Thursday, February 2, 2012

Not with a bang but a whisper

- from "The Book From Which Our Literature Springs," by Robert Pogue Harrison in the New York Review of Books, February 9, 2012:

If Bloom is right that "a test for great poetry and prose is an aura of inevitability in the phrasing," then the King James Bible passes that test brilliantly, thanks in part to the way it ends most of its verses with emphatic metrical stresses or resounding words, be they nouns, verbs, pronouns, or other parts of speech.  Here are a few samples that I choose more or less at random from Yahweh's series of rhetorical questions to Job in chapters 38 and 39 of the Book of Job:

Who shut up the sea with doors, when it brake forth, as if it had issued out of the womb? (38:8)

Hast thou commanded the morning since thy days; and caused the dayspring to know his place? (38:12)

Who provideth for the raven his food? when his young ones cry unto God, they wander for lack of meat. (38:41)

Knowest thou the time when the wild goats of the rock bring forth? or canst thou mark when the hinds do calve? (39:1)

Canst thou number the months that they fulfill? or knowest thou the time when they bring forth? (39:2)

Compared to the strong lineaments of verses such as these, most of the poetry written in English today shows precious little "inevitability" in its phrasing.  Some of the factors that have contributed to the drastic decline of the art of bringing phrases to closure are clear enough.  They include the wholesale de-formalization of poetry in our time and the consequent premium placed on enjambment; our dogmatic insistence on open-endedness and the bland tones of everyday language; our predilection for understatement and uneasiness about rhetorical display; our aversion to affirmation and our cult of the whisper.
However: see this "Poetry Pairing," featuring Thomas Sayers Ellis, who is quoted therein as saying, “I don’t think the end of the word is more important than the beginning of the word. I don’t think the end of the line is more important than the beginning of the line.”

Pictured: Job Mocked by his Wife, Georges de la Tour


מבול said...

Except the occasional old emeritus, elderly gentleman, alter caca, there is nary a human individual to comment on the blogs these days.

I am an old
I’m getting up
to go lie down.
I’m lying down

Rhyming Couplets said...

Thanks for this post - I love how you've summed up contemporary poetic tastes and expectations ("our aversion to affirmation and our cult of the whisper"). Plus it's really interesting to find out about the New York Times/Poetry Foundation's Poetry Pairing feature because I am also trying to blog poetry pairings, although in a much more jokey (I really hope it doesn't read as flippant) way, matching people to poems - just to try to give people who don't usually read poetry a different way in.