Thursday, March 19, 2009

Poetry or Tags

Rob Mackenzie neatly summarizes and tellingly quotes from a Cleanth Brooks essay here. You need to read Rob's post for the full contextualization of the telling quotation, but here it is anyway (the poem in question is Robert Herrick’s Corinna’s Going a-Maying):

What does this poem communicate? If we are content with the answer that the poem says that we should enjoy youth before youth fades, and if we are willing to write off everything else in the poem as ‘decoration,’ then we can properly censure [modern poets such as] Eliot or Auden or Tate for not making poems so easily tagged. But in that case we are not interested in poetry; we are interested in tags.

This implies that what "modern" poets do is write poetry without such "tags," such simple messages that one can glean from a poem. And note that the three poets Brooks lists as "modern" could not be more different from each other.

What comes to mind for me is something I read sometime last year in which a non-reader of poetry responded to Carol Ann Duffy's poems by calling them "difficult." For readers of contemporary poetry, this is a bit of a shock: one may or may not like Duffy's poems, but they are not difficult (at least not compared to those written by the vast majority of contemporary poets with several books to their names).

But perhaps the difficulty in question is the absence of such "tags."


Joseph Duemer said...

Oh, I don't know, isn't "Prufrock" about the alienation of the middle class? Isn't "Mauberly" about the futility of aestheticism? Any poem can be distilled, though Language poets try to avoid the problem by making their poems about language. Well, I'm being a little facetious here, but not too much. The real readers in Herrick's original audience knew the poem was about much more than enjoying the spring time of youth, just as Eliot's and Pound's readers know that their poems are about much more than the tags distilled above. The tag, I'd say, is something readers do, but for which poets are not responsible.

[Hey, post this to The Plumbline, eh?]

Andrew Shields said...

As Rob wrote in the comments on his post, Brooks was aware that the passage of time is what creates tags.

Donald Brown said...

I'll go further: it's not just the passage of time that creates tags, it's commentary itself. As soon as a poem has been around long enough to be 'already read,' what one encounters is 'tags' (if you want to call them that). A precis or summation of what the poem says or is 'about.' The 'difficult' contemporary poet is simply one who hasn't already been read by commentary and so every new reader has to read the thing to try to figure out what it says. The point of older forms of poetry was the ingenuity with which the poet said what was already a time-honored 'tag.' At some point (we generally say modernism) the point was the ingenuity by which one avoided time-honored tags. Both are simply different forms of originality and its courtship. Nowadays, it seems that one courts 'tags' surreptitiously if only in hopes that there is a commentary out there capable of summing up one's poem.

Rob said...

Interesting comments, folks. I think Brooks would suggest that a poem (even a pre-modernist poem) is always more than an ingenious expression of a tag. But yes, weight of commentary must contribute to the creation of tags for certain poems.

Andrew Shields said...

Don, that's a good point: the shift from clever presentation of traditional "tags" to avoidance of them.