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Saturday, April 23, 2005

A Note on Poetics

Posted by Matt Greenfield on 04/23/05 at 11:14 AM

It is the spring of 1991 and I am sitting in a clean, modern-looking seminar room (I think I remember blond wood, steel, and large windows) at the University of California at Irvine.  I am trying to decide where to go to graduate school. 

The class begins with a series of student presentations.  The first two students deliver elegant theoretical arguments of a kind that is soon to become profoundly unfashionable (in 1991, the faculty of Irvine includes J. Hillis Miller, Jacques Derrida, and other theoreticians transplanted from Yale).  The third student, who is working on an MFA in creative writing rather than a Ph.D. in English and Comparative Literature, presents something rather different: an impassioned, repetitious, and poorly argued denunciation of T. S. Eliot’s elitism.  The professor and the Ph.D. students are embarrassed and fidgety.  Despite the anger in the presenter’s voice, I sense that she is experimenting in a playful and ultimately disinterested way; she is trying to figure out what role the critics want her to play and wondering what will happen if she doesn’t play it.

At this point, I could begin a lengthy denunciation of the ignorance of so many M.F.A. students.  How can they call themselves poets when they haven’t read The Aeneid or In Memoriam or Paradise Lost or… Ahem.  This post could also turn into a familiar-sounding jeremiad against the sterility and pretentiousness of so much literary theory.  I like a good jeremiad as much as the next person, but I somehow don’t feel that the world needs another one right now.  What I intend to do instead is to offer some modest, practical examples of how critics can be useful to poets.

My first example is Jonathan Culler’s essay “On Apostrophe,” which was originally published in Diacritics and was reprinted in Culler’s The Pursuit of Signs.  Culler is best known for his lucid explanations of literary theory, and poets are likely to avoid Culler’s work because of the company he keeps: structuralists, post-structuralists, linguists, cultural critics, and other people who handle poetry as if it were plutonium, putting it inside a shielded box and using robotic prosthetics to manipulate it.  Culler, though, is not only the king of meta-critics but also a quirky and sensitive reader of poetry, a comparativist with an impressive range, and a theorist in the best sense — someone who can change the way one thinks about poetry.

The essay is about those utterances in which poets address someone other than the reader: “O wild west wind!” and “O rose, thou art sick!” As Culler’s examples suggest, apostrophes often begin with the vocative “O,” and they also frequently end in exclamation points.  As these examples also suggest, apostrophes are faintly embarrassing.  They seem excessively emotional and frigidly conventional at the same time.  Before Culler, most critics writing on Romantic poetry ignored the apostrophes or dismissed them as purely conventional.

Culler suggests, though, that we are uncomfortable with apostrophe for precisely the opposite reason: in their apostrophes, poets make grand claims concerning the powers of poetry.  Apostrophe “emphasizes that voice calls in order to be calling, to dramatize its calling, to summon images of its power so as to establish its identity as poetical and prophetic voice.” The scandal of apostrophe is that it admits that the things it addresses are fictions; the voice alone is real.  Utterances like “O wild west wind!” are “the pure embodiment of poetic pretention: of the subject’s claim that in his verse he is not merely an empirical poet, a writer of verse, but the embodiment of poetic tradition and of the spirit of poesy.  Apostrophe is perhaps always an indirect invocation of the muse.  Devoid of semantic reference, the O of apostrophe refers to other apostrophes and thus to the lineage and conventions of sublime poetry.”

One may be tempted to think of apostrophe as an outmoded strategy, something poetry has moved beyond.  No one now uses the vocative “O” in poetry except in parody: what was once the territory of the ode now belongs to Kenneth Koch and John Ashbery.  Culler suggests, though, that the apostrophes of Shelley and Blake felt awkward even to their contemporaries.  Apostrophes are designed to provoke discomfort.  Making the reader squirm is an accomplishment of a sort, and distracting the reader away from the narrative and discursive elements of a poem may in fact be pretty close to the central function of lyric.

One does not need to accept Culler’s argument in order to find it useful.  I would like to see what sort of effect reading Culler’s essay might have on a good poet.  Louise Gluck, for example, already relies pretty heavily on apostrophe, particularly in The Wild Iris.  Would reading Culler be helpful to her? 

