THOMAS BRADY: THE INTERVIEW, PART I

Who was a bigger drinker, Ashbery or Poe?

Ashbery, easy.

Is Ashbery deep?

No. Dense, maybe, not deep.

By dense, do you mean difficult?

No. ‘Difficult’ implies a problem to be solved. Language allows you to load up a twenty pound vehicle with two tons of stuff. Language allows one to be problem-free. It’s magical, really. Ashbery takes a traditional poem and loads it up with excess prose. It’s playing with the magic of language, without having anything to say, or being too smart, or worldly, or sly, to have anything to say. It’s analogous to a businessman who plays with money and has no morals. That’s why Ashbery is dense, but not difficult. The wealthy businessman has no problems, no difficulties—he isn’t looking to solve a problem, just push money around. Perhaps he gambles with his investments, but that’s not ‘problem-solving,’ per se. That’s just playing with money. Maybe he could lose his shirt. But what he does is not solving a problem. But the world is full of gambling businessmen, and the world needs capital. Does poetry needs an Ashbery? Readers don’t need an Ashbery, but if poetry, as a metaphorical device, didn’t have an Ashbery, it would invent one.

You’ve said early Auden sometimes sounds exactly like Ashbery.

Yes, there’s a few poems Auden wrote as a young man which sound like ‘the Ashbery poem,’ the poem we read over and over with Ashbery’s name under it in the New Yorker, next to those wealthy ads, year after year.  It’s the poem that fakes curiosity and interest and then disappears into the smooth lake, a glass surface left in its wake, and if you as the reader complain, if you get the least bit ruffled, you lose, and the poem wins. We  see what a working-class cad you really are. The poem, by its mere being, has found you out. Similarly, if you ask what an abstract painting means, you are found out as a clod. It works the same way. Yea, so early Auden is like Ashbery, but then Auden had ideas, and was far more forthcoming with all sorts of opinions than Ashbery, and pretty quickly then, in the 30s, Auden’s poems, and of course his ballads, had lots of content. If Auden had remained with nothing to say, he would have become the first Ashbery.  But Auden ended up choosing the first Ashbery.

Auden anointed Ashbery with his Yale Younger ‘bring me that fellow’s manuscript who didn’t enter the contest, will you?’ choice.

Yea, and O’Hara was runner-up. Auden knew Ashbery and O’Hara were cartoons of himself; both poets were larks, clever, but they weren’t serious poets, he knew that. But Auden had started out just like them, and Auden had famously said a poet who likes to play with words will be better than someone who merely has ‘things to say,’ and this trope: ‘poetry is how you say it, not what you say,’ is the most important linguistic, artistic,  philosophical, political, rhetorical trope of the modern era. If matter is nothing but negative and positive charges, if communication is nothing but code, if political leaders triumph with style alone, if the secret agent is the true hero of his country and the double agent the true hero of the world, if William James and Wittgenstein were right, if the Language Poets are right, if secret handshakes mean much more than open ones on the count of secrecy alone, if foetry, not poetry is the rule, than certainly how something is said is more important than what is said.

But doesn’t this mean that aesthetics is more important than power?

Power is a given.  Power cannot be beautiful, for the two are distinct.  Beautiful art inspires, it empowers the audience, makes society more beautiful by making its art more beautiful, and there’s always room for more beauty, that problem of putting more beauty in the world, and making citizens more beautiful persons will never go away; the poem of power works quite differently; it takes away the free will of true response and makes the reader non-critical and acquiescent, which is not the same thing as being inspired by beauty, even in a passive way, because the critical response is always inspired when beauty is involved, since we judge beauty and power judges us. Before the abstract painting, or the Ashbery poem, one must rejoice in its lack of beauty and perspective and harmony or be ‘found out’ as a cad.  Modern art works like the secret police.  It finds you out as a worshiper of beauty or not, and knows you, thusly. This is power, because the art does not know anything itself, but it finds out what you know, how you feel, how you think, and thus who you are, in a purely binary way: are you one of us, or not?  In terms of power, in terms of political intelligence, in terms of political organizing, modern art is very, very important in how the world is run, in how the world is classified. Modern art is code.  Aesthetics has nothing to do with it.

But isn’t ‘how you say it” aesthetics, by its definition?  Poets who write with meter and rhyme, for instance, surely are more concerned with how they say it than with what they say.  But the formalist poet is the very opposite of Ashbery.

