James Longenbach’s ear for the nuances of diction, tone, stress, and the material aspects of poetry is so good, and his grasp of context and biography so assured, one wonders why the essays so often tie themselves into semantic and logical knots.
The Virtues of Poetry by James Longenbach. Graywolf, 184 pages, $14 trade paper.
By Susan de Sola Rodstein
The title of James Longenbach’s new collection of essays, The Virtues of Poetry, gives pause. “Virtue” is a daringly old-fashioned word, aligned with moral judgment, goodness, and right behavior. It seems to promise none of the challenge, transgression, sensualism, or irony associated with current poetic values—more like a list of Seven Deadly Sins than Seven Heavenly Virtues. Expectations of a classical taxonomy are quickly dispelled. The essay titles (“The Various Light,” “Best Thought,” “The Visible Core,” for example) give us no clue that each will be largely devoted to the analysis of several canonical poets. The approach is empirical. Longenbach does not begin with a “virtue” and seek its manifestations. He begins with a poem, about which he has clearly thought well and long, and elicits for us what is striking. His close readings are excellent, able to unpack a poem’s power at the level of the smallest units of stress and diction, while addressing larger issues of context and influence.
What Longenbach means by “virtue” is not moral valence but an earlier sense of “magical or transcendent power.” One wonders why he burdens this collection, written over a number of years, with such a potentially difficult title. This is a slim volume, but often rough reading. The first sentences challenge immediate intelligibility: “The best poems ever written constitute our future. They refine our notions of excellence by continuing to elude them.” Translated, this opening gambit lays out his larger vision: that we should not learn only from like-minded contemporaries but from “inimitable predecessors,” from a canon that moves “from achievement to achievement,” against which the skirmishes of the past 50 years will pass as only the “blink of an eye”:
“No great poem ever stood in the way of the future, foreclosing imaginative possibilities by asking us to endorse a narrow vision of our past or a sectarian arrangement of our contemporaries.”
The use of the unfashionable term “virtue” may be understood as tactical. The main matter of this book is canonical poems by, among others, Yeats, Donne, Pound, Lowell, Bishop, Ashbery, Dickinson, Shakespeare, Tennyson, Stevens, and Whitman. The list of virtues to which “the next poem may aspire” is the following: “boldness, change, compression, dilation, doubt, excess, inevitability, intimacy, otherness, particularity, restraint, shyness, and worldliness.” It is an odd list, mixing abstract qualities and technical features. These are the magical “virtues,” examples by which a poet writing now may learn and yet attain “excellence.” This is a lofty and not unwelcome aim. Keats learned more from Milton than from “hanging out with Leigh Hunt,” and seen in these terms, Longenbach’s call for contemporary poets to focus less on the issues of recent decades and more on the long history of the art is salutary.
However, once he begins his close study of these exemplars and their virtues, their “inimitability” becomes highlighted—which complicates the expressed wish to redeem canonical poets as models for contemporary poets—as does the fact that the best poetry is finally an “irrational mystery.” Thankfully so. Longenbach is wearing several hats in this volume. He is, as his various and distinguished output attests, a scholar, a critic, a teacher, and a poet himself. His equal mastery of these sometimes contradictory modes of thought enlivens what is best in these essays, a simultaneous grasp of context and craft.
These assured re-tellings of the relationship of Dickinson to her family, or of nuances in that between Lowell and Bishop, or of the marriage of Yeats and George Hyde-Lees, bring new insights to possibly familiar material, insights he can deploy at the level of a single choice of word or punctuation mark.
While Longenbach’s range is wide, and he also makes inventive use of prose examples (Robinson Crusoe, Mrs. Dalloway, The Great Gatsby—the choices evidence of long experience in the classroom), the presiding figure informing this book is Ezra Pound. In his advocacy of compression, Pound “has in many ways determined the direction of poetry . . . for the past hundred years, and . . . done so most crucially by precluding expansion or dilation.” The red thread running through the volume may be seen as the relation between restraint and excess. Longenbach’s almost bewilderingly myriad virtues are presented as discrete entities, but they emerge as the embodiment of a continuum.
