Sunday, 9 May 2010

I Want Facts and Figures

When does a poem end? You finish a poem, and then you revise it endlessly until… you stop. Why do you stop, at that moment? Tell me, what criteria do you use?

How do you judge a poem.... In attempting to answer this question I suggest a short lyric is more complicated that the Olympic Stadium. What can I be saying?

Sometimes a question highlights its own absurdity, while exposing the erroneous assumptions that lie underneath it. 

Poems, like so many things in life, are almost impossible to evaluate using rational criteria. Much is unknown, much is hard to reduce to coherent analysis – emotions, moral judgements, values etc cannot be grounded on rational proofs. And where reason is useful reality can often be too complex for absolute certainty: facts and values all mixed up; while memories and history, culture and the unknown future, all throw sand in our eyes. Go on, work it out rationally. Often I can’t. Not even for a poem, which, especially a short lyric, is a simple thing. It escapes easy evaluation – we rely on our senses, the internal eye, a certain atmosphere. In short, we not so much evaluate but divine a poem’s quality.

I don’t have an answer as to why this should be so. Everyone will know when the Olympic stadium is finished, yet I cannot predict when a poem will end. And when I think it is finished, later I may change my mind. What criteria am I using?

It suggests there are two incommensurable worlds: the rational and non-rational, both with their own ways of knowing and judging. (The genesis of a scientific idea or artwork is something else – the creative inspiration appears to be the same in both cases.) The former based on order and regularity, on quantitative procedures, and on a relatively small number of agreed facts. The latter has none of these. Yet it makes its own judgements albeit ones that are difficult to write down, or to define precisely. It is feel, sensitivity, a feeling for form, a receptivity to a kind of energy (dormant in the artwork). And this understanding can be shared, just like scientific judgements, across wide time spans and continents – Homer, Racine, Hokusai, Shakespeare… Although there is a lot more variation: great artists tend to swim into and out of view.

So, a criteria that is difficult to define, but which is very strong, and universal, within a limited realm – to be a scientist is to be a member of a minority, because of the difficulty of the subject, its technical mastery. Likewise the best critics, and artists, tend to live on small islands. They have a certain sensitivity and feel, usually accompanied by deep and wide reading – their opinions, and their senses, are educated and informed.

So how do we judge a poem? Was Pasternak right, was it life, in the widest most richest sense? Maybe. There is certainly something to this view: art, after all, is an attempt to capture the essence of life. Where science reduces an object (say a cake) to its ingredients, to discover the connections, to understand the processes of its creation, art takes small slices – to capture all of the cake in that one piece. In life there are universals, like the cake’s taste, and art, perhaps, is one means of finding them. But just as we cannot judge a cake merely by intellectual standards (except when they’re very bad indeed – eg visible mould on the icing), but must rely on our senses, so it is with art.

But the criteria? The feeling we have that it is right! And we know, instinctively, because of the force of that feeling, often accompanied by small epiphanies. There is something absolute about aesthetic feelings (and the judgements that arise from them). Truth and a feeling for right form the two criteria in these different realms? And underlying these is there perhaps a force, which we let out in our discovery? Henry James talked of vibrations, when affected by art or literature. Francis Bacon describes a visit to a gallery as a means of sparking off energy. While Pasternak seems always to talk of force and intensity when he talks of a poem. And here is Gulley Jimson in front of his own masterpiece:

But my head was blowing off like a champagne cork. I forgot myself. I gave myself a smack on the top and I took Coker by the arm. ‘You’re a friend of mine, Cokey, and I’ll you what I never told anyone before….I’m a genius.’ ‘So you said yesterday.’ That was because I didn’t really believe it. Now I know. And I’m not only a genius, I’m an artist. A son of Los….(quotes Blake at length)…
‘You haven’t got six thousand years this afternoon.’ ‘Half a minute of Revelation is worth a million years of know nothing… I’ll show you how to look at a picture, Cokey. Don’t look at it. Feel it with your eye… And first you feel the shapes in the flat – the patterns like a carpet… And then you feel it in the round… Not as if it were a picture of anyone, but a coloured and raised map. You feel all the rounds, the smooths, the sharp edges, the flats and the hollows, the lights and shades, the cools and warms. The colours and textures. There’s hundreds of little differences fitting in all together… And then you feel the bath, the chair, the towel, the carpet, the bed, the jug, the window, the fields and the woman as themselves. But not as any old jug and woman. But the jug of jugs and the woman of women. You feel jugs are like that and you never knew it before. Jugs and chairs can be very expressive…. (more Blake)….
…. it means a jug can be a door if you open it. And a work of imagination opens it for you. And then you feel with all the women that ever lived and all the women that are ever going to live, and you feel their feeling while they are alone with themselves – in some chosen private place, bathing, drying, dressing, criticizing, touching, admiring themselves safe behind locked doors. Nothing there but women’s feeling and woman’s beauty and critical eye… ‘Why do you want to teach me?’ ‘I’m trying to teach you a big happiness.’

And the mind, where does the mind come in? It’s in there. But I ask you what is consciousness? What is rationality? Of course, there’s instrumental rationality, our 9 – 5 workaday mind, concerned with ends and means, the final product. But our minds are bigger than that. Too big for me, today.

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