Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Literary Conversation Revealed...

I have an ongoing literary dialogue with a friend I cannot name, although he posts comments here frequently, though he has forbidden me to quote him. I reason therefore that if I quote him without attribution I am not quoting him.

It also occurs to me that when I am blogging about literary matters, I am likely not depressed--which makes many disinterested, and though I thank you all for your support during my depression, you should take my new ability to write about things other than myself as a sign of relative health.

I have cared about poetry since a very early age; perhaps it's being the second born son that makes me feel unappreciated; perhaps it's my very lack of talent; perhaps it's the current culture; but I can't get the monkey of poetry off my back at this late stage of my life. I want to flush it, return to medicine and be "a useful engine" as Thomas the Tank advises; on the other hand, Shelley said "Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the universe." I think in this regard that philosophy, from Plato to Marx, has been much more important in legislating the universe, that Shelley obviously overestimated the importance of poets because he, too, was a manic-depressive in a fairly manic state when he wrote his essay, "In Defence of Poetry" [Poesy].

Without further ado, then, I give you a dialogue between me and one persistent literary correspondent:

Anon: The Newtonian world of Rube Goldberg contraptions, self-contained
well-oiled machines is gone, so too the closed deductive approach.

CE: I would disagree. From quantum mechanics to Ptolemy the level at which truth is perceived is not invalidated by another level; there is no more truth in quantum theory than Newton; it is just a finer representation of physics. In fact, to the average reader of poetry, there is more truth in Newton.

Anon: Every observer is a creator. After all, there is no world absent the
observer. Therefore every reader must be invited to co-create --or co-write-- the poem. If you wish to evoke a universe, you must invite
others along. The age of teachers-and-pupils is gone.

CE: Subject-object is unavoidable, despite Eliot's argument, which you endorse above, from "Tradition and the Individual Talent." But Auden threw this to the wind, as did Richard Wilbur and many others, with a narrator speaking to an audience. I would opine that no matter how much fusion is sought, a fundamental gap exists between author and reader, that the reader cannot help trying to understand what the artist intends, even if the artist claims he intends nothing. From "The Waste Land," even: "Give, sympathize, control."

Anon: If you want to 'people' your universe and seek some kind of endorsement or public imprimatur, you must attract people. To attract people, you must offer a
participatory environment. This is not currying as you say, or even laziness.

CE: All great poetry invites participation, even Milton, whose epic I will never like. When we see Eve in the garden, for instance, our sexuality is aroused, despite his Puritan profession.

Anon: By the way, you can't quote me.

CE: LOL! You have no power over this other than honor. Can I post this conversation at my blog (without attribution)?

And so I have.

Until later,



  1. *scratch head*

    I don't get why anyone as concerned with anonymity as your correspondent claims to be would post comments on a blog (instead of, eg. emailing you privately).

    As for the substance of his debate: I don't think any poem can be completely open _or_ completely closed. You're correct that the reader will always try to make out what the author "meant"-- on the other hand, there will also always be a gap between the author's intentions and the reader's interpretation: to some degree the reader is always the co-creator

    I've done some technical writing, which is probably the most closed form of writing there is: the goal is always and explicitly that anyone who reads it should come away with the same understanding as the last person. But it ain't possible.

    Anyway I'm glad you're feeling better. My husband has suffered from depression on and off throughout his life; I can offer no consolation that doesn't smack of truisms. But anyway, I'm glad.

  2. Ha! He didn't post on my blog, I posted his letter, but I truly think he was kidding when he said, "Don't quote me!" But if I am wrong, I can always right it by erasure.

    Sorry to hear about your husband. The world's worst disease, IMHO, as it sucks the light out of everything and destroys hope.

    Oh, I agree few poems are entirely open or closed; there are a few, but all such definitions are only approximations, on which all literary criticism is based. Yet looking at Shakespeare's sonnets, my favorite example, almost all are deductive and closed, with some wriggling room left in the closing couplets.

  3. I do see the point here-- and part of me yells Amen. But, "there is no world absent the observer" goes against everything I read in James Wright, Goethe, Mary Oliver, Bly, Stafford... And Buson. And that part of me says no.

  4. Yes, Sam, exactly--where the subject-object is usually preserved, if I read you right. It was Eliot who introduced the concept of the "impersonal poem," the extinquishing of personality, best attempted in TWL. Historically most poetry made the subject-object distinction. "A man speaking to other men" as Wordsworth said. Yet Eliot's point is well taken, as is tiel's, as is my friend's--but I am on the side of those who say a tree falling in a forest does make a sound, whether we hear it or not. In other words, there is no avoiding the duality of the speaker and hearer, nor can we avoid the interaction and sometimes merging of the two, depending on the negative capabilities of reader and writer.

  5. Anonymous9:14 AM PST

    That's quite a clever friend you have there CE. But somehow I know you'll give as good as you get. I just hope he knows what he's in for.



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