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August 2013 Issue

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The Virtues of PoetryVirtuesofPoetry

By James Longenbach
Graywolf 2013

James Longenbach is a poet who writes about poetry—not so much in the guise of a critic or theorist, but as an explainer of craft, an adducer of the nuts and bolts. I know poets who speak in reverent tones of his The Art of the Poetic Line, which demystifies one of the thornier problems of writing poems (where do I break this dang line already? And why?) by means of examples, rather than prescriptions. His focus on the minutiae of how a poem performs its tasks might seem like inside baseball — explaining the mechanics of a batter’s swing, or the particular finger placement that distinguishes a slider from a cutter. Indeed, his newest collection of essays, The Virtues of Poetry, appealed to me primarily for its power to inform me of how to proceed in my own writing. But its audience isn’t so narrow. While some readers of poetry may think that poems “are like sausages, it is better not to see them made,” others will find it enlightening to watch the work of the men and women behind the curtain

By referring to poetry’s virtues, Longenbach does not mean poetry’s moral standing. He ascribes to Oscar Wilde’s notion that “there is no such thing as a moral or an immoral” piece of writing. There are poems well written, and poems badly written. There are poems of qualities, and poems without them. What qualities? In his preface, Longenbach lists boldness, change, compression, dilation, doubt, excess, inevitability, intimacy, restraint. These are the virtues to which individual poems might aspire, in the service of constituting what Whitman called the path “between reality and [the readers’] souls.”

Blazing that particular trail seems kind of a tall order for a poem. After all, poetry is just an artful mix of words. But “art” is the key word—after all, how does a song or a painting or a movie or any piece of art mediate and motivate its audience? Through the accretion of methods, through a type of brushstroke or a specific way of moving the lens. For Longenbach (quoting Cesar Pavese), “the source of poetry is always a mystery . . . But the act of poetry . . . is an absolute determination to see clearly, to reduce to reason, to know.” The poet is not a saint in an ecstasy, but an engineer, a builder in the city of language. The result is transcendent; the means are anything but.

Longenbach does have certain building blocks in mind. He’s particularly hot on nitty-gritty aspects of diction—the use of meter, and the contrast between English words with Germanic roots and those with Latin roots. He’s also a fan of Yeats, whose work shows up throughout the book. Indeed, in the first essay alone, Yeats is quoted repeatedly to demonstrate how subtle, line-by-line variations in meter can result in a “rhythmic sophistication” that keeps a poem with an otherwise simple grammatical structure from falling flat. A poet can choose to deliberately restrain a poem, keeping its syntax “bland,” the better to charge its batteries, to create a greater shock, when the shock comes. Longenbach uses the example of Yeats’s “The Wild Swans at Coole.” Here’s its first stanza:

The trees are in their autumn beauty,
The woodland paths are dry,
Under the October twilight the water
Mirrors a still sky;
Upon the brimming water among the stones
Are nine-and-fifty swans.

The first two lines are the simplest declarative statements, written in good old-fashioned ballad meter. It sounds a bit sing-songy, and not all that interesting. The next two lines are less predictable, but they are “larded with unstressed syllables” that keep us from speeding up our reading, as the sing-songy rhythm of the first two lines might have inclined us to do. The last two lines are more regular, but still resist anything other than the most sedate pacing. We might as well be that improbable quantity of swans, serenely sliding on the glassy water.

The poem continues on in this vein, with “bland syntax, bald repetitions, and . . . lost opportunities for rhythmic variation,” but for a purpose. Longenbach finds that purpose in the opening lines of the poem’s final stanza:

But now they drift on the still water,
Mysterious, beautiful.

Longenbach writes:

These Latinate words – mysterious, beautiful – are not in themselves terribly unusual or challenging, but the poem makes them feel that way. The sound of these two words, wedged together to make one elegant trimester line, feels incantatory, revelatory, a release from the poem’s almost relentlessly stolid verbal landscape.

JamesLongenbachOne may agree with Longenbach’s view of the success of a poem’s mechanics – or not. Whether a particular reader feels the swans rising metaphorically from the water with “mysterious, beautiful” isn’t exactly a matter of taste—like whether you prefer gin or vodka martinis – but neither is it a certainty. But Longenbach is right that Yeats’s poem creates a context in which an otherwise pedestrian formulation of words— mysterious, beautiful— takes on a particular burden of sound and meaning. Those words are neither “terribly unusual or challenging” in general, but within the context of the poem, they are both.

