Monday, March 5, 2012

Readers retreat

Anyone who’s taken a second year English Lit course will know the title of the book, though how many have actually read more than a chapter or two remains unclear. An indifferent scholar myself, I had the unsettling feeling early on that reading The Mirror and the Lamp (TMAL) was one of those things I should do, but never actually got around to doing, like visiting an African country or taking up swing dancing. You know it’ll be good for you, but damned if it doesn’t make for an awful lot of inconvenience and hard work. Reading Abrams’ big book always seemed to me like something that could wait until next time.

A more diligent work ethic, more disposable time and an itch to scratch propelled me between the covers of TMAL last year. Alternately dubbed the 10th and 25th most important book in the 20th century, this seminal work by the Methuselah of American letters M.H. Abrams is the very antidote to one’s ignorance about that other period about which there’s been so much talk and too little agreement - the Romantic Period.

That Romanticism continues to exercise a pull (some would say a disproportionate pull) on contemporary poetry gains support from contemporary critics. “Lyric poets,” says Marjorie Perloff “still tend to regard their `trade’ as one requiring a permit from the appropriate authority, which is to say…the Great Romantics.” Wordsworth and company, Perloff concludes, "cast a shadow on virtually every attempt to Make It New.” It’s a complaint that goes back at least as far as the Romantics’ immediate successor Matthew Arnold who argued for a poetry better fitted to the struggles of modern life.

How Romanticism came to be the force it was in 19th century poetics is Abrams’ main challenge. Why it remains the polestar to which so many contemporary poets adjust their drifting boats continues to be ours. But I argue Abrams’ book does even more, helping us understand that whatever we may think about the how of Romanticism the why continues to form the principal basis for the writing of poetry today, invigorating and driving the daily practice of the serious poet. Poets who take a closer look and immerse themselves in that tradition surface with a clearer appreciation for the roots of their own creations.

Why poets write at all is usually summed up this way: poets write to either teach us something, to entertain us or both. Abrams’ job is to show us how poets historically have pulled this off, first by trying to imitate their external world (hence the “mirror” of his title), then by expressing their own inner world (the lamp). Out of this eventually flowed poems no longer written to uncork the poet’s personality or mirror things; poems became things themselves, completely autonomous things that got up and walk around on their own two legs, ignoring the poet and the reader, obeying their own internal rules of order. If they also happened to educate or delight us, well that was okay, too.

Abrams’ bigger gift is to help us understand the continuity that exists from one generation of poets to another. One way he does this is to explode the myth about Romanticism's revolutionary departure from the Neoclassical poets, in particular the idea that the “nature poem” sprang solely from the innate genius of William Wordsworth. Alexander Pope has taken a lot of heat for not discovering this earlier himself so it seems fitting that he should respond: Wordsworth, we learn, wasn’t the first to embody the link between the poet and nature; Shakespeare, that “instrument of Nature,” did it two centuries earlier. “Tis not just to say he speaks from her,” Pope wrote, “as that (Nature) speaks through him.” Pope himself had a knack for identifying “the element of nature in the natural genius,” Abrams adds. To believe poets suddenly went from creating poems governed by the rules of art to poems emanating from the well spring of nature is a gross oversimplification.

That 21st century poets continue to share the concerns of the brightest minds of the Romantic period is illustrated in a brief passage about human psychology in Wordsworth’s famous preface to the Lyrical Ballads: the human mind, he tells us, is a `beautiful and dignified’ thing “capable of being excited without the application of gross and violent stimulants.” As it attempts “to produce or enlarge this capability” the mind becomes blunted by combined forces that finally reduce it “to a state of almost savage torpor.” This general decay has a “multitude of causes” that bears a striking resemblance to complaints we hear today:

"The most effective of these causes are the great national events which are daily taking place, and the increasing accumulation of men in cities, where the uniformity of their occupations produces a craving for extraordinary incident, which the rapid communication of intelligence hourly gratifies. To this tendency of life and manners the literature and theatrical exhibitions of the country have conformed themselves."