The formalist poet who only cares about sounds—of which early Auden was an excellent example—is like the Abstract painter who only cares about color. Aesthetics boiled down is abstraction.  The key to poetry isn’t code or abstraction or only ‘how it is said,’ or only ‘what is said,’ but a harmonious combination of all elements.  Power breaks down those elements.  Art and all the virtues are reduced to code where people can say, ‘we have to keep the riff-raff out,’ which is a residue of virtue, since keeping out what is bad is the residue of good, but now it’s coded and we all know what it really means, and the code can be thinned out until only the important people know what it means.

You see poetry as something that ought to match a good society.  But what if poetry isn’t supposed to do that?  What if poetry’s function is to go its own way and if it’s good for society, fine, and if not, well, it’s more important for art to be free to pursue its own path than having to fit into, or contribute to, a virtuous society?

I guess it does sound like I’m making a heavy-handed assertion, one that goes back to Socrates and follows a moral tradition, because it certainly appears that I’m saying that we can only read Ashbery through the lens of a harmonious, or potentially harmonious, society.  But isn’t that what we’re all saying?  Except that some defer the issue to a greater extent than others?  Those who say ‘art must be free’ do not say this because they think it’s a bad idea;  they think it’s a good idea—and ‘good idea’ means here what’s ‘good’ for society.  Even the person who says there should be no society is making an assertion based on the worth of a society.  So all opinions on the value of anything, really, are backed up by the implicit understanding we’re talking about ‘the good’ in the Socratic, ‘Plato’s Republic,’ sense.  Those who would make a fetish of art would deny this bit of common sense: society or ‘the good’ have nothing to do with it, and will never have anything to do with it, they say. The New Critics will claim it only matters if the poem ‘works’ as a poem, and the Ashbery school will essentially say it only matters if it ‘doesn’t work’ as a poem, which is the logical next step, but the phrase “as a poem” can’t possibly have any meaning separate from society, since “as a poem” is a term that implies distinction between ‘poem’ and other things, and, in addition, the “as a” part of the phrase implies the person who intellectualizes that distinction, and once you posit an intellectual person, society quickly follows.

Do you think poetry can be a window into scientific experiments, so in that way it is free of what you are talking about?

I can’t think of any poetry that can be classified that way.  Is there an obscure poem somewhere, beloved of scientists, and no one else?  I can’t think of such a poem, unless perhaps the essay “Eureka,” which Poe called “a poem.”  But this was not the bogus science of a Charles Olson.  Poe can be forgiven for his misnomer, only because his science was real; it concerned the stars, the planets, the nebulae, gravity, light, and the miraculous physics of the heavens.

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12 Comments

  1. Bill said,

    May 24, 2011 at 8:08 pm

    Great article! Have to come back later!

    (Would you mind deleting my post to Dunn-Harjo?

  2. Marcus Bales said,

    May 25, 2011 at 1:02 pm

    ” … Auden had famously said a poet who likes to play with words will be better than someone who merely has ‘things to say,’ and this trope: ‘poetry is how you say it, not what you say,’ is the most important linguistic, artistic, philosophical, political, rhetorical trope of the modern era. If matter is nothing but negative and positive charges, if communication is nothing but code, if political leaders triumph with style alone, if the secret agent is the true hero of his country and the double agent the true hero of the world, if William James and Wittgenstein were right, if the Language Poets are right, if secret handshakes mean much more than open ones on the count of secrecy alone, if foetry, not poetry is the rule, than certainly how something is said is more important than what is said.”

    Perhaps we ought to consider “Art is how you say it, not what you say.” That broadens out the possibilities for how you say things without limiting art, or even artfulness, to poetry alone. But it cannot be otherwise than that how you say a thing, as opposed to what you say, is the distinction between art and non-art. The time is long past when, were you to have a sudden insight into a political, business, or scientific problem which, as you reflected and did a little research on it evolved into what seemed to you an important or significant contribution, you would think “Aha! I have to write a poem about that!” On the contrary, it is prose in which we want our politics, science, and business. We suspect not only art in those fields, but artfulness, too, and often even articulateness.

    That’s why the free versists have jettisoned the tools of poetry in favor of the tools of prose: it makes whatever is said sound more important and significant in these times. The meters of poetry make whatever you say sound as if you really do think that how you say it is more important or significant than what is said because you’ve taken such time and trouble to say it in a particular way.

