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T.S. Eliot

What are some reasons why we read poetry? Why turn to a poem over a novel, a play, a philosophical treatise? In this essay I want to suggest that we turn to poetry out of a fundamental desire to answer the question, How should one live? By making this claim, I am attempting to wonder about poetry’s relationship to the ethical, broadly conceived here as partaking in the four distinctions of ethical criticism as laid out by Wayne Booth in his book The Company We Keep: An Ethics of Fiction and then paraphrased and articulated by Martha Nussbaum in Love’s Knowledge: Essays on Philosophy and Literature. Those distinctions are 1.) Asking of a literary work, as Nussbaum writes, “What relationship does my engagement with it have to my general aim to live well?” 2.) “What sense of life is expressed in this work as a whole?” 3.) As there are “many good things for literature to do and be,” how do we talk about ethical criticism without reducing it to some “single dogmatic theory”? 4.) “What becomes of readers as they read?” (Nussbaum 232-233)

Furthermore, while I am interested in asking these questions more broadly about poetry, my emphasis in this essay will be on the work of John Ashbery, whose work I have found sustaining, consoling, and always interesting for about a decade now. Because the question, “How should one live,” is so resolutely personal, it seems important to choose a poet with whom I also feel – without knowing him personally at all – a kind of personal connection. For if literary works are, as Wayne Booth writes, like friends, and “we can assess our literary relationships in much the same way that we assess our friendships, realizing that we are judged by the company we keep,” then it seemed of the utmost importance to write about a “friend” that has, to paraphrase Nussbaum, enriched my life, however distantly, in a substantial way. (Nussbaum 234) Indeed, one of our greatest readers, Harold Bloom, has written,

Reading well is one of the great pleasures that solitude can afford you, because it is, at least in my experience, the most healing of pleasures. It returns you to otherness, whether in yourself or in friends, or in those who may become friends. Imaginative literature is otherness, and as such alleviates loneliness. We read not only because we cannot know enough people, but because friendship is so vulnerable, so likely to diminish or disappear, overcome by space, time, imperfect sympathies, and all the sorrows of familial and passional life. (19)

So if Ashbery has been a kind of “good friend” to me over the years, how has his work enriched my life?

2.

Let me start here: I remember vividly the first time I came across Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror, at Shamandrum Bookstore in Ann Arbor in 2003. The orange spine of the book caught my attention, and I pulled the slim volume off the bookshelf and read Bloom’s exultant blurb, in which he placed Ashbery in the company of poets like T.S. Eliot and Hart Crane. I opened the book to the first poem, and read

I tried each thing, only some were immortal and free.
Elsewhere we are as sitting in a place where sunlight
Filters down, a little at a time,
Waiting for someone to come. Harsh words are spoken,
As the sun yellows the green of the maple tree….
So this was all, but obscurely
I felt the stirrings of new breath in the pages
Which all winter long had smelled like an old catalogue.
New sentences were starting up. But the summer
Was well along, not yet past the mid-point
But full and dark with the promise of that fullness,
That time when one can no longer wander away
And even the least attentive fall silent
To watch the thing that is prepared to happen. (427)

Reading that passage from Ashbery’s “As One Put Drunk Into a Packet-Boat,” I myself “felt the stirrings of new breath in the pages”. There was something mysterious and lyrical about the passage, something exquisite, moving, and funny. Who else wrote in their poems about the “smell of an old catalogue”? What was the “thing” that was prepared to happen? The poem captured the excitement one might feel during the time the symphony warms up, that scintillating sound of instruments testing their timbers, meeting each other in the strange arena of sound, coming together to produce “the promise of that fullness,” for which “the least attentive fall silent / To watch the thing that is prepared to happen.”

I bought the book. I had never come across a poet as suggestive as Ashbery, nor read anyone with such a mastery of language. As a child I had loved The Phantom Tollbooth, and perhaps a part of me was still searching for that one conductor who, as he swung his baton in the air, could orchestrate the movement and color of the sun setting and rising. Ashbery, more than any poet I had read up that point, struck me as that conductor. His poems were participatory events, musical and visual as well as verbal, as rich with fecund possibility as W.H. Auden’s early poems, which I had fallen in love with a few months earlier. And as I read more Ashbery, certain questions began to percolate. The main question was: How could criticism talk about as rich a poet as Ashbery, without somehow suffocating his suggestiveness, his wacky humor, his idiosyncratic and imaginative gifts? Why was I so taken with the poetry?

3.

Richard Rorty has written of Harold Bloom that,

His ideal reader hopes that the next book she reads will recontextualize all the books she has previously read – that she will encounter an authorial imagination so strong as to sweep her off her feet, transport her into a world she has never known existed. In this new world, all the authors and characters with who she has previously been acquainted will look different…The reader’s real-life friends, relations and neighbors will also look different, as will their motives and choices. (390)

I love this quote, because this is exactly what happened when I read Ashbery. I was transported, swept off my feet. Everything I had read up to that point changed – it was if a great shifting occurred in my mind, not exactly suddenly but gradually – and over time I began to compare what I read – mostly 20th century American poetry – with the surprise, enchantment, and supple, tremendous sense of humor and nostalgia I found in Ashbery. And when I found much work lacking in the virtues I admired in Ashbery – taking itself too seriously, say, like in the work at times of W.S. Merwin or T.S. Eliot, or taking itself too un-seriously, like in the work of Allen Ginsberg and many of the Beat poets – I would continually return to Ashbery’s work, still startled, still unsure of how a mind could so continually surprise me with its jarring juxtapositions, its risks, its sheer imaginative chutzpah. As times passed, I became basically in awe of Ashbery’s poems, for I could not find in any poet’s work – with the exception of some major poets, like Stevens, Whitman, Elizabeth Bishop, A.R. Ammons – as ferocious a freshness, a newness, a kind of constantly renewing something that made the poems always delightfully baffling, pulling me into their dazzling fields, astonishing me with their metaphors, and making me gulp with pleasure at their sheer unwillingness to be pigeon-holed in any way.

4.

So, let us return to Nussbaum’s paraphrasing of Booth, What sense of life is expressed in Ashbery’s work as a whole? What relationship does my engagement with it have to my general aim to live well? For this we have to look at a poem. Hence, here is a shorter poem, “Spring Cries,” from Ashbery’s book from 1994, called And the Stars Were Shining:

Our worst fears are realized.
Then a string of successes, or failures, follows.
She pleads with us to say: “Stay,
just for a minute, can’t you?”

We are expelled into the dust of our decisions.
Knowing it would be this way hasn’t
made any of it easier to understand, or bear.
May is raving. Its recapitulations

exhaust the soil. Across the marsh,
some bird misses its mark, walks back, sheepish, cheeping.
The isthmus is gilded white. People are returning
to the bight: adult swimmers, all of them. (4)

How do we read this poem? Where do we draw the line between description and metaphor? For example, how does one read “The isthmus is gilded white” – is this literally a description of an isthmus, perhaps alluding to the way the sun hits it at a particular hour, or is there something about the isthmus being “gilded white” to suggest bafflement, bewilderment, or even a kind of tentative beauty? But let me first back up. Notice the way the poem begins, by refusing to make a statement that cannot itself be contradicted. “Our worst fears are realized” we read, and we think “oh no! This is likely to be a sad or mournful poem” – at which point we read, “Then a string of successes, or failures, follows.” Suddenly we are completely in the Ashberian universe, where “either/or” is constantly exploded to make way for “both.” And the first two lines are general enough to relate to anyone reading – who hasn’t experienced failure and success in ways that are always unpredictable? And who hasn’t heard the desperation and sadness of someone asking, “Stay, just for a minute, can’t you?”

The poem therefore evidences an exhaustion, a sort of uncaring about what happens next – success or failure, who cares? They both simply ebb and flow, lapping up onto the sand of our lives in ways we can never hope to predict or anticipate. Better to simply stand apart without attaching too much sense or meaning to these changes (?). But if this is the speaker’s stance, what is ours? Do we agree with the speaker? Do we empathize with him or her? Of course, at certain times in our lives we would agree; at other times we might not. Either way, Ashbery says, “We are expelled into the dust of our decisions,” though this knowledge is not easy to “understand, or bear.” For the world, like the month of May, is “raving” – crazy, loony, enigmatic, never to be fully understood. And all the iterations of May, unlike what we normally associate with spring, do not cause a regeneration of the soil but instead “exhaust” it.

As we continue to read the poem, it becomes clear to us that the poem is just general enough for us to relate to it, but just particular enough for us to be aware of a different speaker speaking, and of the multitude of possibilities that might have been spoken instead. For couldn’t this just as likely have been a poem of celebration of May? Instead, however, the poem is about a kind of sad human incompetence, finitude. For even the bird on the marsh, we learn, feels “sheepish” and “misses the mark.” And then the very enigmatic ending, which I read as suggesting a kind of futility related to everything that is happening around the speaker – still, despite all of our successes and failures, and our inability to know which will come next, still we jump into the water, we jump into the next bend in our fate, somehow willingly, even as adults! What a weird and revolting and exhausting (and amazing?) state of affairs!

I want to emphasize again here that the sense of life as expressed in this poem is a contingent one, based upon the speaker’s circumstances and place at the time of the writing of the poem. Whether Ashbery is making up a speaker, or is articulating his own particular worldview at the moment, is unimportant. What is important is that we are being presented with a whole worldview, a whole philosophy, and we are then asked to wonder about it, to be made aware that, like the speaker, we are particular people in a particular time with our own preoccupations, and that here is an entirely different person with his or her own idiosyncratic and interesting preoccupations. Naturally, then, we might wonder, What are our own idiosyncratic and interesting preoccupations? If we were the speaker of the poem, would we lend more credence to agency? Would we agree with what we perceive to be the speaker’s exhaustion? Do we nod our heads knowingly or raise an eyebrow as if to say, Is this really how we feel about things?

5.

See how the poem, then, occasions such ethical reflections, merely by unfolding its own kind of logic of particulars. And this thickness of description, this polytheistic quest, seems to be the reason why Rorty and Martha Nussbaum praise the novel as a moral agent, (although they might as well be praising poetry as well), capable of nothing less than, in Nussbaum’s words,

psuchagogia (leading of the soul), in which methodological and formal choices on the part of the teacher or writer [are] bound to be very important for their eventual result: not just because of their instrumental role in communication, but also because of the values and judgments they themselves [express] and their role in the adequate stating of a view. (16-17)

“The values and judgments they themselves [express] and their role in the adequate stating of a view” – in our case, a view in “Spring Cries” that life is absurd, hard-to-grasp, frustrating and sometimes exhausting. But remember – this is the speaker speaking. And Ashbery’s poems are rife with polyvocality, with an almost perverse pleasure in a chorus of voices and images jostling against each other, all competing for our attention, all calling attention to what Nussbaum calls “the incommensurability of our values,” how we are incapable of prioritizing our real values but instead must learn to be as responsive as possible to the “ethical relevance of circumstances.” (37) And the plethora of vocabularies and idioms and tones that Ashbery employs means that one quickly learns to become sensitive to many things in his poems, including tone, mood, word choice, rhythm, allusion, “subject matter” and much more. For this reason, Ashbery’s poems are both about moral progress as increased sensitivity, or the ethical relevance of circumstances, while at the same time they enact this kind of moral progress in the reader, through his or her process of deep reading. By sensitizing the reader to a larger and more diverse set of possibilities, Ashbery’s poetry serves as a kind of poetic guidebook of what Wallace Stevens, another life-teacher, called “How to Live, What to Do.”

6.

“What becomes of readers as they read?” Nussbaum writes of an “ethical ability that I call “perception”:…By this I mean the ability to discern, acutely and responsively, the salient features of one’s particular situation.” (37) Earlier in the same chapter she poses these questions:

Then, too, what overall shape and organization does the text seem to have, and what type and degree of control does the author present himself as having over the material? Does he, for example, announce at the outset what he is going to establish and then proceed to do just that? Or does he occupy, instead, a more tentative and uncontrolling relation to the matter at hand, one that holds open the possibility of surprise, bewilderment, and change? Do we know at the outset what the format and overall shape of the text is going to be? And how does it construct itself as it goes, using what methods? (33)

Hopefully it is clear at this point that Ashbery occupies “a more tentative and uncontrolling relation to the matter at hand, one that holds open the possibility of surprise, bewilderment, and change.” But what methods, as Nussbaum insightfully asks, does the poem use to construct itself? To attempt to answer these questions requires looking at one more poem. Here is the first stanza of “Valentine,” from Houseboat Days.

Like a serpent among roses, like an asp
Among withered thornapples I coil to
And at you. The name of the castle is you,
El Rey. It is an all-night truck stop
Offering the best coffee and hamburgers in Utah.
It is most beautiful and nocturnal by daylight.
Seven layers: moss-agate, coral, aventurine,
Carnelian, Swiss lapis, obsidian – maybe others.
You know now that it has the form of a string
Quartet. The different parts are always meddling with each other,
Pestering each other, getting in each other’s way
So as to withdraw skillfully at the end, leaving – what?
A new kind of emptiness, maybe bathed in freshness,
Maybe not. Maybe just a new kind of emptiness.

What is this poem talking about? How do we account for a poem that covers, in fourteen lines, serpents, castles, truck stops, Swiss lapis, a string quartet, and “a new kind of emptiness”?

