Necessary Ignorance

“To fully understand poetry, we must first be fluent with its meter, rhyme and figures of speech, then ask two questions: 1) How artfully has the objective of the poem been rendered and 2) How important is that objective? Question one rates the poem’s perfection; question two rates its importance. And once these questions have been answered, determining the poem’s greatness becomes a relatively simple matter.”

-J. Evans Pritchard, PhD., “Understanding Poetry”

A recent comment by a fellow poet on my post about negative capability got me thinking about the dance between the known and the unknown in the creative act. Alejandro Escude points out that some poets seem to “have something to say and say it” rather than adopting a “neither here nor there approach.” He mentions poets in either camp that share certain stylistic qualities with their comrades in the same camp. And while I agree that William Stafford writes a very different kind of poetry than Sharon Olds, I still believe that it is actually negative capability that makes both of them first-rate poets.

In an early scene of the film version of Dead Poets Society, Robin Williams encourages his students to rip out the introduction to their set-text poetry anthology written by the fictitious J. Evans Pritchard, PhD. Dr. Pritchard’s essay is a striking, if hyperbolic, example of how literary criticism can stray so far from the creative act as to reduce the experience of a poem to an exercise in mathematical graphs. The repeated use of the word “objective” in relation to poetry — its “importance,” and how “artfully” it is “rendered” — makes me laugh every time.

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