Taking Lyrics Literally: Teaching Poetry in a Prose Culture


Charles Altieri

Department of English

UC Berkeley

Berkeley, CA 94720-1030


            Having spent two fruitless weeks attempting to write an essay offering practical advice on how to teach lyric poetry, I had to face the perhaps bizarre truth that I feel much less hollow elaborating theoretical projections about how to direct one's teaching than I do pretending to offer practical wisdom.  In this case my hollowness may in fact have been as close as I could come to wisdom.  For it suggests that I have yet to find a current theoretical approach to values capable of providing an adequate framework for the practical tasks involved in teaching lyric poetry.  But in my view it will not suffice to rely on sharing moderately successful teaching strategies without formulating the ends they serve or the visions of poetry that define the qualities they foreground.  So here I will try to elaborate a way of thinking about the lyric that can cogently draw connections between how we might best structure conversation about particular poems and how we might describe the basic values lyrics make available or reinforce for cultural life.

For me all the ladders start with the New Criticism.  That movement in its various manifestations had the cumulative effect of showing how a wide range of desires might be satisfied by focussing on how poems work before making claims about what they might be saying, or how they might be evading uncomfortable realities.  But at the same time  the actual theories proposed to defend those practices and to make claims for the overall importance of close reading to cultural life were manifestly problematic.  The most obvious reason for the eventual failure of New Critical theory was that it had come to prefer text to act (or Brooks to Burke) so that it could not adequately open itself to the range of human interests that generate efforts at lyric expression.  In order to develop a language of values appropriate for this hypostasizing of texts as the locus of value claims, the theorists were forced to a language of "organic form" that simply did not have the power to mediate sufficiently between what writers can produce and what cultures need.  Instead the academic culture shaped by New Criticism bought into what Denis Donoghue calls an "antithetical" model of values in which they based the importance of literary experience on its ability to carry "non-discursive truths" that opposed science's "mere" ability to develop and test discursive hypotheses.[1]  This commitment led critics to making claims about special "knowledge" from literary experience that had much more shrillness than they did substance.  Seeking knowledge led to thematic criticism, however eloquent the rhetoric of poetry as experience, and it proved impossible to correlate the allegory necessary for a knowledge claim with the performative energies within the text that made it seem worth heeding in the first place. Ironically, readers got so frustrated with thematic readings providing nothing workable as knowledge that they gravitated toward an idealized social criticism, where one actually could make knowledge claims about texts, if only in terms of their relationships to contexts.

            This inversion of New Critical projections about literary knowledge defines the basic challenge faced by contemporary defenses of poetry.  We still have to claim that extended experience of the lyric develops powers and modes of attention that are sharply at odds with many of the epistemic priorities driving Enlightenment modernity.  Yet we cannot return to the old dichotomy between scientific truth and non-discursive truth.  Therefore I propose that we treat the lyric as resisting the very idea that "truth" is a workable ideal for literary productions.  This is not to say that we do not learn many things from lyric texts.  It is to say that we are likely to run into trouble if we treat this learning in terms of any discourse about "truth" or knowledge that we inherit from the Enlightenment.[2]  Far better to begin at the opposite pole.  Perhaps lyric is important for our culture because it invites our exploring values that are opposed to the entire psychological apparatus set in place by Enlightenment idealizations about knowledge and judgment in accord with stateable criteria.

            The most succinct way to define what I mean by psychologies put in place by Enlightenment epistemic ideals is to turn to a piece of wisdom passed on to me by a humanist dean at UC Berkeley.  She told me that being a Dean meant constantly hearing the sentence "studies have shown," then bracing oneself for the disguised ideological content that follows.  I will call the culture that culminates in the clause "studies have shown" the pure product of epistemically oriented Enlightenment values.[3]  An adequate theory of the lyric will have to challenge the specific general psychological tendencies reinforced by this cultural orientation.  This orientation has us envision a teleology in which humans basic goal is to know themselves.  The phrase is ancient, but its force for modernity is to lead us to envision maturity as the ability to represent our own interests to ourselves, to understand the psychology involved in much the same way that we understand the interrelations of molecules, and to be able to take responsibility for ourselves because we submit these interests to public criteria for assessment.  Humanists are likely to shift the criteria, to talk about "human well-being" rather than about "utility."  But how we represent our pursuit of well-being will be fundamentally similar to how we pursue experiments.[4]

            I don't think it is an accident that phrases like "human well-being" make me cover my pocket.  If literary experience does nothing else, it makes us suspicious of generalized teleologies for the psyche, especially those with such a projected compatibility with calm reasoning.  But I don't want to reject claims about values simply because I can't share the criterial model by which epistemic culture organizes the discussion of values.  So now I need another, non-epistemic stance for theorizing about poetry, so that we then can see how poetry ultimately provides an alternative way of addressing philosophical discourse about value. In order to pursue these goals I will have to engage four basic concerns not sufficiently foregrounded when we either turn to the languages of politicized criticism or turn defensively back to academic versions of the New Critics' academicizing of Modernism.  First, theory has to show why responding to these particular words in this particular order makes present for the imagination certain qualities of experience that have the power to modify how psyches are disposed toward a world beyond the text.  Second, it is important to appreciate how the articulateness of these words in this order becomes a value because of the second-order identification it allows with that way of speaking. Then I have to turn to how other aspects of identification build on the articulateness to establish imaginative projections about who we become as we participate in certain dispositions of energies.  These projections allow us to reconfigure what counts as significant affect and to reflect on what these reconfigurings suggest about the values involved in such dispositions.  And finally I will try to clarify three basic values and modes of valuing that I think become available in our undertaking these imaginative projections. Emphasizing participation in speaking specific words in a specific order aligns us with a psychological economy based less on making judgments about knowledge claims than on processes involved in testing the range of conative powers we have available for engaging as fully as we can in what allows us to appreciate our capacities as individual agents.[5]


           In my courses I set the stage for these questions by chanting the mantra that lyrics should always be taken literally--the challenge is deciding what kind of imaginative space one has to occupy in order to appreciate the qualities provided by these words in this order.  Theory's task is to clarify how this literalness can be established and why that establishing matters.  To do this we first must call attention to what poems manage to do with the letters that are their building blocks.  This concern will obviously lead to how pages work as material objects. But most of the time poetry in the West envisions its literal dimension taking place in how readers give voice to the words.  Readers have to sound the sounds, in both senses of "sound.   Physically sounding the sounds gets us in contact with poetry's material presence in our bodies.  And imaginatively sounding our making of those sounds begins the self-reflexive processes through which poetry alters our sense of what may be entailed by various provisional identifications.