Longenbach begins by limning aspects of restraint and excess in a number of works, and it is in fact this polarity that produces each of the virtues. Dickinson’s isolation is an aspect of boldness, Lowell’s intimacy is indivisible from restraint, Whitman’s infinitude a manifestation of particularity, Stevens’ unworldliness a form of engagement, and so on. Each virtue is apparently inextricable from its opposite. If Pound lays down the terms by which modern poetic practice may be understood, also in its forms of resistance (as in the counterweight of the expansive and dilatory Cantos), it is Yeats who provides the template of dialectical thought or process that drives these essays.
Longenbach’s criticism is capacious and generous. Examples of seemingly intentional “bad writing” in Shakespeare and Bishop are explicated in relation to the ultimate impact they make possible. No effects are good or bad in themselves. Longenbach’s readings elaborate a full range of possibilities. He takes seriously and without irony Whitman’s claim for poetry as the path between “reality and the soul,” and does so with a craftsman’s attention to the work “of diction and syntax” as constituting that path. He makes a convincing case for Dickinson as the very antithesis of a “shy recluse.” She is in fact so bold (an opposite, again) that her relative isolation was nearly mandated by her intensity (“not many people want to have tea with the Delphic oracle”). The Dickinson essay is perhaps, rightly, the most anomalous in the collection. Longenbach urges poets to learn from the excellences of past centuries rather than merely the fashions of the past few decades, yet he makes the case so well for Dickinson’s singularity little may be generalized from this essay.
A further puzzle is his assessment of Dickinson’s variants, whereby alternative sets of words for poems were often left in play. He sees these variants as proof of poetry’s inability to “lock up” her insights,” as “encroaching on infinitude,” or encompassing “an existential dilemma.” Proof, yes, that we perhaps do not yet know how to read her, but the assertions sit oddly alongside Longenbach’s close methods of reading for every other poet in the book, through which he demonstrates, often ingeniously, that the slightest change of stress or tense or word would alter a poem completely.
There is a detectable progression in the volume. Longenbach begins with the polarities of restraint and excess, and all of the attendant virtues which may be understood in these terms. A poem unfolds through the reader’s discovery of a pattern, and the lapse of time this takes us will largely determine whether we experience a poem as restrained or excessive. Across the essays, one notices an increasing insistence that poems are finally objects, constructs made only of words. Whatever else they are, they are finally formal mechanisms, bound by the restraints that define them. Longenbach avoids the perils of the abstractions the book seems to court because all of his readings, finally, insist upon this materiality and control. This insistence slightly undercuts the claims of wonder and transformation with which the book begins, as if he does not quite trust the magic he discovers.
This ambivalence about poetry’s magical powers or virtues is clearest when Longenbach discusses topicality or the poetry of political engagement or reference. His main subject is Stevens. He compares a little-known explicitly topical poem to the later masterpieces, alluding to Stevens’s twin claims, in prose, that no one may “live apart in happy oblivion” (1936) and his famous assertion three years later that “war is a military state of affairs . . . not a literary one.” Longenbach asks good questions: whether poems may elide the conditions of their making; whether reference may be a facile claim to relevance or whether a poem that eschews topical reference is in fact “evidence of a relentless consideration.” In this dualistic formulation, poets are caught between the dangers of “seeming aloof” and those of a superficial or sentimental self-congratulatory posture of engagement. Stevens’s exercise of “restraint” and his evocation of an indifferent natural world is an offer of “consolation.” He concludes, “such refusals are a mark of engagement.” Perhaps. But they are also not a mark of engagement.
Poems may be made of words, but they are also possibly less fragile constructions than fictions, with their twin claims to fictiveness and the approximation of some variety of reality. Poetry does not necessarily purport to create an imaginary world. Sometimes, boldness is boldness, intimacy intimacy, doubt doubt, particularity particularity and withdrawal withdrawal. Poems may be unreal material objects, but they also do things, they create effects. Longenbach’s ear for the nuances of diction, tone, stress, and the material aspects of poetry is so good, and his grasp of context and biography so assured, one wonders why the essays so often tie themselves into semantic and logical knots.
