Coleridge and Poetry

Coleridge and Poetry

In his popular introduction to Horace (1), L.P. Wilkinson has the task of showing how, or to what extent, the more prosaic of Horace’s odes are still poetry. By and large, the Romans were a pragmatic and unimaginative people, and Horace’s qualities – meditation, restraint, balance, tact and urbanity – are not those commonly associated with higher flights of literary creation. Even the Greeks, who urged moderation in all things, gave pride of place to passion. ‘I would confidently maintain’, says Longinus, ‘that there is no tone so lofty as that of genuine passion in the right place, when it bursts out enthusiastically as though through some kind of madness and inspiration, and fills the spoken words with frenzy’. (2) But that passion had to be held in check, restrained by economy and a faultless control of the medium. ‘Horace was a man of leisure writing verse in an age when verse writing was in vogue, who on occasion and about subjects about which he felt strongly enough came out as a true poet. . . At best he fulfills the conditions of poetry as formulated by Coleridge, the reconciliation of “a more than usual state of emotion with more than usual order, judgement ever awake, steely self-possession with feelings profound or vehement”‘. (3)

Much critical water has flowed under the bridge since those innocent times – which the site summarizes a little – but there is still a sense in which the observation may be true. So let me take the notion a little further. The emphasis is on emotion and order, both, fused together, and I will suggest – contrary to many art movements today, which look on all traditional forms as inhibitory, diluting or distorting our view of reality – that it is the form that in fact enables the emotion.

Social scientists, a practical bunch, would probably plot form and emotion on separate axes, perhaps on orthogonal axes, emphasizing that they a. they were separate components, and b. that there were degrees of emotion or form involved. I think that might prove a helpful approach to visualizing matters, and remind us that we make models (even in words as here) to understand, not to erect barriers or filters to prevent styles we do not like from being designated ‘acceptable poetry.’ On the emotional response axis, for example, would be plotted poems that pass from the bathetic to banal to conventional to interesting to novel to original to challenging and finally to incoherent. We should also note that poems are rarely homogeneous, that there exist good and indifferent lines in most compositions, and it’s often the task of editors to make selections from things only good in part. (Some editors go to the extent of writing ‘be pleased to reconsider your so-and-so poem if you would rework lines … so as to improve . ..’ but that solicitude is probably rarely well received.)

By form I don’t mean a metre, regular stanzas and rhyme necessarily, but I do mean something that distances us from everyday speech and allows us to treat the individual words at something more than their everyday, utilitarian value. No doubt we can become obsessed with form and rules – ‘if it doesn’t scan and doesn’t rhyme then it isn’t poetry’ sort of pronouncements – which  Modernism wisely set aside. (Rhyme is not used in classical poetry, for example, and the varied measures of poetry in quantitative languages makes the basic metres of English verse seem simplistic if not juvenile.) But all poetry does have rules of some sort, and the greatest of poets were commonly the greatest technicians, and indeed had to be, to squeeze the last drop of relevance from the face value of their compositions.

I have two points to make, which I announce here to help the reader in what will seem a rather meandering post. The first is how we read a poem, or, more exactly, how the poem signals to us that it should be read in certain ways and not others. The second is that words in poetry have a privileged status, they are used for certain, often aesthetic purposes – which I hope will not seem an outlandish proposition, at least as a starting point. In fact, as I have mentioned in the website pages, speech is always being used in specific ways: what we write on an insurance claim is not how we tell the story at a dinner party, though both serve their purposes. A journal paper is not how a lecturer would present a complex matter to students, or not if he hoped to hold their attention, but would not be less ‘accurate’ for that reason. ‘Horses for courses’ is the engineering expression. These two pointers set, I move on to the argument.

I have mentioned granularity in earlier posts as a concept that tells us far we can push the demand that poetry makes full prose sense. Some believe a characteristic of poetry is its suggestive power, that it hints at matters which can’t be fully spelled out. Contemporary poetry can certainly be obscure, and poems like Eliot’s The Four Quartets defy full explication, though of course critics can and do read a wealth of meaning into the more enigmatic phrases. A better case could be made for traditional Chinese poetry, where the small number of words commonly picks up a wide range of echoes and allusions to poetry of earlier dynasties. But Horace is rarely suggestive. The sense is all on the surface, so to speak, and the poetry comes from the exact placing of words in mosaics of pleasing verbal and semantic textures. What do these different features have in common?  What indeed are the defining characteristics of poetry?

