Is something defined only by its function? Many of the French Symbolists poets might argue that a poem is not necessarily written to fulfill the function of communication with a reader, that it is in fact just there.
If this were completely true wouldn’t a poem be like Mt. Everest? Sir Edmund Hillary said he climbed this greatest of all mountains simply because it was there. Using that perspective we must view each poem as a mountain to be vigorously and arduously scaled, and this with the possibility that some mountainous poems rise to an unassailable height.
On the other hand, many poets have felt that a line exists between communication and obscurity. If a poet crosses the boundary from the well-mapped land of rhetoric into the uncharted territory of complete shadow, then the poem is lost. William Carlos Williams is a fine poet to examine who invokes this prosody. Poets like Stephen Dobyns might argue that both communication and obscurity are found, must be found, concurrently in all good poetry.
I tend to find myself rather solidly in the Dobyns camp on this issue. A poem, like life, is most successful, when it reaches and maintains balance. It needs to communicate something meaningful to a reader, but it has to do it with some imagistic and linguistic complexity or it languishes in banality.
So, how can a poem reach this balance? Dobyns says in his book on poetics Best Words, Best Order that one way is by metaphor (he includes simile, analogy and allegory). The other way is by authenticating memory, or by interjecting stimuli in the poem that allow a reader to interact with the poem either at the level of personal experience or imagination. Every symbol, by virtue of its existence, would be connected to something it symbolizes. If you wanted to symbolize a feeling of frustrated power or entrapment for example, you might create a panther in a cage at the zoo as Rilke does in one of his great poems. Most people reading that poem have been to a zoo and have felt some empathy for the animals in their cages. This concept is true, however, only in so much as the poet can link the metaphor to something that will stimulate a memory process in the reader, particularly a process that heightens a reader’s self awareness. A symbol for a railroad crossing in a culture that has no trains is useless.
Back to my original question – is something defined only by its function? It can’t be if it’s poetry. Poetry has to find the level ground, the balance if you will, between communicating emotions, activities, thoughts, and insights to readers and simply expressing the images and contexts that make us write to explore our relationships with ourselves. Metaphors act as bridge between our audience, and us but we must give the reader enough specific information in the poem to understand the metaphor or the bridge we create is burning behind us.
I’ll leave those purists among you who believe poetry is such a personal thing that none of what I’ve said matters, that it is an art form of introspection and individual introspection only, with a quote from the great American literary theorist Wayne Booth –
This is not to say that the novelist (i.e. writer) must think consciously of his audience, or that novelists who worry about their readers will necessarily write better than those who do not. No doubt some authors work better when they think of their writing as self-expression and of their technique as self-discovery. But, regardless of how we define art or artistry, the very concept of writing a story seems to have implicit within it the notion of finding techniques of expression that will make the work accessible in the highest possible degree. Wayne Booth, The Rhetoric of Fiction – page 105
This concept is applicable and necessary in poetry as well as fiction. There’s nothing wrong with writing a poem to express yourself; however, if you have included in that poem any rhetorical or narrative device, then you have implied that you expect someone else to read it and have created a responsibility to make it understandable at some level and at some point. Keep both things in mind when you craft poetry, especially in the revision process. Have I expressed my vision fully, but also, have I created enough metaphorical bridges so that other people reading my vision can share it?