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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The Rational and SpiritualitySomething I Read #21 – C.K. Stead
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Saturday, April 27, 2019

C.K. Stead and "Eliot's 'Dark Embryo'"

It’s been a while since a post. I’ve been working diligently (if not a touch obsessively) on another project, and have been unwilling to take breaks in it to work on posts for here, because these posts can occupy my mind for a week before appearing on the blog. But I’m a little stuck in the other project, so thinking something different for a moment is not such a bad thing.

It is my thought to start permitting more posts, if not frequently. I’ve a small list of possible topics to work on; and I wouldn’t be surprised if the discussions that prompted this post don’t prompt more. We’ll see.

 


 

verse vs. poetry

 

This is an essay I have been sitting on for quite a while – wholly unwritten except for the occasional expeditionary jot on a yellow pad (pages quickly abandoned), myself being unsure of where to go with it – since my re-reading a while ago of C.K. Stead's two books on Modernist poetry, The New Poetic: Yeats to Eliot (1964) and Pound, Yeats, Eliot and the Modernist Movement (1986). (Both of which I greatly recommend.) In the latter I came across again a moment in criticism that is a favorite of mine.

There is in Western European civilization a large minority of sensitive, intelligent, and usually productive people whose lives are given shape, order, meaning, a sense of elevation and a certainty of purpose, by their pursuit of the best in music, painting, literature and film. These works of art, it is hardly too much to say, are their religious texts, their shrines and their chapels, their sources of enlightenment, order and hope; and for half a century, far more consistently than any one poem or group of poems by Yeats, The Waste Land has been one such text. It has been so because it is a superbly rich composition, rich in fine writing, varied in feeling, moving, not as the conventions of communication require, but as the mind moves, from image to idea, from perception to feeling, from revulsion to exultation, from love to disgust, at every point occupying that foreshore between subjective and objective which since the Romantic revolution has been the exclusive property of poetic discourse, but engaging the reader so that his too is the imagining mind, he too participates in the act of creation. Academics like to deal with Yeats because it is possible to tell students in abstract what he is saying, what he means. It is almost impossible to "teach" a Modernist poem because if it is not misrepresented (as for so long The Waste Land was) it is hardly possible to say more than "Here is the territory – plunge in, experience it, and report back." (165-66)

As gestured toward in the quotation and in the full context of the book – of both books, and the later is in a sense a continuation of the earlier – the reason for the elevated stature of The Waste Land is not merely in that it is in some objective way "better" than other verse, but in that it is fundamentally different from most other verse. It acts differently on the receptive reader.

Within the context of this blog, that difference is obvious: The Waste Land is in the terms I use of the modality of the aesthetic; it lies on Barfield's spiritual spectrum to the side of the poetic (as opposed to the prosaic); in Eliot's own terms, it is what he calls true poetry.

What I want to do is to take a moment and look at Stead's examination of Eliot's view of what constitutes true poetry and – more importantly to the moment – of how it is made. To do that, I will move to Stead's earlier The New Poetic. I am working out of the chapter "Eliot's 'Dark Embryo,'" and in that I am mostly just relaying Stead's presentation, this is almost entirely Stead's argument and effort. I'm merely rearranging it to suit my own purposes. (Unless otherwise stated, all quotations are of Stead.)

 

"A close scrutiny of Eliot's criticism will show" – we will begin with what serves as a kind of thesis statement for Stead's chapter:

the gradual realization of a poetic technique dependent largely upon moments of "Inspiration," and designed to bring into balance the two halves of the divided sensibility; a technique which weighs, on the one hand, that part of the poet's mind which rationalizes, constructs, and, in the rhetorician, illegitimately persuades and pleases at the expense of complex truth; and, on the other hand, that passive part of the mind which, independent of the will, negatively comprehends complexity, and provides images to embody it, but fails on its own to construct, assert, or even affirm. (126)

Two "sources," if you will, of thought; two types of creativity: the rational, categorical, organizational, and the unconscious, the passively engaged – as you cannot will a dream. Two parts – if sort of, then also sort of not – in opposition, nor, in the writing of true poetry, in equal measure. Rather, the conscious will takes more the role of "sub-editor," with the composition of poetry centered primarily in "spontaneous 'imagination' and 'inspiration'" (131).

