[lit-ideas] Re: Poetry x 2 = Sabbatical

  • From: "Lawrence Helm" <lawrencehelm@xxxxxxxxxxxx>
  • To: <lit-ideas@xxxxxxxxxxxxx>
  • Date: Fri, 13 Oct 2006 14:50:31 -0700

Mike, You can read this when you get back.  I'm trying hard not to be hard
on you but you're making it difficult. In regard to your long paragraph
below, you may have overlooked the quote from Edmund Wilson regarding the
Classicists.  They were the ones who described how the world was and they
fit the strawman that you've erected.  I never cared much for the
Classicists, especially Pope; so I won't defend them.  But move forward to
the Romanticists who unlike the Classicists weren't at all interested in
describing the world.  They were much more interested, many of them, in
describing themselves.  They wanted your attention moved from the world to
them.  Byron's Childe Harold was the best seller of his day and everyone
knew that the poem was autobiographical.  Your long paragraph doesn't
address poems, the sense of which says "look at me; become interested in who
I am and what I am doing."  Instead it takes some poets who are not
classicists and applies a Classicistic standard to them:  Look, they do not
describe the world.  If you are going to attack what it is that Classicist
Poets set out to do, you should attack them.  Apply your paragraph, for
example, to Pope's "Essay on Criticism."   That poem would be right up your
paragraphal ally, so to speak: "Tis hard to say, if greater want of skill /
Appear in writing or in judging ill; / But, of the two, less dangerous is
th' offence / To tire our patience, than mislead our sense."  And yet if you
apply all your paragraphical criticisms to Pope, my money is on him.


You would be much better off not to begin paragraphs like your long one with
"you still don't get it."  You thereby set yourself up as someone who does
get it.   There is irony in that because your subsequent sentences indicate
a lack of appreciation for some of the common types of poems.  Suppose a
poet wants to use a little irony.  You must understand what he is saying in
order to "get it."  You can't be humming along with the tune you think you
hear.  He intends you to pay attention to the sense of this poem in order to
appreciate the irony.  Then too there are a variety of tropes a poet can
employ that are denied a composer.  Poetry does not equal musical
composition.  Music approached poetry and poetry approached music during the
time of the Symbolists but they never approached so closely that anyone
would be left in doubt about what he was paying attention to.  Music became
programmatic and poetry especially lyrical.  Can you appreciate, for
example, that most lyrical of poets, Charles Algernon Swinburne?  Or does
the sense of what he wrote get in your way?


I've been puzzling over your reference to the "oracular sayings of the
Victorians," and you single out Browning as being particularly "revelatory"
in some sense that you don't explain.  Again, your attributes would be
better applied to the Classicists.  The Victorians could have been a bit
Romantic because that period was what many of them grew up with, but the
next period was Naturalism.  In neither the Romantic nor the Naturalism
periods were poets inclined to be oracular (except for Blake, but he was a
pre-romantic and nuts).  The milestone that separates the Romantic from the
Naturalistic periods is Darwin's Origin of Species written in 1859.
Browning was born in 1812 and so was rather well developed aesthetically
before Darwin wrote.   So we would expect to still see some Romantic effects
in his early poetry and then the effects of naturalism in his later stuff.
Without going entirely through Browning, suffice it to say that his Dramitis
Personae was published in 1864, the same year he began The Ring and the Book
which was published during 1868 and 1869.  In Dramatis Personae he writes
poetry from different points of view; which is developed more thoroughly in
The Ring and the Book.  If you really want to express the point of view of
another person, then you need to be able to put yourself in that persons
place and write and sound as he or she would write and sound.  This is a
Naturalistic enterprise, something relatable to Flaubert's Madam Bovary,
Zola's Nana, and Thackeray's Vanity Fair.  


By the way, Randal Jarrell has been criticized, sort of, for writing from
the point of view of women in some of his poems.  These critics do not grant
him his right as a poet to try to write from the point of view of a woman,
but insist that he was inadvertently disclosing latent homosexuality.  What
a bore the modern world is sometimes.  We should spend more time listening
to poets.  Many of them make much more sense (excuse the expression) than
their critics.






-----Original Message-----
From: lit-ideas-bounce@xxxxxxxxxxxxx [mailto:lit-ideas-bounce@xxxxxxxxxxxxx]
On Behalf Of Mike Geary
Sent: Friday, October 13, 2006 12:38 PM
To: lit-ideas@xxxxxxxxxxxxx
Subject: [lit-ideas] Poetry x 2 = Sabbatical


Mike here tries his hand with 'sense':


You still don't get it.  If your goal is to determine what the poet's 

intended meaning is then, obviously, you must look to the ideas expressed in

the poem and develop some general proposition.  And if it pleases you to try

to puzzle out the hidden meaning of a poem, then by all means, have at it. 

That's the way 99% of the teachers approach teaching poetry (at least when I

was a student) and I think it's to the great detriment of poetry.  Very, 

very, very few poems have any thought to them worthy of an adult mind.  As 

George Boas put it in 'Philosophy and Poetry' "...the ideas in poetry are 

usually stale and often false and no one older than sixteen would find it 

worth his while to read poetry merely for what it says."   And according to 

T. S. Eliot, neither "Shakespeare nor Dante did any real thinking".  Wellek 

and Warren in 'Theory of Literature" dismiss poetry as ideas: "If we analyse

many famous poems admired for their philosophy, we frequently discover mere 

commonplaces concerning man's mortality or the uncertainty of fate.  The 

oracular sayings of Victorian poets such as Browning, which have struck many

readers as revelatory, often turn out mere portable versions of primeval 

truths....The reduction of a work of art to a doctrinal statement -- or, 

even worse, the isolation of passages -- is disastrous to understand the 

uniqueness of a work:  it disintegrates its structure and imposes alien 

criteria of value." (p. 110)  I'm not saying that one shouldn't look to a 

writer's intent, rather, that there's no need to unless you want to.  What 

is the meaning of Stopping By Woods On a Snowy Evening?  Is it a poem about 

suicide?  About the call to duty?  About absentee landlordism?  You and 

probably most people believe that the poem is about one of those things (or 

some other), but something!  Who we are -- our life experiences -- will go a

long way toward informing us of what the poem is about.  Frost may have 

thought he was talking about horse sense -- good old common horse sense. 

Would you then say, oh, well then, this is a terrible poem?


But it doesn't matter, Lawrence, I'll never convince you, we come from very 

different planets.  But I do enjoy the exchanges.  However, I must leave the

list for a short while to get some other work done.  So I'll see you boys 

and girls a little later.


Mike Geary









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