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At the insistent behest of Joe Weil I have picked up a few Kenneth Burke books. In Joe’s opinion, Burke is one of the great American minds who has been unjustly put out of fashion. The more I read Burke, the more I agree with Joe. I’ve found that Burke’s explanations of art resonate with me as an artist. For example, Burke’s essay “The Poetic Process” (from Counter-Statement) delineates the relationship between the “emotion” that inspires writing, symbol, and technical form in an incredibly believable way.

Burke begins with dreams:

…at times we look back on the dream and are mystified at the seemingly unwarranted emotional responses which the details “aroused” in us. Trying to convey to others the emotional overtones of this dream, we laboriously recite the details, and are compelled at every turn to put in such confessions of defeat as “There was something strange about the room,” or “for some reason or other I was afraid of this boat, although there doesn’t seem any good reason now.”

This is because, as Burke says, “the details were not the cause of the emotion; the emotion, rather, dictated the selection of details…Similarly, a dreamer may awaken himself with his own hilarious laughter, and be forthwith humbled as he recalls the witty saying of his dream. For the delight in the witty saying came first (was causally prior) and the witty saying itself was merely the externalization, or individuation, of his delight.”

In what seems to be the inverse of Eliot’s “objective correlative,” the emotion directions the choice of imagery. The imagery becomes “symbol” at this point. Burke compares this to a grandparent who tries to share all the details of his or her childhood as a way to communicate the “overtones” of the experience. The grandparent wants to express themselves, their feelings.

Yet an artist does not want to express their feelings. Rather, they want to evoke emotion in the audience: “The maniac attains self-expression when he tells us that he is Napoleon; but Napoleon attained self-expression by commanding an army….transferring the analogy, the self-expression of an artist, qua artist, is not distinguished by the uttering of emotion, but by the evocation of emotion.” One of the most dreaded things I hear is somebody describing their own personal poetry as self-expression. I don’t dread it because I begrudge that person’s personal art, but usually because a request to read their work and give feedback follows. And almost always the work is terrible. Why? Because it’s solely concerned with self-expression and the would-be poet feels no obligation to anyone but his or herself. A person like that will not hear any advice; they seek affirmation. Our writing goals are not the same. As Burke puts it “If, as humans, we cry out that we are Napoleon, as artists we seek to command an army.”

This is not to say that there is no element of self-expression in poetry. There certainly is, according to Burke. But “it is inevitable that all initial feelings undergo some transformation when being converted into the mechanism of art….Art is translation, and every translation is a compromise (although, be it noted, a compromise which may have new virtues of its own, virtues not part of the original).” The private poet cannot stand to compromise on their feelings and, as a result, they often write terrible poetry. But in the poetic process, a poet realizes there is compromise. This leads to a concern about the “impersonal mechanical processes” of evocation, and, eventually, leads the artist to a place where the means of expression are an end in itself. At this moment, we are in the realm of technique.

In short, we begin with emotion, which dictates choice of symbol, for which the systematic concern thereof creates technique. Tom Sleigh once memorably asked my MFA class “do you, as a poet, logos into eros or eros into logos?” I forget what my answer was at the moment since I was stubborn and probably more concerned with subverting the question. Burke’s essay, however, has interesting parallels. (For the record, today I’d probably say, with Burke, that I eros into logos, which might account for a recent turn toward formalism in my poetry.)

Before ending, I want to note the parallel between Burke’s point and my point (via Rexroth–or, more accurately, Rexroth via me) about Tu Fu, who I described as writing in a way that suggests “that the category break [between feeling and image/symbol] is weaker than we think. The image (object) is already interpreted: ‘values are the way we see things.’” If Burke’s description of the poetic process is accurate, Tu Fu’s poem is actually winding backward toward the origin of his poetry, backwards through the linked images interpreting one another, back toward the initial thought/emotion/impulse which led to the first decision to communicate, to attempt evocation.

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Micah Towery teaches writing and literature in South Bend, IN. His book of poetry is Whale of Desire. His writing appears in magazines like AWP Chronicle, Mantis, Slant Magazine, and his poetry and translations appear in Cimarron Review, Paterson Literary Review, Ragazine, Loaded Bicycle, and Prime Number Magazine. In the past, he's worked as a Coca-Cola delivery driver, bus driver, baker, and church organist. He sometimes tweets @micahtowery.

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  • Anonymous March 18, 2011, 3:06 pm

    Great post. I’m reminded of something Coleridge said. I don’t remember where he said it, but I do remember where Borges quoted him (in the parable “Ragnarok”): “In our dreams, writes Coleridge, images represent the sensations we think they cause. We do not feel horror because we are threatened by a sphinx; we dream of a sphinx in order to explain the horror we feel.”

