Friday, May 29, 2009

Recommended Reading: Poetry as Persuasion

Carl Dennis (pictured at right) is a professor of English at The State University of New York at Buffalo, and he sometimes teaches students in the creative writing MFA program at Warren Wilson College. In 2001, his book Poetry as Persuasion was published by The University of Georgia Press.

I have a lengthy excerpt (pages 118 to 130) from that book here. The excerpt features extensive commentary on Horace's (Horace: 65 - 8 BC) poem about Cleopatra's defeat by the Romans. Horace's poem, one of many odes he wrote, is the 37th in his first book. The excerpt also includes comments on Robert Lowell's poem "For the Union Dead".

Dennis is interested here in talking about poems that begin one way and then turn and take another direction altogether. In this section of the book, Dennis talks about four such poems. I've included here only the first two of those.

[begin excerpt]
Horace's ode on Octavian's victory over Cleopatra fits what I call a poem of shifting direction because it seems to begin as a joyous public celebration of the triumph of the imperial order and ends in private brooding over the heroic death of Cleopatra:

Now we must drink, comrades,
Now with free steps we must strike the earth,
Now adorn the couch of the gods
With Salian banquets.

It would have been wrong before now
To bring out the Caecuban wine from the ancient storerooms
As long as the crazed queen was plotting the downfall
Of our temple of Jupiter and the end of order,

She with her polluted crowd of men disfigured
By vices, unrestrained in her hopes
And drunk with good fortune.
Bur her fury slackened

When scarcely one of her ships escaped the flames.
And her mind, unsettled by the wine of Egypt,
Was forced to turn to its true terrors
When Caesar, as she fled from Italy,

Pursued her with his galleys. Just as a hawk
Chases a gentle dove, or a swift hunter
Stalks a hare on the plains of snowy Thessaly,
So Caesar followed, eager to put in chain

The deadly monster. But she, seeking a nobler way
To die, neither was frightened, as women are,
By the sword nor made her escape
In a swift ship to hidden shores.

With a face serene she dared to see her palace
Lying in ruins. And, with a stout heart,
She fondled deadly snakes, eager to take
Black venom into her body.

Having resolved on death, she grew more fierce,
Hating, surely, the thought of being borne off,
Deprived of her royal place, on enemy galleys,
For a proud triumph. A woman not to be humbled.


Depiction of Octavius's triumph over Cleopatra at the Battle of Actium. (Getty Images)

The first four stanzas give expression to the poet's joyful relief that he believes all true Romans must share at the death of a dangerous enemy. The joy is especially intense because the enemy is presented as the demonic opposite of all that Rome stands for. Egyptian vice and fury have been vanquished by Roman probity and order. The poet underscores his identification with Roman decorum by insisting on the propriety of the celebration he calls for. What would have been out of place before the victory is now required by the occasion. The singing and dancing are not merely a natural release but a proper expression of gratitude to the gods that have protected Rome, and they are formally opposed to Cleopatra's drunken faith in fickle Fortuna. But in the last half of the poem, as the poet goes on to tell the story of Octavian's victory, the official dichotomies give way to a more personal response to Cleopatra's defeat and death. Though the description of her flight officially labels the queen as a "deadly monster" (fatale monstrum), it unofficially presents her as a pathetic victim, a gentle dove pursued by a hawk, a hare pursued by a hunter. These metaphors from the poet's sympathetic imagination have the effect of making the imperial terms sound crudely inappropriate. And sympathy triumphs in the conclusion as the poet openly admires Cleopatra for her resolute courage in facing death, her overcoming of fears natural to her situation and sex. The poet who began by rejoicing in the triumph of Rome over Egypt as the triumph of virtue over vice now praises Cleopatra for spoiling the final triumph of Octavian. The wild Egyptian escapes Roman humiliation by exercising the kind of proud determination typical of the Roman hero.

