The Goals of Poetry

A beer is for drinking. A sofa is for sitting. A poem is for… enjoyment? Edification? The imagination and expression of the indestructible order of the universe? Fart jokes?

According to Percy Shelley’s essay A Defense of Poetry, poetry “is the very image of life expressed in its eternal truth.” Stated another way, the work of a poet is to “imagine and express [the world’s] indestructible order.” The problem with trying to create a definition based on these statements is that they are both over and under-inclusive for what we commonly think of as poetry. They are over-inclusive because Shelley means that any expression of eternal truth is poetry regardless of form; he includes the the essays of Francis Bacon and the histories of Herodotus, Plutarch, and Livy as poetry. The content, rather than the form defines the poem according to Shelley. The definitions are also under-inclusive because a dirty limerick, lacking any spark of eternal truth, appears to fall outside of the category of poetry. This sort of content based, distinction seems inappropriate for an art form that includes some very strict formal categories.

Although content based distinction between poetry and non-poetry may not be appropriate, content based criticism of poetry makes a lot of sense. Aristophanes makes a particularly appealing case study for this analysis for two reasons. In the first place, the content of Aristophanes’ plays is superficially very sophomoric; he peppers his work very liberally with scatological and sexual humor. Secondly, despite the ceaseless stream of crude jokes, Aristophanes clearly thinks that there are much bigger things at stake. In an earlier post, I noted that he used the chorus in The Wasps to chide the Athenian audience for not appreciating the good advice that he had provided the city in his plays.

In The Frogs, Aristophanes has the character of Euripides state that the most important trait of the poet is his ability to improve the audience through his wise counsels. This point is taken up by the character of Æschylus and seems very much in line with the tone of the chorus in The Wasps. In the play’s contest between Euripides and Æschylus for greatest all-time tragedian, Æschylus gets the win based not on the beauty of his verse, but on the superiority of his practical advice.

Like the analysis of Shelley, this seems to over-emphasize poetry’s content at the expense of its form. But it is important to note that Aristophanes couches all of this within a work of poetry rather than in a lecture or treatise. He is adamant that he has some very important things to say, but he does so within the structure of his verse. The key, it seems, is the proper balance between form and content. Even the most important and valuable content, if not presented beautifully will not be well received. And the most beautiful verse, without some substantial content, will ring hollow. If the characters in The Frogs are right that the true measure of quality of a poet is his ability to improve his audience, it is clear that the greatest effect on the audience will come from the most skillful combination of form and substance.

Beer of the week: Grolsh Lager – Grolsh is best known in the US for its iconic swing-top bottles. It is also available, it seems, in more standard long-necks. Aside from the bottle, this Dutch macro is unremarkable. It is clear, pale gold with lots of carbonation. Light aroma of toasted grain. Not much to it, but not bad at all.

Reading of the week: The Frogs by Aristophanes – A large part of the disagreement between Æschylus and Euripides in this play is whether characters should be realistic or idealized. Æschylus argues that idealized characters make for better role models, and are therefore better suited to improve the audience. Euripides, on the other hand, favors realistic characters because they are more relatable.

Question for the week: Does even the most shallow or juvenile poem deserve the title of “poetry” by virtue of its form alone?

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Chastity

This is the thirteenth in a series on Franklin’s moral improvement plan, the rest of the posts are available here.

CHASTITY: Rarely use venery but for health or offspring, never to dulness, weakness, or the injury of your own or another’s peace or reputation.
-Franklin

Like Temperance, Frugality, and Silence, Franklin’s version of Chastity could easily be viewed as a sub-virtue of moderation. He does not advocate sexual abstinence any more than he advocates absolute silence, parsimony, or teetotaling. Rather, Franklin’s advice is to limit sexual exertion to a healthy level. Sex is not bad; over-indulgence is bad, particularly if it leads to a damaged reputation.

This view of chastity and eros would have served Hippolytus well. The mythical Hippolytus worshipped Artemis, the chaste goddess of the hunt, to the exclusion of Aphrodite, the goddess of love. In Euripides’ version of the story, Hippolytus comes on the scene with a an offering for Artemis: a “woven wreath, culled from a virgin meadow, where nor shepherd dares to herd his flock nor ever scythe hath mown, but o’er the mead unshorn the bee doth wing its way in spring; and with the dew from rivers drawn purity that garden tends.” And he follows this carefully cultivated sacrifice with a total rebuff of Aphrodite. “No god, whose worship craves the night,” he says, “hath charms for me.”

