2004-03-23 Engl 549 Farber Poetry reReading Journal #1 1200 - 2000 words
The first reReading journal.. focusing mostly on Wordsworth's Prelude, and something else.
Wordsworth's The Prelude: In the intervening week I've had time to reconsider my assertion that reading The Prelude is, for me, like reading Walden. I note a few things: Walden is easier to read. There are beautiful and memorable moments in both. I wish Thoreau had written something like The Prelude.
I also couldn't help but notice that almost nothing from The Prelude is easy to quote in comparison to both The Rape of the Lock and Walden. In fact, it would seem that Wordsworth's use of poetry instead of prose often gets in the way of his expression.
While possibly contrary to the intent of the assignment, I've been working with The Prelude as printed in NA of English Literature vol. 2. This version has a more detailed introduction and glossing and has the complete Book First and Book Second.
With this assignment as with every other, I like to remind myself why I am here: I see literature and those who work with it as a sort of priest class. The priests are doing three things: (1) Helping their society find and experience the most helpful religious texts, and (2) Helping individuals to create their own sacred texts. And (3) creating new texts that guide society in desirable ways. On the other hand, we have people who look to the poetry for its expressive excellence. Donne's Elegy XIX and Swift's The Lady's Dressing Room, John Wilmot, and others all come to mind, Byron, especially, and finally Keats' aim (from his bio in NAP):
Rather than take solace in religious or philosophical creeds as did Wordsworth and Coleridge, he strove to develop "negative capability," the ability to exist in a condition of "uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any reaching after fact and reason." He looked to sensation, passion, and imagination to guide him: "I am certain of nothing but of the holiness of the Heart's affections and the truth of Imagination -- What the imagination seizes as Beauty must be truth," he wrote to a friend.
William Blake seems to epitomize the synthesis of the sexual and the spiritual as well as the artist as prophet... All that is a bit of a tangent, perhaps. You may remember my interest in the Bildungsroman as well as the possibility of creative literature that reflects and supports the development of a society. What am I getting at? I could be looking at things very close to the poetic medium, but my interest is primarily in art as a developmental support / spur, and my interest in the medium of poetry consists primarily of how poetry may make work more or less effective in the context of individual and societal development.
While such a perspective can be exercised on any poem, I am turning to The Prelude because the author's aim was explicitly to tell the story of his development. There is also a difference in scope in what is said about individual and societal development in the epic poems as compared to the aim of shorter expressions. The longer works can strive to express a story of lives or a story of a people. The shorter poems tend toward epitomizing a fleeting attitude or a moving experience. While we do learn about living and loving from Shakespeare's sonnets, what we can learn from his plays is more thorough and more complete.
Its clear I'm rambling and grasping at straws. I would like to be writing blocks of code as in a computer program. First establishing the main control loop and then going back to fill in specific procedures... but even in a program the writing doesn't proceed that way. This reReading Journal exists in a sub procedure of a sub procedure. The way I can get there is by writing the whole framework and then hiding that framework and then turning in only the sub procedure. But the larger structure of the program isn't that clear either... leaving me I'm not sure where, other than following, like Keats and others suggest, the Passion.
If I were to run a class, I would like to help somehow the student in establishing the framework or in otherwise dealing with the nebulousness. In intro to comp sci, we had a little code template. What I'm working on here is of a significantly larger scope. It has somehow to do with what vision everything that goes into my experience of the class is expressing...
The sub sub procedure involves (1) choosing a few poems to focus closely on. (2) Looking at the use of the poetic medium in those poems. Those two acts require an enormous structure, which most students leave unexplored and unstated. Are they wiser or more foolish?
Where are we now? I've chosen The Prelude, Paradise Lost, and Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood. Why I've chosen them will probably be left out of this subroutine. Now I'll begin looking at the use of the poetic medium in these poems. The enormous structure involved in that exercise must address what we think the poetic medium should be used for. We might consider what we think the author was trying to use it for.
My personal interest in looking at the poetry: (1) I want incredible wonderful experience. A subroutine of that: to do so I must live (I assume), which involves finding food and shelter, and in my particular case making money. But even if I did not want to make money in an enjoyable way, say by teaching in a community college, It is good to spend time with people (in person) who value literature as a source of wonderful experience, and with a professor who has some hints in that regard, and so I spend time in a classroom. Another subroutine: (2) Seeing myself as part of something larger and longer lasting than myself that I think of as good adds to that experience of life as wonderful. For some reason, perhaps because I live in time, I see myself as becoming something and the society of which I am a part as going somewhere. (3) I wish that place where I and we are going to be wonderful. (4) I think literature is about sharing and developing our thoughts about where are going, partly by remembering and sharing the best of where we have been. It is also about spending time in a wonderful way, simply as play, or as savoring beauty.