Context is another of Longenbach’s interests. He argues that it is impossible to judge whether a line is “bad” or “good” outside of the context that the poem provides for it. As he writes:

One of the most thrilling pentameters in Shakespeare is “Kill, kill, kill, kill, kill him! Hold, hold, hold, hold!” but how could one possibly determine, outside of the scene in Coriolanus in which it occurs, that the line is good or bad? How could one even tell that it’s a pentameter? These questions rest on a foundational presupposition: the effect of a particular aesthetic gesture is never predictably good or bad or anything in itself; its success depends on its relationship to other effects.

To take one example, how might “excess” be a virtue in a poem? Excess words, excess length – these all sound like bad things, particularly in the contemporary context, where “compression” is prized. To show how excess can in fact be used to heighten a poem’s meaning, Longenbach considers William Blake’s “The French Revolution.” The poem uses seven-stressed lines, not unusual in classical poetry, but extremely odd in English poetry in Blake’s day, when pentameter reigned supreme. Through the added stresses, already one type of excess is enacted—“a refusal of restraint that’s meant to embody the revolutionary fervor the poem also describes.” Longenbach quotes:

When the heavens were seal’d with a stone, and the terrible sun clos’d in an orb,
and the moon
Rent from the nations, and each star appointed for watchers of night,
The millions of spirits immortal were bound in the ruins of sulphur heaven
To wander inslav’d; black, deprest in dark ignorance, kept in awe with the whip,
To worship terrors, bred from the blood of revenge and breath of desire,
In beastial forms; or more terrible men, till the dawn of our peaceful morning,
Till dawn, till morning, till the breaking of clouds, and swelling of winds, and the
universal voice,
Till man raise his darken’d limbs out of the caves of night, his eyes and his heart

As Longenbach explains, in the dramatic enjambment of the final word – expand – another excess exists:

The syntax of this statement is very plain, boldly declarative (“his eyes and his heart / Expand”), but we feel its wild force because the statement is delivered to us a long, complex sentence in which the independent clause is preceded by a sequence of dependent clauses that conspire with the line length in order to throw enormous weight on the concluding verb. … We experience this sentence as expansion, as excess, because it is so rigorously curtailed by patterns of repetition—rhythmic patterns, syntactical patterns, rhetorical patterns.

In other words, the “excess” here is the “fine excess” that Keats judged necessary in poetry – a paradoxically “delicate” limitlessness that is anything but casual.

The effect of Longenbach’s explanation is a little ruined, of course, when one actually looks up “The French Revolution” and finds that neither the poem, nor the stanza, nor even the line end on the word “Expand.” Rather than being followed by a period, as in Longenbach’s quotation, “Expand” is actually followed by a colon, and the line, stanza, and poem go barreling on in heptameters as before:

Till man raise his darken’d limbs out of the caves of night, his eyes and his heart
Expand: where is space! where O Sun is thy dwelling, where thy tent, O faint
slumb’rous Moon,…

Excess all around, I guess? This slight misquotation is a minor point. But the book’s reliance on excerpts from long poems—sometimes excerpts stanzas away from one another – risks confusing the reader as to how the poems examined actually proceed. It’s necessary and understandable, to an extent. This is a book of essays that examines aesthetic choices in a number of poems, not a thesis that explicates a single poem, and it would be too much to expect Longenbach to rely solely on poems brief enough to quote in their entirety. At the same time, quoting only from the beginning and the end of poems, as Longenbach does in his examination of “The Wild Swans at Coole,” risks leaving the reader with an understanding of a poem that may not reflect the poem as a whole.

At any rate, all of this diction and context, all of this excess and restraint, brings us to Longenbach’s next subject— “tone.” Longenbach’s discussion of tone is frustrating, if only because he appears to mean by it the net effect of a host of choices in a poem’s diction. At least, when Longenbach begins to discuss tone, in the context of Ezra Pound’s attempts to write long poems that maintained the compression of such imagist fragments as “In a Station of the Metro,” Longenbach leaves off his careful attention to the brass tacks of meter and root-origins that animate other portions of The Virtues of Poetry.

Instead, we get phrases like this, “The compression of Pound’s imagist poems, fueled by tone,” “What we feel in those four syllables is the absence of tone,” “This passage from The Waste Land beings with lines in a strongly prophetic tone,” and “we’re guided by this extraordinary clarity of tone.” But what is tone? The reader would be excused for thinking that, to Longenbach, tone is something like pornography— you know it when you see it, and you’re certainly not going to explain it to those who don’t. Clues do appear from time to time: in Longenbach’s essay “Less Than Everything,” where he discusses Tennyson’s “In Memoriam,” for example:

The opening eight-line sentence of this poem dumps all of its sonic shimmer (“the long unlovely street”) onto the second sentence, whose four bald syllables have none: “He is not here.” What we feel in those four syllables is the absence of tone, and we experience that absence as a thrill because the long sentence preceding it is so tonally luxurious.

