Unreal Nature

August 30, 2009


Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:25 am

In the second half of the twentieth century, we expect — and it is the first half which has whetted, which has exasperated our expectation — we expect, then, if we do not quite require, a lyric poem to have the dramatic impact upon us of suddenness, the convulsive energy of a pang, and we look in the poem’s disposition as we listen to its discords for that excitement which lurks round the edges of things, trembling on the verge, thrilling at the margin. Modernism, as we have come to conceive it in the century of its life, is not opposed to lyric, but insists that the implicit qualities of such a poetry be made explicit, demands that the drama inhabiting the simplest utterance, the slightest acknowledgement of experience organized above “the tension of the lyre,” dwell there in full view, outrageous, insistent, inescapable. Even at its most joyous, even when it celebrates loss and severance in an ecstasy, a transport, the modern lyric is committed to a tragic role, a role in which communication with the divine — and in Western culture such communication generally takes the disputed form of a protest, a conflict — is determinant. Love and death, then, in the modern American lyric are to be excruciating or they are, perhaps, not love and death at all. Only as it approaches the point of severance from experience is expression considered severe enough, extreme enough, to be authentic. This is our modernist heritage, the orthodoxy of a terrible faith in excluded middles; if there is heresy among us, it has not prevailed — or of course it would no longer be heresy then; heresies are doomed to minority status in poetry, the equivalent of persecution in religion.

But suppose we are confronted with a body, indeed with an anatomy of lyric verse which heretically rejects the tragic immediacy; which prefers to be interesting (the conscious) rather than to be excruciating (the unconscious); which prefers centers to edges, meetings to sunderings; which states — and statement will be a chief tenet of this heretical art:

Freedom is the mean of those
Extremes that fence all effort in;

which chooses — as Mark Van Doren says Shakespeare chose in The Tempest, that phantasmagoria of the temporal, as the very title indicates in its root — not so much to tell a story as to fix a vision.

— from the essay, To Be, While Still Becoming: A Note on the Lyric Verse of Mark Van Doren (1973) in the book, Paper Trails: selected prose, 1965-2003 by Richard Howard (2004)




  1. Very interesting hypothesis. I am wondering if Howard went on to examine the reasons for our insatiable desire for the extreme. I suspect that it is at the basis of our current Western (read “American”) culture and I would look to the influence of the hypercharged media on the polity. It is a result, in my opinion, of the commercialization of everything. A prime example is the Today show which I occasionally see. On a day when car bombs killed a hundred people in Iraq, the first 20 minutes were devoted to Michael Jackson. Why? Obviously because people will watch repetitive insanity that titillates their prurient instincts instead of the horror of a situation for which they are responsible. Of course, in the process, they will buy the goodies advertised (the ten minutes around seven o’clock AM must have 15 minutes of straight ads). I don’t think I’m a Marxist, since the situation that he and Engels addressed no longer exists. But, some of his observations are irrefutable.

    All this is known and taken notice of by anyone with the slightest interest in where we are going as a culture. In a way, it is a bit like the development of children. I subscribe to the hypothesis that children’s motor and mental abilities do not develop in tandem and that when the mental development outstrips the motor, children become frustrated. (the “terrible two’s” which are actually the terrible ones through eighteens). Maybe the tremendous overload of information we have experienced in the last 50 years has stretched some part of our brain that appreciates lyric poetry to the breaking point. We will be frustrated until we are able to gain some new kind of equilibirum.

    I would also agree that there is a terrible amount of angst out there. And it is not confined to people who read lyric poetry, a vanishing breed I suspect. The question becomes, is it possible to effect a new equilibirum or is it one of those things that just “happens.” I suspect the latter.

    Comment by Dr. C. — August 30, 2009 @ 11:23 am

  2. I don’t know. Just off the top of my head, I think maybe the problem with TV news is that anything other than local news had become simply entertainment (“it doesn’t affect me, and I can’t affect it”).

    Your theory about the terrible-twos is fascinating. I like it! (I think I’m still there.)

    Here’s a little bit more from Howard’s essay. The italicized word made me laugh:

    A life so firmly natural, so happily given over to the leagues and affections of family, of filiation and paternity, of marriage and companionship, of fraternity most of all, and so proudly committed to its own failing body as well — a life unalienated by the kind of demonic aspirations which have created an entire literature of fragmentation and partiality among us — is an exotic indeed, and what is more, a mild exotic, the hardest kind to entertain, to appease, to answer!

    Comment by unrealnature — August 30, 2009 @ 7:45 pm

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