Peter Lamarque

"Poetry: Experience and Affect"

Of all art forms, lyric poetry seems the most intimately tied to experience and affect. Does a lyric poem not characteristically invite and help to shape an aesthetic experience? And is not affect (emotion) not far behind, both within the poem and in the experience it elicits? But what kind of aesthetic experience is associated with lyric poetry? And what kind of emotions? Contemplation is certainly involved in the relevant experience, as well as attention to aesthetic qualities, but is it disinterested contemplation? The paper suggests that that is true only for a very narrow range of pleasures afforded by poetry (pleasures based on formal qualities). Otherwise, the aesthetic experience of poetry is not normally disinterested, but deeply implicated in meaning and personal responses. The matter of emotions is complicated. Poems often, of course, arouse deep emotions in readers. But the paper will propose a distinction between expressed and felt emotions, the former properties of a work, the latter responses in a reader. It will be argued that the former have primacy over the latter, at least partly because it is only through the recognition and contemplation of expressed emotions that the felt emotions are given content and life. A simple test for that is that a misunderstanding, or misidentification, of expressed emotions in a poem will directly affect the relevance and adequacy of a reader’s felt emotions. But the recognition and contemplation of expressed emotions is integral to an appropriate aesthetic experience. So aesthetic experience of poetry is linked, even if only indirectly, to the felt emotions of a reader. Thus there cannot be any indissoluble tension between aesthetic experience and affect in poetry.