Monday, September 27, 2010

Spots of Time in Lyric Poetry

Perhaps as a function of its brevity, the themes of lyric poetry often seem to emerge in a "sudden" shift of perception. Actually, there is due preparation, but some feeling or insight about human experience does seem to come suddenly into focus. Robert Langbaum has called this the "epiphanic" mode, and has suggested that it is the dominant modern convention of the lyric. (In religious usage, "epiphany" suggests revelation.) Again, most of us are familiar with this convention because we have experienced versions of it elsewhere (for example, in some popular songs and short stories).

The most challenging issues of lyric poetry, however, probably have to do with our third expectation-- that it is structurally coherent. What interconnected elements of a poem can suggest to us its themes? In the newspaper "poem," we found coherence between the "stanza" form and the diction (the appearance on the page seemed to focus attention on significant word choices), and between the characters (neighbor and blind person) and the implied attitude of the speaker ("neighbors" should care). In many lyric poems, in fact, the speaker is perhaps the most important element of all.

The typical "speaker" of a lyric poem is a conventional construct, someone who may be associated with the historical author, but who is not really that author speaking in his or own person. The importance of this conventional speaker is that he or she is in one way or another the agent of revelation. For example, in one common sequence, the speaker has an experience, responds to it with feelings, and comes to understand the meaning of the events or objects he or she describes. This meaning discovered by the speaker may then become for us the epiphany. But it is a bit more complex than this.

Whether we realize it or not, we can respond to this conventional speaker in the same way that we might respond in real life. But whenever a real-life speaker says something, we respond to two things--to the idea the speaker is expressing and also to the speaker himself or herself. Whenever we read a lyric poem, we can do the same, and either or both of these responses will lead to the significant insight we expect from a lyric poem. That is, the insight may be (1) the same as the speaker's or (2) related to the character of the speaker or (3) both.

The insight we derive that is identical with the speaker's is not usually delivered directly. In fact, if the speaker does seem to be saying something directly to us, it may be ironic. For example, an Emily Dickinson speaker, preparing us for a theme about people who think they are "somebody" (they are pompously "public, like a frog"), says slyly,

I'm nobody! Who are you?
Are you nobody, too?
Then there's a pair of us--. . .
Do you believe the "nobody" self-assessment of this speaker? Of course, an ironic tone may also be present in less direct poetic statements. Another Emily Dickinson speaker:
What soft, cherubic creatures
These gentlewomen are!
One would as soon assault a plush
Or violate a star.

Does the speaker really think these "gentlewomen" are "cherubic"?
In both of these lyric poems, the reader needs the whole poem to determine more fully the attitude of the speaker, and thus the significant insight we will come to share with him or her. Yet we should also note that in both of these poems, our acceptance of the insight is contingent on an implicit judgment we make about the character of the speaker. As in real life, we will assume the speaker is "right" and will accept the insight that is suggested, only to the extent that he or she seems worthy; that is, the speaker must seem not only trustworthy, but also possessed of wisdom. The speaker's "voice" must convey credibility.

Sometimes, the character of the speaker figures more overtly, in ways that relate to the theme itself. For example, if one of Wordsworth's favorite early themes is that "feelings" are more valuable than "reason," his speakers often become an integral part of that theme. In "We Are Seven," there is a a very "rational" adult speaker, who keeps insisting to a child that her family no longer numbers "seven" because some of them are dead. We feel mild irritation with this speaker; our sympathies go with the equally insistent, but more intuitive child, for whom the dead members are still alive because she feels their presence--"their graves are green, they may be seen." On the other hand, in Wordsworth's "Strange Fits of Passion," we find ourselves siding with the speaker (who in fact solicits our sympathies), in opposition to those implied persons who would judge him. He admits to us that what pops into his head, his "wayward thoughts," can only be told into a "lover's ear," that others would consider his thoughts "strange," evidence of irrational "fits." And the associative flash that he reports, connecting the moon's sudden drop behind the hill with the possible death of his beloved, is indeed irrational. But we like this speaker, and with him, take delight in observing such interesting (and universal) vagaries of the human mind.

