(G)reatness & Style: Jack Stillinger on John Keats

Add to FacebookAdd to DiggAdd to Del.icio.usAdd to StumbleuponAdd to RedditAdd to BlinklistAdd to TwitterAdd to TechnoratiAdd to Yahoo BuzzAdd to Newsvine

Apropos to my previous post on (G)reatness and the Language of Poetry, I was reading Jack Stillinger’s Introduction to Keats’ Complete Poems and ran across the following two paragraphs.

The content of Keats’ best poems, if reduced to their themes, would be, just as with the best work of Shakespeare and Dickens, quite banal (“life is very difficult,” “the imagination is not to be relied on,” “everything has to die,” “nature consoles”). john-keats-stillingerBut Keats concerns with dreaming, illusion, problems of time and mortality, and the pleasure-pain compexity of life should not be translated in this way; they give a pleasurable and requisite seriousness of content to the poems, but they cannot be taken as equivalent of the poems. The same may be said of the most characteristic tensions in the poems – the conflicting claims of human and immortal realms of existence, the opposition of attitudes toward the actual and the ideal. These provide structure and dramatic conflict, but they are not the equivalent of the poems either. And the ideas and tensions cannot be invoked to account for Keats’s sudden rise to greatness in the poems of the last nine months of his career, because they are in his work all along, from late 1816 to the end. Something else is needed to explain the excellence of his mature poetry.

That “something else,” I suggest, is Keats’ style. This is a topic that was comprehensively considered in the 1940s (by W.J. Bate and R.H. Fogle in particular) but has been relatively slighted in more recent decades, possibly because critics have become increasingly aware of the methodological difficulties seemingly inherent in stylistic analysis of a literary text. Nowadays there is a great deal of argument about what “style” is and where it resides, if at all, in literary works. But it is still practically useful, while the debate goes on, to retain a concept of style in the old-fashioned sense of “mode of expression,” referring to such things as choice of words and images, sentence structure, rhythms and sound patterns, figures of speech. These fundamentals are, or used to be, taught in a freshman Introduction to Poetry, with textbook like James R. Kreuzer’s Elements of Poetry or Laurence Perrine’s Sound and Sense. It would be a mistake, to underestimate the importance of these elements in literary art. All works have subject matter, themes, structures, incidents, ideas, and feelings; it is ultimately the language in which these are contained and transmitted that makes some works more pleasing and more moving that others.

And it is this “something else” that seems to be missing from most of the poetry of the latter 20th Century and presently. Perhaps this “something else” has been undervalued?

As it stands, my feeling is that content (great in thought or otherwise) has all too readily been equated and conflated with (G)reat Poetry. There’s a difference (or at least one is inclined to assume so) given the broader public disregard of contemporary poets in favor of poets like Keats, Dickinson, Frost, Shakespeare, Millay and Cummings – all poets who were and are famous not just for their ideas, but for their poetry (the language and style in which they expressed their ideas).

Style doesn’t have to mean Meter or Rhyme. Whitman rejected meter and rhyme – but there’s no confusing his verse with the prose of a novelist. His rich rhetorical patterning more than offset the absence of rhyme or meter. He was a stylist in as full and rich a sense as Browning or Tennyson, his contemporaries. I can’t claim to have read even a fraction of a fraction of all the poetry that is being printed and published everyday, so maybe there’s a poet, or poets, who display a command of language and style that elevates their ideas to great poetry. I keep looking every day.

Write (G)reatly!

IMHO: (G)reatness & the Language of Poetry

On Being Memorable

I’ve been scouring the net for other response’s to Orr’s New York Times Article, where he asks: Where is the ambition? Where are the Great poets?

Orr - On PoetryWhile pursuing discussion on Orr’s article over at A Compulsive Reader, another question occurred to me. Why is it that practically no poets after the moderns seem to be widely read, remembered or recognized by the general, non-poetry reading public. Almost everyone I ask (who maybe reads three or four poems a year) knows of Robert Frost, can name a poem by him and maybe even recite a line or two. No one, (during my unscientific survey), could do the same for any poet of the later generation.

The one clear difference between Frost, Cummings (and Eliot in some cases) is that they wrote Poetry that utilized meter and rhyme to varying degrees. There’s no dispute that meter and rhyme are mnemonic aids. The trick of rhythm and rhyme begins before writing, with the oral tradition. So, the fact of Frost’s popularity is, I think, indisputably linked (though not fully dependent on) his use of meter and rhyme.  His poems are memorable in ways that Ashbery’s poems simply are not.

