarily) turn us against any sense of obligation at all.

As for the poem "Coventry," I'm not certain that it has any persuasive ethical power; I don't know how I would go about determining whether it did. But since Tracy's article appeared, I've had queries about it, especially among my Facebook friends, who are intrigued by the excerpt and interested to see the whole poem. Which, meanwhile, is found in a book (titled Autobiographies)now out of print. Given that I control the rights to it, I've decided to make the poem available--along with the (ethical) request that no one circulate it without asking permission. There is one more reason: the excerpt quoted by Tracy in has a couple of errors. These are minor, but of course for poets, "God is in the details," and we always insist that the text be printed as we wrote it. See below.


COVENTRY

Even if not sent there, some would go
just to visit a byword for banishment, or
nod and smile at Tudor cottages
verifying their age among highways
athrottle with the local Jaguar—
nine centuries ago the route of (do
they know for certain?) Godiva’s midday ride
through narrow, cobbled streets. Still there, and nude,
a statue on a civic pedestal,
she serves as patron for the recent mall.

St. Michael’s ruin has no plans to recover
from the blitzkrieg fires of 1940,
visibly content with its roof of sky,
a brownstone sheepfold with fence of ogives,
tracery drained of blood-red or river-
blue glass. A few steps north, in autumn sun,
the adjunct modernist cathedral proves
by inscription that Britten’s sharp baton
rode lightly above the War Requiem
as, borrowing the tenor of Peter Pears,

Wilfred Owen back from the fields of France
grafted his words onto the older hymn
under the eyes of a merciful giant.
The clash of arms turned music of the spheres
to counteract a deadly expedient
how many thousands now cannot denounce.
Black swallows rise and circle as bells chime
the congregants inside at Evensong,
as if war’d been a roughhewn cornerstone
in the edifice of Common Market peace.

Et lux perpetua luceat eis:
Owen, Britten, Pears, all three moved out
of earshot to that other Coventry,
attendants of the blessed lady, prompted
perhaps by music’s blinding insights. Is it
because an icon forfeits all privacy
that every bystander at last is tempted,
eye at keyhole or shutter?—this means you,
Peeping Tom, and I, and you, oh,
on fire to see the last thing we will ever see.

(1991)

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