WHAT IS POETRY?

A poem is an imaginative fiction, and though it may aim at a kind of truth, it is not real; it is not the truth.

The poet never necessarily endorses what he imagines in his poems.

A poet is essentially a playwright or a story-teller. Shakespeare is not himself guilty of mayhem, because he put mayhem in his plays.

The mind that imagines is not the hand that does. The author is never the persons imagined.

Countless authors have used their own experience to recount crimes in the first person. Of course this does not mean they are guilty of anything. A society would not be free if it prevented authors from making imaginative fictions.

Think of all the songs that sing of things not necessarily condoned by the singer or the songwriter. Poems, like songs, like stories, like plays, are finally not real; that’s why they belong to creative writing.

There are some, who have almost no imagination themselves, who would judge a poet harshly by that poet’s fictions—fictions meant to shine light on life by dint of imaginative thought, seeking to understand and cure the world’s ills, the very ones which most afflict those who have no imaginations, those who, ironically, imagine that a fiction is entirely real.

Unfortunately, poetry is increasingly taught in our schools as something which is not imaginative, but either a collection of facts or the real voice of a real person speaking. The imaginative virtue, in this case, is replaced by a different virtue, a virtue that is virtuous precisely because it has no imagination at all.  Either the poem makes no sense (without sense, there is no imagination) exhibits some political opinion found in any newspaper, or is a kind of memoir in which the poem’s speaker is precisely relating a real incident from real life. The imagination is nowhere to be found.

The virtue which is virtuous because it has no imagination is a necessary virtue, and there should be no objection to it: ‘virtue without imagination’ accompanies duty and loyalty and obedience of every kind, and society as we know it would be impossible without this kind of simple virtue.

But this kind of simple virtue has nothing to do with imaginative writing.

This does not mean that the imaginative cannot be moral and virtuous, in the final analysis, and in fact, it should be, but it is moral in a different manner; it arrives at the good in a more round-about way; as in Dante’s famous poem, hell may have to be visited before heaven is gained. In the imaginative fiction, “hell” is both real and not real.

Great poets have been exiled. Mixing real with unreal, the real they include may still offend. Imaginative writing, which comes close to the real, includes this risk. The ‘scary’ real mingles with the ‘scary’ fiction.

But in the end, it is fiction, and, if it is good fiction, it overcomes the scary, it does not support the scary, for the imagination is guided by the ultimate truth or good, if it is good. The imaginative writer, using the bad occasionally, strives to be good. Not because the writer is ‘honest,’ as in writing a truthful memoir, or because the writer expresses a desire to ‘save the whales,’ but because the fiction is a fiction which participates in a truth expressed in a highly imaginative manner, so that the expression itself is as important as the thing expressed, the power of the expression giving a kind of license to say what people may think but are afraid, or too embarrassed to say, the embarrassment existing not because of who the poet is, but because of the world’s shortcomings. The poet is not expressing his thoughts, but in the imaginative act of the fiction, the thoughts of everyone. This is the purpose of imagination: to go out of ourselves in a moral act and identify with the world, to identify with the intrigues and secrets and welfare of the world, for the sake of the world.

I have been influenced by the work of Dorothy Parker, one of the best poets of the 20th century. The last stanza of her poem, “Love Song,” goes like this:

My love runs by like a day in June
And he makes no friend of sorrows.
He’ll tread his galloping rigadoon
in the pathways of the morrows.
He’ll live his days where the sunbeams start,
Nor could storm or wind uproot him.
My own dear love, he is all my heart,—
And I wish somebody’d shoot him.

Parker is madly in love with a man who will not sit still long enough to love her, and the torture is such that she wishes somebody would kill him. We don’t know how real, in this particular case, this sentiment is, but we do know that this precise sentiment could be real, and this very sentiment could be Parker’s precise state of mind.

But since, as readers, we know it is a poem, we identify abstractly with its sentiment; we call it real and yet unreal, and don’t equate it with any actual behavior of Parker’s. As we live in a free society, we do not censor; we allow both Dorothy Parker and her poem complete freedom, with the democratic conviction that a society which suppresses fictional expressions of this kind will be a society which has less creativity and more violence.

