Poetry and the Common Language

by Mark A. Signorelli on May 9, 2011 · 9 comments <span>Print this article</span> Print this article

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If there is one principle which is nearly axiomatic among our contemporaries who regard themselves as poets and critics of poetry, it is that poetry should be written in the language of the everyday. This opinion can be traced back to Wordsworth’s famous assertion that poetry ought to be composed in “the real language of nature” or “the real language of men”—further evidence that we have not yet left behind the Romantic era and its presuppositions. Yet even among the New Critics, who were in general so suspicious of the Romantic project, this standard of sound poetic practice is affirmed; so we find F. R. Leavis praising Eliot’s verse because “its staple idiom and movement derive immediately from modern speech.” Our contemporaries, especially among those referred to as the New Formalists, echo this belief; thus Dana Gioia tells us that he strives to keep his language “contemporary,” and critic Robert McPhillips notes that New Formalism is marked by its “colloquial diction.”

Undoubtedly, the overwhelming majority of material that is published under the label of poetry in our times evinces, by its practice, the conviction that poetic language is nothing other than the common language of the times. And it is precisely because this conviction is now so universal that it seems appropriate to note that no falser belief about the craft of poetry could possibly be made. Moreover, if that belief were not false, then the obvious consequence of a strict adherence to this dictum in our time would be the total preclusion, for ourselves and our near progeny, of achieving anything worthwhile in the art of poetry.

The notion of a pure language or a “language of nature”—a language unspoiled by the encroachments of civil life—is a chimera. The language used in any time and place comes saturated with a variety of cultural influences. What would have been one of the key cultural influences shaping the ordinary English usage of literate persons during the lifetime of Sidney or Tennyson? Obviously, other poetry. Educated people in those times read poetry with relative frequency, and undoubtedly, their habits of speech reflected their habits of reading. The language in use at the Inn-yard or in the drawing room was a language that was already poeticized to some extent. And of course, the cultural force that most determines the prevalent forms of linguistic usage among any people is education, and for the duration of Western history, prior to the conclusion of the nineteenth century, the form of education administered to students was a humanistic and literary education, an education that consisted primarily of the reading of poets and orators. So however fully or hesitantly a poet of these eras might draw upon the quotidian usage of his times, he could not thereby avail himself of anything other than a language already artificial—that is, already shaped by art—and thus a resource perfectly suitable to his ends.

There is a highly revealing passage on this matter in The Art of English Poesy of George Puttenham, one of the more popular manuals of poetic style from the Elizabethan period. Regarding the poet’s choice of linguistic idiom, Puttenham writes:

“This part in our maker or poet must be headily looked unto, that it be natural, pure and the most usual of all his country, and for the same purpose rather that which is spoken in the king’s court, or in the good towns and cities within the land, than in the marches and frontiers, or in port towns, where strangers haunt for traffic’s sake, or yet in universities, where scholars use much peevish affectation of words out of primitive languages . . . But he shall follow generally the better brought-up sort, such as the Greeks call charientes, men civil and graciously behaviored and bred.”

The passage begins with an apparent espousal of a “natural” language, and would appear in that respect almost to anticipate Wordsworth’s position. But this assertion quickly becomes qualified in a highly important way; it is the “pure” language of the “king’s court,” of the “better brought-up sort,” that is to be preferred, according to Puttenham. And what is distinctive about the language spoken among the “better brought-up sort?” Obviously, it is the language of educated persons, of persons who have read poetry. So whatever else Puttenham can mean by “natural,” he clearly cannot mean “the opposite of artificial” or “untouched by artistry,” since the language of persons educated in the humanist tradition is language already shaped by art. And in fact, elsewhere in his treatise he defines poetry as “a pleasant manner of utterance, varying from the ordinary” (emphasis mine), which is to say, stylized or shaped by art.

Everyone knows that poetry possesses no cultural priority in our age; indeed, that is arguably the most important intellectual difference between our times and the earlier generations of Western peoples. Nor do I suppose it is necessary to remind the reader that schooling in our country, and in the West generally, is so ineffectual and pointless that it does nothing whatsoever to improve the linguistic abilities of students. The extraordinary constriction of contemporary English in terms of vocabulary and grammatical complexity is more than enough evidence of this fact.

And as for the cultural influences which do shape the ordinary usage of our contemporaries, what are they? Among other things, cinema, rap music, the jargon of business management, the rhetoric of mass politics. Very little attention to the sort of conversations that we hear everyday will convince us of the influence of these things on contemporary language. So a critic who still insists, in our day and age, that a poet must compose merely in “the language of everyday life” is implicitly demanding that the poet write in the language of cinema, rap music, the jargon of business management, and the rhetoric of mass politics. He is asking the poet to fashion masterpieces out of the cacophonous barbarism of rock lyrics and convention speeches. But that cannot be done, and so he might as well come out and state that the poet should forfeit any hope of excellence, since his insistence amounts to just such a prohibition.

