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Poetry and Freedom: Discoveries in Aesthetics, 19852018

Poetry and Freedom: Discoveries in Aesthetics, 19852018

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Poetry and Freedom: Discoveries in Aesthetics, 19852018

333 pages
4 heures
Mar 31, 2020


This book offers a ground-breaking exploration of the aesthetics of poetic freedom. The range is broad, from antiquity to the present and from Europe and the Middle East into the poetry of the English-speaking world. Silent reading is shown as developing for the first time since the fall of the Roman Empire into a fashionable way of reading, starting with the invention of the sonnet in the High Middle Ages. The social use of the word “we,” as when a society generalizes about itself, first appears in poetry in T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” In Goethe’s “Roman Elegies” anachronism becomes a literary device—also, it seems, for the first time—introducing a novel timelessness essential to modern affirmations of infinity.

Revealing questions about the elusiveness of poetic freedom—what does the term actually mean?—are repeatedly tested against the accomplishments of major poets such as Whitman, Dickinson, Rilke, Dante and Virgil, and their public yet intensely private originality. The result is a fresh, and well-nigh revolutionary, way of seeing literary and modern history, or an initiation into the more striking gift of aesthetic freedom.

Mar 31, 2020

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Poetry and Freedom - Paul Oppenheimer

Poetry and Freedom

Other books by Paul Oppenheimer

Before a Battle and Other Poems

Till Eulenspiegel: His Adventures (translation)

Beyond the Furies: new poems

The Birth of the Modern Mind: Self, Consciousness and the

Invention of the Sonnet

Evil and the Demonic: A New Theory of Monstrous Behavior

Infinite Desire: A Guide to Modern Guilt

Rubens: A Portrait (biography)

Blood Memoir, or The First Three Days of Creation (fiction)

The Flame Charts: new poems

In Times of Danger (poems)

Machiavelli: A Life Beyond Ideology (biography)

Poetry and Freedom

Discoveries in Aesthetics, 1985–2018

Paul Oppenheimer

Anthem Press

An imprint of Wimbledon Publishing Company


This edition first published in UK and USA 2020


75–76 Blackfriars Road, London SE1 8HA, UK

or PO Box 9779, London SW19 7ZG, UK


244 Madison Ave #116, New York, NY 10016, USA

Copyright © Paul Oppenheimer 2020

The author asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work.

All rights reserved. Without limiting the rights under copyright reserved above,

no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored or introduced into

a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means

(electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise),

without the prior written permission of both the copyright

owner and the above publisher of this book.

British Library Cataloguing-in-Publication Data

A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library.

ISBN-13: 978-1-78527-297-4 (Hbk)

ISBN-10: 1-78527-297-7 (Hbk)

This title is also available as an ebook.


