Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Raise the bar on our poetic rhetoric!



From an essay by Ange Mlinko, on "The Answer," by Anne Finch, Countess of Winchilsea:

E-mail, texting, IM: thanks to the Internet, we compose messages to each other as spontaneously as our parents picked up the telephone. Among the literate classes of Europe, poetry used to be a kind of social media too. Poetry back then worked in ways similar to ancient Japanese poetry, which, as Sei Shonagon’s 10th-century Pillow Book tells us, involved courtiers “texting” poems to each other, albeit on exquisite paper. Like Japan’s court poetry, English poetry in the early 18th century, the so-called Augustan Age, flourished as a kind of messaging between members of a social circle. But, informed by the rigors of metrical and rhetorical convention, it sparkled in a way that our missives—texts written in haste, or comments dashed off in high dudgeon—often do not. These poems were in the form of “epistolary verse,” or letter-poems, and they were both public and private displays of alliance and conflict. Writing artfully to provide amusement for friends with good taste, the epistolary poets also regarded their high style as a persuasive tactic.

[...]

Without denying the fact that some writers are more talented than others—and without exiling the notions of genius or mastery—it is possible to see the highly networked milieu of English verse at this time as a social practice rather than a spiritual one—a precursor to our own secular, highly networked times.

We might learn something, as well, from the forms these poets’ messages took. Their banter was charged with ironies but always civil; the rules of metrics and the bounds of discourse played their part in defusing hard feelings. [...] But the conventions of Augustan poetry sublimated emotion into a contest of wits, so what could have been a petty complaint resulted in works that have instead lasted centuries. While I’m not suggesting that contemporary flame wars be conducted in epistolary rhyming hexameters, it’s impossible to read the repartee between Finch and Pope and not feel pressed to raise the bar on our own poetic rhetoric.

(Full text here.)

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The wrong reasons to like a poem:

"... because they seem to suit a critic’s ideological predilections or theoretical hobby-horse, say, or because they illustrate (and affirm) something already known by the reader."

-- Adam Phillips (characterizing Christopher Ricks's position; in the LRB: http://www.lrb.co.uk/v32/n14/adam-phillips/misgivings )

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