Narrative Poetry is the Poetic Equivalent of Pimento Loaf (or why great poets are proverbially ignorant of life)

A bit of a rant after reading Mill’s essay, “What is Poetry,” in his Thoughts on Poetry and its Varieties

What they know has come by observation of themselves
John Stuart Mill doesn’t have a problem with fiction because, in his opinion, great fiction can be poetry if it concerns itself with the “representation of feeling” instead of outward incident or a representation of life. Narrative poems (and, so it follows, narrative fiction and narrative music and narrative art) are dependent on outward events, and any resultant insights, epiphanies or emotional experiences are dependent on those outward things and are, consequently, “of the lowest and elementary kind.” Narrators, i.e. writers of narrative poetry and fiction, are concerned with providing a “true picture of life,” whereas great poets are only concerned with providing a true picture of the human soul, of humanity. This is why “great poets are proverbially ignorant of life”; they come by their knowledge through observation of their inner selves and concern with “the deeper and more secret working of human emotion.” It’s hard to take Mill seriously, however, when he states that by looking inward great poets “found within them one, highly, delicate and sensitive specimen of human nature.” It appears that Mill is associating great poetry with narcissism, and he privileges the idea that there is one set of feelings, emotional responses and subjectivity that belongs to “man,” and any exploration of a diversity of feelings and subjectivities, especially how they may function when interacting with external events or, Heaven forbid, another subjectivity, is unsophisticated at best, shallow and base at worst. If the great poet is unaffected by any externality, then I would wager that he is uneffective in any setting other than his own mind.

Mill’s categorization of high poetry and low narrative extends to readers as well: “the minds and hearts of greatest depth and elevation are commonly those which take the greatest delight in poetry: the shallowest and emptiest, on the contrary, are, at all events, not those least addicted to novel-reading.” In other words, you are shallow and empty if you seek stimulation from external sources, but you are truly the pinnacle of human development if you prefer to excite your intellect and sensibilities through the great poet’s contemplation of his own feelings. Mill also has snooty things to say about the French. So, please. Man does not develop in a vacuum. That precious delicate sensitivity that Mill values so much is a product of that great poet’s experience of the world, and the means of that sensitivity, the development and transformation of that sensitivity is just as important to grasp as the end product of that sensitivity. Even if the great poet, in Mill’s example, is communicating his experience of the tiger as opposed to describe the tiger as it is, the truth of the matter is that the great poet has just seen a damned tiger.

I mean, I get it. I’ve heard the anti-narrative rhetoric dressed up in various costumes. The reader doesn’t need to experience the tiger. She needs to experience the writer’s experience of the tiger. She doesn’t need the context to access the emotional response it provokes. In fact, the context can interfere with her experience of the poem because she’s bringing all her a priori notions of the tiger when she should be open to a reinterpretation of the tiger, not through an abstraction of the tiger, but through access to an alternative apprehension of the tiger. Yes, that works just fine. But so does a narrative that explores, not the alternative apprehension of the tiger, but the experience that creates the alternative apprehension, that provides the reader with the opportunity to have her own alternative apprehension of the tiger. Hmmph. So there.

The French, who are the least poetical of all great and intellectual nations, are among the most eloquent (and why Mill thinks this is not a good thing)
And what’s so bad about communication, anyway. This whole thing about eloquence being heard and poetry being overheard; eloquence confessing to the other while poetry confesses to itself, eloquence tries to influence another mind while poetry is soliloquy, the writer intent on only his own mind. Again, I believe that Mill comes perilously close to asking us to eavesdrop on the narcissist. Don’t get me wrong, I do understand what Mill is trying to say – the unsullied thought, the thought attempting to find its closest representation in the symbols that make up language without the distraction of trying to convey that meaning to somebody else at the same time. But if Mill is saying that great poetry is not a political act, then I call him on his bullshit. I said it. Bullshit. All poetry is attempting to change externality, even if it remains firmly in the realm of the aesthetic. Otherwise it is merely documentary, and even documentary is attempting to change externality by asking readers to notice what they had not noticed before. Even if the great poet is writing to solely capture and document his own emotional workings for himself, the act of awareness changes something in him and by extension changes externality, because he is present in it. The mere act of writing a poem is intercourse with the world. Including the French.

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