Monday, April 18, 2011

What the Chairman told Tom-the value of poetry

You can read the poem here

Finally a copy of Tom Pickard’s “More Pricks than Prizes” of which more later. And a very enjoyable rainy afternoon reading it. I assume, probably incorrectly, that he is the Tom in Bunting’s “What the Chairman told Tom”.

Anyone who is interested in poetry has met the Chairman at some stage. Part of the fun of the poem is the sense of revenge. His ignorant dismissal of the art and its practitioners, his self appointed status as judge of the merits of not only Tom’s work but of his person, is justly ridiculed. But lurking in the joke is an unanswered question: Why should the Chairman care for Poetry?

As far as I know Bunting never answered that explicitly. He offered possible, partial statements at different stages of his life about “the value of poetry” but he seems to have avoided the temptation (if he ever saw it as such) to be as emphatic as either Pound or Eliot on the subject. (if anyone can correct me on this please do).

There’s a paradox in the writing of the latter two on the subject. It’s partly an inability to reconcile two contradictory ideas about poetry and poets: the inheritance of Shelley’s over inflated waffle which elevated THE POET to a position of supreme human preeminence, and their own rigorously argued belief that the duty of the poet, as a poet, is to the poem. From the latter it might logically follow that the purpose of writing poetry is to write a good poem and as Pound said the public can (and will) do what it wants with the end product. There is the art, and there is its value in the market place, and Pound’s insistence was that one does not define the other. Discussing the function of poetry, Eliot takes it for granted that the primary function of poetry is to give the reader the pleasure that only poetry can give.

But to leave it there meant stepping down from the silly Post Shelley idea of the poet as someone of crucial importance and neither Eliot nor Pound seemed to lack a sense of their own cultural and historical significance. Rather than make claims for “The Poet”, they both made claims for the social, cultural, historical and linguistic importance of “Poetry” which implicitly elevates the poet and affirms his [sic] value. That their claims were untenable hasn’t stopped successive generations from repeating them, and acting as though they were empirical facts. They have fortified the Evangelists ever since.

Poetry is an art, and there are numerous art forms. It gives pleasure and it entertains. It offers a pleasure and a form of entertainment that are all its own. Not stand up comedy, nor song nor drama. But if you’re not entertained, and it doesn’t give you pleasure, that doesn’t mean you’re unrefined or in need of remedial help.

The chairman’s mistake, in the poem, is to assume knowledge and expertise where he has none. He sounds like those “experts” on education who are experts because they once went to school. And his arrogance, and his fault, is to bolster his self-importance by denigrating something he doesn’t understand. ANd he is justifiably ridiculed.

On the other hand the Poetry evangelicals behave as though they need to convert the benighted masses, if the world is to be saved. Like Eliot and Pound, they make claims for the importance of an abstracted “Poetry” that is far beyond the reality and capabilities of poems and their producers. Because they like “Poetry”, they feel they are an elect, and that everyone else should like it (and preferably the poems and poets they like as well. The evangelicals are nothing if not clubby). But if the Chairman is arrogant in his dismissal of poetry, it seems equally arrogant to act from the belief that there is something fundamentally wrong or ill educated with someone who doesn’t like your favorite art form.

Entertainment and pleasure have negative connotations; they can sound selfish and trivial. But ‘entertainment’ doesn’t have to be mindless and pleasure doesn’t have to be selfish, or self centred or trivial . If you’ve ever used an art to entertain anyone, ever created something which has given a stranger pleasure, you know there’s nothing trivial in the process. It’s hard work.

The final paradox of the poem is the last line. “Go and find work”. Poetry doesn’t pay. It won’t feed the family. It’s not work in the form of paid labor. However, as Bunting knew, and as Pound kept insisting, Poetry is not a hobby, but work. It requires “sharp study and long toil”.
But that doesn’t mean anyone owes you a living while you’re doing it.

Q: Why should the Chairman like poetry?
A: There’s no reason.
Q: Why should he care for poetry.
A: No reason.

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