Wednesday, October 20, 2004

I've been reading the Fish book ("How Milton Works")--but reading Fish, there's so little to say before you find yourself needing to quote pages to show what he has very clearly built to. Conversely, every time I think I've caught something he's missed, he brings it in a few pages later, and makes it part of his larger argument. So he's good at what he does. So I'm going to just keep reading.

I'm also reading "The Sighted Singer" by Allen Grossman with Mark Halliday (that's how it's attributed). The first half is a dialogue between the two men, and the second half is a long treatise-in-the-style-of-Aquinas on 'the commonplaces in speculative poetry' titled "Summa Lyrica."

The conversation took place in 1981, so obviously there's a lot of bridges built over this river since then (so to speak), but there's a lot of very interesting stuff in it. Here's a quote I've been rolling over (Grossman talking, as he mostly is):

"Now, I am making a distinction which I think is alien from the way you think about things: a distinction between selves and persons. I believe that poetry is fundamentally antipsychological, and I would summon as my witnesses the High Modern poets with their advocacy of impersonality, which led them all, each in his [sic] own way, to reject the analysis of the "real" self that we find in Freud. I am in effect saying to you that poetry has a destiny not in selves, but in persons; and that, whereas selves are found and discovered, persons and personhood is an artifact, something that is made, an inscription upon the ontological snowfields of a world that is not in itself human. I view the world, and I think poetry by its very structures calls attention to the world, as not human; and in the presence of that world not human, the world that lies in the white spaces upon which our words are inscribed--on that world poetry writes the name of the person. And the distinction between person and self is that the person is value-bearing . . . When I speak of keeping the human image, I am speaking of keeping, not selves, but the value of selves.

What I mean by "presence" is the person-making power of evoking the disposition to honor selves which is expressed in, but not identical with, love. The disposition to honor selves, awakened by poetry, must be responded to if poetry can be said to be truly read. This is what differentiates the kind of presence I'm talking about from mere being with in the world."

I don't know if I "buy it" wholly, but it is a very eloquent and attractive description of poetry's vitality.

One other thing: Earlier, he had begun the conversation by claiming for poetry two functions: that of bringing people together, and that of modeling for people how to be together. Both are, for him, aspects of the "greater function of poetry . . . the keeping of the image of persons as precious in the world. Language is inherently a principle of relationship, and when language is about language there is required a refinement and searching of that principle--so that talk about poetry tends toward the perfection of the means of relationship."

I think I have a Fish quote regarding Paradise Regained which will sit nicely next to that last one from Grossman. Later.

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