            The physical capacities of sound can do for poetry what color and line do for paintings, or tones and intervals for music: they can give pleasure in themselves and they offer abstract means of exploring elemental physical and psychological associations.  To teach this physicality it does not suffice to point to various patterns.  Students have to be led to feel the expressive capacities that their mouthing establishes, perhaps by having to project something close to chant. How many times can one say, "Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness/ Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun" without beginning to feel that one's own mouth can work as a musical instrument?  The mouth simultaneously plays the tune and registers its sensuous force.

          But soon sounding has to take on its second dimension.   Students have to experience the reading of poetry as sensous indulgence that overflows into the luscious delights of being able to stage ourselves as different identities or at least as having rich experiences not readily available for us without the texts.  Sounding has to include voicing.  (And New Critical talk about the speaker must become talk about the speaking.) For there is no better access to other identities, or to who we become because we can take on other identities, than giving ourselves over to a range of speaking voices.  Then we are not watching characters on a screen or a stage; we are actually becoming the voices through which they live.  One class exercise in such imaginative sensuality can be learning to hear character (and not just interpret it) by having students try to make speaking voices come alive, like the sneer of the duke in "My Last Duchess" or the whine in "Andrea del Sarto."  But we also have to remember that many of our most profound lyrics do not involve character at all.  Keat's "To Autumn" for example presents a speaking that has nothing to do with character, everything to do with inhabiting a shareable imaginative situation on levels that accommodate almost any character.  Analogously, poets have been fascinated by the capacity within voice to extend these transpersonal features so that they take on a transcendental cast.  How we speak the verse is crucial to the self-surrender basic to the mode of prayer in Herbert, and Eliot's Four Quartets can be considered a desparate quest to find speakable utterances for Christian faith in the modern world.   


            This stress on voicing allows us to make a useful distinction between language used primarily as representation--of self or of world--and language used primarily for realization, for composing energies as aspects of a particular relation the psyche can maintain toward the world and toward other people.  Even this distinction will not allow us a definition of poetry as a unique linguistic genre,[6] since several linguistic modes can make transitions from inviting the "seeing in" basic to representation to pursuing the "dwelling in" proposed by projects of realization.  But poetry may be distinctive as a genre because it has little use-value for us apart from its capacities to invite and to reward investments in voicing the signs in particular ways.

           The first important set of self-reflexive values cultivated by the lyric involves the genre's  commitment to articulation as something close to a value for its own sake.  Even before we quite know what we feel, we respond to the effort to make all the elements work against standard ways of formulating thoughts and emotions.  To characterize how such efforts can be experienced as values I have to turn to the social psychologist Sylvan Tomkins.  For he made it clear that second-order feelings and second-order satisfactions about how things get staged for self-reflection are as important for our sense of well-being as first order satisfactions in achieving specific desired objects and states.[7]  Appreciating articulateness consists in recognizing how the ways a medium is used make possible the range and intensity of first-order states that the work realizes. Lyrics invite distinctive (but not exclusive) use of this self-awareness because the articulations they offer usually invoke mental and affective resources quite different from those we experience when arguments seem to get the case just right.  Poetic articulation tends to succeed best when it also keeps the difficulties alive so that we have to feel the adjustments and balances necessary for trusting any language at all in the dramatic or perceptual situation.  Lyric treats articulateness as a condition of constantly flirting with the inchoate factors making us dissatisfied with what we can say about what we feel.

Achieving articulateness then manages to sharpen our sense of what experience involves while keeping in focus the work of taking responsibility for intensifying and extending passionate investments in those experiences.  In effect we find ourselves participating in a shared version of the all-important transition from the hidden to the manifest. Poetry offers the experience of civilizing processes literally in action. 

          My second topic forces me to attempt being more articulate about being articulate.  What kind of actual real world powers can we attribute to this dwelling at points where the inchoate merges into what can take on expressive realization to produce formulations within which we can dwell self-reflexively?  For many lyrics, articulate realization is connected directly to enabling provisional identifications with certain affective complexes or attitudes.  As we identify we also explore how the writing can reconfigure our received grammars for what constitutes various affective states.  The process involves highlighting certain aspects, reducing others, defamiliarizing some while risking the melodramatizing of others.   When this reconfiguration is done well, we begin to see lyric emotions as almost having lives of their own, while also recognizing the texts as establishing bare and powerful definitions of what is at stake in the investments we make in how we feel.

            As an example of both what self-reflection on articulateness can offer and of how the realization of affective states can reconfigure emotional grammars I will now turn to Elizabeth Bishop's "Sonnet"(Complete Poems, 192).  Let us begin with a standard New Critical strategy of first paraphrasing the poem, then asking what the paraphrase cannot capture.  Here though I am less interested in complexity of meaning per se than in how these words in this order invite us to appreciate how the intricacies of the psyche can take on elaborate metaphoric resonances:

Caught--the bubble

in the spirit level,

a creature divided;

and the compass needle

wobbling and wavering,


Freed --the broken thermometer's mercury

running away;

and the rainbow-bird

from the narrow bevel

of the empty mirror,

flying wherever

                        it feels like, gay!

             Taken as statement, the poem consists of two contrasting descriptions made with a series of conceits.  First, the poem develops a sense of entrapment inseparable from seeking some kind of mirror for projected identities.  Both the carpenter's level and the

compass needle register states of a subject left divided and undecided because it can only see itself as caught within some containing structure. The second half of the poem then presents an opposite state of mind.  Here the conceit compares the effort at self-definition to dealing with a thermometer that is broken so that the mercury runs out.  Metaphorically the spirit as bird can be gay because it feels it can fly away from the mirror (another instrument for self-measuring) with a sense that it is free to go wherever it feels like. 

