By Charles Matthews

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

5. The Modern Tradition, edited by Richard Ellmann and Charles Feidelson Jr., pp. 74-97

Symbolism: Imagination and Thought; The Role of Thought in Poetry (Paul Valéry, I.A. Richards, T.S. Eliot)

Paul Valéry: Poetry, Language and Thought

The question of thought in poetry is not so much whether there is any, but what kind? In this 1938 essay from The Art of Poetry, Valéry says we have to distinguish "whether the alleged antithesis" of poetry and abstract thought really exists. Speaking from his own experience, he recalls "certain states which I may well call poetic, since some of them were fully realized in poems." At other times, however, although he was struck by "a sudden concatenation of ideas," the result was different: "this time, instead of a poem, it was an analysis of the sudden intellectual situation that was taking hold of me." He is diffident about appealing to his own experience in discussing the question, but observes, "In fact there is no theory that is not a fragment, carefully prepared, of some autobiography."
Paul Valéry, date unknown

His point is that both kinds of thought, poetic (creative) or abstract (analytical) can exist in the same person. The question is what distinguishes them from each other. For one thing, "The poetic universe ... offers extensive analogies with what we can postulate of the dream world," though he observes that dreams are not in themselves poetic. The similarity resides in the fact "that the state of poetry is completely irregular, inconstant, involuntary, and fragile, and that we lose it, by accident." But it results in a poem, whereas a dream typically results in nothing but an uneasy state in the waking mind. Hence, he argues, "A poet's function -- do not be startled by this remark -- is not to experience the poetic state: that is a private affair. His function is to create it in others."

Many of us who aren't poets, after all, experience something like the "poetic state," but if we don't act on it, we aren't poets. The painter Degas, who occasionally wrote poems, complained to the poet Mallarmé, "I can't manage to say what I want, and yet I'm full of ideas." To which Mallarmé replied, "My dear Degas, one does not make poetry with ideas, but with words."
Mallarmé was right. But when Degas spoke of ideas, he was, after all, thinking of inner speech or of images, which might have been expressed in words. But these words, these secret phrases which he called ideas, all these intentions and perceptions of the mind, do not make verses."

We use language in two ways. One is direct communication, and it "tends to bring about the complete negation of language itself. I speak to you, and if you have understood my words, those very words are abolished. If you have understood, it means that the words have vanished from your minds and are replaced by their counterpart, by ideas, relationships, impulses." But if the words we have used don't vanish to be replaced by an action, a thought, a feeling, but draw attention to themselves, are savored for themselves and not just for what they have provoked in the hearer or reader, "We are entering the poetic universe."

The difficulty for the poet is that his medium, language, doesn't have the purity that sound does for the musician. The poet "has to borrow language -- the voice of the public, that collection of traditional and irrational terms and rules, oddly created and transformed, oddly codified, and very variably understood and pronounced." Moreover, "Each word is an instantaneous coupling of a sound and a sense that have no connection with each other.... So the poet is at grips with this verbal matter, obliged to speculate on sound and sense at once, and to satisfy not only harmony and musical timing but all the various intellectual and aesthetic conditions, not to mention the conventional rules."
In my eyes a poet is a man who, as a result of a certain incident, undergoes a hidden transformation. He leaves his ordinary condition of general disposability, and I see taking shape in him an agent, a living system for producing verses.
The analogy that occurs to Valéry is the difference between walking and dancing. "Walking, like prose, has a definite aim. It is an act directed at something we wish to reach." Dancing, on the other hand, is "a system of actions; but of actions whose end is in themselves." Both walking and dancing use "the same organs, the same bones, the same muscles, only differently co-ordinated and aroused.... Prose and poetry use the same words, the same syntax, the same forms, and the same sounds or tones, but differently co-ordinated and differently aroused."

When the walker reaches his goal, the act of walking has served its purpose and is negated. But though the dance ends, the act of dancing has been the goal all along. Prose serves its purpose -- to proclaim a law, to give a direction, to order a meal, etc. -- and ceases to be except in so far as the meaning it has communicated lingers and produces an action. The text itself may remain -- in the form of a law, for example -- and be repeatedly consulted, but the significance lies in whatever action it produces. The poem is an end in itself, and both its form and its content, its sound and its sense, remain. (I think Valéry would include prose fiction and drama under the term "poem.")
So between the form and the content, between the sound and the sense, between the poem and the state of poetry, a symmetry is revealed, an equality between importance, value, and power, which does not exist in prose; which is contrary to the law of prose -- the law which ordains the inequality of the two constituents of language. The essential principal of the mechanics of poetry -- that is, of the constituents for producing the poetic state by words -- seems to me to be this harmonious exchange between expression and impression.
Valéry asserts that "the value of a poem resides in the indissolubility of sound and sense," our feeling that no other words would produce quite the same result, the same meaning, the same emotion, the same pleasure or pain. Robert Frost said, "Poetry is what gets lost in translation," but what he really means, I think, is that the poem itself is what gets lost. It's possible to produce quite vivid and compelling translations of poems, but they are not the same poems as the originals. Valéry sees it as "the poet's business to give us the feeling of an intimate union between the word and the mind."

He rejects the commonplace notion of inspiration, which would "make of the poet a kind of temporary medium." Carry this idea to its logical extreme and a poet "could write poems in a language he did not know." Instead, he insists that the poet has the faculty of judgment. "The mind is terribly variable, deceptive and self-deceiving, fertile in insoluble problems and illusory solutions. How could a remarkable work emerge from this chaos if this chaos that contains everything did not also contain some serious chances to know oneself and to choose within oneself whatever is worth taking from each moment and using carefully?" And poetry requires something from the reader: "The state of mind of the reader of poems is not the state of mind of the reader of pure thought. The state of mind of a man dancing is not that of a man advancing through difficult country of which he is making a topographical survey or a geological prospectus."

So what is a poem? It is "really a kind of machine for producing the poetic state of mind by means of words." By "machine" he means to suggest the intricacy of the work and the labor involved in its production. When we start our cars, boot our computers, switch on our lights, we don't reflect on the enormous complexity of the mechanism and the hours of labor that went into producing them. And if the poem doesn't work with the same kind of efficiency that we expect of our machines, it fails.
Think of everything that must go on inside a man who utters the smallest intelligible sentence, and then calculate all that is needed for a poem by Keats or Baudelaire to be formed on an empty page in front of the poet.

Think, too, that of all the arts, ours is perhaps that which co-ordinates the greatest number of independent parts or factors: sound, sense, the real and the imaginary, logic, syntax, and the double invention of content and form ... and all this by means of a medium essentially practical, perpetually changing, soiled, a maid of all work, everyday language, from which we must draw a pure, ideal Voice, capable of communicating without weakness, without apparent effort, without offense to the ear, and without breaking the ephemeral sphere of the poetic universe, an idea of some self miraculously superior to Myself. 

I.A. Richards: Pseudo-Statements

I.A. Richards, date unknown
Richards begins this essay from Science and Poetry (1926) with a direct, though challenging, assertion: "The business of the poet ... is to give order and coherence, and so freedom, to a body of experience." The medium, as Valéry also noted, is words, and "words work in the poem in two main fashions. As sensory stimuli and (in the widest sense) symbols." Poems also seem to say things, to make statements, but what sort of statements, and how do we judge the validity of them? Richards proposes the concept of pseudo-statements. This is meant to help distinguish poetic statements from scientific ones, "where truth is ultimately a matter of verification as this is understood in the laboratory."

The acceptance which a pseudo-statement receives is entirely governed by its effects upon our feelings and attitudes. Logic only comes in, if at all, in subordination, as a servant to our emotional response.... A pseudo-statement is "true" if it suits and serves some attitude or links together attitudes which on other grounds are desirable. This kind of "truth" is so opposed to scientific "truth" that it is a pity to use so similar a word, but at the present it is difficult to avoid the malpractice.
(In a footnote, Richards helpfully comments, "A pseudo-statement, as I use the term, is not necessarily false in any sense. It is merely a form of words whose scientific truth or falsity is irrelevant to the purpose at hand.")

