Sunday, September 16, 2012

Constrained and Unconstrained Poets

The economic way of thinking begins with understanding that human choice is all walks of life is always exercised against a background of constraints.

The reality of choice within constraints implies that we face trade-offs in making decisions.

Peter Boettke, Living Economics, pg. 22
F. A. Hayek argues that there are two kinds of individualism, one which embraces the "constrained vision" and the other which embraces the "unconstrained vision." The former Hayek identifies with the "tragic sense of life."

If we look at poetry, we can see these two visions at play in formalist poetry vs. "free verse" poetry (which I will, for simplicity's sake, use to mean any and all kinds of "unconstrained" poetry, including dadais and surrealist poetry, among others).

Formalist poets understand that constraints are not necessarily restricting, but are a necessary condition for freedom. The world is full of constraints, and interesting rules/constraints can create new possibilities you may not have thought of had you been writing a free verse poem. A sonnet thus makes one more entrepreneurial, because you have to be alert to new possibilities, because you have constraints in what you can say next (or, in revision, perhaps what you said before). In formalist peotry there are a number of constraints that force you to make choices -- many more choices than you have to make in free verse, for example.

Free verse poets believe constraints restrict their freedom. Free verse poetry and many of the experiments of literary modernism and postmodernism were attempts at shedding constraints -- and are in fact an attempt to deny the existence and validity of constraints. Surrealism attempts to deny the validity of making a decision -- or at least, conscious decisions -- and therefore atttempts to create an "act" without decision, direction/goal, or structure. The surrealist artists all considered themselves to be the artistic expression of Marxism. And Marxism is, of course, the height of the unconstrained vision of man.

Of course, not all constraints are the same. There are natural and imposed constraints. There are internally imposed and externally imposed constraints. There are predictable and unpredictable constraints. Formalist poetry embraces a combination of natural (rhythms and rhymes) and imposed (this or that particular rhyme scheme or rhythm), internally imposed (by our choices) and externally imposed (by our traditions, within which we necessarily work), and predictable (in a heroic couplet the last word of the second line necessarily rhymes with the first) and unpredictable (having to rhyme may send the writer into a different direction than (s)he first thought the poem was going). But note that the formalist poet is making use of both simultaneously, and is not using one at the expense of the other.

Many of the experiments with modernism and postmodernism insisted that they were rejecting the artificiality of formalism and embracing a more "natural" kind fo poetry. The surrealists thought they were being natural, unpredictable, and internal, for example. There was an assumption that nature was chaotic/unpredictable -- and that man imposed order from the outside. Self-organization theory helps us to see that a kind of predictable-unpredictable, internal-external natural order can exist. Thus, a good formalist poem is much more like a self-organizing natural system than is a surrealist poem. Neither is more natural than the other, but the former embraces more aspects of reality than does the latter .

On the other hand, one can go in the other direction and have externally imposed, predictable art -- but this is propaganda and/or is a product of censorship. In the visual arts, Futurism tried to embrace the completely "imposed"/non-natural. Language, being a spontaneous order itself, always necessarily embodies both elements, making a purely "unnatural" poetry all but impossible -- except perhaps in various Dadaist experiments.

This suggests, then, that the kinds of poetry flourishing at a given time are likely to reflect the way the poets understand the world - as being naturally constrained or naturally unconstrained. Does this mean there are more formalist poets with the tragic view of life? Perhaps. One would expect to see this in the world views they express in their art, regardless of explicit political statements. The same would, perhaps, be true of "unconstrained" poets as well.

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