            These are not uninteresting ideas.  But cast in this paraphrase, the poem's rendering of freedom seems to depend on entirely negative categories. We encounter a clear instance of "freedom from," not "freedom to."  And so it is no wonder that all the poem can do at the end is name the feeling.  Poetry transforms nothing.  At best it celebrates a fleeting and casual state that can be summarized by the adjective "gay."  However this picture changes considerably if we treat the poem as making certain properties of gaiety articulate by reconfiguring the elements that our cultural grammar offers as constituting gaiety.  Notice how the more we attend to the structuring material forces within the poem, like the parallels between participles, the more complexly we come to understand the transience that we typically associate with gaiety.  Bishop does not deny this transience.  But she complements it by reminding us that this mode of transience is not incompatible with a sense of structural solidity created by complex syntactic and aural patterns.  Perhaps the poem seeks to establish for fluid feelings characterizing gaiety also a sense of duration and scope usually attributed to emotions and the narratives they elicit.  Gaiety becomes comparable to a condition like "joy" even though it is traditionally seen as sharply opposed to that more substantial and enduring state.  Indeed when we dwell on the tight internal relations we are tempted to treat the concluding "gay" as adverb as well as adjective.  For gaiety pertains not just to the bird but also to anunderlying persistent activity or condition of spirit expressed by the structural forces.  Gaiety so composed becomes the substance of the missing fourteenth line of this sonnet.

            Let me indicate how the poem's concrete forces establish this substance for gaiety and establish it as desireable state with which to identify--as an emblem for freedom and and perhaps as a term for sexual preference.  We have already remarked on how tightly structured the parallels are between the two basic units of the poem.  Each of the two main sections of the poem is inaugurated by a past participle.  But the apparent rigidity also sets the stage for complex and resonant deviations.  When we turn to the complementary present participles we find "wobbling and wavering" balancing the "running" and "flying" in the second part of the poem. Yet there is an important difference between the parts that realizes an active presence not predictable by the structure.  The two present participles in the first stanza and the initial one in the second simply modify the preceding noun so that they function entirely as adjectives.  But "flying" also has the power of a verb to open into an indeterminate future, "wherever it feels like."  While the other participles are limited to the role of clarifying what is already determinate, "flying" seems capable of setting its own determinations.

            This syntactic mobility set off by pattern builds to its climax in the concluding assertion. In one sense "gay" is just another piece of description, paralleling "undecided" and modifying "rainbow-bird." Yet "gay" clearly is not confined to that specific modification. "Gay" both names the specific condition of release and serves as an expression for an overall awareness of where the movement of the entire poem leaves us.  So there is a sense in which "gay" is not a modifier but a very general condition, even a mode of activity that might take on modifiers if it could be located in any one space.  The poem returns to the opening issue of self-definition, but now it offers as substantial and weighty what is also a free space in which the person can adapt to any experience.  For the agency within the poem seems no longer to need the kind of identifications that are constantly threatened by "wobbling and wavering."  Indeed by this conclusion the poem can be said not just to refer to gaiety but to embody its central qualities.  The poem's self-consciousness about its own making seems to wander free to ride its own inventiveness, even to the point of using elaborate structures without being dictated to by any logic that they set up.

            No wonder then that this poem concludes with what might be the most profound exclamation mark in American poetry.  The exclamation reaches beyond the stance of observation to a stance of affirmation. An effort at precise emotional description so gravitates toward its object that the language cannot be content with description but must make visible its own capacity for attaching itself to the force of certain values.  Moreover this foregrounded syntactic marker takes on considerable metaphoric resonance.  Now that we see how the exclamation point completes the state of gaiety, we might well wonder whether there can be gaiety or freedom without such exclamation marks.  Perhaps the exclamation point simply constitutes will--most of the melodramat associated with willing as an act of judgment may be little more than humanist rhetoric.  Exclamation just is the work of judgment, without problematic dependency on abstractions linking the particular to some value-conferring general criteria.  Poetry's strange conjunction of restraint and excess may have something to teach philosophy.

            This last claim is not without its own excessiveness.  But look at all that Bishop has done to make us experience self-reflexively a force in and value for gaiety without ever losing its mobile contingency.  Here there emerges a weightiness for the feeling of weightlessness because the poem produces a structural definition of a freedom that nonetheless remains so light it has nothing to do with duty or morality.  There is no need to reach beyond the poem's intelligence in order to establish ponderous justifications of freedom or to invoke ideological mirrors that only destabilize identity.  The exclamation mark proves sufficient affirmation because it is more attuned to self-conscious investments in these dimensions of gaiety than any more general abstract reasoning might be.  Indeed part of the gaiety, and another reason for the exclamation mark, is the poem's presentation of just this chaste yet speculative intelligence sufficient for its task.  At the risk of imposing a ponderous period, I want to add the moral that our most important task as teachers of poetry may be to keep that potential exclamation mark emerging from within the disposition of lyric energies.


          "Sonnet" exemplifies poetry's semantic power--its way of producing a concrete experience has the capacity of modifying our understanding of the affects typically involved in this kind of experience.  Now I want to shift to how we might talk about the values made available for those who participate self-reflexively in such experience.  I have nothing interesting to say about the kinds of values that might be considered internal to the specific verbal act--values of craft and articulatory power.  Instead I will concentrate on the question of how our reading can influence what we take to be values extending beyond the poem.  Three values in particular seem to me especially important because they depend on how emotions are configured and because they illustrate the impact poetry can have on our overall conative sense of the capacities and commitments making our own lives worth living.  These values are a self-reflexive feeling of one's own capacity for intensity, a sense of involvedness in which we feel our personal boundaries expanding through processes of voicing other lives and of participating in concrete efforts to engage those lives on the most intimate possible levels, and a sense of the psyche's plasticity as it adapts itself to various competing imaginative demands.   

