Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Alienation and Contempt

I just finished a short book titled "The Hatred of Poetry" in which the author, Ben Lerner, a poet himself, makes the argument that people hate poetry because 1) they think that just because they are a language-using human, they ought to be poets themselves, and 2) actual poetry fails to live up to our ideal of Poetry.

While my gut reaction was that this was utter nonsense, I came to realize that there are a few other fields in which this is true as well, not the least being economics. Everyone thinks they ought to be able to make pronouncements about economist just because they are human beings, and actual economics fails to live up to our ideal of Economics. As a result, most people hate economics and economists.

I would add to this psychology, sociology, and political science.

At the same time, there are a number of areas where people don't make this same mistake: math, physics, chemistry, biology, and even many of the other arts, including sculpture and painting (though some of the postmodern works have people saying, "I could have done that" or "My three year old could have done that"), music and acting are typically things we don't think we can do without some degree of expertise.

Why is it that people who don't read poetry and don't like poetry feel a need to express an opinion about poetry when those same people wouldn't do the same thing about recent publications in mathematics? It seems that there are a set of things people do that others seem to hold in contempt because they fancy themselves able to do them and another set of things people seem to admire (or at least not hold in contempt) simply because they know they couldn't possibly do them.

The reason people don't like poetry may have something to do with the fact that everyone thinks they can do it, and that bumps up against what actual poets are doing. Much like economists--everyone thinks they understand the economy, and they get mad when an economist comes along and tells them they're wrong about how they think the economy works. There is a disconnect between what the person thinks they can do and what the experts in fact do. 

Why, then, do people who hate poetry love songs? After all, isn't a song really just a poem? Of course. But songs are more directly tied into music, and only rarely are songs constructed such that they are as complex as many poems often are. More, they are heard rather than read, and reading is a difficult cognitive process which we can only do because the brain itself reconstructs itself--certain parts of itself already designed for other things--in order to be able to read. Then what is read has to be passed through this section of the brain before it is sent to the language portions of the brain. The musical element poetry (when present) is suppressed relative to songs, so poems are neither really read nor sung while at the same time, both read and sung. 

We can look at this in another way, by comparing Shakespeare read and Shakespeare viewed/heard. The same people who find Shakespeare "boring" when they read him are excited watching a play (or film). The same things that bore them when they read Shakespeare move them to fear or laughter or tears when they watch the play performed and hear the words spoken. Why is it boring when read and not boring when viewed (ignoring those who still find it boring when viewed, since other issues may be at play there--I am only interested in the disconnect between the attitudes of reading vs. hearing/viewing). This would point to my suggestion that, in the case of poetry, part of the disconnect comes about from the fact that poems are read, which makes them, in many ways, more complicated. 

The fact that poems are read rather than heard also invites contemplation and analysis. One can look at the words and think about their varied meanings. This further complicates one's relationship with poems. The more you interact with a poem, the less likely it seems you are able to write one. Yet, you are still convinced that you ought to be able to write a poem. It's all just language, after all, and you are a language-using species. And if poetry is a "higher" form of language, and language makes us human, then poets are a "higher" form of human. And who doesn't want to be a higher form of human?

The same belief doesn't apply to painters. We may be impressed with the work of a painter, but we don't think the person a "higher" form of human. We consider them to just be an artist expressing themselves. The fact is that poets are the same. Poets are just artists expressing themselves. Language is their medium, but that fact doesn't necessarily make them a higher form of human in the least. 

Lerner suggests that these attitudes are a consequence of Plato's attitude toward poets. The Greeks considered poets to be inspired by the Muses, meaning they were conduits for the gods. They were chosen by the gods. Meaning they were special. We in the West still have that attitude toward poets, even if it has evolved in different ways.  But do other cultures hold this view? Are their attitudes toward poets more like our attitudes toward painters and mathematicians? 

I would argue, then, that people tend to express contempt toward those things which they think ought to be easy, but which "experts" in the field keep demonstrating to be complex. They have respect for difficult things they think are difficult, and they likely don't think much at all about those things that they think are easy that are in fact easy (for pretty much everyone), or at least easy to understand. You might not be able to play the guitar, but rock music seems easy to understand. Jazz, on the other hand, is more difficult to understand, and as a result many people don't seem to much care for it (part of this may also be simple familiarity--as we learn to hear something, we grow to like it). 

Overall, I don't think that having or lacking interest in any of these particular things is what's at play here. There are sets of knowledge/skills we seem to respect and others which we do not. A person may not be able to do math, and may not personally like doing math, but still hold a great mathematician in high esteem. They're not going to engage in the math nor make the mistake of having an opinion about the math being done that they cannot do. As a result, they simply respect the mathematicians who can do those things. But when you have a person who is not an economist and is generally ignorant of economics, that doesn't mean they won't have an opinion about economics. The same person who lacks interest in learning math and economics will refrain from having an opinion about math and give their opinion about economics. 

So it seems that interest isn't really what's at play. Again, I think it's precisely the disconnect between apparent simplicity and the real complexity that creates this contempt toward poetry, economics, sociology, and psychology, among other things. I know I don't know anything about how to repair a car, so I respect auto mechanics. For the longest time I thought I could write and understand poems when I really couldn't. Thus, I started out with a hatred of poetry and a degree of contempt for poets--which has changed as I have slowly learned to understand poems and how to write them. I suppose I lost my hatred of poetry because I never really bought into the idea that there was this unattainable ideal of Poetry which can never be realized by any real poem. 

The less disconnect, the less alienation one feels, the less hatred one feels. There's probably something to consider in regards to things well beyond poetry.

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