Culler’s essay on apostrophe may not have reached many poets (although some students in the MFA program at Cornell apparently do take graduate seminars in English), but it has stimulated several interesting pieces of scholarship.  Most notably, Paul Fry wrote a book called The Poet’s Calling in the English Ode that relies heavily on Culler.  Fry does the extended readings of the major Romantic odes which Culler doesn’t have time for in his brilliant and compressed essay.  Fry’s book is one of the better things I have ever read on a poetic genre.  Ex-deconstructionist Barbara Johnson wrote a provocative essay called “Apostrophe, Animation, and Abortion” in which she suggests that there is a kind of sub-genre of poems about abortion in which the dead fetus is apostrophized. And Douglas Kneale wrote a rather sterile essay claiming that Culler is really talking about prosopopeia rather than apostrophe.  It doesn’t matter; Culler’s argument wouldn’t be affected by a change of terminology.

I often wonder why there aren’t more essays focused, in a trans-historical way, on particular tropes.  Other than Howard Nemerov’s “On Metaphor,” I can’t really think of a similar essay on metaphor, which in modern thinking about poetry has become the master trope.


Comments

I think it’s great that we’re going to discuss Culler’s work this way rather than, for example, a tedious discussion of the “bad writing” volume.

By Jonathan on 04/23/05 at 12:27 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Wait, though.  Apostrophe is a rhetorical device, not a poetic trope.  An apostrophe is simply a remark addressed to a person not present.  “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall” is also an apostrophe, as is “Sen. Kerry, release your military records”.  Thus it doesn’t have to start with O, though for something important enough to require an address to a person not present, it probably should end with an exclamation point.

The embarrassing part here is actually the excessively high poetic diction, not the rhetorical device of apostrophe.  I’ve been discussing high diction and its various unexpected forms on my blog for a week or so.  One unexpected form of high diction, for instance, is Amardeep Singh’s assertion yesterday that corporate memos are a low form or writing, while academic writing on George Eliot is high.  This is also, of course, embarrassing.  I would say the diction is the problem, as writers from Mark Twain to Charles Bukowski have pointed out, not the rhetorical device, which can be very well used.

By John Bruce on 04/23/05 at 12:53 PM | Permanent link to this comment

“O wild west wind!” and “O rose, thou art sick!” are both made up entirely of one-syllable words.  It hardly seems like “high diction.”

By Adam Kotsko on 04/23/05 at 01:29 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Diction doesn’t have anything to do with syllables. Using “thee” and “thou”, one syllable words both, is high diction.  Using O is high diction.  Saying mothaf-cka, a four syllable word, is low diction.  “Thou still unsullied bride of quietness” is high diction because it uses deliberate “poetic” language at a level above everyday speech.  “Poetry sound sound like talk” is low diction making its own point.  Didn’t anyone here, inluding Prof. Singh, take the sophomore survey?

By John Bruce on 04/23/05 at 01:41 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I meant “should sound”, not “sound sound”.

By John Bruce on 04/23/05 at 01:42 PM | Permanent link to this comment

And I was quoting Keats from distant memory; it should be “Thou still unravish’d bride of quietness”.  That reinforces my point, though; “unravish’d” is simply not ordinary speech.

By John Bruce on 04/23/05 at 01:48 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Arranging your words according to a particular meter simply isn’t “ordinary speech” either.  Nor is rhyming.  Maybe we should stop having poetry altogether and just talk to each other like normal people.

By Adam Kotsko on 04/23/05 at 01:52 PM | Permanent link to this comment

And—ah—poetry is all in meter, and rhymes, Adam?  Is that it?  I repeat my question about the sophomore survey.

By John Bruce on 04/23/05 at 01:56 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I’ve read a lot of poetry in my day, and a lot of it included meter and rhyme.  They are closely associated with poetry, even if they don’t finally define it.  In fact, many of the terms I learned in my sophomore survey were related to different types of meter. 

Looking at the Bedford Glossary of Literary Terms, which I have saved from my sophomore survey, I note that apostrophe is classified as a rhetorical figure rather than a trope, with the two being branches of the larger category of figures of speech.  Here’s the breakdown.

Tropes: metaphor, metonymy, simile, personification, and synecdoche

Rhetorical figures: Antithesis, apostrophe, chiasmus, parallelism, rhetorical questions, syllepsis, and zeugma (the last two are apparently identical to each other).

I’m sure a deconstructive analysis (something I learned about in the sophomore survey) could “deconstruct” the strict boundary between tropes and rhetorical figures—which seems like a fairly arbitrary boundary anyway.  For instance, wouldn’t apostrophe be implicitly a type of personification (which is a trope)? 

Now that we’ve gotten all this under control, could we maybe even think about talking about what the post is actually about?

