Sunday, August 27, 2006

Poetry and the Pleasure of Principle

Some (brief) thoughts tonight on the influence that early modern poetry has had on my own writing. One of the things I like about writers like Sir Phillip Sidney, Christine de Pizan, Edmund Spenser, John Donne, Ben Jonson, and Robert Herrick is their sense of play and pleasure. A Language poet might see in wit (metaphysical or otherwise) a dislocation of language, particularly in terms of signs (signifiers and signified). But part of the social function of these writers is to entertain--to give pleasure to an audience.

And somewhere in the 19th century (perhaps?) the hand in glove workings of dulce et utile (pleasure and instruction--Plutarch--I think with derivation from Horace) are upset in their orbit and balance. "Sweetness" or the giving of pleasure becomes subordinate to "usefulness" or instruction or meaning. Why is that? In the contemporary era, do we still too much privilege meaning/seriousness over pleasure and play? When we judge what is good or great, the weighty always wins out.

Yet Sidney is the great master of the sonnet, and his sonnets are a mixture of intense play, wit, humor, and, yes, pleasure in the ebb and flow of language--and this is beautifully balanced with a seriousness of purpose, both as a craftsman and as an imparter of wisdom about love. Shakespeare, on the other hand, is completely imbalanced--his sonnets are all about pedantry, privileging seriousness over play and pleasure, which are the very essence of formal design. Without a sense of playfulness, formalism is nothing--and that may be where contemporary formalism errs--when form serves only to promote seriousness it loses its raison d'etre.

Bishop is a better example of a poet from the modern era who manages to balance formal constraints with a sense of play. I will not go further into this this evening as I am short on time--but her playful abandon with rhyme and the shifting shapes of words--see for example any of the poems in North and South or the opening poem in Geography III--makes her formalism vivid and essential.

Eliot, while one of our great "serious" poets, is too driven by seriousness and not enough by pleasure and play, although he does the world a great service by resurrecting the metaphysicals. However, he does so by insisting upon their seriousness and backgrounding their attention to pleasure.

You see a sense of the importance of pleasure in a text--the engagement in the act of reading that allows a reader to let go of the mental tracking of idea, reference, and interpretation, and focus on sound, pacing, and energy and digressive association (which is the essence of discovery)--begin again in the middle of the 20th century with O'Hara, Ginsberg, and the Beats. Bishop also writes some great stuff in this period. This work continues with Campbell McGrath and Dean Young--Mary Ruefle, too, and Olena K. Davis.

If I could find it, I'd like to re-read Barthes' The Pleasure of the Text to see what he might have to say on the above. I will have to relocate it.

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