On Aesthetics


What is a poem's mode of existence? Let's take one of William Wordsworth's well-known poems, A Slumber did my Spirit Seal.


A slumber did my spirit seal;

I had no human fears:

She seemed a thing that could not feel

The touch of earthly years.


No motion has she now, no force;

She neither hears nor sees;

Rolled round in earth's diurnal course,

With rocks, and stones, and trees.



Poems exist as the printed sequence of words on the page in a book. Those words that one may have just heard or that might be heard in a recording. Does it enjoy the same ideal existence that every visible or audible manifestation of these words alludes to a type of which this is a token to use philosophical language? Habitual use of the word poem has elements of all these conceptions.


But if I say I enjoy words, one is referring not just to the words as they appear or are heard but to my experience of them. If I comment that Tennyson's poetry leaves me cold, one is alluding to several experiences. These experiences are temporal in nature and involve the nexus of emotions and the body. Words on the page, as material objects, need to be experienced as a particular kind of event before they become in the fullest sense of the term poems. Even sound waves travelling through the air remain purely physical phenomena. If they are not received by a human ear or brain- a computer could presumably be programmed to distinguish spoken poems from other utterances and perhaps to register in some way their emotional content. But the day has not yet arrived when a machine can experience poems as poems. A poem is a human event. Repeatable though never the same in its repetitions. Rather than a fixed material object or even an ideal one. So our poem is reborn so to speak each time it's experienced. These experiences are related but they vary across time and people. By contrast, the text is fixed after a point at any rate. Since even the printed or spoken text may have variations and if we bring translations into the picture we find the same poem appearing in a different language to be drawn to be experienced by a new set of readers and hearers but is there anything it might be asked that distinguishes the particular category of the poem from the more general category of literature.


Is not any literary work or an event that occurs when an appropriate text inserted on the page or in the air is read or listened to in a certain way? Well, poetry like prose, fiction and drama can exploit any of the powers of which language is capable. Whether to paul, to hearten, to intrigue, to browbeat, to stir, to excite, to disappoint. The list is endless. What poetry uniquely does, however, is to achieve this emotional and intellectual intensity. In part by harnessing the particular effect that language possesses by its

physical properties, its sounds, its silences, its rhythms, its syntactic sequences, its movement through time Thereby resulting in a poem that is something that happens.


It is not a conceptual entity or a piece of the world being pointed out. Language's manifold powers are made even stronger in this way and linguistic acts are given even greater emotional resonance. A poem, therefore, is a real-time event and if one doesn't read it in real-time aloud or a mental representation of speech. One may be reading it as a literary work of some kind but not as a poem. To experience a poem as a poem, therefore, is not to treat it as an event only of meaning but as an event of and in language with language understood as a material medium. As well as a semantic resource and because this experience is a response to the materiality of language. The physical body is necessarily involved. Even a silent reading in which the words are mentally articulated and will make use of slight muscular strength. In 2004 NASA was reported to be investigating methods of communicating silently by tracking the neural signals sent to the musculature. During this kind of sub-vocal articulation of the conditions under which poetry can be experienced are highly varied.


One can attend a public reading to hear a poem on the radio or read silently or aloud from the printed page or recite some lines of posts from memory and what one derives from the experience can include knowledge of the past, moral advice, insight into a writer's life, psychological truths and much more. But when a text in verse is enjoyed purely for the information or moral truth that it conveys and there's no lack of evidence that this has happened from the very beginnings of composition. It is not being experienced as a poem. Poetry has been read for many other purposes too it has for instance consoled mourners, injured opponents contributed to social cohesion reinforced the authority of rulers and stiffened hearts before the battle.


The poem of Wordsworth, shared above, is an account of something happening in the world but we don't understand it or respond to it as we would a friend's description of the same event. The emotion we experience is not identical to the grief that the speaker of the poem feels nor is it an invitation to emphasize (or) empathize with words with who may or may not have had, the feelings he wrote in these lines. Biographers have been unable to discover any event in Wordsworth's life to which his poem might refer. He may well have been trying to imagine what a lover would feel at such a moment. After all, imagining what other people would feel in certain situations is what writers of poems, plays and novels are constantly doing.


To experience this text as a poem is to let it unfold in real-time allowing the play of meanings to develop as the rhythms carry the voice and the mind onward and the rhymes produce a series of expectations and resolutions. It is to respond to the complex staging of emotions as those meanings emerge and to enjoy and admire the remarkable economy with which the writer has captured a profound feeling of grief and loss of course. As I have suggested, every reader or listener will experience the poem in their way. Some of those experiences will be alive to more of its intensity than others depending on personal histories, stories and knowledge and individual preferences. An important function of literary criticism whether the academic thought or the conversation over a cup of tea is to enable the sharing and enriching of these experiences.


I'll end by reproducing the lines once more and hope listening to them again provides an experience that's not simply that of understanding a text but one that brings a poem into existence as an event of language that freshly illuminates the shared human world.


A slumber did my spirit seal;

I had no human fears:

She seemed a thing that could not feel

The touch of earthly years.

No motion has she now, no force;

She neither hears nor sees;

Rolled round in earth's diurnal course,

With rocks, and stones, and trees.