By Adam Kotsko on 04/23/05 at 02:40 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I suppose I’ll make the token historicist claim that one generation’s low diction can become another’s high or vice versa.  Furthermore, all of these statements must be taken in their historoical context.  Almost any product of a culture dominated by the written word will, if analyzed by our students, come across as high diction.  Professors and graduate students are sometimes more perceptive than their students, but sometimes they’re not.  Very often, say, when someone is writing about Jack London, they attribute strong emotion to the thunk-thunk-thunk of the dull socialist’s perpetual reiteration of his beliefs.  They’re unable to differentiate--i.e. they can’t recognize the nuances in diction, rhythm, etc.--between the contemporary conventions and their perception of the work.  In short, they’re not scholars.

Keats’ “unravish’d” is now, as John Bruce points out, certainly high diction.  Whether it would’ve been when Keats wrote it is something I’d have to defer to the people more familiar with Keats and his contemporaries.  What I mean is this:

I take the points everyone makes, at face value, to be correct; but I’m not sure what category these points belong to, nor do I know how to think about rhetoric in the “trans-historical” way Matt Greenfield asks us to.  The devices may be universal, but as Matt himself points out, if the Romantics employed the apostrophe in order to provoke discomfort, might not those who rebel against Romantic individualism use the apostrophe to create a community?  (I’m thinking here of the awful poetry of Mike Gold, whose communist/socialist sympathies resulted in some of the most didactic poetry in the history of awful didactic poetry.)

By A. Cephalous on 04/23/05 at 02:56 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Matt,

Cornell isn’t the only institution that forces its MFAs to take courses in English.  UCI does too.  Each MFA must take three English courses with non-MFA faculty, and most of the poets end up courses designed around Shakespeare, Chaucer, and other writers who once fell under UCI’s definition of a “Major Author.”

Since I was in coursework, the “Major Author” requirement has been phased out, so I’m not sure where the MFAs congregate. (Although when I was in coursework, a number of them did take Hillis’ seminars.)

By A. Cephalous on 04/23/05 at 03:02 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Acephalous,

It sounds as if you have spent much more time than I have watching interactions between MFA students and Ph.D. students.  What did you observe?  Was there mutual incomprehension?  Toleration?  Actual transfers of knowledge across boundaries?

By on 04/23/05 at 05:12 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Matt,

Much as I’d like to answer your question definitively, the best I can muster is it depended on the quality of the Ph.D. and MFA and the accessibility of the course.  For example, I took James Olney’s (on loan from LSU) course on Memory & Narrative, and that seminar split about 50/50 Ph.D./MFA and a wonderful time was had by all.  Olney appreciated the writerly perspective the poets and novelists brought to a course on the production of what he called life-writing, and because the MFA students felt wanted, they made sincere efforts to tackle the critical works.

But if the poet/novelist feels alienated, i.e. if the reading for the first day of class has Lyotard demolishing narrative or Lacan explaining away the mysteries of childhood with suspect pseudoscience, the contributions of this MFA to the seminar will be minimal.  Now that I’ve written these two paragraphs, I think maybe I can categorize the participation of the MFA in the Ph.D. seminar:

If the professor addresses the production of the text as a complicated intersection of an author’s lived experience, research, body of work, techniques, etc. then the MFA’s contributions are likely to be substantial.  If the professor sees an author’s work as grist for some theoretical mill, the MFA positions him/herself oppositionally, does little (if any) of the secondary reading, and his/her presentations recapitulate one or another tired assault from the Theory Wars. 

This logic especially holds when the theories in question are psychoanalytic or Marxist because--and I sympathize with this position on a person-to-person basis even if I do see a certain amount of deterministic creep in every author’s works--because the MFA rejects outright the idea that what they produce follows, necessarily, some formula that can be (to mix metaphors) reverse-engineered; the idea that Marx or Freud can allow a critic to know more about an author than that author knew about him/herself is repugnant to the MFA.  With good reason: those theories conflict with the self-image of the MFA who believes his/her life invested in creative process.  The MFA is unlikely to credit theories that deny existence to their lived experience of the creative process. 

I’m thinking with my fingers here, so I apologize for the length, but there’s one more point I need to make: the courses that benefit the MFA are the same that benefit the Ph.D.  The movement away from doctrine; away from totalizing regimes of interpretation (even those regimes which imagine themselves in opposition to other even more totalizing regimes); away from the slow sedimentation of theory into fact, cemented by the weight of rejected journal articles distinguishable not by their identical ground-breaking claims but by the order in which the seven au courrant citations are discussed; the movement, that is, away from imagining a coherent social reality reflecting an undiminished Aristotelian tidiness...seminars that embrace this movement allow the MFA to participate in debates among other well-read human beings about complex social realities.  The other kinds of courses encourage mental goose-stepping by Ph.D. and MFA alike; the Ph.D.s handle these seminars better than the MFAs because, well, on the whole we’re not a real creative lot.

