12.20.2004

Went up for a break to a 3rd-floor library carrel, thinking about previous Virgil comments. Opened up my RS Crane book, started reading. Looked up at the books on the carrel shelf - & found that the carrel's collection was entirely devoted to Virgil's poetics. Art thou with me, dolce padre?

Virgil's 4th Eclogue contains the famous messianic passage, predicting the "virgin birth" of the Child who will bring the return of the Golden Age. So his pastoral is tainted with "history". (& the eclogue is echoed later in the center of the Aeneid, in the lengthy apostrophe to Caesar Augustus.)

Dante, self-appointed heir to Virgil, places his pastoral earthly paradise in Purgatory, a way station to the final refuge in Paradise; but that Paradise is full of earthly history - the center of the final rose containing the empty chair for the coming of the messianic Holy Roman Emperor (Henry VII).

Milton, the revolutionary Protestant and advocate of regicide, sets aside any merely earthly political authority : his Adam & Eve, before their fall, in Eden, are taught directly by angel-shepherds, and after the fall, political authority on earth is described as under apocalyptic judgement.

Eliot(monarchist) & Pound(fascist) - political authoritarians both - looked to Dante, rather than Milton, as their model. But for Dante, divine & earthly (political) authority were counterbalanced. For Eliot & Pound, the (medieval) balance was broken : the feebleness, or complete lack, of a desired spiritual authority, made political authoritarians of them both.

The world is still dealing with these problems (imposed, politicized religious ideology; authoritarian politics; spiritual anomie & despair).
The idea of juxtaposing two complimentary notions of pastoral - the pastoral eclogue vs. the "pastoral letter" - makes me think of the traditional "wheel of Virgil". This was a medieval description of Virgil's literary project : to begin with simple, arcadian-nostalgic eclogues, proceed to didactic Georgics, and synthesize with heroic-utopian-tragic epic (Aeneid). In this way Virgil circumscribed or synthesized both "pastoral" principles - within a "wheel" which contained all modes of poetic narrative (that is, excluding drama).
Josh responds to my "pastoral" comments of the 17th. Thanks, Josh.

I think I wouldn't characterize my original take as simply "Christian" or "too Christian"; I see it, anyway, as simply literary. I'm not promoting a particular version of pastoral; rather, I'm trying to understand how the literary mode called pastoral might be seen as combining both Pound's "eclogic" and his didactic impulses.

The eclogue or the pastoral may, as Josh says, evoke a fragile, trespassable, "synchronous", aesthetic (imagined) space; but I think the same always implies what has been rejected or kept outside (history, violence, etc.). & I think the trajectory of Pound's career indeed represents an attempt to fuse these contradictory/complimentary meanings of pastoral : his "epic" project itself was an effort to go beyond the closed circle of fin de siecle art-for-art's-sake; it was an attempt to fuse the aesthetic eclogue-pastoral with the rhetorical-didactic "shepherding"-pastoral. Unfortunately the authoritarian structure of his plans for world-renovation led him further & further into his own political anti-paradise. & I agree with you, that the partial peripeteia of this personal melodrama or tragedy appears in the Pisan cantos, when he's in the jail cage, looking at birds on the phone wires and ants in the sand.

(I say partial peripeteia, because Pound, like many a Sophoclean or Shakespearean tragic character, came to only a partial recognition of his mistakes. Yet even that partial recognition allowed him, sometimes, a new tone in the poetry.)
RS Crane (Languages of Crit. & the Structure of Poetry), again, emphasizes how Aristotle's Poetics differs in approach from most contemporary crit., even that which uses Aristotelian terminology.

In Winters, Ransom, Empson, Brooks & Warren, et al., the difference is clear right at the beginning, with their various opening definitions of poetry. As Crane shows, these critics define poetry as a branch of discourse. Aristotle defines tragic & epic poetry as a branch of artistic imitation. The poem is an "artificial whole" or "imitation". The imaginative wholeness of the poem evokes, by analogy, the wholeness of a particular action (beginning, middle, end). Aristotle doesn't try to define all poetry; he focuses on examples of a particular kind. Within this kind, the poem is a kind of imaginative simulacrum (mimesis) of an action. This is its substance ("plot is the soul of the poem"); language is the medium (there are other kinds of imitations - visual, musical - which use different media).

The relations between this particular kind of poetry (imitative : tragic/dramatic, epic) and other kinds (didactic, lyric) are not dealt with by Aristotle. But a criticism which takes as its subject the poem as aesthetic whole, rather than the poem as form of discourse, or merely verbal structure, is a criticism which is marking out a different approach to poetry as a whole. The notion of the poem as some form of relation or balance - in Aristotle's terms, a mean between extremes - a balance, that is, between logos & mythos, between medium and theme, between discourse and subject - a relation aiming at a fusion, an aesthetic wholeness, a complete impression, a fruition or fulness (Aristotle's proper "magnitude")... - this whole idea raises new perspectives, new plateaus, for critical reception of various kinds of poetry.
... am I just being divisive again, setting up my own teams system, like that other guy? Not necessarily. I may indeed differentiate between critical approaches - but I don't claim one is better than the other (though I may prefer one over another); and a new critical approach might find previously-unremarked values in poems from various, different "camps" - not just promote its own school.
I take my betes noirs very seriously.