    Borges goes on to say that “a strange magnification altered things.” I see this as not only an example of Burke’s statement about confessions of defeat, but a more precise, specific statement about the nature of such confessions. It’s not just that there’ something strange about the room, it’s a magnification. I think that idea is important in this context.

    You might even say that in the process of locating/creating the image that represents/corresponds/does justice to the feeling, a magnification is often present. The image becomes more dramatic because we fear signal degradation in the transmission of feeling from author to reader. Thus we amplify the image (the signal) in order that the content of the feeling might make it across the Atlantic, as it were. I think this is true of feelings that originate in dreams or elsewhere.

    The fact that Tu Fu doesn’t do that, that he doesn’t magnify, is, I think, one of the reasons I like him so much. As Rexroth said in the quotation in your other post, his images are “so startling, yet seemingly so ordinary.” You might replace “yet seemingly” with “because they are.”

    The question that creates for me, is this: if Tu Fu isn’t relying on magnification to ensure against the signal degradation of his poem, then what is he relying on? I think you’re idea about montage and they way he transitions between ideas is right on. I’m thinking now of Carl Sagan’s Contact, and how the SETI satellite picked up a series of pulses that contained mathematical instructions to build a machine. Maybe that’s a good way to think about Tu Fu. Each image is a point in space-time, and if the signal strength of each image is muted (not magnified as in, say, Plath), then the signal integrity of the poem comes through the pattern of space-time points established.

    I sound like I’m high right now. I promise, I’m not. I just haven’t been awake this early in a while.

  • Micah Towery March 18, 2011, 3:22 pm

    i wonder if there’s an echo chamber effect with the dream images. we feel a small sense of fear, which directs the choice of image, which we then “interpret” as scary, which scares us more, and so on. it’s tough to put the breaks on in a dream.

    anyways, signal degradation is an interesting way to put it. i think the concern with the signal relates to what burke is saying when he says that poets interest tends toward an interest in the means of poetry, not what is being expressed. i think stewart’s comment back on my tu fu post is instructive in this regard. like the keeper of a bonzai plant, tu fu is interested in creating highly crafted works that seem almost accidental, tossed off. but when you dwell in the poem for a while, sit with it, it blooms out. there isn’t a message in any proper sense, but tu fu is interested in shaping how his readers see the world.

    i see the same impulse in minimalism (as i pointed out in my post about mock orange a few months back), though there’s a different strategy.

  • Anna Jean Mallinson via Facebook March 18, 2011, 2:38 pm

    Nice to be reminded of Burke, whom I read as a student.

  • Pigsnout2 March 21, 2011, 2:21 pm

    Thanks Micah… Much of what Burke said is seeming to prove out in the new neurological studies of the difference between self expression and self-performance. If the self is a “scene” then it will have actions corresponding to that scene. In so far as a self “expresses” itself as an act of language, it cannot avoid the scene/act ratio, and the self as act and the self as scene, and the self as agent of that act, working within that scene may have great trouble being recognized by the audience as an effective performance. if what the audience is accustomed to is a sort of fully performed”non-performance.”Of course, the chief formal problem of sincerity is to effectively seem not to be performing at all. In this respect, the genuine also has its rituals. It must seem non-performative. To a degree, much of contemporary poetry is written with this value of non-performance in mind, but sincerity is a “trope” and, as such, has certain formal laws governing it. Rhyme, metaphor, adynaton, any excess of literary devices will challenge the ritual of sincerity, which explains why Wordsworth may have de-emphasized these decorative devices, and opted for direct, or what he called “low” speech. Informality, in order to be effective, demands its own types of contrivance, and it is in this sense that Burke claimed style is always a “hortatory act”– implying a beneath which not. The Tu Fu poems were framed by Rexroth to promote an orientalism that served the modernist agenda. Like imagism Tu Fu comes off as direct, simple, paratactic. Williams’ “The Widdow’s Lament in Springtime” shows the influence of this supposedly “Simple” and more directstyle (as evinced by Pound). It would have been interesting to see how earlier writers, beofre the cult of directness, would have translated Tu Fu. Modern aesthetics often insist the genuine be devoid of too many decorative devices. This is a formal appeal to an abstract sense of the genuine. Burke wrote: the hypertrophy of information leads to the atrophy of form.” Many suffer the anxiety of selecting the information they place down. We suspect selection and contrivance as being phony, and so information becomes a moral imperative– especially information by an author who wishes to seem “direct.” As Mr. Corn pointed out in his recent review, we tend to read Shakespeare through this more stripped down ceremony of directness, and thereby, mis-read him in terms of his intentions. Anyway, thanks for thinking of Burke.

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