Tag Archives: Eliot

“All things counter, original, spare, strange”: Poetic Philosophy through the Ages?

A while ago, I observed that when T.S. Eliot, in his book of literary criticism, The Sacred Wood, says that good poetry must aim at “that perpetual slight alteration of language, words perpetually juxtaposed in new and sudden combinations” – he is echoing the aesthetic arguments of the Russian defamiliarists, in particular, Victor Shklovsky who, four years before, in 1917, had written:

“… and art exists that one may recover the sensation of life; it exists to make one feel things, to make the stone stony. The purpose of art is to impart the sensation of things as they are perceived and not as they are known. The technique of art is to make objects ‘unfamiliar,’ to make forms difficult, to increase the difficulty and length of perception because the process of perception is an aesthetic end in itself and must be prolonged.“ 

It seems that the Romantics (first generation and second generation) were on to something similar a hundred years before. In Biographia Literaria, Coleridge writes the following about Wordsworth:

Mr. Wordsowrth… was to… give the charm of novelty to things of every day… by awakening the mind’s attention from the lethargy of custom, and directing it to the loveliness and the wonders of the world before us… but for which in consequence of the film of familiarity and selfish solicitude we have eyes, yet see not, ears that hear not, and hearts that neither feel nor understand.

The similarity is striking not only because the same word “familiarity” is used in the same context, but the entire sense of the two paragraphs is very proximate. Both Shklovsky and Coleridge lament the moribund nature of custom that deadens and dulls our perception of the world into something; and both advocate the point of art (poetry) to be – through defamiliarisation – to reawaken this perception to its full and rich state: so that we can feel things and the stone is made stony (Shklovsky), so that the eyes, ears and heart can see, hear and feel again (Coleridge).

And today, while reading Shelley’s Defence of Poetry, I came across this paragraph:

Poetry lifts the veil from the hidden beauty of the world, and makes familiar objects be as if they were not familiar.”

Followed by:

[Poetry] makes us inhabitants of a world to which the familiar world is a chaos. It reproduces the common universe of which we are portions and percipients, and it purges from our inward sight the film of familiarity which obscures from us the wonder of our being… it creates new the universe after it has been annihilated in our minds by the recurrence of impressions blunted by reiteration. It justifies that bold and true word of Tasso – non merita nome del creator, se non Iddio el di Poeta.”

Shelley is, of course, very evidently channeling Coleridge here, and elaborating upon the basic point: familiarity suppresses beauty by casting a veil (of commonality?) over it; poetry tears down this veil and reveals beauty to us through defamiliarising the sensations and perceptions that we have come to expect and become accustomed to. He is also channeling Wordsworth himself, who in Lyrical Ballads spoke of how extraordiness can serve as an act of “reforming perception.”

The irony here, of course, is that Eliot had a famously low opinion of the romantics – and yet they both seem to have been subscribing to a broadly similar philosophy of poetry.

But I think the most striking statement of this philosophy comes neither from the romantics, nor from the modernists, but from a representative of the intervening period – Gerard Manley Hopkins, Victorian poet, famous for the sprung rhythm. In Pied Beauty, Hopkins puts it pithily – and perfectly:

All things counter, original, spare and strange…

Counter – against the grain, and therefore, unfamiliar; original – by definition, un-imitated, and therefore unfamiliar; spare – in old English – meant “scant”, or rare – and therefore, unfamiliar; strange – naturally, unfamiliar by virtue of being so. What I like best about Hopkins is that while Coleridge, Shelley, Shklovsky and Eliot all express their philosophy of sensing-beauty-through-defamiliarisation through prose, Hopkins does it through poetry – and increases the impact tenfold. It is something similar – but not identical – to Blake expressing his philosophy in a single line of pure magic:

To be an error, and to be cast out, is a part of God’s design.” 

Of course, I’d like to believe that god’s design is at least, in part, aesthetic perfection, in which case Blake would join the illustrious list cited above, but that apart – I think it’s quite fascinating how poets separated by centuries, poets belonging to very different – and in fact, diametrically opposed schools of poetry, poets who would differ fundamentally on aspects such as rhyme, metre, vocabulary, scansion – nonetheless seem to agree on the most fundamental issues of them all: at the ultimately abstract level, what is poetry for, and how must the poet fulfill his task?