It's possible to think critically about poetry & poetics, that is, in a disinterested way. Such thinking is a kind of creative activity. Some of that goes on here at HG Poetics.

Also, here, I talk a lot about my own writing. That can be viewed, correctly, as self-promotion, I guess - mostly silly & counterproductive, since the only way to advance your work is to find other people who want to publish it.

I guess since I blur these two activities here on the blog, it's my own fault if the first activity is not taken seriously. That's why I guess it would be better to write essays & reviews, rather than blog notes, about the poetics issues one takes really seriously.

With respect to the first strand (disinterested thinking), I would really like to see the development of a new stream of criticism, which takes some of the insights of these Chicago critics into account. Because there is a big & serious difference between those who promote poetry as a "verbal structure", and those, like these "neo-Aristotelians", who view the poem as something slightly other than the words per se: a kind of imaginative gestalt, if you will, an image-form (I'm grasping for terminology here), in which logos (diction) is fitted to mythos (story) in a holistic force-field. This concept of poetry's dual nature might be analogous to Mandelshtam's figure of the poem as always dual - fusing the "verbal material" with the "poetic impulse".

12.17.2004

Interesting musings on Pound & pastoral mode by Josh. I guess if I were in his shoes I would start with two juxtaposed notions of the term: 1) pastoral as idyllic escape/union with sheltering landscape; 2) pastoral as in "pastoral letter" - didactic wisdom, prudence, guidance : the pastor, through wisdom, is a shepherd of the people.

Then I would investigate the intellectual frameworks grounding any particular pastoral idyll : the idea that every literary "Eden" (Biblical, Alexandrian, et al.) is framed by a prudential logic of loss and return - even the Epicurean versions (escape to pleasure for its own sake) are based on a logical assertion. In this perspective, the two definitions of "pastoral" always go together, depend upon each other : we do not return to the peaceable kingdom until we "return" inwardly, through conversion, repentance, discipline, struggle (personal/historical), etc. The road to the promised land leads through the desert : this is the ur-plot of pastoral. The pastor is the shepherd who guides through desert to pasture. Wisdom is expressed in speech, and thus the poet, the bearer of sacred speech, is the pastor.

Then I guess I would examine Pound's poetry & example using a kind of 4-fold diagram: on the horizontal, I would look at the development of "pastoral" imagery - identified using both definitions of the term, as described above - chronologically through the Cantos. On the vertical axis, I would: a) examine Pound's ideological commitments from 1918-1930, and b) look at what were the consequences of those commitments - what effect they had on his own life.

What information might I draw from this grid? An image might emerge which would show how Pound's commitment to enacting the pastoral mode - ie., taking on the role of an actual pastor leading an actual flock, through actual history toward a possibly real Earthly Paradise - had at least a couple of results: first, Pound sort of took his writing beyond "art" (the Cantos are a kind of palimpsest, a mumbled personal farrago of texts); second, this text he created provides a sort of photo-negative of pastoral. The moral blindness of some of his commitments led him into his own personal hell (madness, treason, incarceration, silence). The continuance of the praxis (making the poem) forced him to represent not only his visions of various forms of Paradise, but also some of his own failures & mistakes. This blend, the Cantos, is the resulting scar tissue : aestheticized (fascistic) dream-history replaced by the haltingly-narrated revenge of real history upon his own hubris.
...thus, note carefully what Crane is saying here : the ultimate criterion of poetic value is its lastingness, the perennial quality of its beauty and interest.

If true, this should make us revise our notions of literary tradition and development. Not to say that there are not productive advances in literary forms, or that the canon is a fixed collection of past classics. (As Crane points out, Aristotle might have found King Lear a more complex & interesting example of tragic poetry than Oedipus.)

It is to say, however, that beauty is the criterion, which subsumes both pleasure & instruction. The criterion is not merely formal or aesthetic in an exclusionary sense - it's probable that ethical, moral & political values will inform our notion of the beautiful. But poetry also has its own scale of inherent expressive values - originality, elegance, rightness, clarity, eloquence, etc. - which make up the beauty of the work as a whole.

If beauty is the criterion, the critic will have to shun polemics and special pleading of every kind. Claims of novelty, "experiment", marginality, "progressiveness", political relevance, etc., are all partial claims, which - if not related to the final cause and the ultimate criterion (lasting beauty) - actually fall outside the realm of critical judgement.

With these things in mind, maybe readers can begin to distinguish for themselves between general "poetry business" (promotional activities of the entrepreneurial or socio-political kinds), and genuine criticism.
I could quote RS Crane all day (Languages of Criticism and the Structure of Poetry). In one passage, he talks about how, with Aristotle anyway, it's useless to consider "pleasure" in the abstract, as an "end" or purpose of poetry. Pleasure is always conjoined with particular forms of activity, and is characterized by them. Then, in a paragraph, he telescopes the historical development of mimetic poetry, from basic human pleasure in imitations & mimicry, to the moral distinction between imitation of things admired ("better people") and things satirized ("worse peope"), to the practice of a Homer, in which a complete, integral form has been found to subsume many forms of imitation:

