Thursday, September 29, 2011

The price and joy of the writer's vocation

I...would say with W.H. Auden, "writers are not passive recipients of good fortune, art is a vocation for which a price must be paid.  In being a writer one leaves the family hearth...Each must go his way alone, every step of it, learning for himself by painful trial and shaming error, never resting long, soon proceeding to risk total defeat in some new task." (Garbled by me, but what I feel - plus the fun and exhilaration of one's sundry experiments.) - Marianne Moore (from a letter to Wallace Stevens)

Monday, September 19, 2011

Emily Dickinson's faith to fling election loose across the incandescent shadows of futurity

Jonathan Edwards’ apocalyptic sermons voice human terror of obliteration in our lonely and inexplicable cosmos.  He exhorts us to turn from the world, to live ascetically, while actively striving to obtain the emotional peace that is grace.  Calvinist doctrine, as interpreted by this Neoplatonist inheritor of a lost cause in America, found no path to eternal life through material success.  It forbade retreat and monastic isolation, at the same time emphasizing “Justification by faith alone” – another contradiction.  Each person’s active participation was called for in the battle against sin.  To be in the world but avoid serving Mamon, I must renounce attachment to friends and worldly accomplishment.  Recognition by the world is not recognition by God, and is therefore a delusion.  Worry and regret over lack of recognition are empty and a snare.
To T.W. Higginson June 7, 1862
     I smile when you suggest that I delay “to publish” – that being foreign to my thought, as Firmament to Fin –
     If fame belonged to me, I could not escape her – if she did not, the longest day would pass me on the chase – and the approbation of my Dog, would forsake me – then – My Barefoot-Rank is better – 
Emily Dickinson’s religion was Poetry.  As she went on through veils of connection to the secret alchemy of Deity, she was less and less interested in temporal blessing.  The decision not to publish her poems in her lifetime, to close up an extraordinary amount of work, is astonishing.  Far from being the misguided modesty of an oppressed female ego, it is a consummate Calvinist gesture of self-assertion by a poet with faith to fling election loose across the incandescent shadows of futurity.

Perry Miller said that Jonathan Edwards’ understanding of behavioral psychology, as evidenced by his careful documentation of the process of Conversion, anticipates American empiricism and William James.  I say that Emily Dickinson took both his legend and his learning, tore them free from his own humorlessness and the dead weight of doctrinaire Calvinism, then applied the freshness of his perception to the dead weight of American poetry as she knew it. – Susan Howe

Friday, September 16, 2011

Our predecessors more ourselves than we are?

The reason to read Blake and Dickinson and Freud and Dickens is not to become more cultivated, or more articulate, or to be someone who, at a cocktail party, is never embarrassed (or who can embarrass others). The best reason to read them is to see if they may know you better than you know yourself. You may find your own suppressed and rejected thoughts flowing back to you with an “alienated majesty.” Reading the great writers, you may have the experience that Longinus associated with the sublime: You feel that you have actually created the text yourself. For somehow your predecessors are more yourself than you are. 
- Mark Edmundson

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Hart Crane's "Logic of Metaphor"

As a poet, I may very possibly be more interested in the so-called illogical impingements of the connotations of words on the consciousness (and their combinations and interplay in metaphor on this basis) than I am interested in the preservation of their logically rigid significations...[A metaphor's] apparent illogic operates so logically in conjunction with its context in the poem as to establish its claim to another logic.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Emily Dickinson merging the minor and the vast

When Dickinson loses her housekeeper, who quit to get married, she writes that she really misses the maid—a common enough statement—but then writes, “To all except anguish, the mind soon adjusts.” This merging of the minor and the vast is a key trait of Dickinson in the poems and in the letters. The leaps of imagination are stunning. One needs privacy and silence, and flourishing genius, to live in such a realm. Otherwise, one stops at, “Gee, I miss Maggie the maid so much.” - Emily Fragos

Friday, September 2, 2011

In Praise of Absurdist Literature


     To use Vico's terminology, the metaphor is delightful because "it is more known by the hearer than presented by the speaker."
     Absurdist literature, which also contains high levels of cognitive dissonance, produces the same effect.  Psychologists asked a panel of undergraduates to read a modified version of Franz Kafka's short story "The Country Doctor," a mightmarish tale of a physician who makes a bizarre house call on a sick boy and his family.  One group read a version in which the narrative gradually broke down, ended abruptly with a series of non sequiturs, and was accompanied by bizarre and totally unrelated illustrations.  Another group read a parallel tale that made conventional sense, contained no non sequiturs, and was accompanied by illustrations related to the story.
     Researchers then gave both groups sixty different letter strings, each of which was made up of six to nine letters, and told them that half the strings contained a pattern.  Their task: identify the pattern and all the letter strings containing it.  Those who had read the more absurd version of "The Country Doctor" were almost twice as accurate in their answers as those who had read the conventional story.
     The researchers concluded that the incongruities in illogical stories, like the incongruities in jokes, spur the brain to look for patters it might not otherwise detect. - James Geary