The subtlety is there in the poems, needless of the persistent demonstration of a hidden reversal or opposition. The word “paradoxical” appears frequently, often in combination with “simultaneously” (for example, on Stevens, “it is paradoxically through his otherworldliness that his respect for the actual world is rendered most profoundly.”) This type of locution is recognizable as an academic mannerism that prevailed in English departments in the 1980s, an ingenious-seeming juggling trick whereby two seemingly unlike entities can be shown to resemble, perhaps even generate, each other. Parallel to the strategy of hedging in finance, returns are leveled. To borrow the template, one could say that this type of formulation “negates the very terms it tries to explicate.”
There is a safety, even a conservatism, in this reasoning, because it finally excludes nothing (“for Whitman, the up-close concentration on things of this world is at once revelatory and emptying, the simultaneous discovery of infinity and mortality”. . . for Dickinson “to pretend that oceans do not separate us is paradoxically to exacerbate our alienation” . . . for Ashbery, “Just as the representation of chaos in art is inevitably the result of a self-conscious ordering of the medium, just as excess is a product of restraint, so is the rhetoric of shyness dependent upon decisive aesthetic decisions—on great imaginative capacity”). The repetition of this type of equation, sometimes couched in inelegant jargon, becomes wearying at times. It tends to dull and level his insights.
Longenbach’s final image for the trajectory of a poem is “the serpent making a fulcrum of its own body, moving relentlessly yet inexplicably forward.” This is also perhaps an emblem for the book, which in its close attention to the poems opens up vistas, which are then withdrawn by a sometimes too-easy retreat into the equations of paradox. Longenbach asserts that poems do things, that they change us, but he also insists upon their status as a material entity or style over which the maker, the poet, has “complete control,”—not an altogether convincing conclusion. Poems are often surprisingly resistant to their maker’s intentions or revisions.
But the book does move forward, and two of the best essays are the last, perhaps because their insights are not undercut by their own negation. They are grounded in particularity yet applicable to nearly every form of written poetic utterance, rather than making a claim for a particular poet’s character or reputation. In “Poetry Thinking,” largely through Shakespeare and Woolf, he examines how poetry as has “trained our ears to listen for the sound of thinking,” and the subtle ways that we have learned to imagine “fluid enactments of interiority” as interiority itself. He does this in the contexts of forward-moving time, of the lyric’s own brief span and the finally brief span of human life.
This subtle attention to time leads to the last essay, “All Changed,” in which Longenbach conducts a fascinating study of the use of tense in poetry. He delivers some breathtaking insights simply by imagining shifts in tense. Imagine the famous couplet from Yeats’s “Easter, 1916” as
All changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty was born.
Although “the simple present has been the signature tense of the lyric,” Longenbach illuminates just what a catastrophic change that shift would have been and the profound and specific work the present tense does in Yeats’s poem. It “gives us the gift of the past, allowing change to mean for a moment something other than death.” Similarly, he lays out for us the magic of the final two sentences of Mrs. Dalloway:
It is Clarissa, he said.
For there she was.
He shows how the work of tense here unhinges us from “the logic of temporality . . . she exists simultaneously in the past and the present, as if she were both alive and dead.” It is an embedded resurrection but also a haunting shadow over the present, remanding Clarissa “back into the custody of the doomed.”
Acknowledging that “the present is an oddly difficult place to live,” Longenbach concludes,
“. . . this feeling of transformation, of an action taking place in real time, the time it takes to read the poem, is what we crave from poetry. . . . To crave change is to court mortality, the event toward which all change points, but poems afford us the opportunity to experience loss as gain, absence as presence: our experience of language fulfills us even as we’re asked to inhabit the future perfect—the knowledge that one day we will have been.”
The reappearance in these passages of the formula words (“simultaneously in the past and present,” “absence as presence,” etc.) is less jarring here, not only because they are grounded in Longenbach’s close attention to poetry’s “extraordinarily limited means”— its syllables, its tenses — but also because of their sheer conviction. Here he preserves both the materiality and the mystery of poems, and it is hard not to be fully persuaded by his plea that the future of poetry is ours in the best of its past:
“We finish the poem, we finish the book, we put it down, we are changed.
That was wonderful, we say. For here it is.”
Longenbach’s use of the present tense is an explicit reclamation. Such moments are the best of this fascinating, if at times frustrating book. They open exhilarating vistas onto this past and its promise of transformative powers in the present: its virtues.