Monday, April 17, 2006

other matter

The demands of blogging are severe, and we must not falter further.

So, how about Guy Davenport, 1969, introducing Ronald Johnson's VALLEY OF THE MANY-COLORED GRASSES: Speaking of 'the ideal western poem,' he says, "the credentials of this [kind of poem] tend to lurk not in the poem but in the personality of the poet. All that Byron wrote is somehow not as great as Byron. This illusion, fostered by the scandal-mongering of professors and the Grundyism of psychology, is a lazy and essentially indifferent view of poetry. The poet, who writes not for himself but to provide the world with an articulate tongue, longs to be as absent from his finished work as Homer."

Well, now, there's a point of view. Anyone care to respond?

Or, how about Wittgenstein: "Philosophy is a battle against the betwitchment of our intelligence by means of language."

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

more on voice

Helen Vendler’s Coming of Age as a Poet (2003) has one of the best discussions of voice in poetry and what it means to come into or “find” one’s voice. She doesn’t quite subscribe to the descriptions of this process given by Yeats in his “General Introduction” or by Hayden Carruth: “Before a man can create a poem he must create a poet.” [Working Papers: Selected Essays and Reviews (1982), p. 145], though in her essay on Plath’s “Colossus,” she says, at one point, “Suddenly, one is reading the person who became “Plath”.” (p.126) Here, she seems to separate the person from the poet, Plath from “Plath,” but her basic metaphor, as the book’s title indicates, is that what happens to a poet is that he or she “comes of age,” a standard, if unscientific, term of child development. Such a term strongly implies that becoming a poet is a process, however slow and difficult, of maturation. It is a natural, if not biological, transformation found in all life forms, one that, in announcing that transformation, also implicitly preserves the idea of a natural continuity or evolution of selfhood. There is no serious wrenching of the self, nothing that would allow a critic to say, for instance, that the man who wrote the River Duddon sonnets was different from he who wrote the Intimations Ode.
Vendler’s definition of voice comes to have many dimensions. She uses the word “style” interchangeably with “voice,” and describes four “discoveries in style” that a poet must make to come into full voice. They are: “the accurate expression of inner moods and attitudes,” an ability to identify “the salient elements of the outer sense-world that speak to his idiosyncratic imagination,” the devising of “particular axes of time and space” (the “living and non-living beings who will populate his work”), and finally, finding “a convincing cosmological or metaphysical frame of being within which the activity of the poem can occur.” (pp.4-5) While I agree that all of these discoveries have a relation to voice, to call them the vital components of voice blurs the meaning the word can have.
When she stays closer to what I think of as more evident components in a definition of style, she claims that a poet’s coming of age is a matter of forming “a coherent personal style.” (p.1) This corresponds to the “psychological search for identity—that is, for an authentic selfhood.” (p.1) “Coherence” (of character or self) and “authenticity,” along with “individuality” are her repeated terms for measuring or describing voice. “What sorts of discoveries in style does the youthful poet need to evoke? A governing stylistic decorum.” (p.4) I would have thought Eliot’s work—one of her four poets—would have given these criteria serious problems with its intense polyvocality (I’m referring only to the work he took the effort to preserve), but Vendler rightly finds the most readable, but not the only, version of Eliot in “Prufrock.” “Rhapsody on a Windy Night,” “The Waste Land,” the Sweeney poems, the cats, these all seem to be either holidays or vaguely psychotic departures from the authentic, and this despite the fact that Prufrock is, however similar, not Eliot, just as Pound was not Mauberly nor Browning Fra Lippo Lippi. When Vendler says that “a poem can’t veer uncontrollably from attitude to attitude, tone to tone. It must discover a fit governance of its evolving material.” (p.5), I hear a kind of fear of loss of control that reminds me of Arnold, say, or John Crowe Ransom reviewing “The Waste Land,” a kind of nineteenth century longing for fitness and governance and evolution (not revolution), which is the very set of attitudes that spurred the upheaval in the arts that gave us the twentieth century.
We are talking about voice, but it comes as no surprise that we are also talking about cultural value and its preservation. To Vendler, authenticity relates to consistency and coherence (being a predictable, coherent self) or at least to a comprehensible evolution of tone. Governance and control are keys to preserving the kind of familiarity that makes for idiosyncratic individuality. Individuality is, indeed, the cornerstone to this aesthetic, which is, at once, the ground on which our political life is said to be built.
But, what if it isn’t? What if our political life is no longer what we hoped it was and would continue to be? It would seem we would then be confused. We might not know who we are. We might think the idea of a “governing stylistic decorum” did not fit an age where individuality is a quant throwback like the butter churn. We would, instead, if we still thought poetry worth writing, think that other things than “one’s own voice” would matter more. (On the other hand, we might think that we had nothing to cling to but that old, but now unmoored, self of the past.) One of the things that might matter more would be our voicelessness. Another concern might be to avoid a “governing stylistic decorum” if it fit too unchallengingly into a social and political condition where consistency, coherence, governance and control became the
ideals under which we, in fact, lose our individuality rather than discover and preserve it.