Nothing to Say

  • Whether or not future poets decide to use traditional disciplines doesn’t matter to me. Poets who enjoy the traditional arts of meter, rhyme, and rhetoric will gravitate toward those techniques without prompting. I did. But I frequently hear other poets, who know little to nothing about these practices, complain that they limit an artist’s scope and creativity. Nothing could be further from the truth. Brian Vicker’s elegant defense of rhetoric can be extended to any number of disciplines.  Most interesting is the contention that where “anything is possible and nothing unexpected”, appraising works of art becomes increasingly difficult. This is certainly true of modern poetry and its critics, who increasingly must invent  abstract or meta-critical standards by which to judge a poem. (There has been much complaint about the poor quality of criticism.) Perhaps the absence of any sort of objective organon, against which to measure an artist’s success, contributes to these perceived shortcomings.  Critics are left with nothing more to criticize than the poem’s subject matter or the poet his or herself. (This post is similar to a previous a previous, (G)reatness and Style: Jack Stillinger on Keats, where I featured an extract from a writer I particularly enjoyed).

Classical Rhetoric in English Poetry
[at Amazon.Com] Brian Vickers pp. 77-79

But this is perhaps the most suitable place to consider the relationship within rhetoric between convention and spontaneity. As we have seen in general terms so far, and shall see more specifically in the next chapter, rhetoric offered the writer a whole framework for the invention of material (‘experience’) and its expression. Some crude post-Romantic objections to rhetoric take up precisely this issue and accuse rhetoric of providing ‘rigid’. ‘mechanical’ or ‘sterile’ rules, or ‘systems which kill the imagination’. Most of such blanket animus can be ignored, but at least it raises the issue of originality inside or outside the conventions of art. In his penetrating study Art and Illusion E.H. Gombrich has revived the rapprochement between the visual arts and rhetoric which formerly existed (especially as concerns the discrimination of styles, for art criticism borrowed the concept of style ‘from the ancient critics of literature, especially from thee teachers of rhetoric’: see his Introduction and chapter 11, passim). Gombrich has urged that a knowledge of the artist’s ‘organon’ or range of available techniques is essential to the critic, for ‘we cannot judge expression without an awareness of the choice situation’ (376). Conventions in the arts are agreed limitations on the possibilities of expression, for ‘Where everything is possible and nothing unexpected, communication must break down. (Ibid.). Further,

the rhetorical tradition may help us to see not only the problem of expression but even that of self-expression form an unexpected angel. Romanticism has taught has to talk of art in terms of inspiration and creativity. It was only interested in what was new and original. The very existence of styles and traditions has made us doubtful of the value of this approach to the history of art. It is here that the tradition of rhetoric is such a useful corrective because it supplies a philosophy of language. In this tradition the hierarchy of modes, the language of art, exists  independent of the individual. It is the young artist who is born into this system and who has to make his choice. To do so he must study himself and follow his own bent, and in so far as he succeeds he will also express his personality. (381)

It is a paradox that (in the traditional scheme of things) it was only by subordinating himself to the conventions of art that a writer could ‘express his personality’ (notice the inescapable Romantic assumption  that this is his whole raison d’être), or rather express his personal vision in a coherent, objective form. But it is a paradox which did not disturb Shakespeare or George Herbert (even the ‘originality’ of Montaigne is expressed via wholly conventional literary process). It only disturbs those who regard ‘conventions’ as being by their  very existence inimical to creativity. For rhetoric in literature, as with formal schemes in the other arts, the framework is a help to the artist and not a deadening hindrance: within its flexible rules he is free to invent, to improvise. As Henri Marrou has argued, rhetoric had its own conventions,

but once these had been recognized and assimilated, the artist had complete freedom within the system, and when he had mastered the various processes he could use them to express his own feelings and ideas without any loss of sincerity. Far from hindering originality or talent, the restrictions enabled very subtle, polished effects to be produced. Rhetoric must be seen in comparison with other conventional systems that have applied to other arts in other periods — the laws of perspective, the laws of harmony in Bach and Rameau and right down to Wagner, the laws of verse: until Symbolism came along, the French poets were perfectly willing to submit to rules that were just as strict and arbitrary as the rules of rhetoric,  and they did not seem to suffer from them unduly. (204)

