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.

Incommensurable Losses

Every so often I pop in my old audio tapes of Jacques Barzun’s From Dawn to Decadence and, at the expense of sounding hopelessly nostalgic, it leaves me thinking that scholarship is not what it used to be. It reminds me of a few lines from Edward Said that I first came across via Alan Jacobs some time ago, although I no longer remember where exactly. Said, thinking of the humanistic scholars of the mid-twentieth century wrote:

“This is not to say that we should return to traditional philological and scholarly approaches to literature. No one is really educated to do that honestly anymore, for if you use Erich Auerbach and Leo Spitzer as your models you had better be familiar with eight or nine languages and most of the literatures written in them, as well as archival, editorial, semantic, and stylistic skills that disappeared in Europe at least two generations ago.”

In any case, this meandering all leads to a passage from Barzun with which I will leave you. It is a moving estimation of the losses occasioned by the First World War, a war the consequences of which I tend to think we underestimate. Here is Barzun:

“Varying estimates have been made of the losses that must be credited to the great illusion. Some say 10 million lives were snuffed out in the 52 months and double that number wounded. Others propose higher or lower figures. The exercise is pointless, because loss is a far wider category than death alone. The maimed, the tubercular, the incurables, the shell-shocked, the sorrowing, the driven mad, the suicides, the broken spirits, the destroyed careers, the budding geniuses plowed under, the missing births were losses, and they are incommensurable … One cannot pour all human and material resources into a fiery cauldron year after year and expect to resume normal life at the end of the prodigal enterprise.”

And so, to varying degrees, it must be with any war.