I don’t like poetry. I never read poetry for “fun” because of the simple reason that it’s not fun for me. Having been a student for basically my entire life, I’ve dissected more poetry than I have other things like frogs or brains. So, you might say I know a thing or two about it. I know two roads diverged in a yellow wood and some guy decided he had to be special and take the one no one went down (and then brag to everyone that he did). I know that Pablo Neruda had a weird obsession with broken objects, artichokes, and some poor woman in her garden. I know that English professors admire that Shakespeare (or maybe some other guy) put himself through the torture of writing in iambic pentameter-still not sure what it is, though. Above all else I know that I am “supposed” to feel some sort of connection to poetry. It’s like a song, teachers would say. It touches the emotions, I’ve been told.
I’d like to believe that my teachers genuinely meant what they said, but I also know that they were partly trying to justify their next question; what did I think it meant? I was supposed to be able to read a poem and repeat it back, except now in plain English, and that was it. Lesson over. But then there’s this philosopher named Theodor Adorno who said something else; “Permit me to repeat that we are concerned not with the poet as a private person, not with his psychology or his so-called social perspective, but with the poem as a philosophical sundial telling the time of history.” He says that what the poet meant doesn’t help me learn anything; what’s more important is how I interpret it. I will go through this in more detail later, but his claim is that everyone can find a different meaning in the same piece of language. It depends on the life we live. I speak in the same language to as CEOs, stay at home moms, war refugees, and poets themselves. But we’re all very different. So then if I can read any poem in a way that is supposed to make it relatable to me, then I should be able to emotionally connect to it and have it mean something “special”. This argument makes sense. I’ve put serious thought into this exact aspect of language and he has a point.
It just doesn’t happen for me.
As much as I don’t like poetry as a whole, there is one poem that stuck with me (at least as much as a poem can). It also highlights many of Adorno’s points. It’s about a priest who we’d call a mystic because he thinks that he met God. And no, it had nothing to do with a potato chip. Anyway, now that this priest, St. John, has met God, all he wants to do is to die; he wants to escape his earthly life and be with God again. The title of the poem “I am Dying because I do not Die” is kind of clever then, and a little sappy, but that’s not the point.
The point is that this specific poem highlights Adorno’s argument in On Lyric Poetry and Society in a few different ways. Adorno says that every lyric poem establishes someone as the speaker. And this is somehow a necessary step in making it about everyone. He says, “The “I” whose voice is heard in the lyric is an “I” that defines and expresses itself as something opposed to the collective, to objectivity.” Well, from the very beginning St. John directs all the focus onto himself. The first words are “I live without living within myself.” It doesn’t so much matter what he’s saying; it matters that he’s mentioned himself twice in the first verse. There are other examples of this: “I no longer live within myself,” “I am sorry for myself,” and “I will lament my life/so long as it is prolonged/because of my sins.” Personally, I’d have to be on something strong to think this poem was about me. The poet is saying that he feels like he is missing a part of himself because he met God; there aren’t many of us who can relate to that. There are experts who say we can’t understand them at all: “In dealing with a language of the “unsayable,” critical analysis rejects this language as lacking in rigor, as a commentary too encumbered with images and impressions, it will encounter nothing more in the field of observation than psychological curiosities or small marginal groups.” Does language have the power to describe something that we cannot see, touch, hear, etc.? Try describing love and see if you get any further than a bunch of other abstractions. Or maybe some physiological symptoms that could be caused by a hundred other things. We know that they aren’t love, but we don’t have a way to say it is. The same goes for describing a meeting with a divine entity.
After meeting God, I don’t think we could blame him for not feeling like he quite belongs. I know that sometimes my mind wanders out of the room in a boring meeting, but he literally feels like a part of him is gone; “Absent from you/what kind of life can I lead/but to suffer to death, /the cruelest death I’ve ever known?” Now, if the “I” in this poem is criticizing anything, it would appear to be the world around him; he feels like he’s being held back. Given that having a face-to-face with God is more life-changing than getting your driver’s license-which might already make you want to skip town-the feeling of “dissent of the individual in relation to the group; an irreducibility of desire within the society that represses or masks it without eliminating it; a discontent within civilization,” a commonly held feeling among mystics, is not unreasonable. He wants to get the fuck out.