Stead uses a triplet of essays ("Tradition and the Individual Talent," "Hamlet," and "Ben Jonson") to show the development of Eliot's thought, but perhaps the idea is most readily seen through his fourth major source, an essay on Kipling (first published in A Choice of Kipling's Verse, edited by Eliot, and which can be found in the Internet Archive). In that essay, Eliot makes the distinction between "'poetry' which is of the spontaneous imagination, and 'verse' which is of the world of will" (139). Says Stead,

for Kipling poems are "instruments" to serve a deliberate purpose. His only concern is to find the form which will serve that purpose. The poet (Eliot), on the other hand, tries to find in each new poem "the right form for feelings over the development of which he has, as a poet, no control." (139; quoting Eliot 17)

You get an idea there of the difference between verse and poetry: the former is a "deliberate" action, a premeditated conveying of information or persuading of the reader; the latter seems rather a self-emerging creature, that the poet as much as discovers through the act of writing. There is in poetry, then, no defining message, no purposing argument. In the words Stead uses to open his chapter, true poetry is "tested not by what it says but by what it is" (125).

Let's go directly to Eliot's words. And keep in mind, he is not here solely talking about verse or poetry as a finished product, but also about the process of their writing. Speaking of Kipling, he says:

I know of no writer of such great gifts for whom poetry seems to have been more purely an instrument. Most of us are interested in the form for its own sake – not apart from the content, but because we aim at making something which shall first of all be, something which in consequence will have the capability of exciting, within a limited range, a considerable variety of responses from different readers. For Kipling the poem is something which is intended to act – and for the most part his poems are intended to elicit the same response from all readers, and only the response which they can make in common. For other poets – at least for some other poets – the poem may begin to shape itself in fragments of musical rhythm, and its structure will first appear in terms of something analogous to musical form; and such poets find it expedient to occupy their conscious mind with the craftsman's problems, leaving the deeper meaning to emerge from a lower level. (140; Eliot 18)

Let us examine this passage in detail. Verse is constituted of words used as an instrument. Not necessarily divorced from emotion, but with the chosen aim of clarity. Thus why Kipling's verse is "intended to elicit the same response from all readers": he has something to say, and the creative process is for him the rational organization of thought and effect to delivering to the reader that which he wants to say. Kipling's verse acts: it has a purpose, and in being read executes that purpose.

In opposition, there is poetry. crafted with the "aim [of] making something which shall first of all be." The poem is not a vehicle for the transmission of meaning or argument, it is a thing to be experienced, and in that every person experiences objects in their own way, a poet is making a thing that "excit[es . . .] a considerable variety of responses." Though in "a limited range": they are, after all, crafting a singular thing, contained by the boundaries of the page, built upon the chosen subject matter. It would be a failure of design to craft a poem based on desire in the story of Pyramis and Thisbe and have someone read it as about the inhumanity of war.

How is a poem created, then, if the poetic element cannot be consciously crafted, if it is not constituted of something that is communicatively conveyed? Eliot gives two elements to the process. First (second, as I am taking them in reverse order), the writer of poetry will "occupy their conscious mind with the craftsman's problems, leaving the deeper meaning to emerge from a lower level." There is, after all, a rational element to poetry: else it fails as a work of language and degenerates into gibberish. The phrase "lower level" is not to be lightly regarded, though. Verse, Kipling's verse, is a poetry of the surface: in a sense, what you see is what there is. True poetry, to continue with the analogy, is more a three-dimensional object: the surface is informed by that which is beneath it, and the reader is intended to see not just the surface but the whole.[FN] That true poetry in its writing emerges from a "lower level" in the psyche describes also true poetry in its reading: the words work also at a lower level for the reader, who must look beneath the surface for the poetry to be found. That not in the sense of brute subtext, some second message carried by the surface material, but in the sense of experience: the reader must engage the text as unconsciously as it was written.

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[FN] In truth, extending the idea like this makes only what is at best an imperfect analogy, as a three-dimensional object is in the end a solid, one that can be rationally understood: there is no "unconscious" on the inside. To cure the analogy one should imagine an object – say, a sphere – whose surface is fixed but whose body within is omni-dimensional, every point in touch with every point. Speaking in a mythic sense, it can perhaps be described as feminine chaos within a fixed, masculine surface: in its creation that masculine surface being formed in part by the feminine interior, the feminine interior shaped by the masculine, conscious, willed part of writing, the two working together toward a final, unified whole. In its reading the two still inform each other, though only the surface is invisible. Verse, rather, is very much a two-dimensional object. Whatever the process of creation: what exists in the end is only (primarily) rational surface.

Of course, we must keep in mind the reader's part in it: if the reader reads the text only with their rational self, they will only see before them a surface, a two-dimensional object, irrespective of what it actually is.

