Reviews — From the September 2008 issue

Congenial Disorder

Why should we look for comfort in poetry?

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On that last page of “The Study of Poetry,” Arnold was mainly adverting to the proliferation of lowbrow and middlebrow fictions, bestsellers, novels written by common minds for common tastes. We would now add, perhaps churlishly—after all, we have Curb Your Enthusiasm and The Wire to enjoy—reality TV, wretched films, video games, and the pornographic parts of the Web. In 1938, Edmund Wilson, addressing the conditions of modern poetry, raised most of the issues by asking “Is Verse a Dying Technique?” He noted that “the technique of prose is inevitably tending more and more to take over the material which had formerly provided the subjects for compositions in verse.” He was not dismayed. “The technique of prose today seems thus to be absorbing the technique of verse; but it is showing itself quite equal to that work of the imagination which caused men to call Homer ‘divine’: that re-creation, in the harmony and logic of words, of the cruel confusion of life.” He had in view Flaubert, Joyce, and Woolf, writers whose prose has many of the values of poetry. Flaubert he describes as “the first great writer in prose deliberately to try to take over for the treatment of ambitious subjects the delicacy, the precision and the intensity that have hitherto been identified with verse.”

One consequence of the further proliferation of novels and bestsellers in our culture, and the rise of prose over verse, is that poetry has gathered its energies into the lyric. There are many long poems—by Pound, Crane, Stevens, Frost, Robinson, Williams, Olson, Ginsberg, Ashbery, Walcott, and other poets—but modern long poems tend to be short poems stitched together. It is my impression that most of the poems being written are short lyrics. When they are taught in schools and colleges, the teaching is guided, I think, by certain assumptions. The governing one is often derived from John Stuart Mill’s distinction between rhetoric and poetry in “What Is Poetry?” (1833):

Poetry and eloquence are both alike the expression or uttering forth of feeling. But if we may be excused the seeming affectation of the antithesis, we should say that eloquence is heard, poetry is overheard. Eloquence supposes an audience; the peculiarity of poetry appears to us to lie in the poet’s utter unconsciousness of a listener. Poetry is feeling confessing itself to itself, in moments of solitude, and bodying itself forth in symbols which are the nearest possible representations of the feeling in the exact shape in which it exists in the poet’s mind. Eloquence is feeling pouring itself forth to other minds, courting their sympathy, or endeavoring to influence their belief, or move them to passion or to action.

Or, as Northrop Frye put it, “the lyric is the genre in which the poet, like the ironic writer, turns his back on his audience.” (This creates a problem for readers who believe that poetry is primarily an act of communication.)

According to Mill and Frye, such a poem is a soliloquy: the poet’s mind is communing with itself. But if the poem is overheard, it is still heard, though in a whisper. By a permissible qualification of Mill, we say that in a lyric poem the words on the page transcribe the feelings of an implied speaker; not necessarily to be identified with the poet in his or her other capacities, but often so identified. When we read Yeats’s poem that begins “I walk through the long schoolroom questioning,” we find it hard to avoid thinking, “Ah, yes, that’s Yeats in his role as a senator in the parliament of the Irish Free State, visiting a Montessori school.” If the implied speaker is not so identified, then the poem is presented as a dramatic monologue, and readers try to deduce from the words the personality of the speaker and the situation from which the poem plausibly arose. What sort of person is EliotJ. Alfred Prufrock? What other sort is his Gerontion? The poem is read as if it were an episode in an unfinished novel.

These questions are thought to be interesting because they take the poem as the semblance of a meeting with another person, or at least another “figure,” as the paradigm of understanding a stranger. Gerard Manley Hopkins used to ask himself, as a boy, What must it be to be someone else? The questions are also thought to be interesting because they raise the issue of voice. Parini regards this issue as crucial, voice being “the stamp of personality.” “Young poets try to cultivate their own voice,” he says. “I will argue in these pages that poetry matters, in part, because of voice.” By trying to hear the voice in a particular poem, readers are helped to discover what a voice is and how to clarify their own. That is the pedagogical theory. It is assumed, and Parini endorses the assumption, that finding one’s voice is the real right thing. I am not convinced. It seems to me to entail a cozy, unquestioned humanism and to cede absolute privilege to the reader’s ostensibly secret self: it provides a glow of self-absorption. I agree that in sustained readings of poems by Yeats, Frost, Eliot, and Stevens—Parini’s favorite modern poets—one can intuit the semblances of four different voices and therefore four different persons. But a better experience could be achieved by thinking of a writer’s style rather than of his or her voice. A consideration of style would keep readers among the words and their buried histories, instead of allowing them an easy escape into personalities and psychologies.

is University Professor and Professor of English and American Letters at New York University. His most recent book is On Eloquence.

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