Statement of Philosophy

A site for exploration and discussion about verse, poetics, the aesthetic, and creative writing in general.

Because there is a profound difference between writing something to be read and writing something worth reading; and in that difference might beauty be found.



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Saturday, September 26, 2015

"Song" by Laetitia Landon

poem found here
 

First lines:
Where, O! where’s the chain to fling,
One that will bind CUPID’s wing,

 

the question of merit

 

This was originally a bit from the graduate years, to which I've given some paring and reworking. While it uses Laetitia Landon as the immediate subject, the questions asked apply across literature, especially in today's literary culture, where the question of the literary merit of texts is generally ignored in favor of anything but. (Added also to the Cabinet, here.)

 

Consider this:

This is
a
poem.

By most general definitions it is. Yet, the damning question: To what end? Can it be analyzed literarily? A cursory consideration recognizes the irony of its self-identification, which in turn raises the textual question of the inherent qualities that would make the snippet the object it claims to be. The primary defining characteristic would the breaking of the sentence into lines. Can anything else be said? anything more formal in nature? The sentence, considered in prose form, is naturally split into two halves: the rhythmic, semiotic unit /This is/ and the article-noun unit /a poem/. The text as written, then, is made up of an opposition of one two-word line against two one-word lines, two lines dividing a natural semiotic unit. With the first line break occurring after the verb a tension is created in the reading: what is? this is what? The second line continues that suspense in that the indefinite article is given without its naturally following subject. That the word "poem" is given its own line – as opposed to the more conventional "This is / a poem." – gives explosiveness to the revelation of the referent of the opening pronoun, and emphasis to the irony created in the self-referentiality. Perhaps I exaggerate the effects of the formal properties of the text, but the properties themselves are present and, as, shown readily revealed through a rather basic, formal examination.

But let's return to questions. Is it a poem? Yes. It uses the prototypical poetic trope, the line break, in the creation of meaning and poetic effect. Next question: Does the text have value within the discourse of "poetry"? Its only significant value – if that itself is too strong a phrase – lies in pointing out potential results of certain poetic constructs (namely, the non-insertion of a line break between 'this' and 'is', and the insertion of a line break between 'a' and 'poem'). Is it worth studying? It has some small merit, if only in pointing out those considerations so that they may be understood by readers when encountered within more complex poetic constructs. Although, it doesn't merit much more time than that which has been spent in reading these two paragraphs. At most, it is demonstrative of certain effects possible in the medium of language, though beyond that pragmatic value, there is little more that can be said for the poem. Which leads to the final question: Is it a good poem? If we take good a broad sense, it can be said that the text is a successful poem in its clean use of poetic trope. So perhaps a better question is: Is it a meritable poem?

Let's now consider Laetitia Landon's "Song," giving it the same, basic, formal examination.[FN] The poem suffers terribly from near arbitrary punctuation: periods, colons, semi-colons and commas have no internal regularity or recognizable standard of application, and as a result no derivable meaning. Even what should be the easiest to utilize, the period, is only 2 for 4 in ending a thought, the two failing attempts replacing in the first case a colon (or dash): "Form it not of Eastern gold. / All too weighty it to hold;" (5-6); and in the second a comma: "Take the purple tints that deck. / Meteorlike, the peacock's neck:" (15-16). Its syntax is likewise and resultingly confused. Lines like

Form it neither all of bloom,
Never does love find a tomb
Sudden, soon, as when he meets
Death amid unchanging sweets: (7-10)

are a semantic tangle due to their strange usage of "sudden" and "soon" (especially in its disjointed coupling with "never does"). There is also the confusion in deciding the referent of "sweets" caused by the awkward association of "sweets" with "bloom." Even when syntax is analyzed, obstacles to aesthetic appreciation remain, as with the engendering of the abstract "love" and the sheer ridiculousness of "death amid unchanging sweets" (never mind the obvious logical problem that love will "find a tomb" rather quickly anytime it "meets Death," be it in the candies or in the produce section). Finally, even basic considerations such as the poem's images fails under scrutiny: the transposition of meteors onto a peacock's neck is a difficult task without some mental straining.