As for the relations between MFAs and Ph.D.s--and this reply has become a post unto itself--I’d say that in a good seminar it’s one of scholarly comraderie with occasional condescension (in the form of Ph.D.s explaining this, that or the other to the MFAs); whereas a bad seminar’s characterized by endemic hostility (even among students who had been comrades the quarter before).  I could say more (especially about the attitudes of a particular breed of Ph.D. and how he/she reacts to all blasphemers, Ph.D. and MFA alike), but you all know the sort, so there’s no need.

By A. Cephalous on 04/23/05 at 05:59 PM | Permanent link to this comment

That last report matches my experience as well:  MFA students don’t want writers to be treated as immortal heroes who can do no wrong, but they have a hard time finding conceptual space in big theories for what--in workshops, at the typewriter, reading others’ work, etc.--seems like what every practicing writer knows and does and why. 

There is, of course, much that MFAs can learn from PhDs.  I wonder:  what does the poster think PhDs might have to learn from MFAs?

Also, one picky point:  Many prominent contemporary poets are capable of some pretty sophisticated--if usually unfashionable--theoretical labor, right?  Gluck, for example, has written a nice little book about poetry.  So has Dunn.  And then there are folks who are very sophisticated:  S. Stewart, Koethe, etc.

By Zehou on 04/24/05 at 08:31 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Yes, there are many amphibious creatures out there.  In addition to the ones you name, Zehou, I would mention Robert Pinsky, Seamus Heaney, James Longenbach, John Burt, John Hollander, Koethe’s wife, Mary Kinzie, who wrote a spectacular book called A Poet’s Guide to Poetry, Richard Howard, who has translated more literary theory than most scholars have read, Seamus Deane, a triple threat who is a fantastic poet, a post-colonial critic, and the author of a fine novel called Reading in the Dark, etc.  Many of these amphibians are ALSC members, and, as you say, they are unhappy with much of what passes for literary theory.  They are too theoretically sophisticated for it.  But I think there are critical gems out there that poets really need to discover; they are buried under mountains of inconsequentiality, and even the amphibians haven’t always read them, because they have given up on certain journals and certain topics.

By on 04/24/05 at 08:47 AM | Permanent link to this comment

"even the amphibians haven’t always read them, because they have given up on certain journals and certain topics.”

That sounds exactly right.  What then should be done?

One idea is for PhDs to submit work that is actually intended to be helpful to poets to magazines where poets are likely to come across them.  (THE WRITER’S CHRONICLE, e.g.) Or perhaps a new journal with a new mission statement?

By Zehou on 04/24/05 at 10:16 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Zehou,

I don’t know if you meant me or Matt by “poster,” but since you followed my long comment and I have a case of the solipsisms right now, I’m going to assume you meant me. 

What do I think Ph.D.s can learn from MFAs?  For one, how to write clearly and concisely.  It’s one thing to write about complex subjects, says the old saw, it’s another to write about them complexly.  Or, as a Ph.D. once snarled to me, “You’re always trying to simplicate things.”

I believe (sorry for all the statives) Ph.D.s can and should learn from the creative non-fiction crowd the limits of speculative interpretation.  I posted about this a while back, and because I certainly said it better then than I will now, here’s the link:

http://acephalous.typepad.com/acephalous/2005/04/speculation_and.html

Final comment: a quick comparison of my prose to Matt’s will tell you all you need to know about the value of studying language before producing it.

By A. Cephalous on 04/24/05 at 01:38 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I’m sure a deconstructive analysis (something I learned about in the sophomore survey) could “deconstruct” the strict boundary between tropes and rhetorical figures—which seems like a fairly arbitrary boundary anyway.  For instance, wouldn’t apostrophe be implicitly a type of personification (which is a trope)?

Of course, that doesn’t show up Bruce’s first claim, that apostrophe is not limited to poetry and that the utterances quoted are also apostrophe.

By ben wolfson on 04/25/05 at 11:30 AM | Permanent link to this comment

How the hell is it even relevant to this post that apostrophe is not limited to poetry?  Did Culler claim it was?

By Adam Kotsko on 04/25/05 at 11:35 AM | Permanent link to this comment

The embarrassing part here is actually the excessively high poetic diction, not the rhetorical device of apostrophe.  I’ve been discussing high diction and its various unexpected forms on my blog for a week or so.  One unexpected form of high diction, for instance, is Amardeep Singh’s assertion yesterday that corporate memos are a low form or writing, while academic writing on George Eliot is high.  This is also, of course, embarrassing.

O product marketing committee! O target market influencers! When shall the veils separating thee be unprism’d from our mortal sight!