"...finally to have eventuated, with Homer, in self-contained works of art the final cause of which is beauty rather than either the general pleasurableness or the moral utility of imitations... It is indeed a final end in two important senses - in the sense that it is an end peculiar to the poetic art rather than one imitative poetry shares with other arts or activities, and also in the sense that it subsumes the other ends of pleasing and instructing, and goes beyond them. For it is distinctive of poetry such as Homer's that it utilizes the pleasure we all take in imitation and rhythm, and the vivid interest we have in other human beings and especially in the moral issues in which they can be involved, in order to make objects which we can continue to appreciate, after our first curiosity is satisfied, for the sake of their intrinsic rightness and beauty. This therefore is where poetic theory, in its normative aspect, in general must begin..." (pp. 64-65)
Dear friends, you can do me a favor: email Spuyten Duvyil & ask them to reissue Stubborn Grew.
Seems that among the Chicago School notions I've been following, the one that interests me the most is this concept of the poem as an artificial-imitative construct. RS Crane makes it clear that Aristotle, anyway, is being very specific in the Poetics - is not talking about all kinds of poetry. And "imitation" does not equal "realism" - does not mean an attempt to "faithfully reflect" a stable external reality. Mimesis in poetry is a verbal artifice or autonomous creation, reflecting the poet's inner concept of an action (the plot) and its consequences & implications. Part of the interest (pleasure, etc.) derived from such a production does involve our ability to identify & understand the action, and the characters involved - thus it requires an element of verisimilitude (the characters are either "better than us" (epic, tragedy), "worse than us" (comedy), etc.). But there is no simple equation of experience and the art work; the poem is a selection & recreation of events - real or imagined - in a completely artificial medium.

We might be able to extrapolate, from the ways an audience absorbs & responds to a dramatic poem or an epic poem, to the action(s) or purposes of poems in general. This seems to be what's happening when Elder Olson or RS Crane talk about how the diction & verbal texture are only one element - and perhaps not the most important one - of a poem's structure. They refer to Coleridge's criticism - the way he balances considerations of verbal effects with the nature of the poem's argument, theme, "thought" - the images & concepts evoked by the words. Like Aristotle, Coleridge thinks about poems as imaginative wholes or unities - this unity as being perhaps the foremost structural element, the formal resolution, of its overall beauty, radiance, claritas. Here the notion of fitness or decorum comes into play: the verbal texture in each of the poem's parts must relate fittingly to the subject-matter & contribute to the total effect. (Coleridge distinguished poetry from prose as having pleasure, rather than truth, as its end, and as being beautiful, not only as a whole, but independently in each of its parts.)

A "didactic" poem does not imitate an action. But mimesis plays a role in all poetry, lurking in the imaginative indications, implications, inferences, suggestions of every figure & trope.

So if we start thinking about poems as imaginative/conceptual/mimetic wholes - representing & imitating actions and "mental actions" (choices: decisions about things) - then, it seems to me, this opens up new ways to read. & I mean read whatever little book of poetry you have in front of you.
Good background article on the Chicago School.

Most of them seem more interested in fiction than poetry, but not all (I want to look for the study by one of the "3rd generation" Chicagoans, Adena Rosmarin (Power of Genre, on 19th-20th cent. poetry). Implications of their general approach might be worth exploring. RS Crane in the book I'm reading (Languages of Crit. & Structure of Poetry) writes about how Aristotle's Poetics is not about the social or political aspects of the subject, but is an investigation of how "good poems" (in the mimetic mode - tragedy, epic) get written.

On a side note, I've mentioned here before how the opening of Stubborn Grew - which, by the way, appears to be out-of-print now at Spuyten Duyvil - was generated in part by the Poetics. I was reading a study on it, which argued that the Poetics "does what it says" in a sort of para-poetic way. This gave me the idea that a long poem could open with sketches exploring the concept of writing a long poem, of telling stories. Gives it sort of an echo effect, a reflexivity.

12.16.2004

"Blake test" has a very special meaning for me. I attended Blake School, grades 4-12. (So did Allen Grossman, 10 yrs before).

(My kids attended the same middle school as Clark Coolidge did, here in Providence. No wonder I can't figure what they're talking about sometimes.)
...read this review this morning. Here again is that mainstream/alternative divide, except in Britain. I like the layers of complexity the writer (David Kennedy) brings out. A review should note the provenance of the book under review, however. Not to do so seems to underline the ingrown nature of the poetry toenail.

This "binary", this divide, this line in the lime... if you started with an economic analysis of the poetry world (which Kennedy touches on), and then observed the different ways various poets, critics & reviewers manipulate that economic situation (ideologically, professionally), you'd probably come up with something resembling a pale replica or minor offshoot of the political left/right divide in general (1. capitalists, 2. workers, 3. intellectuals = 1. professional published poets, 2. unpaid "marginal/progressive" poets, 3. "critics").

Kennedy remarks on the complacency trap which both sides of the divide tend to drop into. I suppose Bourdieu & American Poetry Wax Museum have probably covered this stuff with more discourse than I could ever assimilate. The professional rewards are real (academic jobs, grants, awards, royalties, fame), on the one hand, and yet the constraints (ethical, practical, aesthetic) on poetry careerism are equally real, and this contradictory situation creates all kinds of weird phenomena in the realm of poetry's critical reception (blurbism as criticism; tactical ideology as criticism; buddy networking; etc.).

