Is Poetry Manipulative

An Analysis on the Poetic

The question of poetry as a manipulative discourse came to me as I began to think of poetry as a form of seduction. From its conception to subsequent explanations, the purpose of poetry, as articulated by Poe in “The Poetic Principle,” is to excite, to elevate the soul. To that end, poems must be both brief and intense, contemplate the beautiful and have a sadness to them, combining both creation and destruction, life and death. It is Poe who said: “the death, then, of a beautiful woman is unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world—and equally is it beyond doubt that the lips best suited for such topic are those of a bereaved lover.” Poets are lovers, and as lovers they need and as artists they dive in. Artists interpret and express the white noise, the negative space, the hidden. But in what ways might we find poetry, in particular, to be manipulative? Why is the line between poetry and propaganda so thin? Perhaps, it has to do with the lack of explanation poetry encourages. The Truth it proposes centers around the absence of a coherent narrative. But there is intention, always, and an effect because of it.

In “The Philosophy of Composition”, Poe argues that while constructing a piece we should hold clearest in view the effect desired. Instead of the intention or denouement, focusing on the effect will result in a more original piece since it will not be after certain interests but in creating the right assemblage of events and tone. Poe asserts that any piece of his, deciding on “The Raven” as an example, was completed under a precision and rigid consequence similar to that of a mathematical problem. Throughout “The Philosophy of Composition” and in “The Poetic Principle,” Poe insists on certain qualities that all poems must have; for instance, it cannot be too short for it will not be able to produce a profound or enduring enough effect, and assures us that a long poem is simply compilation of brief ones. The defining quality of a poem is the excitement it instills in the reader by using intensity and brevity. Poe credits Alfred Tenny as the noblest poet to ever live, claiming that it is not because the impressions he produces are the most profound or because the poetical excitement he induces is the most intense, but because his pieces are the most ethereal—the most elevating and pure. The etherealness of great poetry is to Poe so unparalleled, so unlike anything else, that it can’t be a result of happenstance or intuition, but due to precise calculation and set intentions.

But what exactly are the intentions of poets? Which forces propel them to create? In the popular imagination, poets are understood to be connoisseurs of emotions, those rare few who can distinguish the angry from the enraged, the sad from the bitter, the happy from the accomplished. They contain an innate desire to feel and to experience all, deeply. It is in the depths that poets then see what is invisible to most. Baudelaire formalized the poet in Paris Spleen. In “Crowds”, he writes “The poet enjoys this incomparable privilege of being himself or someone else as he chooses.” The skill of inhabiting people means knowing someone better, or seeing them more clearly, than most, sometimes even themselves. This gives the poet power. Seeing me gives you influence over me. This tends to be true among those we hold dearest, those that have our utmost respect: that they tell us what most can’t…or won’t. Ideally, the poet’s intentions are sincere, always. They are to “love and be loved” right? But the seduction it is grounded in makes me apprehensive.

Perhaps explained best in “The Eyes of the Poor,” when the narrator is positively touched by the eyes of the poor family, and says:

“I turned my eyes to look into yours, my dear love, to read my thought in them; and as I plunged my eyes into your eyes… you said: “those people are insufferable… Can’t you tell the proprietor to send them away?” So you see how difficult it is to understand one another, my dear angel, how incommunicable thought is, even between two people in love.”

It is impossible for identities to merge perfectly. Our souls are intrinsically ours. Our minds have ingrained paths. If the effect desired by most poets is to cast a feeling similar to that of being in love in their audience, then the reader may feel that elevation of the soul maybe can come close to understanding, but never completely. The large room for interpretation in poetry, its distance, allows us to take it in without question, and then mold it. Maybe this is why most poets are against explanation; to do so would make their pieces much too certain.

The good Demon in “Beat up the Poor” conceptualizes poetry or the poetic as manipulative, but in a good—well, ultimately good—way. I think. In it, the narrator asks for madness, for purpose or sense in his meaningless and muddy life. And so, the good Demon appears, and whispers in his ear: “A man is the equal of another man only if he can prove it, and to be worthy of liberty a man must fight for it.” The narrator leaps onto the beggar, whose eyes he had only just met before the whisper, and begins fighting. Taken aback the beggar suffers a few losses but comes back, strong, and wins the fight. The narrator informs the beggar that he is now his equal. This painful experience had “restored his pride and given him new life.” He tells the beggar to apply the same theory on any colleague that asks him for alms. This scene illustrates how poetry can be manipulative. We are at a lack of control while we read it, our emotions follow blindly, and afterwards we are different. Of course, to take our power back, we try our hardest to find the right explanation to what we just read and why it caused this effect on us. But even then, the ambiguity wins quite often.

Isn’t poetry much too similar to propaganda then? I mean consider the continuation of the “Beat up the Poor” storyline. The beggar, with his newfound self-belief, will make a life of his own, or at least we hope. He then will encounter another beggar and he’ll apply the same treatment, and the story will repeat itself, or at least we hope. But if not? What if the painful experience does not restore the beggar’s pride and give him a new life? What if the beggar doesn’t win? What then is the narrative? Violence towards those who asks for alms? We can hope for the public to denounce such senseless violence, but nothing is guaranteed. Propaganda asks the same of us: to act without conscience, to follow blindly after those who can think better for us. Ensuring us an outcome that cannot be ensured.

Consider “Windows”, when the narrator anticipates the question “Are you sure that your story is the real one?” to which he responds “...what does it matter what reality is outside myself, so long as it has helped me to live, to feel that I am, and what I am?” Isn’t this manipulation? Or is this just an inevitable result of constructing any story, that it is always, to a degree, false? The narrator tells it quite clearly: “...out of practically nothing I have made up this woman’s story… and sometimes I tell it to myself and weep.” This commitment with wanting a certain effect from a poem or story, whether to cry or smirk or be confused, is the one Poe so willingly advocates for in “The Philosophy of Composition.”

Yet this emphasis, or attack, on emotion concerns me. In the film Il Postino, the postman falls in love with a woman named Beatrice and in an effort to make her fall in love with him, he asks Pablo Neruda to teach him how to write poetry, most specifically a poem about Beatrice. Neruda aids the postman, gives him a few tips on metaphors and the poetic, and soon enough the postman has a poem. He recites Beatrice the poem; she feels special. The poem elevates her soul. There is no doubt poets have power. Neruda had tremendous power. What I’m interested in is the subjects; about the exchange of power that occurs between the poet and the subject of interest. I mean, does Beatrice know why she is in love?

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