Conventions do not destroy spontaneity: in fact they even offer expressiveness through their own systems. Just as in classical music the ‘language of harmony’ has a distinct range of effects of tension and relaxation, of progressions, discords, resolutions, quite independent of any melody or thematic argument, so in rhetoric (as I argue below) the figures contain within themselves a whole series of emotional and psychological effects, almost prior to the presence of meaning or argument. As with harmony, they exist at certain basic levels almost independently of the skill of the user — but equally, only realized to the full by the great artists. Conventions of this kind actively promote the illusion of spontaneity. And only a very naïve Romantic believes in absolute spontaneity, free from thought as from systems. One has only to think of such great ‘Romantic’ creators as Beethoven or Yeats and the evidence from their notebooks of the laborious, painful processes of composition, and the remarkable evolving metamorphoses of their material to see how spontaneity has to be worked for. Of course there are bad examples of conventional rhetoric, as there are bad examples of orthodox sonata-form, indeed a study of the many Elizabethan minor poets who erect the deadest, most lifeless rhetorical structures would be valuable in demonstrating just how they failed to energize the potentialities of the convention. But in general it could be stated that rhetoric only hampered those writers who had nothing to say.

6 responses

  1. Fantastic–I’ll have to go and pick up this book. Indeed, to be unique one must differentiate from the norm. Yet, if there is no norm set, how can one be different? If anything that older poets had, it was their rhetoric. One of my issues with some poets is their writing style. I don’t want to read a text book; if I did, I wouldn’t bother reading poetry!

    Though this whole talk on rhetoric is two-fold: One mustn’t forget the critic; but, Pope often dealt with them in his writings I believe.

  2. It amazes me that the free versers (against whom I have nothing at all, since I like poetrry if it’s good, whatever the method: I about equally value, e.g., the best of Ginsberg and of Anthony Hecht) think of themselves as innovative, as if since the Moderns free verse had not been THE establishment norm. If formal verse inhibited spontaneity, I wonder if we would have our greatest formalists at all? I am referring, say, to Robert Johnson, Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, et al. Yeah, tell the ghosts of the great Delta Bluesmen, who contributed the most compelling and durable form American poetry knows, that they were unspontaneous. Sydney Lea

    • Hi Sydney, I’m surprised and pleased to hear from you. Sorry these posts didn’t appear when you wrote them. WordPress is set to hold all first time respondents until approved. After this, if you feel like adding a thought, you won’t have to wait.

  3. Tell the greatest formalists of America that they lacked ‘spontaneity’: I’m thinking of Robert Johnson, Howlin’ Wolf, Elmore James, Muddy Waters, et al. The great Delta bluesmen knew something about spontaneity within strict format- The militant free versers act as though their approach were not, since the Moderns, THE establishment mode. Read a little.

    Sydney Lea

  4. Free from convention? Every milieu has conventions. Wotthehell, LANGUAGE is a convention. Whoever says that somebody is free of convention is telling me that they don’t know what the conventions are, which is another way of saying that they don’t know how to do the work of criticism in this case. All understanding and all evaluation is either idiosyncratic or is relative to some set of conventions.

    Along the same line, I’m on record as holding that the purpose of the term “free verse” is to obscure the nature of free verse in its many specific forms. The catchall term is designed to inhibit criticism by denying distinctions. I see it as a line of code in the mfaworld program of evaluation by criteria other than the writing.

    • Good morning Jay, I’m with you in thinking that no one is really free from convention.

      //I’m on record as holding that the purpose of the term “free verse” is to obscure the nature of free verse in its many specific forms. The catchall term is designed to inhibit criticism by denying distinctions. I see it as a line of code in the mfaworld program of evaluation by criteria other than the writing.//

      I think there’s an element of truth to that. I recall hearing a modern abstract artist being interviewed recently (NPR). She was getting on in life and was painting in a more representative style. What I found fascinating was that she freely admitted that her burn-all-bridges turn to abstractionism was meant to deflect negative reviews and criticism (which, until then, had been the story of her artwork). She decided that if she were abstract enough, then critics would have nothing to hang their hat on. And she was right. Similarly, it’s immeasurably easier for a bad poet to hide behind free verse than traditional poetry.

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