Perhaps we can get at the meaning of this poem by investigating Ashbery’s usage of “you,” and placing this in the context of moral progress as increased sensitivity. For what is “you” in this poem? You are the name of a castle, an all-night truck stop, something beautiful and nocturnal, with the form of a string quartet. With each iteration of “you,” the poem expands our self-image, calling our attention to aspects of our experience and world that are not typically represented as thematic matter in a poem (say, an all night truck stop in Utah juxtaposed with the name of a castle). (In this sense, we might say that Ashbery’s quest is analogous to Whitman’s, in that both provide us with catalogues and categories that extend the boundaries of what we consider to be important, what we value.) It’s as if each iteration, each part of the catalogue, widens the circle of our self-image. In doing so, in pushing back the thresholds for what we consider parts of our community, our deep ethnocentrism, they redescribe us, and in doing so, redescribe our values. The poem is a microcosm of society, in which

The different parts are always meddling with each other,
Pestering each other, getting in each other’s way
So as to withdraw skillfully at the end, leaving – what?
A new kind of emptiness, maybe bathed in freshness,
Maybe not. Maybe just a new kind of emptiness.

What do all our interactions amount to? Simply and complexly the moment of our attention, the “mooring of our starting out,” an increased sensitivity to our particular circumstances. It is perhaps a “fresh emptiness,” meaning an invigorating life unclouded somewhat by the insidious quality of our devotions to overly abstract concepts like “Reason” or “Reality,” or it is just an emptiness, a kind of existential echo chamber or vacuum in which we make transitory meanings that importantly create hope for a better future and greater understanding, but which still take place in a world shorn of metaphysics, or absolutes, or, as Rorty puts it, “neutral starting points for thought.”

7.

Perhaps it is because there are no “neutral starting points for thought” that Ashbery begins his poems so often en media res. For it is a strategy that immediately evokes in the reader a bewilderment, a sense of not knowing where exactly he or she is, and this carries over, then, into the reader’s own situation while reading: How did we end up where we are? The effect of beginning in the middle of things prompts us to move from the microcosm of the poem to the macrocosm of our lives: What strange confluence of fate and chance has been orchestrated to work to produce the rather miraculous equilibrium in which we sit and read? What kind of balance does our present place in the universe suggest, and how in the world did we wind up where we are? These questions are raised instantaneously as we begin many Ashbery poems; which is to say, that many of Ashbery’s poems serve promptly to historicize us, while at the same time force us to directly participate in the poem, for if we don’t know where we are in the poem, the best we can do is focus and see if we can get our bearings within the poem. How is reality any different? Ashbery’s poems, in their self-consciousness, in their method of decentered unfolding, recreate for us a scene of living, in which we are compelled to participate and imagine in order to reach any tentative understandings about the poem, as about life.

This is what becomes of us as we read – we become more responsive and more perceptive as readers. “The resulting liberation,” Rorty writes,

may, of course, lead one to try to change the political or economic or religious or philosophical status quo. Such an attempt may begin a lifetime of effort to break through the received ideas that serve to justify present-day institutions. But it also may result merely in one’s becoming a more sensitive, knowledgeable, wiser person…the change is not a matter of everything falling nicely into place, fitting together beautifully. It is instead a matter of finding oneself transported, moved to a place from which a different prospect is available. (390 – 391)

Sources

Ashbery, John. Collected Poems, 1956 – 1987. New York: Library of America, 2008. Print.

Ashbery, John. And the Stars Were Shining. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1994. Print.

Bloom, Harold. How to Read and Why. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2000. Print.

Nussbaum, Martha. Love’s Knowledge: Essays on Philosophy and Literature. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990. Print.

Voparil, Christopher J., and Richard Bernstein eds. The Rorty Reader. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010. Print.

I dally. It is one of my strengths. I remember when I was ten years, driving to Boston in a groggy, once-flooded luxury Mitsubishi and telling my father, “Sire, it is summer, the windows are locked in the up position, and the engine’s heat is seeping through the vents.” He responded, “Your mind dallies, Thomas Charles Bair III; it is winter, the windows are rolled down, and the air conditioning is on. And do not contradict me.” “But sire, I am sweating and the juice you packed is boiling as though it were on a stove top.” “Young progeny, will you allow me none of long-driving’s natural silences? If you are warm, remove your jacket and your gloves and trim your beard. And if you are to contradict me again I will be forced to contact Authority Protection Services.” “That will not be necessary,” I replied, “your generous responses are truly my honor.

This is surely incontestable proof of my dallying. It may also hold some of the secrets to my method and purpose as to why I must go around with disposable gloves and a stick and gather the trash of this poem: I am full contradictions (as is the language of The Waste Land), and I am rude to my elders. That is, I am rude to my elders until they reference the local authorities, in which case I defer in reverence (The Waste Land has many authorities on file).

But I suppose my dallying is the reason I write on this ontologically paralyzing poem. Another anecdote: I first encountered TWL in school, duh. It seems until recently TWL was merely a mandatory furnishing of the English Literature 2 and American Literature 2 surveys, and it (TWL) was relatively proud of this standing. I, as I assume most people, encountered the poem in a sort of mad dash to move on to the “next literary movement.” But TWL, a radically condensed epic, refuses to be taught with any precision even in the three classes some teachers devote. How is the epic form reduced into something of nine pages (not counting the footnotes)? This is a question worth asking. TWL makes for an awkward Modern epic—too short and significantly odd to be passed over in a survey, too overbooked and promiscuous to be taught with certainty in a class or three.

More, the poem’s resolution enables professors to flee its fragments without worry. This resolution, that redemption is a wholly personal matter, that the TWL may not even be concerned with our the reader’s redemption, except that it provides us a heap of broken images, cracked voices, and a reading list is secondary to the other, more obvious conceit of the poem. Namely, that book learning (and only by happenstance aestheticism) unites the centuries, heals both cultural and personal trauma, and that the fundamental closedness that Postmoderns go on to high-five each other about for seventy-something years is a potentially redemptive thing. The following is the longest direct quote, aside from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, in Eliot’s footnotes. It is written by F. H. Bradley, the philosopher on whom Eliot wrote his doctoral thesis:

My external sensations are no less private to myself than are my thoughts or my feelings. In either case my experience falls within my own circle, a circle closed on the outside; and, with all its elements alike, every sphere is opaque to the others which surround it.… In brief, regarded as an existence which appears in a soul, the whole world for each is peculiar and private to that soul.

It should be noted that this quote is attached to the fifth section “What The Thunder Said,” line 411 in TWL. It comes while our hero is in a hole next to the “the empty chapel.” The thunder’s command comes from the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, thunder here vaguely signifying the coming of water, of renewal to the land (we will talk more about The Fisher King romances next time). In the Upanishad the command “Da” is given to the three orders of being—Gods, Humans, and Demons—and each hear different commands. The Gods hear Damyatta (Control), The Humans hear Datta (Give), and The Demons hear Dayadhvam (Sympathize). Significantly though, the reader of TWL receives all three commands—this works in synchronicity with Eliot’s “melting” of characters into one another throughout TWL.

This specific footnote arrives during the thunder’s command “Dayadhvam.” Eliot goes on to write the lines, “I have heard the key/Turn in the door once and turn once only/We think of the key, each in his prison/Thinking of the key, each confirms a prison/Only at nightfall, aetherial rumours/Revive for a moment a broken Coriolanus.” He defines The Demon, The Godless One, as the one that is locked in (and according to F. H. Bradley we are all “locked in”). “The key,” that which offers itself as our freedom, is Eliot’s proof that we are indeed trapped in an opaque circle.

But what is most interesting here is that the condition of “locked in” necessitates the modality of sympathy. As if one were not possible without the other. Also consider–and here is the difficulty of translation–sympathy is not empathy, but the difference is subtle. Sympathy is a relationship between things wherein what affects one also affects its other. If one is sad, its other is also sad. Empathy is an intellectual projection that intertwines subject and object. If one is sad, its other understands its sadness.  That sympathy and not empathy is The Demon’s requisite function implies that The Demon must become its opposing circles, not understand them.

And what of the aetherial rumours? Given Eliot’s style, we must concede that asking these sorts of questions to TWL can only be vaguely correct. This is a prime example of Eliot’s masking. “Aetherial Rumours”?—a brittle façade. Eliot uses the techniques of symbolism to paint faces over his meaning, thus giving us the reader a candy shell that can’t be cracked. But it’ll dissolve if we lick it! Conjecture it is. Aetherial rumours translates to something like “holy, celestial chatter that we can’t necessarily prove true.” Given the structure and style, method of arrangement, and basic assumptions of TWL—namely, that ‘public ritual’ has lost all practical meaning fifteen years after Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity, the rise of popular atheism (Bertrand Russell is alluded to very early in the poem), the post-WWI ruins of Europe, the difficulties involved with romantic love not made any easier by the tattered and grossly sensual whinings of the romantics—these aetherial rumours, I argue, are the Arts and Prophets of times past.

Note that Eliot’s opaque circle is not described as having a limit to its width. By reading the classics, Eliot argues, one’s consciousness expands through time. It’s as though from Eliot’s perspective he stands in the present, and by grappling with the great works of times past, envelopes them, doubling the the radius of his circle into the past, and consequently into the future, minimizing his own, personal involvement with the creation of a thing. The trope of the Prophet is also a theme redoubled in TWL. What’s more, this is just about explicit in his essays. From “Tradition and The Individual Talent”:

. . . .What is to be insisted upon is that the poet must develop or procure the consciousness of the past and that he should continue to develop this consciousness throughout his career.

What happens is a continual surrender of himself as he is at the moment to something which is more valuable. The progress of an artist is a continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality.

And if we consider ‘The Fragment” to be Eliot Prophet-Artist’s signature, at least in TWL, then, now looking back on the twentieth century, there is a case to be had.

Forgive me if these writings on Eliot sound a bit English in their method and tone but I’ve been reduced to reading an American for the past few weeks, so my folly is at once forgivable. Eliot is, indeed, the most American of poets, if and perhaps especially because he abandoned America. There are other reasons through which we will reach this conclusion. But, to be persistent, ask yourself, or better yet, when I, or anyone, asks you of your heritage, do respond that you that you are, in fact, American? I should guess not. Everyone knows that there is no such thing as an American, except during an election year or a country song. Come now, be plain with me—if I were to inquire as to your nationality would you point at the ground under your feet or walk me to the nearest genealogy section of a library? Better yet, would you tell me what someone told you? You would have to I suppose. The question of heritage in America, that it even is a question, obliges us to do some arranging (which is topical, actually. We are here to peruse The Waste Land.) We are a nation of outlaws, religious extremists, slaves, masters, pioneers, poor and tired, of huddled masses, plunderers, heroes, opportunists, co(dreamers)ugh, and all mongrel formulations therein implied, to say nothing of nation-states. No, we are a nation born of shoppers and service workers; by definition, Americans leave home so as to prefer themselves or leave themselves so as to prefer their home. The previous sentence exemplifies the latter condition—a touch of wisdom and a touch of gibberish. I could continue in this line of reasoning but I can tell that I am annoying you. Rightfully so. I will move on. This is a five part series—we will, together, mature. Aside: if I seem tightly wound, forgive me, this is, again, The Waste Land.

But naturally then, Eliot is the Most American Poet (MAP), having enacted something of an identity pilgrimage, abandoning the Missouri and the cowboy town of St. Louis for New and then Old England. And what do we know of him in England? Firstly, that he would not let a picture be taken in which he was not wearing a three piece suit. Secondly, that his accent was as affected and deplorable as Madonna’s. The two share a bit in common: mid-west origins, a penchant for shopping the faiths, and   for out Englishing the English. What is the English tradition? Measure, reticence, empirical evidence? Good. Eliot out-dueled the English until they erected his memorial in Westminster Abbey next to the graves of Dryden, Tennyson, and Browning; men Eliot spent his life burying.

Witticisms be damned, we do not discuss Eliot as such. True, we can read Eliot as, in the words of a friend, an intentional anachronism, but we could just as easily read him as a Conquistador understood as a deity by the honest natives or an earnest tradesman willing to bargain a few beads for a plot of land. No, we are under the impression that we have, or had, the blueprint for a tradition, and that Eliot considered himself a proper antiquarian. Eliot, it seems, regardless of his intent, was, in truth, an outlier. Does his approach ring familiar? Almost . . . puritanical? Is Eliot, most particularly in The Waste Land, not saying something to the “American tradition” like, “Go and read your books.”? Still, a good bulk of us are on the side of William Carlos Williams:

Then out of the blue The Dial brought out The Waste Land and all our hilarity ended. It wiped out our world as if an atom bomb had been dropped upon it and our brave sallies into the unknown were turned to dust.

To me especially it struck like a sardonic bullet. I felt at once that it had set me back twenty years, and I’m sure it did. Critically Eliot returned us to the classroom just at the moment when I felt that we were on the point of an escape to matters much closer to the essence of a new art form itself—rooted in the locality which should give it fruit. I knew at once that in certain ways I was most defeated.

Eliot had turned his back on the possibility of reviving my world. And being an accomplished craftsman, better skilled in some ways than I could ever hope to be, I had to watch him carry my world off with him, the fool, to the enemy.”

A nation of mongrels inspects its goods and rules them to be too pure for Eliot. Also here is the oft-repeated sentiment that Eliot is an Academy-sized bully, and this echoes throughout the criticism of his work, regardless of the continent of its origin. Kingsley Amis also felt excluded by The Waste Land‘s density:  “I still feel that Eliot was the member of an exclusive club that didn’t include me.” This is a common mistake mas a menos. For in addition to his stature as the MAP, he is also known the world over as Poet Laureate of Nerds. The duty of the poet for Eliot “is only indirectly to the people: his direct duty is to his language, first to preserve, and second to extend and improve.” We might define the nerd as one who recoils into an ‘idea’ [language] because the ‘thing’ is unbearable and confusing in its demands. Here I am something of an antiquarian, I suppose. But nerds do not have it is easy, that is my point. This is not elitism, but nerdom. Jeanette Winterson will help me elucidate:

When I was growing up poor and Pentecostal in the north of England, books were not allowed in our house, unless they were Bible books or my mother’s mystery stories—not of the miracle play kind, but of the Agatha Christie and Ellery Queen kind. . . . Fatefully, when I was 16, and just as she was about to throw me out of the house for ever, for breaking a very big rule (not just No Sex, but definitely No Sex With Your Own Sex), my mother made a mistake. She sent me to the library to collect her weekly haul of mysteries—and on her list was Murder in the Cathedral.

