by Conrad Martin
“Follow the way of love and eagerly desire gifts of the Spirit, especially prophecy. For anyone who speaks in a tongue does not speak to people but to God. Indeed, no one understands them; they utter mysteries by the Spirit. But the one who prophesies speaks to people for their strengthening, encouraging and comfort. Anyone who speaks in a tongue edifies themselves, but the one who prophesies edifies the church. I would like every one of you to speak in tongues, but I would rather have you prophesy. The one who prophesies is greater than the one who speaks in tongues, unless someone interprets, so that the church may be edified.” (1 Corinthians 14:1-5, NIV)

Poets seem quite comfortable with the inexplicable. On the Curator, the word “mystery” appears baldly on every third page, and furtively on half the rest.

Clearly, the parallel to 1 Corinthians 14 is partial. We could translate “understanding” in the quoted scripture to “appreciation” or “enjoyment.” Artists differ on whether we should ever or always give the term “understanding” to the experience of joy or meaning which poetry can bring, but we agree that art is approached with unique expectations.

Perhaps just as clearly, art seems distinct in material importance. This is not a communal worship service and there is no covenant of blood. The audience painlessly self-selects.

Still, a principle applies; the one who speaks asks a favor of the one who listens, and the one who listens hopes to receive something for their pains. One could say that the receiver’s claim suffers as a result of the freedom with which they engage, but in fact, something almost like the opposite is true. To make this point I will draw heavily from a piece by Stanley Cavell titled “Music Discomposed” from the book Must We Mean What We Say?

Cavell declares his thesis: “The dangers of fraudulence, and of trust, are essential to the experience of art” (188).

If I am hungry and you have bread and we make a deal, the need and the surplus are well-defined, and my intention and yours are well-defined, so any fraud is mathematically obvious. If the bread is moldy, I show it to you and you return my money.

But I cannot come to an original work of art needing something so tangible or so specific. Perhaps I think I know what I need. I feel the vague shapes of a general kind of problem of shapelessness. It is a purpose of art to deal with those shapes in new ways, creating inscrutably satisfying geometries, resolving primordial disjunctions.

Because the need it fills is larger than any of our definitions of need, we cannot judge it beforehand. There is no way to judge a new thing of this kind by an old standard, because it is a special kind of new thing—one which brings with it a new standard. You have to see it yourself to have a clue about what it really is, and to know how well or poorly it does at being real.

For a piece of art, part of being real is being, at least subtly, new. Clichés are bad.

Part of being real is also not being a random assortment of surplus psychological elements.

But because you must “see it to know it,” and because this “seeing” requires of you a high degree of attention and a deep readiness for emotional participation, you must come trusting—you must risk being let down or laughed at before you can know that your trust will not be betrayed, or else you haven’t truly given yourself a chance to see what is there to be seen. This is why the issue of fraudulence and trust are essential to art.

Cavell is primarily focused on the awkward post-modern uncertainty about meaning and the necessarily ambiguous or ironic expressions of this angst in contemporary fine art, but he uses the present moment to see something which has been true about art from the beginning. Such art spirals around the question of whether the artist is being serious or sarcastic, whether absurdity is even a meaningful idea, and why in the world did we all come here anyway? Cavell speaks of this as art being reduced to philosophy (a reduction no more respectful to philosophy than it is to art—what kind of philosophy?), which shows that there always was within art a philosophical concern, namely: is art meaningful?

The answer to that question is in tasting and seeing.

But in words, the answer to that question is oddly yes and strangely no: art means something about everything, precisely because it models a totality—because it is meaningful within itself and by reference to its own terms. Cavell says it quite excellently:

Within the world of art one makes one’s own dangers, takes one’s own chances—and one speaks of its objects at such moments in terms of tension, problem, imbalance, necessity, shock, surprise. . . . And within this world one takes and exploits these chances, finding, through danger, an unsuspected security—and so one speaks of fulfillment, calm, release, sublimity, vision. (199)

Art’s ‘inner totality’ is not more an escape from communal responsibility than it is a more perfect embrace of it. Cavell continues:

I said: in art, the chances you take are your own. But of course you are inviting others to take them with you. And since they are, nevertheless, your own, and your invitation is based not on power or authority, but on attraction and promise, your invitation incurs the most exacting of obligations: that every risk must be shown worthwhile, and every infliction of tension lead to a resolution, and every demand on attention and passion be satisfied—that risks those who trust you can’t have known they would take, will be found to yield value they can’t have known existed.

