Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Poetry and Language

TS Eliot says in THE SACRED WOOD that the purpose of poetry is to teach people how to speak. It is to clarify and clean the language, and the use of it. It is to move language forward. The poetry of today is the language of tomorrow, and it must always be progressing for just as pure water grows stale by being trapped, so language can not sit still without stagnating.

What was crisp and clear in our diction when I was a kid is no longer vivid. It has become stale. So language must always be moving, changing, evolving, disintigrating or growing.

And it will change whether we intend it or not. Without the poet language will be degraded with the sewage of time and the filth of society. But the role of the poet in society is to intentionally seek to purify the language by providing fresh streams that keep the river moving. I don't recal whether Eliot used the water analogy or not, but it fits his idea. And it fits the biblical living water, moving water, always pure, always fresh, always renewed.

So I ask myself, what is the future of the English language. Are our poets teaching us how to speak a more perfect language? Are they purifying the language? Or are they accelerating the degredation that would happen anyway, with or without them? What is the trajectory of poetry?

From Edmund Spencer, via Donne, Shakespeare, Milton, Dryden, Pope, Henry Vaughan, Cowper, Blake, Wordsworth, EB Browning, Poe, and culminating in Emily Dickinson, poets passionately sought to make speech beautiful. Of course that beauty had its ugly spots! But the beauty and the ugly were in their proper places. As Pope so wonderfully put it, "'Tis not enough no Harshness gives Offence, The Sound must seem an Eccho to the Sense."

I say that Emily Dickinson was the culmination of that poetic obsession. It almost seems that after her poems were finally published all of the other poets just gave up on the possibility of surpassing the perfect loveliness of her voice in her poems. It would be hard to beat! Am I alone in noticing that beauty of language has not really been a passion of poets after her?

Oh, beautiful language has popped in sometimes, in Robert Frost, some of Eliot, some Mary Oliver, at odd points here and there. But it has not been the drive of poetry, nor even of any single poet that I can think of after Dickinson.

One might account for this change in language by saying that the themes of writing have changed. Most poets do not now write of the drizzle glistening on poplar leaves. Or if they do, it is with the intent of pointing our minds somehow to the existential alienation in which we all suffer. So, the argument goes, they are following Pope's advice and making the sound an echo of the sense.

That argument can't hold for long, for Pope could make his ugly sections glow, Shakespeare has some of the most beautifully framed put-downs in literature; even Milton's Satan is ugly and hateful in delightfully ugly language. And tell me, what was Edgar Allen Poe? He wrote the saddest, most morbid poems in the English language, but they are also some of the most beautiful in their language. Their lovely sound makes the sadness all the more biting. Had they been written in today's poetic lingo, they would just be pathetic whimpering. But this I don't see in most of the poets today. I see ugliness being talked about in ugly language that stays ugly on the page and is not improved by giving it voice. And what is far worse, I see love, and friendship, and marriage, and God being praised in the same language. It is as if poets have so long lived now on death, war, alienation and angst that their very poetic voices have become stuck in that tone and they can't break free even when the theme demands it.

Poetry isn't supposed to show us how we speak; we already know that. It should teach us how we could speak. It should give us the desire to speak more purely, more nobly, more beautifully. I don't think it has done this with any consistency for more than a century.

One only has to listen to the radio, one's co-workers, or one's self to see what has happened to our language as a result.

If a poet wished to return to what Eliot said was the poet's role in society, then I think that the poet would need to return to Dickinson, Poe, Blake and all of the others whose passionate work it was to discover the beauties that lay hidden and waiting in the English language. Were I a poet I would pretend the twentieth century had never happened and I would attempt to continue on where Browning, Rossetti, Dickinson and Poe left off. Beauty still can happen.

1 comment:

mariposa said...

Hi! Thanks so much for the comment on my blog! About your post, I just want to say, I really like how you compared moving water to language.