Romanticizing Poetry

I am very pleased to say, that as I have grown older I have learned to enjoy more and more things — poetry is one of those.   Poetry use to always bother me but, trying to be open-minded, over the years I have forced myself to read poetry again, and again.  And low and behold, almost like red wine, I began to acquire a taste for it.  And now, being somewhat sympathetic to the form, I feel safer exploring some persistent dislikes.  So, I am going to use a few posts to complain about poetry.  My complaints are thus not about poetry as a form, but about particular ways some people try to use poetry or the word “poetry” or their idea of “poetry”.   Today I’d like to describe my dislike for the false sanctity often ascribed poetry.

In McMahan’s book I found an ally. Here are some quotes from his 5th Chapter entitled “Buddhist Romanticism”:

Prior to the Romantics, the job of the artist was to act as a mirror reflecting and imitating the world.  This conception runs from Plato up through the Renaissance and into the Enlightenment.  The Romantics rejected the metaphor of artist as mire for the metaphor of the artist as a lamp that illuminates something new through the artist’s unique vision of imaginative powers.
–McMahan 2008: 119

Modern European and North American culture’s reverence for the artist, its allowing the artist to stand to some extent outside society’s conventions, its picture of the artist as feeling things more deeply than others, its romanticization of the artist (of course!) emerged in this period to be endowed with an almost priestly or shamanic ability to conjure hidden aesthetic and spiritual realities, to transform the mundane into the sublime through the freedom of the creative imagination, and to plumb the hidden depths of real and give them unique expression.
–McMahan 2008: 120

The Romantics bequeathed to our age a sense that “what [artists] reveal has great moral and spiritual significance; that in it lies the key to certain depth, or fullness, or seriousness, or intensity of life, or to a certain wholeness”
–McMahan 2008: 146; Taylor 1989:42

Many poetry lovers buy into this romanticized view of poetry. These romanticizers find some voice in poetry and then try to make the whole form into something far more special than it actually is. This is not just a fault of some poetry lovers, but it is tendency of mind that can be seen everywhere — this blog is full of posts trying to illustrate this tendency in religious realms. A person may find some self-pleasing form of Buddhism and next thing you know they are off on a mission to defend all of Buddhism–giving their idealized abstraction of Buddhism all the flavors of their favorite version.  Some Christians do the same, by defending Christianity in general. Negative versions of this mental habit exist to exist also: Anti-religion atheists find the favorite things they hate in a religion and try to color all things touched by religion with the same.  Hopefully by discussing the tendency in something as potentially secular as poetry, I have better illustrated another one of our insidiousness habits.

Questions to readers:

  • What do you love about poetry?
  • Do you agree with me on the above observations?


Filed under Philosophy & Religion

12 responses to “Romanticizing Poetry


    One of the things I like about poetry is the vivid use it makes, or can make, of the imagination. The use of the imagination is obviously not exclusive to this art form, but the use of this medium of words is appealing initially because we are all word users, while not all of us are musical, or have the impulse or talent to sculpt or paint. Words of prose can certainly be creative and artistically rendered but are usually used implicitly to make one or perhaps several points. Poems can also do this but in a way that invites (it seems to me) more creative participation by the reader allowing for further interpretation. A poem by William Blake that I memorized many years ago can, I hope, illustrate this.
    He who binds to himself a joy
    Does the winged life destroy;
    He who kisses the joy as it flies
    Lives in eternity’s sunrise

    In prose? You can’t take it with you! Appreciate the good things in life! Happiness does not last! Etc..etc. The poem itself stands complete. The interpretations are individual and ongoing.

  2. atimetorend

    An interesting post. Not certain just what you are saying. What I think you might be saying is that it is not good to put poets or poetry on a pedestal, because there is both good and bad poetry, and poets. That makes sense, and people can become overly enamored with bad forms of art, just because it is considered “art.” Interesting analogy with religion you draw.

    Have you read any William Carlos Williams?

  3. “A person may find some self-pleasing form of Buddhism and next thing you know they are off on a mission to defend all of Buddhism–giving their idealized abstraction of Buddhism all the flavors of their favorite version.”

    This sounds familiar for some reason. 🙂 However, I strongly disagree with your assesment, but I won’t go there.

    Anyway, I think it is normal for people to tend to find an aspect of something they like or have found helpful or enjoyed in any format. The brain is interesting as it is wired to search out these patterns in things that have become repetitious and productive in the past, even enjoyment of things like poetry. Myself, I prefer poets that are minimalist, who with a few words can open up an entire scenario in one’s mind.

    “These romanticizers find some voice in poetry and then try to make the whole form into something far more special than it actually is. ” I think this is quite subjective, as for them, it might be the most special thing in the world, but for someone else, it might be junk. It’s like judging in the Olympics for sports that are subjective based, like figure skating. Who is the real judge of the ultimate quality?

  4. @ Tim

    As for your Blake poem, I think the same message could have been said in prose, perhaps not as succinctly (because prose syntax demands length which can be broken in poetry) and not as musically (rhyme and rhythm are more common tools of some poetry), but the same could be said that would have all the other qualities you like. Another aspect you allude to is the vagueness in poetry which allows more individual interpretation and participation.

    But you are right, poetry hold no potential monopoly over creativity, imagination.

    Some poems are also more easy to memorize because of rhyme, rhythm or some other structural elements and this is probably their origin. But alas, we can’t consider that a virtue but a mere quality.