If the purpose of art is not to satisfy a specific need but to tell its own free story of need and abundance, then empty art implies a general and essential emptiness. Cavell explains how art’s very freedom binds it to its responsibility:

The creation of art, being human conduct which affects others, has the commitments any conduct has. It escapes morality; not, however, in escaping commitment, but in being free to choose only those commitments it wishes to incur. In this way art plays with one of man’s fates, the fate of being accountable for everything you do and are, intended or not. It frees us to sing and dance, gives us actions to perform whose consequences, commitments, and liabilities are discharged in the act itself. The price for freedom in this choice of commitment and accountability is that of an exactitude in meeting those commitments and discharging those accounts which no mere morality can impose. You cede the possibilities of excuse, explanation, or justification for your failures; and the cost of failure is not remorse and recompense, but the loss of coherence altogether. (199)

Art’s inner totality is not more an escape from communal responsibility than it is an affirming and reinforcing—by any and every splendor of reality—of the deep foundations upholding the whole possibility of communities and responsibilities. That foundation is a trust in ultimate and universal coherence.

That is why prophecy is a greater gift than tongues. Because Beauty is more than absurdity (God bless it), and Unity is truer than true.

Cavell’s words were focused on music, and not all the arts have the same affiliation with the province of meaning. Poems, involving words, involve understanding in a way music does not. The dynamic of an “inner meaning” is still crucial, but poetry does invite propositional interpretation as a key figure in the dance. Sometimes his part seems rather minor, but if you approach him civilly, he may be your best way to be introduced to the more lively characters.

And this, (Dear Reader), this is why we care about how you experience the poems we select and publish. We don’t always agree among ourselves about what they mean or about what we mean by that question. We publish the submissions we ourselves enjoy the most.

Take the freedom to ask your questions. Comment online or send us an email. Tell us what edifies you. What do you find beautiful?

Citations: Cavell, S. (1969). Must We Mean What We Say? Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Artwork: Portico of Octavia, Albert Bierstadt (1830-1902).

5 thoughts on “Edify”

  1. I feel like I’m commenting on a topic a bit beyond me, but since I am interested in the topic of the meaning of poetry, I wanted to ask: Are you saying you need to be able to trust the poet in order to appreciate/understand/enjoy the poem? A reply by email is fine if I’m so far from the kingdom that I need an essay as a reply!

    1. Good question!
      Just yesterday I found myself in a (quite lively) class discussion about the merits of the art of Andy Warhol, et al. (I quote him: “Art is what you can get away with.”) Then that evening I saw this: https://www.cnn.com/style/article/david-datuna-banana-art-basel-trnd/index.html
      I laughed (OL)
      So these are absurd extremes, and this sort of thing exists precisely (I think) because we no longer declare art to be about beauty or Meaning, but we still deep down feel it ought to be, so now we can keep making ironic statements and calling it high and worthy art.
      But as I reflect on why this sort of thing irritates me, it’s because it feels like they break an assumed trust. Not just by failing (it happens), but by failing on purpose and calling it a joke (funny, perhaps, in its own way) and then still asking me to take them seriously as artists (not funny. perverse.)
      Sorry for the rant.
      But I wouldn’t say this means we have to know and trust an artist outside their art, because their art in a way contains them. But perhaps knowing them outside could help? I’m not sure I have a strong feeling there. Do you?