This implies that tone is “sonic shimmer”—a bit vague, perhaps, but still a concept one can wrap one’s head around— tone is sound, is music. But this is clearly not all that Longenbach means by tone. Take those lines from The Waste Land, which exhibit what Longenbach describes as a “strongly prophetic tone”:

There is shadow under this red rock,
(Come in under the shadow of this red rock),
And I will show you something different from either
Your shadow at morning striding behind you
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;
I will show you fear in a handful of dust.

I don’t disagree that the lines sound prophetic, but why? The starkly declarative grammar, the use of the future tense “I will . . . I will”)? Grammar and tense are not simply a matter of sound or music, as rhyme, assonance, and Artofthepoeticlinealliteration might be. These lines’ “prophetic tone” does not rely on sound alone but on a complex interaction between sound, pattern, syntax, and even historicity. After all, part of why these lines sound prophetic is because they are modeled, both in syntax and in substance, after the pattern of actual prophecies; they recall Biblical passages.

Longenbach’s elision of a real definition—or even interrogation—of what is meant by tone is a weakness, because Longenbach finds in tone the source of much of lyric poetry’s effectiveness, particularly the effectiveness of lyric poetry after Pound. If tone is what makes the poem tick, then any attempt to expose the gears and levers inside a poem must determine what it is that makes tone tick. That exposition is lacking here.

Happily, things are better when Longenbach begins to discuss how poetry can dramatize the mind in motion, calling attention to the act of thinking itself. A poem is not a newspaper account; it is not an orderly progression toward a foreseeable conclusion. Poems move us precisely because they move themselves—they do not end up where they begin. Relying primarily on quotations from Shakespeare, Longenbach describes “speakers . . . as surprised by their own thoughts as we are”:

Their language embodies the process through which thoughts are not organized but discovered, a process that feels at once at odds with itself and generated by itself, a process for which Coleridge offered this brilliant metaphor, in order to distinguish Shakespeare from his more declamatory contemporaries: “Shakespeare goes on creating, and evolving B. out of A., and C. out of B., and so on, just as a serpent moves, which makes a fulcrum of its own body, and seems forever twisting and untwisting its own strength.

The resulting dramatization of thinking is disjunctive, “but not puzzling,”

For however disjunctive the movement of the sentences, conclusions arrive with an assurance that casts a retrospective sense of rigor over the process by which we’ve reached them. This is why the language gives us pleasure (we feel that something happens to us at the same time that we observe something happening to the character), and our pleasure depends not on mastery but on submission: we feel something happen because we’ve trusted an utterance we cannot yet fully comprehend.

Since first reading this account, I’ve found it very useful for understanding why certain poems delight me, and others leave me flat. The feeling of following a mind in motion – of a certain arrival by uncertain ends – propels and interests me. There are other methods for creating a worthy poem, of course, but I’ve been intrigued to find how many of the poems that “grab” me – that keep me reading on, despite length, and despite looking up to learn I have completely missed my bus stop – re-enact the “linking [of] fancy unto fancy” that characterizes real thought.

Or does it? Longenbach ends his essay on “Poetry Thinking” with an interesting notion: “But for Shakespeare, none of us would know what we imagine thinking to be.” I’m fairly sure that other cultures have had thinking for a while – the ancient Greeks got around to it, I understand. But that the “image” of thinking in English is indebted to Shakespeare over all others – that’s worth pondering.

This book of a dozen essays holds much more than all this – there are fascinating forays into Emily Dickinson’s perverse thank-you notes, and into the relationship between Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop. Longenbach examines how changes in tense can augment the drama in a poem, and create a context by which a particular form of words come to have a sense of power, and inevitability. Longenbach also examines poems by people who are still alive—women, even— which is quite welcome, particularly when it comes to those “difficult,” post-avant/modern poems that many seem to feel were purpose-built to evade analysis. But of course, they aren’t. It’s no more impossible to closely read a Susan Howe poem than to closely read one of Keats’.

I read poems (closely and sometimes not so closely), but I also write them, and Longenbach’s essays are both reassuring and somewhat destabilizing for someone who is actively engaged in writing verse. The number of aesthetic choices afoot in a single poem—meter, rhyme, word-origin, tense, allusion, etc.—once enumerated can seem like too much surfeit, the poetical equivalent of those paralyzing supermarket aisles rimmed with two hundred kinds of breakfast cereal. How does one even start, given all the possibilities, all the paths? Well, with a word, with a line, with those Pavesian sources of mystery. And regardless of how it ends, the poet is not alone—as Longenbach reminds us, there’s a world of forebears and contemporaries, all who faced and are facing that same empty, inviting page.

Maureen Thorson is the poetry editor of Open Letters Monthly. Her first book of poems, Applies to Oranges, was published by Ugly Duckling Presse in 2011.