Friday, April 16, 2010
“(W)orthy thought and ideas depend upon our experience and articulation of observable phenomena. Good ideas are grounded. (And, for poets, inhabited, fully experienced subjectively rather than merely “observed” objectively. That is, the subjective and objective are melded in a taut balance. See George Oppen’s The Materials, for example.)
I was only partly convinced by my subsequent reading of Oppen’s book of poems (Some very good ones captured the Imagist principles to a T, but others were rather flat and abstracted, I thought). I was more persuaded by the connection between Williams and the Romantics and by Pass’s take on the expansion of Coleridge’s ideas about the Imagination i.e. “If we `imagine’ badly,” he says, “if as a culture we allow the degradation of our imaginations, hive them off from the “things” of the world or the “ideas” generated in that adjacency, fail to talk the world we’re walking, we suffer big time.”
Pass’s emphasis upon “imagining well” by embracing the world of things seems right to me. I offered two citations from Coleridge to support his interpretation, and will add one more - that the genius of Wordsworth’s imagination, rested, in part, in the “human associations” that “had given both variety, and an additional interest to natural objects...” I understand by “human associations” Coleridge meant ideas or thought, as well as sense impressions, play a role in forming our understanding and our poetic translation of the “real” or “objective” world.
The importance of ideas is underscored by the sometimes inimical relationship between the imagination and our senses, resulting, Coleridge believed, in something less than wonderful poetry: “A debility and dimness of the imaginative power, and a consequent necessity of reliance on the immediate impressions of the senses, do, we well know, render the mind liable to superstition and fanaticism.” All of which has me wondering if contemporary poets aren’t possessed of a similar superstition surrounding ideas and a fanatical insistence upon sense experience as the only useful material in the construction of poems.
But over-reliance upon sense experience is only part of the problem. The under-representation of the intellect in poetry further inhibits and suppresses the pleasure that we might get from poetry. Williams believed this, just as Coleridge did before him:
“(W)here the ideas are vivid, and there exists an endless power of combining and modifying them, the feelings and affections blended more easily and intimately with these ideal creations, than with the objects of the senses; the mind is affected by thoughts, rather than by things…”
Plainly, here is where Williams and much of 20th and 21st century poetics departs from Coleridge. Still, the intellect and how we think about the making of poetry were as important to Williams and the best of the poets who followed as they were to the Romantics. In a letter to Henry Wells, Williams points out how the breadth of his intellect and critical faculties were oftem distorted or ignored.
“I think you fail sufficiently to take into consideration my role as a theorist...For I think that only by an understanding of my “theory of the poem” will you be able to reconcile my patent failures with whatever I have done that seems worthwhile.” (Poems of William Carlos Williams, Linda Wagner, Wesleyan University Press, 1963, p7)
An argument for poetic theory as part of poetic practice? Think about it.
Both John Pass and Chris Banks like Wendell Berry’s take on “the Real” and so I borrowed Berry’s Recollected Essays 1965-1980 from the library. Berry’s prose has an earthy, Thoreauvian feel to it, but I was particularly struck by an image from an essay called “The Rise”: “The cardinals were more brilliant than ever,” Berry writes, “kindling in the black-wet drift of the cold wind.” A line that would have done Pound or Williams proud. I was also struck by the number of times the “imagination” figured as a term in Berry’s essay. That magical faculty that galvanized Coleridge, Worsdworth and Williams has fallen on hard times in recent years. In greater favour are rule-based poems, poems fuelled less by the intricate vivacity of the imagination than powered by a will to dominate the language and the reader.
Something else Wendell Berry is known for is his conversational style and plain spokenness - nothing new there for prose stylists; an entire 20th century of prose has been devoted to the spare, unvarnished diction of the ordinary person, a bias elevated to a rule by Hemingway. The interesting thing is the ardour with which poets, especially Canadian poets, have embraced the plain style. We should, it seems to me, abominate plainness when used unconsciously to excuse the poet’s lack of imagination or willingness to work. But when used capably, plain diction works. Wordsworth thought so, arguing that “the essential passions of the heart…speak a plainer and more emphatic language…” Eliot viewed Wordsworth’s own approach as an “escape from a poetic idiom which had ceased to have a relation to contemporary speech”. Of Dryden, Eliot said “He restored English verse to the condition of speech.” (Missing Measures , Timothy Steele, University of Arkansas Press, 1990)
Timothy Steele tells us the desire for a plainer, more contemporary style of language goes back even further than Wordsworth. “It has ever been and ever will be permitted,” said Horace, “to issue words stamped with the mint-mark of the day.”
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