I thought about the purpose of poetry when I was reading W.H. Auden’s Collected Poems this evening.
Here is my definition of poetry: A kind of incantation or magical acoustic signature shaped by the human voice and ear, which binds together emotions and ideas and connects the reader to an envisioned reality. It gears the mind to focus, by attracting it to details, objects, and language through sound and meter, whether or not the reality the reader focuses on is a clear objectively described one, or a more metaphysical one that is derived from the reader’s private perceptions.
The “poem” gives us a human experience in a temporal form fed by our subconscious and the poet’s vision.
Compared to music, poetry goes deeper than music because poetry uses language, which, as problematic as language is at creating a verisimilitude that everyone can believe in, at least approximates a clear idea of a reality that the general reader can agree on, though the particular private details may be different.
Language is always a rather shifty affair, anyway, and it’s not poetry’s job to prove that language is true. Only, it must in that time and place, prove that this reality we are examining together is real enough that something new can be realised or learned from it.
After all, as Auden famously said, “I cannot be quite sure what I know, because words can not verify themselves.” It’s all context. How a word is used — and, more importantly for Auden, how it is sounded out by the voice, it’s tone — is the deciding factor in our interpretation of it.
Language — the stringing together of words to convey meanings, to be understood by as many people as possible to mean the same thing in each case — is like the grip of the tire on the asphalt as a spiritual car moves along the track of life.
Imagine ourselves as the driver of this car, at this particular time that the car is needed. Our hands on the metaphysical wheel, we trust that the tires get us to where we need to go in the manner best designed for the way we are driving.
If the car is a droptop roadster moving fast, then it affords us the clinging action we need to make it through g-forces. We can be circumspect when we need to. We can cut corners, in a quick conversation, because the meaning is implied. Our fellow conversant understands us. She is within our same context.
If it is a huge lorry in service to our cumbersome slog through work or domestic mundanity; if we need to explain rather hefty things, or static truths about reality, then our “language tires” offer us a firm platform and traction up hills and down gradients, as we slow down when necessary and put ourselves into lower gears to go at a pace that ensures no slippage.
Language is useful style and a tool. It is mostly tool in conversation and when looking for information.
But in poetry, it is mostly style, because the style is what gives ordinary things that would otherwise typically be described as commonplace a newer value. Style removes the normal from the normalcy of its existence and places it in the realm of art, where, if it is good, it can be transcendent and even immortal, and if it is bad, well, never mind.
In the end goal, style paints a new look for an old view and helps us see something particular about humanity that improves us and opens up our mind to a better idea of ourselves.
Applied to pattern or a rhythm like music, and tamed into the often-criticized formal structural elements of poetry, like meter, or rhyme, or “enjambment” language begins to focus emotions that deliver new meaning to everyday things.
A rabbit in the grass is no longer a rabbit in the grass. It is the symbol of our intrepid, but fearful heart, racing in our chest and fearful of danger as we plod forward a new course in our life.
An example, then…
In Auden’s poem, “The Watershed,” Auden depicts a young man in an abandoned coal town who is standing next to a watershed. The double entendre of this object is bewitching, and it’s hard to put down the idea that it’s not just a watershed hiding a pump room, in an old coal town that just doesn’t work anymore.
It is also a moment in one’s life where one encounters a change, a moment in history in one’s legacy that shaped oneself.
The first line is gloriously ambiguous. What is meant by crux. What is meant by “left of the watershed?” Does it mean simply that the crux is a channel next to the watershed. Or does it mean, when one is fully immersed in the decision making moment choosing between two important things at a momentous occasion?
Is the crux “left of the watershed” literally on the left of the watershed? Or, does Auden mean that it’s left over from some time? So, this is the moment after the watershed moment? Let’s look at the lines.
“Who stands, the crux left of the water watershed,
On the wet road between the chafing grass
Below him sees dismantled washing -floors,
Snatches of tramline running to a wood,
An industry already comatose,
Yet sparsely living…”
I love it! So, who is the who? It’s the reader and it’s the poet. It’s a stand in. What makes this poem so remarkable is that it’s a description of a moment, but every line is also a sonic and imagistic encounter with Auden’s philosophy or writing at this time in his career, just after Oxford, where he had felt stifled and juvenile, surrounded by peers, and peerage, trying to sow his wild homosexual oats, but getting nowhere, really.
In the next few months he will embark on a playboy lifestyle in a teetering pre-WW2 Berlin with Stephen Spender and Christopher Isherwood. So much of Auden’s poetry is deeply private and personal, but it doesn’t matter, because so much of Auden’s poetry is deeply ambiguous and vulnerable to our own engagement with its heady (available) interpretation.
