The Rhapsodic Fallacy

The Rhapsodic Fallacy

I’ve been reading, or at least dipping into, Twentieth-Century American Poetics: Poets on the Art of Poetry (McGraw-Hill, 2004), a collection of some 53 essays or articles edited by Dana Gioia, David Mason and Meg Schoerke. The range is from James Weldon Johnson (1871-1938) to Christian Wiman (1966-), and includes many illustrious names. The contributions seem sensibly chosen, moreover, and the book deserves a proper review in due course. My concern here is an essay entitled The Rhapsodic Fallacy by Mary Kinzie and published in the fall 1984 issue of Salmagundi. The theme generated a good deal of discussion, and Mary Kinzie later expanded the ideas into a full-length book: The Cure of Poetry in an Age of Prose. {1}

Kinzie makes no bones about the fallen state of contemporary poetry, even thirty years ago. The essay opens:

Contemporary poetry suffers from dryness, prosaism, and imaginative commonplace, but these are hardly its worst features. Rather, the stylistic dullness is disagreeably coarsened, and made more decadent by being a brotherly symptom of, and in fact a technical support for, the assumption (which has only strengthened in the past 150 years) that the aim of poetry is apotheosis, an ecstatic and unmediated self-consumption in the moment of perception and feeling.

Readers (and some sacred cows) are clearly in for a rough ride, but I’ll try to summarize the arguments. The key word is ‘self-consumption’. Kinzie is not against ‘epiphany’ poems as such, though she probably thinks the approach is overdone. What concerns her is that the ecstatic moment, the sudden insight or flash of revelation has become sufficient rationale for a poem, rather than how the world appears to the poet after such illumination.

The Wikipedia {2} article summarizes this as an attack on the narrowing of poetic form (epic, satire, allegory, etc. being condensed into rather shapeless free verse) illustrated by three types of the fallacy:

1. The Objective Style is a string of bland declarative sentences, often posing as honest reporting, but employing odd juxtapositions, non-sequiturs and portentous language. The example given was ‘Woman in the Rain’ by Catherine Rutan (Georgia Review, 1981): not at all a bad poem at first blush, at least till we get to The small grave / is circled with small white stones, when we’ll probably start looking for irony or some puckish humour, though wrongly: the poem is quite serious.

Czechoslovakia, the smell
of turned earth, the house
at the field’s edge.
I know these things.
There was diphtheria,
a child lost. The small grave
is circled with small white stones.
The osprey inhabits the marsh.
The stork is common, portentous.
The forests go on forever.
There will be men killed there.

2. The mixed ironic style seems at first seems rich, conscious and attentive of response, but this immediacy soon parades itself as disguise. Her example was John Ashberry’s More Pleasant Adventures (N.Y. Review of Books, 1983), a section of which ran:

Suddenly you are interested in some new thing
And can’t tell how you got here: Then there is (confusion
Even out of happiness, like a smoke –
The words get heavy, some topple over, you break(others.
And outlines disappear once again.

Heck, it’s anybody’s story . . .

To Kinzie, the poem seemed little more than overhearing something. Yes, the style was accomplished, but also depressing, the speaker’s personality becoming a commercial commonplace.

3. In the innocuous surreal style, the poet whimsically violates the realistic surface of the poem. Kinzie gives several examples: this from William Logan’s Children in Sad-Faced Men (Boston: David R. Godine, 1982):

All night, though dead, they stir.
All night toward an unknown invitation
The children reach, like boats
Towards open sea, but are moored against it.
They test their tethers. They rock
And rock in a bloodless sleep.
             . . .
All night we seem to hear their breathings
and longings, a shattered colonnade around us.

As an opening I think we’d see as a bit repetitious, but it’s apparently the poem in toto, when we can only call it silly and pretentious. Tethers? Colonnade? But worse follows: the comic surreal, where absurdity is embraced and then forgotten (Leslie Ullman’s The Woman at the Deck: Natural Histories. Yale Younger Poets, 1979):

Stuffed against the coast
her breasts want to be naked.
They bloom there
as though they lived in the tropics.
In some other life she traveled light.
In some other life she slipped away at dawn
scarcely disturbing the thick branches.

If this is rather bad I can assure readers it’s no worse than what I have to wade through every week in putting together my blog survey of the better known literary magazines.

But Kinzie has more to say. She complains that the fallacy nourishes aimlessness and nonsense, destroys standards and denies poets worthwhile goals, in short. ‘neither do the assumptions and techniques that cooperate in the kind of monotonic poetry we have examined do anything, it seems to me, to encourage, or positively enable, great thought or great poetry’.

Minzie is often seen as a forerunner to the New Formalists, and so written off as overtaken by events. But that would be unwise, as the problems she highlights are still very much with us. Her book {1} indeed takes matters a good deal further, not only hitting out at cultural icons (expanding the shame list, outdoing Logan in the put-downs: sometimes a little unfairly, I think) but adding three essays on confessional poets. I have my own difficulties with the likes of James Wright and Theodore Roethke, who (in Kenzie’s words) record the earnest reaching for the right word rather than finding it, i.e. creating sentimentality, and Kenzie in fact compares Louise Bogan with Theodore Roethke in some length.

At this point my free access under Google Books expired, but there are also treatments of Randall Jarrell, Elizabeth Bishop, Howard Nemerov, Seamus Heaney, John Ashberry and others. The book is probably worth looking out for in your college library or S/H bookshop. These poets are no longer in the literary limelight, but reading intelligent criticism is an important part of inner writing health.
End Notes

1. The Cure of Poetry in an Age of Prose: Moral Essays on the Poet’s Calling. University of Chicago Press, 2003. Google Books.
2. The Rhapsodic Fallacy. Wikipedia. Accessed September 2014.

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