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[FN] I have not found a reason why we find the name spelled both as Laetitia and as Letitia. Since I learned the former spelling first, I will stick with it here.
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The poor quality of the poem raises the same set of questions brought forth with the opening ditty, if from another direction. Is it a good poem? Does it have value? Is it worth the effort of close study, particularly in a pedagogical setting? Because the poem can be found in academic texts, more questions follow: If it is so lacking aeshetically, why was it included in the anthology from which it was culled? Why study an author who produced such a low quality poem? Why teach her poem in a class on the Romantic period? (When I say "teach" there, I mean teach the poem itself as a text, not merely teach the poem's or poet's historical existence as representative of the pop-literature of the time.) Is the fact that she wrote during that period, that she is a voice different from the big six, enough to mediate questionable quality? The study of literature (that is, the study of literary texts qua literature, not the much broader field of literary history) is not the study of everything that has ever been written down on paper. Is the fact that she was remarkably popular during her life (considered by some the first female popular poet in English) reason enough to push her work into the study of literature qua literature? I would answer no, not on that reason alone. Such a measure would have her works to outweigh Keats' in consideration: a situation no scholar of literature could (or would) defend (and pass the laugh test, a test too infrequently used in literary studies). Nonetheless, Landon's poetry has found a place in at least one major period anthology. By what grounds can such inclusion be rationalized? And should such inclusion be accepted by the academic community? In sum, is Laetitia Landon a profitable subject for literary study?

Daniel Riess offers an approach to Landon's work. His effort at embodying Landon with import is not concerned with her poetics (and he does recognize, if not emphatically, the lesser quality of her writing), but with placing her in context of the shifting, contemporary economics of writing and writers: namely, the end of the patronage system and the growing need for writers, especially women writers, to support themselves through the commercialization of their work. As Riess describes, Landon's poetry "did not simply acquiesce in the increasing commodification of literature and art; rather, it was an active, willing participant" (810). Yet, such participation led, to some degree, to those very problems of low aesthetic quality critics face when considering Landon's verse. For example, "The Improvisatrice," whose plot was taken from de Staël's novel, Corinne, is emasculated by Landon of any of the novel's politics or controversy in an effort to make it as vastly appealing to mass literary tastes as possible, "preserving it's rudimentary qualities, but not its essence, its animating spirit" (816).

Riess's defense of Landon, and his general conclusions about the contemporary, literary market place may be interesting and accurate, but they are nonetheless problematic when considering Landon specifically.

In the years since her death, her name has been treated with contempt by critics and by "biographers" who have gladly consigned her verse to oblivion. . . . But Landon's poems do embody a hard-won truth, one both powerful and horrible: that the Romantic vision of a poetry which transcends commercial exploitation is an illusion, and that in her day art and poetry had been transformed into marketable commodities. (823-4)

The fallacy here lies in the cart is laid before the horse: Reiss must first give Landon's work literary importance for his argument about the effects of commercialization upon the literary to take hold. "Though seemingly unexceptional, these verses, when properly contextualized, exhibit a complex, multifaceted textual interplay . . ." (812). "Properly contextualized": contextualized to overcome their sub-par quality (does commercialization explain basic issues of grammar?); contextualized outside of the realm of literature into the realm of economics. While Landon's poems may "embody a hard-won truth," the context of analysis necessary to recognize that truth makes Riess's article not an analysis of a body of Romantic literature, but that of the successful marketing of an nineteenth century widget: Landon's work is no longer upheld as a particular artist's production, but only as one example, if an exemplary example, of a contemporary market trend.[FN]