Scarriet holds to this principle of free expression: we carefully and deliberately produce work that could be true, but which is not true; no person, place, or thing is ever identified so that a stranger might identify the truth of its content in any way; only its truth as an inspired fiction exists; a Scarriet love poem could be about any love; the universal sentiment is always the subject, never a particular individual in a particular circumstance. The imaginative poem is the only poem we allow to be published here.

Shelley said the secret of morals was love, for love makes us passionately identify with another person.

Romantic attraction, or love, used to be the staple of lyric poetry, but imagination is required to make love interesting, and the non-imaginative poetry of today is not up to the task.

First, since love has been written about so often, the challenge to be original is greater.

Second, romance has become problematic in modern times, just as romance.

Third, since poetry now exists most influentially in the college classroom, it behooves professors to make poetry a subject that feels more modern, and expresses the sort of social change college campuses are simmering with; thus love poetry is tacitly rejected as too simplistic and old-fashioned, too associated with popular music, and so essentially not serious.

Fourth, social media has created a firestorm of private-turned-public, take-no-prisoners, gossip which pries into slightly uncomfortable private feelings with a judgmental animus never before seen in history, and since original romance effusions are bound to entertain slightly, or even deeply, uncomfortable private feelings, the love poet may just throw in the towel altogether, and instead write poems on very simple subjects, like history, politics, and philosophy.

Imagine if the Beatles were told they couldn’t write love songs; the Beatles simply would not exist.

The result, today, is that poetry finds itself in a state of confusion, exiled from all song, or lyric, elements, and struggling, as “poetry” to make a prose more meaningful than—prose. Which, obviously, cannot be done.

Look at these lyrics from one of the Beatles’ best-known albums, Rubber Soul, released in 1965, the height of Beatlemania, in which the Beatles were also striving to be more sophisticated:

“Well I’d rather see you dead, little girl, than to be with another man, you better keep your head, little girl, or I won’t know where I am.” —Lennon & McCartney

This is from the songwriters that would go on to produce “Imagine” and “Let It Be” and “Here Comes The Sun.” Imagine if a would-be John Lennon wrote a poem like that today, and it ended up on Facebook. “Run For Your Life” was influenced by an Elvis Presley song, and has been covered numerous times. What is the difference between a song and a poem? Should poets be held to the same standards as songwriters, recording artists, and other ‘creative writers,’ and what should those standards be? Should all creative writing, whether a movie script, a short story, a song, or a poem, be held to the same moral standard, whether or not it appears in a cinema watched by millions, or on some poor wretch’s blog?

If I make something up, which nonetheless has some resemblance to reality, in a poem, is this not the same as a major-release film depicting precisely the same thing, with the only difference that the latter costs millions of dollars to make, and employs thousands of people? It may just be that the film will be considered an elaborate fiction, no matter how horrific the content, but with the way poetry is increasingly read and judged these days, the poet, it will be assumed, is somehow responsible in his own person, as the filmmakers are not, for any offensive content that is part of the fiction.

Can censors say, “You may write about love, but you may not depict hateful things like jealousy?” No poems or songs like “Run For Your Life?” No ambiguity of desire allowed? Where do we draw the line, when it comes to imaginative fictions, in keeping a society creative and free? And can we ever justly assume something about an author’s personal character—think of our Shakespeare example—based on their imaginative fiction?

Look at what Plato demanded for his Republic: poems that only praise. (Plato, contrary to popular opinion, did not ban all kinds of poetry from his ideal society.) A song like “Run For Your Life” would be banned, because threatening to kill your girlfriend is not praising her.

It didn’t matter to Plato that Lennon wrote a song about an unnamed girl. What mattered was purely the bad emotions involved. Yet Aristotle would say these “emotions” are a vital part of art’s expressive good.

Was Plato right?

How imaginative/expressive/creative are we allowed to be?

We believe we have made it clear where Scarriet stands.

If Scarriet has ever strayed, in any way, from our rigorous standard,—we are human, after all, and poetry is a passionate and extremely difficult art—we apologize, without reservation.

WHAT DOES THE HISTORY OF POETRY LOOK LIKE?

 

Thomas Eliot set the old poetry world in order, by george, he did!