    Once, however, you accept the notion that art is what is said instead of how it’s said, there’s no reason to distinguish art from non-art at all — that distinction is then subsumed within the distinction between “important or significant”, and not. At that point art ceases to be a worthwhile endeavor – it becomes just one more hobby of the over-educated leisure classes, unrelated to the real work of understanding people and the world.

    What has made art in general, and poetry in particular, seem irrelevant is the demand that it say something new, something modern, something importand or significant. Re-interpreting Pound’s “Make it new” to mean “Say something new” instead of “say what you have to say in a a new way” was the death of poetry as a means for people to explore the world through innovative language. Poetry is not philosophy; not politics; not business; not science. Poetry is how you say it, not what you say, or it is nothing. The free versists who have jettisoned the tools of poetry to write their prose disquisitions have found that they have only two options. First, they may talk about what they know, and try to make those sound important or significant by casting them in the metal of prose, or, second, lapse into difficulty, denseness, and double-talk to try to make readers think something new has been said.

    Interestingly, in the second case, how you say a thing comes miraculously back to life! If something is said just obscurely enough without being obtuse, it may be taken to say something new when it doesn’t. This was, I think, Ashbery’s discovery.

  3. thomasbrady said,

    May 27, 2011 at 10:38 pm

    Bales,

    You make a such strong argument for the ‘how’ school against the ‘what’ school, that I almost hate to be a spoil-sport and say both are essential.

    Here you say, “Once, however, you accept the notion that art is what is said instead of how it’s said, there’s no reason to distinguish art from non-art” and so here you are positing an either-or.

    I just can’t accept that ‘how you say it’ is all that matters.

    I could, in sport, reply:

    “So how, then, do you like to eat poop?”

    “I don’t like to eat poop.”

    “But you said ‘how’ is everything!”

    How can ‘what I say’ not be part of ‘how I say it?’ And if it is part of it, how can it be ignored? ‘Well,” you will reply, “until it is said in an interesting way, we can ignore it.” This may be true, but it’s like light that is a wave and a particle simultaneously: as soon as the ‘how’ becomes interesting, the ‘what’ appears and becomes important, becomes, in fact, one with the ‘how.’ The two are one, such that when you say ‘how,’ you really do mean ‘what.’

    What I said was Keats’ Ode. Keats said what? It isn’t just a ‘how.’

    Brady

  4. thomasbrady said,

    May 27, 2011 at 11:07 pm

    An Auden poem that sounds like an Ashbery poem is this 1929 poem by Auden,

    “Venus Will Now Say A Few Words”

    Since you are going to begin today
    Let us consider what it is you do.
    You are the one whose part it is to lean,
    For whom it is not good to be alone.
    Laugh warmly turning shyly in the hall
    Or climb with bare knees the volcanic hill,
    Acquire that flick of wrist and after strain
    Relax in your darling’s arms like a stone,
    Remembering everything you can confess,
    Making the most of firelight, of hours and fuss;
    But joy is mine not yours—to have come so far,
    Whose cleverest invention was lately fur;
    Lizards my best once who took years to breed,
    Could not control the temperature of blood.
    To reach that shape for your face to assume,
    Pleasure to many and despair to some,
    I shifted ranges, lived epochs handicapped
    By climate, wars, or what the young men kept,
    Modified theories on the types of dross,
    Altered desire and history of dress.

    You in the town now call the exile fool
    That writes home once a year as last leaves fall,
    Think—Romans had a language in their day
    And ordered roads with it, but it had to die:
    Your culture can but leave—forgot as sure
    As place-name origins in favorite shire—
    Jottings for stories, some often-mentioned Jack,
    And references in letters to a private joke,
    Equipment rusting in unweeded lanes,
    Virtues still advertised on local lines;
    And your conviction shall help none to fly,
    Cause rather a perversion on next floor.

    Nor even in despair your own, when swiftly
    Comes general assault on your ideas of safey:
    That sense of famine, central anguish felt
    For goodness wasted at peripheral fault,
    Your shutting up the house and taking prow
    To go into the wilderness to pray,
    Means that I wish to leave and to pass on,
    Select another form, perhaps your son;
    Though he reject you, join opposing team
    Be late or early at another time,
    My treatment will not differ—he will be tipped,
    Found weeping, signed for, make to answer, topped.
    Do not imagine you can abdicate;
    Before you reach the frontier you are caught;
    Others have tried it and will try again
    To finish that which they did not begin:
    Their fate must always be the same as yours,
    To suffer the loss they were afraid of, yes,
    Holders of one position, wrong for years.