Pushkin thought poets should be treated as independent literary professionals, whose "market" is the general public - reviewers, bestowers of honorary positions, and interest claques be damned. It's a nice idea, sort of like western civilization.
slow goin' here at HG Powetics. hectic at work & spaced out otherwise.

walk right in
sit right down
baby let your mind roll on

(old jug band lyric)

I will rev up some day, & shake the dust from my feets.

12.14.2004

& then after you done did all that, Gunga Din, Dina Dinga Ling, & the holidays are in place, presente, in effetto, actualidadittdadadistica - then go here.
& after you've read, digested & fully absorbed Aristotle, Coleridge, & the Chicago School... then relax, go over here, & see how it's done by a practical do-it-yourselfer. & do all this before the holidays really get underway. is that clear?
there was a great, great passage in the RS Crane book (Languages of Criticism and the Structure of Poetry), which I came across a couple weeks ago, in relation to Jonathan's notes a while back on fitness(decorum). I'll try to locate it.
"Ain't it a little late in the day," you ask, "to bother with criticizing the "'New' Critics?"

First of all, you shouldn't use "ain't" unless you need a rhyme for plaint. Secondly, this here Chicago School, it seems to me, clears the ground, enlightens the region, establishes some first principles, or reminds one of existing principles for which you don't need to re-invent the refrigerator magnet.

Relevant it is indeed to such contemporary issues in this wee corner of Blogistan such as:
1. how the heck can I ever read all them poetry books?
2. how can I get around that current can of ards which asserts that poets today ain't got no theory?
3. how can I get beyond this plague of simplistic labels, pigeonholes, clubs & sandwiches?
4. what is a literary critical method anyway?
5. can I be a critic too?
6. what is the relation between poetry & reading public? is it really a closed system or "guild"?

What RS Crane, for one, emphasizes, is that both Aristotle & Coleridge established grounds for evaluation on several bases, & in so doing, allowed for a criticism which resists reduction to some totalizing analogy or reductive principle (ie. Empson : poetry = linguistic ambiguity; New Formalists : poetry = traditional metrics; Language School : poetry = denatured diction). So there's a lot of poetry out there. Say you find something that grabs you, and you want to read it with certain practical purposes in mind, like mapping its territory or explicating its virtues. With some of the knowledge provided by the Chicago critics, you can begin to develop your own means & methods of evaluation & appreciation - on a vastly different, & independent, philosophic &/or aesthetic basis.
"Chicago asked in 1893 for the first time the question whether the American people knew where they were driving. Adams answered, for one, that he did not know, but would try to find out. On reflecting sufficiently deeply, under the shadow of Richard Hunt’s architecture, he decided that the American people probably knew no more than he did; but that they might still be driving or drifting unconsciously to some point in thought, as their solar system was said to be drifting towards some point in space; and that, possibly, if relations enough could be observed, this point might be fixed. Chicago was the first expression of American thought as a unity; one must start there." - The Education of Henry Adams


"I had come to hear that great things might be true. This I was told on the Christopher Street ferry. Marvelous gestures had to be made and Humboldt made them. He told me that poets ought to figure out how to get around pragmatic America. He poured it on for me that day. And there I was, having raptures, gotten up as a Fuller Brush salesman in a smothering wool suit, a hand-me down from Julius. The pants were big in the waist and the shirt ballooned out, for my brother Julius had a fat chest. I wiped my sweat with a handkerchief stitched with a J."
- Saul Bellow, Humboldt's Gift
p.s. they have a lot of good things to say about Coleridge's critical methods, too.

Remarkable critical disestablishmentations (take-downs) of William Empson (7 Types of Ambiguity), Cleanth Brooks (Well-Wrought Urn), other New Critics.
Who were the "Chicago School", or "Chicago critics"? A group of scholars/critics, several affiliated with U. Chicago, who shared an interest in the philosophy of Aristotle, esp. his approach to criticism outlined in the Poetics. Published around mid-20th century. They rate about a column & a half in the Princeton Encyc. of Poetics. Elder Olson, R.S. Crane, Richard McKeon, et al.

Not finding a whole lot about them off the bat, here in Bruno Library. I suppose their approach got a bit lost in the shuffle of jazzier 60s-80s stuff, like post-structuralism, deconstruction, new historicism, new criticism, etc.

Trends that (very roughly speaking) they seem to follow from Aristotle's lead:

- lit. criticism a branch of philosophy
- criticism not an exact science since based on human productions rather than nature
- there is an empirical, inductive, "differential" approach to examining any subject, which pays great attention to the particular line of inquiry into its object of study; said object can be seen from a variety of aspects, depending on the approach, & doesn't fall neatly into larger systems of abstraction
- poetry can be approached from various aspects & lines of inquiry; the Poetics approaches it with respect to its specifically artistic ends or purposes
- criticism appears in many guises & methods; often conflicts & disagreements arise, not due to genuine disagreements or contradictory positions, but because different critics are working from completely different frames of inquiry
- poems and poetry are two different things
- poems are not reducible to language as such; rather, they are artificial forms or constructs which organize plot (action), character, thought, diction, & "ornament" into an aesthetic unity or system (form).
- the meaning of a poem is not reducible to its lexical, etymological, thematic, etc. coordinates : rather, a poem creates a kind of inference-producing form or system. The audience infers from the verbal evidence, and its inferences have emotional/aesthetic/intellectual consequences, which represent the formal impact of the work
- a poem is an aesthetic whole or unity, within which the verbal material or diction appears as one part among others. One measure of a poem's quality comes through an examination of how well the various parts of a poem are coordinated in creating the totality of effect or aesthetic whole.

