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Why should we look for comfort in poetry?

Discussed in this essay:

Why Poetry Matters, by Jay Parini. Yale University Press. 206 pages. $24.

If you were to write a book called Why Poetry Matters, you would be wise to concede, as Jay Parini does, that “to most people” it doesn’t. “That is, most people don’t write it, don’t read it, and don’t have any idea why anybody would spend valuable time doing such a thing.” Especially if, again like Parini, you have also written poetry, fiction, literary criticism, biography, a textbook called An Invitation to Poetry (1987), and a book of essays on poetry and politics called Some Necessary Angels (1997). You might reasonably ask: Has my invitation been accepted? Have readers acknowledged my necessary angels?

The issue is not the dearth of poets or poems. By Dana Gioia’s reckoning in Can Poetry Matter? (1992), nearly a thousand books of poetry are published in the United States every year. I haven’t even counted the number of magazines dedicated to poetry. The current issue of Parnassus runs to 676 pages of new poems, foreign poems in translation, and essays on poetry. Not to mention poetry groups, readings, tapes, blogs, PennSound and other websites, and the incalculable number of poems written for courses in creative writing and MFA programs. There are more poems out there than anyone could read in a lifetime of doing nothing else. Yet Parini refers to “the still, small voice of poetry” drowned out by MTV, CNN, Fox, and other noises, and “earphones downloading a great deal of garbage into the heads of millions on the subways and byways of the world.” It is a familiar complaint: poems cannot be heard where they should be heard, in the hubbub of the general culture. Despite Robert Pinsky’s best efforts, the practice of poetry is still a subculture; it does not matter in any public sense.

The status of poetry was not an issue, according to my reading, until quite late in the nineteenth century. Matthew Arnold’s “The Study of Poetry” (1880) makes a large claim for poetry, but it leaves one wondering why he needed to make it at all:

The future of poetry is immense, because in poetry, where it is worthy of its high destinies, our race, as time goes on, will find an ever surer and surer stay. There is not a creed which is not shaken, not an accredited dogma which is not shown to be questionable, not a received tradition which does not threaten to dissolve…. The strongest part of our religion to-day is its unconscious poetry.

“More and more,” Arnold continues, “mankind will discover that we have to turn to poetry to interpret life for us, to console us, to sustain us”:

Without poetry, our science will appear incomplete; and most of what now passes with us for religion and philosophy will be replaced by poetry.

Arnold gives these assertions an appearance of plausibility by proposing an exalted definition of poetry. In an essay on Wordsworth he writes: “Now poetry is nothing less than the most perfect speech of man, that in which he comes nearest to being able to utter the truth.” In “On Poetry” he concedes that a full explanation for the power of poetry is impossible: “No man, however, can fully draw out the reasons why the human spirit feels itself to attain to a more adequate and satisfying expression in poetry than in any other of its modes of activity.” The poetry he has in mind, providing critical touchstones, instances of the highest achievement, he cites from Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, and Milton.

Culture—not religion, philosophy, or science—was Arnold’s supreme value. He used the word to refer to the urbanity of social order, peace among the different classes, the happiness with which a lady and a gentleman could stroll in Hyde Park without fear. Ultimately, however, he described it as arising from one’s commitment to the best that has been thought and said in the world. Arnold recognized that these were aspirations at best, hardly to be found with regularity among the English people. The three social classes in England were the aristocracy, the middle class, and the working class, which he designated, with his usual vivacity, as respectively Barbarians, Philistines, and Populace. But in Culture and Anarchy (1869) he hoped that he could appeal to the better self of each of these classes and establish culture—high culture, that is; he had no plans for mass culture beyond the hope that it would not prevail—on that ground. Poetry would articulate those better selves. No further discipline or system of belief would be required.