    W.H. Auden, 1929

    This seems to be just as Bales described: “Said just obscurely enough without beng obtuse…”

    Auden’s poem is a little too much ‘what’ and not enough ‘how…’ or is it too much ‘how’ and not enough ‘what?’

    It’s hard to tell…

  5. Marcus Bales said,

    May 29, 2011 at 2:53 am

    “You make a such strong argument for the ‘how’ school against the ‘what’ school, that I almost hate to be a spoil-sport and say both are essential.”

    I don’t argue that poetry is better if the poet has something to say. But ‘better’ and ‘worse’ aren’t what I’m talking about here. I’m talking about (once again) the distinction between poetry and prose. Poetry (once again) is NOT ‘the good stuff’ that bubbles to the top of language arts. Poetry is language in meter, and that’s all — and neither good nor bad on account of meter. Meter does NOT guarantee goodness — or badness. That’s why I say that the ‘how’ is more important — because if you don’t get to the ‘how’ of meter you don’t get to poetry at all in the first place.

    “Here you say, ‘Once, however, you accept the notion that art is what is said instead of how it’s said, there’s no reason to distinguish art from non-art’ and so here you are positing an either-or.”

    Here’s what you said:

    “‘ … Auden had famously said a poet who likes to play with words will be better than someone who merely has ‘things to say,’ and this trope: ‘poetry is how you say it, not what you say,’ is the most important linguistic, artistic, philosophical, political, rhetorical trope of the modern era.”

    There’s the either-or you bring up, and with which you disagree. I am pointing out that once YOU have come down on the side of that very either-or you’ve come down on, and accepted what you seem to be accepting (that art is ‘what is said’ instead of ‘how it’s said’), then YOU have no reason to distinguish art from non-art. It’s all evaluated on what is said. No style points needed, offered, or taken — and certainly nothing about meter! You seem to be arguing against Auden’s position.

    “I just can’t accept that ‘how you say it’ is all that matters.”

    Here, again, it’s you who are creating the either-or, and then coming down on one side of it, and asserting that I’m coming down on the other. First, you clearly hold that poetry is ‘what is said’ and NOT ‘how it is said’, which perpetuates the either-or you brought up and are trying to accuse me of bringing up and perpetuating. Second, you are still clearly in the grip of the notion that poetry is ‘the good stuff’ in language arts, and not simply a way to describe certain kinds of attempts to use language. Third, I don’t say that ‘how you say it’ is all that matters in toto — I say, rather, it’s how we distinguish poetry from prose. If you say it in meter, you’re saying it in poetry, whatever ‘it’ is. If you’re saying it without meter, you’re saying it in prose, whatever ‘it’ is. Whether you’re saying it well or ill has nothing to do with it. You’re conflating the notions of description and quality, again.

    “I could, in sport, reply: ‘So how, then, do you like to eat poop?'”

    To which I’d reply “The way I like to eat poop is ‘Not at all.'”

    “But you said ‘how’ is everything!”

    No, I didn’t — I said ‘how’ is what we use to distinguish poetry from prose. The way we evaluate whether either the poetry or the prose is good or bad is another question entirely, and has no bearing on whether the writing in question is poetry or prose.

    “How can ‘what I say’ not be part of ‘how I say it?’ And if it is part of it, how can it be ignored? ‘Well,’ you will reply, “until it is said in an interesting way, we can ignore it.’ This may be true, but it’s like light that is a wave and a particle simultaneously: as soon as the ‘how’ becomes interesting, the ‘what’ appears and becomes important, becomes, in fact, one with the ‘how.’ The two are one, such that when you say ‘how,’ you really do mean ‘what’.”

    I agree with this, for the most part. What I don’t understand is how we can seem to agree on this but still seem so far apart about defining poetry without any hint of quality-control taken into consideration, without in any way asserting that ‘poetry’ is ‘better’ than ‘prose’ just because one is poetry and the other is prose. The ‘how’ is the difference between poetry and prose. The ‘what’ is the what in either case. The question of the quality of the workmanship is how the how and the what are crafted together — the issue of whether it is ‘good stuff’ is not a question of whether it’s poetry or prose, but of whether it is good stuff.