T.S. Eliot was correct to remind us that the Tradition—Works in Time that We Read Now—evolves constantly as a whole by every present addition, is a unique living creature, and is not simply a chronological collection, to be ‘got at’ in a haphazard (even if the ‘getting’ is rigorously chronological) manner; Eliot’s formula only works if we see the Tradition as a whole—not that we can really see it ‘all at once,’ because, of course, it is too big for that—which we grasp in its essence (characterized by its best examples going back to its hazy but finite beginning) as that which simultaneously enriches our present efforts as poets and is enriched by our present efforts. As Eliot points out—but it goes without saying—this is a major task: first, to read and be acquainted with the Tradition, and then to be good enough to effectively add to it. And nothing less than this is required if we take ourselves seriously as poets.

Two temptations face those who would somehow fight free of the Tradition.

It is tempting to say, here’s me, the poet, and here’s the world, and that’s enough; and the Tradition—which is over here, well, we can take it and toss it in the sea. Eliot, after all, was a conservative wretch, and making the Tradition, with all its weighty past, essential, was just his way of preventing change. We can toss the Tradition in the sea, but it will just emerge again; the Tradition is the Sea; the Tradition includes the very desire to erase itself, all for the sake of change; the temptation to destroy Tradition lives and breathes in the Tradition itself; as Eliot so pointedly observed, the past is what we are; Eliot’s is not a piece of advice—it is the primary literary fact. We are not standing on the shoulders of giants; we are the shoulders, and thus, the giants.

Another temptation is to treat more recent works in the Tradition as more essential, because they are closer to us in time. This is to fall into the chronological error: more recent works are assumed—within Eliot’s very definition—to be participating in Eliot’s formula: adding and altering the past with their novelty; but new works don’t succeed on their own; they only succeed in altering the Tradition—chronology does not exist in some worldly sense; we might read a 16th century work and the Whole Tradition grows a new limb for us; to bite off what is nearest to us in time is merely the world’s chronology, not the Tradition’s, nor ours. We are learning the Tradition, not where it “fits” in the world; to fit the Tradition “into” the world, even as we regard it with scholarly and historical respect, is to drift dangerously into the error of the First Temptation, above. The Tradition is not what we know; it is how we know, and we learn it to know both it and ourselves simultaneously—once we try and observe it objectively from afar, we are lost in that profound error of the egotistical scholar and the manic, irresponsible poet, publishing in a newspaper: the news, not poetry.

The progress of the Tradition and Us in Time is not a smooth or simple one. If this were so, it would be a lot harder to grasp. It is only possible to grasp the Tradition at all, precisely because it includes those authors who are of such primary importance that they obliterate, eclipse, swallow, subsume, assimilate, join, conquer, raze, and eat thousands of lesser scribblers, including the most advanced minds of our time: Shakespeare, for instance; once your professor has finished showing you what he or she knows of Shakespeare, your professor is eaten by Shakespeare, and Shakespeare now belongs to you, and Shakespeare of the Tradition now belongs, in a living, and ever changing sense, to you. The Tradition belongs to Shakespeare, not the other way around.

The Program Era is naturally a bit wary of the Tradition, for the Creative Writing Industry is driven by a more immediate and practical concern—training the student, for a price, to be a writer—and it naturally seeks a shortcut past the giant, devouring Tradition—which the Creative Writing student—the old “English Major,”—has neither the time, nor the inclination, to read.

There is also the matter of present politics—politics as it exists and is practiced in the present (“Current Events”)—not literally ‘present politics,’ the practice of reading, as much as possible, present works, regarding their recent existence as more important because more recent—which we already covered in the Second temptation, above, but those recent politics that puff themselves up with great importance, which of course has the advantage of appealing to contemporaneous minds embroiled in all sorts of specific moral issues of the day; but the danger is: in as much as these issues come to the foreground, poetry fades into the background, where it apparently still exists for those whose moral indignation is fed by an outside source without poetic qualities. The dynamic is a slippery and subtle one, but is sufficiently lawful to kill poetry completely. A moral skin, a moral appearance, hides the emptiness.

Poetry does not live in the abstract; it lives in poetry: “Ode On A Grecian Urn.”

