A POEM IS A DELICIOUS SHUDDER OF DELIGHT

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A poem is not an organism.

A poem is not a field.

A poem is not language.

A poem is not breath.

A poem is not a letter to the world.

A poem is not a rhyme.

A poem is not an image.

A poem is not speech.

A poem is not song.

A poem is a delicious shudder of delight.

As Poe said,—and who better to explain brevity and poetry than someone named Poe?—a poem is brief and it elevates the soul.

 I need scarcely observe that a poem deserves its title only inasmuch as it excites, by elevating the soul. The value of the poem is in the ratio of this elevating excitement. But all excitements are, through a psychal necessity, transient. That degree of excitement which would entitle a poem to be so called at all, cannot be sustained throughout a composition of any great length. After the lapse of half an hour, at the very utmost, it flags — fails — a revulsion ensues — and then the poem is, in effect, and in fact, no longer such.

With these simple words, Poe dispels centuries of pedantic darkness.

It is always a painful process to root out ignorance in the popular mind, especially when it is habituated to certain comforting falsehoods; Poe goes right for the pain, testing his thesis in the jaws of Paradise Lost:

There are, no doubt, many who have found difficulty in reconciling the critical dictum that the “Paradise Lost” is to be devoutly admired throughout, with the absolute impossibility of maintaining for it, during perusal, the amount of enthusiasm which that critical dictum would demand. This great work, in fact, is to be regarded as poetical, only when, losing sight of that vital requisite in all works of Art, Unity, we view it merely as a series of minor poems. If, to preserve its Unity — its totality of effect or impression — we read it (as would be necessary) at a single sitting, the result is but a constant alternation of excitement and depression. After a passage of what we feel to be true poetry, there follows, inevitably, a passage of platitude which no critical pre-judgment can force us to admire; but if, upon completing the work, we read it again, omitting the first book — that is to say, commencing with the second — we shall be surprised at now finding that admirable which we before condemned — that damnable which we had previously so much admired. It follows from all this that the ultimate, aggregate, or absolute effect of even the best epic under the sun, is a nullity: — and this is precisely the fact.

Poe’s logic is air-tight.   The reader who reads a poem is performing a physical act, and this truth is all, really, that Poe is asserting, plus the notion that physicality has natural limits, which none can dispute.   Note that Poe is not making dubious claims re: the actual physical properties of the poem, and here Poe correctly limits the very thesis itself and does not err in the sense that Charles Olson (d. 1970) did, for instance: giving the quality of “a field” to the poem is to assert absolutely nothing, for a field can be measured, just as any physical object can be measured, but the physical measurement of a field and the physical measurement of a poem allign how?  They do not, and thus one can see at once that it is mere theoretical nonsense.  Poe again:

In regard to the Iliad, we have, if not positive proof, at least very good reason for believing it intended as a series of lyrics; but, granting the epic intention, I can say only that the work is based in an imperfect sense of art. The modern epic is, of the supposititious ancient model, but an inconsiderate and blindfold imitation. But the day of these artistic anomalies is over. If, at any time, any very long poem were popular in reality, which I doubt, it is at least clear that no very long poem will ever be popular again.

History has proven Poe correct: “no very long poem” has attained popularity in the century and a half since Poe wrote these words, and now we see that Pound and his followers, with their long poems*, were less modern (in the actual sense of that word) than Poe; it was Pound, not Poe, who fell into “inconsiderate and blindfold imitation.”   One looks about for an epic by popular poets Robert Frost, Edna Millay, Philip Larkin, T.S. Eliot, Mary Oliver, or Billy Collins and finds none.  One of the many reasons is: the poetry anthology is the mode of poetic popularity and no epic will fit in it.  Another historical test of Poe’s theory is this: the novel is one of the great modern pastimes of the human heart and yet, despite trillions of novel-reading hours, no long poem during this time has emerged as a popular work in the vast reaches of this fiction-reading pursuit.  The Golden Gate by Vikram Seth may be the one slight exception, but it is more a wonderful oddity than a truly popular work.  Why no modern, best-loved long poems?