It would be a mistake, I think, to interpret the shift of subject and attitude enacted in the poem in subversive terms as an indirect attack on Roman ideals, in which the poet ironically pretends to civic feelings in order to reveal their falseness. One of the striking things about the poem is that whatever qualification it offers of traditional patriotism is made within the terms of Roman culture, not outside them. Praising an enemy of Rome for acting in ways a Roman audience can admire does not so much undermine Roman values as attempt to expand them, to redefine in larger ways what being Roman means. The best justification for the freedom from disorder won by the Roman imperium, the poem implies, will be its providing a safe haven for the exercise of a citizen's individual sympathies, even when this exercise means doing justice to those whom the state cannot afford to tolerate. In enacting this kind of liberal sympathy, Horace is doing here something analogous to what Virgil does in the Aeneid when he allows his narrator to feel far more sympathy with the victims of Rome's founders than his hero can allow himself, sympathizing with Dido as Aeneas hardens himself against her, admiring the pastoral and heroic qualities of Latinus's kingdom that will not survive the triumph of Roman order. Like Virgil's narrator, Horace's speaker, not Octavian or Cleopatra, embodies the highest values of the poem.

Horace's expression of a more liberal model for Roman sympathies involves a wish to liberalize aesthetic attitudes as well, for it joins together two different kinds of poetry, public celebration and private musing, that were traditionally confined to two separate genres. The first part of the poem recalls Pindar's celebration of aristocratic contest and ceremonial reworkings of myth, and in its confident appeal to the poet's comrades (sodales) suggests that the poet sees himself as a master of ceremonies at a public ritual. But how many of his comrades does he presume are still listening when he turns to admire Cleopatra's shaping of her own death? Somewhere between the beginning and the end, the audience may have drifted away. The poet may consider himself to be left with the single listener who is typically addressed in the Odes, the friend with whom the poet shares his observations on what promotes and undermines human happiness. What lies behind Horace's avoidance of the public, laudatory poem seems in part an Epicurean skepticism about the relation between public success and inner peace. The public realm for Horace, for whom the life of the Greek polis or the old Roman Republic is no longer available, is not the sphere in which character is likely to be fully defined or expressed. Its standards of virtue and happiness tend to be superficial. The poet's own attraction to the city of Rome, freely admitted in the Satires, is seen for the most part as an attraction for surfaces, not substance, while his Sabine farm comes to represent not merely a retreat from the pressures of town life but the home of the inner man, of that part of the self that lies deeper than the role assigned him as a citizen. In the ode on Cleopatra, Horace manages to enlarge the notion of citizen in a way that makes the development of private sensibility a crucial ingredient.

Though in harmony with the Odes in general in its questioning of official attitudes, the ode on Cleopatra is atypical in its structure, in its risking disunity by juxtaposing public and private attitudes toward the same subject. Today we may have an easier time appreciating the poem than did Horace's contemporaries, accustomed as we are to much looser notions of poetic unity; and we might be tempted to regard it as an ancestor of the kind of poem in which the poet adopts a number of perspectives with which he may only provisionally identify. But Horace's two views of Cleopatra do not lead to Stevens's five views of November off Tehuantepec. His ode does not attempt to hold its different attitudes in a playful, timeless suspension but to move from one to the other, and in doing so it presumes a more stable notion of the speaking self and its commitments. Yet in its divided structure it reminds us that a single-voiced speaker, ancient or modern, need not be rigid and monolithic. Rather than defend entrenched positions, he may instead choose to explore shifting concerns. In this respect the ode can be seen as an ancestor of a mode of contemporary poetry more common than Stevens's relativistic juxtapositions. The three well-known poems I've chosen as representative of the midcourse correction - Lowell's "For the Union Dead", Bishop's "At the Fishhouses", and C.K. Williams's "From My Window" - are alike in enacting changes that may not be immediately apparent but which in fact involve shifts of perspective not only of subject or mood but of the kind of poem we are reading, of genre.

The speaker's change of direction is perhaps least obvious in "For the Union Dead", which may leave the reader with the impression of the single-minded outrage at the cultural decay of midcentury America. But much of the poem's power comes from its discovering its real purpose only after trial and error. The first five stanzas have little to do with the subject announced in the title. They are more personal than public, and deal with the poet's feelings of separation from nature, not with the relation of American society to its political past:

The old South Boston Aquarium stands
in a Sahara of snow now. Its broken windows are boarded.
The bronze weathervane cod has lost half its scales.
The airy tanks are dry.

Once my nose crawled like a snail on the glass;
ny hand tingled
to burst the bubbles
drifting from the noses of the cowed, compliant fish.

My hand draws back. I often sigh still
for the dark downward and vegetating kingdom
of the fish and reptile. One morning last March,
I pressed against the new barbed and galvanized

fence on the Boston Common. Behind their cage,
yellow dinosaur steamshovels were grunting
as they cropped up tons of mush and grass
to gouge their underworld garage.

