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Monday, 10 September 2007

Ideas In Poetry?

Much has been made, in the 21st century, in Britain, of the intersection of
"Science" and "Poetry".
Any number of known mainstream British poets are interested in science, the environment, and rational thought. Images and ideas gleaned from physics, math, and genetic science are interwoven into the writing of some of the best poems of respected, serious poets. Poets are expressively engaged with the dialogue between the varied fields of art, and science. Anthologies, books and collections of essays have begun to be published, studying, or at least discussing, how it may be that poetry can fruitfully interlink with the rational, intelligent progress of human "civilisation".

What, then, is the link, if any, between an idea, and a poem? In economic terms, what is the value added, by an idea, to a poem?

There is a rude fascinating paradox at the heart of these genuine questions - on the one hand, without a governing idea, or set of ideas, a poem (or text for some) can become merely vague, even lost, in something like pure language (or nonsense for some), So, some sense seems needed. But sense is not an idea, it is merely coherent argument. Ideas, in poetry, as in general life, can be good, or bad.

Let us consider a Cholera epidemic. The idea that the disease might be spread by a contaminated water supply is a good idea, in that, medically speaking, it is verifiable, and, if acted on, can save lives (by finding a new source of uncontaminated water).

Poetry doesn't work like that. Yeats had many "silly" ideas, Auden tells us, about gyres and history, and the occult, that seem outdated and basically useless. Auden's ideas, strained through Marx and Freud are of historic interest, but are not entirely sound, today. Wallace Stevens had ideas about the imagination that may not be correct. Claudel, too, had offensive political ideas, as did Pound. No banker using Pound's economic ideas would get a City Bonus in 2007. In short, the ideas contained in poems cannot be used to cure people of disease, or plan or man trajectories to any planet, cooling or otherwise. But, these poets wrote great poems. Poems may play with, elucidate, explore, or dance around, ideas, but they do not, in themselves, constitute ideas.

Poems, in short, are not ideas, but things.

And yet, poets, being human, sometimes have ideas. Where to put them? It would be a strange poet, indeed, who never considered introducing a poem to an idea. The odd thing is, it seems apparent that, it doesn't matter what the idea is, in terms of the success of the poem, so long as the idea is strongly-held, and presents a rich field of symbolic possibility. Ideas, as far as poetry goes, are interchangeable, so long as they add interesting words, and allow the mind, and emotion, to enter into those words, charging them with vitality.

So is it the case, then, that ideas are a delivery system for whatever it is - the green fuse? - that keeps poems moving, long enough for them to succeed. In this way, poems are (metaphorically?) like strands of DNA - facilitators that aid in the continuation of some greater, living thing. Just another idea, of course.

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