          Once we see how such values become present, we have the basis for making two claims about the force poetry can have within cultural life.  On the most direct level poems provide structures we can point to as the grounds for our taking certain dispositions as valuable without our having to derive the value by a chain of arguments.  We can simply point to the organization of energies and characterize the psychological dispositions that become available if we attempt provisional identifications with those energies.  One may not be able to argue that plasticity as an abstraction identifies an especially important state for the psyche. But if one can show it in action one has a prima facie example of the difference its various manifestations  can make in people's lives.  And then a second, more general possibility takes form.  One can show that the reason we value the value need not be derived from any epistemic process in which we first represent the self and then test hypotheses about what might and might not satisfy it.  We value the value not because we believe some argument but because we trust in or revel in some state or find ourselves able to relate differently to our surroundings and other persons.  There will often be conflict between values arrived at this way and values determined by epistemic processes and social negotations.  Obviously there cannot be a strong rational case why why poetry's way of mediating values ought prevail in these conflicts.[8]  But recognizing that there are alternative routes to grounding values might help resist reason's insistence on prevailing in all these cases.  Perhaps what studies show need not determine who we want to be or even what we want to do.

            In discussing the first two values I will content myself with a series of allusions to representative texts.  But discussing plasticity requires more elaboration, so I will spend considerable time on Wallace Stevens' "Sunday Morning."  Intensity is very difficult to discuss because it takes so many forms and because even the most powerful instances of it need not be approached self-reflexively.  I do not have to tell myself that certain sporting events or human encounters are intense in order to respond intensely.  Yet because poetry's intensities also depend in large part on formal properties like concision and dense patterning, this medium usually does involve our realizing how the intensity

is connected to authorial purposiveness.

            No poet thought harder about intensity as a value and an access to psychological power than did William Butler Yeats.[9]  So I will concentrate on three traits basic to his treatment of this value. First, intensity tends to involve a focussing of concern so that we devote our attention to a specific "here" and "now," and we feel that "here" and "now" as sharply distinct from the "there" and "then" constituting its boundaries.  One might even adapt Eliot to make the assertion that only those whose "here"s keep wandering into "there"s and whose "now"s are undone by nagging "then"s are likely to appreciate fully what this concentrative centering can involve.  Yeats renders one mode of this centering as pure absorption in the self's willfulness: "I am I, am I/ And all creation shivers with that sweet cry" (285).  His other basic mode occupies the opposite pole.  Poetry establishes a possibility for complete identification with specific energies that consciousness comes to see give the scene its distinctive definition.  When Yeats uses the refrain, "Like a long-legged fly upon the stream/ His mind moves upon silence" (328) to render the fundamental state of creative consciousness, he wants us to take the "upon silence" absolutely literally.  The mind does not move within silence but upon it, as if it had reached some fundamental material base by which consciousness could know itself utterly connected with what moves it.[10]

            The second feature of Yeatsian thinking on intensity opens the dialectical possibility of reconciling the absorbing ego with the radical sense of concentration breaking through to what underlies all subjectivity.  It would be foolish to say that all intensity is dialectical, or even all lyric intensity is dialectical, especially since the insistence on the "here" precludes any of the lack necessary to structure a dialectic.  But in many of Yeat's richest visions the moment of synthesis constituting the "here" seems always capable of unfolding into its constituents.  The "here" and "now" are not simply events; they appear as culminations grasped in an instant but inviting elaborate explication.  So I think we can make the generalization that intensity won in words or visions (rather than in pure activity like sport) provides a distinctive kind of present.  It offers a present that seems complete in itself, but only because we feel the divisions and range of contexts brought together in the moment, for the moment.  Then this awareness of context makes it possible to characterize various dimensions possessed by the intensity.  There are at least dimensions of magnitude established by the kind of elements brought together, dimensions of compression established by the forces of resistance engaged by the act, and dimensions of sharpness established by how the intensity comes to appear as distinctive in its particularity.

            Yeats is more melodramatic and problematic in proposing a third trait of intensity.  But I think we have to honor the spirit of his vision if not its particular details.  This trait consists in a tendency to experience intensity as drawing consciousness toward and often beyond basic boundaries of civility.  Just as "hatred of God may bring the soul to God" (284), intense involvement in our own heightening energies positions us at boundaries where we are not sure whether we are god or beast or god demanding its own beastiliness as a sacrifice so as to confirm the possibility that there is something beyond us compelling our service.  "Hound Voice" is Yeats's effort to speak for everything in the psyche and in person's relation to the land that resists "boredom of the desk or of the spade."  To hear those voices is ultimately to face hours of terror that "test the soul" and waken images in the blood:

                 Some day we shall get up before the dawn

                 And find our ancient hounds before the door,

                 And wide awake know the hunt is on;

                 Stumbling upon the blood-dark track once more,

                 Then stumbling to the kill beside the shore;

                 Then cleaning out and bandaging of wounds,

                 And chants of victory among the encircling hounds.   (331)

Here even the syntax functions to make demands that normal civility cannot handle.  The subject predicate structure of the first lines of this last stanza modulates beautifully through adjective modification ("wide awake") to a series of participles and finally to a world where only noun phrases define the action.  The participles compel consciousness to a pure present within the fantasmatic.  And the last line then celebrates a world in which even images are almost erased by the chants so triumphant that it is they, not the agents, who have control.  The event reaches completeness only when the chants themselves come to establish the only agency possible in this perversely transcendental domain. At its most absorbed, consciousness puts itself in the proximity of absolute conditions in relation to which the fiction of selfhood seems a mere mask to be torn aside by even greater powers.

           My second value has its genesis in just the opposite mode of self-consciousness, and it involves just the opposite challenge to the ego's boundaries.  It is also possible to have the self's concentrative powers become a means of appreciating how we are modified by our connections with other people and with the natural world.  So I locate this second value in the lyric's capacity to sharpen our awareness of the intricate ways we feel our attention and care becoming contoured to other existences.  Voicing offers a clear paradigm.  We feel intensely what it means to enact the situations of others within our own beings.  Analogously we can appreciate in dynamic form how our investments are solicited by the conditions calling forth these voices.