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Spontaneous prose and striking beauty: Jack Kerouac, Lonesome Traveler – I

“Sixty three sunsets I saw revolve on that perpendicular hill – mad, raging sunsets pouring in sea foams of cloud through unimaginable crags like the crags you gayly drew in pencil as a child, with every rose-tint of hope beyond, making you feel just like them, brilliant and bleak beyond words.”

Lonesome Traveler is Kerouac’s “other” travel memoir – the one that isn’t On the Road. I was only dimly aware of its existence until I saw it sticking out rather prominently, on sale, in a second-hand bookshop in Canterbury. Kerouac’s writing has always intrigued me; and I have long been fascinated by the entire “Beatnik” generation of the 50s and 60s, with their connections to the civil rights movement, to the (so-called) sexual revolution, and ultimately to 1969. Lonesome Traveler address these themes, albeit incidentally; more than anything else, though, it is an astonishingly wide-ranging travelogue, from a high mountaintop in the Great Northwest to a railroad track, from Tangiers to Provence. Kerouac is a wanderer with no destination – but not, indeed, the equivalent of a Parisian flaneur, languidly observing the cityscape before him, always a spectator, slightly detached, mildly contemptuous and never entirely involved with the drama that is being played out before him – no, Kerouac’s wandering takes place at a fervid, feverish, burning pace, and everywhere he goes, he is immersed – lost, even – in the world in which he has arrived.

The style used to express this is “spontaneous prose”. It is characterised by fragmented sentence-parts, bound together in sequence with scant punctuation. The idea, as I understand it, is to set down the flow of thoughts as they come to one, without artificially constraining them within pre-determined sentence-structures. Two samples:

The Nightclubs of Greenwich Village known as the Half Note, the Village Vanguard, the Cafe Bohemia, the Village Gate also feature jazz (Lee Konitz, J.J. Johnson, Miles Davis), but you’ve got to have mucho money and it’s not so much that you’ve got to have mucho money but the sad commercial atmosphere is killing jazz and jazz is killing itself there, because jazz belongs to open joyful ten-cent beer joints, as in the beginning.”

And:

“… how I saw that Frisco California white and gray of rain fogs and the back alleys of bottles, breens, derbies, mustachios of beer, oysters, flying seals, crossing hills, bleak bay windows, eye diddles for old churches with handouts for sea dogs barkling and snurling in avenues of lost opportunity time, ah – loved it all, and the first night the finest night, the blood, ‘railroading gets in yr blood’ the old hoghead is yelling at me as he bounces up and down in his seat and the wind blows his striped visor cap and the engine like a huge beast is lurching side to side 70 miles per hour breaking all rulebook rules, zomm, zomm, were crashing down the night and out there…”

It is striking. It needs intense concentration to follow the thread of thought as it spins its way into all kinds of random contortions. And it takes some getting used to. But I think it works. It works in the same way that the fragmented style of first-wave modernist poetry worked. Think of Eliot’s The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. The point of the broken, scattered verse is precisely to capture the broken, scattered nature of Prufrock’s thoughts, his hundred indecisions, visions and revisions, his hesitation, his “I dare not” waiting upon his “I would” – and through that, both to rebel against the romanticist conception of the unity of the soul, as well as to capture something of the essence of life in the rapidly-changing twentieth century, with its sense of displacement, drift and uncertainty. To my mind, Eliot succeeds so spectacularly not only because his fragmented form fits his chosen themes, but because after you’ve read Prufrock, you realise that the form is the only vehicle with which to express that particular set of thoughts. Prufrock would fail utterly if it was written in alexandrines, or consisted of couplets in iambic pentameter, or in the form of a villanelle, or a traditional sonnet (in fact, while the first two stanzas follow something like a sonnet format, they depart so much from it that the model is perhaps simply to establish that it is a love poem, although of a very different kind) – because all those forms suggest a structure and symmetry that is entirely alien to Prufrock.

