Or rather, your notion of the face in Baudelaire is evasive.
Poetry’s stock has fallen; that of the novel, the short story—that of prose—has risen. The New Yorker and The New York Review of Books have run articles addressing the former and latter, respectively. But you survey intriguing ground. If poetry “is a measured response to absolutely the wrong question,” we must ask ourselves: which questions are ‘right,’ and how do we determine their rectitude?
I’ll sketch an answer as best I can, but I’m sure its route will be a tortuous one, a poetic one, to contextualize the word as you do.
Though an overemphasis on etymology often becomes—especially in the wrong hands—a kind of phenomenological crutch, might I point out that poetry, at its core, is a making or doing. Prose, then, connotes a certain lack of adornment, a straightforwardness, a penetration through mists of obfuscation toward something meaningful. In this way—and I say it reductively and knowingly-reductively—poetry takes on a burden of creation that is vastly different from the prosaic project of transcendent direction-giving.
Your thesis, as I understand it, equates poetic making (whose very formulation is redundancy) with the fashioning of adornment. An answer to an ‘incorrect’ or ‘unposed’ question is of its very nature frivolous; it can be nothing else. It is a signified having no signifier, if we are to Structuralize it, or a subordinate clause without a primary clause, or some other impossible arrangement. But in presuming that to be true, can we not also apply a similar logic to prose? What if that straightforwardness represents (uniquely, unconsciously) the unposable question? What if, when accounts are drawn up, prose is merely leading us—swiftly and surely—to no place in particular?
Let’s examine again the ‘simplicity’ of the face in Baudelaire. If, as you maintain, poetry is inherently structurally problematic, then it cannot here be “unornamented . . . a simple confession.” Unadorned adornment is a skinless balloon or a bladeless, handleless knife.
How might the prose stylist render these words? What about a base case, whereby un petit Baudelaire simply removes the line breaks: “Then go, with no more ornament—pearl, diamond, or subtle scent—than your own fragile naked grace and lovely face.” We could even excise the rhyme and rhythm to taste. What is lost? What is gained?
I have one idea. Verse makes itself (and I really sound like Heidegger here, or a two-bit Heidegger knock-off) in its versing or turning—it’s all in the line breaks. With meters blown to bits and end rhyme going or gone—I render no judgment thereon—the ‘point’ of poetry now, more than ever before, is that very puzzling space in itself, ready to overtake the page. Novelists run into the end of the sheet or the digital blank. But for whatever reason, the poet makes—inserts an emptiness—while the prose stylist permits that emptiness to be made.
It is not without some sense of irony, then, when I state the following: poetry today lives and dies where it does not exist; that is, it relies on its line breaks. And yes, some poets take them away and write ‘prose poetry’; others (like W. C. Williams) decide to indent everywhere, to write in a dangling, worrisome type; still others figure it’s all the same and stop at the end of a creative spurt (however brief). But in this ‘conclusion’ one finds new paths of inquiry.
What else is poetry? It can be inaccessible. Gnomic or runic, even. But are not the novels of Pynchon equally complex and troublesome, and doesn’t Salinger make every effort (especially in works like Seymour: An Introduction) to crystallize, and thus to emphatically separate, notions of Author and Reader, of Producer and Consumer of literature? Buddy’s very humanization of his elder-brother-as-genius both elaborates upon and rejects the ‘privileged’ position of the (prose) wordsmith; he translates Seymour’s legacy (his double haikus about cats and left-handed cat owners) into something more focused and real, and yet he cannot let the reader decide. Seymour’s poems are beyond Salinger’s ken; he couldn’t make them. They exist neither in nor outside the story proper.
I can’t restrain myself, and so I offer my favorite poem of the moment: “The Fly,” by Galway Kinnell:
I’ve just brushed
off my face keeps buzzing
about me, flesh-
starved for the soul.
One day I may learn to suffer
his mizzling, sporadic stroll over eyelid and cheek,
even hear my own notes
in his burnt song.
The bee is the fleur-de-lys in the flesh.
She has a tuft of the sun on her back.
She brings sexual love to the narcissus flower.
She sings of fulfillment only
and stings and dies.
And everything she touches
is opening, opening.
And yet we say our last goodbye
to the fly last,
the flesh-fly last,
the absolute last,
the naked dirty reality of him last.
Without spending too much time on the rhyme here (masterful) or the rhythm (so utterly human), I must confess that I love this poem for its final stanza. Those five lines are the poem itself; they are what it wishes to be. One ought nevertheless to ask whether Kinnell has adequately prepared us for the fly’s “naked dirty reality.” Does the fly make himself in his “mizzling, sporadic” buzzing? Does he become a fly precisely as opponent (or complement) to the bee? Does the repetition of “last” construct the word or bury it deeper and deeper in the loam of the poem? It’s hard to say, but these ‘adornments’ are weight-bearing; they are structural and meaningful. Without them sense is lost and worthless—who needs access to nothingness?
‘Genre’ is not (w)hol(l)y in and of itself. Things change—R.I.P., dear radio play—and thus the persistence of acts or ‘doings’ like poetry cannot be neatly summarized according to an economics or politics of use-value. I say we abandon notions of arts gratia artis for the more stimulating idea rei inter rebus, a collection of written products in conversation across boundaries of ‘class’ and ‘intention.’ Here the Latin seems more than suitable, for the res publica, the public matter, represents not only the explicitly ‘political’ but also the more profound concept of human community, of people speaking with each other, taking notes, and composing volumes.
Comparative analyses of poetry and prose fiction inevitably mimic analyses of Marxism and capitalism—or, more aptly, of what-is-called-Marxism and what-is-called-capitalism. That is to say, whatever space poetry or Marxist critique might occupy is inevitably measured against—and described according to—a predominant conception of the ‘true form’ of writing or the ‘true science’ of political economy. And just as ‘Marxist utopias’ have become inconceivable to a self-described Volk of red-blooded Americans, so too seems poetry an unimaginable fantasy-art. It is unfiction, or that impossible counterpoint to the novels and short stories and memoirs lining our Barnes and Nobles and private studies. And so unfiction becomes historically illegitimate; prose assumes a position of primacy, and the very unposable question at its heart is obscured by the so-termed accessibility of its outward form.
We ought to wonder—in the vein of Lévinas—whether we are not being duped by the ‘answerability’ of any one class of writing. Is poetry evasive of its own meaning? Is prose abortive of its own ends? Or are these ‘destructive’ or ‘agitating’ processes inherent to literary production in itself?