Of course I'm bowdlerizing a great deal. Encourage exploration of RS Crane & Elder Olson essays. What I like about what I'm discovering is a kind of historical awareness & systematic approach to some of my own vague tendencies over the years toward "realism", ie. the balance between the verbal texture of poems & the representations they effect. I find very refreshing - startling, even - some of the comments of these critics on the distinction between philosophies which view poetry as a distinct productive activity, on the one hand, and philosophies which view poetry as simply a special form of language or discourse, on the other. Also their inductive approach to reading, analysis & critique.

12.13.2004

"Nowadays when the nature of poetry has become so uncertain that everyone is trying to define it, definitions usually begin: 'Poetry is words which, or language which, or discourse which,' and so forth. As a matter of fact, it is nothing of the kind. Just as we should not define a chair as wood which has such and such characteristics - for a chair is not a kind of wood but a kind of furniture - so we ought not to define poetry as a kind of language. The words are of the utmost importance; if they are not the right words or if we do not grasp them, we do not grasp the poem. In another sense, they are the least important element in the poem, for they do not determine the character of anything else in the poem; on the contrary, they are determined by everything else. They are the only things we see or hear; yet they are governed by imperceptible things which are inferred from them. And when we are moved by poetry, we are not moved by the words, except in so far as sound and rhythm move us; we are moved by the things that the words stand for."

- Elder Olson, from "An Outline of Poetic Theory", first published in 1949


Sounds a little paradoxical, huh? Sounds a little against the grain of the last 50 yrs? More later, hopefully.
Hi folks. I'm back in circulation. Check me out. Return in 3 weeks, or pay overdue fee to Grand Fenwick Royal Library.

Spent vac time plowing through most of Critics & Criticism, Ancient & Modern, ed. by R.S. Crane (ca. 1952). Hope to write essay on this. Chicago School : the poetics that time forgot.

Forget about New Critics, New Americans, Langpo for a while. Chicago School is on the money.

12.03.2004

Getting back to Jonathan's "decorum", just some square-hole-in-a-round-peg thoughts...

thinking of an intellectual economy of various decorii. Imagining an imaginary literary culture, obsessed with codes, styles, formats, fashions, pecking orders, which nevertheless fails to meet a foundational or primordial fitness test, having forgotten the first principles of the decorum of its particular calling.

Poets set the benchmarks or patterns, by means of which they attune all the little elements of fitness to their sense of fitness as a whole : how a poet fittingly behaves on this straw-strewn threshing-floor.

Who in modern US poetry applied him or herself to Dante's fitness test? In relation to the poet's response to the challenges of the present?

Pound had the grandiose ambition & the social indignation. But observe the contrast between these two paradigmatic exiles.

I have the feeling that contemporary poetry fails a fitness test, in two or three basic directions, at least:

1. failure to acknowledge the difficult technical challenges to good writing in general.

2. failure to recognize the serious themes of great poetry : magnanimity, justice, vision (Dantean terms).

3. assumption that poetry is a means and not an end : a means to social conformity & worldly success.

4. assumption that poetry is a means and not an end : a means toward expressing sour, narrow-minded resentments, rather than exploring paths toward the amelioration of conflict & suffering.

I feel stuck between the sub-cultures of #3 and #4. The former exemplified in the MFA industry, magazine verse, the various cliques of youth-Kult "party poetry", etc.; the latter exemplified, just to use a small current example, in Dale Smith's implying a similarity between contemporary US & Nazi Germany (here). I know this wasn't the main thrust of Dale's point : but it's the typical coin of the realm among the cult of poesie du ressentiment.
Enjoyed today's lecture at the Hotel.

I keep thinking of the Middle Ages. Must be the time of year or something. I don't idealize the Middle Ages; I'm just vaguely, sleepily aware of some affinities.

Sienese painting as opposed to Florentine realism.

John writes about change & its dominion... I think about the force of time & seasons - as regulative, urging us back into a round. I think about peasants & farmers & Bruegel & my ancestors. The oxen of Saturn. Reading in Mazzotta's Dante book about the dual character of Saturn - its influence over the sort of dry leaden durability & materialism of workers in the earth, on the one hand, and its mystico-spiritual influence over theologians & poets, on the other (the "Age of Saturn", the Golden Age, the Edenic time of Adam & Eve the gardeners).

12.02.2004

I sense that Jonathan, on decorum, fitness, is onto something that could be productive.

The concept presupposes that a literary text occupies a place in a larger field, a context. That it is necessarily both an echo, to some extent, and a mode of address or indication toward something else.

