Introduction to Poetry and the Problem of Beauty

Beauty is a problem for poetry because we no longer imagine beauty as a serious way of knowing.

But it is. Beauty wedges into the artistic space a structure for continuously imagining what we do not know. This claim reverses Shelley's formulation of poetry as the place where we "imagine that which we know," which presumes that creativity translates knowledge into imagination. Our general lack of response to beauty nowadays--at least in critical literature--results, among other things, from an intuitive sense that beauty defies such translation. We can neither measure the knowledge that Shelley's imagination turns to beauty, nor can we translate that beauty back into its components of knowledge and imagination. That's because beauty is a non-conceptual way of knowing. We have developed, implicitly, a sense of the non-conceptual in artistic beauty; but we have not much developed sympathetic theories that will allow us to discuss beauty in these terms. We still largely imagine beauty in Shelley's terms, and so we think that those parts of beauty which resist the translation back to knowledge are uselessly private and uncommunicative. In fact, they are what beauty "knows": that knowledge is also--perhaps most importantly--what we do not yet know. Forms of beauty are resistant structures, imaginative structures that present an impenetrable model of the unknown. Beauty is therefore endlessly talk-inspiring, predictive rather than descriptive, dynamic rather than settled, infinitely serious and useful.

That beauty cannot be translated into expository terms is a particular problem for poetry, especially in an abstract language like English. Poetry's material (language) is, in other contexts, overwhelmingly used and valued for its conceptual and communicative facilities. We imagine, to couch the point in terms of Pound's logopoeia, that poetic beauty is insufficiently difficult or concept-provoking. But when we distinguish pleasing or mellifluous versions of phanopoeia and melopoeia from the conceptual discursive world of logopoeia, we err if we think the first two simple-minded and the last the place of seriousness. "Music is feeling, then, not sound," writes Stevens, and we think that we cannot think about feeling or music, since they are subjective and ineluctable. We think we cannot say anything critically useful about them, and so we divide aesthetics from theoretical and/or conceptual content and concentrate on the latter, about which we feel we can say something.

The problem is compounded by some of the critical correctives of the last couple of decades.1 As we pursue historical, cultural, and gender-based critical modes, theories of beauty are often labeled hegemonic models bequeathed by white males, in part because they often are (Shelley's, for example). Taking beauty seriously, developing theories of beauty, is out of fashion. As a result, we really have not gotten much further in our theories than Alexander Baumgarten's definition of a poem as a "perfect sensate discourse" (39)--communicating content via sensory form--or Kant's antinomy of taste, which is fairly useless if we hold that aesthetic disinterestedness is a contradiction in terms. In fact, when Baumgarten coined "aesthetic" from the Greek aisthesis ("sensory perception") he was perhaps more enlightened than we often are about the power of the senses, since he wanted to make serious place for the "lower" sensory functions among "higher" functions of rational meaning.

So, what is the experience of poetic beauty? It is, first of all, subjective interestedness. Interestedness requires sympathy, so poetic beauty might be defined as the result of subjective sympathy: paying enough attention to a poem for it to teach us how to read it and (crucially) feeling that it fulfills the terms it lays out. These terms may be of many varieties, such as lyricism, word attention, sound dissonance, even of a faltering which is part of the poem's point. Poems whose beauty strikes us overwhelmingly and immediately are poems that use well some of the rules we are well trained to perceive. Poems whose beauty takes time for us to appreciate have worked to increase our aesthetic faculties.

This is not to say that all poems are beautiful. Many do not fulfill the terms of their own construction, and so leave us feeling dissatisfied. On the other hand, some poems leave us feeling dissatisfied because that is part of their point. It is as impossible to determine the difference--in terms of establishing interpretive predictions or tools--as it is to define poetic beauty. Beauty is contingent and unique and cannot be derived from or defined according to rules or explanatory codes. But I want to insist that poetic beauty is important to talk about and wonderful to experience. As Wendy Steiner puts it, "the pleasures of art, however scandalous they have come to be seen, are valuable and worth protecting" (80).

