On Beauty: Carl Phillips
The Case for Beauty
Beauty—at least when it is referred to by that name—suffers the same treatment by too many contemporary poets (and students of poetry) as does authority in poetry. That is, it gets dismissed as naïve, or irrelevant, or somehow on the wrong side of the field on whose other side we are all assumed to have happily set up camp together. But to hold that assumption is to exercise the very sort of authority that the mysterious "they" hold suspect. It also suggests that beauty is monolithic, one-dimensional, and finally inorganic—hence, without the capacity for evolution, without susceptibility to time.
It is easy enough, of course, to trace this attitude in terms of history, but in the end as uninteresting as is anything that's easy. Curious only; unseductive.
About beauty, as about all other versions of abstraction (which includes the abstraction of history), there is a general nervousness that I see as symptomatic of an ever-increasing unwillingness to think athletically—that is, without (as opposed to in concert with) the safer (easier) toeholds of the concrete. And that unwillingness looks sometimes sore in danger of becoming an inability, even as the merely vestigial must eventually disappear.
Equally on the rise: an unwillingness to be held accountable—to take responsibility, which is what authority requires; it forces the artist to take a stand and to reckon with such issues as intention, meaning, self, and their relationship to what Marianne Moore calls "the genuine." And since abstraction is generally conflated with authority—as, erroneously, the concrete is not—what hope for beauty?
The authority of a plum is different from that of, say, beauty, but no less complex.
There is also the general conviction about beauty that all has been said about it; in that respect, it apparently resembles light and shadow, the body (which is becoming more and more categorized as an abstraction itself, has anyone noticed?), water and—in sudden flight—the dead: low, across it. The point about beauty is to see it. The point of the poem is not to say anything about beauty, but to enact the vision of it. As for statements, in a poem, about beauty: that's precisely where, if it has been successfully enacted on the page, the vision's work begins.
As the philosopher once said, "Oh well — all's either lost or it is not," and returned to that from which he'd been distracted:
A snowfield .. The fish,
the vine — twisted,
whose ugliness gets
outvoted by its having
alone of its kind
survived .. The victory that
knows to blush,
and the one that can't
.. Not as if fine distinctions mattered,
but because they do
they baled the hay, they
roll it, here .. Magdalene
in equal parts,
"She-Who-Kisses-the-Bloody-Wounds" .. One of those perhaps
silos through which by
day the smaller carrion-birds
wanting and unimpeded
This is my case for Beauty.
--Originally published in Crossroads, Spring 2001.