Parking spaces luxuriate like civic
sandpiles in the heart of Boston.
A girdle of orange, Puritan - pumpkin colored girders
braces the tingling Statehouse[.]

The abandoned aquarium in South Boston that stirs the poet's recollections isn't presented as a symbol of the city's decline - for all we know the city had good reasons to abondaon it and has built a better one elsewhere - but more as a reservoir of personal associations with the poet's boyhood. Why the boy is fascinated by the "cowed, compliant fish" is left unclear, but we presume he sees aspects of their passive condition within himself. His wish to break their bubbles can be read as a protest against the kinds of civilized restraints he finds himself having to bear. Yet the snail-like crawling of his nose on the glass suggests that the likelihood of his own revolt is small. And the child proves the father of the man. The speaker is even less able as an adult to connect with nature in a positive way. His elegiac "sigh" for the "dark, downward, and vegetating kingdom/of the fish and reptile" is more of a regressive fantasy of self-extinction than a hope for real connection, a fantasy that is mocked by the poet even as he utters it. But besides sighing, no options are considered available. Even the cowed, compliant fish are gone from Boston, leaving in their place grotesque mechanical parodies of nature like the "yellow dinosaur steamshovels" digging a garage under the Common. The poet's alienation seems total, an aesthetic alienation more than a moral one, and taken with his emotional passivity and his self-critical irony, it helps define the speaker as a descendant of Eliot's Prufrock, a little less self-conscious and self-justifying but equally unable to confront the world he lives in.

Unless we can sense the limitations of the passive, ironic voice of the speaker in these opening five stanzas, we are likely to miss the striking transformation that takes place in the next five stanzas, where the poet discovers his true subject, not the estrangement of the city from nature but its estrangement from the best ideals of its own culture, those commemorated by the statue of Colonel Shaw leading his colored troops into battle:

[A girdle of orange, Puritan-pumpkin colored girders
braces the tingling Statehouse,]

shaking over the excavations, as it faces Colonel Shaw
and his bell-cheeked Negro infantry
on St. Gaudens' shaking Civil War relief,
propped by a plank splint against the garage's earthquake.

Two months after marching through Boston,
half the regiment was dead;
at the dedication,
William James could almost hear the bronze Negroes breathe.

Their monument sticks like a fishbone
in the city's throat.
Its Colonel is as lean
as a compass-needle.

He has an angry wrenlike vigilance,
a greyhound's gentle tautness;
he seems to wince at pleasure,
and suffocate for privacy.

He is out of bounds now. He rejoices in man's lovely,
peculiar power to choose life and die -
when he leads his black soldiers to death,
he cannot bend his back.

The sleight of hand here that shifts the focus of the poem from nature to culture is done so casually that we may miss the shift in tone that accompanies it. The theme seems to find the poet, rather than the poet finding his theme. The decay of the aquarium has led him by contrast to think of the building he saw last March on the Boston Common, and the description of the statehouse leads by mere physical contiguity to the statue, which the poet then seems to seize on as a way to move from one mode of discourse to another, from ironic complaint to direct attack. This movement seems much less inevitable than the movement made by Horace's poet from triumph to pity, but the change is just as radical. If the poet has participated in the estrangement of the city from nature, he refuses to participate in its estrangement from its own past. He knows what the statue was intended to commemorate and feels keenly how the idealism that led Shaw to his death has been abandoned by a city indifferent to any but commercial values. The deeper emotional engagement of the speaker's imagination, and the power that accompanies it, is signaled in part by his newfound ability to make use of images from nature to help define cultural values. The realm of nature, toward which he can muster only self-mocking sighing in the first five stanzas, now becomes available to him as a resource for figures to difine Shaw's moral superiority. The "fishbone" monument that the city can't swallow, the soldier's "wrenlike vigilance" and greyhound's "tautness" help define Shaw not as the product of a culture but as a model for the culture, outside its bounds in asserting the particularly human "power to chose life and die."

The shift of subject and attitude from that of the first five stanzas to that of the second constitutes a shift of genre, a turn from a private poem that is elegiac in tone to a public poem that is essentially satiric. And if Lowell's self-mocking lament has no single model behind it, the satire seems to be directly inspired by Juvenal. Just as Juvenal regards the corruption of imperial Rome as a betrayal of the best ideals of the Republic, so the speaker of Lowell's poem regards contemporary Boston as a betrayal of the heroic possibilities Shaw embodies. But Lowell's speaker is more aware than Juvenal's of the dangers of idealizing historical epochs. He does not want his penchant for trying to escape the present, displayed in personal terms in the opening of the poem, to take political form. He knows that rather than withdrawing into a past that is safely remote he needs to use the past to illuminate the problems of the moment. This is the issue he explores in the next five stanzas:

On a thousand small New England greens,
the old white churches hold their air
of sparse, sincere rebellion; frayed flags
quilt the graveyards of the Grand Army of the Republic.