So here we have a young man who witnesses the objects and culture of his earlier youth. Auden, as a boy, found particular delight more in machines than in people. For him, objects and machinery held spiritual energy. They were encounters with meaning, but also a kind of perfect objective world of things that were not just symbols of industry but things in and of themselves that possessed a radiance that was less than remarkable but just remarkable enough to be memorable.
Here, the poet is looking down on these things, perhaps on a hill that he has reached through some effort. Metaphorically, this is a looking back at a place, a time and a series of objects that no longer work for him as conveyors of meaning and importance, save for standing as icons of a past that shaped him.
Why is this important as we compare what photography does to what poetry does? Well, with photography, we have an iconic snap of an object, preserving it for legacy. But what we do not have is the bridge of language. Images can connect us to a time and place, but rarely can they connect us to a specific philosophical decision. Poetry is needed for that, because in a decision is logic. Poetry is logic. Because poetry is language. Language is inherent logic parsing.
The natural course in poetry is to follow the Romantics legacy with language — to see in nature all the symbols of spirit and the ideals of man and to use that logic, and its music, to connect the symbols with the ideal. This is the world of Yeats, and Blake, and John Keats. But the elements Auden would derive from that connection don’t seem to come in this poem. We do not see a spanning of the chasm between the poet, his feeling, and the feelings and symbolism inherent in the objects.
Auden describes the objects, but doesn’t really give them meaning. Instead, he takes a rather nuanced incantatory approach, by addressing the reader, and himself, at the same time.
“Go home, now, stranger, proud of your young stock,
Stranger, turn back again, frustrate and vexed:
This land, cut off, will not communicate,”
The land is cut off and “will not communicate” because the land itself is not imbued with meaning. There is nothing there. There is language, and the poet is now aware that how he chooses to use that language is what will give this whole thing meaning. I sense that what is happening here with the self in the poem is that the self / the poet anticipated that somehow this countryside woudl speak to him, and heft on his shoulders a certain ermine of lordship. That the countryside and his past would give him a “peerage” of his own, to to speak and like the crowds laying down palm leaves in front of Jesus, the countryside of his birth would itself give respect and honor and a transformation to the poet.
But it turns out, only the poet can do that. It’s literally all in his head.
A decision has been made by the speaker to leave all of this behind, then, but for what? There is nothing for him, going home. That’s just his parent’s house and his parents, and who wants to be like them, anyway?
There is no love partner waiting while he is out contemplating his existence and where he fits among the detritus of an old broken society or surrounded by mute, uncaring nature, because Auden hasn’t grown up yet, and has not fully tested the mettle of his heart. He’s had rejections and half loves. Something still must be done:
“Beams from your car may cross a bedroom wall,
They wake no sleeper; you may hear the wind
Arriving driven from the ignorant sea
To hurt itself on pane, on bark of elm
Where sap unbaffled rises, being spring:”
Nature has its own course, doesn’t question, only exists. It has no choices to make. Machines have their own unpassable time.
This human speaker does all the work, but hasn’t done the work.
We don’t know really what choice he will make, and perhaps this is the frustration or even the beauty of the poem. Here in this moment near the watershed, we sense only anticipation and an unnamed, or unshaped consequence, but a choice has to be made, since neither old life nor nature can offer him anything.
The poem ends:
“Near you, taller than grass,
Ears poise before decision, scenting danger.”
Those ears, alert, waiting to hear, trained on danger. Observation has brought us to a decision point and a conclusive exemplar of the poet — always at a watershed, life ruined around him, ears pricked, senses focused, receiving a message none of us mortals can divine.
Having made the choice, he can not realise the consequence yet, but all he can sense is the danger of all that he has avoided before. That should be enough, then.
And we are left waiting, in a rather titillating way, to know more. It is the absence of the answer that leaves us more deeply imprinted with the sense that it is only the poet who can give us this.
This particular poet does not believe that he can construct a reality through artifice that we can believe in wholesale. He is all too aware that language fails at being a constructor of reality, but that it can certainly point us down the road. The poet can guide us to a place of hearing it out, sounding it out, feeling it with our own senses, so that is is something that is ours and not just the writer’s.
Where photography captures reality in the light of a moment, poetry casts a spell that puts us at one with our senses, in whatever reality we are in. It is much better than a Polaroid. It is an endless Polaroid that changes its mood but never forgets the environment. It is a portable history in our head, filtered by emotions and experience.
For that, we should be pretty grateful. Not even reality can do that.