  6. thomasbrady said,

    May 31, 2011 at 12:57 pm

    Bales,

    There’s a very strong tradition in literature, articulated best by Shelley’s “Defense,” which says that poetry IS the “good stuff,” it IS the best that bubbles to the top of language arts BECAUSE anyone who focuses as intently on HOW it is said as the poet does, if they DO IT RIGHT, will, in fact, BE THE BEST, since the prose writer uses the freedom of prose to SAY WHAT they will, but the poet—who we must assume is an inspired creature—not only says WHAT they will, but joins that WHAT with a HOW, and thus by simple math, (two is more than one) poetry surpasses prose.
    Surely, whenever prose makes a claim to be as good as poetry, we notice that HOW the prose is formed makes a claim for its excellence. So THAT THIS EXCELLENCE SUBSUMES the meter v. prose distinction. By making the meter v. prose distinction paramount, you are cutting off the prose nose of poetry and cutting off the poetry nose of prose. The distinction you are clasping to for dear life is drowing you in the sea of a LARGER point.

    Poe strenuously argues for the beauty and rigor of meter, NOT for the mere sake of METER, but for the higher properties of beauty and proportion—which inform ALL THAT IS EXCELLENT. Meter is part of the sea that lifts all boats, it is not the whole sea, NOR IS IT A SEPARATE BODY of water from the body of water that is prose.

    You are concentrating too much on the body of the argument—of which you always make excellent points,—and not enough on the spirit.

    We need an attitude change in poetry. I’m sure Byron and Shelley and Keats AS POETS believed they WERE THE BEST—and they WERE.

    Tom

  7. Marcus Bales said,

    June 1, 2011 at 7:30 pm

    Shelley had his moments as a poet, but as a thinker and theorist he’s weak. He’s got the wrong end of the stick to say that poetry is ‘the good stuff’. The primary problem with that formulation is that it doesn’t distinguish poetry from prose at all. It offers only the miasmal sink of a foetry-like assertion that this or that is good because I say it is. It’s an invitation to the foets of the world to build their networks of back-scratching and blurbing as the only arbiters of what is ‘the good stuff’. I had thought you were opposed to that.

    “… whenever prose makes a claim to be as good as poetry, we notice that HOW the prose is formed makes a claim for its excellence. So THAT THIS EXCELLENCE SUBSUMES the meter v. prose distinction.”

    This is exactly what’s wrong with the claim that poetry is ‘the good stuff’: it makes no allowance for excellence in prose. Excellent prose must, by this formulation, be arbitrarily called ‘poetry’ or it can’t be any good at all.

    “By making the meter v. prose distinction paramount, you are cutting off the prose nose of poetry and cutting off the poetry nose of prose.”

    You have this exactly backwards. It is by insisting that ‘the good stuff’ is ‘poetry’ that you ignore any differences between poetry and prose whatever – it’s all either ‘good stuff’ or ‘bad stuff’. The ‘good stuff’ is poetry and the ‘bad stuff’ is prose. Irrespective of its layout on the page, its author’s intent, how it’s been viewed over the years, or any other consideration except the opinion of the instant reader as to its merit as a piece of language art, a bad poem is prose and a good novel, or play, or speech, or list, or even the address on a letter, is poetry if someone says it’s ‘the good stuff’. That’s nonsense. It makes a hash out of any attempt to distinguish what is being attempted and what is being accomplished in the entire literary world.

    Why bother to talk about any distinction between any kinds of writing: prose, drama, stage work, lists, addresses, casual conversation, formal speeches, nasty asides, advertising, public relations, press releases, if by dint of anyone’s claim that the piece of writing is ‘the good stuff’ it is, therefore, poetry? There is nothing there but ‘good’ or ‘bad’ in an endeavor in which ‘good’ and ‘bad’ are wildly storm-tossed in the sea of personal opinion. There is not only no tool to use to determine whether a piece of writing had more or less ‘units of art’ in it than another piece of writing, so that we could evaluate whether one was ‘good’ and the other ‘bad’, there isn’t even a theory about what such a ‘unit of art’ would look like.

    There is no objective measurement of ‘good’ or ‘bad’ possible in the realm of art. Without such a measure all claims of ‘good’ or ‘bad’ as determinants of whether something is ‘poetry’ or ‘prose’ are worse than useless. They become, instead, tiny pieces of subjective ground over which talented people waste their lives fighting.