The stone statues of the abstract Union Soldier
grow slimmer and younger each year -
wasp-waisted, they doze over muskets
and muse through their sideburns . . .

Shaw's father wanted no monument
except the ditch,
where his son's body was thrown
and lost with his "nigger."

The ditch is nearer.
There are no statues for the last war here;
on Boylston Street, a commercial photograph
shows Hiroshima boiling

over a Mosler Safe, the "Rock of Ages"
that survived the blast. Space is nearer.
When I crouch to my television set,
the drained faces of Negro school-children rise like balloons.

The poet is not alone in appreciating the values that the statue embodies. At least in the small New England villages citizens make a genuine effort to keep the past alive, but their collective memory seems to grow increasingly removed from the bloody issues of the Civil War, so that the memorials grow irrelevant to the life of the moment. The danger of divorcing heroism from the ugliness of its context is presumably what prompts Shaw's father to think of the pit where Shaw and his men are buried as the best monument, a monument that would prevent the horrors of war from being forgotten. The kind of failure of historical memory that the wish anticipates is in fact borne out in contemporary Boston, where the men who died in even more brutal and more recent wars receive no monument and America's most indiscriminate wartime killing, the bombing of Hiroshima, is present only as an image in an advertisement for Mosler safes. In such a society all that the poet can do is record the triumph of everything that Shaw and his memorial try to resist. Crouched in front of the images of Negro children, he is a witness to the fact that the Civil War has yet to be won, that the slaves Shaw fought to free are still not citizens.

In his lack of power here, the poet may remind us of the speaker in the first part of the poem, and the image of the balloonlike faces of the children seems to recall the bubbles of the caged fish that fascinated the speaker when he was a boy. But the differences are more important than the likenesses. The fish in the glass case represent a pathetic attempt of the culture to maintain a connection with nature, but the faces on the television screen represent the culture's refusal to regard its own children as its members. The speaker in the first part of the poem daydreams of leaving behind a culture he can't connect to. The speaker of the last part builds in his satire a cultural monument that places idealism about a better order in the midst of the "pit" that denies it. At the end of the poem, the poet is as isolated as he was at the beginning, but now the isolation is not that of someone too delicate for the modern, industrial world but rather the kind that Juvenal enacts in his satires, that of a moral man who harbors no illusions about his power to arrest society's decline. The only companion for Lowell's poet at the end is the statue of Shaw itself, which seems to be endowed in the penultimate stanza with the power to feel its own irrelevance:

Colonel Shaw
is riding on his bubble,
he waits
for the blessed break.

Tired of riding the bubble of hope that his sacrifice might one day be embodied in social change, Shaw is ready to be released from the barren present. All that the speaker can do is remind himself what the statue should mean, to get beyond the idealizing of the past to a deeper awareness of beleaguered values, and to scorn a world that can't respond to them. In this project the poem is successful. It may be no more effective in correcting contemporary America than Juvenal's satire is in correcting Rome, but it does finally express the poet's power to name and condemn the tawdriness around him:

The Aquarium is gone. Everywhere,
giant finned cars nose forward like fish;
a savage servility
slides by on grease.

Against the savage servility of the culture, the poet, who begins his poem in nostalgic drift, affirms the force of savage indignation. And the power of his summation is underscored by the final use he makes of images from nature. The fish that he has associated in the opening with his own psychological passivity are now used as figures for the moral servility of the culture as a whole. Even as the poet describes the triumph of the less than human, his language enacts his authority to uphold countervailing human values.

"For the Union Dead" reverses the plot of Horace's ode by moving from the private realm to the public rather than from the public to the private. In both cases, however, the shift involves a critique of the social order, Horace's implied by his expansion of sympathy from Roman winners to foreign losers, Lowell's made directly as he attacks a society that has forgotten its ideals. ...
[end excerpt]

Poetry can help us understand ourselves in ways that history, for example, cannot.






Remember: only you can improve the audience for poetry
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