Monday, November 26, 2012

WHAT IS THE PURPOSE OF LITERATURE you ask

"I suspect that one thing some people have against reading poems is that they are so often so serious, so devoid of joy, as if we poets spend all our time brooding about mutability and death and never having any fun." Ted Kooser, U S Poet Laureate


I had a one on one session with a lovely and talented poet recently and she said to me, "Poems about poetry and writing are irritating, but" she says, "I suppose a young poet must get it out of their system, better now than later". 
This isn't fight club, I do not necessarily think that there are topics which we cannot talk about but one must take care I suppose to (re) write well enough that which has already been well written. There is little in the world of crafting worse than a bad cover, at least a sequel attempts to carry the narrative forward. Still I am often asked, and is it a wonder I sometimes ask myself - what the point of it all is. What is the benefit, as one student put it to me at Drake University, of producing literature. Is it a trade, is it work? (this part is easy enough to answer really). It is in fact a trade, one which doesn't recognise working hours let alone over time. As CEO and cleaner of your empire of vocables and such, you determine what gets done and when. I'm predisposed to freedom even when its not the most financially prudent option. 
The writer is a watcher, if he isn't writing about what he has seen in person or his head, then surely he is reading or listening to something someone else watched/lived etc or he is staring hard or sincerely at something in front of him, in his head and so on. To let sensation in, in the hope that perhaps if he is disciplined and fortunate and open to it - the text will out.

Allow me to share a little something I read, by Pulitzer Prize winning writer Richard Russo in his introduction to the 2010 Best American Short stories. He speaks of a memory from his days as a young assistant professor when Isaac Bashevis Singer visited the Southern Illinois University campus.  One undergraduate, hand in air asks, "Mr Singer? Could you tell us please, what is the purpose of literature?" Singer says (and he has to repeat this a number of times, as faculty and students alike try various ways to get the elderly short story writer to elaborate on other uses.) Sticking to his guns Singer says "The purpose of literature, is to entertain and to instruct." 
Entertain you say? and then instruct?
For the full story please find and read Russo's rousing opening essay to the series, but to move this along lets see what others have had to say in the past.

A simple wiki-answers search gives me this, "literature is a fine communication to voice our thoughts and to get to know about different people and races . literature is a pleasure to intertain (sic/urban lexicon) our miserable soul. And overall, it is a self-expression to discover ourselves."
A bit of the everyday man stuff then.
Sybaris on Yahoo says, "Obviously, apart from being interesting and fun, it teaches you (as another poster said) to analyse, and to get your brain to think in a methodical manner." 
While Grayure feels that "To me, literature generally seems to be an inefficient way of expressing philosophical points which is generally long-winded and deliberately obscurantist. However, there may occasionally be works which attempt to express such points relatively succinctly."

Of course we see patterns everywhere, assemble ambient noise into shapes we can understand to preserve our own sanity, and therefore you could find an opposing point of view and just as easily secure twice as many voices to back it up. But I'm in Vermont and its snowing outside, I have found a quiet corner where I intend to huddle, entertain and instruct myself for a while and hope this thinking, my talisman against impossible QnAs holds till this winter has passed.

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