          I have to be careful here to keep my focus on versions of these powers distinctive to lyric.  For clearly the capacity to feel our involvedness with others and for otherness is valued in almost all contemporary ethical and political stances.  Even Republicans now cloak their economic positions in a psychology of compassionate conservativism.  But poetry calls our attention to the psychological mechanics of such care.  It does this in part by not letting involvedness become an abstract moral principle.  Instead lyrics take on imaginative force by keeping involvedness a predicate inseparable from self-reflection:  our satisfaction in ourselves in such situations depends on our registering what unfolds before us as distinctively different from us and as capable of bearing values because of its articulation of that difference and that distance.  Equally important, poetry can move back and forth between these particulars and some more general ontological awareness inseparable from this opening toward the other.  Poetry like Gary Snyder's can reach toward something cold and pervasive paradoxically central to our being able to keep ourselves open toward what we cannot control. 

            Had I the space I would develop three kinds of examples of such involvedness that I can only allude to here. First, there is what we might call acts of existential sympathy like the one we find in C.K. Williams' "Reading: The Cop," where a full knowledge of the cop's life depends on our first understanding our reaction to him, then projecting his having to face such reactions all the time.  A second form of involvedness takes Cézannian form.  In much of W.C. Williams' poetry for example the central affective force of the texts consists in their ability to connect our appreciation of what we see to an intense awareness of the constructive energies at work in how the work organizes our seeing.   And finally one could use Wordsworth's grand rhetorical passages like the crescendo in "Tintern Abbey" to "a motion and a spirit that impels/ All thinking things … to illustrate the challenge of having poetic rhetoric build its sympathies on its awareness of its participation in general forces that it cannot control. Wordsworth's totalizing expansiveness would seem outlandish wishful thinking if he could not also work out a logic of syntactic connection distinctive to feeling, so that the totalizing uses its capacity to bypass rational judgments as its means of making inescapable claims upon us. "Elevated thoughts" modulate into "sense sublime."  And this sense of significance so bound to immediate awareness perhaps must be considered the work of spirit. For what else other than spirit could make the final transition here from the poem at its most general to the assertion "Therefore am I still"?  That "still" is in personal time what the "all" is in reflective space.  The poem  sustains a claim to identity in the present that does not involve qualifying ironies and need not fight for its imaginary sustenance by opposing itself to other people's identifications.  Poetry's access to otherness enables it to come to terms with the intensity of the personal needs driving it to speech.

            Plasticity is the third value that can be isolated as an aspect of our engagement in the affective forces made available to us by the work poets do.  I mean by plasticity the capacity of a work or situation to become compelling for us because of the structuring of internal tensions and lines of force that compose a dynamic means of holding together in their distinctness diverse aspects of experience which all have substantial claims upon us.  Consider the range of sexual tensions and threats held in a single structure by the shallow space of Picasso's Les Demoiselles d'Avignon  or the capacity of still lives like Braque's Violin and Candlestick (1911) to hold together the pull of gravity and the decentering forces released by the now foregrounded contours of shadow and passage moving out towards the perimeters of the canvas.  There are also many powerful sculptural examples ranging from Michelangelo's late Pieta to the play of void and angle against the sexual intensities of Gaudier-Brzska's Red Stone Dancer.  In all these cases the distinguishing plasticity arises because containment  is treated as a relation generated from within the work rather than from without.  Containment is a matter of how tensions achieve balance and of how oppositions interpenetrate and strengthen each other, often in ways that allow the interacting forces to seem open to attracting further aspects of experience.

            In order to stress the cultural work that this value can perform I am going to concentrate on how it emerges within the unfolding of lyric time in Stevens' "Sunday Morning" (66-70). Sunday Morning's basic problem is as simple as it once seemed intractable.  How can this woman torn between two worlds satisfy the demands of both?  One world demands honoring Sunday as a memorial to religion, which in turn offers the only feasible alternative to despair at human mortality.  The other world seems capable of forgetting mortality, if not of overcoming it, simply by focussing on the plenitude of immanent sensual satisfactions.  Dialectical reconciliation seems impossible because there is no mediating principle.  Yet Stevens tries another kind of reconciliation---not by resolving the tension into some third term but by letting the tension itself expand sufficiently to hold the opposites as dynamic interrelationships which come to include one another's basic concerns.  Resolution must be a matter not of producing a new answer to the questions but of establishing powerful instruments for dwelling within what the oppositions help unfold.

            Here I have to focus on the last stanza. The stage for it is set by a process in which each time the speaker proposes eloquent arguments insisting that the second world of sensual satisfactions should suffice, the woman manages to invoke considerations that his schema cannot encompass. So the poem's final moment takes up the task of composing an elastic space where both positions become part of our dwelling in this Sunday afternoon's presence for the imagination:

                        She hears upon that water without sound,

                        A voice that cries, "The tomb in Palestine

                        Is not the porch of spirits lingering.

                        It is the grave of Jesus where he lay."

                        We live in an old chaos of the sun,

                        Or old dependency of day and night,

                        Or island solitude, unsponsored, free,

                        Of that wide water inescapable.

                        Deer walk upon our mountains, and the quail

                        Whistle about us their spontaneous cries;

                        Sweet berries ripen in the wilderness;

                        And in the isolation of the sky,

                        At evening, casual flocks of pigeons make        

                        Ambiguous undulations as they sink

                        Downward to darkness, on extended wings.

          Eloquence now is something realized, a composition by which the imagination reaches out to include in its purview competing aspects of a projected scene. When the poem turns to the deer, it also begins to revel in a range of sensual registers, all intricately balancing one another.  The quail' s spontaneous cries complement the much more enduring temporal aspect of the ripening berries.  And all of these particulars spread out against the isolation of the sky--each framing the other while linking echoes of the death motif with powerful figures of fertility.  No wonder that now the stanza can move from being the property of one perspective or the other to the collective presence of an encompassing "we" given substance by what it can see in the scene composed for it.

             Then there is the amazing last figure of the pigeons sinking "downward to darkness, on extended wings."  Note first the physical plasticity.  The pigeons stretch out this isolated sky (like a photograph by Felix Gonzalez-Torres), and their "ambiguous undulations" also slow down the time framed by that sky.  The darkness is everywhere, but the living creatures refuse quite to submit to it without drawing it out and extending themselves into it.  This is all the bliss we can know.  Second, there is the work of sound and syntax to slow down the sentence by suspending clauses and by playing long vowels and lush n and d sounds against the temporal flow of the sentence.  Syntax and sound here function as the poet's extended wings allowing the psyche to dwell fully in what nonetheless he knows must pass. And finally there is the thematic work plasticity accomplishes. At first the poem could not reconcile in one space the idea of religious value and the fact of mortality. But what could not be accomplished by argument can at least be approximated by adapting consciousness to this figure of the extended wings. Religion fails when it has to be grounded in vertical relations to an order superimposed on the secular one.  But perhaps poetry can restore the spiritual core of religion to the degree that it can compose horizontal space so that its folds come to contain the flow of time.  Such space affords self-consciousness a vehicle for appreciating how imagination can stretch the world to accommodate and revalue the failure of our efforts to transcend it.