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By focusing on the rational act of craft the writer pulls the mind away from focusing on fixed meaning and intended argument, obstacles that keep unconscious thought in the unconscious. Thus the second (i.e., first) element to the process of writing, a metaphorical description which Eliot believes gives word to what the creative process is like for "some" poets – no doubt what it was like for himself: that is, "the poem may begin to shape itself in fragments of musical rhythm." Now, I take that "for some poets" as important, as Eliot does not want to say "this is how it is for every true poet," because it may not be – after all, the individual psyche is involved. Some poets, perhaps, may find parallel rather in the process of painting, or in gardening. Indeed, I have often heard Pound's thought to "compose in the sequence of the musical phrase, not in sequence of the metronome" rejected by writers of verse/poetry as something that is if not meaningless then only causing confusion. To be honest, though, I believe I understand exactly what Pound was getting at, and it is an idea not distant from Eliot's point: "compose" poetry from the depth, in phrasing that reveals itself in the composition, rather than mechanically, say, starting from point A and moving to point Z, through surface technique like a "metronome." But, then, I am musically inclined, the metaphor speaks to me.

Eliot writes:

What fundamentally differentiates [Kipling's] "verse" from "poetry" is the subordination of musical interest. Many of [Kipling's] poems give, indeed, judged by the ear, an impression of the mood, some are distinctly onomatopoeic: but there is a harmonics of poetry which is not merely beyond their range – it would interfere with the intention. . . . from this point of view more "poetry" would interfere with his purpose. (141; Eliot 35)

There is no such music in Kipling's verse not simply because Kipling was unable to so write it (we might assume), but because such music would "interfere" with the intention and execution and, even, crafting of the verse. Kipling is not writing poetry, and as such "'Poetry' would interfere with his purpose." Stead says just earlier:

[. . .] Kipling is like Dryden; "for both, wisdom has the primacy over inspiration." Clearly Eliot implies that in his own case the proposition is in reverse; and that in all that is essentially poetic, "inspiration" has the primacy over "wisdom" (individual, conscious thought). (140; Eliot 26)

I like that opposition of terms – "wisdom" versus "inspiration" – though Eliot may, a little bit, be using the word wisdom a touch idiosyncratically. But the point of opposition is important. "Individual, conscious thought" gets in the way of poetic inspiration, not only in terms of the text's music. As Eliot writes, still in the Kipling essay:

If a poem is neither didactic nor narrative, and not animated by any other social purpose, the poet may be concerned solely with expressing in verse – using all his resources of words, with their history, their connotations, their music – this obscure impulse. He does not know what he has to say until he has said it. (143; Eliot 17-18)

The emphasis on that last sentence is Stead's. And it is a curious thought, though one entirely in line with what has progressed thus far: if you are not consciously writing a poem, then you are not consciously writing, at least not wholly: what emerges – what emerges from the unconscious – emerges on its own, brought out through the process of poetic composition. In a review of Pound's poetry in Athenaeum (24 Oct. 1919), Eliot describes his response to two works that for him did not work as true poetry: "they make you conscious of having been written by somebody; they have not written themselves" (Stead 132). And we find ourselves back at Stead's most simple stating of the issue: "a poem is to be tested not by what it says but by what it is." A thing that simply is does not convey the voice of someone behind it; does not read as though passing on argument or information; it simply (or complexly) is, and, like (true) music, is experienced for what it is: as stated in the first quotation: "Here is the territory – plunge in, experience it, and report back." Stead goes into it more fully in a passage worth presenting:

A consequence of this view of poetry [. . .] is that the "meaning" of a poem is frequently of secondary importance. It may be there simply "to satisfy one habit of the reader, to keep his mind diverted and quiet, while the poem does its work upon him." Meaning is of the poet's conscious will, and it calls to the will of the reader. It is not desirable that the poet should be too precisely concerned with "meaning," for to prepare it in advance may be to prepare a vessel which will not contain the unknown "efflux" that arrives to fill it. The "meaning" of a poem of the kind which interests Eliot can never be predicted before it is written: the structure that awaits the efflux must be flexible. If "unconscious" is to "call to unconscious" (as it does not in the particularities of Jonson's [or Kipling's] verse) the poet is better preoccupied with technical matters than with an exact understanding of what he is about to say. These "technical exactions" are "enough to keep the poet's conscious mind fully occupied, as the painter's by the manipulation of his tools." (138; Eliot, The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism 151, 154)

The poetry is what lies within: the aim of the true poet is to bring it to the surface, not to consciously, rationally, create it.