    Good to hear you back out on blogs. I am sorry you are not certain what I am saying. I will try to summarize:

    Many people romanticize poetry in such a way as to make the poet into having some magic skill to see into and speak purely of the deepest aspect of reality. This view is mistaken.

    “Good or bad poetry” is judged by the consumer, I am afraid — not by some objective standard. There is no form of art that gives the artist any special insight.

    Yes, someone else has pointed out Williams to me — seems like an interesting poet. I put his “The Tempers” on my new Kindle. Thanx.

    @ Kyle
    Exactly which assessment of mine do you strongly disagree with?
    Do you agree with the post’s main point as I summarized above for A_Time_to_Rend?

  5. @Sabio – Thanks, but I’m done arguing semantics for today.

  6. I’m not sure I understand. Are you talking about Poetry (with a capital P)?

    The people I know in poetry circles have developed a taste for particular poems, some poets, and even certain kinds of poetry, but not for Poetry in general. To the contrary, these same people have developed distaste, even antipathy, for some particular poems, poets, and even certain kinds of poetry. For example, there is sometimes heated debate and disagreement about what constitutes a Haiku poem. I can’t think of anyone I talk to about poetry who talks about Poetry, capital P.

    I think poetry may resemble music: some genres we like; others we don’t like. Within a genre there are songs (poems) we enjoy and others we don’t enjoy.

    I like what Tim says in the first comment. I would add that regular meter and rhyme make it much easier to memorize poetry and give the poem a pleasing quality that is missing from prose. It sticks with you, even with dimming memory.

    Poetry doesn’t even need to make sense or say something important:

    Hey Diddle Diddle
    The cat and the fiddle
    The cow jumped over the moon
    The little dog laughed to see such sport
    And the dish ran away with the spoon.

    In my kindergarten, I sometimes substitute “fork” for that last word, just to get a laugh.

    Poetry can just be fun.

  7. @ Dan
    I am speaking of Poetry with a capital “P”. I think that people have certain assumptions about cap-P Poetry and it is those I am trying to discuss. I will try to come up with examples in the future — I am sure I will find them.

    Poetry can be fun, painful, ugly, beautiful and all those things — just like prose, painting and music.

  8. theskeptnik

    I think there is a general human tendency showing up here. Identification with our image of our persona seems to drive us to defend beyond what is appropriate, those things that we identify ourselves with. As an anti-theist atheist, I know I am guilty of this. Oddly as a dabbler in buddhism and taoism and a meditator I have been aware of this trap and have not self-identified with those ideologies. Perhaps because they seem to teach not to identify with anything but to continually non-grasp.
    Thanks for the stimulating post.

  9. Sabio,

    I once had a professor as an undergraduate who was a logician and, for most of his life a logical positivist. Then one day he was listening to Beethoven’s last quartet, and he realized there was a whole dimension of experience that had been previously closed to him that was now open. A religious experience? An aesthetic experience? It was certainly a something more-ness that for him was beyond logic and words. Great poetry can be an entry point to this same dimension. Do you agree?

  10. To me, poetry is a lot like meditation. You have to let go of stuff and clear your mind to really appreciate it, especially the kind of poetry that has been evolving since Whitman. You don’t necessarily have to understand a poem, and it certainly does not have to make sense – just enjoy the arrangement of the words and the feeling the poet is trying to convey. You just need to be in the moment of the poem. But to do that, you have to let go of most of the things rattling around in your head.

    It’s like the line in the Springsteen song, “the poets down here don’t write nothing at all, they just stand back and let it all be.” If you can get the kind of poetry he is talking about, then you have the key to appreciating both poetry and Poetry.

    Most poetry is romantic in one way or another, so small wonder that people romanticize and idealize it. Thank goodness they do. That’s one of the functions of art, to put a little “magic” into the world. What a boring place this would be if there were nothing but bare, mundane analytics.

  11. @ theskeptnik
    Indeed, part of what I wrote about was the habit of granting your personal preferences unnecessary sanctification.

    @ Seth Segall
    The mind is like a landmass with hills, plains, seacoast, mountains, forests and deserts. When you visit a place you have not been, the surprise of the unknown realm and the beauty can be amazing.

    Sadly, few people have the pleasure of going carefully through Gödel’s theorem nor understand the practical implications of regression analysis. Such mathematical ventures, like the professor’s trip to Beethoven, could be ‘religious experiences’ and something beyond mere sounds and rhythms and act as an entry point to a new dimension for people who have only been in the arts of soft sciences.
    Do you agree?

    Truly understanding quantum mechanics must be a mystical experience. Or, do you feel that there is something more sacred about the activity of one part of the brain over another? Imagine the person who finally masters a kinesthetic skill like horse riding and makes their first fluid jump. Wow, what ‘dimension’ is that?

    I love exploring and playing in the various landscapes of my mind. Each holds very different beauties. I see people locked into their favorite towns and geographies who never had the pleasure of travel. I agree that parochialism is an issue as is jingoism.

  12. @ David
    Relaxing the discursive mind and activating other parts is helpful not only for enjoying poetry, but also for horse-riding, painting, calligraphy, sexual relations and much more.

    It is a shame more people don’t see the “magic” in mathematics, logic, and complex systems. Since they are blind to the magic, they run to gods for simple meaning.

    I agree, magic is important.

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