Thou still unravish’d bride of quietness,
       Thou foster-child of silence and slow time,
Sylvan historian, who canst thus express
       A flowery tale more sweetly than our rhyme:
What leaf-fring’d legend haunts about thy shape
       Of deities or mortals, or of both,
               In Tempe or the dales of Arcady?
       What men or gods are these? What maidens loth?
What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape?
               What pipes and timbrels? What wild ecstasy?
Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard
       Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes, play on;
Not to the sensual ear, but, more endear’d,
       Pipe to the spirit ditties of no tone:
Fair youth, beneath the trees, thou canst not leave
       Thy song, nor ever can those trees be bare;
               Bold Lover, never, never canst thou kiss,
Though winning near the goal yet, do not grieve;
       She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss,
               For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!
Ah, happy, happy boughs! that cannot shed
         Your leaves, nor ever bid the Spring adieu;
And, happy melodist, unwearied,
         For ever piping songs for ever new;
More happy love! more happy, happy love!
         For ever warm and still to be enjoy’d,
                For ever panting, and for ever young;
All breathing human passion far above,
         That leaves a heart high-sorrowful and cloy’d,
                A burning forehead, and a parching tongue.
Who are these coming to the sacrifice?
         To what green altar, O mysterious priest,
Lead’st thou that heifer lowing at the skies,
         And all her silken flanks with garlands drest?
What little town by river or sea shore,
         Or mountain-built with peaceful citadel,
                Is emptied of this folk, this pious morn?
And, little town, thy streets for evermore
         Will silent be; and not a soul to tell
                Why thou art desolate, can e’er return.
O Attic shape! Fair attitude! with brede
         Of marble men and maidens overwrought,
With forest branches and the trodden weed;
         Thou, silent form, dost tease us out of thought
As doth eternity: Cold Pastoral!
         When old age shall this generation waste,
                Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say’st,
         “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all
                Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”

Poetry is not abstract. Even “the abstract” is not abstract. The abstract, by definition, is the boiled down essence of the forms, motions, shapes, speeds, accelerations, masses and vectors of the universe.

Useful abstraction aids the true understanding, which like Eliot’s Tradition, does not advance by accumulation of facts—which can make us dumber, loading us down with the mere puzzling plurality of the useless (the dull, wooly idiocy of the modernist gizmo school)—but rather by the shedding of facts, and so by careful elimination, the necessary necessarily enlightens the necessary.

The larger world, perceived by the mature person, has a use attached to every fact, and uses further attached to uses, in various and hierarchical ways. The best is not shied away from; transcendent inventions and breakthroughs are eagerly seized upon; poems are not treated as the learned expression of a scientist, nor as a scientific attempt at abstraction (the great error of Modernism) but rather as a great counter-expression to science and learning: otherwise the poem would drive the Tradition and not be driven by it; the poem and Tradition would not be distinct, and they must be, for either to properly exist; we study the Tradition, but not the poem—whose property is beauty, which can never be ‘got at’ by study. To miss this distinction is to miss everything.

We look at Keats’ Ode through the lens of the Tradition, and this is how we understand its greatness.

The person who does not find exquisite pleasure in reading Keats’ Ode certainly lacks those qualities that we look for not only in a poet, but in a human being; but this is not the same thing as reading the Ode through the lens of the Tradition, which we perform only in the aftermath of its beauty devouring us. The poets who attempt to reverse this process, by writing a Tradition-worthy poem before they experience the pleasure necessary to write a pleasurable poem, are barred from the glory which we find in Keats’ Ode.

The phrase “what maidens loth?” in the context of Keats’ Ode—the urn stands for the world in Keats’ poem, laid out before us, in mystery, in beautiful miniature (find another poem which replicates all existence as well)—contains a great deal: maidens pursued, maidens who resist this pursuit, the question, “what maidens?” as the misty yet clear world of the urn is gazed at, manifests greatness by saying a lot with a little.

The objective excellence belongs to the poem of the Tradition, but not to the poem—even though we feel what is objectively excellent as we experience the poem’s beauty.

