VersRev_397_Cureton.html (corrected 12.III.97)
The question "What is lyric poetry?" has never been adequately answered. Few studies focus on this question exclusively, and the question is rarely confronted fully. The scholarly lore that surrounds the lyric has been determined more by practical occasion than by theoretical attention. Comment on the lyric has been mainly descriptive, with few explanatory principles offered to motivate these descriptions. In his inaugural address to the Toronto symposium on the lyric in 1982, Northrop Frye proclaimed, "It is high time for critical theory to come to firmer grips with the lyrical element in literature" (Hosek and Parker, eds. 37). Indeed it is "high time."<1>
Theoretical concern for the lyric is strongly associated with the New
Criticism, but the New Criticism never substantially advanced our theoretical
understanding of the lyric. For the most part, the poet-critics who were
leaders of the New Criticism (Eliot, Ransom, Brooks, Richards, Empson, etc.) left
us no detailed studies of the basic elements of lyric expression (visual form,
sound, intonation, syntax, rhetorical tropes and schemes, versification,
rhythm, etc.), much less of their complex interrelations. Most of the
descriptive gestures in the New Criticism were weak, and even so, borrowed
from long-established work in other disciplines.
As Frye notes (Hosek and Parker, eds. 1985, pp. 36-37), the influence of
the New Criticism was more pedagogical than theoretical. At a time when no
competing approach offered an alternative, New Critical textbooks (such as
Brooks and Warren's Understanding Poetry) provided teachers with a practical
way of exploring lyric expression in the classroom. The New Critical approach
to the lyric, it was soon discovered, is highly teachable and learnable. It is easy
to understand what New Critics isolate for attention in the lyric, and with no
special training or effort, these acts of attention can be imitated. This
combination of ease and accessibility was irresistible. The New Critical
approach to the lyric spread like a virus; no one was immune.
Over the last half of this century, support for this New Critical approach to the lyric has been eroding, however, and this erosion has now reached crisis proportions. The best new work on the lyric has reached conclusions that oppose New Critical assumptions, and these results have exposed the weak intellectual foundations of New Critical methods. This exposure has schizophrenically opposed scholarship and pedagogy. Poetry textbooks remain New Critical but have become an intellectual embarrassment in the classroom.
In this century, the first major rejection of New Critical assumptions was Frye's own Anatomy of Criticism (1957). The theory of genre in the fourth essay of the Anatomy (pp. 243-347) corrects the New Criticism's irresponsible blurring of generic differences. In New Critical practice, the lyric is essentially dramatic. The central elements of lyric are character, setting, theme, etc., with language providing a supporting/interfering/individualizing texture. Image is valorized on the level of linguistic expression and the resolution of oppositions on the level of interpretation. These aesthetic primes are then universalized and imposed on the lyric poetry of all historical periods.
Frye's fourth essay in the Anatomy rejects this dramatic approach to lyric. Frye finds the roots of lyric in various sorts of non-dramatic languaging: spell, chant, prayer, praise, invective, oracle, proverb, riddle, epigram, etc. These lyric genres, Frye points out, are more musical than painterly, more non-referential than mimetic. They do not present dramatic scenes to which we respond emotively but textured language that embodies forms of human sensibility. The major agent of this embodying, Frye claims, is an "associational" rhythm that groups the voice centripetally in short arcs of motion against both the linearity of the syntax and the cyclicity of the meter.<2> The result, Frye claims, is an enlanguaged singing, not a dramatic speaking. The lyric resembles the texture and intention of the dramatic interlude (the soliloquy), not the stichomythia of face-to-face dramatic interaction (although, as we will see, even this parallel must be significantly qualified). In lyric, the addressee is absent; the mode of presentation is self-reflexive.
The second blow to the New Critical approach to the lyric was delivered throughout the century by the Russian Formalists and their European and American successors in the "new" stylistics. These linguists and linguist- critics made progress in specifying the non-referential linguistic textures that distinguish lyric from other uses of language. Drawing on the new descriptive powers of the developing field of linguistics, these scholars revealed that the ordered complexity of lyric language cannot be motivated in terms of either dramatic mimesis or aesthetic "roughening," but must be recognized as a distinct use of language--what Roman Jakobson liked to call the "poetic function" (or "poeticality").<3>
The most significant progress in this area has been Jakobson's demonstration that the lyric makes extensive use of grammatical patterning. Lyric styles are heavily selective in their use of grammatical options. In a given poem or poetic style, some grammatical forms are used heavily while others are rigorously excluded, and this selection and exclusion is neither arbitrary nor pragmatically/semantically determined but is connected in deep ways to our basic cognitive capacities (as these capacities are realized in the universals of linguistic structure). These grammatical selections, Jakobson demonstrated, are also distributed in non-arbitrary ways. Lyric discourse, Jakobson revealed, is not just segmented into lines and stanzas; it displays a rigorous grammatical segmentation that appears, sometimes with, sometimes against, this versificational segmentation. If one part of a lyric is, say, impersonal in gender, active in voice, transitive in clause pattern, and coordinating in elaboration, another part will tend to take make the opposite grammatical selections (i.e., it will be personal in gender, passive in voice, intransitive in clause pattern, and subordinating in elaboration). These patterns, Jakobson demonstrated, are usually multiple and overlapping: odd vs. even lines, inner vs. outer stanzas, etc. Jakobson argued that this rigorous grammatical patterning often correlates with other sorts of formal patterning (in tropes, schemes, rhythm, etc.)--so much so that it becomes possible to state what controls these stylistic convergences, both in individual poems and in poems of a certain style or historical period.
A third departure from the New Critical approach to the lyric has been a general shift in focus from text to context. Over the past fifty years, a body of work has accumulated that documents the historical relativity of cultural formation: structures of knowledge and belief are a result of social ideology, not universal values, as the New Critics believed. For the most part, this new work on the contextual determinants of literature has tended to peripheralize the lyric, shifting attention from poetry to prose; but those who have remained concerned with the lyric have started demonstrating the historical relativity of lyric expression, too.<4> In this new work, it is no longer assumed that differences in lyric styles are a simple reflex of universal generic constraints, individual genius, and/or historical accident, as the New Critics claimed. It is assumed that lyric styles also embody the cultural "logics" of their time. From this perspective, metrical and grammatical choices in the lyric are not motivated in terms of their conformity to the structural possibilities of the language, the aesthetic texture of the particular work, or the individual peculiarities of the poet but to the social constructions of the human subject by the cultural context and to the subject-positioning of the reader with respect to that constructed subject.
Finally, the new flowering of interdisciplinary studies in the latter half of this century has also undermined the New Critical approach to the poem-- especially new interdisciplinary studies of the arts. The most significant advance in this area has been the transference of new work on musical structure to both language in general and to poetic language in particular.<5> The lyric has always been associated closely with music, but until the latter half of this century, our ways of representing musical experience have been both inadequate and medium-specific and therefore have been little use in the description of the lyric (an equally complicated art in another artistic medium). In the last fifty years, music theory has become a dynamic, sophisticated area of study, however, and much of its new sophistication has derived from its interaction with new work in cognitive psychology, linguistics, anthropology, and many other areas in the humanities and human sciences. We now have powerful and general ways of representing musical experience, and those interested in the lyric have been using these new conceptual tools in their efforts to describe and explain lyric expression.<6>
For the study of the lyric, the most significant advance in musical description has been the development of more complete and explicit modes of rhythmic representation. If the lyric is basically musical, as Frye claims, rather than dramatic, as the New Critics claimed, then it is reasonable to assume that rhythm is the central influence on both its structural organization and cultural and cognitive function (because music is essentially rhythmic/temporal). The representation of linguistic rhythm has always been the Achilles heel of poetics historically, however. Given the descriptive weakness of our modes of poetic scansion, the place of rhythm in lyric expression is often valorized in the abstract but left unexplored in practice. Most detailed studies of poetry pay little attention to rhythm, and when it is attended to, it is often discussed as merely a handmaiden to meaning and dramatic situation. It is said to emphasize meanings, connect meanings, frame meanings, allude to meanings, complicate meanings, etc., but it is given little detailed function in itself (other than peripheral ones: it is hypnotic, it is differentiating, it is conventional, etc.). In most cases, commentators on the lyric also divorce discussions of rhythm from discussions of other aspects of lyric structure and function: sound, trope, grammar, etc. Contrary to what theorists such as Frye would claim, rhythm in the lyric is usually considered to be an "external architecture," a kind of frame/container for the real business of the genre: meaning, reference, semantic nuance, dramatic situation, etc. This treatment of lyric rhythm is thoroughly New Critical, and if the New Criticism is to be resisted for other reasons, as it seems it must, this New Critical approach to lyric rhythm must be revised as well.
These four advances "beyond" the New Critical approach to the lyric hold exciting prospects. They suggest that we might soon achieve a wholly new conception of lyric expression, one that both respects its generic peculiarities and accounts for these peculiarities in more detail than has been historically possible. On the other hand, the nature of these four advances create strange intellectual bedfellows and therefore present a daunting challenge to those who will pursue this new understanding. Given their professional preparation, literary critics interested in the lyric will find it natural to think more deeply about cultural context, but combining this cultural study with the exploration of the cognitive foundations of grammar and the rhythmic complexities of music will be another matter. In the latter half of this century, cultural critics have explicitly rejected the study of language as relevant to their cultural concerns, and the preoccupation of cultural critics with meaning distances them from the formal complexities and non-referential, cognitive concerns of music theory. Even the reinvocation of literary theory made necessary by this reinvigoration of the study of the lyric will be a challenge to the basic presuppositions of recent work in cultural studies. Over the past couple of decades, cultural criticism has been used more to supplant literary theory than to illuminate it. <7> If cultural phenomena are historically relative, cultural critics have argued, then generic distinctions in literature must be historically relative as well. New work on the lyric suggests otherwise. The lyric embodies human sensibility by musically selecting and arranging the formal resources of language. The subjectivities embodied can shift historically and culturally, as can the rhythms and non-referential resources of language that embody those subjectivities. But both culturally and historically, these generic characteristics of the lyric remain stable.
The publication of Helen Vendler's Poems, Poets, Poetry: An Introduction and Anthology(PPP) is a significant occasion is the history of literary theory and pedagogy, because it pulls together this new scholarly work on the lyric and energetically and synthetically pursues what it entails. In doing this, PPP offers a sharp alternative to both the intellectual embarrassment of our standard New Critical textbooks and the dismissal of lyric expression by contemporary critics.