Preface: Among the Nightmare Lovers of Hades

1 Eliot as Revolutionary

2 Goethe and Modernism: The Dream of Anachronism in Goethe’s Roman Elegies

3 Ezra Pound: The Solitary Volcano

4 Does Time Exist?

5 The Age of Authenticity: An American Poet in England

6 Whitman and Wilde in Camden

7 Dangerous Thoughts, Puzzling Responses

8 Scaling the Wall

9 Mass Death and Resurrection: Notes on Contemporary, Mostly American, Jewish Fiction

10 Rilke, Einstein, Freud and the Orpheus Mystery

11 Shrouds Aplenty (on poems of Janowitz, et al )

12 Ambushes of Amazement (on poems of Wakoski)

13 Dangerous and Steep (on poems of Jacobsen)

14 Small Touching Skill (on poems of Ponsot)

15 Language Mesh (on Paul Celan)

16 Sweet Extra (on poems of Cuddihy, Ray)

17 Maze of the Original (on translating poetry)

18 Approaching the Medieval Lyric

19 Dark Passage (on poems of Stafford)

20 Mistress of Sorrows (on Ingeborg Bachmann)

21 The Innocence of a Mirror (on poems of Oliver)

22 Peskily Written (on Sade)

23 Is There Sex after Sappho?

24 Saving One’s Skin (on medieval poetry)

25 Brilliant White Shadow (on poems and prose of Saba)

26 Serpent’s Tale (on Minoan archeology)

27 How Honest Was Cellini?

28 The Poetry of No Compromises (on poems of Rehder)

29 Assigning Names (on poems of Nurkse)

30 History and Ethics: Bruni’s History of Florence

31 Virgil’s Aeneid Made New (a translation by Robert Fagles)

32 Painting with Poetry (on the poems of Annie Boutelle)

33 Vampires and Freedom (on the work of Erik Butler)

34 How the West Learned to Read and Write: Silent Reading and the Invention of the Sonnet

List of Publications


Preface: Among the Nightmare Lovers of Hades

Not everything here deals with poetry. It all deals with freedom and aesthetics, though, and indirectly at least, with aesthetic innovations in poetry for the sake of freedom.

The type of freedom varies: aesthetic, imaginative, political, individual (which despite popular beliefs in some quarters is not the same as political), sexual, emotional, historical, psychological, linguistic (with respect to translation), rhetorical, fantastical (as in fantasy worlds) and philosophical. A number of puzzling attitudes toward freedom, such as those of the Language poets, to wit, that if poets free their words of all familiar contexts they will produce more adventurous poems, are omitted except to take note of their absurdity. Along these lines, it should be noted that ours may be the first age in which nonsense verse is often produced by people without any sense of humor. In this topsy-turvy situation, in which solemnity is confused with profundity, poets may find it close to impossible to write another Jabberwocky.

From the moment when I began writing these essays and reviews, in other words, I wanted to take a stab at exploring significant aspects of the problem of modern poetic freedom. I also welcomed the fact that in any of the arts the present evokes the past, if only because works of art, at least at first, assume much of their meaning in relation to other works of art. The prospect of dealing with the past in terms of the present retains a magnetic, rather than an antiquarian, appeal: one reads the medieval German poet Walter von der Vogelweide not because he is old but because he is new, and not because he offers more astute insights into his own culture than his historian contemporaries but because his poetic intelligence differs from theirs in refreshing and insightful ways, and not because he is an anthropologist (which he is not) but for his literary style. This literary achievement, that of style, is often neglected now, along with how thrilling and incisive it can be, how valuable, and these essays seek to draw attention to it.

A plan has thus been in place from the start, and it may to some extent excuse collecting and arranging what might otherwise seem unrelated pieces rescued from journals, newspapers and magazines. On the other hand, the plan was always tentative, an effort at reports from the front lines of the struggle for poetic freedom, rather than an attempt to promote some bland ideology. It has always seemed to me that while any responsible critic ought to subscribe to aesthetic and human values, the chance to exercise critical freedom, to observe, test various hypotheses and demur, vanishes amid tedious ideology-promotion schemes.

Why opt for poetic freedom at all, though, rather than some other basis for this book? An apposite answer to this question lies in stressing the importance of what may be called wriggle-room, by which I mean that any unknown artist, and it is worth remembering that even Shakespeare was once unknown, seeks out opportunities to be heard among the rest, if not long after many of them, a free-feeling and free-seeming place in which to be understood on his or her own terms. On occasion, as with T. S. Eliot, the wriggle-room may amount to more than any idea of mere wriggling suggests—it may be more expansive—because it has been secured through a poetic revolution, though as is suggested below in an essay on Eliot’s centenary, what constitutes a revolution in the arts is often problematic. Often too, as is argued in Scaling the Wall, a piece dealing with freedom of expression in the defunct Soviet Union (but which I hope readers may find of interest on historical-political grounds), genuine aesthetic revolutions are more apt to be crushed by state bureaucracies less eager to grant wriggle-room to poets than an unpleasant roominess to censors and even, on occasion, executioners.

