Sunday, January 1, 2017
The Familiar Note in Poetry
Reading Scott’s Marmion, I found the poetry thin and shallow, though fluent. While a Romantic in his involvement with love and the past, in his nationalism and use of folk materials, Scott was uninventive (if competent) in his handling of verse. Yet I found the dedicatory excurses that begin every canto refreshing, fresh, and entertaining. Their casual evocation of deep friendship and their informal commentary on history and the contemporary scene contrast with the highly conventionalized and nearly mythic plot line of the main narrative, rendering these passages, which some have found intrusive and inappropriate, more lively and convincing than the main body of the poem.
I thought of other great poems which purport to be addressed to a specific individual and thus deal with what might seem to be private matters. Since all literature as such is circulated to a general readership, this pretense is a rhetorical pose, yet, like all rhetorical figures, it ideally contributes to the poem’s beauty, meaning, and effectiveness.
When Sappho writes of love, it is rarely in the abstract. If not addressing Aphrodite, whom she conceives anthropomorphically, she writes a letter to Atthis or an intimate note to Anaktoria. Yet she performed these compositions at least semi-publically, and they were circulated and recorded by others who may well have known none of the principals in person. Similarly, we all have taken an interest in Horace’s best wishes for a safe voyage of his friend Vergil and Catullus’ invitation to Fabullus for a dinner, promising rewards beyond food. An illusion of intimacy arises from the poet’s familiar tone.
The lineage of use of this device extends worldwide through history. Among its practitioners are such Tang Dynasty poets as Du Fu (for instance, for his “To Han the Censor” and “On Waiting for my Friend Ting”), troubadours employing such forms as the partimen and the tenso (such as the exchange between Marcabru and Uc Catola), Gay’s Epistles, Goldsmith’s “Verses in Reply to Dr. Baker’s Invitation” or his “Letter in Prose and Verse to Mrs. Bunbury.” The increasingly demotic idiom of modern poetry is congenial to this phenomenon. Though examples abound, I will mention only Elizabeth Bishop’s “Letter to N.Y.," Frank O’Hara’s “To the Harbormaster,” and Anne Waldman “A Phone Call from Frank O’Hara.”
To present a poem as a note between friends suggests its “reality,” implying that it arose, not as an intentionally designed aesthetic object, a “thing made,” or poem, but rather as a natural byproduct of everyday life. This pretense of authenticity resembles that of early novelists who encoded their imaginative productions as journals or letters arising directly from lived experience. The familiar text thus playfully asserts its character as a private utterance at the same time as its writer and every reader know that it is not, creating a sort of shimmering illusory simulacrum of experience.
Unreal as its consumers know it to be, this pose nonetheless dramatically supports a claim of sincerity. A note to a friend is assumed to be spontaneous and natural. The poet is using a version of the same device familiar from Sir Philip Sydney’s first sonnet in Astrophel and Stella which ends “’Fool,’ said my Muse to me, ‘look in thy heart, and write.’" This could be considered, of course, entirely a matter of convention, a literary pose with no implication of straightforwardness in the author’s lived experience. 
Apart from sincerity, addressing a friend in poetry focuses on the value of love and comradeship, especially an affection heightened by a mutual verbal sophistication, a capacity for delight in words. Friendship is a major theme in poetry and rises to prominence in Chinese and late Latin lyrics, though less prominent today. The poems then remain in a realm lit by human affection. If it is not the fevered heat of romantic love, it signals what is perhaps a steadier, more sustainable flame, promising a potential of companionship and mutual support.
By collapsing in the gap between the artistic and the natural, by acting as though poetic language is used in everyday exchanges, that a persona is identical with a historical individual, the writer is playfully suggesting the primacy of the cultivated poetic sensibility. The implication in the end is that life itself is aestheticized and unfolds in a realm of pattern, beauty, and significance.  In this sense the composition and consumption of aesthetic texts can be seen as a sort of sympathetic magic which strives by its verbal spells to impose order, grace, and meaning on the chaos of observed reality. In a sort of stealth technique, poets sometimes employ the most casual and unpretentious forms of discourse, words that present themselves as having little more weight than the trivia of daily conversation, hoping thereby to assure a life made livable by love and beauty.
The playful uses to which words are put in poetry are the most sophisticated use of the distinctively human capacity to manipulate symbols. Like other forms of art, poetry is, among other things, a pastime: people, in part for the fun of it, practicing their greatest skill, enjoying the companionship of others who enjoy the same game, and thus passing the time as the sun declines in the heavens.
1. Important as it may be to the Romantic for whom art is self-expression, the issue can hardly exist for those to whom another’s subjectivity must remain forever unknown to the observer.
2. Ironically, taking the artificial to its limit as in a Renaissance dream vision such as Lydgate’s Temple of Glas has much the same effect. One might compare the division of labor in Lyrical Ballads, with Wordsworth striving to illuminate the hidden depths of the quotidian and Coleridge seeking what is significant to all in the exotic and remote. Both aimed by such a contrast to point readers’ minds in new directions.