Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Stapleton on Moore (2)

I've just finished reading Stapleton's chapter on Moore as a literary reviewer. In discussing Moore's approach, Stapleton says something very true and just of the task of a literary critic:

For a critic to praise justly, and without exaggeration, is hard; it may be harder still, when praise is due, to make it relevant--to make it mean anything specific in reference, and specifically alive in statement. This difficult art goes to the root of criticism. For praise that counts is not encomium, is certainly not compliment, but attempts identification. It no longer adds a mere plus (or when not bestowed, a minus sign); it ceases to refer primarily to the writer, and becomes the predicate attaching itself to the work in question. Because Marianne Moore exemplifies the reserve and the "immunity to fear" of the true writer, her praise of the work she admires suggests the outline of her poetics. [bold emphasis mine]

The predicate metaphor is beautifully apt. The literary work should be the focus of the critic, as the grammatical subject is the focus of the sentence. The critic's job is to complete the sentence by showing what the literary work is or does, to her.

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Moore uses quotations in her prose reviews as well as in her poems. These quotations sometimes serve as a springboard of metaphor, as in this fine observation on the imagination:

"imagination of the finest type involves an energy which results in order 'as the motion of the a snake's body goes through all parts at once, and its volition acts at the same instant in coils that go contrary ways.'"

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Stapleton: "Bacon recommends aphorisms as the way to represent thought in growth."

An unusual insight. Aphorisms are usually seen as summary, or, at least, static. But an aphorism embedded in a poem may provide a resting place, a staging post or a debating point, and thus "represent thought in growth."

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Stapleton:

She is one of the few writers who has paid special attention to accelerations of tempo: in discussing one poem, she admires "brilliance gained by accelerated tempo in accordance with a fixed melodic design." Acceleration affects rhyme as well: "the accelerated light final rhyme,...the delayed long syllable." She thinks that "the better the artist...the more determined he will be to set down words in such a way as to admit of no interpretation of the accent but the tone intended."

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From the next chapter "Arrivals and Departures" about the next stage in Moore's poetic development. Stapleton:

Marianne Moore would have completely understood Eudora Welty's principle: "You have to have an idea so strong it compels you to write. Only a strong idea has vitality and you give it all you've got."

From another perspective, that of the critic's, the question to ask of any literary work is: what idea compels it into being? With what strength does the work realize the idea?

9 comments:

eshuneutics said...
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eshuneutics said...

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eshuneutics said...
"She is one of the few writers who has paid special attention to accelerations of tempo."

Some highly interesting musings on poetry. But I wonder about this.
I'm sure we could name any number of poets that have done exactly this. It seems an exaggerated claim.

As regards you final question, does an idea compel a poem into being or does the poem by its coming into being make an idea take form? I am thinking of Christopher Middleton's belief that the poem isn't something pushed into experience by an idea, but is an experience in its right.
Can a critic ever really know what idea compelled a poet's poem into being? I don't know. A lot of modern criticism does seem to rest upon critic's having ideas that compel poems to be what they want them to be, rather a perversion of your principle.

Jee Leong Koh said...

Hi eshuneutics,
I don't think it's one or the other. An idea may compel the start of writing, but the form of the idea may change as the writing progresses, or the idea itself may undergo modification. I think it's important for the poet to be open to possible changes to his initial idea in the writing process, but that does not mean he does not have an idea, however vague, to begin with. Some poets may begin writing when they have something as intangible as a cadence, or an image, or an information tidbit. Marianne Moore strikes me as not of that kind. While open to changes in her compositional process, she seems, more than many poets, to have a definite idea before writing. At least her notebooks, as discussed by Stapleton, suggest so.

Can critics really know what idea compelled a poem? Would I be very old-fashioned if I say I think so? Not to any absolute degree of certainty, of course. But scholarship, judgment and critical empathy may get one closer to the truth.

eshuneutics said...

I would agree.
Mark Doty, I seem to recall once said that the poem often begins with an image. Not an idea, then? Well, what poets see as ideas might not be what people normally call an idea. For Pound, the image is the idea.
Robert Duncan always struck me as right when he said the poet takes the poem from where it starts...with him, a cadence.
I think you are "very old fashioned" :-) As I adhere to the same belief, I am probably out of the ark!

Jee Leong Koh said...

The unclean animals went into the ark, and presumably, out, in pairs: that makes two of us. On a more navel-gazing note, my recent poem "Razminovenie" began with the idea of non-meeting, an idea gleaned from a TLS review, but I could not begin writing it till the third line came to me: "I'll imagine never meeting you, my imaginary love."

eshuneutics said...

I have been chuckling. I must confess to not knowing what "razminovenie" meant...exactly. So, I Googled it and ended up reading your poem on a poetry website. I have been chuckling at all the stupid criticisms of the poem, such earnestness shown by people who know your poem better than you. Beyond the irony--these people know the poet's idea so well (our conversation about intention)--I couldn't help but feel that these people were reading a different poem to me. It is a wonderful third line, the inverse of the expected, hope turns into despair, but the poem refuses this because it is imaginatively alive. The poem is a game, in the way that the metaphysical poets played, but it is not self-indulgent (like Donne), really quite sparce and honed. An extrovert wit highlights the introverted feelings within the poem. Bravo.

Rui said...

"Can critics really know what idea compelled a poem? Would I be very old-fashioned if I say I think so? Not to any absolute degree of certainty, of course. But scholarship, judgment and critical empathy may get one closer to the truth." - JL

One of the things that amuses me a great deal about writing poetry is the different reponses i get from people abt what the poems 'mean'. As most of my friends are not really poetry pple, these responses are often enough quite 'off' - which i can't help but feel discouraged about, despite being trained in all those critical theories abt reader-response etc etc. But when a fellow writer gets it just *right* - then ahhhhhh. that's really nice.

Do you (JL) have an 'ideal reader' that you write for, and if so, what is he/she/it like?

Jee Leong Koh said...

I'm happy that you like the poem so much, eshun. I do see writing poetry as a kind of deadly serious game; the idea is also Auden's. That attitude, like others, has its resources and its dangers.

Jee Leong Koh said...

Hi rui,
I write for myself, my own ideal reader and my own purpose for writing. I won't write if it does not bring joy of the highest kind.