If authentic wriggle-room, or space for maneuver, is paradoxically crucial to pressurizing, or boiling pure, the quality of good poetry, to refining and strengthening it, the atmosphere surrounding its expression is always unique. The witty breeze wafting through Heine’s lyrics differs in its smoothness from the wily storms racing through Byron’s. Rilke’s angelic skies hardly blend with Goethe’s pagan sun. As a result, the critic needs to be at least an amateur meteorologist of diction. He or she should not only bring back frontline reports on how poetry is meeting new challenges by changing but also weather reports on the cultural atmosphere surrounding the words themselves, and between the words and the world. Venturing into this slip-sliding terrain, which has turned into a modern Hades of angst over belief, and even a lover’s angst of mistrust as well as a twilight zone full of the wandering lovers of nightmares, and doing so with fairness, is, I am convinced, the modern critic’s chief challenge. It emerges here, I hope, in useful ways in the 10 essays and longer review articles that lead off this collection, and with equal if punchier cogency in the shorter articles (and even in my translation of Rilke’s Orpheus. Eurydike. Hermes.) that follow, in which a candid critical ambitiousness seeks out fresh perspectives on old questions: even vampirism, as in the penultimate article here, Vampires and Freedom, may have a lot to suggest, and especially these days, about the nature of human and literary freedom of expression.

On the other hand, a drastically different report from the aesthetic front is attempted in the very last essay, on the invention of the sonnet, a broad, research-based inquiry into literary fashions and how people in the West have come to read and write as they do. The issue here is the extraordinary development of silent reading and its effects in modern times.

I remain deeply grateful to the editors who have published these pieces (in fact what follows represents well under half my output over the past 25 years), who looked with tolerance on these efforts to explore pathways through the modern Hades—at Alea; American Arts and Letters; the American Book Review; Arion: A Journal of Humanities and the Classics; From Wordsworth to Stevens (a Festschrift in honor of Robert Rehder); The Jewish Quarterly (UK); The Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence; The Literary Review (United States); P.N. Review (UK); Paideuma: A Journal Devoted to Ezra Pound Scholarship; Renaissance Quarterly; Clio: A Journal of Literature, History, and the Philosophy of History; and Rilke und die Moderne (a volume of papers presented at a Rilke conference in London, issued in Munich). The generosity of these editors is no doubt greater than I deserve, but is more than matched by the support of poet friends and critics, especially Barry Wallenstein, Fred Reynolds, Alexander Stillmark, Wolfgang Karrer, Barbara Fisher and Elizabeth Mazzola. Carolina Hubbell provided incomparable technical assistance. My daughters, Rebecca and Julie, offered essential support, on occasion in the face of gloom. My wife, Assia Nakova, exceeded all bounds of assistance with her brilliant suggestions, dedication and intrepid confidence. For their kindness, and that of others who encouraged these forays into the realms of poetic freedom, I count myself lucky indeed.


New York, July 2019


Eliot as Revolutionary

In poetry as in politics, revolutionaries are really frustrated fighters for old ideals. They are purists, bearing witness to betrayed hopes. As a result, the revolutionary is often thoroughly rational, devoted to logic and memory as well as compassion. His purpose is probably the rebuilding of a lost condition of grace and freedom. The purpose cannot be revenge or defiance, as ideals cannot be encouraged by bitterness or cynicism, but only assaulted by them. If the revolutionary is often confused with the embittered anyway, and even with the maddened nihilist, this is because the two may come to use the same weapons and on occasion resemble each other. Clearly, the twentieth century overflows with these confusions, in politics and the arts, including poetry. The confusion is dramatic between T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, and it may be valuable, even crucial, to revise the commonly held view of Pound as the truer revolutionary of the two. Pound may be less a revolutionary than a possibly crippled, if sometimes brilliant poet, whose bitterness, savagery and self-pity make in the end a bizarre parody of the whole idea of revolution.

