WHAT IS POETRY? LISTEN TO ALEXANDER POPE

Pope: No awards or degrees. Self-taught. Banned from higher education in his native England for being a Catholic. World famous.

Alexander Pope was 20 when he wrote his rhymed “An Essay on Criticism.” This single essay contains more memorable poetry quotations than the entire 20th century produced.

We want to focus on one from that essay, which might save poetry from the wretched state it is currently in:

“What oft was thought, but ne’er so well expressed.”

In their mania for “the new,” the modern poets (who have no public) constantly strive for what has never been thought before—and no wonder the results are sometimes pleasantly odd (at best) but mostly baffling, obscure, and unreadable.

Since thought and language are profoundly linked, any random combination of words, sentences or phrases will, in theory, produce “new thought.” If only this were true! We would all be poets, and all poetry magnet kits, Shakespeare.

It is easy to illustrate, with the help of Pope’s quote, this “new thought” folly, but this does not mean this folly has not been highly seductive.

Unfortunately, bad things seduce.

The Moderns, if anyone has any doubt, are to blame. We mean those men born in the latter part of the 19th century—Pound, Eliot, and William Carlos Williams.

Who has “thought” in white spaces on the page: how “oft” has that been thought before?  If you take this question too seriously, be careful; you might have the Modernist virus—which holds the utterly baffling “new” to be more important than common sense.

Pound’s Imagism, which led to his friend, Williams’ “no ideas but in things” further points to the insanity at issue; what sort of “thought” runs about in and between “things?” Isn’t it people (like Pope) who think?

If by “things,” the Modernists meant a sort of no-nonsense materialism (da Vinci on perspective or Poe on verse) than surely they would have said so (if they could actually bring themselves to do such a thing) but they didn’t; they really did mean things: a poem that reverently mentions a wheel barrow. This is really what it was all about. Yes, it really was crazy. A Duchamp conceptualist art joke. Ha ha.

T.S. Eliot represented the “serious/educated” fake side of Modernism, the counter-weight of gravitas in the Modernist scam.

Sexless, morbid Eliot—who hated Shelley—was like the sexless Ruskin and his “pre-Raphaelite” movement—eclectically raising certain art moments far above others: champion the Middle Ages at the expense of Raphael and the Renaissance: Ruskin—who famously and publicly attacked the great American poet, Whistler.

Eliot, when he was not whimpering about the end of his beloved British Empire in “The Waste Land,” theorized that Milton and the Romantics were saddled with a “dissociation of sensibility,” unlike the “Metaphysical poets.” It was actually taken seriously in some circles that Byron, Shelley, and Keats lacked fusion of thought and feeling, while Donne did not. Taking nonsense like this seriously was just what the Modernists did. Eliot attacked “Hamlet” and the work of Poe, for good measure. Modernism had to kill certain things before it, so it, itself, could be taken seriously. This is what it means to be “new” and “modern,” and Anglo-American, and teach in college.

The New Critics, the American ‘T.S. Eliot’ wing of Modernism, with their stern, tweedy advice that a poem was not something which could be “paraphrased,” was another weapon against “what oft was thought.”

Imagine the horror. Thousands and thousands of poets writing poems that cannot be paraphrased.

What could be paraphrased was too close to Pope’s “thought,” and the whole era of Pope and his Romantic Poet admirers had to be done away with: John Crowe Ransom (b. 1888) advised that we can’t write like Byron anymore, and the influential New Critic textbook, “Understanding Poetry,” held up as models little poems by Williams and Pound (on “things” and nothing else) and featured an attack by the Anglo-American Aldous Huxley against America’s Shakespeare, Edgar Poe.

Not only does casting aside “what has oft been thought,” cripple accessibility and thought, it also damages expression—since it leaves the poet nothing to express, a problem solved by Ashbery (given the Yale Younger by Auden, an Anglo-American friend of Eliot’s).  Ashbery—praised by the Poe-hating Harold Bloom and other academics—and his brand of refrigerator magnet poetry, is the natural result of the whole process, the decline which started when Modernism kidnapped the arts in the early 20th century—a decline from common sense to mystical snobbery.

