So there’s always this double duty, neither to make the best the enemy of the good, nor to make the good the enemy of the best. Scylla and Charybdis. The reason I admire Johnson and Eliot and Empson so much – the thing that holds them together – is that they all think that doing the right thing is steering between two equally dangerous opposite bad things.
Do you remember that Eliot was billed as giving a talk on ‘Scylla and Charybdis’ and he’d realized that they’d simply misunderstood. That is, when he was asked what he was going to talk about, he’d said that these things were always a matter of Scylla and Charybdis and so forth, and this became the title of the talk so that we got a talk on this subject because they’d slightly misunderstood what he was saying. But it’s true to him.
And Samuel Johnson is profound on this. He asked why are we more lenient towards foolhardiness than towards cowardice. If you think of them as being equidistant from the right thing, two opposing faults. Why are we more lenient to the one? And the answer is because it is self-correcting. If you’re foolhardy, you bruise your shins. You find out, you learn from it. If you’re spendthrift, you learn as the miser never does. The spendthrift runs out of money, the miser never runs out of anxiety about money. Equidistant from the true course but one may prove preferable.
We need people to remind us that the good is the enemy of the best and we need people to remind us that the best is the enemy of the good. We need to protect ourselves from the dangers from both flanks.
—Christopher Ricks, interview from The Literateur Magazine
Something in a title suggests everything you could possibly want to say about a certain topic. As in the example of T.S. Eliot’s lecture entitled “Scylla and Charybdis,” mentioned by Ricks above. The title “The Problem of Style” suggested to me everything I wanted to blog about today concerning the evolution of a poet’s style, something I’ve been thinking about while reading through Robert Hass and Henri Cole to prepare book reviews about their new selected works.
Critics and academics—much maligned creatures to whom we should at least be grateful for having something to endlessly argue about—tend to regard style as a fixed thing, an external lacquer or recipe that poets consciously choose, modify, and have to then be evaluated for a/ which style they picked, b/ how well they handled it, and c/ at what expense Style X precluded Y or Z. Two conversations from memory substantiate the attitude I’m talking about, both by formidable minds. Archie Burnett teaching his class at Boston University was talking about John Milton and upon fielding some questions about the make-up of what we identify and label as “The Miltonic Style,” he went on to say “Ah, well, with a great poet like Milton he could have written in whatever style he wanted.” And recently, breaking bread with Daniel Mendelsohn, we entered into a large, hearty and even heated debate on whether or not a writer “sets out to know what he wants to write,”—his point being that whereas an amateur writer may just be throwing darts in the dark, merely provoking “questions,” suggesting possibilities he doesn’t have a finished thought about, the serious and accomplished writer knows exactly what he’s setting out to do, then tackles it with dispatch. I disagree with both of these statements—the first wholeheartedly, the second because of a zillion counter-examples. Milton, supreme artist that he was, wasn’t immobile or unaware of what he was up to, but to think he could have avoided the baroque line, his heightened Latinate phraseology, the robustly complicated syntax, is fanciful. For all his craft and intelligence and arch learnedness, Milton’s rhythmic DNA was predetermined (in a way). People, like poems, are after all a mixture of the given and the made. The made is not what I aim to dispute; but the given needs to be redefined, a little bit.
Style is foremost a tension of contradictions between a writer’s impulses and perception, not an absence of them. In a classical style, a writer’s personality is totally disguised behind the established proportions and prevailing measures of a tradition, or The Tradition, whatever that once meant. In the romantic style, a writer’s style emerges as an indulgence of their impulses and mannerisms that they recognized in past authors and themselves, developing towards “originality.” But originality as we know is at the root of idiocy, of speaking or sounding like someone outside the acquainted norms of the city—the polis. And this is what Samuel Johnson was getitng at when he said in response to a young poet’s manuscript: It is both good and original; the parts that are good are not original, the parts that are original are not good. Johnson, the epitome of the Augustan, classical mindset, looked on idiosyncrasy as a disease, one that had to be tolerated in the presence of a great writer like Swift, great that is for his other qualities, but extirpated in an overrated poet like Thomas Gray, whose diction was remote and eccentric. (I for one love Swift and Gray.)
And yet as Richard Howard has brilliantly written in his essay on Emily Dickinson, it is precisely a writer’s peversities that can make him so good, not in lieu of them, but directly because they were listened to, indulged, cultivated. He argues, shrewdly, that Dickinson’s dashes, capitalizations, peculiar rhythms, coy slant-rhymes are her genius as a poet, not provincial blemises that happen to sit on a great linguistic talent. The opposite point of view can be heard in Eliot’s essay on Blake, where the attitude is: Yes, this man was a great poet, but alas also a home-spun weirdo, who had these troublesome peculiarities that prevented him from being as important as good ol’ Dante. Harold Bloom, dissenting from Eliot (shocker!) has fired back, emphasizing in ‘The Western Canon’ (perhaps tipping the see-saw too much in the opposite direction) that Dante’s centrality to Western literature relies on his extraordinary brazenness, as when he ciphons Beatrice into eternal salvation history (an argument that is found also in Emerson).
But I am digressing between the Classical and Romantic trap, when what I want to talk about is what is akin to both of these modes, intrinsic to writing any poem, regardless of what the tradition it plugs into is.
When we think of style as a pathology—we do artists an injustice, to their deliberation and foresight, as well as to the range of a poet proven over time. Stevens writes in his characterstic mode for his entire life, but between ‘Harmonium’ and ‘The Rock’ the conscious artisan in Stevens decided to become more pared down, less jumpy in his adjective use, and honors the strain throughout his life to speak in the simple sentence.
When we think of style as a choice—we are forgetting that sensibilities are vast and complex and have so many unconscious ingredients, dispositions and biases at work, it’s impossible to say simply why W.C.W. favors the short, clipped line, and Frost keeps to iambic pentameter. One man’s nerves cannot stand noise, another bathes in distortion and static.
One of the problems of style then is when a writer acknowledges a past tendency as a mechanism no longer adequate, or pleasing, or just. True, for the precocious or immensely talented, perhaps this gap is indiscernable, or much shorter—as in a Merrill, who began writing as refined and polished as his very last works. Another exception is the occasional, and rare, writer who assimilates so easily other people’s styles, he can seemingly switch between them—but then isn’t that method their style? Joyce, Eliot, Ashbery: they don’t so much have different styles as styles with immense difference built into them. In Joyce, you see these as discrete effects as you follow his career towards a sea of chaos—but the Joycean tone, flippant, somewhat verbose?, and resigned, that’s there throughout. Eliot willfully goes against his inner discord, his turmoil and polyphony of voices that he discovered in ‘The Waste Land,’ then labors towards a ‘style’ in the ‘Four Quartets’ that is seamlessly regulated, and unified. Ashbery took the opposite route, and after he mastered in his third and fourth books the possibility for disjunctiveness in vocabulary, narrative and form—he has kept going, on and on and on, to this day.
It appears to me that everything that I am saying is grossly redundant, and obvious. So that’s a good place to stop.
The problem of style exists, larger than the unconscious and conscious distinctions I’ve circled around. One way of seeing poems must be not as answers to questions, solutions for the puzzle, or resolutions to the problem—but as a way to discover what the questions are, what puzzles need working out, what problems each writer has in store. If we’re lucky enough, though the problems, like our pathologies, never go away—we do get to master them, instead of them mastering us. That is, one hopes.