“This is realism”: Lessons from Poetry

Langdon Hammer describes the stone that Yeats’s fisherman sits on (in the poem “The Fisherman”) as “resistant” and “non-ideal, that is, real”. This equation of “non-ideal” with its common meaning of “imperfect” (as in “my new flat isn’t ideal…”), while also keeping in mind the opposition of “ideal” to “real” is very illuminating: reality is what we get when we make do with things that are not perfect.

The fisherman doesn’t complain, he probably barely notices that the stone on which he sits could be smoother. He does not impose upon reality, he makes do with what he has, which is what makes him the simple soul that Yeats admires.

Compare him to “the clever man who cries the catch cries of the clown”. This man is trying to shape the world to fit him, by bending people to his will (making people repeat his slogans). The poet does not admire this sort of cleverness.

We can learn something about what a poet is supposed to be from Yeats’s poem. Compare to Auden’s famous lines, from his “In Memory of W. B. Yeats”:

For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives

In the valley of its making where executives

Would never want to tamper, flows on south

From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,

Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives,

A way of happening, a mouth.

The poet is not trying to change the world, to rally support, and if they did try to do this they would fail anyway. The poet writes about reality, and accepts reality as it is.

So we get Kathy Acker’s method of writing about painting: “I see what I see immediately; I don’t rethink it. My seeing is as rough or unformed as what I’m seeing. This is realism: the unification of my perceiving and what I perceive or a making of a mirror relation between my world and the world of the painting.” Perhaps we could make our writing more polished. But the roughness of the words conveys the roughness of the world as we find it.

The puzzle is: how can the poet accept reality as it is and yet be motivated to try to effect a change in the heart of the reader? I think the answer is: the heart of the reader will never be unaffected if the poet is true in her depiction of reality. And if the reader is affected then she will change. “This is what poetry can offer: it can offer a lesson …” What the poet must do is: write about reality and hope to change the reader by showing her what is real. What the poet really cannot do is: determine what course this change will take.

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5 Responses to “This is realism”: Lessons from Poetry

  1. Pingback: Notes on Honoré Daumier, Don Quixote (1868) | Lee Watkins

  2. Daniel Slocombe says:

    It’s very interesting reading this from a scientist’s perspective! The ‘ideal’ is a well established concept in science. We make certain approximations to simplify a system in order to describe it using our limited mathematical capacity. Reality is chaotic, non-linear and ill-defined; to describe it we often resort to numerical approaches, which are very computationally intensive. The ideal system is how one views the world whilst accepting that we cannot have absolute knowledge of it. This has obvious limitations and is why there is a joke commonly made about physicists:
    Q: How does a physicist milk a cow?
    A: Let us consider a spherical cow in a vacuum…


  3. Caroline says:

    Hi Lee, Dan and I have been chatting about your blog. Interestingly we’ve both taken different messages from it – I guess that makes you the poet and us the readers with differently changed courses (which rather confirms your point!). Really thought-provoking – thanks.


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