Something similar, I feel, is at play with Lonesome Traveler. Sentence structure and punctuation imposes a kind of order that would be at odds with the life that Kerouac is describing. It would be at odds with the crazy life on the railroad, the smoking of opium joints in a village on a hitch-hike through Mexico, the fourth-class voyage on the packet from Tangiers to France, or for that matter, with the drug-and-poetry infused nightlife of the beatniks in New York. Of course, that is not to say that you can write any old thing – just think of some (but by no means all) of the poems of Ezra Pound, or Auden’s imitations of Eliot, where the broken verse simply dissolves into senselessness – and you realise that merely working with fragmented form is no guarantee of form – it must also make sense! And Kerouac, well, I don’t think he always makes sense – but he often does, and when he does – like in the two paragraphs I quoted – the effect is very Prufrock-esque – the form and the theme and the content all mesh together perfectly, so that any other way of expression becomes unthinkable.

Another – slightly different way – of looking at it. Here is a Monet painting of a snowbound landscape. Now one of the points about the impressionist movement – as I understand it – with their hurried brush-strokes and use of lines – was to depict things as they appear to us, not just visually, but to all the senses and the mind as well. The affect that the shimmering of water has, for instance (see another Monet) – or, in the example above, the haze of the snow. So, what may be otherwise perceived as a lack of finish, or a coarseness, is actually a tool to portray reality as we feel and sense it, and not just as it might look. And similarly, Kerouac’s prose depicts life as it is lived, not merely described. 

(to be contd.)

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Filed under Beat Generation, Jack Kerouac, Modernist Poetry: First Generation, T.S. Eliot, Uncategorized

Baudelaire and the Eliotic Shudder

In his article in The London Review of Books, Eliot and the ShudderFrank Kermode presents a fascinating account of T.S. Eliot’s aesthetics. Eliot, he says, valued a particular sensation that, in an analysis of Tennyson’s In Memoriam, he labeled “the shudder”. This shudder, according to Kermode, is about “describing the horror, or even the beauty, of a body’s response to violent stimulus. Eliot admired shock and surprise, looked for these qualities in his own verse, and judged others, as he does Tennyson, by their success in providing them.” More specifically, by the shudder Eliot (according to Kermode) refers to “experiences one would rather not have, and which are roughly antithetical to moments of ecstasy.” It “belongs to a set that includes ‘fear’ and ‘horror’ and is associated with a powerful physical response.” For Kermode, Yeats’ Leda and the Swan is an example par excellence of a shudder-inducing poem.

The idea of the “shudder” links up with what Eliot considered to be an integral part of the aesthetic experience, something that good poetry must aim at: “that perpetual slight alteration of language, words perpetually juxtaposed in new and sudden combinations.” The newness and suddenness of the combination (recall Rimbaud saying that all poetry must be modern, and Pound saying that poetry must be new) is what, I think yields the “shudder”. In a sense, what Eliot is saying is remarkably similar to the Russian defamiliarists such as Schlosky who, in Art as Technique, writes:

And art exists that one may recover the sensation of life; it exists to make one feel things, to make the stone stony. The purpose of art is to impart the sensation of things as they are perceived and not as they are known. The technique of art is to make objects ‘unfamiliar,’ to make forms difficult, to increase the difficulty and length of perception because the process of perception is an aesthetic end in itself and must be prolonged.

And:

After we see an object several times, we begin to recognize it. The object is in front of us and we know about it, but we do not see it – hence, we cannot say anything significant about it. Art removes objects from the automatism of perception in several ways.

And, on a specific passage from Tolstoy:

“The familiar act of flogging is made unfamiliar both by the description and by the proposal to change its form without changing its nature.”

Kermode himself, in his article, uses different words to describe the phenomenon. The French word “frisson“; a “hit”; “shock”; “a touch of mystery”; Poe’s “quality of surprise”; and so on.