            My fascination with the genre of the defense of poetry has more affinities than I would like with "Sunday Morning"'s almost hopeless quest to reconcile received religion with a secular perspective.  But it remains possible to argue that a good deal of the difficulty stems from accepting epistemic values, then seeking for some way to fit poetry into the overall schema.  So I want now to turn to the possibility that the specific resistances to epistemic values that we have been exploring provide a plausible ground for elaborating that resistance in theoretical terms.  Suppose we were to begin with an orientation concentrating on how affective intensities get articulated.  Then we might try the experiment of asking how philosophy might be adapted to that perspective.  How might we talk about values if we bracketed epistemic concerns and focussed on how affective lives find their richest possible satisfactions?  Then the very idea of defending poetry might seem ridiculous from a quite new perspective: who would need to defend what proves foundational to the new way of understanding values?

            Baruch Spinoza convinces me that such questions can be fruitful, and need not lead directly to Nietzsche, Spinoza's most powerful misreader.[11]   For Spinoza is less concerned with how we know than he is with why knowing matters for us as agents.  Thus it cannot suffice to seek truths.  Philosophy has to appreciate how what we take as truth modifies the basic qualities of our conative relations to ourselves.  And then qualities like intensity, involvedness and plasticity are not mere secondary features of experience but the very conditions that make for an enhanced sense of what is worth pursuing in our reflective lives.

            Spinoza's thinking depends on the concept of the conative as that which "as far as it can, and as far as it is in itself, … endeavors to persist in its own being" (109).  Conative force seeks to to resist all those factors "that can annul" the sense of individual existence for itself.  Then  because this emphasis so tightly weaves feeling a being's distinctive existence into an imperative for activity, the conatus provides the basis for a teleological account of the affects.  The affects constitute the body's basic awareness of how its conative forces are deployed.  For they are constantly registering the degree to which "the body's power of activity is increased or diminished, assisted or checked, together with the ideas of these affections" (104).  This last clause "together with the ideas" is no casual add-on.  Spinoza's dynamic sense of the subject enables him to treat ideas as concrete instruments continuous with affects.  Ideas help individuals persist in their own being because they extend and define spaces the body can negotiate as it seeks to extend its sense of its own powers.

            Even this very brief summary should indicate the possibility of using Spinoza for the arts in two different ways.  His work can provide the basis for a theory of why expressive activity matters for individuals as means of making visible what it is in a being that seeks to persist.  And it can help construct a phenomenological account of why specific affects constitute basic values as manifestations of the body's conative investments, especially those investments involving our feeling for the concrete workings of various media.  Demonstrating this seems to me so important that even at this late moment in my essay I have to ask you to consider the relevance of four specific assertions by Spinoza to the case about value that I am proposing.        

  1) Spinoza argues that "the most basic and important element of our mind is the conatus to affirm the existence of our body" (111).  Mind is powerless without embodiment because mind has to feel ideas as having a direct relationship to how the being is situated.  Mind is body aware of its capacity to generate differences in how it negotiates its spaces.  Correspondingly, embodiment is not the fact of having a body but the sense of the power to act as a body. The best metaphor for embodiment may be the mouthing that gives rhythms their purposive concreteness.

    2) The ethical correlate to the mind seeking embodiment is the fact that we do not "endeavor, will, seek after, or desire because we judge a thing to be good.  On the contrary, we judge a thing to be good because we endeavor, will, seek after, and desire it" (111).  Spinoza will eventually develop a model of desire that brings judgment back into his story--this is not Nietzsche's will to power.[12]  But the important point is that for much of psychic life what counts as good is governed by the orientation of the being before questions about truth and judgment enter the picture at all.  For the feeling that we can determine a good is ultimately what makes for the fullest conative sense of our own powers in the spaces we inhabit.  Argument is less a process of seeking authority beyond the self than of affording conative energies a comparative understanding of possible satisfactions.

    3) We can make the same observation in more psychological terms by arguing that the fullest expression of conativity takes place not in our judgments but in our acts of will.  For will is the "faculty whereby the mind affirms or denies what is true and what is false" (96).  Will then is how the conatus expresses its own sense of itself in relation to the ideas defining its embodiment.  Just as the body orients itself in time and in space, will orients the spiritual being, the being with reflexive desires, in relation to a world of ideas and of values.  This does not mean that intellectual judgments are not important.  It means only that we have to understand what shapes our affirmation of those judgments.  The intellect matters to us less because it can acknowledge the power of arguments than because it enables us to align ourselves to the world in various complex ways.  Existence is passive when it is driven by factors of which we are ignorant; it is active when the intellect grasps what moves it and hence clarifies the being's sense of how its particularity connects it to universals. We honor the intellectual because of the scope it gives our being, not because of the knowledge it can establish or the powers of reasoning with which it can identify.

 4) Spinoza on imagination makes clear how closely linked that faculty can be to the working of will and hence to the establishing of values felt as demands on our immediate powers for occupying our world. .Imagining is the developing of an idea by which the mind regards something as present, with emphasis on the present state of the body as it organizes its attention (220).  Imagination dwells on something outside itself, but with a primary focus on the condition of the subject as it yields or withholds certain qualities of participation and investment in the images it brings before itself.  So when I imagine a landscape I don't just see its details but see its details as if I were present and engaged in it.  It is then not a huge stretch of Spinoza to treat imagination as our way of appreciating what various kinds of willing might do to our sense of who we are as active agents.


