Meny Stäng

A Defence of Poetry: Speech 2005 at Poetry International Festival in Rotterdam

Av Lars Gustafsson

Lars Gustafsson. Foto: Suz.
Lars Gustafsson. Foto: Suz.

It is clearly a very great honour to be asked to deliver the traditional defence of poetry this year. For me this invitation has a special significance as I actually took part in the very first Rotterdam Festival and have seen this important European cultural event grow from a rather humble beginning to its present importance. A defence of poetry is what you are expecting. The task doesn’t seem however quite so simple.

What shall be defended against what?

The two questions which pose themselves are:
1. What is it which should be defended?
2. And against what?
Here we have an equation with two open – yes, indeed, wide open – variables.
I shall do my best to give them definition.

There are many sorts of poetry and I’m not at all certain that I want to defend them all. Poems can have very different contents. Some of them, if not actually the majority, are much too bad to be of interest to us. One might even be able to claim that such a thing as a half-good or a rather good poem, doesn’t exist. Poems, and I shall return to this point, seem to me to be a sort of intellectual operation which only can succeed or fail. It is not only that there are bad poems, there are also unpleasant poems which we would rather see erased from the surface of the earth. Of course I am primarily thinking of political agitation. But he who searches will of course find more than that. All religious poetry is not innocent, and he who lifts one stone or another in European modernism will find that some pretty remarkable insects can live under it. What do we do with Marinetti?

Obviously the concept ‘poetry’ is much too general for anyone to be able to defend it. So let us try to clarify the concept!

It is not in all its appearances that poetry is worth defending, but only in a core sense. It is the hard core that interests us. The vague periphery which surrounds this hard core – in Swedish we sometimes use to call it ‘centrallyrik’ – is something which I shall not go into.

Does poetry, understood in this sense, as that which is central in poetry, the successful poetic operation, really need to be defended? And if so, against whom? Where are the fiendish forces which might threaten poetry?

And, assuming that they really existed, would they not have been successful long ago? Isn’t the fact that we have gathered for the thirty-sixth time to open a new Poetry International in Rotterdam a proof as good as any that poetry hardly needs defending? Similar to mathematics, poetry seems to me quite able to take care of itself.

A comparison would not be uninteresting. Similar to poetry, mathematics is a very old, exclusive and obviously indispensable part of human culture. Mathematics can be used for almost any task, from completing tax returns to measuring the age of the universe, and everything in between. It is not always popular, because it is exclusive and not quite easy to learn. It is admired for its beauty, and insofar as it is mathematics, it does not express any opinions of its own. It is difficult to tell where it actually takes place, in the physical world, in our minds, or in a world beyond time and space. Its obviously infinite ability to expand exerts an enormous attraction. Mathematics, in all but its most primitive forms, is not part of popular culture. Mathematical papers are published in journals which would always operate at a loss if they were not supported by various sources; and exponential success for a mathematical result does not mean reaching a broad public, but recognition from those who read mathematical publications. Of course sometimes there is a general public for mathematics: the logorhythmic tables might be a good example, before minicalculators conquered the market. But a broad audience has nothing to do with success in mathematics.

Poetry seen as a fundamental part of human existence seems to have interesting similarities with mathematics, but also differences.

From my childhood I remember the almost palpable dislike which surrounded poetry. A trace of that stigma which surrounded poetry, and especially the idea of writing poetry, is something I can still feel. When friendly and talkative taxi drivers ask me about my profession, I always prefer to tell them that I have spent the last twenty years teaching philosophy at an American university.

Mathematicians have told me that they have a similar experience. They have a strong feeling that presenting yourself as a mathematician is a conversation stopper. People don’t quite know what to do with such a piece of information. The poet can often experience similar situations. The poetic and the poet works as an obstacle to communication rather than as a means to it.

Are the reasons the same? Maybe partially. To say “I am a mathematician” or “I am a poet” are pretentious claims. How are they pretentious? In a sort of claim to quality.

But somewhere here the comparison ends. A mathematical result cannot be in principle difficult to judge. Either it is valid or it is not valid. To present something as a poem is pretentious. But not quite in the same way. There is no generally accepted procedure for deciding whether a poem really is a poem or only pretends to be a poem. There are of course acts of recognition. What is more frequent than to realize that a poem is a great poem without quite being able to explain why? Sometimes the greatness of a poem can even seem mysterious. As is the case with Goethe’s “Über allen Gipfeln”.

Similar to some other words, such as ‘natural,’ ‘animal’, ‘European’, the word ‘poem’ has a double meaning. All the words I have mentioned can be understood in two different ways: normatively or descriptively. Man is an animal but is not permitted to behave in an animal way. Everything he does belongs to nature, but still some acts of man are described as unnatural. Nomads from the Turne Valley and seal hunters from Greenland are, from a neutral descriptive perspective, European. But normally they are not invited to prestigious colloquia dealing with the political and cultural unity of Europe. In such a context ‘European’ becomes a value statement, connected with cathedrals, decoratively folded napkins and the fables of La Fontaine.

In the same way the word poem can be used for anything which looks like a poem: for chants, national anthems, and the more or less witty verses which are found in advertising, but also exclusively reserved for a successful speech act which has done or does something to our experience.

An interesting property of poems is that great popularity or great usefulness has nothing to do with poetic value. Are there any more pointless poetical texts than our most frequently heard national anthems? They make even third-class ‘hit songs’ appear to be new and interesting.

Just as hamburger joints and favourite swimming holes, these acquire an affective value as the years pass – a sentimental, or in extreme cases, intoxicating brilliance which hardly has anything to do with their propositional content. These texts become as impossible to understand as the emblematics on old national flags. Still they live, functioning in approximately the same way as does cheering at a national sporting event. And thereby I dare say I have also addressed the question of the ‘politically engaged’ poetry, so highly esteemed for the moment. I regard them as poetically as uninteresting as advertising slogans, however intoxicating they can be for the moment.

On the descriptive level it is hard to define what is a poem. ‘Text with uneven right margin’ definitely does not help. Especially because poetry can take on so many disguises. Prose that we know from Baudelaire, Ekelöf and Cioran, can work as poetic disguise as well as the sonnet form. It is hard to find to find a recurrent quality which characterizes all poems – and perhaps we shall have to be content with something like ‘family similarity’.

If we leave that general descriptive talk where everything which looks like a poem can be called a poem and turn instead to normative talk, we will of course not recognize as a poem everything that looks like a poem. A real poem has to be a successful poem, a successful speech act. In approximately the same way that only a mathematical proof which really proves something can be called a mathematical proof. It is not enough that it looks like a proof. The proof has to prove. For the poem it is not enough to look like a poem. It has to achieve something.

What is it that the poem has to achieve in order to become a poem?

I think we must start looking for that answer in the medium of the poem, language. This apparently infinite, continuousl