Quentin Tarantino’s dialogue is like a fucking jewel, incidentally, but is also a lot more artificial than most MFA dipshits imagine. Real lowlife scrubs can’t fucking talk like that on account of they got tin ears. And Tarantino dialogue is not to be confused in any way with the vulgar talk of David Mamet characters, which rather accurately describes macho privileged fuckers trying to sound butch.

Keats’ apostrophizing in his time possibly was comparable to one or the other of these two superficially similar things: either an artificially beautiful diction that was in no way embarrassing, or a mimicry of the way a certain privileged niche class affected a specific diction to seem more authentic to themselves.

I’ve lost the thread of the original post. Wait, here it is:

Apostrophe is perhaps always an indirect invocation of the muse. ... Culler suggests, though, that the apostrophes of Shelley and Blake felt awkward even to their contemporaries.  Apostrophes are designed to provoke discomfort.

There’s awkwardness and then there is awkwardness. Watching the neighbor’s dog poop while you are exchanging pleasantries is irreducibly awkward; watching blood spurt out of a severed limb in an action movie is awkward within film convention, and a great deal depends upon how it is handled. “We are going to an artificial place, my people, and do you trust me to take you there?” Shelley and Blake were using precision tools and knew entirely what they were doing. Cullen’s implication seems to be otherwise.

By pierre on 04/25/05 at 12:11 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Pierre,

Right, one thing Matt is remarking on is the view that (what Culler calls) apostrophe has in other ages made folks uncomfortable, and in fact was probably used in important ways by important writers partly for that reason.  (But that’s to suggest that Shelley and Blake knew what they were doing and why--not that they didn’t, right?)

But “the thread of the post” is elsewhere:

1.  “What I intend to do . . . is to offer some modest, practical examples of how critics can be useful to poets.”

2.  “My first example is Jonathan Culler’s essay ‘On Apostrophe’.”

3.  “Louise Gluck . . . already relies pretty heavily on apostrophe.”

4.  “Would reading Culler be helpful to her?” Would it be helpful to other poets? 

And, of course, doing so might.  But:

First, are we to suppose that Gluck doesn’t really have a handle on how and why there is good reason to use (what Culler calls) apostrophe?  (I tend to think she does, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Matt agrees.  Which makes me wonder whether I’ve misunderstood his point.)

And second, what really is the respect in which Culler’s essay is supposed to be “helpful” to MFA students?

By Zehou on 04/25/05 at 01:33 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I get back to what seems to be acknowledged here, that apostrophe is a rhetorical device.  Again, ?Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” This is clearly a remark addressed to a listener not present, and it is classic apostrophe.  Its diction is down-to-earth, and it appears that either literally or figuratively, Mr. G. did what was asked of him, so it’s hardly embarrassing.  This, it seems to me, simply refutes Cullen—there is nothing embarrassing about apostrophe per se, which seems to be Cullen’s point.  Poetry has nothing to do with it, in or out of Cullen’s argument.

By John Bruce on 04/25/05 at 01:34 PM | Permanent link to this comment

First, the guy’s name is “Culler,” not “Cullen.” Second, his point is about using apostrophe specifically within poetry.  I don’t see any indication that Culler believes that apostrophe doesn’t occur elsewhere or that he has any special interest in “apostrophe as such,” just “apostrophe in poetry.”

I hate to deploy this blogism, but it seems to me that you’re being deliberately obtuse.

By Adam Kotsko on 04/25/05 at 01:40 PM | Permanent link to this comment

OK—“Get with child a mandrake root.” “Let us go, then, you and I.” Both are poetic apostrophes, but don’t use words as elevated as “O” or “thee/thou” or “unravish’d”.  They are as a result less embarrassing.  The issue is diction, an inflated level of language, not the actual use of a remark addressed to a listener not present—if we go through a poetry anthology, we can probably find an apostrophe on many pages, in eras of high and low fashion in diction.  Only the ones that rely on “O” and “thee/thou” are likely to be embarrassing, at least when not skilfully used.

By John Bruce on 04/25/05 at 01:51 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Where have you gone, Joe Dimaggey? O!
A nation turns its lonely eyes to you!
Woo, woo, woo!

Culler, though, is not only the king of meta-critics but also a quirky and sensitive reader of poetry, a comparativist with an impressive range, and a theorist in the best sense — someone who can change the way one thinks about poetry.

Unless Culler has himself written poetry which I admire, I don’t think his technical analysis of poetry is worth much. (I only hold this standard for technical analysis: successful analysis for content, influences, historical reception and the like do not require a working poet.) I’d much rather read Louise Gluck’s comments, or better yet, I’d prefer to go straight to her poems and try to figure them out.