One of the difficulties in writing about poetic beauty is that poetry, being all of the same basic matter--ie, words--is always formed and therefore, in the formositas sense, always beautiful. To put it in Scholastic or phenomenological terms: the "material" object of poetry is language, its marks and sounds; the "intentional" object is how we (subjectively) read that material. In the material sense language is beautiful, while in the intentional sense--well, it all depends on our training. What Westerners commonly register as ugliness is the effort of poetic language to resist formal regularity, whether at the level of phoneme, word, line, or overall form. This resistance sounds harsh in part because it is resistance and in part because it has to go so far to get somewhere that approximates escape from expected poetic manifestations, as in these lines from Bruce Andrews' "The Impatient Heart":

church bells howitzers aloft to oust who suspect they've come as
idea of beauty must matrimonial aside attention suddenly spirited
to smooth a tug also in attendance in defense of hand flintlock
rifles ego amid keys gaiety of sleepwalking had cornered

This passage fulfills some conditions of poetic beauty: moving relations of sound and vision, accumulations of diaphanous and concrete referentiality, mouthfuls of language. The vowels dance with the consonants: "-ur- -el- -owitzer- -oft to oust who" moves to "suddenly spirited to smooth." How is this kind of poetic beauty different from what we might expect to hear discussed in an essay about mellifluous poetic beauty? We might expect to read excerpts from Yeats or Gjertrud Schnackenberg, or at the very least from some of Stein's or David Bromige's sweet simplicities. But poetic beauty is not only evident lyricisms or the apparently perfect mesh of prosodic tool with signified point. To risk a definition that pre-defines nothing: poetic beauty is a different thing in different poems.

So, what is the problem of poetic beauty? It is not simply the neglect of beauty, or the denial of its existence; it is also the several reasons for that neglect and denial. One reason for the failure of interest in beauty is erotic repression. Beauty is always, to a greater or lesser extent, tied to the erotic. André Breton calls this "convulsive beauty": art he likes must "arouse a physical sensation . . . I could never avoid establishing some relation between this sensation and that of erotic pleasure, finding only a difference of degree" (8). Jeffrey C. Robinson laments that "In denying ourselves the beautiful, we have lost in addition the erotic experience that accompanies our access to it and our experience of it. This, in a society as neurotic about desire as ours, should come as no surprise" (7).

But we don't admit denying ourselves the beautiful; we just give it other names in an effort to dismantle it into formal or cultural properties. That's because another problem with beauty is that it presupposes, inescapably, interestedness. Criticism longs for disinterestedness, so it longs to disassemble all things which seem to prove that disinterestedness cannot exist. But--to re-write Kant--the delight which determines the judgment of taste is utterly dependent on interests of various kinds.2 It does not follow that interestedness decreases our vocabularies, least of all our ways of seeing and knowing. On the contrary: to expose interest is to expose its endlessly varying manifestations, to increase rather than to limit both what we can say and what we can think.

Bound up with both its erotic components and its inherent interestedness is the fact that beauty is a manipulative force. In biological terms, poetic beauty seems to be the supernormal releasor of the language world. We recognize our sensible reaction to its charms, but once out of nature we want to prove that it has lost dominion over us, and so we refuse the irrational form-intensity of poetry. We don't want, as discursive groups, to be tyrannized by love, desire, or sensation, so we say that because they are subjective they effectively no longer exist as discursive issues. In neglecting to talk about them we are a bit like the devil in Blake's Milton: "Satan Refusing Form."

We have at least not abandoned the modern urge to intensity, which is another frame for the question of beauty. The common opposition between modernism's urge to intensity and postmodernism's knowing better seems to me false. Postmodernism's theoretical refusal of intensity belies its practical embraces: trauma art, Sylvia Plath, bored violence, poetry slams, William Vollmann, Veronica Forrest-Thomson, celebrating failure, all these rely on surface-to-depth intensity, cousin to the eighteenth-century Sublime. We might well find, for both modern and postmodern versions of beauty, common ground in an aesthetics of intensity.