Maybe most shifts in style depend on a new sense of decorum. That is, if there's a fitness in relation to experience or reality, then, as our general sense of reality changes, the old styles or old forms of decorum will no longer ring true. (Maybe some forms of decorum never change, though - built as they are on our direct responses to certain basic kinds of experiences. Laughter in comedy is just a special application of humor in general.)

Complex artworks are structured around complex forms of decorum. I remember reading an essay about Melville's Confidence-Man, which argued that the thing is a fantastic meditation/spoof on the generic expectations of literary forms.

Complex critical projects are probably built around systematic and layered senses of decorum.
For example, here's what I do : I start over. & over. Walking down the road. Another start of something.

In early December, near the end of autumn,
leaves rustle in the twilight along Prospect Street
and dark limbs of the maples shape a twisted
colonnade. I walk through tender gloom


toward home. Lost in a tumbledown frame
of this fading season, I think of you again -
invisible now, behind a sheet of chilly rain
- silvery rings of hide and seek your game.


[p.s. What was I thinking of? Of a particular person. Also of Nicholas de Cusa's treatise Game of Spheres (De Ludo Globi), in which the spiritual life is figured as a sort of game - trying to reach felicity, at the center of nine concentric circles drawn in the dirt, with a lopsided ball). & of Mandelshtam's comment in one of his essays, that the work of artists after the Redemption is a game of hide and seek with God.]
The Tribune in the Woods on prose versus versus. Responding to Laura Carter on lines & line-breaks.

My two cents: a line-break is a break in the sentence flow. If you break the line where there is no natural pause in the sentence, you emphasize the break: you juxtapose the "natural", ordinary flow of a sentence with the artifice of the poem.

This may be a way to heighten the intensity, by creating kind of a special, demarcated space. But "unnatural" breaks, after a while - especially if the actual sentences are not all that interesting - become simply annoying, or emphatically boring.

I usually like to "work with" the line-break. I use it to try to give more music (rhythm) to the sentence. I use odd or "unnatural" line-breaks rarely, & in conjunction with a particular meaning the sentence is conveying. What I like about line-breaks is that in addition to adding rhythm to the sentence with a pause, they also fortify the rhythmic unity of the individual lines. So these 2 things - the unity of the line & the rhythm of the break - work together.

But my aim & my practice is to get to the point where I don't have to think about this stuff. Because I'm really more interested in the overall momentum, and in the coalescence of a larger content or argument as a whole. Make it natural, make it flow. Then the real original content & diction will appear, almost magically, on its own.

This is probably the most conventional approach to these issues. But perhaps there's some advantage to developing a kind of natural, thoughtless practice, one which fits your own thoughtless nature. Natural, anyway, for thoughtless people like me. Painstaking poets will take a more painstaking approach.

p.s. this issue is complicated by the fact that a "natural" line-length does not always correspond with a "natural"-sounding break. This is where rhyme comes in very handy. Rhyme adds a 3rd layer of interest, like from a new direction, to (1) rhythmic unity of line and (2) rhythmic interest of the break. Rhyme is like the mortar used by masons, except you have to imagine a mason who erects some fantastic structure which follows the inclination of the mortar rather than the structure of the bricks.

12.01.2004

Jonathan in the vein of decorum. Interesting.

Decorum, in one way, seems like a kind of reality principle. Style to fit the subject : but how do we know what fits unless we know something about the subject? (Reminds me what Frost said once: something like - only amateurs try to tell us something we don't know in poems; the pros stay with what everybody knows.) (I've probably mangled that into oblivion. Ne'er so well-express'd & all that.)

But then there's the decorum of style itself, & styles. Fashions quickly build their own boilerplate template collections. This is decorum in the one-way mirror, I guess.

more later?
Just getting into Stephen Greenblatt's Shakespeare bio, Will in the World. One thing that strikes me is how Shakespeare's ability to observe/remember/recast his own experience granted him a certain freedom - a semi-independent place to stand, on the ground of poetry itself. A Proustian talent. Despite the counter-pressure applied by the struggle to survive in a highly controlled/hierarchical/tense society, & of his own ambition to become the "gentleman", the all-important social status his father didn't quite achieve.

Capacious character; powers of empathetic/critical observation. Curious parallels/contrasts with Dante, with what Dante made of similar talents.

Force of character added to artistic talent & training, added to a mode of popular entertainment undergoing a vast renovation (mystery plays & royal pageants become sophisticated machines of elite/pop culture).

Freedom from snobberies & authoritarian controls of various kinds. The poetry reached an audience by becoming broader than any particular audience. Because it drew upon both folk culture & elite programmes.

One problem with the paranoid theory of a dual poetry culture in the US (post-avant vs. mainstream) - analogous to leftist criticisms of the economy in general, I might add - is that it effaces the huge factor of individual responsibility and initiative.

Poetry, in a sense, is always unnecessary - until a necessary poet comes along : someone who finds a way to synthesize knowledge, history, politics, language, experience, and art so as to make it "relevant" again.
Have to get back to RS Crane's great book one of these days (Languages of Criticism & the Structure of Poetry). When he writes about differences between general critical approaches - between, on the one hand, a more inductive stance, taking the literary object in all its particularity & evaluating how it "works" or doesn't - and on the other, a more "abstract" approach, starting with a general paradigm or theme & seeing how a particular piece fits the paradigm - I say when he writes about this, I'm reminded of old Pigeonhole Ron over there, the great Prestidigitator of Group Theory, the great Master of Phlogiston, griping that one New Jerseyan (R.Pinsky) got to edit the selected poems of another New Jerseyan (WCW), denouncing this as a mixing of teams, a miscegenation of Quietude with Squealitude, etc. etc...