The rapid industrialization of early 19th century Britain finds clear parallels in our own increasing subordination to urban landscapes and our fascination with national events. I’ll stop short of appending the term “intelligence” to the rapid communication that Twitter provides us or asking about what “cravings” underpin the graphic novel. But you get the point: in some key respects there is more that unites Romantic and contemporary poets than separates them.

Where contemporary poets and Wordsworth part company is over his notion that poetry’s principal aims are to give free reign to emotion and to cultivate human nature. While most agree poetry is good for us, it doesn’t necessarily follow that we are uniformly better people because of it. And rarely do poems today originate as a “spontaneous overflow of feeling” or “primitive utterances of passion”; if anything, today’s poets are deeply suspicious of feelings, preferring to focus on objects, experiment in structure or form or at most set a mood. Finally, poets aren’t “born” or different from other people because “endowed with more lively sensibility.” Turns out sensibility can be taught, or if not taught, imbibed from the hundred and one poetry workshops on offer at any given time.

Romantics and contemporary poets link hands in two critical areas: first, in the centrality of the poet. By highlighting “the persistent recourse to the poet to explain the nature and criteria of poetry” Abrams reminds us that for all the attempts at excising of the “I” from modern poetry, the poet’s inner life - her thoughts, her observations, her being - remains the dominant stage upon which poetry is intended to work its magic.

The second link between us and the Romantics is the disappearance of the audience. Through most of the 18th century, Abrams tells us, “the persistent stress…held the poet strictly responsible to the audiences for whose pleasure he exerted his creative ability.”

"Gradually, however, the stress was shifted more and more to the poet’s natural genius…As a result the audience gradually receded into the background, giving place to the poet himself, and his own mental powers and emotional needs, as the predominant cause and even the end and test of art."

The irony is that the poet who described the poet as “a man writing to other men” - Wordsworth - should have set in motion forces that would achieve the opposite. “The poet has moved,” Abrams writes, “into the center of the critical system and taken over many of the prerogatives which had once been exercised by his readers, the nature of the world in which he found himself, and the inherited precepts and examples of his poetic art.”


John Pass said...

Thanks for this David. Now I don't have to slog through Abrams myself!

Just kidding. Most interesting note struck here is the observation that the Romantics didn't invent Nature. True, of course, as that goes back at least as far as the Roman poets. The Romantics did invent its supremacy though, the indispensible intimacy in language of the earth with the sacred became their threshold of poetry's definition. Donne, of all the English poets, found that intimacy and articulated it most clearly perhaps, but with wit and an intellectual rather than emotional emphahsis.

John pass

David Godkin said...

Thanks John. I'd argue the opposite: that the Romantics didn't “invent the supremacy of nature” so much as introduce a notion of correspondence in the relationship between nature and the poet. This necessarily produces a balance between the two, rather than an elevation of one over the other, it seems to me.

That the Romantics helped create a deeper sense of intimacy between the poet and nature through a new use of language is undoubtedly true. (This was picked up by the Americans, Emerson and Thoreau, three decades later and a whole raft of poets that followed over the next century.) But your citation of Donne is a bit of a puzzler. He strikes me as having sustained a distinctly intellectual distance from nature, n’est pas?

Anonymous said...

Yeah, I was being a bit facetious with the Donne allusion, but to make the point that nature is an important element in the work of even the most unlikely poets in the language. Even Pope, even Milton . . . Donne, famous for the intimacy of the earthy and the sacred, qualifies at least as a poet of our natural instincts. I'm not fond of the "Nature Poets" moniker for the more accurately named "Romantics" for that reason, it's way too broad and misleading. What I meant by their sense of the supremacy of nature is not that they didn't "commune" with it (though that's a more new age than Romantic notion I believe, but that it was Measure, and Teacher and even Diety to their Poetry. It was their highest order of Being (site and process) being attentive to the natural world and being engaged "naturally" and they are the first poets to be PASSIONATE about the natural world and natural activity. Better call them the Feeling poets than the Nature poets perhaps . . .

John Pass

David Godkin said...

Yes, I think Feeling poets seems a better way to talk about them. I've just been listening to readings of Shelley's poetry - filled with references to nature ("Ode to the West Wind" and all that) - and yet what stands out more than Nature or his metaphysics is his passion.


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