Sometimes our sympathies may be wonderfully enlarged when we perceive in the character of a speaker, not commonality, but difference from ourselves. To a male reader, Emily Dickinson's striking "I Started Early--Took My Dog--" can open up new insight if, in responding to the character of the speaker, he takes in the fact that she is female (there are references to "Apron" and "Boddice"), and that next to the huge ships in the harbor she feels small, like a "Mouse-- / Aground-- upon the Sands--." In a highly charged progression of sexual images, the ambivalent-sounding speaker also tells of her retreat from a pursuing, polite, yet extremely powerful, potentially engulfing sea, personified as male suitor.

Based partly on how we react to people in real life, we can almost always react to a "speaker" in a lyric poem. From the speaker's words we can construct a situation and derive an attitude. In many cases, we assume the speaker is worthy, a sensitive observer and interpreter whose moments of discovery we can directly take over as our own. In some dramatic monologues, on the other hand, our discovery may be primarily about the character of the speaker (who often is not aware of his own shortcomings). Occasionally, the speaker/situation may seem unreal- -in real life, people do not speak to the West Wind or to a Grecian urn. Yet an attitude or insight is still present. Even when the speaker seems invisible or anonymous (we have no clues pointing to a real person speaking the words), the disembodied "voice" suggests an attitude. Some recent critics have suggested that all lyric speakers are haunted by multiple "voices"; rather than being agents who determine and control insight, they can speak only in the "voices" of the surrounding culture, only what its biased language system permits them to speak. Yet there is still some significant theme expressed.

Rewards and Challenges of Reading Lyric Poetry
This discussion has focused in a general way on two conventional aspects of lyric poetry with which, though we do not often think about them, we are familiar. These are "stanza" form, which we assume is appropriate to feeling and theme, and the "speaker," who is often the most important agent of the theme. Beyond these, in lyric poetry, we assume structural coherence may be found in all of its elements.
Several final comments on the rewards and challenges of reading lyric poetry:

a.) The element of epiphany, of revelation, is perhaps the major reason we think lyric poetry can matter in our lives. Though extremely brief (Rossetti called it a "moment's monument"), a good lyric poem can have an enduring effect. We can find and take back with us new ways of seeing or feeling, or find that an old, seemingly inexpressible feeling has been given shape for us.

b.) In its brevity, lyric poetry thrives on exclusion, leaving a good deal of context to be supplied by a reader. It thus reminds us how much reading is a creative process, to which we bring not only our knowledge of the conventional possibilities of literary form, but also all of the unique experiences that each of us, as individuals, has undergone. The situations described in the preceding examples--a "rational" adult's conversation with an "unreasonable" child; anxious, irrational feelings about losing a lover, aroused so suddenly by the setting of the moon; the powerful and significant fantasizing that can take place during a walk by the sea--all become meaningful only as our prior experiences and knowledge make them so.

c.) Even "difficult" poems--those with seemingly unrelated objects and situations, with fragmented sequences and syntactical dislocations--can be assumed to have unity; if we work at them, we can "make sense" of them. Meanings may not immediately be apparent; epiphanies, though they seem to be "sudden" revelations, may take time to be discovered. Yet there is pleasure to be had in the working out of meanings. (We are always justifiably pleased whenever we use our talents and powers.)

d.) In lyric poems, we may discover joy, surprise, and playfulness. Authors do "play" with their themes. Responding to this aspect of lyric poetry is much like listening to the jazz musician who improvises on a musical theme. Many jazz afficionados listen first for the main theme, then follow as the musician begins to fly with it, and then, understanding what the artist is doing at a particularly inspired moment, they will whisper in quiet admiration--"yeah!" In reading lyric poetry too, when one appreciates how the author has skillfully played with the theme, how apparently discordant lines turn out to be interesting variations that come back always to the same idea, one may have a silent, admiring "yeah!" response.

e.) Finally, the experiences of reading are cumulative. We can build on them. Because "texts" absorb and reflect each other, the more we read, the richer can be our experience of any one poem. With individual authors, for example, we can read many of Blake's Songs of Experience in light of his Songs of Innocence (and vice versa); or we can enrich our understanding of the single word "thing" in Wordsworth's "A Slumber Did My Spirit Seal" if we know his use of the same word in the Tintern Abbey "Lines" (where the speaker sees into the life of "things"). We can also recognize this "intertextuality" between the texts of different authors, and also between literary and non-literary texts. Thus, the more that we read, the more that we extend our participation in our common literary and cultural community (with its shared assumptions, expectations, and conventions), the more we will understand and enjoy experiences that have been among the most intense and meaningful that human beings have ever put into words.