    You’re talking as if you had an artometer, and could stick it into any piece of writing and read off its absolute merit in units of art on a scale that accurately reflects its position among all the other writing measured on that scale, and thereby determine whether it’s ‘poetry’ or ‘prose’, irrespective of any other consideration. It can’t be done, not by you, not by me, not by anyone.

    All we have is educated opinion and taste in these subjective endeavors. We can’t make hard-and-fast definitions based on what are necessarily transient views. It is much clearer and easier to take prose to be prose and poetry to be poetry based on whether the writer employs meter than it is to re-evaluate whether Poe, or Pope, or Eliot, or Graves wrote poetry or prose depending on whether one happens to like his work or not, whether one happens to think his work is good or not.

    • thomasbrady said,

      June 2, 2011 at 11:03 am

      Bales,

      You underestimate Shelley.

      “Shelley had his moments as a poet, but as a thinker and theorist he’s weak.”

      You aren’t describing Shelley here, but 20th century poetry. Point to a modern ‘theory’ in poetry that makes sense. Name a 20th century poet better than Shelley—by 29, or any age.

      Of course excellent prose is poetry. By not accepting this, you encourage the poetasters of our era who hide behind the whole idea that poetry is distinct. This is a wonderful irony. By rejecting Shelley’s simple hierarchy, you actually undercut your own distinction between prose and poetry and encourage those who trivialize verse.

      Tom

  8. Marcus Bales said,

    June 3, 2011 at 1:41 am

    “… It is necessary … to determine the distinction between measured and unmeasured language…. Sounds as well as thoughts have relation both between each other and towards that which they represent, and a perception of the order of those relations has always been found connected with a perception of the order of the relations of thoughts. Hence the language of poets has ever affected a certain uniform and harmonious recurrence of sound, without which it were not poetry, and which is scarcely less indispensable to the communication of its influence, than the words themselves …”

    There’s Shelley arguing, in “In Defense of Poetry”, that poetry is ‘measured language’, as distinct from ‘unmeasured language’, which he refuses to call ‘verse and prose’ because that would be vulgar. Not being as refined as Shelley, I suppose, and also having other rhetorically strategic ends in mind, I’m happy to call ‘measured language’ poetry and ‘unmeasured language’ prose.

    It’s been a while since I read Shelley’s Defense, but re-reading it I find it is you, not me, who has misguided notions about whether he argues that poetry is ‘the good stuff’.

    “Yet it is by no means essential that a poet should accommodate his language to this traditional form, so that the harmony, which is its spirit, be observed. The practice is indeed convenient and popular, and to be preferred, especially in such composition as includes much action: but every great poet must inevitably innovate upon the example of his predecessors in the exact structure of his peculiar versification. The distinction between poets and prose writers is a vulgar error.”

    Shelley is not suggesting here what you think, though. He is praising the imagination, the metaphor-making art, the notion of what we’d call ‘fiction’, using the Greek roots of the words and the Greek senses of the words for synthesis and analysis to justify his ideas, because the original Greek distinction wasn’t between ‘verse’ and ‘prose’ but between ‘history’ and ‘fiction’ — and all fiction was poetry, though it was cast in meter, too. Shelley is not arguing for the same conflation of prose and verse that have produced such idiotic conflations as the ‘prose poem’ or ‘free verse’ when he says that the distinction between prose writers and poets is a vulgar error — he is saying people without his education make that distinction because they don’t know any better. Shelley knows better. He knows, since he’s not one of the Greekless, that all poetry is in verse and all poetry is a work of the imagination, is fiction, in short, not history — not facts, memoir, confession, diaries, journal entries, etc. Poetry is in verse and poetry is made up — that’s what Shelley is saying.

    • thomasbrady said,

      June 3, 2011 at 3:36 am

      Bales,

      Why does Shelley, in his ‘Defense,’ call the philosophers Bacon and Plato poets, then? I know that Shelley argues strongly for measured language, but he does so not simply by splitting the world between prose and verse; he adds a third, which we might call by any number of names: imagination, inspiration, truth, etc If we want to use iconic religious imagery, we might even say verse is the father, prose, the son, and the imaginative force that links them, the holy ghost. In “The Rationale of Verse,” Poe makes a pretty good case for the ‘measured’ as the origin of language itself. That’s why verse would be the father, prose the son. If what you despise, the ‘prose poem’ and ‘free verse,’ had prose excellence, you’d have to give it a grudging respect, but it has no intrinsic excellence, and this is far worse than the fact that it’s ‘free.’ In other words, if ‘free verse’ was worthy, it would fall to a mere quibble that we ought not to call it poetry, but it’s not a quibble, because of deeper issues beyond those of ‘calling prose poetry.’