Keats, feeling pure sentimental love (which the Moderns in their sophistication revile and ridicule and curse) dares to confront a great black hole of existence: maidens and the essence of maidenhood—which flashes at us quickly in the amoral, rolling-eye ecstasy of Keats’ ur-landscape, which offers sacrifice, rape, and love, and the stopping of a kiss (desire) which therefore preserves the lover’s beauty—the stoppage, ironically, driving the urn’s immortal journey through time; enabling the urn (and the poem!) to outlive us and our apparently more active life:—it is we who are stopped, while the poem/urn is that which, in an ironic reversal, moves, just as the delirious, metrical wonder that is Keats’ poem pitches forward with its music, and, in loving it, we move backward to read it again, our admiration turning the poem into an object of admiration that nonetheless constantly moves, imitating the ever-still, ever-moving universe, both beautiful/tragic in its stillness and beautiful/tragic in its moving. Did Keats consider all this before he wrote his poem? Obviously not; but surely the poet in him quickly fixed on the urn-idea for a poem; genius grasping and teasing out the many in an essential thing.

The simpleton, who sits passively in front of a film while it unpacks its frozen pictures to describe its story, finds it impossible to conceive how a poem merely sitting on a page could produce more insight and pleasure than a movie (with popcorn). Poor simpleton! The simpleton belongs to the world, not to the world and God. If we cannot appreciate a Keats poem and the Tradition, we are just like that simpleton, who may indeed feel as much pleasure as us, and in that sense, be as worthy. We cannot judge a simpleton or a poem; we bring about judgment (as we are doing here) only as we think with the self-consciousness of the Tradition.

 

THE ROAD TO CRITICISM’S FINAL FOUR

image

Two more wins.  That’s all Harold Bloom or Edmund Wilson needs.  As the fate of the other philosophers in the Classical, Romantic and Modern brackets smashes on the rocks of wit and time, in the Post-Modern Bracket, Harold Bloom and Edmund Wilson prepare to advance to the cherished spot atop the Critical Parnassus.

What claims do these two professors have on us? Both are classic ‘old white guys’ defending a Canon of old white guy literature, if we might be crude and blunt about it. They are both ‘conservative’ in the way all English professors are generally conservative—and when they are not, students think “cool.” Bloom and Wilson are not cool. They both embody, “Hey kids! Get off my lawn!”

Were the giants of canonical literature ever cool? Or whatever is cool not canonical? Do we have two choices: the Great or the cool?

Yup, that’s it. And sometimes the cool is great (a great jazz musician) and the great is cool (Byron’s jokes, Homer’s mayhem).

The present is a tiny window. Those who study history belong to a much larger window, but the problem is: how do you fit the larger window into the smaller one? Sure, the brain can hold a lot of information, but the brain quickly forgets a lot of information, too; education for the sake of education tends to be a useless exercise of ‘info in, info out.’

Let’s say we feed the brain with ‘Homer to the Present’; how do we stop it from all just leaking out? Never mind those not interested in learning literature at all; even the earnest, the curious, the devoted may forget tomorrow what they learn today, especially if what they learn is just a massive pile of facts. What we need is a thread of learning, a kind of meaningful theology or creed which holds the facts in place and transforms them into a second language. The first language, our native tongue which we share with our peers, enables us to communicate with each other; few forget the first language, and even without formal literary study, many become quite adept at this first language, and use it to do all kinds of amazing things–after all, language itself, literary or not, is amazing. Who needs that second language, then? What is it?

Selection is the key term; literature is nothing more than the history of language, and selecting for the smaller window of the present from the larger window of the past is what it’s all about. The whole thing is quite simple. The critic, the professor, in this case Bloom and Wilson, succeed or fail in how well they select. In fact, we who use the first language (the language we all speak and share in order to communicate) succeed in the same way, pulling in from ‘our second language’ all which makes how we communicate in the first language interesting, drawing from the larger into the smaller, so that we are more than just a speaker of a language, more than the sum of our (speaking) parts.

This second language is like our soul which inhabits the first language (our body). Everyone has a body; the body is a common thing, but it is ultimately how we ‘do’ things, just as it is with this first language that we always speak, even as those rich in a ‘second’ language pour their second language into the first.