The difference in the postmodern aesthetics of intensity, perhaps, is that we want somehow to be the intensity, not to attribute it to a form. So we open up a gap between the intensity, which is us, and the poem or art object, which comes to resemble a cultural husk. To put it another way: theory and culture, as group projects, tend to exclude sensibility; but poetry always has sensibility, which must be experienced subjectively. It was Hume, as we know, who took us from the object of beauty to its perceiving subject. In forming critical groups, we are forced to re-emphasize the object of beauty: we write essays or books about poetry, and our writings mediate between us as readers and writers and between us and the poetry, in a triangular objectification of poetry, critic, and (often critical) reader. We don't see (sense) each other, we read each other. Because this objectification--through the distancing of both poetic object and critical stance--is a false emphasis, the object ends up being emptied of its sensible beauty, which is always a question of subjective human (though potentially shared) experience. So we end up saying that the object has no beauty, and that we are wrong to speak of beauty, from a longing to solidify group perceptions in and about the object. The subjective experience of beauty becomes closeted, off the record.3 As Charles Lock puts it, "Perspective is the way out of participation, our protection from confusion and involvement. Being left outside is the price of objectivity" (413).4

There are many other "problems" of poetic beauty we might consider: its historical links with morality and cultural instruction ("beauty is truth"; cure ugliness to cure society); its maddening self-sufficiency and self-possession; the paradox of its seriousness, given that it doesn't know much philosophically or intellectually. But two things I feel pretty sure of: the first is the argument that began this précis, that beauty is a structure for imagining what we don't know. The second is that beauty must change within the "unchanged" work. Poetry wants to be timeless or immobilized ("Not marble nor the gilded monuments of princes," etc.), but it also wants to live.5 It is up to good readings to find both the temporal intactness and the contemporary potential of any poetic beauty.

Lisa Samuels, University of Virginia

Works Cited

Andrews, Bruce. Wobbling. New York: Roof Books, 1980.

Baumgarten, Alexander. Reflections on Poetry. Trans. Karl Aschenbrenner and William B. Holther. 1735; Berkeley: University of California Press, 1954.

Breton, André. Mad Love. Trans. Mary Ann Caws. 1937; Lincoln: University of Nebraska, 1987.

Kant, Immanuel. The Critique of Judgement. Trans. J. H. Bernard. 1790; New York: Hafner Publishing Company, 1951.

Lock, Charles. "Petroglyphs in and out of perspective." Semiotica 100-2/4 (1994), 405-420.

Robinson, Jeffrey C. The Current of Romantic Passion. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1991.

Steiner, Wendy. The Scandal of Pleasure. Art in an Age of Fundamentalism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995.


1. As Jeffrey C. Robinson notes: "Academic Marxists and feminist literary studies have effaced the beautiful, finding it by implication if not openly a phenomenon created or promoted by capitalism or by the masculine bias in literary production. These days it simply seems irrelevant to the more pressing concerns of history and gender" (6-7).

2. In the first book of The Critique of Judgement, Kant wrote: "The delight which determines the judgement of taste is independent of all interest."

3. So that Wendy Steiner admits "It has taken me a long time to admit that the thrust of criticism is the 'I like,' and whatever expertise I have accumulated conspires in this admission." See especially pp. 6-8, 80-90 for useful and forthright considerations of the importance of artistic beauty and subjective pleasure.

4. This after Lock reminds us that "perspective was the very condition of the scientific revolution, and thus of the cognitive revolution by which knowledge became objective'" (410).

5. This point is, in a way, in sympathy with Baudelaire's twofold idea of beauty, except that I fail to see "eternal" or "invariable" elements in poetic language. See his Curiosités esthétiques, L'Art romantiques et autres oeuvres critiques. Ed. Henri Lemaitre (Paris: Garnier Frères, 1962): "le beau est fait d'un élément éternel, invariable, dont la quantité est excessivement difficile à déterminer, et d'un élément relatif, circonstantiel qui sera, si l'on veut, tour à tour ou tout ensemble, l'époque, la mode, la morale, la passion" (455-56).