The Will To Poetry
So what is “Poem”, really?
Consider this. The more words you use, the less you leave up to the imagination of your listeners. The less words you use, the more you leave up to their imagination. You can, hypothetically, use a single letter or syllable to write a poem about something, but then it has to be the exact right letter, or it won’t work.
Here’s a poem about me:
Yeah, it’s that simple. And when you read it, it becomes about you. But it doesn’t carry very far past the first impression, does it?
Less is more. Except when more is more, no matter what Mies van der Rohe said. Or was it Le Courbusier? You remember Bauhaus and Modernism, right? A house that looks like a perfect cube or a sphere may be efficient, but you wouldn’t necessarily want to live in it. There are no doors, for one thing.
Here’s an even better question: what is a “Poet”, really?
Obviously, it’s someone who writes poems, whatever they may be, and again I turn to my reliable axiom of “knowing when seeing” as far as that is concerned.
Art is like that. There is no such thing unless we want there to be. You don’t have to appreciate art and poetry and literature; they have no intrinsic value, or even existence, beyond what we ourselves ascribe to them.
But you can, if you want to. Or, you can just stare at the boobs, if that’s what makes you happy. People who wax lyrical about a nude painting or sculpture without having the decency to acknowledge the handsomeness of the model not only have an air of “The Emperor’s New Clothes” about them; they should also be regarded with suspicion.
H. C. Andersen wrote poems, of course. I would be inclined to read some of them, because I know his writing and have fond memories of it from my childhood. I remember something about children walking through a graveyard, and there being witches perched on the cemetery wall, sticking their long fingers into the ground, and eating from the corpses.
Eyes without life…
Piles of carcasses…
These are pleasing words to me…
Yeah, the witches didn’t say that; the Lord Weird Slough Feg did, meaning Pat Mills wrote it. He was the old Horned God before Slaine MacRoth. The Lord Weird, I mean; not Pat.
But children’s stories from the nineteenth century were just as brutal and horrifying as “Slaine the Horned God”; meant to frighten children into obedience and submission. Perhaps Andersen felt he had to write something different simply in order to stay sane?
It’s a pleasant thought. “Der Wille zur Poesie”. If Nietzsche had written more about poetry and less about power, he might perhaps not have gone so crazy. He wrote Strindberg on new year’s eve in 1888, saying he had assembled all the monarchs of Europe in Rome the next Tuesday. He was afraid they might proclaim him the new messiah, and he intended to have the young Kaiser shot.
That would be Wilhelm II. If you believe world wars are started by a single person, that may not have been such a bad idea, actually.
Nietzsche also wrote the king of Italy:
(to)My beloved Son Umberto
My Peace be with you! I am coming
to Rome on Tuesday and I should like
to see you with his Holiness the Pope
So that is a letter from a crazy person with an emerging messianic complex. We may laugh at it, knowing who Nietzsche was. We may consider the cruel irony of a philosopher being stricken with a debilitating mental illness. We may even read it as a poem, even though Nietzsche also wrote proper ones.
Was Nietzsche therefore a poet? I’ve never heard anyone call him one; it’s always philosopher or writer. I wanted to be a poet before I wanted to be a philosopher, and it wasn’t until I saw “Apocalypse Now” (1979) I understood a person can be both. Dennis Hopper calls Kurtz a “Poet-Warrior in the Classic sense”. A typical Aquarian* expression, which of course made me suspicious, but also something about warrior, so automatically interested.
It took me another 30 years or so to understand there is a point to being both a philosopher and a poet, or being both a poet and something else; it could even be absolutely necessary. Crucial for survival. Something you do to retain your sanity and your overall grip on things. Whether you read, or write, or paint, or throw broadies and clutch shots while catching air, doesn’t really matter.**
Art all pretty much works the same. Or it doesn’t, also similarily.
Which brings us, rather unexpectedly, to this weeks tank poem. It’s by Bertolt Brecht, who is not only a Poet with a capital “P”, he is also a dramatist and Playwright, likewise capital. It is known he was more interested in theatre than in poetry.
But he did write a poem about tanks. I was alerted to this fact by my friend who wrote last weeks poem, and as it fits the bill, here it is. While you read it, do take a moment to reflect on the questions raised above concerning the nature of poetry, poems, and poets.
I have chosen to present it first in original German, if yours is a bit rusty, please scroll down a little for the English translation:
Der Mensch hat einen Fehler: Er kann denken
General, dein Tank ist ein starker Wagen.
Er bricht einen Wald nieder und zermalmt hundert Menschen.
Aber er hat einen Fehler:
Er braucht einen Fahrer.
General, dein Bombenflugzeug ist stark.
Es fliegt schneller als der Sturm und trägt mehr als ein Elefant.
Aber es hat einen Fehler:
Es braucht einen Monteur.
General, der Mensch ist sehr brauchbar.
Er kann fliegen, und er kann töten.
Aber er hat einen Fehler:
Er kann denken.
Man has a Defect: He can think
General, Your Tank is a Powerful Vehicle
It smashes down forests and crushes a hundred men.
But it has one defect:
It needs a driver.
General, your bomber is powerful.
It flies faster than a storm and carries more than an elephant.
But it has one defect:
It needs a mechanic.
General, man is very useful.
He can fly and he can kill.
But he has one defect:
He can think.
Brecht’s folly here is of course he imagines “thinking” people wouldn’t drive tanks. We all know that’s laughable. But his poem also left me with a slightly empty feeling; as if something was missing. I just don’t think I really felt it, although I will say it sounds better in German.
The person who alerted me to the existence of the Brecht poem sent me a short note the other day, relating their travels, lamenting the loss of their youthful poetic aspirations and praising the Red Wine Muse, who can sometimes strike a person inspired with a mere sip.
I know the feeling, and I say poetry, like youth, (and wine) is wasted on the young. It certainly was on me.
But what is it that is lamented exactly? Being young? Wanting to be a poet? Some kind of “second sight” only young people have, and that becomes dulled and starts to fade away as we grow older? I am not sure. But wanting to be a poet; the “Will to Poetry” is a sensation that never needs to go away.
The proof, as it were, is in last weeks Monday Poetry Corner.
Doing Poetry is super easy. You just do it. Call yourself a poet, and write poems. Figuring out how writing and poems actually work is also easy, it just takes time. But what is most important is your own desire for poetry; wanting to explore, express, and experience the world around you through a filter of language, style and aestheticism.
Remember writing can be dangerous. You can imagine the Nazis weren’t exactly happy about Brecht’s poem, which is logical since it was directed towards them. This is poetry as a weapon, and as far as I can tell, Brecht had already left Germany when he wrote it.
And maybe that is why I don’t really feel for it. In my case Brecht is preaching to the quire. I think he comes across slightly sententious and obvious, kicking in open doors, and writing people on the nose. I will however concede he makes the excellent point a gold noob tank is never any better than the person driving it, no matter how brightly camouflaged and attachmented it may be.
But that is of course my privilege. I don’t have to appreciate poetry. And old Brecht got me writing two pages about Modernism, Nietzsche, Slaine the Horned God, Francis Ford Coppola, and the nature of Art and Poetry, so I can hardly claim he did not in fact write a successful poem.
Only not quite as successful, in my mind, as Emily Dickermax or A.A. Milne did.
Never stop chasing your dreams!
*Yes, “Aquarian” means “Hippie”.
** Note this is backwards from what you might be expecting. I don’t advocate getting a job so you can survive while writing poetry. I am advocating writing poetry so you can survive having a job.