Hippolytus’ sage attendant understands the error of this attitude, and advises him to maintain at least “courteous affability” with all of the gods. Although he does not say so in so many words, this is because the gods of the Greek pantheon represent the many facets of humanity. It is fine, even proper, to have a favored god as a patron, but all of the gods must have their due. To deny any of the various gods entirely is to deny an entire aspect of human nature. And that is as true of Aphrodite as it is of the rest.


Beer of the week: Indio – When it comes to Mexican beers, darker is almost always better. This Mexican dark lager pours with big, sticky bubbles. The aroma is not much different than a Corona. The flavor is profile includes some rice and a slight hint of caramel that lingers. And, although it has more flavor than most pale lagers from south of the boarder, it is just about as refreshing.

Reading of the week: Hippolytus by Euripides – The play begins with Aphrodite spelling out exactly what her plan is to avenge herself upon Hippolytus. She is intent upon “bring to ruin all who vaunt themselves at” her.

Question for the week: Is rage particularly tied to love in a special way? Could Hephaestus, god of craftsmen, or Athena, goddess of wisdom, be as spiteful as Aphrodite?


Moderation

This is the tenth in a series on Franklin’s moral improvement plan, the rest of the posts are available here.

MODERATION: Avoid extreams; forbear resenting injuries so much as you think they deserve.
– Franklin

As I noted in an earlier post, Sydney winters never get cold enough for a proper polar bear plunge. As a result, those who want a real winter swim have to be creative. Members of the Bondi Icebergs Club take blocks of ice with them into their beautiful tidal swimming pool. Cold water swimming is meant to be both salubrious and invigorating.

On the other temperature extreme (and on the other side of the world) are the Finns, who take great pride in their scorching hot saunas. There are even competitions (some of which end quite badly) where contestants attempt to sit in the hottest temperature for the longest period. Aside from the dangers associated with doing it competitively, the use of saunas is regarded as healthful and rejuvenating.

How does one reconcile these practices with the general proposition that extremes are harmful? The conclusion, I think, must be that extremes are not dangerous in themselves. A certain amount of extremity pushes the body (or the mind), very much in the way that physical exercise does. What is dangerous about extremes is when they cease to be extreme. Extremes are extraordinary conditions to be endured, and they should not be allowed to become ordinary.

Pop-Up IPA

Beer of the week: Pop-Up IPA – A “session” IPA is a tribute to moderation. It is a drink for those who want the flavor of an IPA without the extreme hopping or alcohol level. Unfortunately, I think that Boulevard dialed this beer back a little too much. To be sure, it is a fine beer, but the flavor is not quite as full as I would like.  Pop-Up is a cloudy session IPA with a thick, sticky head. The beer’s aroma is dominated by grassy, floral hops. The aftertaste has a hint of pepper.

Reading for the week: Tartuffe, or the Hypocrite by Molière, Act I, Scene VI – “Men,” says one character in this scene, “for the most part, are strange creatures, truly! You never find them keep the golden mean; The limits of good sense, too narrow for them, Must always be passed by, in each direction; They often spoil the noblest things, because They go too far, and push them to extremes.”

Question for the week: Are occasional extremes really good for us, or is that just a justification for indulging in extremes that ought to be avoided.


Temperance

This is the second in a series on Franklin’s moral improvement plan, the rest of the posts will be available here.

TEMPERANCE:  Eat not to dullness; drink not to elevation.
– Franklin

As applied to food, the notion of “all things in moderation” is sorely abused. There are certainly some foods that one can healthily do without entirely. Indeed, there are foods that one ought to live without. So recommending that all foods be consumed in moderation is not quite right.

For example, one can eat candy from time to time without any serious threat of injury. But it would be absurd to recommend consumption of a moderate amount of candy. A better recommendation would be the total avoidance of candy, and if one does eat candy, to keep it at a minimum.

Because of this distinction, it is important to be able to tell between those foods that should be avoided, but may be consumed in small quantities, and those foods that are salubrious, but should be consumed moderately.

In Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, the character Gluttony describes his lineage: “My grandfather was a Gammon of Bacon, my grandmother a Hogshead of Claret-wine; my godfathers were these, Peter Pickleherring, and Martin Martlemas-beef.” And Gluttony’s godmother was Mistress Margery Marchbeer. The choice of food and drink associated with Gluttony is quite interesting: cured pork, pickled fish, and dried beef, together with red wine and märzen beer. (To say nothing of the fact that the meat is masculine and the drink is feminine.)

