Sunday, September 4, 2011

What is a poem?

‘Poetry is a verdict not an occupation’ or in the words of Pierre Bourdieu (1993. P.35): ‘The work of art is an object which exists as such only by virtue of the (collective) belief which knows and acknowledges it as a work of art’.

This is true of all arts, but poetry is unusual in that in the 21st century, not only does the writer have to negotiate critical judgements imposed by others who may not share his or her poetics, but writing a poem does not necessarily allow him or her to claim the title of Poet, and writing a poem does not necessarily mean he or she is producing Poetry.

The writing is nothing more than raw material, an offering to be ignored or taken up by the machinery of legitimization, whose patronage is based on numerous factors, none of them the value of the writing because it has no intrinsic value to anyone other than its writer, neither commercial nor cultural, outside the process.

It is simply scribble until it has been recognized by those with the authority to recognize it as a poem and then transformed into ‘poetry’ by the process of publication, review, critical reception, academic commentary and consecration: the process of institutionalization that characterizes the discourse of Poetry.

The value of the writing depends entirely on its acceptance into this discourse, and the fact that it is recognized or accepted first as a poem and then treated accordingly. The limitations of its stand alone value are easily seen from the reader or critic’s perspective in Fish’s ‘How to Recognize a poem when you see one’ (Fish 1980), and Richards’ discussion of his “Protocols” (Richards 1929). From the writer’s perspective in the often incomprehensible process where a poem, rejected by one journal is published by another and in the practice of some editors who accept the submission and then feel free to change the words on the page before publication without consulting the writer or even as a condition of publication.

The field exerts its own gravitational force, bending the trajectory of self-editing towards a finished product that will be more likely to have a chance of being accepted. The writer is constantly being told to study the market, read the journal before submitting etc. But even then there is no guarantee; most writers have looked at journals that have rejected their work and wondered why the pieces in the journal were accepted. However, as a writer there is little one can do about this process except accept it as a fact of life or become an editor or publisher.