What is it, then, that emerges? What is it that the poet brings to the surface? The answer: Eliot's "dark embryo." Quoting Eliot:

It is the poet's business to be original, in all that is comprehended by "technique," only so far as is absolutely necessary for saying what he has to say; only so far as is dictated, not by the idea – for there is no idea – but by the nature of that dark embryo within him which gradually takes on the form and speech of a poem. (135-6; from a "Critical Note" in The Collected Poems of Harold Munro)

There are two ideas there. I take them in reverse order. As Stead describes, the idea here is that poetry is like "a birth in which the role of the conscious mind is that of mid-wife" (136) – the mid-wife of the birth of the dark embryo. Stead continues:

All good poetry, we may conclude from [the Norton lectures that became The Use of Poetry], contains much that is strange even to its author. It's imagery draws on memories which "may have symbolic value, but of what we cannot tell, for they come to represent the depths of feeling into which we cannot peer." The poet himself is unsure of their sources and their meanings. (136; Eliot 148)

There is much in a true poem that cannot be predicted, crafted, or even explained by the writer. There is a difference, though, between poetic creation and such as automatic writing. The latter is a more immediate response. Says Eliot:

[poetry] gives the impression [. . .] of having undergone a long incubation, though we do not know until the shell breaks what kind of egg we have been sitting on. (137; The Use of Poetry 144)

Wherefrom comes this egg, this dark embryo? From the self – perhaps, after Jung, I should say from the Self –; from, in Stead's words, "what the poet has made of himself, and what his society has made of him" (137). And Eliot: "At the moment when one writes, one is what one is" (137; After Strange Gods 26). And again, Stead: "Hence the importance of Eliot's other concern: the saturation of the poet's sensibility in the vats of tradition and orthodoxy ensures a healthy 'embryo' and a healthy poem – something which no effort of the will can achieve" (138).

Now I think I will not here touch the idea of orthodoxy outside of making the connection between a loose idea of "orthodoxy" and that of a healthy mind, healthy embryo, and thus a "healthy" poem. But if we take it one step out and add to it tradition, we understand Eliot's thought: if making poetry is the act of mid-wifing births from out of the unconscious, then to make "healthy" poetry, vibrant poetry, poetry full of life, necessitates a mind that is itself vibrant and full of life; and, in that it is poetry, after all, a mind steeped in the traditions of poetry and literature and the arts. Which finally brings us to the first part of the quotation above:

It is the poet's business to be original, in all that is comprehended by "technique," only so far as is absolutely necessary for saying what he has to say [. . .].

The tradition of true poetry is a tradition of successfully created true poetry: and in that poetry we can learn how true poetry is done – or, at least, we can fill our mind with it, give our unconscious something to work with, and then figure out, through technique (also found in the tradition) how to bring it about. And we need not venture into new technique except where the emerging poem demands it. We learn to write poetry through what poetry was written before. And we can develop our unconscious, the true source of poetry, through what poetry was written before.

In sum and in short, verse comes from the conscious mind; poetry from the deep unconscious of the poet. But lest we cast verse aside, Kipling is for Eliot not a mere writer of verse but a great writer of verse. And such skill has its role in the writing of true poetry, as he says in the Kipling essay:

the poet who could not write "verse" when verse was needed, would be without that sense of structure which is required to make a poem of any length readable. (141; Eliot 36)

 

Now, taking a hard left (but never leaving the road) –

Recently, I have entered into discussions, via a couple of groups on Facebook, about mythology, the idea of personal mythology, how myth works in the psyche and such, and how mythology relates to poetry and the arts. It has gotten me back to reading Joseph Campbell, and Mircea Eliade, and Jung, and others, books and thought lines I was pretty heavily involved with back, for example, when I was writing the Oracles. Joseph Campbell considers poets the mythmakers of today, and for all I've read thus far his idea of a "poet" or of "poetry" is not that different from Eliot's.

(To note, Campbell's 1988 television series The Power of Myth is presently on Netflix, and is very worth the watching.)

It was these discussions that prompted me into finally working out the above essay, as the discussions – especially moments in discussing spirituality and myth, and spirituality and art – promptly reminded me of the quotation with which I started the above: the idea that for some people poetry and art is their religion, their engagement with the spiritual; and then the idea that, when thought of in the sense of true poetry – or true art or true music –, there is, in its modality, something genuinely of the spiritual to be found. Perhaps, because of its use of language, this most greatly in poetry.

Indeed, though I said in the close of the above, in relation to tradition,

We learn to write poetry through that what poetry was written before. And we develop our unconscious, the true source of poetry, through what poetry was written before.

in somewhat broader context I might say the same thing with slightly different language, taking into account that things that are poetic need not be poetry per se (as with the plastic arts and music). They need to be, rather, of the nature of poetry, which is to say, in Barfield's terminology, of the poetic; in mine, of the aesthetic mode, in others', like Cassirer or Eliade, or like Campbell, of the mythic. I believe there is an intimate connection between the ideas of the mythic and the poetic. (In fact, I think it is obvious.) Perhaps, in the nature of the unconscious, they are speaking of the same thing but from different viewpoints.

Robert Duncan said, somewhere, I believe, it is years ago that I read it and I have not come across it again, that people who aspire to poetry should be well versed – well "saturated" – in mythologies from around the world. I agree with that. It is food for the dark embryos growing within us, whether we are capable of writing poetry or not.

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