Because the play is from the late 16th century, it goes without saying that there was no refrigeration. So during much of the year, preservation of meat through curing, pickling, or drying was essential if one was to have meat at all. Additionally, beer and wine both served as valuable dietary supplements, and were recommended for a great number of health benefits. So to Marlowe, gluttony is about the over-consumption of healthful foods, not the consumption of foods that are inherently bad for you.

Then again, Marlowe could hardly have imagined the concoctions that pass for food these days.


Beer of the week: Flag Spéciale – This Moroccan beer is brewed in Fez, and is ultimately uninspiring. It is pretty darn bland. On the plus side, the only ingredients are water, malt, and hops; no refined sugars, or anything that should be avoided altogether. Boring though it may be, it is refreshing. And when combined with a bit of atmosphere on a hot day, it is even delightful. And because it comes in a 24 cl bottle, there is little chance of “drinking to elevation.”

Reading of the week: The Tragical History of Dr. Faustus by Christopher Marlowe, Scene VI – In this scene, Lucifer introduces Dr. Faustus to the Seven Deadly Sins. Faustus says to Lucifer that seeing the Sins in their true form “will be as pleasing unto [him], As Paradise was to Adam the first day Of his creation.”

Question for the week: The proposed distinction between foods that are salubrious and foods that should be avoided entirely is clearly problematic. For example, vegans say all meat should be avoided. Teetotalers say all alcohol should be avoided. Are their any truly clear divisions than can be made?


Vespa

So much of comedy is context. Things are often especially funny when they are incongruous with the background. For example, the behavior of the Blues Brothers in a fancy restaurant is much funnier because their vulgarity is especially out of place in a formal setting.

But in many ways not just the setting but also the history and cultural background is needed to “get” a joke. For example, when Aristophanes makes a joke about Cleonymus throwing away his shield, we have to know that shield throwing is shorthand for cowardice, and that Cleonymus had a reputation along those lines. Not knowing who that person is or what it means to throw down a shield, such a joke just can’t land.

Or to get a joke about Hercules at the dinner table one must know that the demigod’s insatiable appetite was something of a cliché in Aristophanes’ time.

Obviously, these are not great examples. A modern person who has never held a sword may still understand the implications of throwing down one’s shield. And even if Hercules is not a regular character in our comedic repertoire these days, gluttony is still readily understandable. But I am at a disadvantage in picking my examples; the best of them go right over my own head.

As a result of this need for background information, much ancient (or otherwise culturally remote) comedy is quite inaccessible. Certain people, customs, or places that form the butt of jokes might not be known, so the joke must fall flat.

Aristophanes is often accessible. In The Clouds, for example, a lizard defecates onto Socrates’s face. Classic. However, at other times, I just feel like I am not in on the joke. He lampoons people that I’ve never heard of, and makes all manner of social comments that are simply beyond me.

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Beer of the week: Pacifico Clara – This is yet another bland Mexican lager. There is not much else to say about it. It is a little sweet and a lot bland. Pacifico is not bad, but there is just not much to it.

Reading for the week: The Wasps by Aristophanes, Lines 986-1121 – In this part of the play, Aristophanes (through the chorus) lets us know that there is much more at stake than getting his jokes. He believes that there are bigger, more important things going on in his satire than getting laughs.

Question for the week: What about comedy is truly universal?


My Kingdom for a King

As repugnant as many Americans find the idea of monarchy, there are some arguments to be made in favor that particular form of government:

  1. A monarch has a vested interest in the continuing stability of his country. If he may be on the throne for several decades and then pass the crown to his son, there is a lot of incentive for a king to plan for the long-term. Compare this to an elected politician, who is either subject to term-limits or must always have an eye on the polls for the next election. Once he reaches his term-limit, he is at liberty to steal as much as he can and let the next office-holder take the blame. If there is no term-limit or if he has not yet reached it, the elected politician has a lot of incentive to prioritize short-term results lest he be ousted at the next election. Fiscal responsibility, therefore, seems much more likely to exist in a monarchy than in a republic.
  2. A monarch may act as a very effective check on popular government. Because he has no fear of being removed when the people go to the polls, a king may safely attempt to stand in the way of a popular faction that would inappropriately impose itself on others. Emperor Franz Joseph supposedly claimed that his role as monarch was “to protect my peoples from their governments.” Alcohol prohibition in America is a great example of how a dedicated faction can overrun all official opposition with the threat of the ballot box. The result is often gross incursions of the government into private affairs.
  3. A monarch also serves as a unifying principle. Like the flag, the crown is a non-partisan symbol of national unity. To be sure, not every monarch is universally loved. But it is possible for an American president to be elected by a relatively small fraction of the population. (Bush the Second got some 50 million votes in 2000, and the total population of the USA at that time was well over 280 million.) And elections are almost always very decisive. As a result, it is uncommon for Americans generally to “rally behind” their elected officials the same way royal subjects may rally behind their king.

