Is Poetry Common or Individual?

Cedar Bridge

We had some discussion on this blog last year in which someone said he’d always regarded poetry, once produced, as Universal and not belonging to the poet anymore. I was rather aghast at this idea, coming from a background in which individualism was prized, but I have contemplated since then this question. Which is not really an either-or question (hardly anything ever is) but is shorthand for “to what extent is a poem the product of something common to everyone, and to what extent is it the product of the individual mind? To what extent is a poem personal and unique and under the authority of its maker, and to what extent is a poem universal and archetypal and under the authority of popular (or editorial, or critical) approval?”

Barfield clearly regards it as a matter of percentages. Insofar as a poet is required to use words, he is using importing into his poem meaning which originated elsewhere.

Obviously this percentage can never rise to a hundred, because even the most original poet is obliged to work with words, and words, unlike marble or pigment or vibrations in the air, owe their very substance (‘meaning’) to the generations of human beings who have previously used them. No poet, therefore, can be the creator of all the meaning in his poem.

-Owen Barfield

Of course, the reverse must also be true. No poet, if he is truly a maker, can write a poem which is completely and utterly the creation of the common mind.

Gingerbread Bridge

I am disposed to think this way myself. My reasoning has been a little different than Barfield’s, perhaps due to some views of human nature he doesn’t share with me.

If you could make a map of an entire human being, what would it look like? For materialists, all you would need is a decent anatomy book. For a person who believes as I do, there is much more to consider. For instance, we must map those elements of humanity known as soul and/or spirit, showing their relationship to the body.

When I was in college, certain corners of the student center were, on rainy evenings, often divided between two groups of people, one arguing passionately for the tripartate nature of the human being and one for the dipartate. I was baffled by this debate – how you could you be so insistent on something that was simply not obvious? We imagined, all of us, that the human being in total was like the body in miniature – it had parts. Two? Three? Your salvation just might depend on it.

Later I realized that like regions within the same continent, members of the body were not truly “parts” – you couldn’t part them from the whole body without destruction occurring. And, minus the spatial nature of these material comparisons, neither were the elements of the soul, or the elements of the being. Soul and spirit are more like levels and as such could be distinguished from one another, or else grouped together with one another or with the body, according to the needs of the writer.

Then there is the apparent opposition of nature and person. Human nature is such that from a single, original stock of life endless multiplications have derived. Life extends itself endlessly so that what was one cell has become a trillions (in the fetus) or so that what was one soul (in the first-created man) has become trillions (in the body Human.) We may walk independently of one another, but my life and being are in a sense still continuous with every other human’s life and being.

What is the word for this shared life and nature? It is communion. It is commonality. It is oneness.

Red Covered Bridge

One the other hand, there is personhood. The insistence that every human being is a unique person, and not just a reproduction, comes from the belief that God is the creator not just of the first-created man and woman, but of every one of us. If God is my creator in particular, then how am I simply an individuated extension of a shared nature? No – it cannot be – I know it in my heart – I am myself.

The Christian way of looking at this – in fact the sensible way of looking at it – is that once again, nature and person are not divisions or parts of us. Rather I am entirely nature and entirely person; all spirit, all soul, all body; I am throughly female and throughly human.

The nature of poetics – of artistic making, that is – is such that everything the poet is will show up in the poem, in the making, in the art.

In poetry this is especially true. For even though words have derived their substance (until the poet uses them) from generations past, as the poet uses them they become peculiarly his own, just as his muscles are his own though they are entirely composed of units of matter previously possessed by others organisms.

In fact, muscles are an excellent example to have at hand. For just as the muscles extend themselves and shorten themselves in order to perform work, so the mind extends itself – and words are the extension of the mind. The mind which dwells in its own well of being is wordless. When the mind extends itself, then words arise.

It is at this moment – the moment when the mind rises to utter its knowing and to call to the deeps within another being – that words are most personal and most common, too. They are common in that they form a bridge between two minds…

Scottish Bridge

…but they are personal in that they are the acknowledgment, by one mind, of another’s existence and otherness.

So how personal is poetry? And how common?

All personal. All common.

Just like its maker.

11 thoughts on “Is Poetry Common or Individual?

  1. All personal and all common — yes. But what a blow to the binary philosophy of modern man which loves to express itself in false dichotomies while attempting to ignore real differences.

    Without the personal, the common becomes meaningless. Without the common, the person is reduced an individual who is wholly alone.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. So good to read here again! And as usual, so much to think about and perhaps comment on. But I’m taking my time, lest I ruin the pleasure of just reading –and now also of seeing ( great addition; your own work, the photophotographs?)

    A nudge, possibly moving towards a comment: I think Barfield agrees with the “someone”–or he with him– more than you admit. The universal in art derives from the personal use of context , yes, but persons dont become themselves except within a context.–they don’t make themselves or a make a context for their art.

    (Not sure what I just said. Out of practice.)


    • Hah yes, I should have made it clearer that I’m aware it goes both ways. And I never did really delve into what “someone” believed in a full sense. Oops. 🙂

      I forgot till just now – you’ve read ‘Poetic Diction’ right?

      I do wish the photos were mine, but I pulled them off a free stock-image site. I wanted to show different types of bridges, it felt like a good visual metaphor.


  3. With regard to your question, I’m a start-and-stop reader. Also easily distractec in the candy store of books. Often when I stop, and another book-treat is nearby, I forget to start again–until a non-book (ie., a bookperson) reminds me why I started in the first place. (Like a child, I respond more quickly to persons I know than to persons I get introduced to in books.) Last, which should have come first, two weeks after finishing a book, or even a chapter, I often have forgotten what I learned from it; the specifics, I mean. So then, if I think I might get to emerge from my brown study (meant literally, so no quotation marks) and converse, I go back and reread.

    The simple answer: yes, and no.


  4. I think it is helpful. And fun. College is the time to learn to (or hone one’s skill at) examining different ideas.

    I found Hershberger to be excellent, actually. He had a reputation for being a corny bore, but that wasn’t the case.


    • I had similar experiences with profs and preachers that others affected to despise. I never understood the social currency of conventional contempt. Nearly every one has something to offer, and by recognizing what it is and enjoying it, you strengthen whatever is good in them. Some people think that contempt proves you are discerning, but I think it’s actually a broader capacity for enjoyment that marks a person of good judgment. Not just accepting anything and everything as equal, but having a feeling for substance, and being able to find where that substance is in whatever you encounter.

      I HATED “student chapel,” though. Talk about lacking substance. *Shivers*


    • Yes, true. I think where those chapels broke down was the desperation to be awesome. Perhaps the organizers were haunted by all the critical things they’d said about Dr. Hershberger when they suddenly found themselves in the position of having to fill 50 minutes with content. Once actual substance has been ruled out of court as boring… you’re left to present a barely spiritualized mockup of The Bachelor and call it chapel.


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