Now, when I look at the use of the medium in the poems I've selected, all of those subroutines come to my mind in my consideration of the use of the medium in those poems... I am aware that poetry vs. prose is a somewhat arbitrary distinction, a distinction that is not a primary concern of any of the subroutines I mentioned. Yet it is a helpful one. But to fully get at what the use of poetry means to a society will not be achieved (as one cannot create a map of 1:1 scale). Maybe I'm done with launching into pages of philosophizing?
Wordsworth's The Prelude is unique among many of the poems we've looked at in this course because of Wordsworth's goals in writing the poem. He is clear in that he wishes to tell the story of his own development that others might also learn to love what he has loved. He is also clear that he will only work on The Prelude if he's feeling in the flow while he's doing it. Now, given those goals, there is no reason he could not use prose. The reasons he does not use prose might include: (1) The novel and the short story and creative non-fiction were not as widespread or dominant as they are today... In other words, it would have been as unusual for him to use prose as it would have been for a painter to paint a landscape or an abstract scene instead of an historical event or portrait. (2) By using poetry he is using the language of the epic tradition, he is writing in a certain genre, and as Gardner suggests in Art of Fiction, the choice of genre is paramount, and novelty in literature most often comes from genre crossing. In that case, if novelty is relevant here, some of the novelty of The Prelude comes from crossing the epic with the spiritual autobiography of crisis (That's what the intro in NAEL v2 calls The Prelude). As far as I know Augustine's Confessions were not in verse. (3) Wordsworth was a poet. For him to write the story of his life in prose would be like JS Mill writing the story of his life in verse. (4) In returning to the characteristics of the genre of poetry and the epic, we can look at the content of The Prelude, as well as the content of Wordsworth's other poems, and also the content of other spiritual autobiographies (alas I lack awareness of this genre). While there is a lot of philosophizing in The Prelude, many of the most memorable moments are stories of events from Wordsworth's life that were significant in his development. In looking at Wordsworth's poems, Lines, and Nutting, among others are examples of Wordsworth detailing an inner experience and then describing how that inner experience affects his view of life (although, in Nutting he is more letting the description of the experience speak for itself). So, just in looking at Wordsworth's other work, the content of The Prelude is similar to that, and it seems natural that he'd continue to use the same form for similar content.
When I began #4, I was thinking that poetry is a genre in which powerful, moving, dense imagery is expected more often than in prose (which in our day has an emphasis on plot or logical explication). Since memorable events make us the way we are (or so we often think), if WW can describe those events of his life so that we feel them powerfully, then his use of poetry in a spiritual autobiography is particularly effective.
From here, I can look at particular (line by line) successes and shortcomings of WW's use of the medium. And some overall shortcomings.
One thing I find particularly notable is Wordsworth's goal in The Prelude of coming to a better understanding of himself and of how he came to be the way he was (mentioned in many places, but I happen to have the book open to 1.627, for example). I don't know if this goal is as explicitly stated in earlier autobiographical works. I think it is always implicit in them, however... If WW can understand and share how he came to be, it's more likely that more people can come to love what he has loved.
In class, you mentioned how we learn to love from others and the media, and we have definitely had our vocabulary about and perspectives on romance expanded in the course of this class. What I find fascinating about Wordsworth, is that he's been doing what others have been doing for love but for poetry or possibly more accurately a form of meditation. Writing about writing is a fairly common theme in poetry... Wordsworth, in the lines of Book the First that were cut from NAP, is talking about how he came to be writing The Prelude: 1.26, well prior to that he talks about shaking off the burthen of his unnatural self, and then in lines that remind me of Keats' Ode on Indolence, although it is not until 1.255 "Far better never to have heard the name / Of zeal and just ambition, than to live / Baffled and plagued by a mind that every hour / Turns recreant to her task...
or: 1.100 "Why think of any thing but present good?" and then 1.114 "But speedily an earnest longing rose to brace myself to some determined aim, Reading or thinking; either to lay up New stores, or rescue from decay the old by timely interference: and therewith Came hopes still higher, that with outward life I might endue some airy phantasies That had been floating loose about for years;"
and 1.166 "Sometimes the ambitious Power of choice, mistaking Proud spring-tide swellings for a regular sea, ..."
All this and more makes his work memorable for its description of the creative process. That all, I've heard you mention, Pope would shake his head at... That all is the laying under a tree and pondering and wandering around muttering to ones self that British poetry perhaps first saw in Gray's Elegy. Yet it seems potentially very valuable-- In my language he's describing a dialog with the silence.
I'm almost out of time, and did not spend time with Milton.
Why did I not spend time with Milton first? If Milton is approaching the central concerns I mention above, he does it less directly, if only because the development of society begins with the development of self? I guess it is because WW's language is closer to my own, and Milton's is more far removed. Getting into the mindset and language of The Prelude was harder than doing so for Vonnegut's Breakfast of Champions, and with Paradise Lostwould be even harder... and I work with first what I think would be most rewarding? Never mind. It is more difficult to draw parallels between much of the action in Paradise Lost than in what is occurring in The Prelude (though at the root the goals will be similar).