Give me indie-critical responses to particular poems any day, as over at Cosmopoetica. Give me Grand Fenwick any day, over that stinkin' pothole of resentful literary churls & squats, that post-avant pissant passel of noisy mishmashmongers, that querulous squaddle of noodling squib-nabobs...

11.30.2004

Me back from the national midriff, busy, busy. readin' Stephen Greenblatt's fascinatin' Will in the World (Shacks-pear biographie). Will's (& his father's) coat of arms:

"Gould, on a Bend, Sables, a Speare of the first steeled argent. And for his creast or cognizaunce a falcon, his winges dispplayed Argent standing on a wreath of his coullers."

Gould, on a bender. Sweet old Will - always thinking of me!

11.24.2004

So long, friends - off to the Land o'Lakes. Back on Tuesday Nov. 30, if not before.
Tu dunque, che levato hai il coperchio
che m'ascondeva quanto bene io dico,
mentre che del salire avem soverchio,

dimmi dov' è Terrenzio nostro antico,
Cecilio e Plauto e Varro, se lo sai:
dimmi se son dannati, e in qual vico».

«Costoro e Persio e io e altri assai»,
rispuose il duca mio, «siam con quel Greco
che le Muse lattar più ch'altri mai,

nel primo cinghio del carcere cieco;
spesse fïate ragioniam del monte
che sempre ha le nutrice nostre seco.

Euripide v'è nosco e Antifonte,
Simonide, Agatone e altri piùe
Greci che già di lauro ornar la fronte.

Quivi si veggion de le genti tue
Antigone, Deïfile e Argia,
e Ismene sì trista come fue.

Védeisi quella che mostrò Langia;
èvvi la figlia di Tiresia, e Teti,
e con le suore sue Deïdamia».

Tacevansi ambedue già li poeti,
di novo attenti a riguardar dintorno,
liberi da saliri e da pareti;

e già le quattro ancelle eran del giorno
rimase a dietro, e la quinta era al temo,
drizzando pur in sù l'ardente corno,

quando il mio duca: «Io credo ch'a lo stremo
le destre spalle volger ne convegna,
girando il monte come far solemo».


(from Purgatorio XXII)

(translation, by James F. Cotter:)

"You, then, who lifted up the covering
That hid from me the great good I described,
While we have time remaining yet to climb,

"Tell me where our ancient Terence is,
Caecilius, Plautus, Varro, if you know;
Tell me if they are damned, and in what region?"

"They, and Persius and I, and many others,"
My guide replied, "are with that Greek to whom
The Muses gave more milk than to the rest,

"In the first circling of the darkened prison.
Often we converse about the mountain
On which our nurses always have their dwelling.

"Euripides is with us, Antiphon,
Simonides, Agathon, and many more
Greeks who once wore laurel on their brows.

"We see there of the people whom you noted
Antigone, Deiphyle, and Argia,
And Ismene, as sad as she once was.

"Hypsipyle, who showed men Langia’s spring,
We see there; Thetis and Tiresias’ daughter,
And there Deidamia with her sisters."

Both the poets had by now grown silent,
Intent once more on looking all around,
Free of the climbing stairs and of the walls;

And by now the four handmaids of the day
Were left behind, and at the chariot-pole
The fifth still steered its fiery tip upward,

When my guide said, "I think that we three should
Turn our right shoulders to the outer edge,
Circling the mountain in the usual way."
My personal concept of what a poet is & does, allows for a different definition of "reader, reading"... like the old medieval technical term, lectio, lector. A "reader (lecturer)" in theology, philosophy, etc. The poet as solitary, hermit - making poem, making book. The poetry reading as a late event in life or career.

No one wants to go back to that subdued era when poetry was limited to verses in print, & middle-aged profs mumbling at a lectern; nevertheless, I think the pendulum could afford to swing back a little now.

The term "poetry" covers an enormous range of activities & forms of writing/performing. I guess that theory of poetry appeals to me which sets the bar at the highest level of human doings, I mean just under prayer & acts of charity. Dante & Shakespeare & Dickinson & Whitman - their language art places them somewhere at the "brow of reality", so to speak - capable of engaging directly with, & on a par with, all the other forms of spiritual, intellectual & practical activity. Eliot was right when he said that this doesn't happen without the expenditure of great labor & devotion - no matter how much talent & facility the artist starts out with.

In this context I find something slightly jarring in the atmosphere which uses poetry as means to advance improv comedy acts, literary funfests, "scenes". Sorry, that's just how I see it. (I suppose I need to get out more. It's just that I find most poetry boring & narcissistic, & most artists vain & pretentious. & I include myself in that category.)

11.23.2004

I think I understand the "non-difficulty" role of poetry as Jordan outlines. I wouldn't want to be a gatekeeper, oh no, not me! I recognize ptry-fr-its-wn-ske.

