Poetry and beauty
In Spain, there is an association called the "Real Academia Española", The "Spanish Royal Academy", which publishes the most prestigious dictionary in the country (sorry, María Moliner). The Academy’s opinions are prestigious but not official; that is, contrary to what happens in France with the Academie, the Spanish Academia does not rule about what is "real" Spanish and what isn´t (some Spaniards mistakenly think it does, but that’s another story). Well, the Academia dictionary gives this as the first and sixth definitions in its long entry on poesía, "poetry":
- 1. Manifestación de la belleza o del sentimiento estético por medio de la palabra, en verso o en prosa.
- 6. Idealidad, lirismo, cualidad que suscita un sentimiento hondo de belleza, manifiesta o no por medio del lenguaje.
Expression of beauty or of aesthetic feeling through words, in prose or verse. Idealization, lirical quality, that which provokes a deep feeling of beauty, expressed or not in language. This is nonsense, because it is incomplete. Well, it is a dictionary, not an enciclopedia or a literary manual, but still. The problem is that it does not make sufficiently clear that "beauty" is a quality of the work, not necessarily a quality of the people, objects, or events poetry describes. Let’s see. Can we write poetry of the ugly? Of course we can, and we don’t need to resort to very modern stuff to prove it. The beginning of the Iliad deals with a man getting very angry with another because on the course of a war, they are fighting about which one gets to keep an enslaved priestess. That is not a pretty topic! If we like the Iliad it is because it shows beautiful language and because it makes familiar things unfamiliar.
Another example. Shakespeare. Richard III. What is there of beauty is a hunchback, a man considered ugly by all the other characters, telling the audience how he plans to kill all his relatives because they have a better claim to the throne that he has? The words he uses, those original, beautiful-sounding words. The problem is of course when the poet is not good enough or the circumstances are so close to us that the familiar cannot be made unfamiliar. I don’t think Turks or Africans or the children of victims of gender violence would appreciate Othello. But that doesn’t mean that a jealous husband killing his wife is unfit for poetry. Sadly, the most prestigious dictionary in the Spanish language seems to prefer a definition of poetry that applies better to works about flowers and butterflies.