But on the last page of “The Study of Poetry,” Arnold looks around and sees a portent not to his liking, the common and evidently growing taste for the mediocre in literature (indeed, Henry James would in 1896 have reason to refer to “trash triumphant”). Arnold speaks of it timidly and ends with a desperate cry of confidence:

We are often told that an era is opening in which we are to see multitudes of a common sort of readers, and masses of a common sort of literature; that such readers do not want and could not relish anything better than such literature, and that to provide it is becoming a vast and profitable industry. Even if good literature entirely lost currency with the world, it would still be abundantly worth while to continue to enjoy it by oneself. But it never will lose currency with the world, in spite of momentary appearances; it never will lose supremacy. Currency and supremacy are insured to it, not indeed by the world’s deliberate and conscious choice, but by something far deeper,—by the instinct of self- preservation in humanity.

It is, by another name, the instinct by which we reach at last for our better selves, if we ever do.

Arnold’s claim that poetry, as the better part of culture, will save us from “anarchy,” as he calls it, has had remarkably enduring power. It is substantially Parini’s claim in Why Poetry Matters that with poetry to inspire us we can live satisfactory lives together without the divisive requirement of religion:

The language of poetry can, I believe, save us. It can ground us in spiritual and moral realities, offering the consolations of philosophy, teaching us how to speak about our lives, and how—indeed—to live them.

Parini is reciting Arnold, as well as I. A. Richards, who made this Arnoldian assertion in Science and Poetry (1926):

The most dangerous of the sciences is only now beginning to come into action. I am thinking less of Psychoanalysis or of Behaviourism than of the whole subject which includes them. It is very probable that the Hindenburg Line to which the defence of our traditions retired as a result of the onslaughts of the last century will be blown up in the near future. If this should happen a mental chaos such as man has never experienced may be expected. We shall then be thrown back, as Matthew Arnold foresaw, upon poetry. Poetry is capable of saving us.

But there are differences among the three prophets. The main one between Richards and Parini is that, according to Richards, we must accept what he calls “the Neutralization of Nature, the transference from the Magical View of the world to the scientific.” By the Magical View, he meant “the belief in a world of spirits and powers which control events, and which can be evoked and, to some extent, controlled themselves by human practices.” We must not look for our salvation to the sun and the moon, trees and rivers. Richards scolded W. B. Yeats and D. H. Lawrence for thinking that we could. Nature has no interest in us, he insisted; it has nothing to say. Arnold thought that nature spoke to him in his time mainly through Wordsworth. Parini, too, thinks that poetry “returns us, through language, to the natural world”:

Poets have always returned to nature for inspiration, as when Louise Glück in “Flowering Plum” writes: “In spring from the black branches of the flowering plum tree/the woodthrush issues its routine/message of survival.”

Parini’s nature is a genial presence, never red in tooth and claw.

Returning to nature for inspiration may be an innocent device, or it may be specious: a sentimental indulgence. Either way, we are naive to claim, without evidence beyond woodthrushes and plum trees, that poetry will save us from any catastrophe—unless the “us” refers merely to a coterie, those who love poetry and think of their salvation as the happiness and security they find among verses. Parini, like Arnold and Richards in this respect, is trying—as T. S. Eliot put it in The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism (1933)—“to preserve emotions without the beliefs with which their history has been involved.”

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.

Reading for the voice, the implied speaker, and the situation has other disabilities. It reduces words to their situational meanings, to mere signification, erasing their other capacities and relations. The literary theorist Jonathan Culler, persuasively in my view, has taken the standard reading of Robert Frost’s “Spring Pools” as an instance of such an approach and its limitations. It is assumed that someone is standing beside a pool in a forest (although the poem says “pools” and “forests”), looking at the water and the nearby flowers, reflecting on the sacrifice of the water to the growth and budding of trees. The poem ends:

The trees that have it in their pent-up buds
To darken nature and be summer woods—
Let them think twice before they use their powers
To blot out and drink up and sweep away
These flowery waters and these watery flowers
From snow that melted only yesterday.

What the normal reading—one that assumes a speaker and a situation—has trouble accounting for, Culler says, “are those elements that do not make much sense in an empirical frame, such as the flowery chiasmus of ‘these flowery waters and these watery flowers,’ which melds the two elements as part of a process.” Further:

But especially foreign to the model of the dramatic monologue is the literary allusion of the final line, which has to be attributed to the poet addressing readers rather than to the character looking at the pools: “From snow that melted only yesterday.” Answering François Villon’s famous question “Mais où sont les neiges d’antan?” (“Where are the snows of yesteryear?”), the poet tells us where they are: melted into pools that the trees drink to bring on summer foliage.