She thought it was a saga of homicidal monks. In the library, I opened it—it looked a bit short for a mystery story. I hadn’t heard of T. S. Eliot, but I read the line about “sudden painful joy” and I started to cry. . . .

The unfamiliar and beautiful play made things bearable that day, and the things it made bearable were another failed family (I am adopted, so being packed off for a second time was very hard), the confusion of sexuality, and the straightforward practical problems of where to live, what to eat and how to get on with my A-levels.

So when people say that poetry is merely a luxury for the educated middle classes, or that it shouldn’t be read much at school because it is irrelevant, or any of the strange and stupid things that are said about poetry and its place in our lives, I suspect that the people doing the saying have had things pretty easy. A tough life needs a tough language – and that is what poetry is. That is what literature offers – a language powerful enough to say how it is.

Yet it is still true that the bulky musculature of Eliot’s language is off-putting and alienating. My point here is that there is more to Eliot. At his own word, our output governs his place in history.  There are many other writers who had a fond taste for Eliot, including Ralph Ellison, who remarks that Eliot’s work is the closest to the sounds of jazz that he encountered. T. S. Eliot, jazz poet!

In the proceeding study of The Waste Land we will find that if we are reading for meaning in the sense that A+B=C, we are in for task. The difficulties of TWL are manifold. Here are a few potential road blocks (I am sure that you can help me come up with better questions):

 

  1. Already I have alluded to Eliot’s criticism. How and should we at all read Eliot’s prose into his poetry? Eliot, like all big mouths, often contradicts himself (yes, I’m tempted to quote Whitman); if we do read his critical work into TWL, which, when, how, why, where?
  2. The title of the poem alludes to The Grail legends. What does this have to do with the Fisher King? Is TWL positioned within the history of romance lit?
  3. Eliot complicates (2) in the first scribble of his footnotes. Who is Jessie Weston and why is she here?
  4. I’ve heard that Eliot considered the footnotes to be a big joke, that he wrote them in jest because people considered the poem so difficult in the first place. Are they a key to the poem or are they another mask?
  5. Speaking of masks, what is this style? How do we read a line like “to get the beauty of it hot?”
  6. More on masks: I am seeing speakers, but they’re fairly strange speakers. Are there characters in this poem?
  7. Why so many languages?
  8. The poem feels like it is moving to one, big, unified meaning. And yet the last stanza is the most disorienting part of the whole thing? What does it mean??

In the beginning of “Ode To A Nightingale,” Keats writes “My heart aches and a drowsy numbness pains/ My sense as though of hemlock I had drunk, or emptied some dull opiate to the drains/One minute past and Lethe-wards had sunk.” Some ninety years later, Eliot begins the “Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock: “Let us go then, you and I,/ When the evening is spread out against the sky/ Like a patient etherized upon a table.”

Eliot begins with the imperative: “Let us go.” Yet “The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock, is the antithesis of the imperative. Eliot’s mock epic tone is further compounded by the speaker’s knowledge of his inconsequence. He is so inconsequential that he can not even fully rise to the occasion of a clown. Keats, for all the passivity of the speaker (he lies in drowsy numbness, listening to the immortal bird) is about the mystical oxymoron of passivity as pure action—to die into eternal life, to sleep in the immortal song. A lot changed in those 90 years between these two wonderful poems.

Hemlock is a poison, the one Socrates drank. Ether, in 1909, was the anesthesia used to prepare patients for surgery. The romantics were fascinated with states of torpor, the irrationality of dream states, with trance, altered consciousness, the whole itinerary of being out of one’s rational mind–all reason suspended for the sake of the sublime. The modernists do not escape this fascination, but, for them, torpor is expressed in the anti-mystical tropes of keeping busy at inconsequence. Man is not asleep in order to receive divinity. Rather, divinity has become etherized, and man lives under the scenic terms of this enervation.

Keats is willing to die in order to enter into communion with the nightingale. In point of fact, he makes no secret that he must die in order to be born into the world of night–the poesis of the Nightingale’s voice. He must drink the dull o[iate “to the drains.” This nightingale is timeless, the same bird Ruth listened to over two thousand years before “amid the alien corn.”To journey into the underworld “lethe-wards,” to hold covenant with the immortal, one must “die.” Abraham, when he receives the covenant from Yahweh, is put into a trance state, and the power of Yahweh moves through the severed animal parts, and ignites the holocaust. Abraham takes no active part.

This is standard operating procedure in matters of the transcendent, and the sublime. Something happens—some aspect of the supernatural or immortal visits and is “received”
Passively–in a state of trance, of “drowsy numbness.” (think the limp hand of Adam receiving the divine spark of God the father in Michelangelo’s painting of the creation). One becomes inanimate, dead in the mortal sense, for the purpose of being reanimated as it were into the sublime. As Kenneth Burke pointed out, heaven and the eternal can be viewed as laudatory terms for death—a state of stasis, an end to history and movement. Using the Benthamite tri-partite registers we can express it as such:

Laudatory: Heaven, eternity, the immortal, the sublime, all breathing human passion far above
Neutral: death, stasis, suspension
Dislogistic: decadence, listlessness, decay, rot, uselessness, super fluidity, seediness

In the presence of the sublime, one mimics the death-like quality of the eternal. One becomes a fitting scene for the entrance of the gods. Prufrock, on the other hand, is anything if not busy. The roles are reversed. God (the pervasive presence of evening) is asleep, and Prufrock is loathe to wake him. After all, that would be impolite, wouldn’t it? The poem is full of frenetic activities that have almost a Marx Brothers mania to them: the women come and go, there are countless visions and revisions, possible seductions that do not take place, self conscious concerns with thinning hair, a sort of manic pettiness. Even when Prufrock receives the vision and song of the mermaids, it is the one time he is almost sure of something: “I do not think that they will sing to me”( he has heard them sing to each other–a sort of mythic upgrade of the women coming and going and chatting about Michelangelo, a mythic upgrade that fails to raise the stakes, and, rather, transforms the mermaids into a bunch of self-involved society women) He has eavesdropped on the mermaids and they are no more concerned with him than the women who come and go. When he lingers in the chambers of the sea, he is not awaked by the voice of gods, but by human voices: “Till human voices wake us and we drowned.”

In Prufrock’s universe then, meaningless social acts, the art of keeping busy has taken the place of a truly relational myth–a myth by which the eternal can fully infect the mortal with an aspect of consequence, and the terms of the mortal be raised to the level of eternity. The future is full of possibility which never comes to fruition: “In a minute there is time/for decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.” Eliot alludes to Macbeth’s “There would have been time for words such as these.” He also implies: “all sound and fury, signifying nothing,” but, in this case, fury has become niggling complaint and fretting, in short, the bangless whimper of the superfluous man, a man who knows he is superfluous (I am no Hamlet) and yet is loathe to change.

To be nothing is no barrier to mystical experience. Keats’s speaker is brought to nothing so that eternity may enter. In point of fact, it is necessary in mystical terms to become “nothing.” To be “a little something, but not really that at all” is, in a sense, far worse a fate than nothing: to be the lukewarm, the tepid modern man. In 90 years, a reversal has transpired: one goes to sleep by ceaseless activity, none of which has consequence. For Keats, “sleep” is the true activity of human consciousness. Sleep is the laudatory and transcendent, the pure “act” of man, and in his poem, “Sleep and Poetry,” Keats, by going to sleep, eats his peach:

And choose each pleasure that my fancy sees;
To woo sweet kisses from averted faces–
Play with their fingers, touch their shoulders white
Into a pretty shrinking with a bite.

Both Eliot and Keats play with the mystical oxymoron of sleep as wakefulness, and wakefulness as sleep, but Eliot’s Prufrock wakens only to drown. The speaker in “Ode To A Nightingale” asks: “Do I wake or sleep?” But whereas “Ode To A Nightingale” is a poem in which the mortal tastes of the immortal, and permanence/impermanence share true relation, Love Song” is a poem of very social non-relation. Stuff happens ( or is always on the verge of happening), but it is not even enough to amount to nothing. It is, rather, a little something, but not even exactly that: “That is not it at all.” One thing and then another happens, or almost happens, and none of it is of consequence. The evening which lies inert, enervated, put to sleep, can no more infect the speaker with cosmic import, then ‘talk of Michelangelo can raise the women above the level of social chit chat: “Do I dare disturb the universe?” Prufrock is not only an attempt at anti-romanticism, but anti-mysticism as well. Prufrock can not sit still, but he can not move either—except through all the petty tropes of the social construct .Both poems begin with a simulation of death, of a state of numbness. To enter night is to enter a sort of living death, a state of unconsciousness, of altered consciousness. But the speaker in Prufrock remains fully awake to the trivial, and even his fear of being trivial becomes a fashionable fear of inconsequence. No mystical union of the mortal and the eternal takes place. There is no covenant except with distraction and inconsequence. Eliot projects this numbness then onto the cosmos itself. It is the scenic ground zero of all that occurs. If the evening is etherized, it invokes the sense of an impending surgical procedure. Although this procedure would seem to take place upon a living evening, it is, in reality a post mortem—an autopsy. The romanticism of night and death is muted, blasphemed against by turning away from the romantic tropes of night toward a sort of clinical image repertoire. This blaspheming against the romantic via the clinical is furthered during the whole of the poem by the sense that, whatever the operation is, it is most certainly botched.

Keats’s poem is relational: mortal poet and immortal bird, each infecting the other with their own qualities—the bird becoming poetry, and the poet becoming the sublime forlorn. Eliot’s poem, for all its insistence on a “you and I” is non-relational. It is all about the failure to enter into true relationship, to receive a covenant. Worse still, Prufrock clings to his inconsequence since it is the one thing he can be sure of. Forlorn in his case becomes always a dividend and mild sense of disappointment.

Eliot would seek many years later to remedy the impossibility of the modern sublime by returning to a sort of arch-conservative faith, yet, even in his late poems of faith, there is a contingent sense of alienation. One may be social, seedy, indulge in the questions of whether or not to eat a peach, but no true relation is possible. Eliot’s “love song” is all about emotional paralysis—the impossibility of “forcing the moment to its crisis.” Keats’s Nightingale is all about entering fully into the crisis of the mortal creature who can intuit immortality, but who must remain tied to the ephemeral. The mystical oxymoron of the immortal within the transient, and the transient within the immortal is still valid. Lament still has its significance. The great crisis in Eliot’s poem is that there is no crisis, only the awful, soul enervating experience of a trivial and seedy urbanity. The voice of the poem insists “there will be time” (an allusion to Macbeth’s: “There would have been time for words such as these: tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow creeps in its petty pace)” This is not a statement of hope, but of ennui.

What draws these poems together is simulation of death-states in relation to the afflatus of night and song—of rising or sinking to the occasion. In Keats’s universe, the sublime is still possible. In Eliot’s, the sublime has become a form of Bovarism. Keats’s speaker can enter the apostrophic absurd. The poet can address an immortal bird. Absurdity maintains its gravitas. By the time of Prufrock, the absurd has been reduced to a sort of radical and self-aware ineffectuality. Eliot’s mastery of pastiche, of irony, of the anti-romantic and anti-mystical left succeeding poets in a bind. Prufrock is a great poem, but Eliot’s great poem is based on the tropes of greatness being dead. Williams saw Eliot as retrograde, a mere rehash of late 19th century agnosticism, and the British stanzas. Hart Crane, a worshipper of Eliot’s technique, rebelled against the loss of the sublime, against the nihilism of Eliot by answering with his long poem, “The Bridge.” In Benthamite terms, Keats raises the absurd to sublimity. If the neutral term is the absurd, Eliot lowers the absurd to the level of the pedestrian and vapid. Lament becomes pathos. This may have been useful as a corrective to bad remakes of “Dover Beach,” but as a fashion, it had no staying power, and for a good thirty years it did become the fashion. Auden was saturated with it. Once you have torn down all the idols, being comfortably inane and sad over your tea and toast makes for a dangerous poetics. In the hands of lesser writers it led to a sort of witty and gimmicky sense of enervation and despair. The seediness of Eliot’s industrial landscape gives way to the hard boiled detective novel and, worse, the “my aren’t we empty? Tennis anyone?” Sort of drawing room comedy. Still A great poem can not be faulted for having a destructive effect. But if Samuel Johnson is right, Keats’s great poem is the greater for its moral force. To attack the tired tropes of transcendence is of great value. To affirm the core truths of existence is greater still. I admire both poems and count them among my favorites, but, if forced to choose, I choose Keats.

