Poetry and Its Valuating Subject: How Much Knowledge of Art can Aesthetic Experience Yield
par Tan Shi Wei
National Junior College Singapore - 2008
While I have established above that the verity of subject matter in poetry has no bearing on aesthetic experience, it is not to say that no content or beliefs are needed at all, for it makes no sense to say that poetry engenders an aesthetic experience by virtue of its status as poetry instead of what it expresses and how. The content of a poem plays an ancillary role in the understanding of the concept of aesthetic experience. In the following section, I shall highlight some of the ways to understanding poetry.
Characteristics of Poetry
The principal formal means that poetry employs to create its particular cadences is the measure of the poetic line, which achieves its effect by recurrence and reappearance of notable features in the language time and again.2(*) For instance, repetitive, truncated phrasings could impress a sense of tedium and exasperation upon the reader. The expansive nature of words allows also the use of metaphors to convey sometimes more than one meaning that is applicable. Poetry then invites its readers not only to interpret what is presented, but also how it is presented, paying attention to the tone, the stresses and the meter it conforms to.
Reader-author standpoints offer a more intrinsic look at the relation between poetry and its reader in the determination of meaning, as opposed to a study on general characteristics of aesthetic experience. While they move literary theories to vary vastly in their presumptions and the emphasis they put on the roles of the text, author and the reader, they do share some common concerns such as the interaction between a reader and the poem and the effects they have on each other. They often attempt to elucidate the role of the author, the reader and the text, as well as the reader's response to a text. Although we may not rank one approach to interpreting poetry over another, reader-author standpoints enhances our understanding of the poem by breaking down the process of interpreting poetry into more comprehensible events in the very least.
Formalist-aesthetic theories tend to dwell on why certain elements are presented and in their relation to one and other as a way of inviting imaginative exploration of the work, and considers authorial intent and historical significance to be of marginal relevance. Advocates like Beardsley holds the view that the practice of making works of art is significantly informed, perhaps even controlled, by an intention to afford aesthetic experience3(*). Poetry is then conceived by him as composed of emergent regional properties that words make up, which can be likened to the way words are read - not singularly one after the other, but rather in the context of whole thoughts, where we attend to the function of the word in expressing that thought. The acquisition of an aesthetic experience would as a result require nothing more than formal analysis, for aesthetic experience is conceived as a capacity innate to the work itself, and so forth gives the work its artistic qualities. Stevan Harnad shares a similar view in saying `once created, a work of art is what it is, and the artist ... is not an absolute authority'4(*) though his theory hinges also on the readers' ability to conjure a resemblance from how the poem is presented. Does this entail that if we possessed a list of formal elements, then we would have rules for crafting successful poems? Apparently this is not so. Widely accepted and as Arnold Isenberg cogently argued, similar elements can function very differently in different works. For instance, in Robert Frost's Fire and Ice, ice is equated with hate.5(*) This would differ from other connotative uses of the same theme, as in another poem of Robert Frost An Old Man's Winter Night, where `icicles' and `snow' share meaning with `nothingness' in the winter setting. While close formal reading attends aptly to the interrelations of elements in the work, it can devolve into the overvaluing of some favored mode of decorum, without sufficient feel for history or meaning, partly because requiring poets to focus on form and arrangement by theory also places the fulfillment of the task of producing pleasure over the pursue of striking meaning and insight and `something closer to transformation'6(*).
Nonetheless, consider reading a medieval religious poem: we will recognize inter alia that it is replete with symbolism which we understand only imperfectly and which has lost its original emotional impact and that it was intended for us in a social context that has vanished. It is obvious then that the downsides of formal understanding cannot be neglected, for dismissing historical significance might in effect discard groundlessly what could be the actual meaning of a poem. As such, on top of the analysis of formal elements, it makes sense to take into consideration also how the poem may partake of the spirit of its times
* 2 Jeffrey Wainwright, Poetry: The Basics p.58
* 3 This does not exclude other intentions such as winning renown and making money.
* 4 Steven Harnad, Affection and Cognition in Art: Form versus Content
* 5 http://www.english.uiuc.edu/maps/poets/a_f/frost/fireice.htm
* 6 Danto, Embodied Meanings: Critical Essays and Aesthetic Meditations