Toward a Purely Aesthetic Approach to Poetry

D. Riller Naxer

Issue 8 * Spring 2002

Several years ago when I was in graduate school, I took a tutorial from a certain "C.F." who made, during the course of my tutorship, the following remark, or something like it: "I've heard all the ideas there ever were before; what I'm interested in is aesthetic interest" (emphasis hers).

Being, if I do say so myself, not entirely slow on the uptake, I immediately began to develop a sense of the direction such attitudes should take American letters--a place they seem to be headed anyway. In order to further this progress, I developed the following theory. If all the ideas there could possibly be have already been used up, then it behooves poetry to de-emphasize content and to emphasize craft. The extent, then, that a poem is successful may be judged by its pure aesthetics. The creation of poems themselves then should be geared toward this end. What this "gearing up," if you will, would look like began to draw my attention.

There are numerous ways to go about not writing about anything, but the most obvious means would be to attack, and eventually eliminate, words themselves. Words are the primary meaning-bearing parts of language, so they pose the most obvious threat to a purely aesthetic approach. Since poetry is mainly a craft of rhythm and sound, doing away with words is, in fact, fairly easy to do. One must consider in this process that established and acceptable rhyme and rhythm schemes must be maintained to avoid confusion on the part of the reader.

To see how all this might be done, we shall here apply the de-contentization theory to a familiar work, in this case, the first stanza of Robert Frost's "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening." Here's how Frost originally wrote it:

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

Quaint, but still sullied by the enemy of aesthetics, content. The first most obvious targets are the words that bear the most meaning, those words that seem to contain a distinct idea. We can eliminate them with a simple, non-meaning-bearing, but rhythmically equivalent aesthetic substitutor, except where those words end lines, which would affect rhyme, something we'll worry about later in the essay. So now Frost's quatrain reads thus:

Whose blah these are I blah I know.
His blah is in the blah-blah though;
He will not blah me blah-blah here
To blah his blah fill up with snow.

This is much better, but it still brings up thorny questions. "Whose whats?" one may ask of the first line, or "What's being known about it?" Questions, of course, while on the face of them much preferable to straightforward content, can in fact be more dangerous. Particularly astute, interested or awake readers (and there are still a few of them out there despite the long-suffering attempts of Literature teachers at every level to do away with them) may in fact begin thinking when posed with questions. This is an obviously terrifying prospect, especially when one is making an attempt at aesthetic purity.

The most satisfying, simple, and direct solution is to eliminate those words that may cause questions to develop in readers' minds by, again, the substitution of aesthetic equivalents. Frost's first four lines become

Blah blah these blah blah blah blah know.
Blah blah blah in the blah-blah though;
Blah blah not blah blah blah-blah here
To blah blah blah blah blah with snow.

We are quickly achieving aesthetic perfection, nearly entirely free from any content whatsoever. But there remains the sticky problem of what to do with the rhymes themselves. Rhyming is, after all, fully half of what Frost set out to do in a purely aesthetic sense. My first solution to this is to modify our aesthetic place holder to fit the existing rhyme scheme thus:

Blah blah these blah blah blah blah bloh.
Blah blah blah in the blah-blah bloh;
Blah blah not blah blah blah-blah blere
To blah blah blah blah blah with bloh.

But here I must argue that our original place holder is, indeed, rhymed with itself. There's really no reason we couldn't use it in its original form indicating rhyme scheme with a simple numbering system (traditional "a,b" indications for rhyme are avoided since they contain implied sound elements, potentially defusing the aesthicizing effect). The result maintains a certain elegance:

Blah blah these blah blah blah blah blah (1).
Blah blah blah in the blah-blah blah (1);
Blah blah not blah blah blah-blah blah (2)
To blah blah blah blah blah with blah (1).

At this point it becomes clear that the small words, the articles, prepositions conjunctions and so forth, merely get in the way of the smooth flow of the aesthetic, and so must be eliminated. Having done this, the beginning of Frost's poem is complete:

Blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah (1).
Blah blah blah blah blah blah-blah blah (1);
Blah blah blah blah blah blah-blah blah (2)
Blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah (1).

Our aesthetic purpose is achieved, and an old poem is inspired with new life. Only through such means may true craftsmanship show forth and may all that redundant content, along with its hackneyed ideas and dangerous questions, be entirely eliminated from poetic endeavor.

The greatest merit, perhaps, of this system is that it is brutally simple and entirely modular and therefore may be easily taught and adapted to any poetic situation in which the poet may find herself. Its simplicity and straightforwardness would make it an ideal candidate for pedagogy in Ph.D. programs in creative writing, since those students have obviously not caught on yet even after six or seven years worth of undergraduate and graduate workshops.