Carl Jung’s work on introverted and extroverted personality types based on four functions of thinking/feeling (the rational) and intuition/sensation (the irrational) has been modified by various experts in relational dynamics, most especially Meyers Briggs and its various off shoots. Some sort of personality test is now administered by businesses interested in relational dynamics and team productivity” Active listeners, North thinkers, Explorers, negotiators…all these terms used by education and corporate movements are meant to gauge the mechanisms of personality by which we see, move through, and relate to the world. It is nothing new. Shakespeare and other dramatists used the four humors in their construction of characters. Astrology links the personality types to stars, dates, location and time of birth. All these systems of gauging personality types are inexact, what we might call, if we used a machinist’s term, an “eye ball estimate.”  But, as such, they can be useful for entering constructs. Eye ball estimates are dangerous if you are doing close work, but, if you are first entering a structure (and relational dynamics are a structure) it might be a foolish waste of time not to do a quick eye ball estimate of the work at hand. Our mistakes are most egregious when we confuse a useful inaccuracy (an eye ball estimate) for a true measure, but it may be equally dangerous not to use our gut  instincts (sensations) or intuitions when approaching or apprehending a structure.  We must not think of personality types then as a determinate, but as a good eye ball estimate of how a certain type might relate to the world. To use a designation from Meyers Briggs, no two ENFP’s (Intuitive extrovert feeling Perceivers) are alike, though they share many tendencies toward, and certain affinities for how they view and relate to the world.. To wax Machinist again, they are all “specialty molds” under a certain type of mold set–modifications of a type.

For the purpose of studying a poem through the four function, we are going to add to these types, the Bentham’s dislogistic, neutral, and laudatory register of terms. We are also going to look at contemporary literature as favoring those types most often associated with intuition, or introverted sensing (which, as a function seems very much like intuition). If we considered postmodernism as a personality type, we might see its basic personality as intuitive introvert thinking perceiver (INTP) with INTJ ( Intuitive introvert thinking/judge) being a close second. INTP,  types dominate–both in science as well as post modernist literature (this makes sense given the process and system driven dynamics of both) Post structuralism might further be seen as a movement away from the intuitive introverted feeling Perceiver (the idealist introverted feeling type) and the INFJ (feeling judge) which dominated the early aesthetic periods of modernism. INFJ’s, supposedly the rarest personality type in our population, are common in my writing classes, as are INFP’s and ENFP’s. My university still values the lyrical narrative, which relies on the feeling faculty, which allows for the feeling and is not prone to postmodernist detachment, but, of the two students I had accepted into Columbia and the New School (both favoring a sort of New York school/post modernist/experimental aesthetic) both students were thinking types, INTP, and INTJ. Feeling as a rational function has been greatly reduced in post structuralist poetics, while thinking, as the filter for intuition (both extroverted and introverted) has been raised to the chief mechanism through which irrational  functions of sensation and intuition are expressed. Let’s run the registers of post modernity in relation to the feeling function:

Dislogistic:  tending towards sociopathy, dadaism, insanity, nihilism, alienation.
Neutral: tending towards the Non-conformist, free spirited, ironic, agnostic, and favoring uncertainty, unsentimental feeling toward  engagement with form and experiment.
Laudatory: Liberated, self realized, spiritual rather than religious, emotionally complex, but not dependent on the feeling faculty, and oriented toward formal innovation.

This movement towards the domination of the irrational functions existed in romanticism and the decadent/aesthetic movements, but their chief filter as to the irrational functions of intuition and sensing moved from feeling (sensibility) to thinking (realism). First feeling in an ever more complex ambiguity dominated as the chief subsidiary function. Now, thinking as system/process dynamic dominates (Post-modernity). If I had to tie this schema of relational dynamics into one broad look at literary history, I would do so as follows:

Before Modernism: Either the feeling or thinking (rational functions) dominate with sensing and intuition (the irrational functions) acting as the chief filtering mechanisms in terms through which image and metaphorical invention play out the agreed upon tropes of thought/feeling. This made for a literature in which feeling is more or less uniform, and thinking also uniform in terms of the audience and auditor: fellow feeling, fellow thinking. The co-ordinates of thought and feeling were largely “understood.” Sensation and intuition moved through images and rhetorical schemas that  expressed known tropes of feeling/thinking. Their diversity increased as the commonly agreed upon feelings and thoughts become less stable. By the time of the Romantics, the interest in the Gothic (a genre of literature in which sensation and intuition begin to dominate thought and feeling) and the break down of the agrarian life under the terms of urbanization and industrialization lead to a reversal of functions: Sensing and intuition begin to dominate (Poe, Baudelaire, Rimbaud) and thoughts and feelings turn towards becoming supporting mechanisms, filtering the discoveries and creations of the irrational sensing or intuitive functions into the forms of symbolist, imagist, surrealist, cubist, dadaist, objectivist, and, most recently, language poetry. In any of these schools, either feeling or thought could be the prime secondary function, but with language poetry and its objectivist forebearers, all feeling becomes suspect as a reliable filter, and thought becomes the prime secondary function for intuition and the sensation of process. In terms of intuition, the rise of the subjective, the unconscious, and the surreal. In terms of sensation, the null position of science which claims to have no eye ball estimates, no preconceived thoughts and feelings toward the sensual world, but only the scientific method by which it tests all things under the rule of deductive process. In terms of poetry Oppen called it “A rigorous test of sincerity.”

The opposition of intuition/sensation to thought/feeling

Scientists have little trouble admitting much discovery is made through intuition, but they are loathe to admit that feeling or thinking (in terms of preconceived assumptions and notions) has anything to do with the discoveries of science. Nothing that cannot be proven through scientific and controlled experiment is considered to be valid. The position on thought and feeling is a null position.All must be testable under the laws of method. This may seem the opposite of intuition, and, to a degree, it is, but its antipathy is more towards preconceived thoughts and feelings than toward the irrational function of intuition. We tend to think of science as “rational” but this is an over identification of the word rational with objective thinking which is the populist view of science (which, by the way, is not at all scientific). Intuition also shows more antipathy towards feeling/thought as prime functions than toward sensation. We might describe modernism then as a slow movement away from the dominance of thought/feeling with an agreed upon set of contexts toward the dominance of intuition/sensation, with no agreed upon context.

During the transition period of this shift, fear, neurosis, a sense of doom and emptiness begin to dominate. There is no set context for one’s thoughts, feelings, or actions, and where there is a context, it usually appears in the form of parodying, deconstructing, or dismantling older, once stable beliefs, images, and metaphors. Oddly, God gets jettisoned from the world around the time intuition and sensation begin to dominate. God after all is best understood in societal terms as contextual authority, the context of all authority. The chief expression of God is through the dominating and rational functions of thought/feeling. God in this sense is antithetical both to sensation and intuition. It is not the authority, or power, or even arbitrary power that an intuition/sensation based literature protests in traditional beliefs in God, but, rather the grounding in a context of authority, power, and arbitrary power known as God that can not allow either for verifiable science, or the undogmatic mysteries of intuition. Mystics, to an extent, were always dangerous to God in this contextual sense. The operative word is agreed upon “context.” In a sense we could see modernism as an attempt to wrestle arbitrary power away from the overly contextualized scene, from agreed upon contexts, or ground of “God”, and not only God, but all previously agreed upon contexts–especially as God is expressed through preordained contexts of thought/feeling. Rather than seeing the old literature as believing in God, or proceeding from a context of belief, we could re-phrase it this way: Pre-modernist literature: God equals the context of the given. Modernist: God equals an “away from” or a “toward” the context of the uncertain.  All must be grounded in having no ground. God is either too late or too early, missing over here or there, but never of this moment or of this place. To paraphrase Kafka: the messiah will arrive the day after he is no longer necessary. God is either arriving or receding, and so God cannot be the context of either intuition or sensation. God exists then only in the subsidiary functions of thought/feeling. Yet God’s attributes: power, arbitrary power, not only continue through modernism and post-modernism, but grow in proportion to the fact that there is no longer an agreed upon context or locality. Thus God’s absence in the form of a non-contextual and all pervading power is everywhere (see Kafka, see Panopticon). In a sense, while God disappears, the power, especially the irrational and arbitrary power of God through intuition and sensation is distilled into all places and situations.While thought and feeling may no longer proceed on the given contexts of a dogma, the arbitrary power grows in direct proportion to losing its chief name/context.  In this sense, the atrophy of God’s name and context leads to a hypertrophy of those powers usually associated with God:

Dislogistic: totalitarian forms of regime and the literary movements drawn to them (Futurists, Pound and Eliot, Communist writers).
Neutral: belief in social reforms and systems of redistribution that replace God’s providence, mercy towards the poor, and sense of equality within organized and supposedly non-arbitrary forms of governmental “providence” (social programs, the dole, unemployment, welfare, health care, etc)
Laudatory: Self actualized and evolved human beings (the hipsters and life style leftists) who need no power in heaven to live with compassion and wisdom upon the earth.

Let us look at this in terms of the irrational functions as independent from a rationalized deity/ contextual schema of agreed upon thoughts/feelings:

In Terms of the Intuitive:

1. Spirituality, belief in the supernatural, powers beyond the  so called natural laws but with little or no dogma (though often elaborate methodology) opposed to rational religion. Mechanisms of discovery independent both of dogma and scientific method. To a certain degree,part of the rigor of magic, but without the agreed upon communal contexts of magic. Private and subjective ceremonies rather than social ones.
2. Re-location of the context for such power in the “Self” or in the self’s “communion” with forces in the terms of a visions quest, and self-created self (lifestyle) and expressed through myth (the primal) and futuristic speculations, as well as a sense of the present anchored in certain mechanisms of “mindfulness and “attention”. Many of these mechanisms are borrowed from Eastern forms of Yoga, meditation, and the practice of manipulating energy (most often one’s own energy, or the energy of nature rather than other human beings).
3. Improvisation as a way of trusting seeming chaos as a more complex form or of order.

In terms of sensation:

Positivism in all its variations as progress, as “learning experience” as self-experimenting, as mind/body balance. Nutrition, aerobic perfection, and the belief in sensation for its own sake or as a mind altering experience. The manipulation of matter as a mechanism for well being: drugs, altered states, body-engineering, the mind as neural re-mapping. Any physical sensation made optimal or toward the optimal, and, when in context with a non-physical or metaphysical concept, the transformation of such a concept to the realm of the meta-biological.

We might see recent developments in post structuralism as the extension of “against a contextualized and localized deity” to all power structures–a destabilizing and deconstructing of the language of discourse itself. Feeling and thinking are functions of discourse. They imply rational choice. Sensation and intuition lose their power when they enter too deeply into discourse (having to be filtered through feeling/thought as subsidiary functions) and can best maintain power through mystification, non-cognitive abstraction, or hypertrophic resorts to process (ceremonies, rituals, routines); the medium as message, paint as paint, poem as thing made out of words. This is the question: is this extension against contextualized structures of power, an attack on power itself, or merely a more elaborate terministic screen of order (fractal and chaotic order) with the unconscious purpose of hiding the arbitrary power under the terms of sheer process? In effect, a movement from “I” and “We”  to “it says so.” In the shift of filtering mechanisms from the nuanced feeling states of catharsis, and epiphany (the chief subjective states) to a realm where sincerity and rigor of methodology become disassociated from coherent feeling/thinking states, intuition and sensation become the highest “virtues.” Self consciousness is often, under this dominance of the irrational functions, a playing with tropes of self as mechanism (meta-fictions). The self becomes a fabrication, the other a fabrication, and the relationship between them is seen at a remove from emotion towards the filtering  mechanism of thought. In effect, introverted or extroverted intuition/sensation as dominating functions with thinking as the secondary function and feeling in a tertiary or inferior position. If the intuition is introverted, the thought will be extroverted, seeking, in however difficult a way to make the intuitions of the subconscious articulate through some sense of system, usually a complex system that is fractal in its particulars. This system will not be applied as with an ENTP, but will be more along the lines of an interpretive schema of process and ceremony, “pure system”–more the tendency of the INTP.

I think it important to remind the reader here that this is an eye ball assessment of tendencies, and that giving any literary era a personality is not much different than saying the wind whispers. It’s a personification, an attributing of human motives to inhuman things, but this does not rule out its usefulness. I want to look at what I consider a poem in a transitional phase between late romanticism/realism, and modernism, a poem that emphasizes intuition and sensation, and places thought/feeling in subsidiary positions: “The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock.” Before I do, I want to make a distinction between emotion and feeling, as well as thought and idea. Emotions and ideas may belong as much to the realm of the irrational and the sensational as intuition and sensation. An emotion  turns up, unbidden, and we may not know we are “feeling it” until we say: “I feel sad (the judging, interpretive, rational function). The judgment may be wrong as when a person attracted to another feels they are terrified (the hormonal relationship between fear and certain forms of attraction are well documented). Feeling and thought then are judgment functions. They rationalize to affirm or refute an emotion or idea, and to express sensations and intuitions.. We decide. We will. Perhaps it would be better then to call intuition/sensation undetermined functions, and feeling/thought acts of will. Knowing this might serve us in entering this great poem.