            I am not unaware that now in order to help teach students the values available from close reading poetry I am suggesting we also teach them Spinoza.  I propose two operations to save one imaginative organ that may not even be in danger, or may not be worth saving as part of academic practice.  Why make the defense of poetry so recondite?  Let me say first that it need not be recondite.  The students need not read Spinoza and the instructors need only appreciate his perspective.  They need not become expert in the intricate structure of his arguments.  However then I have immediately to add that I do not think we can substantially improve the general levels of poetry instruction or increase the audience for what is good in our poetry instruction unless we as professionals do the work to establish a better theory than we now possess of the affects and their uses in our lives.  I hope I have shown that basing poetry on either its power to disclose certain truths or its power to refuse the imperatives of disclosure severely narrows the values we can bring to bear on our reading experience.  And the situation is actually worse in relation to

those current theoretical accounts that do emphasize the affective dimension of our experiences with poetry. Most response theory collapses the text into the free working of the responding psyche, as if there were no particular value in having ourselves contour to the specific structural and affective demands that the text makes upon us.  And most hermeneutic theory treats affects either as reactions to what we come to know about the text as a disclosure of being in some form or as what we enter into dialogue with in order to get to know how an author stands toward being.  Neither approach sufficiently honors the specific affective forces organized by the poem's labors.  And neither seems comfortable with the many ways in which lyric poetry revels in what would be sheer excess for any theory of communication or of knowledge.

          If we are to clarify what poetry makes possible for cultural life, the teaching  of poetry will first have to attune students to the work that poems do in binding the forms of syntax to the possibilities of feeling.  Then this teaching needs to be able to characterize those possibilities of feeling so that we understand the imaginary as a mode of realization.  Theory must provide terms for appreciating the dynamic forces given focus by the lyric as values in themselves--in part because of their power to make us see what had been inchoate taking articulate form, and in part because of the specific disposition of energies elicited by that mode of articulation.  Finally, theory must faciliate the crucial transition between learning to adapt ourselves to particular affective configurations and coming to the self-reflexive appreciation of those powers.  As with almost any other bodily activity, the more fully we understand the powers that it confers, the better prepared we are to put those powers to work.

            The moral here almost goes without saying because it so bears repeating.  Lyrics do not simply illustrate the importance of adapting an intellectual framework like Spinoza's that can account for the conative dimension of our passions; lyrics also provide dramatic proof that such frameworks are necessary if we are to understand some of our deepest human satisfactions.  Teaching poetry then has to refuse to be embarrassed about leading students to pursue what can easily seem self-indulgent intellectual sensuality.  At the least, these prove indulgences from which one awakens without hangovers or shame (although in the place of aspirins one may have to spend some time reading Spinoza).  And at its richest, this education will not be embarrassed to see itself as part of the enterprise of making our culture sufficiently plastic that it can incorporate within a secular world the modes of self-reflection once afforded by religion.  It is now fashionable to criticize the lyric precisely because of this link to religion. But can the idealizing of our critical capacities really provide an adequate alternative, since that seems all the debunkers of poetry can put in its place?  Far better I think to devote our teaching to leading students to know what is involved in feeling one's body so intensely and so complexly that one has to reach out beyond it to imaginary extensions of those states, for the sake simply of who they make us become during the moments that we can make them last.  We can still tell our social critic friends that these states do not last long enough to preempt our meeting our ethical and social obligations, but what we then manage to feel should remind us that only meeting those obligations is not much of a salvation.






[1]  Donoghue, "Teaching Literature: The Force of Form," p.9  This entire collection, edited by  Herbert is important as an illustration of contemporary efforts to turn the critical tide away from historicism to languages that can afford access to values basic to the close reading of lyric poems.

[2]   Paul Fry's recent Defense of Poetry provides an almost perfect contrast to the case  I will make here.  Fry begins with an impressive argument for basing a defense of poetry on a critique of Enlightenment conjunctions between the quest for "truth" and the need for interpretation: "To interpret, we have gradually come to realize, is to play out the game of reading within the boundaries that Plato devised in order to make sure that poetry would always lose" (2).  But the crucial issue is how one casts the opposition to what I will call the epistemic emphases of Enlightenment thinking.  Fry insists on the value of poetry as an art that manages to serve freedom "through the undetermination of meaning  … revealed in the release from the compulsion to signify" (4).  He goes on to give brilliant readings of specific ways in which this refusal is sustained by "ostensive moments" rendering an"a-theologic astonishment" (7).   And he connects the entire enterprise to "an anthropological need to recover or at least to remember the ground of consciousness from which enlightenment, here understood as the devotion to objectivity, perforce estranges thought" (201).  Postulating this ground then allows him to reconnect poetry to ethics, albeit an ethics whose only value is a sense of freedom to participate within that very enlightenment quest but no longer feeling "that we are chained to the assembly line" (204). 

          I see two basic problems with his view.  First, some important authors (not just theologic ones, but certainly those) simply do want to mean and to be understood as taking stances or exploring certain ways of engaging experience.  Fry comes dangerously close to deconstruction's saving the text by turning all texts into the same basic enterprise.  And, second, his critique of Enlightenment accompanied by grudging admissions of its continuing power seems to me to betray the fact that he remains too much within the very discourse of interpretation and of objectivity that he wants to resist.  Fry gives us poetry as the negative of Enlightenment epistemic priorities.  But a full defense of the lyric needs to locate actual positive alternatives to Enlightenment priorities so that one need not talk of finding grounds of any kinds or of having either truth or undetermination by suspending propositional force.  I try in my account to develop modes of desire attached to lyric.  These provide positive roles in cultural life that are treated quite reductively within epistemic Enlightenment thinking.  And, indeed, these roles help make clear what is limited in the entire epistemic framework.  So poetry does make actual propositions, but they are concerned with the feelings performed and extended rather than with truths realized and tested.

[3]   For a more precise yet brief account of the limitations of the epistemic orientation basic to Enlightenment thinking see Richard Eldridge's introduction to Beyond Representation: Philosophy and the Poetic Imagination.

[4] There are two basic arenas in which I think we most intensely experience the psychological consequences of epistemic culture.  The first emerges in the efforts of philosophers like Martha Nussbaum to honor non-epistemic orientations in literary texts while still reclaiming the work for philosophy and hence turning affinities with philosophy into ultimate subordination to rationality.  On this I have written at length on other occasions, most recently in "Lyrical Ethics and Literary Experience."  So I will spend most of this note on the second arena.