Probably there aren’t any, not in the sense that we’re requiring them. The question has been debated down the centuries without agreement being reached, or even much understanding at times.  I suggest we leave the question for the moment and introduce a term which I shall can ‘functionality’ for want of anything better. It’s the way a poem ‘works’, the manner in which all its components operate together to make the poem the thing it is. A contemporary free verse piece is not an Elizabethan sonnet, for example, and we would judge them differently, on their own terms – when matters of tradition, influences, schools of poetry, significance, etc. come into play. Is this functionality’ a scalar matter, i.e. can we measure degrees of functionality? Possibly, though with difficulty, and perhaps with not much advantage. There should perhaps be a different axis for each type of ‘functionality’ – when we are in the world of factor analysis, well known to the social sciences for both the advanced statistical procedures needed, and the problems that often arise (4) In what way is this ‘functionality’ different from the form? Again, I’m not sure, and propose to leave this aspect for the moment and turn to the special properties of words in poetry compositions.

Here I want to digress into another art form, that of painting, and hope my readers have sufficient practical experience to understand the points I am trying to make – namely that words are analogous to elements in a painting, and take on properties independent of the reality they are representing. The first thing that is drummed into the heads of beginning painters (beyond the vexing ‘paint what you see rather than what you know’)  is the need to make a pleasing work of art through whatever medium they are employing. They soon learn that water-colours allow a sparklingly fresh presentation where the luminosity of the paper is expected to show through the deft strokes and washes, but not the detail possible in oils. (With qualifications: I’m making this as simple as possible.) Similarly the sketch in red chalk differs from that in pencil or charcoal – different aims, different approaches, different types of excellence. In short, the medium has to be respected, i.e. students must learn a vocabulary specific to that medium, breaking the painting process  into elements that have to be deployed according to the different conventions applying. Except in non-figurative work, that vocabulary has to represent visual reality but also a host of other, often more demanding criteria – pleasing composition, colour balance, harmony of mood, etc. It’s not simply that a painting cannot achieve a ‘faithful’ photographic record (except by some miracle of misplaced wizardry). Or that that the exercise is pointless, given the ease of simply taking a photograph today. The point is that a good painting is much more pleasing than a photograph can ever be through the aesthetic deployment of the more abstract elements.

That is why, I think, we don’t like ‘amateur poetry’ too much. In many ways, far more than its ‘serious’ counterpart, the work is immediately appealing – sincere, authentic, and a dozen other epithets that are not to be despised. But the aesthetic handling is maladroit. The rhymes are heavy and inappropriate. The metre or rhythm rough-handles the sentiments. The emotions have a brashness and sometimes a silliness that would not be acceptable in an article to the local newspaper, or even in everyday conversation. Or to put the matter more exactly, the sentiments do not depend on the aesthetic elements, and indeed would survive complete rearrangement in the way a good poem does not.

I don’t want to be harsh on ‘amateur poetry’, which I feel is often closer to the real thing than much work receiving critical acclaim today. If bad poetry makes us wince, a lot of serious poetry leaves us remarkably unimpressed. It’s clever, original, interesting, ‘pushes back the frontier of the acceptable’, etc. but makes no emotional appeal whatsoever. We don’t care about the characters present or implied. We don’t care what is being said or how it’s being said. Change the meaning to the opposite and the poem simply remains ‘interesting’, though perhaps a little more ‘complex’. On the emotion axis (to return to what the post started with) the work hardly registers at all.

Why is that? Are we not reading it properly, or is there something so different in the ‘functionality’ that emotion is purposefully diminished or excluded? On this enigmatic point (in a no doubt enigmatic post altogether), I’ll leave the matter for the moment. In the follow up I’ll try to look at this ‘functionality’ in traditional and contemporary work but asking how poems do evoke emotion.

End Notes

1. Wilkinson, L.P., Horace and His Lyric Poetry C.U.P., 1945, Chaps. 4 and 7.
2. Longinus. On the Sublime. VIII, 4.
3. Wilkinson, 1945, p.93.
4. Cattell’s trait theory.

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