The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock

Eliot first wrote Prufrock in 1909 (though I do not trust Eliot in this respect anymore than I trust Coleridge, and it would suit his purpose to say he wrote the poem in 1909 in order to escape the charge of being in the midst of the modernist revolution. Eliot would much prefer not to be in any midst). As the case may be, it was published in 1917, and is part of the modernist movement that precedes and presages the dadaist/nihilist slant modernism took after world war one. It is a frightening and grotesque poem, but no more so than “The Walrus and The Carpenter” or the opening of Dickens’ Bleak House (I think Elliot’s famous fog owes something to Dickens’ Fog in  Bleak House). Much has been made of his innovations in rhyme and meter, but they are not innovations. The off-meters of Prufrock are taken from many precedents of the time, one being the off-meters of light verse, and nonsense verse, as well as a poet who does not get enough credit for being a goad to Eliot: Vachel Lindsey. Lindsey was also from St. Louis and far more famous at the time than Eliot could ever hope to be. Like Eliot, he believed in the primal, and atavistic rhythms that might be found in metrical experiment. His poem “The Congo” was a performance piece that now seems rather naive and dated (as well as unintentionally racist), Lindsey became famous for performing it. His tendency to perform put him in the camp with Sandburg, and it was the Sandburg’s and Lindsey’s of American poetry that Pound, Eliot, and the modernists replaced. We might see this as two possible roads that diverged in a wood. American poets chose the road less taken called modernism, and it made all the difference. Had they taken the road of Lindsey and Sandburg, American poetry may have ended up linked to music and spken word much sooner. More on that at another time. Like Eliot, Lindsey screwed around with sonic and metrical effects obsessively. Some teachers might stress the irony of this poem, its implied attack on the enervated posturings of the vapid and superfluous modern day “Hamlet.” I am more interested in the absence of feeling and thought in the poem. Sensation seems to be the order of the day here, yet sensation denuded of will, and based partially on paralysis.  terms that might prove useful here: Phatic language (In Eliot’s case, Phatic allusion), neurasthenia (Made popular, and at a fever pitch in the early 20 th century, with sanotariums all over Scotland and England for its treatment. Elliot’s wife was diagnosed as having it). The symptoms fit the tenor of Prufrock’s twitchiness), Bovarysme (neurasthenia and Bovarysme are favorite terms of Eliot–not me) and what I call pathetic troth (The attempt to woo by appealing to another’s sense of pity, either by saying self denigrating things about one’s person, or saying that the world is sad, so let’s get it on. “Carpe diem” is a more vigorous form of pathetic troth).

So let’s put these terms together: Phatic Language (allusion), neurasthenia, bovarysme and pathetic troth.

Phatic language (From the Penguin dictionary of literary terms and Literary theory):

Phatic derives from the Greek phasis, ‘utterance.’ A term in linguistics which derives from the phrase ‘phatic communion invented by the anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski. It was applied to language used for establishing an atmosphere and the communication of feelings rather than of ideas, and of logical and rational thoughts. Phatic words and phrases have been called ‘idiot salutations” and, when, they generate to a form of dialogue, ‘two-stroke conversations.’  It seems that the term may also be applied to the kind of noises that a mother makes to her baby, a lover to his mistress, and a master to his dog.

By phatic allusion, Elliot sets an atmosphere in contrast to Prufrock’s paralysis of action. If this is a love poem, it is a love poem that constantly deconstructs itself and never gets to the point, which makes it a species of “pure courtship” (pure in the sense that it serves no utiliatrian end other than its utterance), Eliot alludes to several poems of courtship, namely Andrew Marvel’s “To A Coy Mistress.”

“To squeeze the universe into a ball, and roll it towards some overwhelming question.”

Marvell’s poem gets to the point by pussy footing all around the point and then zeroing in for the kill: listen, we are going to die, we don’t have much time, let’s get it on (“Carpe Diem”–cease the day). Prufrock says: Indeed, there will be time.” This both deconstructs the “Carpe Diem” idea of time being of the essence, and is a form of phatic appeal: “we can wait, do we really need to draw the moment to its crisis? Come on. We have time. Indeed, we have time for indicisions and revisions until the taking of toast and tea…. Prufrock is, in part, a travesty and deconstruction of the idea of carpe diem, but it uses and misuses the devices of carpe diem in order to show that such pathetic appeal to action has become phatic–an idiot’s game of fellow feeling. This device of phatic allusion is a major part of Elliot’s schtick. His allusions are meant as much to deflate the force of literary history as to bring it to bear. “there will be time” is also an allusion to the Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow speech in Macbeth:

There would have been time for words such as these:
Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow
creeps in its petty pace from day to day…

The communion Eliot would engender here is to contrast his indecisive hero to the “Coy Mistress” of Marvell. Where once the love object was coy, the so called lover is coy, hemming and hawing. His other phatic repetitions:

In the room the women come and go,
Talking of Michelangelo.

Do I dare? (eat a peach, disturb the universe).

The section in the poem where Prufrock imagines others noting his bald spot, his thinning hair, his thinning legs–all a species of phatic chit chat, and the fellow feeling of casual remark. Something on the order of this sort of conversation:

“Meg! Meg Darling! How wonderful to see you! OH look what you’ve done with your hair!”
“Do you like it?”
“Like it? I love it! It’s, it’s amazing how good you look. How is John?”
“John got the promotion.”
“Oh my God! That’s wonderful! I can’t think of any one who deserves it more… and you… are you happy?”
“I can’t complain… I saw Marcy Wentworth yesterday… poor girl… the divorce seems to have sent her into a tailspin.”
“I know… Oh my God, did you see how much weight she’s gained?”
“Anti-depressants… you really need a hundred yoga classes for every pill… I bet that’s it… she looks terrible… poor Marcy, and her hair looks like it’s falling out.”
“It does seem a bit thin… My daughter Lisa lost all the weight she gained during her pregnancy. My God, what I wouldn’t give to be 22 and able to lose weight like that.”
“Isn’t that the truth… listen I have to run… is your number still the same?
“Yes…”
“I’ll give you a call. We have to catch up.”
“Let’s do that.”
“We will I promise… well, good seeing you.”
”You, too.” (air kiss).

Eliot, by juxtaposing his chit chatting, nervous, twittery Prufrock against the allusions to Marvel, to Shakespeare, to the idea of “Carpe Diem,” implies that all of history has been made phatic and, largely beside the point. The social observances and pleasantries that once held society together have become forms of insanity, the inability to say what one really means, the inability to act (do I dare) have denuded feeling and thought of all substance. Michelangelo is a subject of idle chit chat for women in a room. We might do well to see how Elliot juxtaposes allusion against the Phatic and frantic questions Prufrock poses. There is a great deal of frantic questioning, and refelction, but nothing, absolutely nothing happens, as with the Rabbit in Lewis Carol’s work: “I’m late, I’m late, for a very important date. No time to waste, hello, goodbye, I’m late, I’m late, I’m late, I’m late:”

I grow old… I grow old…
I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.”

Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?”

As Molinowski said, this is not language come forth out of logic, or a rational schema of thought, but language meant to create an atmosphere of fellow feeling (or to mock fellow feeling), also of fear, and disassembling, of timidity, and nervous enervation. The train of thought is inward, and in some sense, Prufrock’s conjectures are as stream of consciousness as Molly Bloom’s meanderings. There are repetitions galore, verbal ticks that come and go as randomly as the women in the room talking of Michelangelo. Sensation (there is much made of the fog, of the tea and marmalade, of the city streets)and intuition (in the form of somewhat hysterical conjectures) prevails and the thoughts and feelings  serve the enervated sensation and the intuitions. This is a poem written in transition between agreed upon feelings and thoughts, and their collapse. It is pastiche, but pastiche that laments– that pines for a significance both the narrator and his creator are convinced has been lost. No one can say what they mean, because meaning itself is lost: “that is not what I meant at all.”

As I said, Postmodernist question the validity of all discourse, and here, in Elliot, the deconstruction of relationship and discourse is already prevailing. Instead of making a bridge between the present and the past, Elliot lets them sit side by side, each oddly ridiculous in the light of the other, a cohabitation which shows as much about their disparity as their connection. Eliot is a master of non-sequitor. The use of parataxis (one thing after another, without conjunctions, without priority or relation to order), the use of  something akin to non-sequitor (a phrase or an allusion just thrown in), the deconstruction of formerly poetic images (Evening is a patient etherized upon a table), all of these tricks will become standard fair for modernist and post modernist poets. And we may know the dissenters from this school by their hatred of allusion, and disconnection. Thought in this poem becomes, in the sense of Flaubert, an inventory of received ideas. Feeling becomes “oh dear me what shall become of me?” and enervation as to any decisive action. The most animate forces in the poem, the forces that act at all are inhuman. The fog is far more lively and humanly active than Prufrock: it licks, rubs, lingers, slips and sleeps, as does the smoke. Streets follow. The afternoon sleeps, stretches on the floor, malingers. Personification swells to the size of a supernova while human action is all conjectural. As with introverted sensation the world of the senses is alive and threatening to swamp consciousness. The unconscious life of the natural world is projected on to the subconscious sensations of the introverted. The fog that is so active at the beginning of Prufrock echoes another equally famous, lively and surreal fog in Dickens’ Bleak House, a novel about a generations long law suit that goes nowhere–a suit, a courtship, a troth that sinks into the bureaucracy of its own process and leaves nothing in its wake. So much for both the phatic allusions, and the use of phatic utterance. Let’s move to neurasthenia.

This was one of Elliot’s favorite words to describe his age, and a very popular buzzword at the time. First coined in 1869, it had become as pervasive a diagnosis by the turn of the century as ADHD, OCD, or depression is now. One of the pet names for it was “Americanitus”:

Americans were supposed to be particularly prone to neurasthenia, which resulted in the nickname “Americanitis” (popularized by William James). Today, the condition is still commonly diagnosed in Asia. (Wikepedia)

The symptoms of neurasthenia were exhaustion of the central nervous system’s energy reserves brought on, Beard believed, by modern civilization–particularly the urban industrial experience. It was associated with upper or upper middle class people, especially professionals with sedentary employment. Listlessness, fatigue, nervous exhaustion (a lot of fretting but no action), a lack of will. Freud (I love this guy) thought that it might be attributed to excessive masturbation. It’s chief symptom was fatigue, listlessness. Elliot used it in a more broad metaphorical sense for the lack of significant action or will power in his age. French languor and enui were fairly common literary conceits by the time, and Prufrock owes a debt to this sort of tired, and flatulent sense of superfluous and weary via the Symbolists. All sensation becomes introverted. One receives sensations, dwells in them, but is powerless to act upon them. Neurasthenia would give way to an almost violent despair by the time Elliot wrote The Wasteland.

Bovarysme

Madame Bovary dreams of perfect romantic feeling states, and more so, dwells in an inner realm of hyper sensations which are more and more fantastic and hysterical as she heads towards her ruin. She is close to sociopathic in her quest for higher transports, and, in all situations where real love is called for (her child, her husband) she is cruelly indifferent and even hostile. Bovary wants what is promised in romance novels. Her name becomes associated with people who saw life as a series of scenarios. Here, in Prufrock’s conjectures about the immediate and less immediate future, we find the hero of the poem imagining himself a pair of claws scuttling alone the sea bottom. He projects himself into old age where he will wear his trousers rolled. He imagines what people are thinking of him. He puts himself into several imaginary situations, and then retreats from any real action. Unlike Madame Bovary, he does not act on his fantasies, attempting to make them come true. He is content to let them pass before his mind’s eye:

But as if a magic lantern threw the nerves in patterns on a screen

In modern terms, we have all become voyeurs of the real. We do not participate. We live in our imaginations and fantasies. Real life is too overwhelming. The mermaids cannot drown us, but “human voices wake us, and we drown.”

Pathetic troth

In all courtship, the lover is beneath the beloved in terms of worthiness, in terms of desirability, and, when this is not literally true, it is true in a tongue and cheek way, or the poet feigns subservience. So all courtship poems are, to a certain degree, a pathetic troth, a plighting and a promising of bliss if so and so will just agree to be with the one who loves.. In Prufrock, the ratio of pathetic to troth is totally out of proportion. Supposedly, he is addressing a “you.” At one point she lays beside him on a pillow, or he imagines her doing so. Her’s is the only voice in the poem to be directly quoted and it says: He offers her a sky that is like a patient etherized upon a table. He offers her street that follow like an argument of insidious intent. He offers her loneliness, and urban squalor, and he offers a self he calls balding, and aging, and not at all a Hamlet. The Adynaton (hyperbolic appeal to doing the impossible) is reverse adynaton. Not only is the impossible impossible; but the possible and even the typical is, also, out of the question. Only in his fantasies has he heard mermaids singing each to each. He says he does not think that they will sing for him. He offers the supposed “beloved” a man who claims he should have been a pair of claws. This love song seems anything but, and yet it is a love song in so far as it is a lament, a courting to action, and the lost meanings of courtship.. His “beloved” is that action he is incapable of. I said before that sensation and intuition do not fare well when they enter discourse for they are not determined or willed functions. They may exhibit their wears, or passively watch the introverted movie of the subconscious played out through the magic lantern, but they hold discourse only through the subsidiary functions of feeling and thought, and, here in this poem feeling has become a series of vapid tropes plus nervous exhaustion, and thought has become a series of phatic allusions and received ideas. “The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock” might be seen in the light of another famous poem, Dover Beach. Anthony Hecht did a wonderful job of pointing out the delay and hemming and hawing of the speaker in this earlier poem by writing a sort of update on it called “A Dover Bitch.” In that poem, the girl says it is lousy to be addressed as “some last cosmic resort.” She is thinking: “fuck me already, and get it over with.” Sensation turned introverted is “pure” sensation. Intuition filtered through nervous exhaustion and received ideas is merely the fear of death, an inconsequence so vast that it leaves the very sky inert like a patient etherized upon a table.

In Mathew Arnold’s “Dover Beach,” the narrator can still make a plea for fidelity in a world where belief has retreated. By the time of Prufrock, such a plea is impossible. Yet, one can still lament the loss of will, of “I” or “we” said so. By the time of the mid century there is no grief at all among the most experimental writers for the loss of will, or the impotence of will. Process becomes its own will–a bureaucracy of sensation and intuition in which the discourse of feeling and thought is a series of tropes. that do not always adhere. Feeling is muted to the point of being almost absent. Of all the poets who master this reversal of dominant functions, there is none greater than Wallace Stevens, though, being a vital and creative admirer of George Santyanna, Stevens redeems thought and feeling as a species of sensation and intuition–what he calls the poem of earth. He claims poetry must resist the intelligence–almost. Reality is a necessary angel. In a sense, Stevens treats thoughts and feelings as decors, as scenic events. As scenery they may still hold beauty, but one’s actions must be those of sensation and intuition. That arbitrary power that lies in “because” is handed over to an it–the process of the poem, the poem as an utterance made out of words,  an “order” making machine in which a great disorder is still an order, in which the “rage to order” is detached from all stable thought, all stable feeling, and given over to a dominant sensation and intuition. So this is my eye ball estimate. I find it useful as a gadget to enter a poem, but it is not accurate at close work. At close work, one will find a thousand exceptions to this rule, but this does nothing to negate the rule. As Kafka said: “The crows maintain that a single crow could destroy the heavens; doubtless this is so, but it proves nothing against the heavens, for the heavens signify simply: the impossibility of crows.”