Speech that is very refined—and some would say ‘uncool’ and pretentious—is the Second Language glimpsed in its exposed existence as a Second Language: this, for some, is what Literature is. The simple act of emoting or singing might bring about this effect: the soul is ‘speaking!’ But if someone cannot sing, and if the emoting fails to move or amuse, we immediately sense that here no soul exists; the attempt was made to draw on the Second Language but apparently the person has no Second language, even as they may be perfectly adequate in expressing themselves with their First Language. We say they have no poetry, no drama, no flair; and if they persist in singing and emoting poorly, we call them a fool; and if they stick to their first language, we are satisfied, and finally judge them as not being a dramatic type; we would not go so far as to condemn them as really having no soul, however, even if perhaps we might find ourselves whispering behind their backs that they are a little dull.

We notice several things here. 1) The second language can disappear into the first; both are languages; 2) the second language can be seen in its naked state as something distinct from the first language—and here 3) it is immediately judged as something that annoys or amuses.

The whole of the Literary Canon, then, including the contemporary poet uttering their poem today, hoping to have an impact now, is subject to our judgment: does this amuse or annoy? We cannot escape this judgment, no more than we can taste food without subjecting ourselves to its tastiness or lack thereof.

The first language cannot, and is not, judged in this way: it merely tells us something; the first language is like the food’s nutrition; it is below the radar of our taste and conscious judgment. Learning the first language in our earliest days, we taste it not; we are fed it without being conscious of pleasure or annoy—the act of communication—putting pieces together to communicate—is all. But what is really happening at this stage is that we ourselves in our pre-literate animal state are the real first language, and what we have been calling the ‘first language’ is our ‘Second Language’ until gradually the real Second Language (the literary history and soul of the human race) falls upon us with its shadow, brightening our first two languages.

We become mature speakers when we can ‘taste’ nutrition; instead of merely being attracted to sugar and sweet taste, our taste and the good (what is good for us) coincide. Some, the non-literate, the soul-less, are forever split: they like what is sweet and bad for them and they  hate what has no sweet taste but is good for them. They are like children always annoyed by learning. Life has taken pity on them; they have learned their first language and forever benefit from it; and having a First Language guarantees the Second Language may visit them and carry them along with its pull.

The Second Language is the Good disguised as something Sweet; it is the large converting itself to the small so that the pitifully narrow present might be guided by the vast truth of the past. Again, selection is all; the sweet which can best cover the good is selected; the good is selected, the sweet which is sweet, but not too sweet, is selected; every necessary combination is selected, and then all those selections are selected. The poet selects an audience, selects selections for that audience; the audience selects from poetic selections, the critic selects from poetic selections and audience selections alike.

The critic—Bloom and Wilson—use the first language to describe the second language; both their first language and the first language of others, to judge the second.

The second language, literature, what we have called the history of language, is judged precisely as that, with a language which is purely useful and not itself up for judgment. Critics are those who wish to judge, and not be judged. They wish to admire, not be admired. They wish to teach, not be taught. They wish to select from the larger and convert it to the smaller; this is what they in fact must do.

Let us turn to Wilson, the conservative critic, doing exactly this.

Observe how he crushes the pretense of Valery:

It seems to me that a pretense to exactitude is here used to cover a number of ridiculously false assumptions, and to promote a kind of aesthetic mysticism rather than to effect a scientific analysis. In the first place, is it not absurd to assert that prose deals exclusively in “sense” as distinguished from suggestion, and that one has no right to expect from poetry, as Valery says in another passage, “any definite notion at all”? Is verse really an intellectual product absolutely different in kind from prose?  Has it really an absolutely different function? Are not both prose and verse, after all merely techniques of human intercommunication, and techniques which have played various roles, have been used for various purposes, in different periods and civilizations? The early Greeks used verse for histories, their romances and their laws—the Greeks and the Elizabethans used it for their dramas. If Valery’s definitions are correct, what becomes of Homer, Virgil, Dante, Shakespeare and Goethe? They all of them deal in sense as well as suggestion and aim to convey “definite notions.” These definitions have, however, obviously been framed to apply to the poetry of Valery himself and of Mallarme and the other Symbolists. Yet it does not really apply to even them. As we have seen, Valery’s poetry does make sense, it does deal with definite subjects, it does transmit to us “something intelligible that is going on inside his mind.” Even though in calling his book of poems “Charmes,” he has tried to emphasize its esoteric, magical, non-utilitarian character, we cannot admit that it is anything but an effort like another of articulate human speech. What happens when we communicate with each other, in literature as well as in curses and cries for help, and in verse as well as prose—what part is played by suggestion, and whether sense and suggestion are different and separable—are questions which take us far and deep: I shall return to them in a later chapter. But Valery has already let us see—it is even one of his favorite ideas—that he understands the basic similarity between the various forms of intellectual activity; he has taken pride in pointing out the kinship between poetry and mathematics. And if the function and methods of poetry are similar to those of mathematics, they must surely be similar to those of prose. If Valery resembles Descartes, as he seems willing to indulge himself in imagining, then it is impossible to make a true distinction between the philosophical or mathematical treatise and however Symbolistic a poem. Valery betrays himself here, it seems to me, as a thinker anything but “rigorous;” and he betrays also, I believe, a desire, defensive no doubt at the same time as snobbish, to make it appear that verse, a technique now no longer much used for history, story-telling or drama and consequently not much in popular demand, has some inherent superiority to prose. He has not hesitated even to assure us elsewhere that “poetry is the most difficult of the arts!”