Adapted from A Guide to the Study of Literature: A Companion Text for Core Studies 6, Landmarks of Literature, ©Brooklyn College.



Enjoyment of lyric poetry, like enjoyment of any other genre, depends in part on knowledge of its conventions. To what extent are these familiar or unfamiliar? What do we already know that can make us very comfortable with reading a lyric poem?
We are in fact familiar with two kinds of popular "texts" that bear some similarity to and have some of the same "feel" as lyric poetry. We also know how to recognize a lyric poem when we see one (more important than we might at first think), as well as how, in general, we are expected to read it. Finally, we know more about two of its special conventions, "stanza" form and the "speaker," than we may realize.

Lyric Poetry and Familiar Popular "Texts"

Lyric poetry makes its impact in a very brief space. It stresses moments of feeling. It is often quite memorable. In these and several other ways, lyric poems resemble two other kinds of "texts" with which we are quite familiar: ninety-second popular songs and fifteen-second television commercials. Both of these aim, in extremely brief time, to capture moments of feeling. Both aim to imprint themselves in our memory. To achieve this, besides repeated air play, both use internal forms of repetition.
In pop songs, there is a strong emphasis on rhythm, on "the beat," a very basic way of using repetition to aid memory. The best songs also use striking images and are about subjects that concern us. They may relate a memorable incident and tell of its lasting emotional implications. Refrains, catch phrases, and other verbal devices invite us to remember the specific words so that we will sing them--as the record is being played, afterwards to ourselves, and finally on our way to the record store.

Television commercials also present striking images, sometimes in very quick sequence--a series of "poetic" fragments that try to associate the particular product with a feeling or goal that is highly valued (friendship, health, social status, or love). Some of the best are like mini-dramas, telling brief, emotionally appealing "stories." A first-born child, disturbed by all the fuss over a newly arrived baby, says plaintively, "I have blue eyes too"; he is taken by his father to MacDonald's, for a "man-to-man talk," where a new role is offered to him, to be a teacher of the younger child. A teen-age girl complains tearfully to her friends about her mother--"She's so much prettier than me"--until she smiles, realizing that at the same age, her mother looked "exactly like me." Accompanying these commercials, there is also a strong musical element, either as background or as a catchy tune with catchy words to it. To sell the product, story and music and verbal devices all aim at being memorable.

The earliest poetry of every culture also aimed at being remembered. It had to. Without the resources of mass printing, it could only survive through oral transmission. There were many repeat performances. Mnemonic verbal devices, a "story" which engaged the concerns and values of the culture, and strong musical elements existed here too (the poems were sung or chanted to musical accompaniment). Medieval popular ballads were not printed until the fifteenth century. These were generally story-songs that used refrains, as well as "incremental repetition" (lines that change only slightly in each appearance).

Our pop songs and commercials today are in part the inheritors of ballad and other popular traditions. But they also echo more consciously "literary" forms (in literary history, there is constant exchange). In particular, they use two conventions of lyric poetry which developed in the nineteenth century. First, as the lyric moved "up" in the hierarchy of literary genres, the objects and situations it described "descended," became more commonplace, more everyday. This was one of Wordsworth's major innovations. Second, the place of "action" or "story," of primary importance in literature since Aristotle, shifted. Feelings became primary. Wordsworth said that feelings gave importance to the action and situation, not the other way around. Both of these conventions of the nineteenth century lyric-- emphasis on everyday events and on a "story" that exists mostly for the feelings it expresses--may be seen operating in a great many commercials and popular songs today (think of any Country and Western song).

To sum up, because we are familiar with these brief, popular "texts," we may, in a general way, be more familiar than we realize with the conventions and codes of lyric poetry.

--Adapted from A Guide to the Study of Literature: A Companion Text for Core Studies 6, Landmarks of Literature, ©Brooklyn College.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Plato's Allegory of the Cave

Book VII of The Republic

The Allegory of the Cave

Here's a little story from Plato's most famous book, The Republic. Socrates is talking to a young follower of his named Glaucon, and is telling him this fable to illustrate what it's like to be a philosopher -- a lover of wisdom: Most people, including ourselves, live in a world of relative ignorance. We are even comfortable with that ignorance, because it is all we know. When we first start facing truth, the process may be frightening, and many people run back to their old lives. But if you continue to seek truth, you will eventually be able to handle it better. In fact, you want more! It's true that many people around you now may think you are weird or even a danger to society, but you don't care. Once you've tasted the truth, you won't ever want to go back to being ignorant!


[Socrates is speaking with Glaucon]

[Socrates:] And now, I said, let me show in a figure how far our nature is enlightened or unenlightened: --Behold! human beings living in a underground den, which has a mouth open towards the light and reaching all along the den; here they have been from their childhood, and have their legs and necks chained so that they cannot move, and can only see before them, being prevented by the chains from turning round their heads. Above and behind them a fire is blazing at a distance, and between the fire and the prisoners there is a raised way; and you will see, if you look, a low wall built along the way, like the screen which marionette players have in front of them, over which they show the puppets.

[Glaucon:] I see.

And do you see, I said, men passing along the wall carrying all sorts of vessels, and statues and figures of animals made of wood and stone and various materials, which appear over the wall? Some of them are talking, others silent.

You have shown me a strange image, and they are strange prisoners.

Like ourselves, I replied; and they see only their own shadows, or the shadows of one another, which the fire throws on the opposite wall of the cave?

True, he said; how could they see anything but the shadows if they were never allowed to move their heads?

And of the objects which are being carried in like manner they would only see the shadows?

Yes, he said.

And if they were able to converse with one another, would they not suppose that they were naming what was actually before them?

Very true.

And suppose further that the prison had an echo which came from the other side, would they not be sure to fancy when one of the passers-by spoke that the voice which they heard came from the passing shadow?

No question, he replied.

To them, I said, the truth would be literally nothing but the shadows of the images.

That is certain.

And now look again, and see what will naturally follow if the prisoners are released and disabused of their error. At first, when any of them is liberated and compelled suddenly to stand up and turn his neck round and walk and look towards the light, he will suffer sharp pains; the glare will distress him, and he will be unable to see the realities of which in his former state he had seen the shadows; and then conceive some one saying to him, that what he saw before was an illusion, but that now, when he is approaching nearer to being and his eye is turned towards more real existence, he has a clearer vision, -what will be his reply? And you may further imagine that his instructor is pointing to the objects as they pass and requiring him to name them, -- will he not be perplexed? Will he not fancy that the shadows which he formerly saw are truer than the objects which are now shown to him?

Far truer.

And if he is compelled to look straight at the light, will he not have a pain in his eyes which will make him turn away to take and take in the objects of vision which he can see, and which he will conceive to be in reality clearer than the things which are now being shown to him?

True, he said.

And suppose once more, that he is reluctantly dragged up a steep and rugged ascent, and held fast until he 's forced into the presence of the sun himself, is he not likely to be pained and irritated? When he approaches the light his eyes will be dazzled, and he will not be able to see anything at all of what are now called realities.

Not all in a moment, he said.

He will require to grow accustomed to the sight of the upper world. And first he will see the shadows best, next the reflections of men and other objects in the water, and then the objects themselves; then he will gaze upon the light of the moon and the stars and the spangled heaven; and he will see the sky and the stars by night better than the sun or the light of the sun by day?


Last of he will be able to see the sun, and not mere reflections of him in the water, but he will see him in his own proper place, and not in another; and he will contemplate him as he is.


He will then proceed to argue that this is he who gives the season and the years, and is the guardian of all that is in the visible world, and in a certain way the cause of all things which he and his fellows have been accustomed to behold?

Clearly, he said, he would first see the sun and then reason about him.

And when he remembered his old habitation, and the wisdom of the den and his fellow-prisoners, do you not suppose that he would felicitate himself on the change, and pity them?

Certainly, he would.

And if they were in the habit of conferring honours among themselves on those who were quickest to observe the passing shadows and to remark which of them went before, and which followed after, and which were together; and who were therefore best able to draw conclusions as to the future, do you think that he would care for such honours and glories, or envy the possessors of them? Would he not say with Homer,

Better to be the poor servant of a poor master, and to endure anything, rather than think as they do and live after their manner?

Yes, he said, I think that he would rather suffer anything than entertain these false notions and live in this miserable manner.

Imagine once more, I said, such an one coming suddenly out of the sun to be replaced in his old situation; would he not be certain to have his eyes full of darkness?

To be sure, he said.

And if there were a contest, and he had to compete in measuring the shadows with the prisoners who had never moved out of the den, while his sight was still weak, and before his eyes had become steady (and the time which would be needed to acquire this new habit of sight might be very considerable) would he not be ridiculous? Men would say of him that up he went and down he came without his eyes; and that it was better not even to think of ascending; and if any one tried to loose another and lead him up to the light, let them only catch the offender, and they would put him to death.

No question, he said.

This entire allegory, I said, you may now append, dear Glaucon, to the previous argument; the prison-house is the world of sight, the light of the fire is the sun, and you will not misapprehend me if you interpret the journey upwards to be the ascent of the soul into the intellectual world according to my poor belief, which, at your desire, I have expressed whether rightly or wrongly God knows. But, whether true or false, my opinion is that in the world of knowledge the idea of good appears last of all, and is seen only with an effort; and, when seen, is also inferred to be the universal author of all things beautiful and right, parent of light and of the lord of light in this visible world, and the immediate source of reason and truth in the intellectual; and that this is the power upon which he who would act rationally, either in public or private life must have his eye fixed.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Chekhov Insights

"Don't tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass."

— Anton Pavlovich Chekhov

"[Six principles that make for a good story:] 1. Absence of lengthy verbiage of a political-social-economic nature; 2. total objectivity; 3. truthful descriptions of persons and objects; 4. extreme brevity; 5. audacity and originality: flee the stereotype; 6. compassion."

— Anton Pavlovich Chekhov (The Letters of Anton Chekhov)

d. 1904

Neo-Classical Tripe--as Keats would see it...

An Essay on Man: Epistle II by Alexander Pope

Know then thyself, presume not God to scan;
The proper study of mankind is man.
Plac'd on this isthmus of a middle state,
A being darkly wise, and rudely great:
With too much knowledge for the sceptic side,
With too much weakness for the stoic's pride,
He hangs between; in doubt to act, or rest;
In doubt to deem himself a god, or beast;
In doubt his mind or body to prefer;
Born but to die, and reas'ning but to err;
Alike in ignorance, his reason such,
Whether he thinks too little, or too much:
Chaos of thought and passion, all confus'd;
Still by himself abus'd, or disabus'd;
Created half to rise, and half to fall;
Great lord of all things, yet a prey to all;
Sole judge of truth, in endless error hurl'd:
The glory, jest, and riddle of the world!

The Thesis-Driven Essay

Is there anything else? Well, yes. There is the personal essay replete with images and structure that somehow recreates an experience, a memory, a moment in such a way that you feel as if you were there as it happened. A big part of this kind of writing is the voice--the tone of the speaker or narrator that exudes a certain something we call personality. College application essays fall into this bin. Besides inflicting mental torture on the student writing them, when they work they forge together intellect, emotions, memories, hopes, and dreams into something akin to a spotlight that brings to the reader that special self that is either winning or off-putting, depending on the level of craft and self-knowledge the writer possesses. Be yourself, by all means. But if that self is not agreeable to the reader, you have only yourself to blame--and your words.

Essays that are "thesis-driven" are written more on the level of intellect than emotion. Not that they exclude emotion, however. It's simply that the emotional impact of a work of literature is reflected upon, seen how it fits into the meaning of the work as a whole, and then precisely expressed in clear, logical sequence.

A key part of this thesis is its bringing together a brief expression of a work's thematic meaning AND the structures of the work (tone, imagery, diction, etc.) that bring this meaning to the reader. Theme plus structure equals thesis. Most of the time.

That's bascially AP English. One more thing: To be a good writer, you need to be a good reader. That's not negotiable. We'll be talking about this a lot in class.

Monday, September 6, 2010

from Keats' "Sleep and Poetry"

Is there so small a range
In the present strength of manhood, that the high
Imagination cannot freely fly
As she was wont of old? prepare her steeds, 165
Paw up against the light, and do strange deeds
Upon the clouds? Has she not shewn us all?
From the clear space of ether, to the small
Breath of new buds unfolding? From the meaning
Of Jove’s large eye-brow, to the tender greening 170
Of April meadows? Here her altar shone,
E’en in this isle; and who could paragon
The fervid choir that lifted up a noise
Of harmony, to where it aye will poise
Its mighty self of convoluting sound, 175
Huge as a planet, and like that roll round,
Eternally around a dizzy void?
Ay, in those days the Muses were nigh cloy’d
With honors; nor had any other care
Than to sing out and sooth their wavy hair. 180

Could all this be forgotten? Yes, a sc[h]ism
Nurtured by foppery and barbarism,
Made great Apollo blush for this his land.
Men were thought wise who could not understand
His glories: with a puling infant’s force 185
They sway’d about upon a rocking horse,
And thought it Pegasus. Ah dismal soul’d!
The winds of heaven blew, the ocean roll’d
Its gathering waves—ye felt it not. The blue
Bared its eternal bosom, and the dew 190
Of summer nights collected still to make
The morning precious: beauty was awake!
Why were ye not awake? But ye were dead
To things ye knew not of,—were closely wed
To musty laws lined out with wretched rule 195
And compass vile: so that ye taught a school
Of dolts to smooth, inlay, and clip, and fit,
Till, like the certain wands of Jacob’s wit,
Their verses tallied. Easy was the task:
A thousand handicraftsmen wore the mask 200
Of Poesy. Ill-fated, impious race!
That blasphemed the bright Lyrist to his face,
And did not know it,—no, they went about,
Holding a poor, decrepid standard out
Mark’d with most flimsy mottos, and in large 205
The name of one Boileau!

O ye whose charge
It is to hover round our pleasant hills!
Whose congregated majesty so fills
My boundly reverence, that I cannot trace
Your hallowed names, in this unholy place, 210
So near those common folk; did not their shames
Affright you? Did our old lamenting Thames
Delight you? Did ye never cluster round
Delicious Avon, with a mournful sound,
And weep? Or did ye wholly bid adieu 215
To regions where no more the laurel grew?
Or did ye stay to give a welcoming
To some lone spirits who could proudly sing
Their youth away, and die? ’Twas even so:
But let me think away those times of woe: 220
Now ’tis a fairer season; ye have breathed
Rich benedictions o’er us; ye have wreathed
Fresh garlands: for sweet music has been heard
In many places;—some has been upstirr’d
From out its crystal dwelling in a lake, 225
By a swan’s ebon bill; from a thick brake,
Nested and quiet in a valley mild,
Bubbles a pipe; fine sounds are floating wild
About the earth: happy are ye and glad.
These things are doubtless: yet in truth we’ve had 230
Strange thunders from the potency of song;
Mingled indeed with what is sweet and strong,
From majesty: but in clear truth the themes
Are ugly clubs, the Poets Polyphemes
Disturbing the grand sea. A drainless shower 235
Of light is poesy; ’tis the supreme of power;
’Tis might half slumb’ring on its own right arm.
The very archings of her eye-lids charm
A thousand willing agents to obey,
And still she governs with the mildest sway: 240
But strength alone though of the Muses born
Is like a fallen angel: trees uptorn,
Darkness, and worms, and shrouds, and sepulchres
Delight it; for it feeds upon the burrs,
And thorns of life; forgetting the great end 245
Of poesy, that it should be a friend
To sooth the cares, and lift the thoughts of man.

Yet I rejoice: a myrtle fairer than
E’er grew in Paphos, from the bitter weeds
Lifts its sweet head into the air, and feeds 250
A silent space with ever sprouting green.
All tenderest birds there find a pleasant screen,
Creep through the shade with jaunty fluttering,
Nibble the little cupped flowers and sing.
Then let us clear away the choaking thorns 255
From round its gentle stem; let the young fawns,
Yeaned in after times, when we are flown,
Find a fresh sward beneath it, overgrown
With simple flowers: let there nothing be
More boisterous than a lover’s bended knee; 260
Nought more ungentle than the placid look
Of one who leans upon a closed book;
Nought more untranquil than the grassy slopes
Between two hills. All hail delightful hopes!
As she was wont, th’ imagination 265
Into most lovely labyrinths will be gone,
And they shall be accounted poet kings
Who simply tell the most heart-easing things.
O may these joys be ripe before I die.