Of interest also is WW's occasional paralleling and referencing Paradise Lost and also the Rape of the Lock. I intend to read more of Paradise Lost because of the huge influence it has had and also because: (something I had to cut from the earlier journal) I get the sense, or have to wonder, that Milton may be pulling something like Goethe in Faust or Blake in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. And that is a radical (though perhaps seeming not so) redefinition of familiar myths or concepts in such a way that appeals to the readers at the time and moves them along in their psychological development by giving them a new way of seeing themselves in the old myths.
I also wished to spend time with Intimations of Immortality because it stands out as a longish poem which makes very effective use of the Ode genre. It is great.
I have as many as 2000 words to write about a few poems. I will to focus on some long poems: Wordsworth's The Prelude, Milton's Paradise Lost, and Wordsworth's Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood. I focus on the long poems because they are the ones I tend to return to when left to my own devices. There are some shorter poems, or parts of longer poems I wish to return to, but they are by Keats (Eve of St. Agnes, Ode to a Nightingale). If they'd been on the list, I'd spend more time with Ode on a Grecian Urn and some of Coleridge's poems, and Blake's longer poems.
I am curious about my attraction to the longer poems, especially when much of the NAP is filled with short ones. I am considering the possibility that longer works, in general, are more likely for more people to be more of an experience than work of only a page or two in length. If I were to do a historical study, maybe I would find that the poems from antiquity most likely to survive were the epic or the epigram and little in between. Exceptions to this might include hymns, or any other shorter word sequence set to music.
On the other hand, I feel a tendency for the more enlightened or educated soul to appreciate short, densely significant poems. We have the haiku, and Shakespeare's sonnets, and Blake's short poems as examples of this. Personally, I find it easier to write a short poem than a long one.
What I think is occurring is that: the chief advantage words have over other media is that they are a tighter guide of mental imagery of the author and reader (placing it in between visual arts and music in that respect). Another advantage (only relevant in written work) is that the reader controls whether she continues reading or not. At any time, she might stop and follow tangents in her own mind inspired by what she is reading. The disadvantage that words have over other media is that they require mental software in order for the words to mean anything. A powerful symphony or beautiful painting is likely to impress any human from any time. And while I may speak the same language that Wordsworth spoke, his language and mine are sufficiently different to make reading Wordsworth more difficult than reading Vonnegut. In other words, visual and word-free art are more likely to be more timeless than art that relies on word-provoked imagery.
However, word-based art is more like television. When the language is well-matched to the reader, the reader will be hypnotized by the story. Powerful music shares this aspect... It seems I should be drawing a matrix to compare these various qualities.
The main point I wished to make is that the short poems are more like (non-TV) visual art in what they require of the reader for the production of a truly memorable aesthetic experience. A sculpture or a painting can provide an image and a metaphor that broadens the viewer's experience, as she returns to her memory of the painting or sculpture. For example, when I think of what war means to me, the statue in Battery Park (and I think I've seen it elsewhere- first in a forest in Switzerland?) of a silhouette of a 2:1 scale GI in a block of marble comes to mind, and what that statue says to me says more than words or music could about the same.
The great short poems, I believe strive for a similar effect. But often, it seems they require a near monastic level of study and dedication to realize that effect in its full splendor... and the effect will never be the same as a chance encounter with a powerful artwork perfectly matched to the viewer's present way of being.
Now the long poems have an added element, that of what Gardner in Art of Fiction (after Aristotle) calls an energeic plot. I'm not very clear on what that is exactly... but it is what makes me read right through Jane Eyre without stopping to sleep. Looking at things historically, we can imagine sitting around a castle hearth to hear a recitation of Beowulf, or we might go to see Romeo and Juliet. The same is less likely to occur for a haiku sequence or an assortment of short poems... but I speak generally and statistically with absolutely no idea what occurs at open-mike sessions in coffeehouses. What this is getting at is not that different, perhaps, from most thriller novels needing to be of a certain length for publishers to publish them... There are great short stories, of comparable length to what I've been considering long poems... but the development that can occur there, Gardner suggests, is different than what can occur in a full-length novel.
As you made clear with Shakespeare's sonnets, each sonnet was remarkable in that it created a complete world / emotional atmosphere in 14 lines, that would change totally from one sonnet to the next. To fully get the atmosphere of those lines, we spent a lot of time studying them... Now, with Paradise Lost or The Prelude, there are thousands of lines. I do not need to be astute or Zen-like to spend hours or weeks in the worlds presented in those poems. Furthermore, the structure of those epics more closely relates to the structure of our lives as we've learned to experience them than does the 14-line sonnet.
That's enough rambling on that topic.