These arguments are certainly somewhat compelling. In particular, the independence of the monarch from popular whims and contentious factions is an attractive feature of the system. History, however, tells us that people are not always better off under a king than under a republic, (or under a rightful king rather than a usurper.) The customary means by which one ascends to the throne is birthright, but not every child of a king is fit to wear the crown. In Meno, Socrates antagonizes Anytus, one of the men who would eventually accused him of corrupting the youth of Athens, by listing great men who had inferior progeny; if Themistocles, Pericles, or Thucydides did not have sons who lived up to their fathers’ reputations, why should we expect great kings to fare any better? And if the notion of birthright is abandoned on these grounds, what is left of monarchy?

Beer of the week: Arthur – Speaking of progeny, Arthur has a family connection. This farmhouse ale is not named for King Arthur, but for one of the brewers’ uncles who grew up on the farm that gives Hill Farmstead Brewery its name. It pours a cloudy straw color with lots of big, white bubbles. The aroma is of yeast and tart grapes or white wine. The finish is more sour than expected, with lots of lemon, white grape, and earthy yeast flavor. I really enjoyed this Vermont treat.

Reading of the week: The Tragedy of Richard II by William Shakespeare, Act III, Scene 2 – When King Richard returns from Ireland, he finds that some of his supporters are fled, others dead, but most have gone over to the usurper, Henry of Bolingbroke. Richard flashes from hope to despair and back (and back again) in this scene. Two of his speeches are of particular interest to me. In the first, Richard enlists nature itself to preserve his monarchy by setting spiders and vipers and toads in Bolingbroke’s way. In his later speech, however, he acknowledges that there is nothing about the nature of kings that separates them from other men: “For you have but mistook me all this while: I live with bread like you, feel want, Taste grief, need friends: subjected thus, How can you say to me, I am a king?”

Question of the week: Are the above arguments for monarchy really compelling? And if so, how can the problem of unfit heirs be remedied adequately to justify a monarchy?


Girl Power

There are complaints in some circles that there are not enough “strong female characters” in modern entertainment. And perhaps that really is a problem with modern entertainment. But maybe that just means that we should look to the ancients. After all, strong female characters are as old as theater itself. Consider The Oresteia by Aeschylus:

The trilogy starts with Clytemnestra, Queen of the Argives, taking revenge on her husband for killing her daughter. Despite the name of the play, she is clearly the main character of Agamemnon. She is both sympathetic and relentless in her determination to make Agamemnon pay for his sins. A woman wronged, Clytemnestra kills the warrior king who led the sack of Troy. A strong female indeed.

The final play of the trilogy, The Eumenidies, is regarded as the first dramatic presentation of a jury trial. And who are the principle participants in the trial of Orestes? The judge: Athena, goddess of wisdom. The prosecution: the Furies, ancient goddesses of retribution. It is true that the Apollo’s defense of Orestes results in an acquittal, and Athena specifically declares outright that she prefers the masculine to the feminine. But the play ends with the female immortals negotiating and eventually contracting an alliance that will preserve the city of Athens and the institution of trial by jury under their patronage. It is the strong, benevolent goddesses that we have to thank for many of the central aspects of our culture.

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Beer of the week: Zlatopramen 11 Degrees – Zlatopramen makes a wide range of flavored radlers, but this is their standard Czech lager. It is fairly basic, with a golden color and fluffy white head that fades just a bit too quickly. Aromatic hops lead the smell, with hints of grass. The taste is also dominated by the hops. The beer is not too bitter by any means, but they did not skimp on the bitterness either. Overall, I think this is Czech lager is quite good.

Reading for the week: Antigone by Sophocles – How about Antigone for a strong female lead? Her sister told her that women could not contend with men, and you know what Antigone had to say? “Maybe you can’t contend with men, but just watch me!”

Question for the week: Who is your favorite female character? (Ancient or modern.)