It is entirely apropos to take a dispassionate look at these issues during the centennial of Eliot’s birth. In fact it may also be apropos to take a backward glance, comparing a few of the powerful poetic revolutions of the past with Eliot’s own achievement. Eliot may here be seen to rank with Catullus, Dante, Marlowe and Milton, other acknowledged revolutionaries in the art. This list might be slightly expanded—it is not as long as might be imagined—but it will perhaps appear surprising only to those accustomed to seeing their revolutionaries as bomb-throwers rather than creators, as wrenchers of language and the human spirit rather than as clarifiers, as avengers rather than as bountiful providers of new ways of seeing ourselves and the world.

Eliot, if the masses of books recently published about him are any guide, has never been more popular, never commanded greater interest. This too may surprise those prepared to take his presence for granted, much like an old gray ghost kept around the house and cheerfully ignored as harmless. In language, the old and often rational gray ghosts rule us all. Eliot knew about the ghost problem, of course. His poetry brims with speculations on how to handle the ghosts of poets past haunting every word of English, haunting our feelings and thoughts, haunting happily our most lucid moments. Probably, as he also knew, only a trivial poetry, a poetry in which the words lack energy of their own, can be written by those who do not know and praise the great ghosts, who ignore their present voices, for there is surely no liberated present without an articulate past. If Eliot has become one of those great ghosts himself, if he merits praise as one of our most recent revolutionary poets in the English-speaking world, along with Whitman, it may be freeing to consider how he haunts and changes the words we speak, which is to say how his poetry continues to make revolutions in the modern soul.

More than 40 lengthy studies of Eliot’s poetry have appeared since his death in 1965, and close to one hundred since his winning the Nobel Prize in 1948. The thrust of much of the best criticism is that Eliot is a classical poet, a maker of phrases and marvelous lines of music, rather than a mere recorder and rearranger of common, or even uncommon, speech. There is a sense, in the best criticism, that he is a modernist by default, more in rebellion against the madness of his times than in search of a new modernist order. Books such as David Ned Tobin’s The Presence of the Past: T. S. Eliot’s Victorian Inheritance (Ann Arbor, 1983) and Andrew Clearfield’s These Fragments Have I Shored: Collage and Montage in Early Modernist Poetry (Ann Arbor, 1984) speak unerringly of Eliot’s indebtedness to immediately previous poets, among them Arnold, Browning and Tennyson, and his none-too-enthusiastic embrace of the bold surrealist techniques of the most modern painters of his day.

Throughout, as well, the criticism probes the sort of real revolution that Eliot was making in poetry, and that continues, decades later, deeply to influence literature of all types in England and America, if not the world. To write classical verse while the world goes mad is courageous. To find new highways for classical poetry while many rejoice at the burning of Rome, or in this case the abandonment by many of Western classical traditions, is to be a risk-taker and modernist in the highest sense. It is to seek, as have few other poets, revolutionary methods. Catullus made a revolution in Roman verse by introducing the personal, combining it with the witty and allowing into his lines an echo of the drumbeat of epic and tragic poetry. This changed the very sound of Latin. Giacomo da Lentini, in the thirteenth century, revolutionized poetry, or at least the poetry written since Roman times, by inventing the sonnet, the first lyric form since the fall of Rome intended not for performance or singing but for silent reading. In doing so, he created the modern lyric of self-consciousness, or of the self in conflict, and a meditational form suitable to it. He thus changed the very art of reading, bringing into it the vast magnitude of silence. Milton added large numbers of new Latinate words to English, shifting and enriching its vocabulary. This was an accomplishment more revolutionary than his power as a poet to transport his readers’ souls to heaven and hell, more potent perhaps for aesthetics than the idea of salvation itself.

Shakespeare was decidedly not a revolutionary. Neither was Yeats. Neither was Emily Dickinson. Shakespeare writes, Why is my verse so barren of new pride, / So far from variation or quick change, confessing that he lacked any interest in revolutionary ambitions, or new found methods, and that an aesthetic revolution was extraneous to his genius. Yeats, who notes that all skill is joyful, writes in a traditional manner and admits that he has only tried to be modern, or technically innovative, no doubt because he did not need to be modern to release his brilliance. The Victorian period, just prior to Yeats, continues to exert an inferior attraction on the minds of many recent poets, not because it produced an inferior poetry but because its poetry lacks a revolutionary quality, the sort of electricity presently in demand.