Pope’s point: Expression should be new, not thought. This is poetry: new expression, not new thought.

The modern poet has been seduced by the idea that “If I don’t come up with new thoughts, I must be stupid!!”

But this idea is stupid.

Because here’s the secret: it really has all been thought before, and the most interesting thought is what has been running through the thoughts of everyone for centuries: you, as one poet, can’t compete with that. So don’t even try.

Don’t wreck yourself on expression trying to come up with original thoughts.

Original thoughts, which are truly that, are actual ideas which no one has ever entertained before. If one should be so fortunate to come up with one of these—if one is supremely lucky and fated to win the ‘idea lottery,’ why would one ever think that a ‘winning ticket’ like this should be inserted into a poem?  (Those things nobody reads anymore.)

Of course the reply might be: but according to you, Pope did, and you are spending this essay of yours defending Pope.

But Pope belongs to history, and here is where the picture of our essay gains its third dimension. We have spoken of 1) thought, 2) its expression—and the third, which is: ‘what has gone before,’ Pope’s “what oft was thought.”

We must assume that Pope’s advice—his thought—was “thought before”—Pope’s very idea, expressed in 1712, that what poetry really is, is whatever has been previously thought but now expressed in such a way that—what?

Had been thought before, but Pope crystallized it with his expression.

The message is this. Be humble, as the speaker for your tribe: take their thoughts and express them so that the thought is transmitted in the most efficient manner possible. Here is the essence of invention and beauty, for beauty, by definition, is that which expresses what it is immediately, and invention, in all cases, is nothing but that which takes our wants and brings them to us in less time. Beauty and invention do not create the wants, they serve them. Likewise, the poet does not create thoughts, but merely serves them.

A poem, as directly opposed to what the New Critics said, is not only that which can be paraphrased, but that which travels in that direction to an extreme degree.

Pope was—is—a crucial historical marker, and his “Essay” could not help but influence poetry that came after—not in the fake way that Modernism tried to usher in change and influence, with its influence of the thoughtless new for its own sake, sans want and sans beauty—for Pope had expressed a thought in such a way that gave that thought new currency, new force, new appreciation, for the sake of generations coming after, who need to understand anew the delicate ideas that fade away in utilitarian light.

There is a war, as Plato said, between philosophy and poetry, what is matter-of-factly good for the state and what is ecstatically good for the individual—“clean your room” (public projects) on one hand, and “what are you doing in your room?” (private desires) on the other—and this conflict is timeless, and its resolution is the secret of all human activity that can be called policy or art.

Pope’s admonition for poetry: “what oft was thought but ne’er so well expressed,” is precisely a blockbuster quotation because of its efficiency in resolving the philosophy/poetry conflict for the good of humankind; poetry can err in one of two basic ways: it can be too didactic in a public-minded manner, or too creepily and anti-socially private (obscure). Poetry, because of what it is, must err in one direction or the other, always attempting and failing at a happy medium; Pope erred, as a poet, towards the didactic, and Poe and the Romantics were a correction in the other direction. Yet the greatness of Pope’s formula remains—a Platonic ideal, feeding with its ideality poets of all kinds, as they move with their poetry towards public/private gratification.

Modernism’s “progress” is merely a Shadow Movement, moving in a faulty direction, downwards, backwards, a mere reaction to the True Progress of Great Poetry—which expresses beautifully what we all in our hearts know.

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PERCY SHELLEY SOLVES CLIMATE CHANGE, POE THE UNIVERSE, AND MODERNISM IS ROMANTIC

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John Ruskin, a type like Emerson, Carlyle, and Pound when the Moderns steered art from science to blah blah blah

The poet Percy Shelley was a scientist, too.  Here is Shelley solving climate change:

The north polar star, to which the axis of the earth, in its present state of obliquity, points. It is exceedingly probable from many cosiderations, that this obliuity will gradually diminish, until the equator coincides with ecliptic: the nights and days will then become equal on the earth throughout the year, and probably the seasons also.  There is no great extravagance in presuming that the progress of the perpendicularity of the poles may be as rapid as the progress of intellect; or that there should be a perfect identity between the moral and physical improvement of the human species. It is certain that wisdom is not compatible with disease, and that, in the present states of the climate of the earth, health, in the true and comprehensive  sense of the word, is out of the reach of civilised man. Astronomy teaches us that the earth is now in its progress, and that the poles are every year more and more perpendicular to the ecliptic. The strong evidence afforded by the history of mythology, and geological researches, that some event of this nature has taken place already, affords a strong presumption  that this progress is not merely an oscillation, as has been surmised by astronomers.   Bones of animals peculiar to the torrid zone have been found have been found in the north of Siberia, and on the banks of the river Ohio. Plants have been found in the fossil state in the interior of Germany, which demand the present climate of Hindustan  for their production. The researches of M. Bailly establish the existence of a people who inhabited a tract in Tartary 490 North latitude, of greater antiquity than either the Indians, the Chinese, or the Chaldeans, from whom these nations derived their sciences and theology. We find, from the testimony of ancient writers, that Britain, Germany, and France were much colder than at present, and that their great rivers were annually frozen over. Astronomy teaches us also that since this period the obliquity of the earth’s position has been considerably diminished.

Poe’s 1848 cosmogony,”Eureka,” solved the puzzle baffling scientists into the 20th century: Why is the night sky dark? Why don’t the innumerable stars eventually brighten the entire sky with their accumulated rays? “Eureka” is perhaps the most beautiful work of science ever written—and it’s all scientific, guessing at Einstein’s discoveries well before the fact.

Henry James, the failed playwright and author of teacup fiction, sneered at Poe’s scientific temperament. How silly James now looks, but how much like the modernism he helped inspire in which blah blah blah replaces thought.

He who despises painting loves neither philosophy nor nature. If you scorn painting, which is the sole imitator of all the manifest works of nature, you will certainly be scorning a subtle invention, which with philosophical and subtle speculation considers all manner of forms: sea, land, trees, animals, grasses, flowers, all of which are enveloped in light and shade. Truly this is science, the legitimate daughter of nature, because painting is born of that nature, because all visible things have been brought forth by nature and it is among these that painting is born. Therefore we may justly speak of it as the granddaughter of nature and as the kin of god.

Because writers had no access to definitions of the science of painting, they were not able to describe its rank and constituent elements. Since painting does not achieve its ends through words, it is placed below the…sciences through ignorance, but it does not on this account lose its divinity.  And in truth it is not difficult to understand why it has not been accorded nobility, because it possesses nobility in itself without the help of the tongues of others—no less than do the excellent works of nature. If the painters have not described and codified their art as science, it is not the fault of painting, and it is none the less noble for that. Few painters make a profession of writing since their life is too short for its cultivation. Would we similarly deny the existence of the particular qualities of herbs, stones or plants because men were not acquainted with them? Certainly not. We should say that these herbs retained their intrinsic nobility, without the help of human language or writings.

The mental discourse that originates in first principles is termed science. Nothing can be found in nature that is not part of science, like continuous quantity, that is to say, geometry, which, commencing with the surfaces of bodies, is found to have its origins in lines, the boundary of these surfaces. Yet we do not remain satisfied with this, in that we know that line has its conclusion in a point, and nothing can be smaller than that which is a point. Therefore the point is the first principle in geometry, and no other thing can be found either in nature or in the human mind that can give rise to a point.

***

No human investigation may claim to be a true science if it has not passed through mathematical demonstrations, and if you say that the sciences that begin and end in the mind exhibit truth, this cannot be allowed, but must be denied for many reasons, above all because such mental discourses do not involve experience, without which nothing can be acheived with certainty.

Who wrote the above?  The renaissance painter, Leonardo—obviously grounded in science.

Ironically, the scientists who wrote poems of three-dimensional, musical import (Plato, Shelley, Poe), as the 20th century proceeded, were deemed too Romantic, while the modernist poets, casting off optimism and wonder and science, paced in swill, thinking themselves gods.

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