      Tom

      • Marcus Bales said,

        June 3, 2011 at 12:01 pm

        “Why does Shelley, in his ‘Defense,’ call the philosophers Bacon and Plato poets, then?”

        Cicero, too. And he goes on to call Shakespeare, Dante, and Milton ‘Philosophers’. But note that he distinguishes between ‘necessarily poets’ whose ‘periods are harmonious and rhythmical’ and contain ‘the echo of the eternal music’ of poetry, and ‘supreme poets’ who write in measure, and who are both ‘supreme poets’ and ‘philosophers’. Shelley still distinguishes between poets-by-courtesy, philosophers and rhetoricians, and poets-in-actuality, who ‘have employed traditional forms’. Here’s the passage:

        “Plato was essentially a poet—the truth and splendor of his imagery, and the melody of his language, are the most intense that it is possible to conceive. He rejected the measure of the epic, dramatic, and lyrical forms, because he sought to kindle a harmony in thoughts divested of shape and action, and he forebore to invent any regular plan of rhythm which would include, under determinate forms, the varied pauses of his style. Cicero sought to imitate the cadence of his periods, but with little success. Lord Bacon was a poet. 2 His language has a sweet and majestic rhythm, which satisfies the sense, no less than the almost superhuman wisdom of his philosophy satisfies the intellect; it is a strain which distends, and then bursts the circumference of the reader’s mind, and pours itself forth together with it into the universal element with which it has perpetual sympathy. All the authors of revolutions in opinion are not only necessarily poets as they are inventors, nor even as their words unveil the permanent analogy of things by images which participate in the life of truth; but as their periods are harmonious and rhythmical, and contain in themselves the elements of verse; being the echo of the eternal music. Nor are those supreme poets, who have employed traditional forms of rhythm on account of the form and action of their subjects, less capable of perceiving and teaching the truth of things, than those who have omitted that form. Shakespeare, Dante, and Milton (to confine ourselves to modern writers) are philosophers of the very loftiest power.”

        “I know that Shelley argues strongly for measured language, but he does so not simply by splitting the world between prose and verse; he adds a third, which we might call by any number of names: imagination, inspiration, truth, etc”

        Shelley is merely following the Greek-Roman-Medieval confusion based on the loss of Aristotle’s “Poetics” for nearly 2000 years. Its re-discovery at the beginning of the age of printing, and subsequent eager dissemination, created a lot of shuffle-stepping among the experts for several reasons, one of which is that the discovered copy is incomplete, and doesn’t address all the kinds of poetry the Greeks offered, and another of which is the confusion about ‘other than’ and ‘better than’ with regard to the difference between ‘poets’ who were writing non-fiction in meter and ‘poets’ who were writing fiction in meter. Aristotle’s divide was between metaphor-making and not.

        Poets, for Aristotle, were people who wrote in meter and made metaphors. People who wrote in meter and simply made their points or told their stories or otherwise did what we might call ‘prose’ Aristotle said were ‘other than’ poets because they didn’t make metaphor – they didn’t have that over-arching metaphorical sense and intent of what we call ‘fiction’. Through Longinus and Quintillian up through Coleridge and Shelley, ideas and translations got conflated and confused, and moved away from ‘other than’ to ‘better than’ when distinguishing between those who were ‘versifiers’ and ‘poets’.

        Shelley doesn’t ‘add a third’, he rather is hearking back to Aristotle’s distinction between writers who make metaphors – by which he means a more profound thing than just a facility with simile, metonymy, synechdoch, etc. – and those who don’t. Aristotle was making a distinction that is closer to the distinction we call ‘fiction’ and ‘non-fiction’ than to what we call ‘poetry’ and ‘prose’. But Aristotle did not say, did not even suggest, that meter could be dispensed with in poetry, and the writer could still be called a poet.

        So what Shelley’s argument is here, to the extent that it’s argument at all and not merely atmospherics based on being able to read Aristotle again, but still with Longinus and Quntillian making their ‘other than to better than’ mistake still current in the thought of his time, is a sort of effusion of beneficence, willing to grant the status of ‘poet’ to people such as Plato and Bacon whose metaphorical thinking Shelley admires, even though they didn’t write in measure or meter. This is exactly where Shelley is a better poet than thinker.

        “If we want to use iconic religious imagery, we might even say verse is the father, prose, the son, and the imaginative force that links them, the holy ghost.”

        Ingenious, but inaccurately contemporary if what you’re shooting for is what Shelley meant, instead of what you’d like to take him to mean. To the extent that Shelley was trying to get back to the original Greek meanings, the very notion of using the christian trinity is an abomination, something like, perhaps, describing the black experience in America as ‘feminized’: you offend everyone possible all at once with such an image. Nietszche makes this point more vividly a little after Shelley.

        “If what you despise, the ‘prose poem’ and ‘free verse,’ had prose excellence, you’d have to give it a grudging respect, but it has no intrinsic excellence, and this is far worse than the fact that it’s ‘free.’ In other words, if ‘free verse’ was worthy, it would fall to a mere quibble that we ought not to call it poetry, but it’s not a quibble, because of deeper issues beyond those of ‘calling prose poetry’.”

        I understand that the cultural weight and the social significance of claiming to be “a poet” and to write “poetry” is most of the reason that most people want to make that claim. It’s a lot easier to write “free verse” and “experimental verse” and “avant garde verse” than it is to write in meter (though again, let me emphasize this has nothing to do with whether the writing is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ – it can still be excellent writing and free verse, too – it’s just not excellent poetry, it’s excellent prose) and that the combination of those two has resulted in a lot of non-meter writing called poetry.

        I hold that it’s not poetry because poetry must be written in a recognizable, repeating, and regular meter precisely to distinguish it from prose. The challenge for people who cannot or will not write in meter is to establish the artfulness of their writing in prose, though, and own their work as prose, not to try to co-opt the cultural weight and social significance of poetry by the brazenness of simply making the claim that what they’re writing is poetry.

        • thomasbrady said,

          June 3, 2011 at 8:33 pm

          Bales,

          The best Romantics, Keats and Shelley, were not slaves to Aristotle; they preferred Plato. The Renaissance was the “Renaissance” because it chucked the idiocy of Aristotle.

          I fully support your distinction between measured and non-measured language. I don’t wish to blur the meter/non-meter distinction in the face of the evidence of our senses. Of course not.

          But the larger point here is simply this: good/bad trumps prose/meter in every case—because there are a variety of meters and prose styles appropriate in nuanced ways to a variety of moods, settings, rhetorics, stories, philosophies,etc

          To say of something, ‘It’s in meter’ is like saying ‘It uses commas and periods.’ It really doesn’t tell us anything. We need to ask: what kind of meter? is it original? does it evince genius in the way the meter is used? Depending how meter is used, it can be a plus or a minus. A great writer deciding not to use meter may be a more ‘poetic’ choice than a poor writer deciding he will.

          Metaphor is a problematic subject for a variety of reasons; it is one of those topics where fools do not fear to tread. Metaphor is either too large or too small for most understanding. Metaphor can be used to merely describe something: this looks like that, or it may be an equivalence of a far richer and wider import. Most poets only use it for descriptive purposes, though they think they are doing much more. Facile descriptiveness, in which the writer plays the painter, can be very wearying. But when something large and new is created by subtle undertones that weave a harmonious whole, here the term ‘metaphoric’ refers to something quite different. Metaphor is as common as air, and usually works best when used discretely.

          As with meter, not using metaphor might be a great choice—for the poet.

          I think you’re playing a losing game by suggesting only meter should be called poetry, even though I sympathize with your intention. Most of the blame should go to haiku. It is no coincidence that haiku was making a huge cultural impact on the West just as free verse Modernism, led by the “Imagists,” pulled poetry away from meter. Haiku is poetry, at least to most people, and who wants to be a xenophobic bully and say it is not. It’s the same issue with abstract painting. Is it really painting? It’s too late for such discussions. The cat is out of the bag, and image and abstraction are now counted as poetry and painting. I think it’s too late in the game to argue about what something is called, or to draw a line in the sand over metered poetry. The way out of this dark wood is a more nuanced one. I find the New Formalists wretchedly boring. I would rather read Ashbery, not because he’s better, but because he’s kinder to meter—by not using it.

          Tom


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