PART TWO — UNDERSTANDING POETRY, IF YOU DARE

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In Part I,  we did a close reading of the influential poetry textbook Understanding Poetry’s introductory chapter.

We asserted that Understanding Poetry’s editors, New Critics Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren, claim poetry for everything it isn’t and fail to say what poetry is.

The truism that poetry is ‘how a thing is said,’ rather than ‘the thing said,’ should close the deal for many—except for the confusion attending ‘how the how precisely determines ‘what is said.’

The Modernist editors of Understanding Poetry make certain learned concessions to Old Tradition as they pedantically include gems of Pope and Keats, crowded out by the lesser works of Pound and Williams and other Modernist poems, but their corrupting mission can be best seen in the way they make the thing said obliterate the how. When the ‘what’ rolls over the ‘how,’ we no longer have poetry.

Examples abound, and we will look at four of them:

1) The editors provide a chapter called “The Breakup of Civilization” in which, for instance, Ezra Pound’s ugly and pedantic verse is held up as a model, a correct model simply because  “the breakup of civilization” is its own self-justifying rationale; Pound, however, is a part of the breakup of civilization, and furthers it.

2) The editors make “drama” (aided by Shakespearean poetry gleaned from his plays, old ballads of murder and love’s betrayal, a Frost poem of the death of a child by accident) the centerpiece of poetry, so that a kind of Jerry Springer reality becomes the default interest in poetic fiction, this curiosity-driven trope finally defining the thrust of poetry’s  existence.

3) The authors are anxious to convey their opinion that poetry, as they put it, “inheres” in the “stuff of reality.”

Understanding Poetry systematically denies poetry its ideal quality.

The real merit of the poetic is that it can exist above and beyond reality as no other quality or thing can: morality, knowledge of right and wrong, is often posited as the supreme guide to human behavior—but there is no one who wouldn’t do something if it were guaranteed  that whatever they wanted to do would go unnoticed and unknown—‘not getting caught’ will always be a consideration in the moral universe, even as we ideally view morality in everyone as a virtue: morality, for good or ill, inheres within reality—morality, even as a good, is still a practical matter. Good should have good consequences, but all that is behaviorally good is trapped in reality’s accidents and practical concerns. So even as we think of morality as an ideal virtue, we know, sadly, it is trapped—we as moral beings are trapped—in reality. Morality cannot exist outside of reality—we can only be moral (or not) within reality.

Poetry, however, can exist above and beyond reality, since poetry, unlike our behavior, is not real.  Poetry, unlike morality, can have a truly ideal and universally-based existence outside of reality.  Why, then, even in the name of reality, would we want to reject or mitigate poetry’s ideal faculty?

Poetry can potentially do much in its position outside and above reality—it can be a guiding star; it can participate in ethereal beauty that sweetly lifts us up as moral beings—who are trapped in earthly concerns. Poetry, which escapes reality’s practicality, is the only thing, that, morally, can be besides the point and the point, doing good precisely because it lives only in the ideal.

4) The editors destroy a sensible approach to metrics by making a distinction which does not exist—between what they call “accentual-syllabic verse” and “accentual meter.” They write in their “Metrics” chapter:

In accentual verse, the matter of consequence is the number of stressed syllables; the number of unstressed syllables may vary greatly and their number plays no part in a definition of meter.

There is no such thing as meter in which the “unstressed syllables…play no part in a definition of the meter.”

If we enunciate every syllable, then every syllable will participate in the total effect, whether those syllables are long or short, stressed or unstressed, accented or unaccented.

There is simply no need to distinguish between “accentual-syllabic” verse and “accentual” verse, as the authors do, and the fact that the authors—and many subsequent critics—do so, reveals a complete ignorance of the most important metrical principle: the universal law of duration of sound, the axiom of time, which applies to all music and all verse, whether one happens to be leaning one’s ear towards a metronome, or not.

In a section of their “Metrics” chapter called “The Music of Verse,” they write:

Musicality of verse does, in itself, give a pleasure, but it is a fundamental error to hold that this particular kind of pleasure (which in itself, is minimal) is the end of poetry. Poetry is not music. It involves a special use of language, and insofar as musicality is one of the potentials of language it may be involved in poetry. The basic fact is, however, that language has a primary function quite distinct from musicality, and musicality in poetry becomes important only insofar as, directly, or indirectly, it is related to, or, better still, fused with, the primary function of language. By language we create symbols embodying events, ideas, and emotions, and in poetry by means of a special refinement of language, we may fuse the musicality with the other dimensions of meaning.  As Alexander Pope puts it in “An Essay on Criticism:”

Tis not enough no harshness gives offense
The sound must seem an echo of the sense.

It is not enough, in fact, to say that musicality is not the end of poetry. Some very powerful poetry, we know, is quite unmusical and may even seem quite difficult or, to some readers, ugly.

The authors protest too much. When they say “musicality in poetry becomes important only insofar as…it is fused with the primary function of language…” they simply utter a tautology: poetry “becomes important” when it fuses with the important.  Alexander Pope is not saying the “musical” has nothing to do with this importance—only the authors are.

Poetry, according, to Pope, should be musical (no harshness gives offense) as it conjoins with sense.  It is only Brooks/Warren who try to cut music out entirely (“it may be involved”) and claim that “powerful poetry” can be “unmusical” and “ugly.”  The authors’ error can be seen when they claim: “By language we create symbols embodying events, ideas, and emotions…”   Music is the “embodying” function of poetry, without which it would not be poetry (sound echoing sense).  “Events, ideas, and emotions” exist abstractly, signifyingly in the poetry, not as something embodied.  This may seem a quibble, but it is crucial—if we don’t know the body of something, how can we say we  know it?  Symbols are abstract.  They do not embody anything.

If I were to go on stage and begin shouting, the only thing I would be “embodying” would be the sounds coming from my mouth; if my shouts were converted to something musical, only then would I be “embodying” poetry. My meaning is not without importance, but neither should the meaning of my words be expected to ” embody” anything, or cancel out, in any way, the musical, which is still the primary embodiment ; nor should my emotional expression be considered any part of the poetic, since when I was merely shouting I may have been displaying plenty of emotion. And if I’m shouting, “The theater’s on fire! Get out of here!” my meaning is indeed significant, but it is not poetic, and not embodied—because a non-English speaker would have no idea what I was talking about.

The authors cherry pick attributes pertaining to the “dramatic:” the “emotional,” the “real,” etc. and apply them to poetry through the back door—even quoting Pope, contra his meaning, in the process.  This is the sly agenda of the Modernist work, Understanding Poetry.

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