Is this the direction you were going in, Zehou? Thanks for getting us back on track. :-)

By pierre on 04/25/05 at 02:07 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Louise Gluck has clearly done some serious thinking about apostrophe, but that doesn’t mean that she (or an MFA student) couldn’t learn something useful from Culler’s essay.

I don’t think high diction (the “O") alone is responsible for the embarrassing quality of apostrophe.  Even in the low diction of James Wright or the extremely various diction of Allen Ginsberg, apostrophe can be hard to take.  And like Blake and Shelley, Wright and Ginsberg deliberately provoke embarrassment and modulate it in a sophisticated way.

Pierre, I have to confess I am puzzled by your statement that you would “much rather read Louise Gluck’s comments, or better yet [. . .] prefer to go straight to her poems and try to figure them out.” If you feel that reading the distilled insights of Jonathan Culler would be a waste of valuable time, why spend time reading and responding to blogs?  Do you really think that critics have nothing to teach you about literature?  I believe that having conversations about works of art is a way to get closer to them.  And I at least find Culler to be a useful participant in these conversations.

By on 04/25/05 at 06:30 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Matt - Perhaps I can explain better. (And I hope you find me generally more playful than contentious.) When it comes to the use of poetic mechanics such as apostrophe, poems such as Louise Gluck’s provide examples which I find preferable to any theory. Perhaps Gluck has an explicit theory connected to her practice; having first examined her practice and respected its primacy, I would gladly move from her practice to her theory. But I would not find value in Culler’s theory of apostrophe, divorced as it is from any writing practice.

And this principle applies only to the mechanics of poetry. If Culler will only have the goodness to write about something appropriate like history, symbolism, or numerous other relevant topics, his (wretched, wormlike) status as a non-poet does not automatically exclude him from contributing something of value.

And like Blake and Shelley, Wright and Ginsberg deliberately provoke embarrassment and modulate it in a sophisticated way.

This is kind of my point. I would question the statement above in the case of Ginsberg. I don’t think embarrassment meant anything to a man whose response to pedestrian hostility toward his odd appearance was to sit down on the sidewalk and tinkle little bells to demonstrate the benefits of meditation. If anything, Ginsberg’s poetry seems to me to encourage the reader to a new understanding of many emotions, such as, for example, “embarrassment”. If mine is an accurate reading then surely such emotions can hardly be used as fundamental critical categories? The question is ultimately whether the art or the theory has primacy. Speaking confidently of “the modulation of embarrassment” precludes any possibility that the work of art might actually be trying to perform a truly transformative function such as exploring the elimination of embarrassment altogether.

By pierre on 04/25/05 at 07:40 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"Louise Gluck has clearly done some serious thinking about apostrophe, but that doesn’t mean that she (or an MFA student) couldn’t learn something useful from Culler’s essay.”

Quite so.  But what “something useful” do you have in mind? 

You introduced your post (an interesting one on an interesting topic) by implying that you were going to be giving “modest, practical examples of how critics can be useful to poets.” What you’ve actually offered is an example of a work that you tell us you think would be useful for poets, but you haven’t yet spelled out the reasoning that leads you to this conclusion.  Or perhaps the argument is to be revealed in a later post?  (Or perhaps I missed it.)

By Zehou on 04/25/05 at 08:35 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I am glad you like the topic, Zehou, and I am grateful for your stimulating questions, which are helping me to figure out what sort of stake I have in this conversation. I thought I had answered your question about the utility of Culler’s essay in the original post, but I will try again.  I think it might be useful for poets to think about apostrophes to absent or inanimate objects as simultaneously embarrassing the reader and making grand claims for the near-prophetic power of poetry.  I think that Culler’s article might help people who dislike Romantic odes to understand, enjoy, and make use of them.  I myself am starting to think about writing a. a poem consisting of a string of apostrophes and b. an essay on poetry and embarrassment that talks about diction as well as apostrophe. 

Let me also note that I am advocating that people read the essay itself, not my summary of it.  Reading my summary is not a substitute for reading Culler’s essay, which also provides, among other things, a sense of the development of French, German, and English poetry from 1800 to 1930.

Don’t worry, Pierre, you do sound playful rather than contentious.  I hope I do, too!  I think we are in fundamental agreement about the sophistication and self-awareness of good poets.  I still think, though, that poets can learn from critics.  I am a working poet myself, and I think this helps ground my interpretations, but I know many perceptive critics who are not themselves poets.  I think there are some people who are gifted readers but not poets.  One example would be Geoffrey Hartman, who published one underwhelming book of poetry, but who changed the way many of us see Wordsworth, Blake, Keats, Collins, and many other poets.  His critical writing is often quite elegant and beautiful, although he went through a self-indulgent phase in the eighties.  He has steeped himself in poetry, and it comes through in his prose.