Now Wilson on T.S. Eliot from the same work, Axel’s Castle:

It will be seen that Eliot differs from Valery in believing that poetry should make “sense.” And he elsewhere, in his essay on Dante in “The Sacred Wood,” remonstrates with Valery for asserting that philosophy has no place in poetry. Yet Eliot’s point of view, though more intelligently reasoned and expressed, comes down finally to the same sort of thing as Valery’s and seems to me open to the same sort of objection. Eliot’s conclusion in respect to the relation of philosophy to poetry is that, though philosophy has its place in poetry, it is only as something which we “see” among the other things with which the poet presents us, a set of ideas which penetrate his world, as in the case of the “Divina Commedia:” in the case of such a poet as Lucretius, the philosophy sometimes seems antagonistic to the poetry only because it happens to be a philosophy “not rich enough in feeling…incapable of complete expansion into pure vision.” Furthermore, “the original form of philosophy cannot be poetic”: the poet must use a philosophy already invented by somebody else. Now, though we admire the justice of Eliot’s judgments on the various degrees of artistic success achieved by Dante, Lucretius and others, it becomes plainer and plainer, as time goes on, that the real effect of Eliot’s, as of Valery’s, literary criticism, is to impose upon us a conception of poetry as some sort of pure and rare aesthetic essence with no relation to any of the practical human uses for which, for some reason never explained, only the technique of prose is appropriate.

Now this point of view, as I have already suggested in writing about Paul Valery, seems to me absolutely unhistorical…

Edmund Wilson, to put it simply, accuses the Modernists Valery and Eliot’s redefinition of poetry as something excessively pure, in the small window of their present day, as betraying the Second Language, the larger window of literary history which includes “Homer, Virgil, Dante, Shakespeare, and Goethe.” And Wilson is right. Call him “conservative,” but he actually speaks for a larger window—one that can easily fit into the smaller window of our time. Why “easily?” Precisely because of the nature of the geniuses Wilson lists: who are essential for their ability to say more with less. Eliot and Valery fret over the relationship of poetry to philosophy, worrying that the former cannot contain the latter. But as Wilson implies, this “unhistorical” position demeans poetry. Valery and Eliot might argue that verse is no longer a vehicle for prose-subjects as it once was, and the task now is to find ‘the poetry’ or the ‘poetic vision’ in writing which is neither quite verse nor quite prose, and to call this “unhistorical” is a grumpy attempt to stifle progress. But the Modernist position, which has prevailed—who reads Wilson anymore?—is abstractly and vaguely argued and has proved to be rather impotent.

Harold Bloom has spent his latter career championing Shakespeare’s dramas, and since Bloom is no poet, this activity is free of all “anxiety.”  Shakespeare invented Freudian psychology, Bloom asserts, but he never acknowledges how Plato’s dialogues influenced Shakespeare’s plays, though Bloom is full of “precursor” talk in general. Bloom favors Emerson over Poe to such an extreme degree that Bloom’s judgment cannot possibly be trusted anywhere else. Bloom believes “study” and “reading” are “holy,” and his attempt to see all of poetry as One Poem is admirable, but unfortunately with him, as with Eliot and the Modernists, this attempt is finally bookish and separated from the real world of love which lives behind the poem.

WINNER: WILSON

%d bloggers like this: