THE END OF FORMALISM

“I would counsel Lysias not to delay, but to write another discourse, which shall prove the lover rather than the non-lover ought to be accepted.” –Socrates (The Phaedrus)

Wouldn’t you say, a thing can only be so strong when it is based on weakness?

For instance, intoxication can make us brave, but it does so because we are not brave, and so intoxication’s “bravery” exists because of weakness and so intoxication as a “good” will always be seen as a weakness and be understood as such.

Likewise, verse (poetry) adds to language a music above and beyond language’s meaning.  Since all would agree that conveying meaning is the highest purpose of language, and poetry is a good in that it makes it more entertaining to get meaning from language—the weakness announces itself to everyone: poetry feeds meaning the way intoxication feeds bravery.

The brave don’t need intoxication.

Good readers don’t need poetry—to entertain them and keep them focused in order to get meaning from a text.

We may or may not want to leave aside Socrates’ argument in the Phaedrus that the lover (mad) is a better life-partner than the friend (practical, sane). As Socrates points out, everyone (lover and non-lover) wants beauty and the lover/poet is finally better able to provide this than the practical type.

But just as Psychology has largely left behind Freud and Jung and literary invention that gave birth to Psychology itself—for psychotropic drugs and their practical effects, Plato is hardly studied any longer in school, and therefore it is safe to say that intoxication and verse are no longer seen as strengths at all.

Madness is the way we denigrate a thing, especially in our race to absolute reason in the realm of the humanities: women and earth have been dominated too long by “crazy” white males. So this is why verse has been abandoned. Its “intoxicated” aid to reading is rejected as unnecessary and insane: a weakness, a wrong, to be dispensed with.

For, yes, we should admit it—verse is a silly, entertaining thing that makes reading a greater amusement for a kind of mind easily bored by reading for meaning.

Verse exists because of a reading weakness—just as intoxication is sometimes necessary for bravery.

We dare not suggest here—but because we are crazy, we will—that bravery is nothing more than intoxication itself, or that verse enhances and elevates meaning and is closer to meaning than naked meaning itself is, at least in some select and really important instances.  But we’ll throw it out there nonetheless.

Verse is, obviously, formalism.

Today there are three ways critics and poets attempt to downgrade verse (formalism.)

One: They make sure we know that Socrates wore a toga. They make the whole question of formalism historical: form exists in forms and these forms: sonnets, heroic couplets, etc belong to certain historical periods with specific historical conditions.

And therefore we either cannot use these forms today or we must self-consciously subvert them.

An ABAB rhyme scheme is the equivalent of using “thou” and “thee.”

The stream of history in which all forms must exist carries them away.

So forms—all forms—formalism itself, in one simple (historical) step, is swept away.

Of course, despite the scholars’ opinion re: forms and history, we find formalism persists.

But where it does persist, the scholars simply point out that its persistence is not scholarly:

Rhyme belongs to hip-hop and other kinds of pop music. It doesn’t “feel right” in poems today that wish to be taken seriously, as scholarly works.

According to this anti-formalist approach, a poem cannot “work on its own terms;” it is always felt and understood in terms of historical conditions.

The “rules” for writing a sonnet are certainly legitimate, and verse does have a valid existence, but, according to the historical anti-formalist reading, only in a museum sort of way.

The “historical” downgrading of formalism is a very powerful way to downgrade formalism because it is both conservative and radical, since it simultaneously plays the “respect for history” card and the “now” card. Form is respected, but forms are obsolete, says the historical scholar.

The conservative New Critic John Crowe Ransom told his 1930s readers that writing like Byron was no longer possible. The “historical” view justifies every kind of experimentalism—even as it trumpets its tweedy respect for history.

Two: The scholars make form—not forms—the only thing that matters.  A highly abstract macro (form) kills the micro (forms).

This, too, is a very effective way to downgrade formalism:

This whole anti-formalism method can be summed up with T.S. Eliot, who wrote that even prose scans.

Even the loosest free verse has “form;” white space on the page has “form.”

This argument is far more insidious than number one above; so much so, that it resembles a CIA brainwashing tactic, and is probably the top reason for poets giving up on verse altogether—in a turn-about that courts insanity; destroying formalism in this manner argues that because white exists, snow cannot exist.

Form is what matters.  And form is such a naturally large category that the formless resides there. Formalism (the quality dismissed) merely concerns itself with various antiquated forms.

And here one notices how much this resembles the historical argument: The poet is expected to explore form itself as it applies to the present. Sonnets and Elizabethan England both belong to a formalism of the past.

So here’s a second reason not to write a sonnet.  First, the sonnet is relegated to the past. Second, form should be the focus; sonnets are merely forms.

And if that were not enough, there’s a third way.

Three: Avoid the subject altogether and make poetry all about content: form is expressed by what we say.

Just as the second reason strongly resembles the first reason—both emphasize form over forms—the third way that downgrades formalism resembles the second reason, for saying “form is nothing” is logically the same thing as saying “form is everything.”

Helen Vendler, obsessed with the “heterogeneity” and “stylistic originality” of poets like  Graham and Ashbery, is, in her essentially New Critical style, a mixture of Two and Three. She has written:  “Poetry not intelligible with respect to contemporary values of society could not be read.”

Surely, however, all critics like Vendler understand that a pure prose content purely isolated from all musical considerations cannot possibly denote anything poetical.

The poetical is prose meaning dipped in the coloring of musicality and moods. Content is always the ground from which we start, but it is not the poem itself.

Bravery (truth) is not intoxication (poetry).

To asset that ‘form is content and content is form’ is to lose both—is really to assert nothing.

Formalism is downgraded in three distinct ways, but it’s all the same pedantic strategy, a convincing but hollow set of deconstructions.

Listen in on any discussion of formalism and you get one or some combination of these three anti-formalist positions we have just presented: there is little else, except perhaps a kind of vague, well-meaning gesture towards “poems that work” in whatever manner happens to suit the historically grounded and socially acute poet. Virtues are slyly assumed to exist outside of formal properties, with the added assumption that “stylistic originality” and forms cannot co-exist.

But the truth is, there can be more “originality” in a sonnet than in all the works of Ashbery.

This is a truth which overturns all the abstract claims of heterogeneity in terms of form versus forms.

For we are always assuming that heterogeneity is going to be more original, but there is no basis for this belief at all.

New York City is a large complex place, but so long as we point to New York City in our minds as “heterogeneity,” able to stand as the ideal which transcends the petty, self-important enclosures of mere formalism, we miss the much larger point that New York City really consists of tiny neighborhoods, and all poetry, if not all reality, exists, and is accessible and knowable, in the city block, or the building, or the room: the reality is not a scholar pointing to abstract “form;” the reality is understood in what hides in a building in New York City—a sonnet, perhaps.

Yes, it actually makes more sense to look at all literature as a great string of sonnets than to wallow in pretentious abstractions (and billions of details merely elucidated for their own sake—or to fit into heterogeneity theories.)

Sonnet by sonnet is not the way to read, obviously, but the point is that this makes more sense than any of the methods advertised by the anti-formalist school.

Think of a literacy of the sonnet, rather than of the line, or the sentence, or the word, or the phrase.  What a literacy that would be!

Couldn’t the sonnet be the building block?  And wouldn’t it be a healthy mind who thinks in those terms?

Shelley’s great Ode (West Wind) is a short series of sonnets.

And one can read the Gettysburg Address—as four sonnets.

 

….

Now let us ask, after exposing the ravings of the anti-formalists, this more pertinent question: what is poetry’s purpose?

Flowers are not condemned to exist under glass, as the sonnet is—and why not?

The answer is obvious: because flowers serve a purpose.

Flowers attract bees—this attractive quality helps define for us what a flower is, and, although we are not bees, so powerful and overflowing is the flowers’ attractiveness, that we, bee-like, admire the flower for its flower-like qualities.

What if poetry is a language of dissemination which, like the flower, is attractive in order to disseminate?

And what if this attractive quality is timeless and demands cultivation and protection?

The gardener is not asked to admire the flower but protect, grow, and breed the flower, for all eternity.

If the gardener merely admired the flower and did not protect, grow, and breed the flower, in terms of what we understand a flower to be, we would call her a very poor gardener.

Further, if the gardener greatly admired flowers, but assured us that flowers had long since served their purpose as flowers, and now should exist in museums only, we should not only find this great admirer of flowers a poor gardener, but, despite their learned admiration, an enemy of flowers.

Those who downgrade formalism in the three ways outlined above—condemning traditional forms of poetry to sterility and “learned” curatorial irrelevance—are like the gardener who may admire flowers, but is their enemy and destroyer.

Poetry today is being destroyed, especially by those who currently study and practice it. A museum-admiration of poetry is an evil and insidious thing.

To seek for the elusive rationale or reason or purpose or use, of poetry can be compared to the search for a loved one in a crowd.

The similarities defeat us, not the differences.

“Is this the one you seek?” ask the ignorant but well-meaning searchers, and they bring us person after person, with face and arms and legs and every particular human quality—but no, this is not our beloved!

We are not looking for a type—we are searching for a unique quality.

Just as we look for a championship baseball team, celebrated through the ages, and are deterred most in our search, not because it hides beside an object like a fire engine, but rather next to a losing team—which also has pitchers who throw at 90 mph and hitters who can hit a ball 500 feet.

The poem’s reason that we seek, to the ordinary eye, looks very similar, in the great scheme of things, to a great deal of other writing.

Poetry’s purpose, ignored by theoretical moderns—blends in.  And—because we are blind to it, it can eventually kill us.

We scan the crowd for the one we love and die if we do not find her.

We search for: not forms, not form, not content, but attractiveness.

The pedants ignore the raison ultima because they fear it will be “a type,” thinking “type” itself is defined by form, but never content. But here they wildly err.

To specify poetry with formalism alone is to take poetry over to mathematics and music—and this is not 1) a general thing nor is it 2) anything to do with content—precisely because content is never specified (the purpose of poetry is never mentioned)—since we assume whatever is said can and will be said, heightened by the formal qualities, of course, but not determined by them. Yet how can the content of speech not be determined by its formal qualities in a systematic manner? Music does determine how speech speaks and once this is conceded, the poetry’s ultimate rationale must at last be acknowledged, for how speech speaks cannot but determine what speech speaks.

Yet we never hear in discussions of formalism what poetry must say.

We can discuss stocks and bonds in verse and never mention poetry’s purpose. We can allude to Eliot’s objective correlative and never mention poetry’s hidden purpose, since Eliot’s astute formula never escaped the blackboard to actually walk about. Eliot was using this formula to attack whole historic periods of poetry when, he felt, content and form were estranged; the tweedy Modernist condemned the Romantic poets this way—Eliot was finally downgrading formalism historically, not philosophically—and so an opportunity was missed: Eliot was essentially saying what the conservative Ransom was saying when Ransom said we can’t write like Byron anymore: Modernism ignoring poetry’s true purpose by saying “form, not forms.”

We are free to say anything in poetry now, said the 20th century Anglo-American Modernists, making the reason disappear in a general loosening of form to fit more and more varieties of content. But why the Modernists hated Byron, was that Byron said more interesting things while rhyming than the Modernists did in free verse.  This is why the chief Modernists like Eliot and Ransom tried to bury Byron (and Romantics generally).  Byron didn’t fit the Modernist formula.

Sure, many ruefully viewed the Modernist agenda as a simple mistake: poetry-turning-into-prose; well, everybody did, but no one had the pedagogical reasoning to stop it. Verse was the “metronome” and poetry-as-prose, the “musical phrase” was how crazy Pound cleverly put it. (“Prose scans,” in other words.)

No one stopped to think that a metronome was a perfectly useful tool for Beethoven, as he created profound “musical phrases.” Beethoven was hidden, like poetry’s reason, in the “room” of Modernist “verse.”

Robert Penn Warren, the New Critic co-author of the influential, mid-20th century Understanding Poetry textbook, wrote an essay defending “impure poetry” against “pure poetry,” another Modernist act in the drama of hiding poetry’s purpose. Poetic content was now, according to Warren: “all and any content not determined in the least by form.” The purpose of poetry was gone. Modernism had blithely killed it.

It wasn’t that form gradually loosened due to formal considerations; form wasn’t freeing up form—content was, in the sense of ‘anything goes,’ anything can now be said: the lyrics were eliminating the music, so to speak; this, and only this, is what was meant by “impure poetry” and its triumph. (Understanding Poetry included a savage attack on the attractively musical verses of Poe, even as it championed Pound and Williams; Warren’s essay savaged Shelley; Eliot impolitely attacked Shelley, as well: Poe and Shelley were wretched examples for Modernist delectation of scorned, “narrow purity.” Remember, the New Critics were considered “conservative” in their views. But chucking formalism was universally done in the Modernist era.  This is what the Pound clique did: they also attacked Edna St. Vincent Millay. (See Hugh Kenner’s nasty remarks on her).

But if formalism, as all must concede, has what must be described as legitimate formal qualities (to define it as formalism as such) what does it mean to say, as the anti-formalists said, that content can be whatever it wants in an “impure” triumph? Here is a “room” which has certain formal qualities, identifying itself as a “room” of poetry (as opposed, to say, a dinner menu) and yet, when content enters this room, the room itself only exists to leave the content untouched and free to express itself however it chooses, and any restriction upon the content is condemned as a backwards step towards an unwanted, old, and “pure” poetic practice.

Of course defenders of the “impure” never admit the absolute disconnection of form and content outright— in each specific poem, they say, form and content do their dance: both form and content are equally valuable; the “impurity” we defend is only to say (they point out) that formalism is no longer a straitjacket; formalism no longer is severe in its restrictions, no longer blindly formal in its dictates.

Poetry’s purpose remains hidden, however. What is said in the poem is said, and afterwards, the “everything is form” explanation is bent to the content’s will—this is the anti-formalist ‘explanation number two:’ making formalism a blindly obedient (and essentially nonexistent) shadow of content. Whatever facilitates the saying (or meaning) that is not the saying (or meaning) has an existence, in the same way that “prose scans;” but nothing that can be called art need exist at all—the poem speaks; the content speaks and asserts itself, and simply by way of formalistic properties manifesting themselves in a perfectly ordinary “grammatical or anti-grammatical” manner, this then becomes the “formal triumph” which mirrors the “ordinary” content speaking in its artless cunning, free of all artificiality, fulfilling the prophecy of Modernism’s expansive and articulate poetic quest.

There is no need to make any decisions about content; all that needs to be proclaimed, proclaim the anti-formalists, is that historically we are expanding our ability to provide content as formalism drops away: jettisoning all formalistic strategy, as content becomes all (and thus, nothing!) This is what Eliot meant by formalism hiding behind the drapery of loose poetry: historical poetry’s actual existence as such, is old Polonius—and the prying pedant is soon to be stabbed and killed in T.S. Eliot’s Critical Modernism’s play.

But how can the form of poetry—if it is really form-–not predetermine content? It must. Otherwise it is not really what we mean when we speak of poetic form. How can poetry as a formal practice not have a real existence as an actual piece of form and as an actual piece of content?

If we are true poets, we do not wish to blindly kill the beloved (poetry’s reason); we wish to find them in the crowd.

How will I my true love know from another one? —Ophelia, Hamlet

We listen to Beethoven and hear an actual musical content; the music inspires specific feelings—based on its formal qualities. To say that poetry does not do the same thing is to deny poetry’s existence altogether. Which is what we said earlier is happening in fact: poetry, in academia—where it now mostly resides—has become a museum exhibit in its formalism, an inconsequential exercise in its contemporary use. It does not matter that superior poetry is being written today in obscure quarters—the public simply does not exist for it, and so it does not exist.

We said that in recent history, formalist considerations never usher in the least interest in specific categories of content, with Eliot’s objective correlative formula the one major (ineffective) exception. But before Modernism, poetry’s purpose is acknowledged; poetry is given an identity based on what it does—and what it expresses in terms of content.  The greatest example in literature, perhaps, can be found in the dramatic dialogue between Socrates and Phaedrus.

The modern lyric was called a “love letter” by Dante. Shakespeare made the sonnet a courting device for love and breeding—and thus was not far off from the “love letter” idea; the two greatest poets of all time (Eliot himself was explicit: “Dante and Shakespeare; there is no third”) have no trouble acknowledging the purpose of poetry which is now hidden: poetry, as much as it does exist formally, does yet have a use within, and obedient to, its purely formal existence.

The novel can be said to have originated as a series of letters (sonnets?) and the greatest fiction can be defined as an unfolding of love (or its opposite, hate: see the war-like Homer).

The sonnet—formalism—shall return.

Poetry, grown by philosophy and love, will be a living flower, once again.

 

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: