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Tension in Poetry

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  • Pages: 9
  • Word count: 2006
  • Category: Poetry

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Many poems that we ordinarily think of as good poetry — and some, besides, that we neglect — have certain common features that will allow us to invent, for their sharper apprehension, the name of a single quality. I shall call that quality tension. In abstract language, a poetic work has distinct quality as the ultimate effect of the whole, and that whole is the “result” of a configuration of meaning which it is the duty of the critic to examine and evaluate. In setting forth this duty as my present procedure I am trying to amplify a critical approach that I have used on other occasions, without wholly giving up the earlier method, which I should describe as the isolation of the general ideas implicit in the poetic work. Mass language is the medium of “communication,” and its users are less interested in bringing to formal order what is sometimes called the “affective state” than in arousing that state.

Once you have said that everything is One it is obvious that literature is the same as propaganda; once you have said that no truth can be known apart from the immediate dialectical process of history it is obvious that all contemporary artists must prepare the same fashionplate. It is clear too that the One is limited in space as well as time, and the no less Hegelian Fascists are right in saying that all art is patriotic. What Mr. William Empson calls patriotic poetry sings not merely on behalf of the State; you will find it equally in a lady-like lyric and in much of the political poetry of our time. It is the poetry of the mass language, very different from the “language of the people” which interested the late W. B. Yeats. For example: What from the splendid dead

We have inherited—
Furrows sweet to the grain, and the weed subdued—
See now the slug and the mildew plunder.
Evil does overwhelm
The larkspur and the corn;
We have seen them go under.

From this stanza by Miss Millay we infer that her splendid ancestors made the earth a good place that has somehow gone bad — and you get the reason from the title: “Justice Denied in Massachusetts.” How Massachusetts could cause a general desiccation, why (as we are told in a footnote to the poem) the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti should have anything to do with the rotting of the crops, it is never made clear. These lines are mass language: they arouse an affective state in one set of terms, and suddenly an object quite unrelated to those terms gets the benefit of it; and this effect, which is usually achieved, as I think it is here, without conscious effort, is sentimentality. Miss Millay’s poem was admired when it first appeared about ten years ago, and is no doubt still admired, by persons to whom it communicates certain feelings about social justice, by persons for whom the lines are the occasion of feelings shared by them and the poet. But if you do not share those feelings, as I happen not to share them in the images of desiccated nature, the lines and even the entire poem are impenetrably obscure. I am attacking here the fallacy of communication in poetry. (I am not attacking social justice.)

It is no less a fallacy in the writing of poetry than of critical theory. The critical doctrine fares ill the further back you apply it; I suppose one may say — if one wants a landmark — that it began to prosper after 1798; for on the whole nineteenth-century English verse is a poetry of communication. The poets were trying to use verse to convey ideas and feelings that they secretly thought could be better conveyed by science (consult Shelley’s Defense), or by what today we call, in a significantly bad poetic phrase, the Social Sciences. Yet possibly because the poets believed the scientists to be tough, and the poets joined the scientists in thinking the poets tender, the poets stuck to verse. It may scarcely be said that we change this tradition of poetic futility by giving it a new name, Social Poetry.

May a poet hope to deal more adequately with sociology than with physics? If he seizes upon either at the level of scientific procedure, has he not abdicated his position as poet? At a level of lower historical awareness than that exhibited by Mr. Edmund Wilson’s later heroes of the Symbolist school, we find the kind of verse that I have been quoting, verse long ago intimidated by the pseudo-rationalism of the Social Sciences. This sentimental intimidation has been so complete that, however easy the verse looked on the page, it gave up all claim to sense. (I assume here what I cannot now demonstrate, that Miss Millay’s poem is obscure but that Donne’s “Second Anniversarie” is not.) As another example of this brand of obscurity I have selected at random a nineteenth-century lyric, “The Vine,” by James Thomson: The wine of love is music,

And the feast of love is song:
When love sits down to banquet,
Love sits long:
Sits long and rises drunken,
But not with the feast and the wine;
He reeleth with his own heart,
That great rich Vine.

The language here appeals to an existing affective state; it has no coherent meaning either literally or in terms of ambiguity or implication; it may be wholly replaced by any of its several paraphrases, which are already latent in our minds. One of these is the confused image of a self-intoxicating man-about-town. Now good poetry can bear the closest literal examination of every phrase, and is its own safeguard against our irony. But the more closely we examine this lyric, the more obscure it becomes; the more we trace the implications of the imagery, the denser the confusion. The imagery adds nothing to the general idea that it tries to sustain; it even deprives that idea of the dignity it has won at the hands of a long succession of better poets going back, I suppose, to Guinizelli: Al cor gentil ripara sempre Amore

Come alla selva augello in la verdura
What I want to make clear is the particular kind of failure, not the degree, in a certain kind of poetry. Were we interested in degrees we might give comfort to the nineteenth century by citing lines from John Cleveland or Abraham Cowley, bad lyric verse no better than “The Vine,” written in an age that produced some of the greatest English poetry. Here are some lines from Cowley’s “Hymn: to light,” a hundred-line inventory of some of the offices performed by the subject in a universe that still seems to be on the whole Ptolemaic; I should not care to guess the length the poem might have reached under the Copernican system. Here is one of the interesting duties
of light: Nor amidst all these Triumphs does thou scorn

The humble glow-worm to adorn,
And with those living spangles gild,
(O Greatness without Pride!) the Bushes of the Field.
The Violet, springs little Infant, stands,
Girt in thy purple Swadling-bands:
On the fair Tulip thou dost dote;
Thou cloath’st it in a gay and party-colour’d Coat.

This, doubtless, is metaphysical poetry; however bad the lines may be — they are pretty bad — they have no qualities, bad or good, in common with “The Vine.” Mr. Ransom has given us, in a remarkable essay, “Shakespeare at Sonnets” (The World’s Body, 1938), an excellent description of this kind of poetry: “The impulse to metaphysical poetry…consists in committing the feelings in the case…to their determination within the elected figure.” That is to say, in metaphysical poetry the logical order is explicit; it must be coherent; the imagery by which it is sensuously embodied must have at least the appearance of logical determinism: perhaps the appearance only, because the varieties of ambiguity and contradiction possible beneath the logical surface are endless, as Mr. Empson has demonstrated in his elucidation of Marvel’s “The Garden.” Here it is enough to say that the development of imagery by extension, its logical determinants being an Ariadne’s thread that the poet will not permit us to lose, is the leading feature of the poetry called metaphysical. “The Vine” is a failure in denotation. “Hymn: to light” is a failure in connotation. The language of “The Vine” lacks objective content.

Take “music” and “song” in the first two lines; the context does not allow us to apprehend the terms in extension; that is, there is no reference to objects that we may distinguish as “music” and “song”; the wine of love could have as well been song, its feast music. In “Hymn: to light,” a reduction to their connotations of the terms violet, swadling-bands, and light (the last being represented by the pronoun thou) yields a clutter of images that may be unified only if we forget the firm denotations of the terms. If we are going to receive as valid the infancy of the violet, we must ignore the metaphor that conveys it, for the metaphor renders the violet absurd; by ignoring the diaper, and the two terms associated with it, we cease to read the passage, and begin for ourselves the building up of acceptable denotations for the terms of the metaphor. Absurd: but on what final ground I call these poems absurd I cannot state as a principle. I appeal to the reader’s experience, and invite him to form a judgment of my own. It is easy enough to say, as I shall say in detail in a moment, that good poetry is a unity of all the meanings from the furthest extremes of intension and extension.

Yet our recognition of the action of this unified meaning is the gift of experience, of culture, or, if you will, our humanism. Our powers of discrimination are not deductive powers, though they may be aided by them; they wait rather upon the cultivation of our total human powers, and they represent a special application of those powers to a single medium of experience — poetry. I have referred to a certain kind of poetry as the embodiment of the fallacy of communication: it is a poetry that communicates the affective state, which (in terms of language) results from the irresponsible denotations of words. There is a vague grasp of the “real” world. The history of this fallacy, which is as old as poetry but which towards the end of the eighteenth century began to dominate not only poetry, but other arts as well–its history would probably show that the poets gave up the language of denotation to the scientists, and kept for themselves a continually thinning flux of peripheral connotations.

The companion fallacy, to which I can give only the literal name, the fallacy of mere denotation, I have also illustrated from Cowley: this is the poetry which contradicts our most developed human insights in so far as it fails to use and direct the rich connotation with which language has been informed by experience. We return to the inquiry set for this discussion: to find out whether there is not a more central achievement in poetry than that represented by either of the extreme examples that we have been considering. I proposed as descriptive of that achievement, the term tension. I am using the term not as a general metaphor, but as a special one, derived from lopping the prefixes off the logical terms extension and intension. What I am saying, of course, is that the meaning of poetry is its “tension,” the full organized body of all the extension and intension that we can find in it. The remotest figurative significance that we can derive does not invalidate the extensions of the literal statement. Or we may begin with the literal statement and by stages develop the complications of metaphor: at every stage we may pause to state the meaning so far apprehended, and at every stage the meaning will be coherent.

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