Literary Miscellany

In a recorded interview discussing the merits of Longfellow’s poetry, Dana Gioia, a fellow poet and former chairman of the NEA, made some arresting observations regarding the power of lyric poetry. He noted that great lyric poetry, of the sort Longfellow wrote, could weave “a spell of words around the auditor which goes right to the heart” — a reminder that the desire to “get” the meaning of a poem in other than poetic terms can be misguided.

Gioia then went on to tweak Franz Kafka’s metaphor — a book is the axe with which we break the frozen seas within us — for the purposes of understanding what poetry can do:

“A popular poem is this kind of … icepick that cracks this sort of … this composure we have around ourselves and affects us deeply and mysteriously in ways that we might not be able to articulate but that we can feel — our intuition recognizes as genuine.”

This resonated with me and I thought it worth passing along. Poetry, or the poetic imagination, as I have elsewhere suggested, can be a powerful supplement to the dispositions and habits seemingly engendered by technology (huge generalizations there, I know, but I’m going to have to let them lie). Read more poetry.

And while we are on poetry, here are two lines that have recently caught my attention, particularly in light of discussions of self-consciousness and authenticity. The first is from T. S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of Alfred Prufrock”:

“There will be time, there will be time
To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet;”

And the second from Emily Dickinson, who elsewhere wrote, “Of Consciousness, her awful Mate The Soul cannot be rid”:

Me from Myself — to banish —
Had I Art —
Impregnable my Fortress
Unto All Heart —

But since Myself — assault Me —
How have I peace
Except by subjugating

And since We’re mutual Monarch
How this be
Except by Abdication —
Me — of Me?

Lastly, I’ll use this venture into the humanities to note the passing of the great scholar and critic, Jacques Barzun. He was 104. As Alan Jacobs tweeted this morning, it is striking to consider that Barzun could remember the First World War. I noted a passage from Barzun not that long ago.