By on 04/25/05 at 09:05 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Again, apostrophe is not unique to Romantic poets, and it doesn’t need to be expressed in elevated diction.  Marc seems to keep stressing a link to Romantics.

Robert Frost, first lines at random from Selected Poems:

Never tell me that not one star of all

Some of you will be glad I did what I did

You like to hear about gold

Why, Tityrus! But you’ve forgotten me

Oh, stormy stormy world,

As gay for you to take your father’s ax,

e.e.cummings, also at random

take it from me kiddo

how do you like your blueeyed boy

mr youse needn’t be so spry

I thank You God for rose this amazing

I go to this length in part simply because the thread reminded me of how common apostrophe is, and I continue to be puzzled that anyone would think there is something “embarrassing” about it.  The embarrassing thing is bad poetry, there is nothing wrong with apostrophe.  In fact, I think the issue may be that a writer, even to start to be good, has to internalize these things—even if not learned in a course on rhetoric, it’s not all that hard to figure these things out or imitate them.  If MFAs an PhDs have to chew them over 99 times, that is simply not very near to poetry or creativity.  This is a reservation I continue to have about this site—I’m not sure how many posters are basically running a mutual j--koff session convincing each other they’re “literary”.

By John Bruce on 04/25/05 at 10:18 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"I thought I had answered your question about the utility of Culler’s essay in the original post, but I will try again.  I think it might be useful for poets to think about apostrophes . . . as simultaneously embarrassing the reader and making grand claims for the near-prophetic power of poetry.”

Perhaps I should clarify my question:

‘It might be useful for Gluck & other poets to study Culler on apostrophes’ made me want to hear more about what you mean by ‘useful’ here and about your reason for thinking studying Culler on apostrophes would be useful in that sense.  (I.e., your remark made me want to hear more about “the utility,” for Gluck and others, “of reading Culler’s essay,” as you put it.)

The form of the clarification you offered above was this:  ‘It might be useful for Gluck and others to think about apostrophes as having dual function F’.  But this does not clarify the sense in which you think studying Culler on apostrophes would be useful; rather, it clarifies what you mean by ‘to study Culler on apostrophes’:  to do so is to think about apostrophes (or a class of apostrophes) as having a certain dual function.

Here’s an example of something you could say to be more specific:  those poets who wish to express in their poems “grand claims about the near-prophetic power of poetry” would learn of what is perhaps an efficient means of doing so.  But I assume you wouldn’t want to say that.  (Well, I wouldn’t, anyway.)

By Zehou on 04/25/05 at 11:23 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I feel as if I am being willfully misunderstood.  John Bruce, I never said that apostrophe was “unique to Romantic poets.” Obviously, as I and other posters here have made abundantly clear, it is a fairly universal gesture, both in literature and outside it, to the extent that it is worth making that distinction.  But one would have to be rather obtuse not to notice, with Culler, that the Romantic ode is more centered on apostrophe, more insistent on foregrounding it, than most poetic genres in most periods.  If you would like to learn more about this, you could look at the Culler article, the Fry book, and the article on odes in The Princeton Encyclopdia of Poetry and Poetics--and the odes themselves.  I agree with you that there is no substitute for reading and internalizing a large amount of great poetry, and without that breadth of reading, one probably won’t have a lot to contribute to a conversation on a topic like this one.  Your generalization about how poets learn, by the way, is utterly untrue of anyone writing in English between 1500 and about 1950 (and how many of us would argue that poetry hasn’t declined a bit since then?).  Everyone from Wyatt and Shakespeare to Frost devoted an unimaginable amount of time to doing exactly what we are doing here in this discussion--talking about tropes, schemes, and rhetorical strategies, as well as memorizing examples thereof in a systematic and conscious manner.  They could talk thoughtfully about aposiopesis or tmesis, much less apostrophe or prosopopeia.  There are great poetic autodidacts like Blake, Keats, Clare, Whitman, Rimbaud, and Hart Crane, but they, too, spent an awful lot of time in discussions like the one we are trying to have here.  There is something defensive about much of the denigration of academic knowledge on this site.  OF COURSE one needs to read a lot of poetry in order to say anything interesting about poetry, but a little discussion of classical rhetoric won’t poison you.

My name, by the way, is Matt, not Marc.

Zehou, I think your comment is an example of precisely the kind of embarrassment that Culler’s essay is about:

“Here’s an example of something you could say to be more specific:  those poets who wish to express in their poems ‘grand claims about the near-prophetic power of poetry’ would learn of what is perhaps an efficient means of doing so.  But I assume you wouldn’t want to say that.  (Well, I wouldn’t, anyway.)”

