Taking Lyrics Literally: Teaching Poetry in a Prose
Department of English
Berkeley, CA 94720-1030
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. 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.
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. 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.
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. 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
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
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.
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.
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.
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, 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.
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. 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.
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.
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:
in the spirit level,
a creature divided;
and the compass needle
wobbling and wavering,
Freed --the broken thermometer's mercury
and the rainbow-bird
from the narrow bevel
of the empty mirror,
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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. 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.
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.
poet thought harder about intensity as a value and an access to psychological
power than did William Butler Yeats. 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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
hears upon that water without sound,
voice that cries, "The tomb in Palestine
not the porch of spirits lingering.
is the grave of Jesus where he lay."
live in an old chaos of the sun,
old dependency of day and night,
island solitude, unsponsored, free,
that wide water inescapable.
walk upon our mountains, and the quail
about us their spontaneous cries;
berries ripen in the wilderness;
in the isolation of the sky,
At evening, casual flocks of pigeons make
Ambiguous undulations as they sink
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.
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?
Spinoza convinces me that such questions can be fruitful, and need not lead
directly to Nietzsche, Spinoza's most powerful misreader. 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.
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
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
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
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. 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.
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
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.
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.
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.
 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.
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.
 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.
 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.
 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.
 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.
 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.
 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.
 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.
 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.
 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.
 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.
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