(Ed note: This week Edward Hirsch is presenting terms from his new book, A Poet’s Glossary, a compendium of forms, devices, groups, movements, isms, aesthetics, folklore, rhetorical terms. Find his previous post here. sdh)
Today I’d like to juxtapose the ideas of pure and impure poetry. In 1925, the Abbé Henri Bremond delivered a lecture entitled “Pure Poetry” (or in French Poésie Pure), which he followed up the next year with Prayer and Poetry. Two years later, Paul Valéry clarified the idea that poetry aims “to give the impression of a complete system of reciprocal relations between our ideas and images on the one hand and our means of expression on the other—a system which would correspond particularly to the creation of an emotive state in the mind” (“Pure Poetry”). It was crucial, he argued, that the poetic system should be “unconnected with the practical order.” Valéry was particularly influenced by Edgar Allan Poe, who had argued that the sole purpose of poetry is the creation of beauty and that poems should be free of didactic content (“The Poetic Principle,” 1850).
Robert Penn Warren took up the argument in his 1942 essay “Pure and Impure Poetry,” where he argues, “Poetry wants to be pure, but poems do not.” Poetry creates its own systematic structures, but poems must be open to impurities and contradictions, to ideas, “to the fires of irony.” He said: “nothing that is available in human experience should be legislated out of poetry.” He also noted that “a good poem involves the participation of the reader.”
Pure poetry and impure poetry represent two sides of a spectrum. One emphasizes poetry’s difference from the actual world; the other emphasizes poetry’s immersion in that world. One denies the importance of subject matter, the other insists on it. On one side, pure poetry is represented by the nineteenth-century French Symbolist Stéphane Mallarmé, who characterized the poet’s role as “to purify the language of the tribe.” Mallarmé wanted to compose a poem of complete connotation without any denotative reference, “le poème tu, aux blancs” (“Crise de vers,” 1895). On the other side, impure poetry is represented by the twentieth-century Chilean Pablo Neruda, who sought “A poetry impure as the clothing we wear, or our bodies, soup-stained, soiled with our shameful behavior, our wrinkles and vigils and dreams, observations and prophecies, declarations of loathing and love, idylls and beasts, the shocks of encounter, political
loyalties, denials and doubts, affirmations and taxes (“Toward an Impure Poetry,” 1974).
“Excerpted from A POET’S GLOSSARY by Edward Hirsch. Copyright © 2014 by Edward Hirsch. Used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.”