 

I hope you’ve been watching Mary Karr and Chris Robinson’s excellent Poetry Fix YouTube Series. It’s the perfect-sized portion of poetry and comment to get you thinking, your poetry juices flowing. Mary Karr is also a great reader/interpreter of the various poems.

I just watched Episode 5 on Louise Gluck’s poem “Mock Orange.” I don’t often remember my first encounter with a poem or poet, but I distinctly remember reading Gluck for the very first time (her book The Seven Ages, and then later Ararat, perhaps my favorite). The power of her voice was overwhelming, and after I got out of my “try to sound like T.S. Eliot phase” I progressed into a “try to sound like Louise Gluck phase.”

Primarily, I tried to imitate Gluck’s minimalism. Minimalist art in general is one of those things that makes people stare in confusion for a few moments before moving on (especially public minimalist art). It seems potent, but also has a sort of inert stoicism. It draws you in by a straightforward opacity. Where exactly, though, does the power lie if there is literally nothing to hang a “message” on? As you might expect, its power lies in the fact that it says so little. Let me explain.

There is a minimalist sculpture I have in mind. Unfortunately, I can’t seem to find it on Google image…so I shall have to describe it. It was three parallel blocks that leaned to the right about 30 degrees. That was it. My first impulse was to scoff. But I stared at it, intent to figure it out.

And I stared some more.

Eventually in frustration I slumped my head in my hand (it so happened) at about 30 degrees to the right. Suddenly, I realized that these three columns were not holding a message in and of themselves, but trying only to get me to tilt my head to the right at about 30 degrees. Then I looked behind the columns at the background and realized that I was seeing things from a different perspective: what the world would look like when your head was tilted at 30 degrees.

Minimalism is not about powerful messages about the nihilism or poverty of the human condition (though it’s certainly easy to think so!). Instead, minimalist art creates a framework through which you view the world. It gives you the bones of the skeleton and then you fill out the flesh. But watch out! The minimalist artist still controls the bones (and hence the body that you have put on them). Minimalism is as silent as the movie frame.

Anyhow, if you haven’t watched the first 6 episodes yet, check it out. It’s poetry for the average human!

Seen above, for the first time, is a newly-discovered photograph of Arthur Rimbaud from the 1880s. I quote from the Associated Foreign Press:

Unseen photo of French poet Rimbaud unveiled

PARIS — A previously unseen photo of French poet Arthur Rimbaud was unveiled in Paris on Thursday, bringing the total number of known images of the writer to eight.

The photograph, which shows Rimbaud on the porch of a hotel in Yemen around 1880, was showcased at the International Antiquarian Book Fair at Paris’s Grand Palais exhibition venue.

The black and white image is only the fourth to portray the poet as an adult and is “the only one in which Rimbaud’s adult facial characterisics are distinguishable”, according to the poet’s biographer, Jean-Jacques Lefrere.

Rimbaud, who was once described by Victor Hugo as “an infant Shakespeare”, produced his best-known works in his late teens. At 20 he gave up poetry and left France to travel. He died from cancer in 1891 aged 37.

Below, Rimbaud’s most famous poem, in the best translation the poetry has yet received into English, by Martin Sorrell (Oxford World’s Classics, 2001). He is the poet most important to understanding the crucial line of 20th century American-English symbolism: the inaugurator of Hart Crane, as well as of John Ashbery. He liberated words to music, and embodied the sovereignty of the imagination as an aesthetic principle foremost. For his sensualism, his precocity, and his recondite combinations of unexpected words, phrases—he is simply unrivaled. Rimbaud’s use of color in poetry anticipates Munch, as well as Georg Trakl. Far from being a reckless raving beatnik, Rimbaud was systematic—advancing the discoveries Baudelaire had made in revolutionizing and modernizing poetic form and style. He could parrot any style; yet he remains inimitable, unique, and resembles no one else. His prose poems are arguably still the best of their kind, in any language. The complexities of his life, which only dealt with poetry very briefly, between the age of 17 to 20, is inexplicable. There are other mysterious poets in history, but there is no other mystery like Rimbaud’s. Crane’s first book of poems, White Buildings, featured an epigraph of the French poet’s. (When he was drunk, he was taken to yelling, “I am Rimbaud come again!”) His letters are incredible. His insights have been adopted by no less an orthodox spirit than T.S. Eliot—whose own innovations, accredited to Jules LaForgue, owed much to Rimbaud’s. When W.H. Auden selected John Ashbery’s Some Trees he was quite reticent about the overall strategy and tendency in style of JA’s work, and saw Rimbaud as the precedent for such a subjective, surrealistic manner (one that might lead poets astray). Yet no style has meant more to poetry since.

THE DRUNKEN BOAT

I followed deadpan Rivers down and down,
And knew my haulers had let go the ropes.
Whooping redskins took my men as targets
And nailed them nude to technicolour posts.

I didn’t give a damn about the crews,
Or the Flemish wheat and English corn.
Once the shindig with my haulers finished
I had the current take me where I wished.

In the furious riptides last winter,
With ears as tightly shut as any child’s,
I ran, and unanchored Peninsulas
Have never known such carnivals of triumph.

The storm blessed my maritime wakefulness.
Lighter than a cork I danced on the waves
Which some call eternal victim-breakers-
Ten blind nights free of idiot guiding flares.

Sweeter than sour apple-flesh to children
Green water slid inside my pine-clad hull
And washed me clean of vomit and cheap wine,
Sweeping away rudder-post and grapnel.

From that time on, I bathed in the Poem
Of the Sea, lactescent and steeped in stars,
Devouring green azures; where a drowned man
Like bleached flotsam sometimes sinks in a trance;

When suddenly tinting the bluities,
Slow deliriums in shimmering light,
Fiercer than alcohol, vaster than lyres,
The bitter rednesses of love ferment.

I know skies splintered by lightening, breakers,
Waterspouts, undertows; I know the dusk,
And dawn, exalted like a host of doves -
And then I’ve seen what men believe they’ve seen.

I’ve seen low suns smeared with mystic horrors
Set fire to monster fires of violet;
Like actors in the very oldest plays
Slatted light shimmered, away on the waves.

Green nights I dreamed bedazzlements of snow,
A kiss rising to sea’s eyes slowly,
Circulation of undiscovered saps,
Blue-yellow wakefulness of phosphorsongs.

For whole months on end I followed the swell
Charging the reefs like hysterical beasts,
Not thinking that luminous Maryfeet
Could force a muzzle onto breathy seas.

I struck, you know, amazing Floridas
Where flowers twine with panther eyes inside
Men’s skins! Rainbows flung like bridles under
Sea horizons harnessed the glaucous herds.

I saw great swamps seethe like nets laid in reeds
Where a whole Leviathan lay rotting,
Collapse of water in the midst of calm
And distances tumbling into nothing.

Glaciers, silver suns, pearl seas, firecoal skies!
Hideous wreckages down in brown depths
Where enormous insect-tormented snakes
Crash from twisted trees, reeking with blackness.

I’d have liked to show children blue-water
Dorados, golden fish and fish that sing.
Foam-sprays of flowers cradled my drifting;
At times I flew on ineffable winds.

Sometimes, martyr tired of poles and wastelands,
My pitching was stilled by the sobbing sea
Which raised to me its yellow-sucker
Shadow-flowers – and I, like a woman, knelt.

Floating islands where the brawls and the guano
Of fierce albino birds bounced off my sides,
I sailed, while down among my fraying ropes
Drowned men descended backwards into sleep.

Now, I, boat tangled in the hair of bights,
Hurled high by hurricanes through birdless space,
Whom no protection-vessel in the world
Would fish up from the drink, half-drowned, half-crazed;

Free, smoking, got up in violet spume,
I, who holed the sky like a wall in flames
Which bears, good poet’s exquisite preserve,
Lichen of sun and cerulean snot;

Mad plank streaked with electric crescents, flanked
By dark formations of speeding sea-horse,
When Julys bludgeoned ultramarine skies
And pulverized them into scorching winds;

Trembling as I heard the faraway groans
Of rutting Behemoths and swirling storms;
Eternal spinner of blue stillnesses,
I long for Europe’s ancient parapets.

I’ve seen star-sown islands cluster; others
Whose delirious skies summon sailors.
Do you sleep banished in the pit of night,
You myriad golden birds, the Strength to come?

I’ve wept too much, it’s true. Dawn breaks my heart.
All moons are atrocious, all suns bitter.
Acrid love has pumped me with drugged torpor.
Let my keel burst, let me go to sea!

If I want Europe, it’s a dark cold pond
Where a small child plunged in sadness crouches
One fragrant evening at dusk, and launches
A boat, frail as a butterfly in May.

Steeped in your slow wine, waves, no more can I
Cadge rides in the cotton-freighters’ slipstream,
Nor brave proud lines of ensigns and streamers,
Nor face the prison-ship’s terrible eyes.

Arthur Rimbaud, from Poems 1869 – 1871, translated by Martin Sorrell

In their second conversation, Mark Halliday and Allen Grossman attempt to answer the question “Where are we now in the history of poetry?”

I figured I’d highlight a few of the most interesting takes on poets of the last hundred years. I want to then use it as the basis of a discussion on the relation of past poetry (and other art) and its relation to the present situation of poetry. Overall, there is a rather nice arc that Grossman paints…

On the “high moderns” (Yeats, Eliot, Pound, Stevens, and I think he later includes Crane):

[They] used up the idea of greatness or implicated that idea in complex ways with aspects of civilization…that produced the Second World War….Poetry was not helping us learn how to live because the High Moderns…set poetry against life. They seemed to have established the outcome of poetic enterprise outside of life in unreachable transcendentalisms which no longer made any sense at all [to poets coming after World War 2]. The immediate response to the High Moderns was to conserve them academically and therefore neutralize them, and then to retrench upon the world not of transcendental reality but of what, loosely speaking, can be called an immanent counter-reality.

Lowell came along to take on the mantle of “immanence”:

Life Studies (1959) [was his attempt] to effect a disencumbrance of mediations, to obtain a direct relationship to the life of his own consciousness unmediated by the vast structural impositions of the greatest predecessors, of whom Yeats is the example that most often comes to my mind….I think that the sentiment which surrounded Lowell’s massive and persevering effort to obtain a poetry which was more fully immanent to the world of his consciousness, and less fundamentally characterized by the self-reference of poetry to its own history, represents a response to that predicament which I was speaking of in our first conversation. It represents an effort to obtain a poetry which is in harmony with the life of sentiment; that is to say, the life of human immediacy rather than, as in Yeats, a poetry which demanded of what he called “the intellect of man” that it choose between a perfection of the life, for which he had little talent, and that perfection of the art for which he was so massively gifted.

Grossman is careful to note that Lowell’s search “did not indeed constitute a disavowal of greatness, a disavowal of universal stature.” That is, Lowell did not disavow transcendence in favor of immanence, which Grossman defines as follows: “initially a theological word,…it means indwelling; and that inness always implies an internality to the human world.”

On “immanent” confessionalists:

There is the mortal family and the immortal family. The immanent confessional poets, who announced the world in which you began writing, turn from the transcendental family to the mortal family, attempt to construct a poetry internal to that mortal family, a poetry founded in the notion that the language adequate to produce the picture of the person as precious is consistent with the language of ordinary life.

About Ginsberg:

…in Howl, [he] undertook “to recreate the syntax and measure of poor human prose” on the basis of immediate relationship between persons. The enormous opening sentence of Howl constitutes an effort to extricate a single relationship from the predation of transcendence upon the fragile scene of human love. In Ginsberg’s poem, the whole world of drugs in indistinguishable from the central culture of decadence, and the angelic transcendence of a prior metaphysicalism embedded in the Beat jargon which he practiced, hardly distinguishable from the Moloch which he calls contemporary society.

Grossman points out that an important shift happened in 1950s America: “the national symbol, always a resource for the grounding of poetic authority, was discredited….The discrediting of the national symbol—“America” for the American poet—continued relentlessly through the sixties and early seventies…and disempowered one great basis for legitimation of the self—the nation.” He goes on to say that “the absence of a world that is organized by authority…[is] enormously disabling, and yet at the same time, enabling in a fashion so open it lacks the magnanimity of direction.”

On Ammons:

…situates his poetry on the fundamentally romantic problem of epistemology, the problem which focuses the business of personhood upon the question as to how the way in which we know the world affects the way in which the world is experienced.

Ashbery:

…[writes] in virtually autistic isolation…a poet whose creative power, particularly whose capacity to conceive of ways of entering into discourse inconceivable to me until he showed the way…seems to search the resources of discourse without ever allowing them to complete themselves….Ashbery is an epistemological genius whose world has arrayed itself around him as a world in which it’s possible for a man to live on condition that he reserves his passion for totality, as it were for another life. His world is a separate world in which it is impossible to meet another soul….Ashbery is not so much an epistemological writer as a writer about ontological orientation.