Consider the matter in this way: suppose the pages of Herrick and Gray and Arnold were laid out before you, and you were asked to describe what it was you saw. What would you say they found there? How would you describe the art on display? It seems perfectly certain to me that, whatever else you might place in your definition, you would undoubtedly note that what you were looking at was a stylized language, a language that was far more technically wrought than other forms of language you had encountered, a language in which the effects of tone, and voice, and diction, and metaphor, and trope were vastly more frequent, concentrated, and deliberate than in common speech. In brief, what you would say is something like, “here is a language that is different from all other forms of language.”

Yet perhaps it is not altogether precise to say that poetic language differs from common speech, so much as it perfects common speech. But as a matter of definition, there is always something present in the extraordinary example that is not present in the ordinary. Dance, for example, incorporates the typical physiological motions of mundane life—standing, walking, turning—but it so transforms these motions, and adds so much to them, that no one could fail to recognize that dance is something more than the motions of everyday life; not even the dullest minded person would criticize the performance of a glissade by complaining that it looked nothing like a person crossing the street. Similarly, the meter and synechdoche and chreia which are the techniques of the poet’s artistry have no real analogy in common speech, and so it just makes no sense to say that what the poet is doing essentially is working in the language of everyday life. To be sure, that language will make its way into his work—how could it not—but his goals are not to reproduce that language with any sort of fidelity. His purposes obviously encompass something much more, and where the intentions of the artist lie, there lies also the essence of his art. The poet uses a language that is maximally enhanced with nearly every form of linguistic ingenuity imaginable, and that is why Coleridge rightly objected to Wordsworth’s theory that, if consistently adhered to, it would eliminate at least two-thirds of the beauties from poetry.

A poet must simply decide whether any of the forms of language used in his times are conducive to his aims as an artist, and his primary criterion will be whether or not any of those forms afford him a language that has already been suitably crafted. As I noted, a person with poetic ambitions living in our day and age would be deluded to believe that there is any such public language available to him or her. But whether the poet borrows heavily or slightly from his age’s dialect, whether he tends towards a more formal or a more colloquial style, the decision he is making is always an artistic decision. It is always a choice between styles, and never a choice between style and nature.

We do not stand in need of a return to nature; we need a return to art, for as Burke aptly noted, art is man’s nature.

Consequently, every attempt to represent innovation in poetry as a “return to nature” ought to be suspect; all such revolutions historically have represented a change in idiom, and not some exchange of art for pure naturalness. Coleridge, again, in his critique of Wordsworth’s theoretical enterprise argues quite persuasively that the latter mistook his rejection of neoclassical style as a rejection of style per se. Similarly, in his work Missing Measures, the critic Timothy Steele demonstrates how the early moderns confounded their distaste with the Victorians’ metrics with a distaste for metrical form as such. The notion that the artist can ever get outside of his art must always involve him in such hopeless contradictions. So what is required of the poet in these brutal times is just what has been required of any of his predecessors: the pursuit of excellence in style and craft. We do not stand in need of a return to nature; we need a return to art, for as Burke aptly noted, art is man’s nature.

This is a general prescription; in specificity, such a return to art would include a study of the great English prose stylists—from Bacon to Sir Thomas Browne to Burke—without which no familiarity with the range of artistic effects in our language is possible; it would include a return to the more dynamic meters, in particular the anapest, which enable the poet to raise his language above the quotidian with the least violence to syntax; and above all things, it would include a revival of the ancient art of rhetoric, the art of creating impressions linguistically. These are some of the specific remedies that are in order, but more generally if those among us who have appropriated the title of poet knew anything of the art to which they make pretense, their goals would be diametrically opposite to the ones which presently direct their enterprise.

 

{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar Joshua D. Cooney May 9, 2011 at 1:50 pm

Mr. Signorelli,
How influential were ministers in shaping the common language? I suspect sermons would have affected more people directly than poems and even novels. I am under the impression that the clergy of past ages were classically educated. If today’s clergy were trained in rhetoric, poetry, and logic, perhaps we might have a fighting chance at restoring English.
I think we might find more success in convincing the clergy to cultivate a humanistic education than in persuading our contemporary poets and educators to do the same. We still have the written words of civilization’s great poets, novelists, essayists, and orators from which we can draw inspiration. If we can’t “take back the academy,” perhaps we can at least convince the better Christian seminaries to provide future ministers and priests a cultivated and precise language for their preaching.
I don’t wish to confuse the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ with written words on parchment, but there ought to be some connection between Logos and language.

avatar Mark A. Signorelli May 10, 2011 at 8:36 am

Mr. Cooney-

You’re right – that was a major omission on my part. And one can add the influence of the language of the King James Bible, which was read almost universally. The “common language” of generations intellectually nourished on such fare is just not the same thing as the “common language” of a generation brought up on “The Simpsons.”

As for the prospect of re-introducing the artistry of classical rhetoric into the pulpit, I’m not sure what the likelihood of that would be, but I agree with you that it would be highly desirable. The casual, even flippant, stand-up routine that so many priests perform nowadays after the Gospel is really reprehensible, and undoubtedly vitiates the influence of the truth they are there to preach.

avatar mushroom May 10, 2011 at 11:08 am

The casual, even flippant, stand-up routine that so many priests perform nowadays …

Among my evangelical brethren, one can often add “vulgar”.

