Wednesday, March 17, 1999

Vivek Narayanan: Some Poetry FAQ Yous

1. Poetry is not a genre. It is a toolkit, a set of operations on words.

2. While it may serve a practical purpose to treat poetry as if it were something outside of us, we ought to never forget, and never be afraid of, the fact that poetry is a human invention. As a result, the reigning divisions between poetry and prose mirror the reigning divisions of duties, the powers of the separate assemblies, in our civilization, at any given time; and the function, identity, possibilities and limitations of poetry change and stay exactly the same to the exact extent, and in the same way, that the human stays the same and changes.

I am not saying that the distinction between prose and poetry is a bad thing, and certainly not that it can be wished away, but merely that it belongs to us.

3. The only way to keep a tradition alive is through innovation. History bears this out. We may talk of the value and solace of repetition, but when looked at closely, this is only in a manner of speaking.

4. The heart is not an outmoded emblem in poetry because poetry has something to do with the pulsing of blood. "The steep encroachments of my blood... / ... whose pulse I hear, counting the strokes / My veins recall and add, revived and sure / The angelus of wars my chest evokes..." (Hart Crane.)

5. I personally see no reason to abandon the spiritual quality and claim of poetry at precisely the historical moment when, freed from high-priestly authority and mass organisation, the spirit is finally ready to make a new contract with matter.

6. The only true friendship is between poetry and ethics: it outlasts the squabbles, the petty jealousies, the breakups. Politics never really gave a damn about poetry, but because politics means to be the institution of ethics, and because politics arrives with the worldly air of a man who is going to put his money where his mouth is, ethics and poetry put their faith in politics. But, as everyone knows, the only thing that politics is capable of properly instituting is politics. Politics, in most of the instances I can think of, betrays the wishes of poetry. Wounded, perhaps bitter, poetry seeks shelter in the sad apartment of ethics. The two watch the victory parade from their balcony.

7. There has to be a certain degree of clarity in a poem to make the irrational in it powerful.

8. Poetry and philosophy are safeguards against each other. Philosophy begins where poetry ends, and poetry, where philosophy ends. For this very reason, it is of vital importance that they play on opposing teams, but for this very reason, neither is possible without the other, and each must contain the grain of the other to be real. Warning to self: these are fine distinctions that must be lived and not spoken of, because if I dare to pronounce on exactly where poetry begins and philosophy ends, or vice versa, then I may lose sight of both in the bargain.

9. Poetry is thought, no doubt about it and I will take on anyone who wants to argue otherwise, but poetry is also the attempt to use language to reach the source of a thought, in the brain or in the central nervous system, where it is indistinguishable from emotion, rhythm, habit or reaction: poetry is nothing if not holism.

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