PPP is an undergraduate textbook, and given the theoretical novelty of its approach, this choice of forum might be judged inappropriate. While Vendler's critical practice underpins the theoretical assumptions of her textbook, she has never developed these theoretical assumptions into a sustained theoretical presentation. <8> In most normal fields of study, pedagogical practice follows theory. Vendler gives us a pedagogical practice, from which we must infer her novel theory.
Literary studies is anything but a normal field of study, however, so Vendler's choice of forum can be excused. The theoretical positions that she opposes also violate the normal relations between theory and pedagogy. As we have just discussed, the New Critics also synthesized their ideas in pedagogy and therefore practiced pedagogy uninformed by theory, while contemporary critics pursue "theory" divorced from a developed and public pedagogy. Contemporary "theory" is also peculiar in other ways, and Vendler's choice of forum surely protests against these peculiarities. In literary studies today, "theory" is no longer literary theory, an explanation of the facts of literary practice. Contemporary "theory" rationalizes critical performance against the facts of literary practice. In literary theory proper, failures outnumber successes; for many literary practices, we have only poor and partial theories. To claim the field, contemporary "theory" has avoided this difficulty by opting out for surer but more pyrrhic victories.
Like other poetry textbooks, PPP includes a statement of basic principles, a presentation of descriptive techniques, and an anthology of poems for study. But even in its structure, PPP is unusual and should be admired for its innovations. For the most part, our major poetry textbooks have the same basic organization. They bracket major theoretical issues and slight full, persuasive analysis. Theoretical claims, such as they are, are presented briefly, and all extensive discussion is descriptive. The result is a surfacy presentation that is more mechanical than critical. It leaves unexplained how lyric uses its diverse artistic materials.
To overcome these difficulties, Vendler reverses this pedagogical strategy. She organizes her discussion around lyric's distinct generic intention, including the effect of this generic intention on the organization of artistic resources. As each new theoretical issue is invoked and treated, she presents analyses of increasing richness, so that these analyses gradually gather up what her theoretical commitments presume. With this organization, description is not slighted but is subordinated to principle. Theory organizes description and both are tested in fully critical analysis.
In chapter 1 ("The Poem as Life," pp. 1-24), PPP takes up occasion, what gives rise to lyric expression. "The first question to ask of any poem," Vendler tells us, is "what piece of life...is it concerned with" (p. 3). She divides her discussion of occasion between private and public and works up ten examples for analysis: birth (Blake), schooling (Gluck), sexual maturation (Cummings), loss of love (Whitman), death (Waller), etc. The analyses in this chapter are brief and exploratory, but entirely adequate to the topic. "Lyric poems," Vendler explains, "spring from moments of disequilibrium: something has happened to disturb the status quo. Hope has come to rebuke despair; love has come to thaw coldness; envy has come to upset happiness; shame has come to interfere with self-esteem" (p. 14). This discussion of lyric occasion is important both theoretically and pedagogically. To those who find the formalities of art and the informalities of life mutually exclusive, Vendler provides a more moderate and workable position. The lyric is not life, she claims, but life is the lyric's generative occasion.
In chapter 2 ("The Poem as Arranged Life," pp. 25-65)), Vendler reconsiders the same poems she introduced in chapter 1, but now begins to demonstrate how the poem is not life, but a lyricization of it. The center of this demonstration is Vendler's claim that the lyric is a sort of algebraic arrangement (and then linguistic embodiment) of imaginative experience. This algebraic arrangement is a multiply interlocking and overlapping shaping, arising from the occasion that elicits it and based upon the life that informs it, but in the end distinct from any other mimetic rendering of it. "Only an examination of form," she explains, "shows us how the poem enacts (represents by several formal shapes) the moment it has chosen, and makes us see the processes of that moment, how it gradually unfolds in time, with both pathos and joy" (p. 35). Her explication of this process of lyricization, both in its general contours and its particular details, is lucid and merits full quotation:
Life itself is a continuation of successive moments in one stream. Art interrupts the stream and constructs one segment or level of the stream for processing. In a single act, it describes, analyzes, and confers form on that segment. The form it confers by its ways of organizing the poem makes visible the contour of that life-moment as the poet perceives it. The poet discovers the emotional import of that life-moment by subjecting it to analysis; the analysis then determines how the moment is described, and the invented organizational form that replicates it. (p. 25)
When several overlapping and interlocking shapes are present at once in a poem, it becomes potentially more interesting--because more complex, as life is--than poems that have only one shape. The ideal poem would have a temporal shape, a spatial shape, a rhythmic shape, a phonetic shape, a grammatical shape, a syntactic shape, and so on--each one beautifully worked out, each one graphically presenting in formal terms an aspect of the emotional and intellectual import of the poem. One way we distinguish more accomplished poems from less accomplished ones is the control of the artist over a number of shapes at once. Other things being equal, the more shapes that are being controlled, the more pleasure one derives from the poem because more of its inner life has been thought through, analyzed, and made visible in form by its creator. (p. 44)
In this chapter, Vendler's analyses are various, as they should be, but along the way she pauses repeatedly to point up larger generalizations about the nature of this lyric "arranging." She shows that lyricization often involves inner conflicts--between mind and body, willing and feeling, sensation and memory, etc.; and she notes how these conflicts can be embodied in meaning contrasts, word repetition, and grammatical patterning. She notes how dramatic personae are often introduced in different stanzas. She emphasizes that poetic shape often reveals itself in oddness. She notes the importance of interlocking and overlapping series. She points up the significance of odd structurings of space and time. She notes the importance of shifting speech acts. She underlines the effects of both parallelism and asymmetry. She notes how poems often crescendo to climaxes, and how these major motions are modulated by subordinate motions. And she notes the importance of interruptions of patterns. This combination of demonstration and generalization is unprecedented in poetic pedagogy. Most poetic pedagogies open with chatter about the "nature" of poetry, together with platitudes about poetic language. But none demonstrate--both in practice and in principle--what motivates the attentions of a fully engaged poetic sensibility. In a few brief pages, Vendler's chapter 2 does exactly this.
In chapter 3 ("Poems as Pleasure," pp. 67-99), Vendler surveys the ways that poems "arrange" life and in doing so give us pleasure--rhythm, rhyme, structure, image, argument, poignancy, wisdom, and (a new) language. As all poetry teachers are aware, such a survey walks a thin line rhetorically, especially in our democratic and prosaic age. All contemporary students want to learn more about poetry, but they don't want to do so at the expense of their own beliefs, tastes, and personal centers. They want to choose what to like and dislike, and they want their choices to be defensible within a larger community of readers, despite their limited experience. Any detailed discussion of poetic technique will tend to underline this limited experience and therefore threaten those beliefs and personal centers. But any neglect of these matters misrepresents the art; poetry becomes prose.
Vendler solves this dilemma by making her survey brief and non- technical, while gently reassuring the student that experiencing an art is a constantly changing, life-long adventure. She knows that naive students usually read poetry more for its unshaped materials than for its art and that this is short-sighted; but she doesn't dismiss this urge. She presents her brief survey as contrary evidence, but admits the naive pleasures of her audience as well. Such gestures require both wisdom and tact and therefore also deserve quotation:
Wordsworth said that the poet must create the taste by which he is enjoyed; that is, the poet trains the audience to like a new sort of art. The training takes time, and each new poet you read is training you to like a new personal shorthand of images and a systematically original language. If a poet does not appeal to you now, look again at the work in ten years, and you may like it then. Acculturation is fast in some cases, slow in others. But if many people have found a poet's language memorable, you may some day find it memorable, too. Each person's taste hovers at a different evolutionary moment...The important thing is to feel companioned, as you go through life, by a host of poems which speak to your experience. And, in the long run, the poems you first read because you wanted to find out about love or death you will read again because of the living quality of the voice that speaks in them, that quality we call "style." (pp. 88-89)In order to deliver such assurance successfully, Vendler must slight various issues, but the gain in ethos is significant and more than compensates for the loss in particularity. Vendler also manages to recover this loss in various ways. In later chapters, she will return again and again to most of the issues that she introduces here. This organizational gesture is also original and should be appreciated. Throughout PPP, Vendler does not present a topic exhaustively and drop it; she introduces each topic slowly, returning to it again and again (in new contexts) in order to demonstrate its scope and significance.
In Chapter 4 ("Describing Poems," pp. 101-143), Vendler considers poetic kinds, the ways that lyric poems can be grouped together into related categories. With their concentration on dramatic situation, rather than language and intertextuality, New Critical textbooks also slight this important issue. Vendler suggests three sorts of categories and therefore categorical criteria: categorization by content, by speech act, and by (what she calls) structural form. Categorization by content gives us the traditional lyric genres: elegy, epithalamion, pastoral, aubade, nocturne, etc. Categorization by speech act give us apostrophe, prayer, debate, apology, etc. Categorization by structural form yields pentameter, iambic, sonnet, binary/ternary, 1st person, etc.
As Vendler presents them, these categories then serve as guides for poetic analysis. They determine both what we attend to in a text we are reading and how we relate the text we are reading to other texts we have read. If lyrics can be grouped by content, then we must ask what they are about, and when we answer this, we must ask how this answer relates the text at hand to other texts about this subject--and so forth. These categories and their members provide "ghost-models" (p. 108) that we use when we interpret and evaluate, norms against which can assess articulateness, complexity, and originality. Vendler concludes this chapter with a sample analysis--another unusual gesture in poetry textbooks. She explores Keats' "On First Looking into Chapman's Homer" for meaning, scenario, structural parts, climax, structural variation, language (parts of speech, sentences, diction, etc.), tone, agency, speech acts, meter, rhythm, and (what she calls) imagination. Few can do so much; fewer yet can do so much so well. To display such a poetic sensibility in a poetry classroom would be a privilege and a pleasure. Her concluding statement in this chapter is also preeminently quotable:
You will, of course, read most poems without investigating them in this detailed way for their inner processes. But as soon as you want to know how a poem works, as well as what it says, and why it is poignant or compelling, you will find yourself beginning to study it, using methods like the ones sketched here. Soon, it becomes almost second nature for you to notice sentences, tense-changes, speech acts, tonal variants, changes of agency, rhythms, rhymes, and other ingredients of internal and outer structure. Just as an archaeologist studies ruins, while the rest of us simply walk through Pompeii not understanding much of what we see, a student of poetry becomes more than simply a reader. You become more like a conductor who studies the musical score before conducting the piece in performance...Through we almost always respond first to the quickly sensed "message" of a poem, the reason for our response (even if we do not at first know this) is the arrangement of the message (on many intersecting planes) into a striking and moving form. To give a poem its due as a work of art, we need to be able to see it as an arranged message. Looking through the poem thoroughly helps us realize the kind of work the poet puts into constructing this urgent expression of life as it is seen, sensed, and reflected on. Even the simplest of short poems will show imagination and architectural construction. (pp. 127-28)In chapter 5 ("The Play of Language," pp. 145-169), Vendler returns to language to underline its significance. "Language is the principal raw material out of which poets construct their experiments" (p. 145), she tells us. "There is no poem that does not play with language...Poets are people steeped in language...Language gives you the manner of the poem, as well as it matter...The first place to begin is with the play of language. In it, we find the imagination at work" (pp. 158-59). "Poetry is the best words in the best order. Your task, as a student of poetry, is to form hypotheses about why the poet arranged these words in this order till the poem seemed a satisfying whole" (p. 151). "The more ways we see the governing linguistic order of the poem, the more human complexity we can perceive within it...The play of language is the chief cause for the aesthetic success of any poem. Without play at many levels of language, from phonemes to logical structures, a poem is merely prose with line-breaks added" (p. 155).
