Saturday, July 28, 2007

Aesthetics of Emotion

I've been thinking about the way different ideas about rhetoric and literature overlap--my background in literary studies is, in part, studying the history of ideas. This is prompted by several random readings and thoughts. I've been looking at Ellen Voigt's essay about Alicia Ostriker's book Stealing the Language, in Voigt's collection of essays on the lyric. It's an essay to which I initially had a great deal of resistance when I read it for the first time several years ago, but now see as quite level-headed.

Voigt makes many points in the essay about women and literature and the false dichotomies that attend those subjects, as well as the false associations--one smaller point stuck in my mind, that of the traditional association of women's writing with sentimentality. I meant to look up the term in the Princeton Encyclopedia and the dictionary because 'sentimentality' always seems rather slippery to me, but I have not done that.

One of my concerns with the term is that sentimentality can be too easily conflated with the expression of emotion itself, or with emotive content. Perhaps that is an overblown concern on my part. But is there not a traditional association of women and hyper-emotional characteristics? Certainly in the Renaissance, the period I studied, there was a tendency of writers to identify work they disparaged with stereotypical feminine characteristics.

So I was thinking, has emotion been ironed out of contemporary poetics?

I read Ron Silliman's blog, which I haven't read for a while, and noted again his primary theme, which is the division of contemporary poetics into two primary camps: School of Quietude (SoQ) and the avant garde. My own reception of his analysis (which may, on my part, be incorrect) is that SoQ is associated with the continuity of language, with interpretive expression of image and symbol, with cohesion, etc. That SoQ perhaps makes the small statement? The avant garde, on the other hand, is associated with discontinuity in all its forms in poetry. I sense, sometimes, through Silliman's rhetoric, the feeling that the avant garde is more 'masculine' than SoQ--bolder, more forceful, more daring. The use of the word, 'quietude' certainly suggests this, if we are to apply gender categories. Perhaps this is not his intention.

To my thinking, neither one of the categories Silliman describes has much emotional content, though. SoQ subordinates emotion, at least as far as I can tell, in the interest of its aesthetic of calm and quiet delineation of images, moments, ideas, etc. The avant garde seems to specifically reject emotional content as inauthentic or retrograde.

Thus, I am curious that Silliman's division is a false dichotomy. Isn't there more to poetry than this, even historically? I started thinking about the aesthetics of emotion over a longer time period. And even started asking myself, well, what is the aesthetic of emotion? I suppose I should try to define that. I don't know if I can at the moment.

Love poetry in the medieval and early modern periods certainly presents a template for an aesthetics of emotion, but it is a highly stylized aesthetic that presents emotion through certain channels, certain postures and attitudes. Which is why the sonnets of Lady Mary Wroth are actually quite interesting--as well as the poems of Christine de Pizan--here we have the object of affection speaking, and the typical conceptual deflectors--the metaphors, the images, the tones associated with the sonnet (for example) do not necessarily apply, thus affecting a different degree of authenticity. Authenticity, the feeling that an unmediated voice is speaking, seems to be an important element in aesthetics of emotion. Emotion that is mediated by cultural convention, by the conceit, by innovation in terms of the well-worn image, idea, metaphor, is mediated, such that our intellect is primarily engaged, and our attentiveness to the sincerity of the utterance is disrupted or discounted.

Is the aesthetics of emotion a matter of authenticity? Or is there more? Then I thought about the Baroque poets, Traherne, Quarles, and the like, whose intensity of language presents a literal streaming of sound, which, like music, affects us primarily in terms of emotion.

Next there is Wordsworth talking about the tone of poetry needing to be a man speaking to other men--to have a conversational tonality. However, the aesthetics of the 18th century poets that precede him are mannered and the language might be fraught with poetic conventions, but it is, on the whole, seemingly less ornate than some of the Romantic poets. The Romantics do seem to create an aesthetic that is less mediated, although they eventually create their own conventions and mannerisms--perhaps Wordsworth means a language that is less mediated.

And the expression of emotion is important to them, particularly as mediated by the 'natural' image. The poet seems frequently engage emotionally not by other human beings, but by the natural world. In that sense, the later Romantic inclinations of the various poets whose aesthetic and themes are based upon the natural world--Mary Oliver, perhaps Charles Wright, and others--seems to be a Romantic aesthetic with the emotional intensity stripped out.

The Romantic poets, particularly Shelley and Coleridge (I've not yet reviewed their work again, so am happy to be pointed out in error), seem to be returning to the touchstone of the Baroque aesthetic in terms of the tonality, the streaming sounds of the language, the intensity of musicality, not just in terms of rhyme, but the whole line. Keats also seems engaged in this, perhaps the most successful of the lot.

I'm straining to think of another period that is broken up and interrupted by the return of the Baroque aesthetic. It seems when poetry gets too "rational," too "plain," too much in the head, that a return to the Baroque occurs. Something to think about, anyway.

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