The core of Poe’s idea (duration) makes it an absolute rock of common sense, impossible to refute.    He follows out the implication of the central idea with genius-like simplicity:

It is to be hoped that common sense, in the time to come, will prefer deciding upon a work of Art, rather by the impression it makes — by the effect it produces — than by the time it took to impress the effect, or by the amount of “sustained effort” which had been found necessary in effecting the impression. The fact is, that perseverance is one thing and genius quite another — nor can all the Quarterlies in Christendom confound them.

On the other hand, it is clear that a poem may be improperly brief. Undue brevity degenerates into mere epigrammatism. A very short poem, while now and then producing a brilliant or vivid, never produces a profound or enduring effect. There must be the steady pressing down of the stamp upon the wax. De Béranger has wrought innumerable things, pungent and spirit-stirring; but, in general, they have been too imponderous to stamp themselves deeply into the public attention; and thus, as so many feathers of fancy, have been blown aloft only to be whistled down the wind.

The little poem by W.C. Williams called the “The Red Wheel Barrow” is a brief poem that has made a certain lasting impression on the public taste, but this proves nothing except that such a strong pull had been created by undue length and heavy-handed pedantry—persisted in by the pedants against Poe’s wisdom for such a long time—that “The Red Wheel Barrow” was, and is, a mere physical counter to this pull, lacking poetic qualities in itself; and we should also remember that this little poem was first heralded by the triumphant textbook Understanding Poetry, and has been pushed on students (anxious to do as little work as possible) in the schools and thus took root in a pedantic atmosphere at first, not in the popular mind.

The rush of excitement exists in the reader, not anywhere in the poem, and academic attempts to resolve the poem based on New Critical principles is a blind endeavor compounding error with error; the shift from New Critical thinking to various experiments have only made the problem worse, since these experiments keep following the poem as it disappears down the hole of its own physicality.

The poetic problem must be constantly approached from two directions: transitory excitement engendered in the reader and physical adjustment in response to that excitement in the act of composition, with the act of composition and the act of excitement feeding one another in a process that never rests in any sort of field or vehicle or receptacle that can be quantified except in the mind of the poet—a mind which balances a vast quantity of impressions and expressions in a combining process too rapid and complex for an outside observer to follow.

The brute fact of duration is the only quantitative measure possible in poetry according to Poe’s instinctive genius, and so far, in terms of poetry as a popular art, this remains as true today—despite a great deal of modernist avant-garde hoopla—as it was when Poe published the first modern poetry essay in 1849, the final year of his life.

 * I refer to Pound’s Cantos, Olson’s Maximus Poems, Williams’ Paterson, Zukovsky’s “A” among others.  Of course, it could be argued that these works were not intended by their authors to be long poems, but rather “a series of lyrics” (in Poe’s words) which is probably true, but if so, this hardly refutes Poe’s thesis.

 

 

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6 Comments

  1. Aaron Asphar said,

    December 28, 2010 at 1:14 pm

    How politically and intellectually engaging. How relevant: how immediately important.

    If you have been able to survive this boredham, then reward yourself with intelligent analysis and discussion: ditch these vaccuous, anachronistic, pretentious, myopic toffs and come breath life into my new bog. These guys have their ideosyncratic cannons. I prefer open, critically robust, creative and relevant social and cultural analysis.

  2. thomasbrady said,

    December 28, 2010 at 1:25 pm

    What happened to your blog, Aaron?

    It seems to have gone missing.

    Were you, yourself, unable to survive (shudder) boredham?

    Tom

  3. Aaron Asphar said,

    December 28, 2010 at 2:06 pm

    I wouldn’t even let my spam (or spunk) dry on yr already dry exteriorities.

  4. thomasbrady said,

    December 28, 2010 at 3:06 pm

    “I wouldn’t even…yr”

    Your rant is meaningless, however, since no one has any idea who the “I” and the “yr” of your rant is.

    Your expression would go further if it made some sense…

    Has anyone ever explained this to you?

    This might calm you down:

    • Noochness said,

      December 28, 2010 at 3:58 pm

      This one’s mellow too,
      Tho a bit controversial —
      ‘Twas commissioned for the background
      Of a Prozac commercial.

  5. Mabool said,

    December 30, 2010 at 5:41 pm

    It has to jump off the page.

    Foetry


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