We interrupt our normal Thursday WiP Day (decorating my daughter’s bedroom in lieu of actual work) for an important question from the lovely people at The Poetry Society:
If you put a pile of straws in an art gallery, does that make it art? When we went to New York a couple of summers ago, that was the question my daughter threw at me after we saw just that in the Museum of Modern Art. There were cardboard boxes too, arranged as buildings, random shapes that made little sense to her. Only a few pictures were on the walls that might be considered as ‘conventional’ in their approach. ‘Perth Amboy’ was an exhibition that started a dialogue I’ve had many times with others, but never a family member. My conclusion was straightforward.
If you present something as art, it’s art.
So, if that’s the case, why do I feel the need to disagree in this poll?
There was an extremely interesting exhibition in London a while back, which I went to see with a friend, on the back of an unrelated talk about early photographic pioneers. This told of how the Victorians, in a position of relative affluence and security as a dominant societal force in the late 1800’s began to look back to Renaissance art as inspiration, reviving works of artists which had, in many cases, simply been lost to the march of time. Because enough people decided something was worth remembering, it happened.
That’s why William Carlos William’s poem becomes important: it’s less about the actual words themselves, more around the context in which they have now been placed by those who have come after.
How many people were poets between 1883 and 1963? How do we define them as such: did they need to have been published at the time? Is it important that their work was linked to world events (such as the World War One poets) or that their work has become famous through the dissemination of their craft in academia? Could there be other W.S Graham’s out there, whose work is only widely known because of what took place after their death? Is it the words that create poems, or the containers we place them in?
Many of my friends will tell you that ‘real’ poetry has to rhyme, because that’s the only way you truly understand that it isn’t prose. Except subjectivity is the bigger issue at play. What one person hears as poetry might be somebody else’s noise, or poor attempt at being clever. It’s why the straws in Rachel Harrison’s exhibition might draw derision from those who don’t grasp the importance of expression in this equation. It is the step between ignorance and enlightenment that a famous Hans Christian Anderson fairy story so elegantly exploits.
When the small boy is the only one to admit he sees the king in nothing at all, he’s the part of our brain admitting that what other people grasp as truth is as much dictated by the collective mindset than it ever is of actual fact. Poetry, in essence, is storytelling, and how you choose to do that has been strictly defined since the Greeks assigned three muses to deal with particular branches of poetry. The key to understanding why poems ought to be a certain way therefore could be less about how they sound, and more about how they’re built.
Humanity loves definition, because without this structure… well, lots of people feel uncomfortable. It’s part of your social contract, in essence: in exchange for allowing people to take away a portion of your basic liberty to allow co-existence with everything else, there’s a measure of acceptable definition. It’s why me being able to type ‘I am bisexual’ into a sentence might seem a really pointless diversion to daily life, but being able to pronounce this without fear continues to be a huge deal.
It is the incredibly subtle combination of expression and labelling which makes poetry poetry, an ability to express without fear or recrimination, an outlet for pure, unadulterated creativity. The more ‘experimental’ poetry becomes, the more difficult it becomes for those whose lives are defined by structure and definition to grasp… except these writers understand how words work. It is abundantly apparent they have learnt the basic skills of verbal communication to begin with.
It’s a rite of passage for anyone who feels prose is never enough as expression.
The reason why I disagreed with the initial comment is two-fold: some works that others present me as poetry I disagree with, because when it is read I cannot discern a poetic voice. In most cases, there’s a distinct disassociation that takes place: it is entirely possible that my unique mental makeup is to blame. Only by writing what I feel is poetry has it been possible to create anything that sounds like other things that have been read, and that is subsequently accepted as poetry.
Secondly, and most crucially, to be the best artist you can be, there really ought to be a nod to experience and history in training and progression. How much should poetic past inhibit the future? Is it right to define poetry in the more rigid formats? Do we need modern day versions of ancient texts to truly understand what is written, or should these forms of communication only ever be acknowledged as part of a past long dead and irrelevant?
If the container in which a piece of work is placed is marked ‘poetry’ it is up to us to respect the wishes and desires of the person who provides that packaging. Then, it is up to us as adults to either accept that, or provide reasoned or articulate rejection of the claim. In essence, this is what happens every time I send a poem off to a contest or an award: somebody else, based on their definitions, decides whether my work is the ‘poetry’ they wish to consign to history or not via publication.
The second reason why I disagreed is more significant: the choice isn’t mine to make. It could be argued that simply being presented as a poem is not enough. If the question had been ‘if it’s PUBLISHED as a poem, it’s a poem’ then there’d be no hesitation in saying yes. Sometimes, as poets, we don’t get the choice to be remembered. That decision is passed to others, whose definitions may never mesh or overlap with our own. In those cases, I could scatter the Scrabble letters across the board and present the same image above, and if someone published it…?
My legacy is a moment of madness that someone else defines as genius.