(Halliday described Ashbery as “melting together…syntactical fragments that could have been quite at home in a poem from an earlier age.” For a fuller explanation of this, I recommend Chris Robinson’s opus on how Ashbery composes poetry.)

OK! Flurry of quotes done. Since this conversation happened in 1981, it seems appropriate to try and update this arc. Admittedly, I left out a few other poets that Grossman had fascinating takes on, mostly for the sake of space and forwarding my rather tidy narrative of poetic fragmentation.

I would be very interested in hearing your reactions to Grossman’s characterizations as well as your own thoughts on the state of current poetry. What follows is mine.

I confess that there seems to me to be a crisis in current poetry. There is so much free space to carve out, nobody knows where to begin, and everyone seems to be waiting for the next great someone to do something that wows. Stephen Ross talks about this in the Oxnian Review, the trend in recent poetry to be hybrids only:

Hybrid poets have also breathed new life into the use of caesura, a break or a sense pause in verse often marked by white space between the words. In this regard, they have been inspired in equal parts by sources ranging from Beowulf to John Berryman’s Dream Songs. Sometimes, they break their lines into a kind of staggered ladder, a la William Carlos Williams. Other times they just write in prose. All of it flows from the postmodern horn of plenty.

Hybrid poets are by-and-large adept, though sometimes shallow, name-droppers from the western and eastern intellectual traditions. In American Hybrid alone, one finds direct references to Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Simone Weil, the pre-socratics, Cornel West, Paul Celan, Hsuan Tsang (a possibly fictitious Buddhist monk), Ludwig Wittgenstein, Ezra Pound, Sophocles, Maimonides, Alfred North Whitehead, Wallace Stevens, J.M. Coetzee, and Hegel. Thomas Aquinas and scholasticism also appear surprisingly often; indeed, the hybrids have a kind of neo-scholastic penchant for (often inane) logic-chopping and for communicating in breathtakingly precise terms.

My sense of crisis lies with this question: Are we so poetically promiscuous out of a sense of freedom or because we don’t know what else to do? Ironically, modern poets name drop as much as Pound and Eliot, but for completely different reasons. For the High Moderns, there was a sense that they could realistically “shore these fragments against [their] ruin.” Today we shore them because we’re garbage collectors of the dump of the past. Less-educated poets often have no idea who they’re channeling. More-educated poets sometimes channel so much it’s suffocating. Moreover, the channeling is less about inspiration, using the poetic past as a way forward.

This brings me to another crisis in current poetry, that of publishing (ironically, I am speaking from the platform of a brand-new poetry blog, self-powered by WordPress). Many of you might have read David Alpaugh’s article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, “The New Math of Poetry” in which he repeats the oft-heard lament that the current world of poetry is so large and unwieldy that it is completely impenetrable:

Every now and then someone asks me, “Who are the best poets writing today?” My answer? “I have no idea.” Nor do I believe that anyone else does. I do have an uneasy feeling that a Blake and a Dickinson may be buried in the overgrowth, and I fear that neither current nor future readers may get to enjoy their art.

We recent poets have two great tools at our disposal: freedom of poetic license, and freedom of publishing. Generally, we can say whatever we want, and get a significant number of people to hear what we have to say. The question is whether this freedom has led to better poetry or degeneration. Perhaps that’s not the best way to put it. The question should be, even if somebody is doing something amazing and new in poetry, would we even see it? Will we travel all this way to find that we really did need the gatekeepers of poetry??

What should our attitude be toward the “postmodern horn of plenty” that has affected both poetic license and publishing? Film also seems to be facing a similar crisis with the question of digital vs. film. I found an interview with one of my favorite film critics, Armond White, in which he addresses this question.

Steve Boone: What it suggests to me is that radical visions from people who would otherwise not have been bothered because of the mountain you’d have to climb to get a film completed, the translators you’d have to employ, would no longer be an issue, and you’d take camera in hand. Super 8, Pixelvision, Hi-8—all that stuff was nice, but it was low-resolution and if you put them up against a 35mm projection, audience prejudices would discount these other media. Now we have these new cameras that, if you know how to light and compose and expose, your image is going to be free of those subliminal triggers that provoke an audience to dismiss a film as “not film.” All that stuff goes away.

Armond White: Well, you say “audience prejudice.” I say “audience preference,” because the screen is not a level playing field. And Americans are very fortunate to have had Hollywood, to have experienced–to know– how great photography can be. So don’t give me no bullshit. I know what great photography is. I don’t want to see somebody scrambling with their camera and trying to do things modestly. I’ve seen Joseph August and Gordon Willis. I don’t want anything less.

Two last points:

1. All this reminds me of the indie trend of a few years ago (a trend I think is dead, as indie has largely gone mainstream, right?). Everyone was obsessed with finding/naming the “greatest lost track of all time” (as Wilco put it). Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot of great “indie” rock—but there’s also a lot of trash.

2. Why do I always feel like I’m complaining in my blog posts? I will say something nice in my next post, or say nothing at all.

3. OK, one more point: Who are the greatest poets writing today?

We begin with an Interview with David Shapiro responding to Keats’ Ode on a Grecian Urn and much more. (You can catch up on the conversation by checking out last week’s post which included contributions from Alfred Corn, Richard Howard, Don Share, Dara Wier, and Richard Zenith.)

MORE RESPONSES FROM POETS AND CRITICS


That urn is cold. I find it strange that several poets and scholars speak of the beauty-truth equation as the last lines of the poem. That equation has called forth so much fuss – its bald assertiveness is immensely persuasive at first hearing, then almost instantly the mind rebels against the symmetry of identity. The equation seems like a handsome face you glimpse in the crowd—it teeters between vapidity and sublimity, depending on whether you keep on gazing or else close your eyes to retain the first impression. This very oscillation is Keats’ work, his way of bracing us for the actual conclusion of the poem: the last words the urn addresses to us, assuring us that the equation, problematic as it seems, is all we know on earth, and all we need to know.

If in fact we are the ‘ye’ –archaic second person plural familiar—spoken of twice in those last lines.

That urn is cold – ‘cold pastoral’ we have heard, the chill ring of marble. The strophes of the ode grow progressively more somber. The passions and delights pictured on the urn are sublated into eternity, which is usually a pretty chilly condition in Christendom – one doesn’t think of eternity as the prolongation of life but as the prolongation of the tomb, the marble replica of life – which this Grecian urn also is.

And the cold, marmoreal, eternal, all-encompassing time-denying Thing speaks to us, from the serene apartness of things, and says …all ye know, and … all ye need to know.

Experiment: Try hearing, just for once, the stress placed firmly on the ye. Then, with the sprezzatura so appropriate to artist and artifact alike, a creature from eternity condescends to speak to our flesh-bound mortality, whose antics the marble creature literally comprehends and (perhaps with infinite, tender subtlety) envies.

All ye know on earth – beauty, truth, these glorious abstractions, easily revered, more easily compromised. And that equation will serve people like you in your contingencies and trivial earthly need for reassurance that there is something to understand in life, and that you understand it. With the stress on the ye, I hear an insinuation that some higher, worthier form of knowing exists, whose propositions and parables far exceed the simplistic equation the urn offers us as our consolation.

Or do humankind and urn console each other? The urn consoles us for our transience and we console it for its inability to feel the kiss it holds suspended for two thousand years, unable to pursue the beloved or be pursued, unable to share in the sacrificial meal when the poor heifer is offered up to those vague and nameless deities towards which, even now, she raises her lustrous amber eyes.

I don’t think Keats meant (not that it’s important whether he did or didn’t) or believed the equation – if he had, he would have set it in his own authorial voice, which speaks with all the immense authority that found Keats in that mild May of 1819, the voice that speaks all the rest of the poem. By putting just those words in the urn’s mouth (so to speak) Keats proposes what our cronies overseas would call a rupture, a chasm in the texture of trust and sincerity we still insist on finding in poems. The urn tells us not what truth is, not what beauty is, but what we are.

—Robert Kelly, February 2010

The quotes given, except for Bridges, don’t have much range – from I.A. Richards to M.H. Abrams, we are throughout in the realm of the New Criticism, with the “Word According to Eliot” holding supreme sway.  For all that I admire them, these critics shared two limitations evident in their commentary on Keats:

  1. They’re prejudiced against Romanticism and skeptical of the philosophical underpinnings of Romantic aesthetics (Bloom called them out on this).
  2. They looked for complexity to the point that they imposed it — mostly, it would seem, as a way of satisfying their own intellectual vanity (7 types, etc.).  No one was going to out-sophisticate them!  Richards’s disdain for the gullibility of the common reader and Eliot’s mock-modest “I fail to understand it” and his  “grammatically meaningless” exemplify this tendency.  Eliot wants to prove his superiority to Keats himself (by looking down his nose at Keats’s sentimental abstraction), not just Keats’s readers – and yet Eliot’s the poet of “in my beginning is my end, in my end is my beginning,” etc. and “What the Thunder Said” – a pseudo-philosopher among poets if ever there was one.

Also, there’s the newfound aspiration to a “scientific” kind of literary criticism, modeled on empiricism and the scientific method (doubt as the vehicle of truth), most purely exemplified by Richards. Ask any real scientist – this is largely a sentimental construct in itself.

Brooks and Abrams waffle more sympathetically with their invocation of dramatic context, though frankly this poem is hardly King Lear (nor was it meant to be) and the Urn is hardly a character in the Shakespearian sense.  The Urn is an emblem and the quotes are not, cannot be, meant to denote a speaking Urn.  This bespeaks another overdone motif of mid-20th century critical orthodoxy: Persona is all.  What they really mean is much closer to Williams’s “no ideas but in things” (which Keats is one of the greatest exemplars of, as a supreme poet of the senses and of startlingly immediate   imagery) than it is to anything specifically “dramatic.”

Don’t get me wrong, I admire all these critics tremendously, love and admire Eliot’s poetry, and I believe that the New Criticism was a far cry better than most of the ideological and theoretical criticism that followed.  But I think they are all (except maybe Bridges), missing the point almost deliberately.

The context of the quote, and the thrust of the poem, is pretty straightforward, actually — and pretty run-of-the-mill for its time.  It’s the execution that makes the poem special.

The predominant philosopher for all the Romantics, from Blake to Yeats, was Plato.  Plato was the prime philosopher behind 19th century idealist philosophy, and so he was the philosopher that the 20th century empiricists (logical positivists, Popper, etc.), including the aestheticians, rejected first. Keats’s main man in this respect was Joshua Reynolds.  Joshua Reynolds’s aesthetics were influenced by Locke, but they were first and foremost Platonic, and Keats’s poem is an extraordinary expression of this most admired contemporary intellectual’s belief in the source of the power of art:  the Platonic tenets that a) the contemplation of Beauty leads to Truth and b) the highest forms of art refer to things eternal and immutable.

It’s as simple as that, but I’d add that in this context there are two moments in the poem that wonderfully presage the conclusion in this context:

  1. “Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard / Are sweeter…” == pure Platonism (out of Pythagoras).  Yeats couldn’t have said it better
  2. “Cold Pastoral!” – a great moment in the poem, and tougher and brighter and more surprising by far than the ending.  Here we’re in the realm of “the sublime” as it was defined by Longinus, then Baudelaire, and more recently by Anne Carson.  The sublime is cold, truth is cold, beauty is cold.  So much for sentimentality.  And so:

The value of Beauty cooled by Truth, hardened by truth, made honest by truth, the sense that all the pleasures of the senses are belated and second-hand: this is at the heart of what Keats (speaking through his megaphonic Urn) has to say as a “friend to man.”  This is another way of saying that we can’t really appreciate the value of beauty, or create an honest beauty, without admitting the truth of death to the equation.

One last observation, maybe too cute, but irresistible in the face of Eliot’s huffy “grammatically meaningless”:

If you read the famous statement (pace I.A.) as an equation, i.e. “Beauty = truth truth beauty” what you have is a recipe – a recipe for beauty that is not mere “beauty,” but aesthetically ideal “Beauty.”  In other words:  real Beauty = one part beauty, two parts truth.

—Bill Wadsworth

Richard A. Barney (ed.), “David Lynch: Interviews”

KM: If your paintings had sound what would it be like?

DL: Different paintings would have different sounds. So This is Love would have a muffled sound like talking through a glove. A Bug Dreams would be a really shrill 15,000-cycle piercing sound. She Wasn’t Fooling Anyone, She Was Hurt Bad would be an extremely slow motion, muffled breaking glass sound.

KM: What kind of things function as seeds for paintings?

DL: Inspiration is like a piece of fuzz—it kind of comes up and makes a desire and an image that causes me to want to paint it. Or I can be going along and see an old Band-Aid in the street, and you know how an old Band-Aid is. It’s got some dirt around the edges and the rubber part has formed some black little balls, and you see the stain of a little ointment and maybe some yellow dirt on it. It’s in the gutter next to some dirt and a rock, and maybe a little twig. If you were to see a photograph of that not knowing what it was, it would be unbelievably beautiful.

Italo Calvino, “The Uses of Literature”

Hands up, anyone who has read the whole of Herodotus and the whole of Thucydides! And Saint-Simon? And Cardinal de Retz? But even the great nineteenth-century cycles of novels are more often talked about than read. In France they begin to read Balzac in school, and, judging by the number of copies in circulation, one may suppose that they go on reading him even after that, but if a Gallup poll were taken in Italy, I’m afraid that Balzac would come in practically last. Dickens fans in Italy form a tiny elite; as soon as its members meet, they begin to chatter about characters and episodes as if they were discussing people and things of their own acquaintance. Years ago, while teaching in America, Michel Butor got fed up with being asked about Emile Zola, whom he had never read, so he made up his mind to read the entire Rougon-Macquart cycle. He found it completely different from what he had thought: a fabulous mythological and cosmological family tree, which he went on to describe in a wonderful essay.