This chapter is short and sketchy, but the special stress on language that it conveys is central to both Vendler's argument and her pedagogical project. It is largely the centrality of language to the art of poetry that makes poetic criticism so difficult--for both students and critics. Unless students have pursued language study elsewhere in their education, they are almost completely inarticulate about the structure of language and therefore the effects of linguistic choice on poetic experience. Vendler tries to overcome some of this inadequate preparation by pointing out how poems use various aspects of language: etymology (Romance vs. Anglo-Saxon), subject-predicate structure, word classes, loose vs. periodic syntax, conjunction, apposition, person, tense, mood, etc. As in other chapters, she embeds these observations in a couple of detailed analysis and appends to these analyses more general comments that suggest how these grammatical choices might relate to larger organizational patterns in the poem: serial, radial, hierarchical, cyclical, etc. As far as poetic pedagogies go, the combination of close analysis and insightful generalization in the chapter is again unprecedented.
In chapter 6 ("Constructing a Self," pp. 171-209) Vendler takes up the difficult issue of the poetic subjectivity, how the poet uses language, poetic form, and dramatic context to create a complex, believable, interesting speaker. While language is the principal material of poetry, this speaker, Vendler claims, is the lyric's principal product. As an inner meditation, the major goal of the lyric, she claims, is to construct a "credible self," "the private divided self of the inner life" (p. 179). The lyric, she tells us, presents the inner speech of this inner self, and its major intention is to offer this inner speech to us as our own so that, in taking it up and voicing it, we can "make ourselves into the speaker" (p. 176). Needless to say, this process of self- construction is multi-faceted; therefore, this chapter is by far the most complex and various chapter in Vendler's pedagogy.
In some ways, the issues that Vendler considers here--tone, dramatic situation, etc.--appear to dovetail with the major concerns of the New Criticism. But the differences between Vendler's view of this issue and the views of the New Criticism should be underlined. The speech that is offered by the lyric for our voicing, Vendler reiterates, is not dramatic, "not someone addressing an audience, or even someone speaking aloud in solitude like an actor delivering a soliloquy" (p. 179). Because it is inner speech, "it must sound inward and reflective rather than outer-directed and rhetorical" (p. 179). In this inner speech, the references made, the images presented, the tones achieved, the historical situations represented, etc., are not outer descriptions but inner projections. The imaging and referencing works from inside to outside, not from outside to inside, as it does in drama. "When a poem offers...facts," she stresses,..."they are always facts seen through the lens of a particular feeling, which has been imagined by the poet, and ascribed to the imagination of the speaker" (p. 182). The life presented is an inner life, the landscapes, inner landscapes, the tones of voice, inner tones. This subjective coloring, she explains, is crucial to the organization and composition of lyric referencing, including biographical/autobiographical referencing. In order to create a self that the reader can believably adopt, certain references are useful, certain others, less so. As a subjectivization and therefore interruption and alteration of real time and space, the lyric must create its own inner land- and timescapes. If it presents only a moment in time, as it often does, it must suggest that moment's subjective positioning--in both past and future, here and there. To do this, the poet, Vendler tells us, uses all of the resources of the imagination--personas, comparisons, temporal and spatial dislocations, pseudo-histories, discourse hiatuses, etc. As in prose fiction, the result, she stresses, it indeed versimilitude, but not a mimetic one, as in fiction, but one that constructs a verisimilar inner life. Again, the combination of close analysis and generalization that Vendler presents in this chapter is unprecedented.
In chapter 7 ("Poetry and Social Identity," pp. 211-235), Vendler applies the argument she develops in chapter 6 to the dominant concerns of contemporary poetry with individual identity/difference: nationality, race, class, sex, sexual preference, etc. "The identity of the lyric speaker," she tells us, "has historically been 'open-ended,' meaning that the words of the speaker could be spoken by any reader within the culture" (p. 211). Lyric poetry today, she admits, exhibits a "marked change" (p. 211) from this norm. Lyric speakers are being given a distinct social identity, "so that we may say, 'This is a poem spoken by an African-American,' or 'The speaker is a mother who address her sister,' or 'This is a gay love poem spoken by one man to another,' or 'This is a poem spoken in Hispanic dialect'" (p. 211).