As elegant as his poetry may be, St. John is really frustrated. Mystics were treated like crap because no one could understand the crazies that had “seen God”. Life had, in fact, become scary for St. John, who felt worse than a fish out of water (Even the fish taken out of water/does not lack relief/for in the death that he suffers/death finally comes to his rescue.”) At the same time, though, he’s too scared to die because he might not actually find God again. He’s oscillating back and forth between living being worse than dying and dying being more nerve-wracking than living (And if I take joy, my lord/in the hope of contemplating you/when I realize that I can lose you/my pain doubles”).
This leaves us with a couple main points that make a whole lot of sense (not really): a) that he feels worse than a dying fish, b) that he doesn’t think he belongs on earth anymore, c) that he has horrible anxiety about actually dying, the one thing he’s asking for. And Adorno says I should be able to relate to all of this without a problem. No wonder I hate poetry.
Granted, this is not the whole story. Language has some tricks built into it that might back Adorno up. When you read the sentence “I don’t like poetry”, you imagine that it is about me, the writer of this essay. But what if it wasn’t? St. John never says “I, St. John of the Cross, born in Spain in 1542…” or anything like that. If we don’t know who the “I” is, what’s to say it can’t be the reader? If the reader places himself in the poem, it can mean almost anything; everyone can interpret it differently.
This means that the poem doesn’t need to be about God. Of course, it can’t be about anything in the world, but I would imagine most people have had to make a tough decision before. If the poem becomes more about a rough teenage breakup vs staying in a dysfunctional high school relationship than about a miserable life vs dying in the hopes of meeting God, more people can read it and think “Oh yeah, that makes sense” because everyone, like the fish, is trying to find relief in these situations. Adorno says a more universal underlying theme like that is what makes a lyric poem “art” and that’s why we appreciate it.
Even still, you might relate to a decision like this more easily, but it might not feel terribly consequential in the long run. But what if the poem were about questioning faith? This has the potential to be life changing. I mean, how many movies have we seen about a guy “finding God” after he stopped believing for some reason (example: the movie literally titled Questioning Faith or people in exorcism movies not believing in demons until their child levitates)? Well, this might have actually been why St. John wrote this poem in the first place. He never wanted anyone to practice religion the same way he did; “John is no Pelagian. He believes that God draws us to God’s own self by the utterance of God’s word in eternity, creation, and history.”The last thing St. John wanted to do was overshadow God. But he clearly has some questions for the big man upstairs, and so do a lot of other people. Adorno says this is what makes the poem “collectivist” despite the fact that the poet wrote “I” 42 times.
Now this poem has been “deindividualized” because everyone is a part of it. Adorno says you can go through the same process with every other lyric poem. In fact, he says there’s no way for language to be used to go against the grain of society; the acid-dropping hippie (who follows no rules) uses the same dictionary as the president of the United States (who should follow every rule). In the end, we can only read or listen to poetry through language, something that is bound by society. I live in this society, I speak the language, so Adorno says I should be able to relate to poetry through these universal concepts. Nothing should be outside of my reach if I can use language as a tool to access it.
In the case of St. John’s poetry, Adorno is right. St. John wanted to be a spiritual guide more than anything, and he wrote most of his poetry to give away for free so that people could learn from it. It seems like St. John wanted to bring people together with his poetry. Even if he didn’t, Adorno makes it so that he did, and he applies this concept to every other lyric. He makes a good argument for it too. It’s not like I don’t believe him.
Parts of me wishes I could experience what he was talking about. Poetry is a phenomenon in Adorno’s eyes and I see it too for this reason: I could walk into a high school and ask the first kid I see high on crystal meth to interpret a poem for me and he would probably say something just as profound as his “expert” English teacher. There aren’t a lot of things you could do that with. I think I should be able to relate to poetry, too. There are references I’ve missed, jokes I don’t get, and tests I’ve failed because I don’t relate well to poetry. It’s a big part of our world. It’s a difficult situation to be in to not know what you don’t know, especially when so many people tell you that you should know it.
Adorno, Theodor W., and Rolf Tiedemann. Notes to Literature. Vol. 1. New York: Columbia UP, 1991. Print.
Rivers, Elias L. Renaissance and Baroque Poetry of Spain, with English Prose Translations. New York: Dell Pub., 1966. Print.
De Certeau, Michel, and Marsanne Brammer. “Mysticism.” Diacritics, vol. 22, no. 2, 1992
Moore, John P. “St. John of the Cross.” St.Anthony Messenger 12 2014: 14-8. ProQuest. Web. 14 Dec. 2016 .
Cunningham, Lawrence S. “St. John of the Cross, Mystic of the Light.” America Jan 30 2006: 22-5. ProQuest. Web. 14 Dec. 2016.