I’m reading John Carey’s What Good are the Arts? as background reading for the course I’m doing: Twentieth Century Literature: Texts and Debates. Carey writes:
A work of art is anything that anyone has ever considered a work of art, though it may be a work of art for only that one person.
Two consequeces of this definition are the removal of artistic judgement from an elite and the idea of a work of art as something ‘out there’ and separate from the rest of existence: Aaaron Barschak’s cry of ‘Viva Goya’ as he splashed red paint on Jake and Dinos Chapman’s The Rape of Creativity may have been criminal damage but it was a work of art as far as he was concerned; likewise my assessment of my son’s early daubs to create Anansi the Spiderman. I am not going to present an argument to counter Carey’s definition which he arrives at after excluding considerations of religious faith; instead I will see how it fits in with my own tentative answer to the question ‘What is Poetry?’
I will start with a poem I wrote almost five years ago when I was attending a local writing class and I was sending up archaic poetic diction as well as (although I was unaware of it at the time) taking up an instrumentalist position on literature.
(With apologies to Keats)
O for a tab of LSD
to wake my soul to poesy!
My faculties have all gone numb
as if I’d taken valium,
which doesn’t even ease the pain
but simply muddies up the brain.
If only I could start to write,
my poem would be dynamite.
Our writing class cannot agree
what makes a poem, poetry.
The orthodox say it has to rhyme
or at the least, with cadence chime.
With Modernists obscurity passes;
with the Movement – access for the masses.
Now is it a poem? Please set my soul free!
Say it’s a poem on the say so by me.
I was, in effect, saying that a poem is a poem because the person writing it says so, which satisfies Carey’s condition of there being one person that considers it to be so. The question ‘What is a work of art?’ implies a value judgement whereas ‘What is a poem?’ only implies entitlement to membership of a club; a poem may still be ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Five years on, I can see more clearly the flaws in my ‘poem’ e.g. I inverted the word order to acheive the rhyme on the last line. Although, I only have myself as a frame of reference, I feel safe to assume that if someone submits to a poetry magazine or a competition they regard what they are submitting to be poetry. I will consider this further by writing about prose poetry, a genre I have difficulty in admitting to my club, tomorrow.