Nonetheless, the basic concerns and aesthetic textures of the lyric, Vendler argues, remain the same. "No poem was ever made viable by its topic alone" (p. 215), she reminds us. Even in this case, the major concern of the lyric is not baldly mimetic, but algebraic. Even when the subjectivity constructed by the lyric is highly specific, she claims, "we need to see how that identity, conferred by biology or by society, may be subjected to critique by the imagination..., and how it is stylized into poetry" (p. 216). The lyric can indeed isolate particular social parameters for consideration, she argues, but even so, identity is not one-dimensional, and in the lyric, these social parameters must also be subjected to the aesthetic demands of both genre and text. In order for a poem to be interesting, she reminds us, "the author must critique or reinvent the social stereotype" (222), and in this critique and reinvention, the more general concerns of the lyric with typicality and our common inner life often reemerge. For instance, in a close analysis of Adrienne Rich's "Prospective Immigrants Please Note," she grants that the poem "draws on" the "actual experiences" (237) of immigrants; but she argues that, aesthetically, the poem "is an example of an ancient literary genre: the immemorial promise of a better spiritual life" (237), and she goes on to show how Rich stylizes her mimetic materials into a satisfying lyric form. Throughout the chapter, Vendler shows how similar considerations must be brought to bear on all poems that construct socially particular identities. As in her other chapters, these analyses also penetrate to non-thematic considerations: syntax, speech acts, rhythm, etc. For instance, in a brilliant analysis of another Rich poem, "Mother-in-Law," she point up how the shape of the text is largely a product of its organization of the two speech acts: "Tell me something," "Ask me something":
Fourteen times "tell" recurs, three times "ask." If we graphed the poem, it would be a series of spirals coming back, again and again, to those two points--"Tell me," "Ask me." This stylized recurrence represents the wish of the two women to stay in touch in spite of the disappearance of the former links between them. The poem is written in good faith, hoping that one will ask so that the other can tell. It is not enough, therefore, to point out in what identity or identities a poem is written. (pp. 216-17).
Throughout the chapter, she delivers this argument again and again in penetrating analyses of poems that construct particular social identities. Poems by Langston Hughes, Seamus Heaney, and Frank O'Hara are also considered.
In Chapter 8 ("History and Regionality," pp. 237-282), Vendler considers two of the most important mimetic objects of poetic lyricization: history, "time specified" (237) and regionality, a specified space. She divides the chapter neatly between these two topics and again follows the main line of the argument she has pursued in previous chapters.
"The generalized lyric usually has a longer shelf-life than the historically specified lyric," Vendler claims, "because it does not make such particular demands on the reader. Yet nothing matches the vivid scenic, topical, and philosophic intensity of the best history poems, especially as they are first encountered by the audience to whom their topic is an urgent and contemporary one" (p. 244). As in other cases, Vendler claims that the lyric is not just a mimetic reproduction of history, and she goes on to develop a theory of exactly how not. First, history is a narrative genre; second, it is steeped in propaganda. With its concern with representativeness and subjectivity, the lyric must "see beyond" these "simplifications" in a way that does not misrepresent "their ambiguity and their painfulness" (238). The lyric can indeed "tell" history, but it is a history of a certain sort.
Unlike her treatment of other topics, Vendler suggests an explicit theory of the history poem that can be applied in all cases. The history-lyric, she claims, "(1) focuss[es] on a problem rather than on incidents, (2) find[s] an emblematic scene or scenes, (3) find[s] a symbolic or mythological equivalent for [the] historical episode, (4) see[s] the human inside of the event as corresponding to the historical outside, (5) find[s] an epigrammatic summation, and (6) adopt[s] a prophetic or philosophic view larger than that of a mere eyewitness. Then she goes on to apply this theory convincingly to Melville's "The March into Virginia," "Lowell's "The March 1," Hughes' "World War I," and Owen's "Dulce Et Decorum Est." Her discussion of regionality is sketchier, but perhaps only because her conclusions are the same:
Just as the "history" poem must have a problem, and scenes to illustrate it, and a point of view from which to consider it, and a summing-up insight somewhere in its close, so the "geography poem" must have a problem--and scenes, and a point of view, and a "solution," if only temporary, to the problem. That is, description is never "merely description." (p. 250)In both cases, Vendler underlines, the lyric does not baldly mime the "outer" scene, it always represents "an emotional, and even a moral, quarrel within the poet" (p. 251).
The poet never describes landscape without entering it kinesthetically, feeling the motion of the crowded streams, humanizing the trees into noble pantomimists. Landscape in poetry is always projected outward from the writing self, which has, before the composition of the poem, absorbed it and colored it with the personality of the writer. (p. 249)
As in other cases, this outward projection is always more algebraic than referential, a matter of the choice between such things as "the privilege of confusion" vs. "formal elegance," as she suggests in considering the lyric landscape of Marianne Moore's "The Steeple Jack."