The formula which I was addressing, though, was "difficulty". If you are going to talk about this particular noun with respect to poetry, I think it has, as I said, less to do with technique than with ethics.

Jordan's "proxy" notion seems a little thrown, if you ask me. Almost a Horatian approach (its function is to succeed in expressing its audience's wishes & desires for it). I guess I'm more aware of the poet working to formulate his or her own dilemmas & puzzles ("out of the quarrel with ourselves..."). It becomes accessible, because both poet & reader recognize that our dilemmas are shared. & if someone is pleased/edified in the process - well, that's literary history in the making.
The literary pleasure principle is tempered somewhat by the fact that civilization, which sustains it, is itself sustained (in ways both great and small) by vows, labor, and self-sacrifice.

This is a good thing for literature, in the long run. "Time silvers the plow, and the poet's voice." (O. Mandelshtam)
Josh responds, in part:

"Henry, I need some clarification here. Are you saying that "difficulty" in poetry stems simply from the fact that words don't mean what they say—that difficulty stems from the gap between form and content? Doesn't that apply, potentially to any utterance? Or are you arguing for the importance of the framing that happens off the page—the question of poetry as an institution (Mike would double-damn it as a homogenous institution)—and deeming inadequate any approach that doesn't either attack institutionality or expand its mandate?"

Form & content(!)... let's pass on that. The difficulty I'm referring to - the generative difficulty - is that people, not words, don't mean what they say. (Art complicates this further by offering a symbolic speech, the "factual" truth of which is irrelevant.) The fact that the gap in question (between persons & truth-speaking) does apply to any utterance, is actually what places ethical difficulty at the center of literature's social relevance.

I would not, as you do here, Josh, simply align "the framing that happens off the page" with "the question of poetry as an institution". Dilemmas of personal and social ethics do not have simple institutional correlates. Rather, humanity is confronted with social, political, environmental, personal, psychological, experiential and philosophical riddles and dilemmas of such depth and complexity, as to result in ethical demands for which many people around the world sacrifice their personal well-being and their very lives. It is this experiential context which limits the general interest in poetry, to those relatively rare works which grapple with these demands in a substantial way.
Following interesting chit-chat among Josh, Jordan & Mike.

I have some trouble with both Josh's & Mike's formulations. Josh makes "difficulty" sound easy. Just another of those sophisticated pleasures we arty intellectuals share, part of the general joie de vivre. It's a sunny perspective.

Mike faults poets for not recognizing the coterie problem, the extent of the challenge involved in finding a way for poetry to "break in" to the awareness of the ordinary reader of fiction & non-fiction.

I guess my reservation about both arguments hinges on the nature of difficulty. Basically I think it's kind of a "boundary problem", a question of the framework. That is, the kind of difficulty we think we have in mind - the sort of problematic that grips the reader in an unshakeable wrestling hold, from which they will never get free - this level of difficulty is, fundamentally, not a literary question. That is, it is not something that can be finessed by aesthetics or rhetoric. In fact, it stems from the core of a difficulty with words & word-mongering itself: that words & deeds are not always the same thing; that life & literature are incommensurate; that promises and vows can be emptied of content, become vehicles of illusion, vanity, hypocrisy & deceit.

From this perspective, literary relevance, impact &/or difficulty is more of an ethical rather than a technical-aesthetic issue; it remains difficult even for the most sophisticated & talented writer, since it reaches into human commitments rooted beyond the literary "making" itself.

The art which most compels a readership seems often to emerge from a seemingly insoluble impasse or crisis or dilemma - a dilemma which, through the talent of the poet, results in a representation which has meaning for both the poet and for "society". It may stimulate a radical re-working of literary style & subject-matter. We are talking about a phenomenon which does not follow either from exhortations to the literary community to "work harder at it" (ala Mike), or from mere literary sophistication (ala Josh), which takes pleasure in arcane works, but shuns the ethical implications or demands that words sometimes entail.

11.22.2004

3




These letters, rolled like drops of sap along the spine
of a spindly cedar (hardened into crust). My letters
to you – you, who have no need of letters
among your mirrors and lights. They seep
toward you, and love you, sensing
you love them just as well.


The moon
was faint tonight, behind a smoky cloud.
Pale, bloodless, not quite round, yet
shining anyway, it lingered: held
in the branches of a willow tree
like an empty goblet. Silver
leaves lay down below – a crowd
of masks, a flock of repentant souls
from a Sienese fresco (surging around
the Rood of Heaven).


Without you,
dear, my knowledge disintegrates, a new
encyclopaedia of dust. All pledged
to rigid silence, under useless stars.


But if you were here... you would point
to the warm lights of a house nearby. And
your other hand would reach for mine
like the sun.

11.21.2004

2




We were walking through the cemetery.


It was about this time of year, as I recall –
when the earth itself seems only a graveyard.


We heard a far-off sound (pattering rain,
puttering pigeons, mute piano notes?).


We saw, over the river, the silhouette of a figure
throwing dead branches on a tall bonfire.


Perpetual twilight.


And in those days, it seemed, everyone wore masks –
except for you and me. And now I see only masks.


Halloween never ends, it seems –


unless you come back again, unless we retrace
our steps over the grassblown graves.