May 27, 2008


Sorry about last week, I was busy appearing to be busy. About that time I
read a book review that may have some instructive words for us. The review
was by a literary critic, of a new book about Yeats by Harvard’s Helen
Vendler. Vendler is a great reader of poems, and also thought of as a fairly
“old school” critic, which is to say–generally–one given to deep
consideration of the poem’s formal qualities, informed at times by
biographical or even psychological insights. She’s been known as a
“champion” of certain poets, including Seamus Heaney well before his Nobel
Prize days, and has written a couple volumes of definitive single-poet
criticism. As the reviewer (David Orr) says, she is

“one of the most powerful poetry critics of our time, and her relationship
with her art is as simple as it is peculiar: she’s a steward. If
contemporary poetry were a great manor house, Vendler would be its
long-serving and unshakable manager, monitoring the stable hands, restocking
the wine cellar, preventing the chambermaids from swiping the jewelry and,
above all, keeping immaculate the high chambers to which the lords and
ladies retire at nightfall.”

So her new book is all about Yeats’s lyric poetry, some of my favorite stuff
in the world. And he’s a tough read because in addition to the amount of
information thrown at one in any given poem (strange allusions, cryptic
symbols, hermetic mythological and occult references, foreign words,
geographical pointers) and the amount of knowledge one must throw back at
the poem (of his biography, his loves, some sense of the historical and
political winds blowing at the time, both Irish and Europe-wide, some
understanding of his “program” of cultural nationalism), there is still the
difficulty of the poem itself–and he is, as David Orr writes, a
technician’s technician.

Vendler’s approach is to break Yeats’s shorter poetry into groups defined by
a single formal approach or problem (the sonnets, poems on a certain topic,
poems that were published as part of a sequence), and then attempt “to
determine why and how Yeats made the technical choices that he did, often
with helpful reference to biographical or historical facts.” This approach
gives many good results, but the problem, according to Orr, is that she
falls too often into the “enactment fallacy.” I know this is boring as pus
for most of y’all but bear with me, we’re gonna learn something. What is the
enactment fallacy?

Orr: “Basically, this is the assignment of meaning to technical aspects of
poetry that those aspects don’t necessarily possess.” For example, in
discussing Yeats’s use of *ottava rima* (a complex eight-line stanzaic form)
in the poem “Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen,” she points to the pacing of a
stanza, how the pacing is essentially created by his use of enjambment (uh,
that’s right, see earlier MV editions). Orr points out that it’s not exactly
the enjambment that causes this feeling, but our sense also of what the
words mean, the poem’s fierce vocabulary, and what that stanza is doing at
that place in the poem, that actually creates the headlong rush. The formal
choices themselves do not really enact the meaning, which Orr demonstrates
by maintaining all the rhymes, rhythms, enjambments, and sentence order, but
replacing all the key words with more innocuous ones. Now the excerpt seems

As Orr says, “In a book review or essay, committing this particular fallacy
is a minor error. Most critics do it regularly (I certainly have). In a book
that sets out to explain why a poet makes particular formal choices,
however, the mistake is more serious, because it replaces the complex
relationships among a poem’s elements with just-so stories in which it
always turns out — surprise! — that meaning has been mirrored by shape and

Now I know what y’all are thinking: Matt, isn’t this exactly what you do,
week after week after week? You “explain” poetry by saying, ooh, look how
the pace slows here, just when he’s talking about death, or ooh, look how in
an essentially rhymeless poem she uses rhyme just when she gets to the
emotional kernel of the poem–highlighting its importance!, or ooh, look how
the repetitions create an incantatory rhythm, just as the speaker is trying
to convince himself that something is going to be OK, or hey! the poet is
trying to contrast two things–check out how she splits two stanzas and
plays them off each other! The poem enacts its meaning all over the place!

Well, yes, that is exactly what I do. But I want to do better. Because
consider: for Vendler, and perhaps also for me, for a poem to use a specific
formal choice to enact its meaning is also somewhat to limit a meaning, that
is, *a single* meaning, to the perfectly suitable technique. Sometimes this
works, and these equations are good tools for unlocking a poem. On the other
hand, I’ve always militated against two things for as long as I’ve been
publishing this weekly chat: 1. The question “what does it mean?” is not the
question that will help us discover the poem. 2. A good poem is likely to
produce several meaningful readings, not *a* correct one.

Again Orr: “Think of it this way: we don’t enjoy a bowl of gumbo because it
“feels” exactly the way it “tastes”; rather, we find the combination of
“taste” and “feel” pleasing. Similarly, a particular stanza arrangement can
reinforce our experience of a poem, but only because that arrangement is
working in harmony with the poem’s other aspects.” I like that metaphor, and
it suggests to me something else I’ve tried to keep in mind as I read
poetry: it is better to ask ourselves “does the poem succeed?” than “is the
poem good?” And a poem’s shape and sound needn’t always mirror its meaning
to be successful. I guess a way to think about it in the context that Orr
does is to recognize that the formal qualities Vendler isolates augment,
rather than determine, a poem’s meaning. The entire poem succeeds that way,
instead of the technique “working right.”

So shall we read a poem? OK. Here’s an early-ish one, from 1910. It’s a
near-sonnet. Determine away.


Why should I blame her that she filled my days
With misery, or that she would of late
Have taught to ignorant men most violent ways,
Or hurled the little streets upon the great,
Had they but courage equal to desire?
What could have made her peaceful with a mind
That nobleness made simple as a fire,
With beauty like a tightened bow, a kind
That is not natural in an age like this,
Being high and solitary and most stern?
Why, what could she have done, being what she is?
Was there another Troy for her to burn?

*the original, Orr’s brief commentary and redaction:

Now days are dragon-ridden, the nightmare
Rides upon sleep: a drunken soldiery
Can leave the mother, murdered at her door,
To crawl in her own blood, and go scot-free;
The night can sweat with terror as before
We pieced our thoughts into philosophy,
And planned to bring the world under a rule,
Who are but weasels fighting in a hole.

“With each new verbal or participial theater of action of the stanza, there
arrives a new agent,” Vendler writes, “making the clauses scramble
helter-skelter, one after the other. The headlong pace is crucial.” Since
the stanza involves words like “dragon,” “nightmare,” “murdered,” “blood”
and “fighting,” it’s easy to see what she’s thinking here. But to make a
more modest use of Vendler’s rewriting trick above, what if we kept the same
enjambments, syntax, rhyme scheme and basic rhythm — yet changed some of the
words? We might get this (my words, with apologies to I. A. Richards for
adapting one of his tactics):

Now days are slow and easy, the summer
Sighs into fall: a purring bumble-bee
Can leave the flower, softened to a blur,
To soak in the noon sun, and fly carefree;
The night can breathe with pleasure as once more
We weave our visions into poetry
And seek to bring our thoughts under a rule,
Who are the mindful servants of the soul.

Not so “helter-skelter” now, is it?


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