Moore wants--and attains--both; she is famous for her profusion of detail and her unobtrusive elegance of formulation. Her New England town is herself, and she becomes its displays, whether dynamic or rigid. It is always the author that the landscape reveals to us, and the landscape of lyric is always revelatory because the author is within it, projecting it from its preliminary reconstitution in the imagination. (pp. 251-52)
In her final chapter ("Attitudes, Values, Judgments," pp. 283-308), Vendler takes on what is surely the most difficult issues for her argument or for any approach to criticism, the issues of literary evaluation and the ethics of literary study. For those who consider literature a transparently mimetic representation of social and historical context, the value of literature lies primarily in the ideas that it represents, together with the details of the lives of the authors who give us those ideas. In this approach to literature, we read literature in order to find ethical standards that we can use as guides in our attempts to lead productive and satisfying lives. The more of such ideas that a literary work presents, and the more productive and satisfying the lives of those who follow these ideas, the more valuable the literary work. In this view, a "good" literary work is one that is ethically "good," where "ethically good" means "good" in a non-literary, socially and politically real, context.
Vendler recognizes the pedagogical and social significance of such an approach to literature, but is eager to warn the reader of its limitations, and in the end, its misrepresentations. First, she cites the obvious fact that the lives of most poets provide anything but models for a full and satisfying life. "Artists [are not] necessarily morally better than others in their private or public actions. Genius does not guarantee moral probity in the ordinary activities of life" (283). With a couple of detailed analyses, she also shows how importing external ethical standards into the evaluation of a poem, especially at an early stage, can distort our understanding of its represented values. "One has to understand a poem well," she reminds us, "before judging it. (And really understanding the implications of a poem usually depends on having read many other poems by that poet)" (p. 286).
The center of her argument in the chapter, however, is that the importation of external values into the judgment of a poem misplaces the locus of values, as they bear on literary production and study. The locus of values in art, she reminds us, is with truth and beauty. "The accurate representation of reality is, for the artist, the highest morality" (p. 297), and if the artist is to succeed, "he or she must pray for the other ingredient in successful art-- grace. 'Pray for the grace of accuracy,' the poet tells himself" (289).
One part of his function as a poet is a duty to set down contemporary facts of life before they disappear; but he can only hope and pray that by the grace of aesthetic power he can give to the people of his century (who will otherwise be anonymous numbers in a census, "poor passing facts") their "living name." That living name is conferred only by the grace of art--its aesthetic power that often seems bestowed from the outside, like religious "grace"...If, in one direction, we judge poetry, it is also true that in another direction the poem judges us. It looks at us with a steady gaze and dares us to judge ourselves by its revelations. "The poet judges, not as the judge judges but as the sun falling around a helpless thing," said Walt Whitman. To observe and convey reality is itself a judgment on reality, even if the poem makes no explicit judgment on the reality conveyed. (p. 289)She concludes:
It is impossible not to notice the attitudes and values expressed in a poem. In fact, they are often the first thing we do notice. Yet a criticism of attitudes and values alone does not come to grips with what a poet really has to offer, which is a personal sense of the world, an idiosyncratic temperament, a unique imagination, and a new linguistic lens through which readers may see the world afresh...There is a great deal of verse being written, all of it, of course, of documentary interest to sociologists or anthropologists or cultural critics. For such scholars, the overt message, or representation of life in a poem, means more than the skill with which that message or representation has been arranged. We all read for message and picture, but readers with a strong commitment to poetry as an art require in it those new symbolic structures, invented by talented artists of every age, that both affront and refresh. An experienced reader of poetry is soon bored by the already known and the cliched; but the previously unheard, the previously unknown, arranged in a form true to a temperament, and transmitting a shock of pleasure--this makes for the renewal of both life and art. It is this capacity of poetry to rewrite the old that we value in it, that we search out in it, and that we judge it by." (pp. 287, 292)
PPP is the best poetic pedagogy that has ever been written. Like the poetic practice that it describes and defends, it resists the pressures to conform to the pedagogical practices of the past, the naivete of its audience, or the narrow self-interest of the literary profession in this cultural moment. In doing so, it contributes mightily to the task of giving poetry its "living name." The scope of its concerns, the depth of its analyses, and the grace of its presentation have no peers. Among all of those who care about the fate of poetic reading, understanding, and appreciation in our prosaic, non-literary age, it should be widely praised and universally adopted.
As I suggested in my opening comments, the significance of the argument Vendler pursues in PPP goes well beyond the cloistered confines of the undergraduate classroom, however, and the implications of this argument should be recognized. If Vendler is right in her argument, professionally, PPP calls for a new stylistics of poetry, one that is based on the algebraic "musicalization" of linguistic form and the psychological, cultural, and historical phenomena to which that "musicalization" can refer. As Vendler reiterates throughout PPP, poetry is not a direct mimesis of historical, cultural, and psychological events, but "the music of what happens," a conceptual clarification, imaginative recreation, and then formal embodiment of those "poor passing facts" in linguistic, rhythmic, and conceptual figuration reminiscent of the tonal, timbral, and rhythmic forms in music: repetitions, variations, alterations, inversions, cycles, hierarchies, progressions, radial constellations, emphases, contrasts, expectations, satisfactions, similarities, differences, continuities, discontinuities, symmetries, asymmetries, expansions, contractions, emphases, equivalences, and so on and so forth through all of the formal repertoire of what we know as musical form. During the second half of this century, both the New Criticism's concern for the dramatic and the new cultural criticism's concern for mimetic content have dismissed these matters as peripheral to the understanding and appreciation of literature. Vendler rebukes this dismissal and repositions these matters back to the center of poetic study.