The Marketplace

There aren’t a lot of Border bookstores or Barnes & Noble bookstores in the smaller malls of the Midwest. Instead, there are shops like Waldenbooks (now owned by Borders), that cater to the very general public. I used to shop at Waldenbooks – the only bookstore close by. I know all about their poetry section. It usually only had four or maybe five books in it. Waldenbooks, unlike Borders and Barnes & Noble (which are still primarily located in urban and metropolitan areas), only buy what they know they can sell.  That said, they are a top-notch barometer of what the wider population typically reads on a daily and weekly basis.

Here’s what I never found on any of their shelves: Language Poets, Avant Gard, Black Mountain Poets, Objectivists,  Beats, etc… none of the various “schools” after the moderns. If anyone reading this can tell me whether this has changed, let me  know. While I was shopping at Waldens, the only free verse poet they  stocked was Walt Whitman. Period. The other poets were Robert Frost, Christina Rosetti, Elizabeth Barret Browning, Shakespeare’s Sonnets, his major plays, maybe Keats, maybe Tennyson.

What do all these poets have in common?

With the exception of Whitman, none of the poets are free verse poets.

Why has the generation of free verse poets that followed the moderns largely failed to appeal to the wider, non-poetry reading, public – why have they failed to capture their imagination and inspire them? Or let me put it another way: Why have they failed to be salable?

If popular appeal is a part of (G)reatness – then the last generation of poets have failed.

In reading the various responses to Orr’s article, almost every individual volunteered a list of poets who Orr could have or should have mentioned. But I can’t think of any two bloggers who agreed on a poet.

A Failure of Aesthetics? Poetry is more than content.

My hunch is that Orr is equating (G)reatness with popular recognition and appeal, which is why he passed over all the poets other bloggers have variously mentioned. That said, Orr studiously avoids defining much of anything –  asking more questions than he answers. He avoids defining what he believes to be (G)reatness in style which, it would seem, ought to be part of the equation. His description is artfully noncommittal:

Generally speaking, though, the style we have in mind tends to be grand, sober, sweeping — unapologetically authoritative and often overtly rhetorical. It’s less likely to involve words like “canary” and “sniffle” and “widget” and more likely to involve words like “nation” and “soul” and “language.”

Ya think?

I’ll go a step a further.

AR Ammons Collected PoetryA poet can’t be (G)reat unless his or her poetry is stylistically (G)reat – and by stylistically (G)reat, his or her poetry must stand apart from prose. It’s not enough to have “great thoughts”. At least in the wider literary marketplace, poetry is judged in part by how and to what degree it differentiates itself from prose. AR Ammons’ poetry attains a level of complexity comparable to that of Stevens, but he lacks Stevens’ melodious line and flare for metaphor and imagery.  His poetry is more like a compressed prose. Meanwhile, the poems widely considered to be Stevens’ best are also, frequently, his most metrical and metaphorical- Sunday Morning and The Idea of Order at Key West.

Shakespeare’s ideas, as Robert Shaw pointed out, are frequently pedestrian, but his language could elevate proverb to profundity. Poetry is more than content. That’s the realm of the novel (which isn’t to say that some novelists aren’t better stylists than others) but that’s not why the broader public reads them. Poetry has to be more than content, or it places itself in direct competition with every other work of prose. What Do We KnowThe results are, simply put, obvious and indisputable. A store like Waldenbooks is stuffed with contemporary novels while its poetry section couldn’t stop a screen door.

When poets adopted free verse, they surrendered the one quality of poetry that, up until then, differentiated it from every other form of writing. And it’s not just rhythm and rhyme that were rejected, but rhetoric and the building of ideas out of metaphor. Walt Whitman, while he rejected rhyme and metrical pattern, remained an intensely rhetorical and figurative poet. In contemporary poetry there is frequently nothing that distinquishes a poem from any given prose paragraph.

Mary Oliver is perhaps among the most salable of modern poets. Her poetry is rich with figurative language, image and metaphor, all immediate and accessible. Her poetry uses language in a way that a novel doesn’t.

Who knows whether Oliver will be counted among the (G)reats?

Maybe her stature will be comparable to Andrew Wyeth, who was favored by the wider public while being largely rejected by art critics, curators and collectors who couldn’t help but interpret Wyeth’s popularity as a rejection of their own increasingly unpopular aesethetics. As it is, I have an uncertain sense of Oliver’s overall popularity.

Elizabeth Bishop’s poetry, while it may be held in high regard by fellow poets, must be special-ordered in most smaller book stores while Robert Frost’s poetry can be found in any number of permutations, including children’s books.

Can the contemporary aesthetic of free verse be (G)reat?

Have the poets of the last hundred years legitimized their own aesthetics?

If wider public appeal is any indication, the answer is No. The poets of the last generation have failed to produce a genre that in any way  competes in the marketplace of modern literature. It has failed to inspire the wider public. Rather, the marketplace continues to favor a poetry that is not prose or “lineated prose” – but that is differentiated from prose in all the ways rejected by the generation following the moderns and contemporary poets.