For my part, all of these, I think, are partly true, yet incomplete. The “shudder” (and there probably is no better word for the experience in question), I would suggest, is the product of an intense – almost paradoxical – meeting of novelty and recognition. When Eliot talks about words in new combinations, I take him to mean that the words themselves are familiar, and used in a familiar context, but it is the way that they associate with each other that is novel (Eliot’s classic example, Shakespeare’s phrase “strong toil of grace” to describe Cleopatera’s seductive beauty, is an outstanding illustration – “strong toil” and “grace“). Now, the initial force of the phrase certainly, I think, stems from its novelty; but the Eliotic shudder isn’t simply novelty. After the initial shock, the hit, we recognise the new combination as expressing something important about the human condition in a way that hasn’t been expressed before, but that is nonetheless, in a sense, true. That is the stage of recognition, of matching the novel description, the novel association of ideas, thoughts, sensations, feelings (and I know that these are all different things for Eliot) with our prior experiences and beliefs, and it is at the moment when the two align that the “shudder” is completed. In a sense, the “novel” association has always been latent within us, as a way of understanding ourselves and the world, and the great poets tease it out into awareness. But what is crucial is that we do realise that it was, indeed, latent, and what the novelty does is to prompt an awakening.

To illustrate these admittedly vague generalisations, I will refer – yet again, in this blog – to the poetry of Charles Baudelaire. Previously, I’ve found Baudelaire fascinating because of his approach to the impossibility of achieving the ideal, and his ideas about the ugliness of beauty. But I feel that above all else, his poetry evokes – most brilliantly – the Eliotic “shudder”. I’ve already written about A Une PassanteLe Soleil, L’Ideal, Le Cygne, Hymn to Beauty and The Carcass, all of whom I think exhibit this quality in abundance. But here are three more examples (Aggeler translations). I will attempt no analysis of them, only say that I felt – never more strongly – the Eliotic shudder when I read them. Perhaps you will, too.

 

Spleen

I have more memories than if I’d lived a thousand years.

A heavy chest of drawers cluttered with balance-sheets, 
Processes, love-letters, verses, ballads, 
And heavy locks of hair enveloped in receipts, 
Hides fewer secrets than my gloomy brain. 
It is a pyramid, a vast burial vault 
Which contains more corpses than potter’s field.
— I am a cemetery abhorred by the moon, 
In which long worms crawl like remorse 
And constantly harass my dearest dead. 
I am an old boudoir full of withered roses, 
Where lies a whole litter of old-fashioned dresses, 
Where the plaintive pastels and the pale Bouchers, 
Alone, breathe in the fragrance from an opened phial.

Nothing is so long as those limping days, 
When under the heavy flakes of snowy years 
Ennui, the fruit of dismal apathy, 
Becomes as large as immortality. 
— Henceforth you are no more, O living matter! 
Than a block of granite surrounded by vague terrors, 
Dozing in the depths of a hazy Sahara 
An old sphinx ignored by a heedless world, 
Omitted from the map, whose savage nature 
Sings only in the rays of a setting sun.

 

The Complaints of an Icarus

The lovers of prostitutes
Are happy, healthy, and sated;
As for me, my arms are weary
Because I have embraced the clouds,

It is thanks to the peerless stars 
That flame in the depth of the sky 
That my burned out eyes see 
Only the memories of suns.

I tried in vain to find 
The middle and the end of space; 
I know not under what fiery eye 
I feel my pinions breaking;

Burned by love of the beautiful 
I shan’t have the sublime honor 
Of giving my name to the abyss 
That will serve me as a tomb.

 

The Death of Lovers

We shall have beds full of subtle perfumes, 
Divans as deep as graves, and on the shelves 
Will be strange flowers that blossomed for us 
Under more beautiful heavens.

Using their dying flames emulously, 
Our two hearts will be two immense torches 
Which will reflect their double light 
In our two souls, those twin mirrors.

Some evening made of rose and of mystical blue 
A single flash will pass between us 
Like a long sob, charged with farewells;

And later an Angel, setting the doors ajar,
Faithful and joyous, will come to revive
The tarnished mirrors, the extinguished flames.

 

And lastly – I’m cheating here, but nonetheless – this quatrain from To the Reader, which uses the well-worn image of paint on canvas in conjunction with a deeply disturbing suggestion, the two of which combine in a rather heady concoction:

If rape, poison, daggers, arson 
Have not yet embroidered with their pleasing designs 
The banal canvas of our pitiable lives, 
It is because our souls have not enough boldness.

 

 

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Filed under Charles Baudelaire, French poetry