Am reading a scholarly tome titled Reading Dante : the pursuit of meaning, by Jesper Hede (Lexington Bks, 2007). He's following in the steps of another little-known Dante scholar I like, named T.K. Seung (Fragile Leaves of the Sybil). Seung's book is a profound contextual study of the Divine Comedy; Hede builds on Seung's insights, and finds most of previous commentary on the great poem to be greatly flawed. For Hede (and Seung) the Divine Comedy is an organic whole, and that wholeness is rooted in Dante's message - his "argument", in Milton's sense - the fundamental writerly purpose of the poem, the morse code Dante aims to impart : a message which suffuses and sheds light on each and every element of the poem, large and small.
This appeals to me, and not only because of its explanatory power. It rings true for me personally, when I consider my own situation, my own compositional problems and dilemmas. I feel that I have written and write long poems, not just because I'm an obsessive masochist, or a megalomaniac, or in order to compete with the other long poem writers... I write them because the form seems congenial to the enunciation of a certain, particular message (my message, to you).
And yet this attitude seems heretical today : it goes against several reigning dogmas of poetry. Here's a short list :
1. Poetry is essentially a work of art; thus its ethical (or other) messages are not so much extraneous, as marginal to its main purpose - which is to please us with an aesthetic effect.
2. Anyone who pretends to be in control of a literary message is hopelessly deluded by false consciousness, essentialism, individualism, egocentrism and logocentrism. Language is an untraceable phase-shift, inherently absent and de-centered.
3. Authorial intention is all well and good, but the final meaning of any work of art is determined by the historical circumstances which engendered it in the first place. Thus the poet's well-meaning attempt to tell us something is really doomed to failure, a temporary, Pyrrhic victory at best.
4. Any poet who tries to browbeat me with a "message" is going to lose me right off the bat. I have only contempt for a poem which has "designs" on me (this from Keats, no less!).
5. Contemporary poetry is primarily a generic phenomenon. We are relentlessly reminded of this every day by the critical theorists of the avant-garde (Conceptualism : "Poetry is..." etc.), by the academic community ("Modernism represents the coalescence of Poetry with Nietzschean-post-structural blah-blah of Late Capitalist blah-blah..."), by the MFA programs ("Where do you want to take your poetry? How do you want to sharpen up your style?"), and, finally, by the entire multifarious publishing/arts-advocacy world, absolutely replete to busting open with social media promotions for the lovable wondrousness of "poetry" in toto, for the magnetic poetry scene per se, for poets as charismatic exemplars of the cool, the hot, the hip... and with trendentious, pop-critical comparisons (blurbs) about this or that poet's status in relation to "poetry" in general, etc.
Here I just want to make a few complaints about #5 above. What if the Dante scholars are right? What if the greatest single poem ever written is determined, in every aspect of its form, by a specific message? And if the Divine Comedy is such a phenomenon as they suggest, then what about all the lesser poems trailing before and after? Would there not be some smidgen of Dante's poetics detectable in all these other poems, or at least some of them?
And if that is actually the case, then I think we have to consider this possibility : that the most important quality of a poem is that which makes it absolutely distinct from every other poem. If the poet's message shapes its form, its design, its aesthetic effects, then, we must admit, poetry in a "generic" sense becomes a little less central to the whole enterprise. If the transmission of a message is the guiding, leading motive for the poet's entire effort, then wouldn't the intepretation and reception of this message take precedence over the celebration of its aesthetic effects and qualities?
Might it not be better to focus on what this poet is trying to tell me, rather than on how this poet fits into a certain aesthetic pantheon or academic celebrity hall or community club of "poetry lovers"? (After all, he or she might have an important message for me : so important, in fact, that my fingers tremble... my whole being shivers... & I'm unable even to press the "like" button on Facebook!)
I don't really have an answer to these rhetorical questions : I ask them because, perhaps, they raise interesting problems. One way out, I suppose would be the Wallace Stevens solution : the message of poetry is poetry itself. A tautology here becomes the occasion for gorgeous meditations on poetic sense and nonsense, the beauty and the terror. Stevens is possibly the greatest 20th-cent. American poet. But he doesn't have an "argument" to make, outside of poetry itself, the way Dante does. And despite the fact that Dante does retain such an "extraneous" argument... he makes poetry. He makes great poetry.
Is it possible that all of us - teachers, publishers, poetry activists, all - have somehow skewed the whole scene, by foregrounding our generic "ideas about the thing", rather than hewing closely to the distinct, inimitable "thing itself"?
p.s. Contra McLuhan, then, it's not "the medium is the message" : rather, the message shapes the medium. Does this mean I subscribe to the blunt maxim of Charles Olson & Robert Creeley, that "form is never more than an extension of content"? No (despite the fact that, in the current hothouse climate, I appreciate the spiritual, unpretentious anti-poetry of the heirs of Projectivism - still alive in the pages of Kenneth Warren's underground zine, House Organ). Olson's dictum projects a Modernist-Brutalist ambience, like some blank institutional architecture of the '60s. As I see it, the message - the "content" of poetry - proceeds from an area in which the emotional, the perceptual, and the rational are fused together - harmonized - at an extremely high temperature. This amalgam is only adequately represented in a "form" which is equally subtle, crystalline, complex. We can feel the power of certain climactic lines in Aeschylus, or Sophocles, or Dante, or Shakespeare, or Dickinson, or Whitman, or Blake - the message comes across - only because the poet has produced a comprehensive, harmonious measure - capable of bearing that unique smoke-signal's affective weight.