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Eros

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.

Eros, by H.D.

I.

Where is he taking us
now that he has turned back?

Where will this take us,
this fever,
spreading into light?

Nothing we have ever felt,
nothing we have dreamt,
or conjured in the night
or fashioned in loneliness,
can equal this.

Where is he taking us,
Eros,
now that he has turned back?

II.

Keep love and he wings
with his bow,
up, mocking us,
keep love and he taunts us
and escapes.

Keep love and he sways apart
in another world,
outdistancing us.

Keep love and he mocks,
ah, bitter and sweet,
your sweetness is more cruel
that your hurt.

Honey and salt,
fire burst from the rocks
to meet fire
spilt from Hesperus.

Fire darted aloft and met fire,
and in that moment
love entered us.

IV.

Could Eros be kept,
he was prisoned love since
and sick with imprisonment,
could Eros be kept,
others would have taken him
and crushed out his life.

Could Eros be kept,
we had sinned against the great god,
we too might have prisoned him outright.

Could Eros be kept,
nay, thank him and the bright goddess
that he left us.

V.

Ah love is bitter and sweet,
but which is more sweet,
the bitterness or the sweetness,
non has spoken it.

Love is bitter,
but can salt taint sea-flowers,
grief, happiness?

Is it bitter to give back
love to your love if he wish it
for a new favourite,
who can say,
or is it sweet?

Is it sweet to possess utterly,
or is it bitter,
bitter as ash?

VI.

I had thought myself frail,
a petal
with light equal
on leaf and under-leaf.

I had thought myself frail;
a lamp,
shell, ivory or crust of pearl,
about to fall shattered,
with flame spent.

I cried:

“I must perish,
I am deserted in this darkness,
an outcast, desperate,”
such fire rent me with Hesperus,

Then the day broke.

VII.

What need of a lamp
when day lightens us,
what need to bind love
when love stands
with such radiant wings over us?

What need—
yet to sing love,
love must first shatter us.