The final line need not be attributed, in my interpretation, to the poet addressing readers: it could still be part of the whole soliloquy, if we assume a soliloquy. Remembering Villon’s question, the poet answers it to himself, deliberately and literally. But Culler’s larger argument is valid, and it could be strengthened by pointing to the neo-Darwinian thrust of “out” and “up” and “away.” Frost’s poem is a complex structure of sentences, rhymes, and other internal relations; it is not an editorial in a newspaper with words designed to be used once and then thrown away. Every detail, every feature of the poem, is a discovery among the words that isn’t bound to the thoughts of a hypothetical character in a certain situation. Indeed, in the most accomplished lyrics, we have the impression that the poet has become oblivious to himself through the single-mindedness with which he has submitted to the language in which he is working. So we might qualify the common understanding of poetry by saying that a lyric is a symbolic act—symbolic or figurative; not realistic or denotative—a performance among the words of a particular language, a movement of tropes and figures. It is more like dance or music than like discourse, and it is there—like those other arts, as Susanne Langer says in Feeling and Form—only to be perceived.

There is another question. It is normally assumed that in a lyric poem the poet has made a private place for himself, having fended off the social and economic noise of the world. Helen Vendler writes, in Invisible Listeners:

In its usual form, the lyric offers us the representation of a single voice, alone, recording and analyzing and formulating and changing its mind…. Although in the usual lyric the speaker is alone, this solitude does not mean that he is without a social ambiance. It means only that his current social conditions are presented as they are reflected on in solitude, embodied not in “live” interaction with other persons but in lexical and intellectual reference.

This is agreeably put, but there are readers—and I am one of them—who are not convinced of it: they consider the experience of reflection (as in “reflected on”) to be not at all autonomous but socially conditioned. So far as that reflection is supposed to be a personal possession, these readers deem it to be a bourgeois illusion: there is no such free or private state, they say, least of all when it is declared to emerge in the supposedly protected form of reflection. They recall that Adorno, thinking of Baudelaire and Nietzsche in this regard, spoke of “the pathos of detachment.” The lyric, according to Adorno, “is always the subjective expression of a social antagonism.” That, too, brings its commotion and noise into the poet’s apparent silence.

Parini’s book doesn’t go far into such questions. It relies on a strong tradition derived from Aristotle’s Poetics, according to which the sign of a true poet is his ability to see likeness in difference. Hence the focus on simile and metaphor. With a simile, we say that something is like something else in certain respects, as in Robert Burns’s “O, my Luve’s like a red, red rose.” With a metaphor, we go far beyond the simile and declare, against strong rational considerations, that something is indeed something else. Romeo exclaims: “It is the east, and Juliet is the sun.” Parini is helpful on the consequences of Aristotle’s Poetics and its long-persistent force: he has good chapters on metaphor, tradition and originality, form and freedom, and the politics of poetry, mostly under Frost’s dispensation. But he might have elucidated an alternative sense of poetry, which had a recovered moment in critical theory some years ago, by which poetry is deemed to embody itself not in likeness and difference but in the act of conjuring or summoning an absent or impossible entity to come forth. The rhetorical figure of this act is prosopopoeia. To explain it, critics regularly quote Sir Philip Sidney’s Apologie for Poetrie (c. 1580): “His notable Prosopopoeias, when he maketh you, as it were, see God coming in his Majestie.” Thomas Hardy’s love poems to his dead wife are often read under this figure. But Parini is justified in not taking account of it: the schools have not allowed it to displace the privilege of likeness and difference. He is also justified in acting upon the Aristotelian tradition to maintain that poetic language is the truest speech, which he calls “that highly distinct form of kinetic language, which appeals to the ear and the eye of the reader”—“kinetic” meaning, I assume, active, dynamic, full of energy.

But I wish he had interrogated language itself a bit more. He writes of it as if it were an always cordial presence, waiting patiently to be invited to dance. It may sometimes be so; but I note that Geoffrey Hill refers to language as enemy country, that Eliot speaks of “the intolerable wrestle/With words and meanings,” that Valéry thinks of the poem as “a prolonged hesitation between sound and sense,” and that Stevens writes in “The Creations of Sound”—probably with Eliot in his sights—

Tell X that speech is not dirty silence
Clarified. It is silence made still dirtier.

These are difficult, obscure statements; one might be forgiven for being blank about some of them. But at least they express a sense of language as not at all companionable, nor easily relied on. Language evidently permits felicities, eloquences found among the words, but only provided they are not taken for granted in advance.

Parini is not alone in giving language a free pass. In The End of the Poem, Giorgio Agamben asks the question common to both Parini and himself:

Why does poetry matter to us? The ways in which answers to this question are offered testify to its absolute importance. For the field of possible respondents is clearly divided between those who affirm the significance of poetry only on condition of altogether confusing it with life and those for whom the significance of poetry is instead exclusively a function of its isolation from life. Both groups thereby betray their apparent intention: the first, because they sacrifice poetry to the life into which they resolve it; the second, because in the last analysis they are convinced of poetry’s impotence with respect to life.

I have no quarrel with this, or, for the most part, with its first consequence:

Opposed to these two positions is the experience of the poet, who affirms that if poetry and life remain infinitely divergent on the level of the biography and psychology of the individual, they nevertheless become absolutely indistinct at the point of their reciprocal desubjectivization. And—at that point—they are united not immediately but in a medium. This medium is language.

But to describe language as a medium is to represent it as neutral, almost passive, like colored paints in tubes waiting to be pressed open by a genius. Agamben’s next sentence is inevitable: “The poet is he who, in the word, produces life.”

Parini would agree with this assessment. So do I. It is the true gist of our theme. The achievement of a poem is to produce more life. But I want “the word” in Agamben’s sentence to be much more recalcitrant than he seems to assume; I want it to register the hard-won successes and the hard-lost failures that Eliot writes of in “Burnt Norton”: “Words strain,/Crack and sometimes break, under the burden,/Under the tension, slip, slide, perish,/Decay with imprecision, will not stay in place,/Will not stay still.” I want, too, from both Agamben and Parini, a more forthright acknowledgment that reading “the word” entails something of the difficulty of writing it. Coleridge says in Biographia Literaria that one of the properties of poetry is that of “exciting a more continuous and equal attention, than the language of prose aims at, whether colloquial or written.” If you read a poem that begins—

Slowly the poison the whole blood stream fills.
It is not the effort nor the failure tires.
The waste remains, the waste remains and kills…

—you don’t read it as you would read the average novel, in which the words drift away as soon as you are done with them. You attend to the inversion in the first line, which holds the verb back to the end; the distinguishing of “effort” and “failure” as immediate possibilities, the pathos of the repetition of “The waste remains” in the third line, followed by the decisive “kills,” the reversion to the perfect iambic pentameter in the last line after the troubling of that metrical form in the first two lines. Derek Walcott has a poem, “The Hulls of White Yachts,” which celebrates a particular experience of being alive, the music of what happens. One line reads: “as stars come out to watch the evening die.” Of course we don’t read this line separately from its sixteen fellows, their emphatic and unemphatic rhymes, the little figure of a dinghy writing lines of verse as ripples, three lines at a time like Dante. Still, when we come to this line, we hold in mind certain awkward intimations—that stars do not come out to watch the evening die, they have no such intention; that the evening does not die, it returns tomorrow; and yet that a person on such an evening, looking at the yachts, the water, the marina, and the stars, might easily fancy that the stars are watching the evening die, and that a natural rhythm graciously accommodates all this and more.

Reading a poem entails, to a special degree, the act of paying attention; we are required to concentrate our minds, not only to the extent we do habitually on words as they pass in ordinary life but as we are impelled to do on words in the intricacies, frictions, and evasions of lyric form. That so much in contemporary life encourages us to do otherwise—to accept things as they are, whether for the sake of ignorance or convenience—suggests, finally, why it is that poetry matters. Although Coleridge may have been referring specifically to poetry when he devised the phrase, might “a more continuous and equal attention” offer not just a way of reading but of living as well?

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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