More so than others who have recognized the lyric's musicality, Vendler also underlines that this musicality is deeply interwoven with the formal potentiality of language: metaphor, synecdoche, metonymy, irony; subject, predicate, object, adverbial; noun, verb, adjective, adverb; voice, aspect, tense, mood; number, gender, case, person; subordination, coordination, apposition, qualification; specification, modification, characterization, evaluation; definite, indefinite, generic, proper; transitive, intransitive, copular, complex-transitive; compounding, conversion, derivation, inflection; syllable, stress, focus, tone; onset, nucleus, rhyme, coda; and so forth. It is these linguistic categories, she demonstrates, that are shaped musically and embody the represented subjectivities that are the intention and achievement of poetry. In fact, Vendler at least implicitly argues that the nature of linguistic form itself--its inventory of categories and their intralinguistic relationships--is deeply "musical" as well. In their figural combinations in poetry, linguistic forms do not pair off arbitrarily. Some forms are more closely related musically; others, less so. Closely related forms tend to appear together in achieving a poetic style, summing their musical qualities. It is not unreasonable to assume that these stylistic convergences might have something profound to say about our linguistic "nature." If so, Vendler does not just reposition poetry in the study of literature. She repositions the linguistic in the literary--and vice versa. With their contextual preoccupations, contemporary critics have peripheralized both poetry and language in literary study. Vendler's argument gives both a new concern.
Vendler's argument that the "music" of poetry is its most significant offering is laudable, but as others who have defended this position have experienced, it comes at a considerable theoretical cost. While we all are willing to admit that art has certain values that exceed our powers of explanation, we also assume that the function of criticism is exactly to explain, to make available for communal discussion what we receive subconsciously in individual experience; and at the moment at least, a full explanation of the "music" of poetry exceeds our understanding. While Vendler never stops to admit this, we have no organized theory of the sources, structures, and effects of poetic "music." throughout her professional criticism, and now in her verse pedagogy, Vendler always arrives at her theoretical generalizations in the context of close critical analysis; consequently, these generalization are always suggestive and partial. Without a more substantial theoretical presentation, we have no way to contextualize the observations that she makes--whether this contextualization be aesthetic, cultural, historical, psychological, or biological. If the intention of poetry is to show us the "algebra" of our inner life, what is this algebra, when viewed as a whole? What is the inventory of its shapes, and how are these shapes related to the life that is their material occasion? What is the relation between the various interlocking and overlapping patterns that Vendler claims as the most significant aspect of lyric experience--patterns of sound, syntax, rhetorical trope and scheme, rhythm, visual form, intonation, meaning, speech act, discourse type, subject matter, etc.? In both her criticism and her pedagogy, Vendler offers many partial insights that bear upon this issue (e.g., Some patterns are cyclic; some are hierarchical; some are radial; etc.), but she never addresses this issue in full; and if this issue is not addressed in full, the approach to the poem that she recommends can never achieve the scope and explanatory power of those dramatic and/or novelistic theories of the poem that she refutes. Our theories of dramatic and narrative structure are highly developed, and given their more "outward," and therefore mimetic materials, many of the other discourses in the humanities (sociology, anthropology, political science, history, philosophy, etc.) are available to connect these theories of literary structure richly and productively to what we know about human life in its pragmatic, non-aesthetic modes. In essence, Vendler reinvokes Jakobson's project of tracing the sources, structures, and effects of "poeticality." But the history of comment on Jakobson's project is still fresh in the mind of all who might want to adopt Vendler's claim, and this history is far from positive. In general, Jakobson was taken to task for just this failing. He observed patterns, catalogued their variety, and demonstrated their ubiquity in the poetry we admire most. Yet he could never say what these patterns, when taken as a whole, might mean to human life as we live it in other realms. And he could never say why the patterns he observed, and not others, tend to appear. In sum, he never developed a convincingly explanatory theory of the "poeticality" he perceived and cherished. Without a more convincing theory of the phenomenon, however, a critical practice that isolates its repeated occurrence becomes restricted to individual performances, and even so, fails to deliver on what we most value about criticism as a social practice. Criticism arises from an observation and description of the arts. But the social function of criticism derives from the application of these observations and descriptions to life in general, not just to its literary representation. And this additional accomplishment can never occur until the observations and descriptions that we make in our experiences of art are explained, until we arrive at some understanding of why these artistic structures might occur, and in their occurrence, both teach and delight. What does a radial structure teach? Why does it delight? What does a radial structure teach that a hierarchical structure does not? Why should we care?
The great accomplishment of Vendler's work, both professional and pedagogical, is to advance beyond the efforts of any of her peers the observation and description of the "poeticality" that remains to be explained. The breadth of her analyses, the depth of their insight into aesthetic structuration in poetry and its relation to human subjectivity, is unparalleled. We feel the critical force of her analyses and therefore, to what Vendler accomplishes, we can--and should--say nothing ill. For those concerned with poetry as an art, rather than with their professional advancement or the quick satisfaction of their students in the classroom, what Vendler gives us is a precious fruit, and the eating of that fruit should spur us on to both desire and pursue a full repast. The difficulty of this pursuit, however, should not be underestimated. The distance that we must traverse to enjoy that full repast will be long indeed. At a time when the road to that repast had been washed away, Vendler strikes a path that avoids that washed out road and puts us again (and, I hope, forever) on a more productive way. She deserves both thanks and praise.