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[FN] It should be noted that Reiss's use of the phrase "gladly consigned her verse to oblivion" enacts an emotional ploy which plays on the heart strings of most participants in the literary field, and especially those who have sought recognition through their own poetry or fiction: the looming threat of non-success, of not being recognized, of one's works, and name, dying with their body. But it is only an emotional ploy, and nothing more. It is admittedly a tragic thing that many persons with true talent are never fitted the opportunity to create to their fullest potential, whether it be due to social, economic or other factors, including that most elemental factor: sheer bad luck. It is, however, a fact which must be accepted by scholars of literature: we do not study never-have-beens, we study extant pieces of literature. We only have the artifacts that lie before us. Side by side with this fact of academic reality stands a corollary just as important: just because something successfully has been printed and preserved does not in itself award it any necessity for either literary recognition or study.
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Economics is not the concern of literary inquiry: that is, as said, not in the study of literature qua literature. Though, within Reiss's analysis, is the only context wherein Landon's poetry carries or produces scholarly value. Some approaches of feminist critical theory, however, seek other rationales.

There are good reasons for investigating the vast mass of female product which is our inheritance. The first is simply that it is our inheritance: to understand it is to gain a clearer idea of who we are, or, in current jargon, where we are coming from. (6)

So writes Germaine Greer, in the first issue of Tulsa Studies in Women's Literature, in an article offering an apology for the Tulsa Center's program.[FN]

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[FN] The article is, admittedly, somewhat dated within the history of feminist criticism, arguing from certain assumptions (whose elucidation are beyond the boundaries of this paper) no longer universally accepted by involved critics. Yet, this particular statement, as a raison d'être, can still successfully offer us a means of approach to the general questions at hand.
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Greer does not shy in warning scholars against the intellectual pitfalls a consideration of such authors as Landon entails. Indeed, she decries the lauding of women writers simply for the fact that they are women, pointing out that ignoring questions of quality or purpose in academic study produces tokenism, which "is fundamentally unjust both to the women it singles out and the women it ignores" (10). Equally emphatically, Greer condemns the inverse: the accusation that the major writers are studied simply because they are men.

In no part of her essay is the question of quality shunned: "The temptation to overvalue the object of the search is a constant one . . ." (8). But the question remains: if lesser women's writers are to be studied for the "right reasons" (8) and the right reasons only, what are those reasons? As stated in the first quote, above, they are to be studied as a part of the social history of women. Greer is revealing in offering possibilities:

Conventional literary history is concerned with the monuments of our literature and incurious about the matrix in which those impressive manifestations took root and could grow to such towering proportions. Shakespearean scholars neither know nor care who Shakespeare's mother was, what standard of literacy she reached or when she died. We know little more about the older woman Shakespeare married, whom he left in charge of the princely establishment in Stratford in which he invested all his earnings, who may have overseen the publication of the first folio and the erection of the monument in the parish church at Stratford. (8-9)

The concerns are related to literature, but still highly contextualized: with the concerns of studies in women's literature so oriented, as bears not only upon the major women writers but also the lesser, the "study" of literature is no longer about literature qua literature but about writing as a biographical or historical tool, writing as a sociological text, or writing as a sociological event.

All of these are undeniably valid areas of study. However, in the context of the study of literature qua literature, such concerns are secondary interests, at best tools (and only when and to the degree that they have value as such), not in themselves primary foci of investigation. This is especially true in literary pedagogy – the broader endeavor, which is where the aims of such discussions as this one must inevitably reside, as a scholar's desires for individual study are and should be their own – where concerns must first be focused on questions of literariness. The pedagogical progression is a simple one: a person must first be competent in the being able to discuss a any given house before they can attain competence in discussing relationships between houses. Literature qua literature as a focus of study is based ultimately on the text itself: its tropes, its manipulation, its signifying processes. Scholars of literature study literature to comprehend how the written word is crafted into fiction, into poetry, into drama, into prose. Questions of merit are unavoidable: for one studies not texts at random, but texts which are considered (by whatever standard, be it tradition or taste) to be exemplary in their construction. A person does not become competent in the subject of houses by studying make-shift shacks and lean-tos.

