How a poem transcends its materiality to become a poem

Back in April of 2012, I wrote the following “response paper” for a class on form and theory of poetry.  I thought it might be worth sharing.

Don’t worry if you are unfamiliar with whom I reference or the texts I reference; the point is sharing the thoughts.

While reading Heidegger’s essay “The Thing” from Poetry, Language, Thought, I considered whether or not a poem is a “thing.”  He says regarding the construction of a jug (his ‘thing’ example): “The making, it is true, lets the jug come into its own.  But that which in the jug’s nature is its own is never brought about by its making.  Now released from the making process, the self-supporting jug has to gather itself for the task of containing.”

The jug is constructed, and then it can perform the function its “thing-ness” enables.  A jug is not a jug because of its existence in itself; a jug is a jug because of what it can do besides exist: “The jug is a thing as a vessel—it can hold something.”  The jug is and, therefore, it can do—it can hold.

I’m going to repeat what Heidegger says, but insert “poem”: “The making, it is true, lets the [poem] come into its own.  But that which in the [poem’s] nature is its own is never brought about by its making.  Now released from the making process, the self-supporting [poem] has to gather itself for the task of—”

I’m stopping short of ending with “containing,” but I don’t want to put a word in there to define the poem’s task.  To be beyond a thing, the poem must perform a task—but do I dare define the task?

The task is abstract; unlike seeing that the jug contains, what the poem does cannot be seen.

The task is completed within the reader as the poem is read (or within the listener as the poem is spoken).  Thus, poem-ness is established in the mind, just as jug-ness is established in the jug’s act of containment.

This brings me to think of what Stewart says of miniature books, which relates to the power (the “do,” the “action”) of a poem: “they retain the power of the concentrated labor that has formed them.”

To relate this to Heidegger, the poem must retain the “making” that made it exist, but Stewart takes this a step further: Stewart suggests that the act of creation is within the made object.  This sounds lovely, and this also has a logic to it: a made thing implies/necessitates that there were acts that made the thing.

When one sees an object of artifice, one simultaneously knows there were acts of labor (of taste, of choosing, of vision…).

Stewart says, “This power is not an accumulation of materiality but rather an accumulation of transformations made in time; the laboriously handmade object results in a representation of temporal magnitude.  The clumsy viewer, with access only to the most visual dimensions of the work’s significance, cannot apprehend, cannot grasp imaginatively, the magnitude of this temporality.”

The reader of a poem certainly does not have direct access to that act of making that created the thing-ness of the poem: the reader cannot tell how many edits and drafts the poem went through in the transformations of making.

And yet, “Small objects bring the viewer into a nearly unbearable, unreadable intimacy.”  I think this relates to what I said earlier about the poem’s task being completed within the mind.  This level of intimacy is what lifts the poem from pure, simple thing-ness into transcendence: the poem completes its task with an acknowledgement of an other, with a union with a literate mind.

Do you think a poem/poetry’s “task” can be defined?  If so, how?