Whereas statements are judged by whether they are true or false, pseudo-statements are judged only by their "effect in releasing or organising or impulses or attitudes." And it's clear that we don't, and perhaps we can't, "order our emotions and attitudes by true statements only." Pseudo-statements are essential to our lives, and the more so as traditional concepts, particularly religious ones, have come into question. Some of the "pseudo-statements which are pivotal points in the organisation of the mind, vital to its well-being, have suddenly become ... impossible to believe as for centuries they have been believed."

One of the things we no longer believe in is a benevolent natural order. Nature has been neutralized. As a result, scientists "pay no serious attention to poetry. For most men the recognition of the neutrality of nature brings about ... a divorce from poetry. They are so used to having their responses propped up by beliefs, however vague, that when those shadowy supports are removed they are no longer able to respond.... And the only impulses which seem strong enough to continue unflagging are commonly so crude that, to more finely developed individuals, they hardly seem worth having. Such people cannot live by warmth, food, fighting, drink, and sex alone."

We still, however, "hunger after a basis in belief." And thus we need to recognize the significance of unscientific assertions in bringing about a sense of wholeness to the personality. "In brief, the imaginative life is its own justification; and this fact must be faced.... When it is faced, it is apparent that all the attitudes to other human beings and to the world in all its aspects, which have been serviceable to humanity, remain as they were, as valuable as ever."

T.S. Eliot: Sensibility and Thought in Metaphysical Poetry

T.S. Eliot, date unknown
This familiar essay, written as a review of Herbert Grierson's anthology Metaphysical Lyrics and Poems of the Seventeenth Century, was central in the early twentieth-century elevation of such poets as John Donne and Andrew Marvell in the canon of English poetry. It also introduced one of Eliot's more challenging phrases, "dissociation of sensibility."

In the context of determining what "modern" means, Eliot's remarks on the metaphysical poets are less relevant than his explorations of the nature of poetry itself. To get at what he values in the metaphysical poets, he cites two passages from Browning and Tennyson, though the quotations show the former at his more grotesque and the latter at his most insipid. (The poems are, respectively, "Bishop Blougram's Apology" and "The Two Voices.")
Tennyson and Browning are poets, and they think; but they do not feel their thought as immediately as the odour of a rose. A though to Donne was an experience; it modified his sensibility. When a poet's mind is perfectly equipped for its work, it is constantly amalgamating disparate experience; the ordinary man's experience is chaotic, irregular, fragmentary. The latter falls in love, or reads Spinoza, and these two experiences have nothing to do with each other, or with the noise of the typewriter or the smell of cooking; in the mind of the poet these experiences are always forming new wholes.
This assertion that the poet brings unity out of multiplicity is one we've seen before, when Yeats commented that the poet could "evoke an emotion that is made out of ... distinct evocations and yet is one emotion."

It's here that Eliot asserts, "In the seventeenth century a dissociation of sensibility set in, from which we have never recovered; and this dissociation, as is natural, was aggravated by the influence of the two most powerful poets of the century, Milton and Dryden." Assertions like these, that a particular period of history represents a transformation of consciousness (like Hans Arp's pinpointing a change in 1914) are always a bit suspect, and they usually grow out of a distaste or a preference for what has gone before. In Eliot's case, though, it may have to do with the fact that the later 17th century saw the beginning of the scientific revolution and the Enlightenment.

So Eliot champions the metaphysical poets as models for the moderns because they strove for a "unification of sensibility":  "they were, at best, engaged in the task of trying to find the verbal equivalent for states of mind and feeling." And he challenges his contemporaries not to make poetry more accessible, but in fact, to make it harder:
We can only say that it appears likely that poets in our civilization, as it exists at present, must be difficult. Our civilization comprehends great variety and complexity, and this variety and complexity, playing upon a refined sensibility, must produce various and complex results. The poet must become more and more comprehensive, more allusive, more indirect, in order to force, to dislocate if necessary, language into his meaning.... Racine and Donne looked into a good deal more than the heart. One must look into the cerebral cortex, the nervous system, and the digestive tracts.

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