That is pretty much what I said and meant to say, although I think poets generally advance such claims in a hedged, qualified, and ironic manner. I think, furthermore, that when poets use apostrophe to provoke embarrassment in their readers, they do so in a spirit of aggression toward their audiences and simultaneously out of a desire to be humiliated.  Nick Halpern just published a book that I really like that advances a similar argument (the title is Everyday and Prophetic: The Poetry of Lowell, Ammons, Merrill, and Rich).  It is perfectly fine for you to find my suggestions disturbing.  I find them disturbing myself.  I feel, though, that if I have succeeded in disturbing someone else as well then I have put in a good day’s work.

By on 04/26/05 at 12:45 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I will probably regret saying this in the morning, but I think it is a little odd for an adult who claims to be interested in poetry not to have mastered the basic rules of punctuation and grammar, to say nothing of their historical development.  Are those also sterile, academic, and irrelevant, John Bruce?

By on 04/26/05 at 12:59 AM | Permanent link to this comment

If you take a look at some of those Latin exercises Rimbaud wrote when he was seven or so, you’ll see that he wasn’t exactly an autodidact.

I’m sure that Etiemble covers this in stupefying detail.

By Jonathan on 04/26/05 at 01:38 AM | Permanent link to this comment

D’accord.  Rimbaud was an autodidact in the sense that he left school in his mid-teens, but of course that meant he had become pretty accomplished in things like writing Latin prose in the styles of both Cicero and Tacitus.  I have to confess I haven’t made my way through Etiemble’s biography--four volumes, is it?

All of the autodidacts I named were pretty knowledgeable by the time they left school, most of them in their teens.  But I do see a real difference between them and their university-educated contemporaries.  The university grads took much longer to develop their own unique styles.  Blake was already Blake in his teens, but Wordsworth and Coleridge had to experiment with dozens of ways of writing before they found their voices.  So perhaps excessive imitatio can be dangerous.  Few of us, though, are likely to have that problem, alas.

By Matt Greenfield on 04/26/05 at 02:19 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Le Mythe is only a biography of error.

By Jonathan on 04/26/05 at 02:34 AM | Permanent link to this comment

So the following

“those poets who wish to express in their poems ‘grand claims about the near-prophetic power of poetry’ would learn of what is perhaps an efficient means of doing so.”

is, you report, “pretty much what I said and wanted to say.” And you add that not wanting to say it is “an example of precisely the kind of embarrassment” Culler’s essay describes.

Thanks for making your point explicit enough for even me to grasp it.  Now if you can find some poets who want their poems to express--who know they want their poems to express--grand claims about the near-prophetic power of poetry, you can recommend Culler’s essay and, should they agree with the alleged insights offered therein, you’ll have succeeded.

I’ll look forward to reading here at The Valve about how well the mission goes.

By Zehou on 04/26/05 at 07:32 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Well, Nick Halpern makes a persuasive case that Lowell, Ammons, Merrill, and Rich all struggled constantly with their desire to speak as prophets.  I think a lot of the interest of Bishop’s poetry is in her rigorous suppression of her strong prophetic impulses.  The same is true for Ashbery, Seamus Heaney (did you see his apocalyptic poem in the last New Yorker?), Louise Gluck, Robert Pinsky (see “The Want Bone” and “The Figured Wheel"), Eliot, Ginsberg (comically undercutting satire but still serious about a genuine visionary project), Tate (the Confederate cemetery ode), Robert Hass, Anthony Hecht, Richard Wilbur (a desire only partially disavowed in his poem about a mad prophet), Sylvia Plath, Frost, Pope (at the conclusion of the Dunciad), Shelley, Walcott, Milosz, Rilke, Holderlin, Spenser (see his “Mutabilitie Cantos"), Robert Hayden, Wordsworth, Dickinson, Wyatt (especially in his satires and of course his psalm translations), May Swenson, Jonson, and Williams, to name just a few.  And if these poets are ambivalent about their prophetic impulses, there are plenty of other great poets and good poets who are completely unabashed in their desire to write as prophets: Dante, Whitman, Blake, Milton, Smart, Yeats, Hugo, Robert Penn Warren, Ciaran Carson, Jay Wright, and Emerson, among others.  When you were a child, didn’t you want to grow up to have visions of the sacred?  I know I did.

You may ask whether there are any poets who don’t feel tempted by the prophetic or vatic.  Dryden is one good example. This may explain why there are so many Americans who love poetry but don’t love Dryden.  Ponge?  James Tate? Martial?  I am having to stretch a bit here.  I am genuinely very curious--whom would you add to this list of poets not tempted by prophecy?

By Matt Greenfield on 04/26/05 at 04:54 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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