                Here the problems arise with the "cognitivist" perspective that until the past few years had reigned as the dominant academic theoretical stance toward the emotions. Cognitivism is best understood as a reaction against Jamesian psychology that located affects entirely in modifications of physiology.  That perspective had no stable way to identify emotions, since it claimed they were determined by bodily states and hence had no reliance on intentional categories.  Given that shortcoming, it has become preferable to stress identity conditions over vague claims about bodily states.  And the clearest way to get identity conditions is to tie emotions closely to the beliefs and related desires giving them shape.  Anger need not be some specific feeling we point to.  Rather it could be a way of orienting ourselves toward actions that follow from beliefs about what others have done or may do to us.  Then our account of emotions will also have the considerable advantage of also showing how we can evaluate emotions or give directions for therapy.  In principle, we can understand why we pursue specific values or feel specific emotions if we understand the beliefs driving them, and we can modify values and emotions if we modify beliefs.  Values and emotions are ultimately subject to rational assessments of belief: if the emotion does not help realize what the belief projects, we have good reason to work on changing its role in our lives. 

          Suggestive as this stance is for therapeutic purposes, it seems to me severely limited for speculative ones.  Cognitivism risks turning our emotions into responses to merchandizing catalogues because it atomizes subjectivity into discrete quests and it assumes that all our psychological concerns that matter are concerns for finding satisfactions for particular belief-driven desires.  Such emphases ignore values and emotions that arise for us simply as qualities of how we experience events, whatever the consequences.  And, more important, they treat emotions as means to ends and hence ignore the range of powerful satisfactions we take in emotions as ends in themselves.  I desire not only to win a game or to persuade a friend, I desire to experience all the pleasures of playing well or all the senses of pursuing intricate turns of thought, largely for the sake simply of feeling that my mind is alive and my engagement with the other person dynamic and fluid.  There are even deep satisfactions in anger, since then at least one need not be passive before one's fate.  On a more speculative level, cognitive theory buys the authority it gives truth by refusing even to allow a framework within which one might take seriously questions like Nietzsche's about how we might explain a will to truth that is difficult to characterize simply in terms of  truth's capacities to afford objectivity.  By evading Nietzsche in order to equate desire with belief, these philosophers can provide a powerful position from which to make judgments about ourselves and about others.  But that position also blinds us to those aspects of ourselves not content with judgment or not easily aligned with its frameworks.  And they simply have to ignore all those personal investments that lead us to care about our judgments.

                For useful criticisms of cognitivitism, see the books I list by Sue Campbell and by John Deigh, as well as the essay by Richard Moran.  When these philosophers challenge cognitivist theory of emotions, they point to how the theory confines itself to atomistic emotional narratives, ignoring complex relations among feeling that are much more difficult to connect to beliefs.   And they insist on forms of satisfaction projected by the affects which involve fantasy and hence cannot be treated simply as beliefs to be judged in terms of their rationality.  On the most general level these philosophers also are beginning to challenge the entire picture of desire that binds it so tightly to belief.  Moran points to decisions that take place without reference to belief because they have to determine which beliefs might be appropriate.  And Campbell stresses the importance of coming to know our feelings through expressing them, whether or not they connect to specific desires. 

[5] Anthony J. Cascardi's Consequences of Enlightenment provides a brilliant analysis of problems created by Kantian efforts simultaneously to save "judgment" and to modify it so that it has powers different from those he attributes to rationality.  Cascardi's closing chapter is an eloquent appeal for developing overall models of agency responsive to the roles affects play in our values and in our ways of valuing.

[6]   In speaking of the uniqueness of poetry I am not relying on any one set of essential properties.  I think a family relations argument would do the job.  Generalizing about a phenomenon like poetry is possible if one is willing to rely on what seem stable expectations within certain communities--in my case expectations within academic communities that worry about teaching and about valuing lyric poetry.  And at the center of this discourse about expectations I think one can put a shareable sense of what work poets do.  Their concern for sound qualities for example separates them from expectations we have about philosophers and lawyers who also pay careful attention to language.

[7]  See Tomkins' discussion of what he calls the "interest-excitement complex in his Shame and its Sisters: A Sylvan Tomkins Reader, ed, by Eve Kossofsky Sedgwick and Adam Frank (Durham: Duke University Press, 1995): 92-7.

[8]   Martha Nussbaum's work on literature has become increasingly aware of tensions between values compatible with reason and values reason simply cannot handle.  But in my view she tends to reassert the authority of reason in most cases.  So she provides a telling example of how the persistence of epistemic commitments makes it very difficult to honor the full roles that affects and affect-based values play in the arts.

[9]   Gilles Deleuze is the contemporary philosopher who in that field seems to me most concerned with this topic.  See especially his Difference and Repetition 222-46.

[10]  If I had the time, I would try to show how "He and She" moves beyond the "I am I" to an impersonal site where a plastic consciousness can put into one composition both the passive moon terrified of losing itself and this assertive sexual self-absorption.

[11]   Actually Hegel is as important a heir of Spinoza as is Nietzsche.  But I prefer Spinoza to Hegel because one has to carry considerably less baggage in order to adapt his central claims.  We need only accept the idea that concerns for something like "identity" are not entirely symbolic but have a strong material basis in the being's need to set forces in motion that will enable it to satisfy its urges to experience its own purposiveness.

[12]  Spinoza brings the judgmental powers of intellect within this desire story by what I consider a brilliant transformation of Hobbes on pleasure and pain as the ultimate arbiters of value.  For Spinoza, pleasure is a "transition to a state of greater perfection" (117) while pain is the feeling of the diminishment of the power of the body (114).  If we cross this with Spinoza's sense that active being is an alignment with true ideas, passive being with false ideas (because passivity is being governed by what is foreign to us), we can see that pleasure is alignment with what makes us active.  And the ultimate pleasure becomes the intellectual love of god, since that love activates our most capacious relation to being.





























                                                Bibliography: Works Cited


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Deigh, John.  "Cognitivism in the Theory of the Emotions."  Ethics 104 (July, 1994):


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