Scholars study Romanticism as a unit because it spawned an approach to the art of writing peculiar to its period of time (also related to what preceded and to what followed). Scholars study Keats, Wordsworth, etc., because their writings, moreso than others of the period, offer the greatest potential for understanding the generation and being of that literary context, which is both consequent and intimate with recognition of those texts as the most exceptional of literature qua literature of the era. It is imprecise to say that the Romantic period – an historical term – was defined by the works of the Keats, Wordsworth, etc., for definition is but categorization by observed characteristics; it is an operation after the fact. It is far more accurate to say that the Romantic period was generated by the works of Keats, Wordsworth, etc.: the historical cannot escape a foundation built first upon literature qua literature.

 

It is essential – it is fundamental – that a student of literature be able to read a poem like "Song" and be able to identify the difficulties found therein: the aberrant punctuation, the mishandled syntax, and the poorly conceived images. The understanding of poetic technique (or dramatic, or prosaic) is as critical to literary comprehension and appreciation as is the basic understanding of grammar to the student's own writings and their subsequent comprehension and reception. A university whose students operated within a simple subject-verb-predicate grammar, to whom the correct use of a colon is an inconceivable – if not immoral – experience, would be entirely unacceptable. So also should be considered students who do not understand the significance of sonnet form, or the fine and delicate art of poetic punctuation, or the subtle complexities of imagery: there are reasons why 'meteors on a peacock's neck' does not work, yet Donne's exaggerated conceits do. Such things are not learned by studying Landon's failed grammar, but by understanding Shelley's creative, organized utilization of the same.

Denis Donoghue, in the Presidential Address of the Modern Humanities Research Association in 1992, wrote:

It seems to me that the critical problem has to do with the status of fictions: how to teach our students to deal with fictions and not to degrade them into concepts. The most acute difficulty in the classroom is to gain attention, preferably a just kind of attention, for aesthetic objects; or rather to gain aesthetic attention for objects that call for such a response. There was a time when it was convincing to quote Eliot's admonition that if you read literature it is as literature you must read it and not as another thing. But our students do not understand what Eliot was talking about or what it means to read literature 'as literature'. They read literature as they read everything else, as a matter for conversation on themes that happen to interest them apart from literature. (xxxv)[FN]

What Donoghue defends is ultimately the only possible pedagogical focus of literature qua literature: literature as an aesthetic object, literature as an object crafted out of the material of language. As such, should not the reasons to study literature (in the classroom) be also the guide as to what specific pieces of literature are studied? Such a pedagogical modus operandi is the logical and even necessary consequence of the reason literature is ultimately studied in the first place: the pleasure of the text. Thus, we are returned to Laetitia Landon, and the questions which originally propelled this query. Is Laetitia Landon, and other poets of her tenor, be they male or female, alive or dead, upper class or lower, worthy of literary study? perhaps more to the quick of it, literary recognition?

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[FN] I wish to qualify his statement: students should not be taught to read literature, but must be taught to read, period. The qualification, as per Eliot, of a difference between literature and non-literature is irrelevant to the question of the ability to read. You learn to read from reading literature, but you do not learn to read literature, as though literature is read differently. As Barthes points out, one must learn to read so as to experience the jouissance of the text: a reading pleasure which is potential to every text, once the reader knows how to read. Once a reader can read Shelley with such pleasure, so the reader can find pleasure in Shelleyesque tropes wherever they occur. When a person comes to understand the use of light by Rafael, he does not limit perception of such occurrences to Rafael's works, but to all visual arts, and even to all the visual world. So is it with reading. It just so happens that the Shelleyesque occurs with greatest frequency in Shelley's poetry. (See Barthes' essays "The Death of the Author" and "From Work to Text," in Image, Music, Text (New York: Hill and Wang, 1977)).
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WORKS CITED

 

  • Donoghue, Denis. "The Use and Abuse of Theory." Modern Language Review 87 (1992) xxix-xxxviii).
  • Greer, Germaine. "The Tulsa Center for the Study of Women's Literature: What We Are Doing and Why We Are Doing It." Tulsa Studies in Women's Literature 1.1 (1982) 5-26.
  • Riess, Daniel. "Laetitia Landon and the Dawn of English Post-Romanticism." Studies in English Literature: 1500-1900 36 (1996) 807-827.

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