      1. This is getting into rarefied air intellectually for me, but having gotten this far, I’m game to try a reply.
        I never thought about trust and poetry before reading your article, but the idea does grab me a bit. I suppose the starting point for me would be a foundational trust that the poet really did intend to impart meaning in his poem, and that this original meaning was known to him and had value. To qualify as intent and value, I would exclude poems of the type “the meaning of this poem is whatever you want it to be.” (I know, I’m treading where angels dare not, but assuming my folly will harm no one, I continue).
        So if I can trust a poet to have had an original meaning of value, the only thing left to really make me happy is to know the accessibility of that original meaning. (Again, perhaps a poem should never be bound to its original meaning—but I cannot speak to that. I’m only talking about myself here. And for myself, I’m fine with extensions and modifications of original meaning happening in the reader’s personal reading, but until I’m aware, at least foggily, of the original intended meaning, I struggle to be edified.) So I repeat, how accessible is this poem’s original, or nearly original, meaning to me? If I trust the poet’s work to be accessible to me, I’m much more likely to expend some energy on things I’m having trouble understanding. If I have no idea how accessible this poet is likely to be (for me), I lose steam rapidly.
        For example: I have a book of math/geometry puzzles that always drives me nuts, because some of the problems are within my range if I spend 15 minutes in thought. Others I could not solve if I spent 15 years on them. And because I’m never sure on the accessibility of any one puzzle, my pride and innate laziness prevents me from attempting nearly any of them.
        My ability to access these puzzles is a directly tied to my level of mathematical training and my level of intelligence/mental ability, probably in inverse proportion. If puzzles were clearly marked with the ability level needed to access them, it would save me time and leave me a happier man. “This problem requires two years of calculus and an IQ above 120.” “This problem requires that you understand addition and know what a box is.” Etc.
        I’ve begun to wonder if poetry is the same way. Just like there are wonderful math puzzles that I will never solve because they are above my ability, so there may be poems that are a great blessing to readers in that echelon, but not to me. If I try to pierce the tangle of words, I will only walk away with frustration and wounded pride.
        So maybe to really float my boat there’d need to be a rubric for the accessibility of a poem/piece of art. This rubric would be based on the reader’s ability. Here’s a sample:
        0 – Cannot pronounce the name “Virgil.”
        1—Can pronounce the name “Virgil.”
        2—Is vaguely aware there was an ancient poet named Virgil.
        3—Has read at least ten lines of Virgil.
        4—Has read Virgil extensively.
        5—Has read Virgil extensively—in Latin.
        My current ability is squarely a 2. So if I walk up to a banana taped to the wall (and let’s say I trust the artist to have had an original intent of value) and I see the label “Category 4 or Above Required,” I can turn and walk away—likely still a bit humiliated and irritated—but at least aware of the investment I would need to attain edification.
        So that’s my current state of mind on trust and poetry. Then again, I’m typing this at 11:30 at night. So feel free to correct my dozy thinking!

  2. I highly enjoyed your response, William.

    I’ll agree with you that a good poem has something definite (this, not that) about it, and that this meaning was present to the poet in some way. Probably that ‘definite something’ is never precisely communicable in any other form besides the poem itself, but I have yet to find a poem I unambiguously love about which I can say nothing in simpler terms–terms which help me discover the ineffable essence of the thing. So yes, I agree that poems should mean something. Note: I’m way more comfortable arguing this way than many of my fellow poets. (But then again, maybe I’m just way more comfortable arguing.)
    I also agree there are levels of difficulty in poetry; I think usually this has to do with contextual familiarity (I’ll miss most or all of the Virgil allusions). I also think that some of the differences in what we enjoy (are able to ‘access’) relate to more innate differences, not all of which can be ranked.
    But sometimes the difficulty is empty and pointless and shows poor craftsmanship, whereas in a math puzzle the difficulty is the whole point. I suppose its fine to have deliberately math-puzzley poems sometimes, but barely. I think the only reason a poem should be difficult is if the meaning is a difficult meaning, and the better it is the clearer it becomes.

    Your 0-6 scale is delicious. Thank you. Maybe something like this actually happens; different publications and writers develop their own audiences. (The Curator is a 2.41 on the Virgilian scale. Subject to change without notice.)

    These are live issues, and I’m not satisfied with my own understanding of them.

    It would be very interesting to hear of particular poems which give you that taped-banana feeling.

    1. Ah, no, there are places even fools don’t tread. I’d rather not tip my hand in public and risk hurting my feelings (he’s that out of touch??) and those of any poet discussed that’s not firmly in his/her grave. On the other hand, I guess T.S. Elliot is firmly in his grave :). But then I offend all those who really love him, like the man who wrote the book When Breath Becomes Air–although he’s also in his grave!–and furthermore, I’m not categorically opposed to Elliot… See, this conversation gets way too complex way too fast. And I’m not writing all night again.

      But it would be an interesting conversation for sometime, somewhere.

      Thanks for the time you’ve taken to reply to my comments. I enjoyed the thoughts and the fun writing. Basically, I’m happy being a 2 in a 2.41 world. And my dial does keep moving! So maybe there’s hope for me after all.

      Best wishes on your poetic journey.

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