I’d be interested in knowing if you have a pantheon of poets since Eliot.

avatar Mark A. Signorelli May 11, 2011 at 8:35 am

“I’d be interested in knowing if you have a pantheon of poets since Eliot.”

I really don’t. It seems pretty clear to me that the history of poetry since the early part of the 20th century is a history of the decline of the art (and I think a similar claim could be made about music and the plastic arts). A few fine poems pop up here and there (I think of Thomas’ “Fern Hill” or Lorca’s elegy for Mejias), but the trend is one of decline, and most of the poets working during this period (Eliot especially) were agents of that decline. Robert Conquest wrote a fine critique of modernist literature called “But What Good Came of it at Last?” One of the points he makes is that not every historic period produces great art; to the contrary, the arts have flourished in a few places at a few times. I think we need to admit that ours is not one of those places or one of those times.

avatar mushroom May 11, 2011 at 3:11 pm

I appreciate your response. That’s rather the way I felt, but I thought I might be too much of an ignorant clod to appreciate the Moderns.

avatar JimWilton May 13, 2011 at 1:49 pm

Forgive me. I am so happy to read an article on poetry (even if it fails to quote a single verse).

But, “a return to the dynamic meters, in particular the anapest”? Dear god! “‘Twas the night before Christmas and all through the house . . . ” LOL!

avatar M.A.Hicks May 14, 2011 at 5:56 am

Mr. Signorelli,

Having transitioned from a private, Classical Christian high school where the trivium was taught and the classics read to first community college, then a state university, and ultimately to a ‘keep-the-lights-on’ job at the airport, I can certainly identify with the chasm between the common language and the language of poetry. I can also speak to the disparity between the world I was trained in and the world I encountered when I left the ivory tower. In the end, what a background in the Humanities gave me was that sense that someone has gone through what I’m going through before and that I’m not crazy to think and feel the way I do. In a word, Context. And people are hurting for want of it.
It seems to me that the poetic language resembles a log sticking out of a river, jostled and pummeled by the current but remaining above it. The lilt of a sonnet or couplet lends a certain slant of light, a certain otherworldliness that lends itself to the idea that the human experience is transcendent, and that our experiences fit into a larger picture. Such context is dangerous, since our fitting in means there is something perhaps that is expected of us, but it seems to me that even an onerous duty to be decent to one another beats the radical freedom from responsibility that is our modern world.

avatar James Matthew Wilson May 14, 2011 at 10:01 am

What a wonderful essay. Almost perfect.

Let me add two brief comments.

A close look at Anglophone modernist poetry tells us that the fascination with everyday or contemporary colloquial language as the necessary language for poetry was short lived. They soon turned from this to the seeking out of an international or “curial” language — something not far removed from what your Elizabethan describes above, or what Dante advocated in the de Vulgari (from which this term derives). Eliot’s curial language incorporated fragments of the contemporary, but never allowed it to determine his diction as a whole. When we turn to the New Critics, we find the metaphysicals to be a much greater influence on the poetic vocabulary than was everyday life. A glance at Allen Tate and Crowe Ransom shows that neither has much to say in the currency of their day (hence, Tate’s late “The Swimmers” is an unusual poem precisely because it refers to the South of his childhood and does so in a servicable, clear narrative language). If Modernism is the curial style per se, it differs from earlier curial styles insofar as it refused to privilege refined rhetoric absolutely.

Second, let me second the objection to this line: “it would include a return to the more dynamic meters, in particular the anapest, which enable the poet to raise his language above the quotidian with the least violence to syntax”

If you read an anapestic tetrameter poem, you will always see distortions of pronunciation inflicted on the language to make it fit (have a look at Hardy’s “The Fallen Maid,” for instance). Iambic pentameter is “divinized prose,” as one late Victorian called it: it elevates refined but normal speech by giving it more fully realized measure, and it does so with less violence than the gallop of the anapest, which is hard to tolerate in anything longer than a short ballad.

avatar Hudson Owen July 4, 2011 at 1:01 pm

Dear Sir,

I have read your essay, belatedly, with interest. It is informed, intelligent, yes, yes. As a call to action? Well, who is listening, who will turn over one shovel of earth?

I said many of the same things for decades until I got tired of listening to the sounds of silence from the dim dark forest. Those who recognize the names and arguments work for the university. They will agree or disagree with you depending on their investment in Modern or non-Modern poetics and poetry. As for the general reader–hello…hello.

Today, I get some pleasure in posting comments on The Atlantic Magazine’s poem of the month. Actually, they publish two per issue. I pick one, and have a go at it. I am the only person in the whole wide universe who does this on a regular basis. Occasionally, someone clicks the ‘Like’ button in response to my mini-crit. Now, that’s something to smile about!

Enjoy your Fourth of July!

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