Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Degrees of badness

To celebrate #empsonweek on Twitter, I'm reprising a few posts in WE's honor; Empson is a great hero for me, and I never tire of quoting him, viz - "The central function of imaginative literature is to make you realize that other people act on moral convictions different from your own."  This I believe!

Here's a nugget from pre attack-of-the-difficult-poem times...

Now, greatness in poetry, as we know, has been abolished. Badness, too, therefore! There remain only those who fear the new, and those who fear the old.

I imagine, all this notwithstanding, that there may still linger a wistful nostalgia for some imaginary good - if not actually great - old days. And so, to accompany these deep autumn days, I thought I'd occasionally dig up a cool odd buried chestnut or two from a bygone era. Here's the first little chill pill I found!  It's from a review by William Empson of Cleanth Brooks's Modern Poetry and the Tradition, from the December 1939 issue of Poetry:

Perhaps the best single crack is the remark that it is not the obscure poet but the unwilling public who escapes into an Ivory Tower. A short review of such a book had best look round for the points of disagreement, but the main body of it seems to me true and convincingly argued.But whom is it meant to convince? I suppose people who already read poetry, but bad poetry. They might be told more about the degrees of badness. It seems clear that Propaganda poetry ("I want you to feel like I do about this," or what Collingwood recently called the magical use of art, more of a social function) is not in itself Sentimental poetry (keeping to a limited range of feelings, to let them run riot), and Uplift poetry is different again. Assuming they are all bad, there is a question what poetry is used for - what kind of threshold ought to be crossed before you spill over into it from normal life? Is it better to have second-rate poetry in your life than not? And what sort of effort is required to produce or enjoy the virtues Mr. Brooks praises? Do you want to be cool or nearly crazy? Oddly enough, you seem to want one extreme or the other.


Jordan said...

Second rate...

Here's Trollope on this problem:

Macaulay, expressing his surprise at the fecundity of Cicero, and then passing on to the praise of the Philippics as senatorial speeches, says of him that he seems to have been at the head of the "minds of the second order." We cannot judge of the classification without knowing how many of the great men of the world are to be included in the first rank. But Macaulay probably intended to express an opinion that Cicero was inferior because he himself had never dominated others as Marius had done, and Sylla, and Pompey, and Caesar, and Augustus. But what if Cicero was ambitious for the good of others, while these men had desired power only for themselves?

Henry Gould said...

Interesting! But maybe Macaulay simply meant minds of the "critical" rather than the "creative" (1st) order, like say Homer, Virgil, Ovid. & maybe Trollope wrote this because he was actually a member of that 1st order... but at a secondary level.

Is it just a secondary or tertiary level of intelligence which is always posing the distinctions & rankings of writing without acknowledging some kind of continuum... Exactly why we are drawn to really great poems & bored by bad poems seems pretty mysterious to me.