Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Poetry, Strain and Conservatism (I)

In this post I'm going to try to draw together some themes I've written about previously.

I write a lot about poetry on this blog. Partly this is because I've loved poetry all my life, and I naturally want to write about it. But there's more to it than that. I believe poetry is relevant to many (or perhaps even all) of the other subjects I discuss on this blog; Catholicism, tradition, conservatism, nationalism, and so on.

"Poetry" is a much-contested term. In its most literal sense, I take it to mean a literary form that is arranged in lines and stanzas, that is metrical, and that generally employs rhyme. More broadly, poetry is sometimes used to refer to all imaginative literature, of any kind. 

We all frequently use the term in an even broader sense, and it seems very natural to do so. "Poetry in motion", "visual poetry", " spare me the poetry", "the poetry of cartography"; phrases like these come naturally to our lips, and everybody knows what we mean when we use them.

For whatever reason, poetry seems to be the art-form that usually springs to mind when someone wants to emphasise the expressiveness, or charm, or romance, or allure of something; a woman's face, an academic discipline, a cake, a landscape, or almost anything else you can think.

In this wider sense, poetry might be what distinguishes everything I find precious in this world.

My conservatism, for instance, is most definitely a romantic conservatism-- that is, a poetic conservatism. I support institutions and traditions that seem to me poetic, rather than prosaic. For instance, traditional gender roles are more poetic than androgyny, or sameness between the sexes. Hierarchy is more poetic than egalitarianism. And so on.

One of the features of poetry (the literary form, that is) is the deliberate imposition of constraints-- rhyme, metre, verse form, brevity, strict unity of theme, and so on. Somehow, the poetic effect seems bound up with these constraints.

In the same way, society itself seems more poetic when it is more structured rather than less structured. So tradition, custom, taboo, ceremony, loyalty, these all serve to make society more poetic.

More fundamentally, however, it is the contemplative aspect of poetry which is relevant here.

Poetry is generally contemplative, while prose is generally analytical or descriptive. Poetry lingers on its subject, while prose is always hurrying on to make some point or other. A short story or an article or an essay might begin with an atmospheric portrait of a lake on a summer's day; but it's highly unlikely to stop at that. Poetry can stop at that; or rather, enter more deeply in.

The life of society is generally lived in prose; work meetings, agendas, bus timetables, traffic, small talk, news stories, schedules, instructions, queues, procedures, and so forth.

All goal-directed activity, in other words-- and generally the goal is not a goal in itself, but simply a means to some other goal-- for instance, washing clothes so that we can get dressed for work, so that we can earn money. so that we can pay the rent...

But not all of social life is prose. There are Christmas trees, and walks on the beach, and model ships, and children's games, and staring into the fireplace while cradling a glass of brandy, and telling jokes....

To put it simply, there are activities which are done for their own sake, and which contain their own justification-- and then there are activities which are purely instrumental.

I would include in the "purely instrumental" category those activities which are performed entirely for mental or physical stimulation. Crosswords, for example. 

I have a colleague who always spends his coffee break solving crosswords. It baffles me. Yes, it's his coffee break to spend however he wants. And perhaps he finds it soothing or therapeutic, or something like that. And I realize I'm being unpleasantly judgemental here. But, once he's done the crossword-- what then? I imagine he throws them away, and forgets about them. The only point of this activity (it seems to me) is to keep one's mental wheels spinning-- it's the human equivalent of a dog chewing a bone.

And a lot of fiction (even most fiction) seems essentially the same, to me. It's suspense that keeps the reader reading; curiosity aroused and satisfied, over and over again. The mental jaws get a work-out, and that's the primary purpose of the activity.

This reaches its logical conclusion in detective stories and murder mysteries. Here, the puzzle is the important thing, and everything else in the story is incidental to that. My father (a devotee of murder mystery shows on TV) would often change the channel once the crime had been solved, not even bothering to see how the human elements were wrapped up.

Now, I admit that things are rarely quite so straightforward. Murder mysteries and detective stories are not just riddles, and the appeal of fiction is not just the arousal and satisfaction of suspense. There are poetic elements to both-- to go back to my father, he often commented on his love of the "country house" setting of Agatha Christie stories.

But the emphasis is upon suspense, and curiosity, and analysis.

So that is my contention-- that modern society is "prosaic" in the sense that it is preoccupied with suspense, excitement, problem-solving, and analysis, while more traditional societies are "poetic" in the sense that they are more devoted to contemplation.

I think this explains why modern society has so little time for poetry. It's not that people today are unwilling to read. Just look at at the Fantasy or Science-Fiction section of a bookshop, and you'll see that most of the books there are at least five hundred pages long, and are usually part of a series that spans a dozen volumes or so. But they are unwilling to read poetry, because reading a short volume of poetry actually requires more mental strain than reading a five hundred page novel. And the mental strain involved is quite simply the strain of contemplating rather than analysing, problem-solving, or gratifying suspense.

This blog post is turning out to be longer than I expected, and it's a while since I've posted anything on the blog (I've actually half-written a lot of posts, but not published them). So I will stick a (I) on the end of the title, and come back to it soon.

Monday, July 15, 2019

My Talk in Belfast

Here is the video of the talk I gave in Belfast, back in October, on the subject of my book.

I put a lot of work into writing this talk and I was quite happy with it.

Tuesday, July 2, 2019

My Trip to Knock

On Sunday, I made a pilgrimage to Knock, with my wife and a group from our parish. Neither of us had been there before. This year is the one-hundred-and-fortieth anniversary of the apparitions which took place there.

We visited the Chapel of the Apparition, on the very spot where Our Lady, our Lord (as the Lamb of God), St. Joseph, and St. John the Evangelist appeared, on a rainy day in 1879.

Afterwards, we attended Mass in the enormous basilica, which was filled to capacity. There were a great many members of the Franciscan order there, including secular Franciscans, as they were celebrating an anniversary of some kind.

I began writing a blog post describing my thoughts and feelings on the day, but then found myself deleting what I'd written. Right now, it all seems too personal and inchoate. Perhaps I will write about it at some time in the future. In the meantime, here are some pictures my wife took. The first picture shows a section of the original gable wall before which the apparitions appeared.