Clement Greenberg, “Art and Culture”

One cannot condemn tendencies in art; one can only condemn works of art. To be categorically against a current art tendency or style means, in effect, to pronounce on works of art not yet created and not yet seen. It means inquiring into the motives of artists instead of into results. Yet we all know—or are supposed to know—that results are all that counts in art.

Nineteen out of twenty—nay, ninety-nine out of a hundred—works of abstract art are failures. Perhaps the ratio of success to failure was the same in Renaissance art, but we shall never know, since bad art, even in ages considered to have had bad taste, tends to disappear faster than good art. But even if the proportion of bad to good were higher nowadays, and higher in the field of abstract art in particular, it would still remain that some works of abstract art are better than others. The critic of abstract art is under the obligation to be able to tell the difference. The inability to do so, or even try to do so, is what more immediately makes denunciations like Lewis’ suspect. And the suspicion is not allayed in this case by the statement that Moore, Sutherland, Bacon, Colquhoun, Minton, Craxton, Pasmore, Trevelyan, Richards and Ayrton form “actually the finest group of painters and sculptors which England has ever known.”

Christopher Ricks, “True Friendship: Geoffrey Hill, Anthony Hecht, and Robert Lowell Under the Sign of Eliot and Pound”

Geoffrey Hill, Anthony Hectht, and Robert Lowell under the sign of Eliot and Pound: the figure of speech comes from T.S. Eliot, who used it in a letter of 18 October 1939 to the scholar Edward J.H. Greene. Of the poems in Prufrock and Other Observations, only four (Eliot said) place themselves “sous le signe de Laforgue,” under the sign of Laforgue.

Here are five poets who mean a great deal to the world, to me, and—this being the claim of True Friendship—to one another. (Though not quite, I grant at once, to every single one of the others.) That Eliot and Pound were as fecundating for each other as had been Wordsworth and Coleridge—this is not news, although in this setting there may be a few new things to notice about it. Eliot and Pound cared diversely about Lowell and his art. Lowell’s poems and criticism engage in turn, albeit very differently, with Pound and Eliot. Hill’s poems as well as his criticism wrestle angelically with Eliot, with Pound, and with Lowell. Finally, Hecht’s criticism and poems undertake their fervent discriminations in apprehending Eliot and Pound, calling Eliot to account and calling Pound’s bluff. There is nothing by Pound, so far as I know, that touches upon Hecht or Hill, but there remains only the one two-sided vacancy that is of any moment: that Hill and Hecht, despite the shaded respects in which they comprehend their art and its common but far from commonplacec concerns, never really met. Which may provide the ground against which the other related figures can be seen.


Let’s begin with a recording of Ode on a Grecian Urn recited by Richard Howard, which was taken on 2/12/2010 through my iPhone.

Ode on a Grecian Urn

Thou still unravished 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-fringed 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 loath?
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 endeared,
Pipe to the spirit dities 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
Forever 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, unweari-ed,
Forever piping songs forever new;
More happy love! more happy, happy love!
Forever warm and still to be enjoyed,
Forever panting, and forever young;
All breathing human passion far above,
That leaves a heart high-sorrowful and cloyed,
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 dressed?
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.

One of the most debated poems of the 20th century wasn’t written by a modernist, nor was it even penned in that century. John Keats’ Ode on a Grecian Urn was written in May 1819, published a year later (Keats died in February 1821) alongside the other Great Odes—one of the most considerable series of poems in the entire English language, and certainly the cornerstone of Keats’ reputation as a poet.

A very helpful article over at Wikipedia includes the following information about the mass of critical scrutiny, controversy and defense the Great Poem has caused:

Poet laureate Robert Bridges sparked the debate when he argued:

The thought as enounced in the first stanza is the supremacy of ideal art over Nature, because of its unchanging expression of perfect; and this is true and beautiful; but its amplification in the poem is unprogressive, monotonous, and scattered … which gives an effect of poverty in spite of the beauty. The last stanza enters stumbling upon a pun, but its concluding lines are very fine, and make a sort of recovery with their forcible directness.[47]

Bridges believed that the final lines redeemed an otherwise bad poem. Arthur Quiller-Couch responded with a contrary view and claimed that the lines were “a vague observation – to anyone whom life has taught to face facts and define his terms, actually an uneducated conclusion, albeit most pardonable in one so young and ardent.”[47] The debate expanded when I. A. Richards, an English literary critic who analysed Keats’s poems in 1929, relied on the final lines of the “Ode on a Grecian Urn” to discuss “pseudo-statements” in poetry:

On the one hand there are very many people who, if they read any poetry at all, try to take all its statements seriously – and find them silly … This may seem an absurd mistake but, alas! it is none the less common. On the other hand there are those who succeed too well, who swallow ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty …,’ as the quintessence of an aesthetic philosophy, not as the expression of a certain blend of feelings, and proceed into a complete stalemate of muddle-mindedness as a result of their linguistic naivety.[48]

Poet and critic T. S. Eliot, in his 1929 “Dante” essay, responded to Richards:

I am at first included to agree … But on re-reading the whole Ode, this line strikes me as a serious blemish on a beautiful poem, and the reason must be either that I fail to understand it, or that it is a statement which is untrue. And I suppose that Keats meant something by it, however remote his truth and his beauty may have been from these words in ordinary use. And I am sure that he would have repudiated any explanation of the line which called it a pseudo-statement … The statement of Keats seems to me meaningless: or perhaps the fact that it is grammatically meaningless conceals another meaning from me.[49]

In 1930, John Middleton Murry gave a history of these responses “to show the astonishing variety of opinion which exists at this day concerning the culmination of a poem whose beauty has been acknowledged for many years. Whether such another cause, and such another example, of critical diversity exists, I cannot say; if it does, it is unknown to me. My own opinion concerning the value of those two lines in the context of the poem itself is not very different from Mr. Eliot’s.”[50]

Cleanth Brooks defended the lines from critics in 1947 and argued:

We shall not feel that the generalization, unqualified and to be taken literally, is meant to march out of its context to compete with the scientific and philosophical generalizations which dominate our world. ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty’ has precisely the same status, and the same justification as Shakespeare’s ‘Ripeness is all.’ It is a speech ‘in character’ and supported by a dramatic context. To conclude thus may seem to weight the principle of dramatic propriety with more than it can bear. This would not be fair to the complexity of the problem of truth in art nor fair to Keats’s little parable. Granted; and yet the principle of dramatic propriety may take us further than would first appear. Respect for it may at least insure our dealing with the problem of truth at the level on which it is really relevant to literature.[51]

M. H. Abrams responded to Brooks’s view in 1957:

I entirely agree, then, with Professor Brooks in his explication of the Ode, that ‘Beauty is truth’ … is to be considered as a speech ‘in character’ and ‘dramatically appropriate’ to the Urn. I am uneasy, however, about his final reference to ‘the world-view …’ For the poem as a whole is equally an utterance by a dramatically presented speaker, and none of its statements is proffered for our endorsement as a philosophical generalization of unlimited scope. They are all, therefore, to be apprehended as histrionic elements which are ‘in character’ and ‘dramatically appropriate,’ for their inherent interest as stages in the evolution of an artistically ordered … experience of a credible human being.[52]

Wishing to update the debate, last week I sent the following email out to poets and critics to weigh in on the matter:

Arguably the most controversial poem of 20th century literary critical debate has been Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” Since Robert Bridges, I.A. Richards and T.S. Eliot engaged the poem critically, poets and critics have taken all possible sides: defending its ending, dismissing it, even ignoring the rhetorical closing all together as an unimportant point. What I wanted to know, simply: What is your take on the ending of Keats’ famous ode? Do you find it successful or unsuccessful?

Below are their responses of how this Whole Business of Truth and Beauty struck them. I encourage you, reader, to leave your own comment—and let the conversation continue. Next week, I hope to bring in some other quotes, from Harold Bloom and Helen Vendler, among others, share some other reactions from contemporary poets and critics, and attempt to formulate my own opinion on the matter.

For now, we seem to have enough riches before us to ponder. My utmost thanks to Alfred Corn, Richard Howard, Don Share, Frances Whistler, Dara Wier and Richard Zenith for their thoughts.

POETS, CRITICS AND READERS RESPONSES

I’ve certainly heard—and many times—critical statements to the effect that a given work of art failed because it had presented a scene or object or person as too beautiful (perfect, shapely, harmonious), thereby violating our consensus about the actual nature of experience, which we should acknowledge as being flawed, unshapely and dissonant. And that a proper understanding of beauty should insist on the inclusion of aspects of reality not traditionally considered pleasing or attractive. In short, it’s the aesthetic of “Beauty is Truth, Truth, Beauty.”  Given that, I wouldn’t be inclined to dismiss the Urn’s statement as silly, so absurd as to ruin a great poem. To me the puzzling thing is that, in the poem, such a statement should be attributed to the Grecian Urn. Puzzling because it doesn’t strike me that what we are told about this marble vessel of great beauty (in the traditional sense) accounts for the statement it makes.  So for me an important critical project around this poem should be to explain why an aesthetic stance at odds with the “character” of this object should be pronounced in its voice.  The tone of the conclusion suggests that the poem’s observer and speaker does not, himself, share the view expressed by the Urn.  The speaker condescends, perhaps with a certain amused tolerance, to the statement being made.  So perhaps an aesthetics of imperfection and dissonance isn’t at all what the Urn is urging.  Yes, perhaps that’s it: we’re meant to understand that the Urn is so far out of contact with reality it doesn’t even guess that the world is ever less than perfect, shapely, and harmonious. It thinks the Beautiful representation of reality is unfailingly True.   An object made of marble, its only “task” is to continue to exist as it is and display the relief sculptures on its surface. A non-functional artwork exempted from the painful struggle of fleshly existence might indeed believe the world was lovely throughout, as lovely as the scenes represented on its surface. That’s all it knows; and all it needs to know.  We, the human observers, will need to know more. We aren’t going to be allowed to remain in the unflawed cosmos of the Urn. Sad, but there is a consolation. We are not frozen in immobility. We can live and move and breathe, and even kiss our beloveds; though of course we know that to love inscribes us in the order of time, and therefore consigns us, eventually, to the order of mortality—the extinction of ourselves as perceiving, thinking subjects. The Urn will still be there, unchanged, immobile, beautiful, impervious to time and to love. I assume Keats wants us to admire the Urn, but he also shows us why we don’t want to be it.

Alfred Corn


To borrow a lovely phrase from Ian Stewart, who was writing on physics (in WHY BEAUTY IS TRUTH: A HISTORY OF SYMMETRY, Basic Books, 2007), “beauty does not automatically ensure truth, but it helps.”

Yet not all truth is beautiful; some is obviously quite ugly.

A poem should not hate itself for wanting to be beautiful.

Jessica Palmer suggests that disorder is the new beauty – but allows that it could be also dereliction.

As for Eliot, we may counterpose the spirit of Kenneth Koch: One beauty conceals another.  One truth may conceal another, too.

I have no anxiety whatsoever about the poem’s closing lines or whether they have, or ought to have, any truth-value.

As for beauty, as many have said, it’s in the language of the beholder.

Don Share


Plainly a lot hinges on who speaks the last two lines, and whether one or two speakers. I feel most comfortable with the idea that Keats knew exactly what he was about when he created “beauty is truth, truth beauty” as something both true and beautiful, and yet circular and inadequate. (This reading suggests, though it does not absolutely depend on, the idea that the urn says just these five words, leaving “that is all … need to know” being addressed by the speaker to the urn. The absolute circularity of “beauty is truth, truth beauty” so aptly mirrors that of the urn, whose depicted story has neither a start nor an end, that I incline to this reading. However, the last line and a half also expresses and continues a strong sense of circularity, so I wouldn’t be dismayed if MS evidence showed incontrovertibly that the urn speaks both final lines). Either way, the inadequacy and yet loveliness of the idea that truth and beauty are one and the same – which creates a triteness that is presumably what Eliot disliked – seems to me to be what Keats is talking about all through the poem. The paradox is that the human mind is incapable of absorbing the idea of eternity, but also unable not to be “teased” by it: the urn is a friend to man through the comfort of its unchangingness, and yet the old age of this generation and woe of the next are not to be cured by its message, although assuaged.

Frances Whistler


Beauty is Truth

An epitaph in tone

One can see it inscribed on a deathmark

A funereal inscription

On a tombstone

On an urn filled with ashes

Ashes to ashes, and all that good stuff that never ends

Another circular instance

Keats was always dying

Keats never was not

Like Stein’s a rose is a rose

As a hope, as a denial

Would be that all were circular always

Like all poetry is

Or makes it up as if it were

Dara Wier


A = B, and in case we didn’t get the point, B = A? I prefer to give Keats more credit. I don’t read “Beauty is truth, truth beauty” as a transcendental, let alone philosophical or mathematical, equation. The statement is addressed to someone, namely those of us who admire the urn but don’t entirely understand it. To me it’s about negative capability. Nothing wrong with knowledge, but we don’t need to know everything, and if we’re not able to entertain half-knowledge, we’ll miss out. Beauty is a kind of truth, and can be appreciated as such, without understanding. The converse proposition is that truth, even when not visually or feelingly beautiful, still has the beauty of being true. This isn’t immediately obvious from the second half of the verse in question, maybe I’m reading too much in two words, but I would argue that Keats’s beholders of unheard melodies and his Lovers who cannot kiss enjoy the beauty of those melodies and that love not because of Platonic ideals but because the melodies and love exist, they’re true. Ergo, truth is a kind of beauty.

Richard Zenith