The notion of "action" in Francis Fergusson's The Idea of a Theater is crucial to my understanding of poetry (and of writing in general)--so crucial, that I want to get polemical about it. It source, of course, is Aristotle's Poetics, the statements that "tragedy is the imitation of an action." Fergusson cites Kenneth Burke on "language as symbolic action," and quotes Coleridge: unity of action, Coleridge says, "is not properly a rule, but in itself the great end, no only of the drama. but of the epic, lyric, even the candle-flame of an epigram--not only of poetry, but of poesy in general, as the proper generic term inclusve of all the fine arts."
But the sense that a poem must be animated by a unifying, central action--that it both "imitates" an action and is itself an action--has been largely igrnoed by twentieth century aesthetics. It was never an animating idea in the poetics of modernism. That doesn't mean that poets have ignored it in practice. When Pound, for example, writes that he has "schooled" himself "to write an epic poem which begins 'In the Dark Forest,' crosses the Purgatory of human error, and ends in the light," he is describing, of course, an action--a journey undertaken and suffered by the central consciousness of his poem, a journey that begins somewhere, goes somewhere, ends somewhere, a journey the shape of which has significance. But though Pound's poem was intended to imitate this action, the action that the actual poem he wrote inscribes is, we now all know, quite different. Its shape is tragic, and far more painful.
The notion that a poem imitates an action, and is an action, seems to me so necessary now because it helps free poetry from so many dead ends--"good description," the mere notation of sensibility, "good images," "good lines," or mere wit. Let me emphasize that an "action" s not a moral, or merely something inteded that the poet cold-bloodedly executes. Like Pound, a poet may intend that the action have a certain shape: but (again like Pound) any writer who is serious, as he moves through his materials, will inevitably find that what his poem must enact, what it embodies, is more mysterious, recalcitrant, surprising. (If only in detail, it's always, I think, at least different.)
What I've been arguing applies not only to long poems, but, as Coleridge suggests, to lyric. Kenneth Burke has a great essay called "Symbolic Action in a Poem by Keats."
This rings true to me. Even in The Waste Land, that great modernist collage, Eliot said he discovered the use of myth to order disparate materials: the Arthurian quest, the fisher-king's death and resurrection, the breakdown of marriage. The poem can only be described metaphorically as a "collage" since the experience of it is literally chronological, a fractured narrative. We cannot experience a poem the way we can experience an art collage.
Note to self: read more novels.