Both Blake and Whitman were revolutionaries, but not in the senses in which they are commonly discussed. Blake’s mysticism is not revolutionary, and neither is Whitman’s free verse, which is not so much free as it is a series of carefully controlled cadences. But Blake is the first poet to create a private mythology in lines astonishing enough to arouse a vast public interest. This was a revolutionary act that changed the philosophical opportunities in poetry for many poets, including Yeats, who created one of his own. Whitman showed how in modern times a political poetry, or nation poetry, might be written that would be more, far more, than mere propaganda, that would in fact reinvent the very idea of nation.

Seen in this light, Eliot is the great maker of the modern poetic revolutions. Any fine poet affects diction, improving the precision of the words that he chooses and that others use after him. But a revolutionary poet somehow changes the whole language. He alters how we listen and read. This act is perhaps akin to creating a new politics or a new society. It may be as important.

Eliot’s poetry is revolutionary because it creates a new type of voice, a new type of fact and a new type of knowledge, all of which appreciably change the English language, even for those ignorant of what he has done. The first two of these, the voice and fact, are by now so influential and widely imitated that it is hard to imagine that they were not always there, or that Eliot invented them. The last, the new type of knowledge, is often rejected these days by poets who are devoted to sentimentality, or who dismiss city life as aesthetic material, which is to say by many nature poets who also reject Eliot.

Yet these same poets will often use his characteristic voice, which is not simply a voice, and certainly not a voice at all in the usual sense, but a new universalizing and generalizing mode of utterance. It appears first in The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock (1911), and its tone, adopted by Eliot in his well-known recording of the poem, is ghostly, disembodied, hard, thin, anxious, wheedling, shrewd, crisp, internal, external, and above all, representative. Prufrock is the twentieth-century Everyman. He may say I, but he means we, and in The Waste Land the we becomes an even clearer we, as the horrified, haunted quality is perfected: I think we are in rats alley / Where the dead men lost their bones. This is the we not of a group of people, but of a culture, and not of one culture or two or three, but of culture itself, or the idea of culture betrayed. It is the voice of civilization losing its memories, the very dream-stuff that makes it civilization. It is the voice of Humanity the Amnesiac, teetering and blind, struggling desperately to recall its address in the universe. Far more than the voice of a person or a sensibility, it has no real precedent in literary history. When Pound uses it, rarely, he is in fact imitating il miglior fabbro, the better maker, in this case Eliot himself.

Eliot’s quite revolutionary accomplishment was his creation of this voice for the mute millions, a fact that accounts to some extent for his fascination and popularity. These were mostly, but by no means entirely, the literate mute millions. In a deeper and broader sense, they were the post–First World War planetary millions, and in many countries, whose confidence in civilization and its nobility sickened and expired during four years of murder on the European continent. As the uniformed hundreds of thousands of ordinary men perished for what appeared to be nothing but the vanity of politicians and autocrats, values floated free of their systems, which ceased to inspire belief. For the first time since the plague, masses of people, mostly Europeans and then Americans, became an audience at the latest ghastly show of apocalypse. Eliot was a Saint John for this audience, and his poetry a new Book of Revelations. His was the voice groping for meanings, in the past, in the present, amid invading nightmarish monsters, collapsing towers and the awesome silence of the dead battlefield, which had become the human soul. It is not Prufrock’s loneliness that is thrilling but his courage, a dim courage, and flame-like. In The Waste Land, the shantih, or Peace that passeth understanding, is also a signal, however weak, of significance, and the courage to believe in significance. The cynicism of The Hippopotamus masks an idealist’s mourning for a purer spirituality than the wallowing Church can offer.

At the same time, in Prufrock, The Waste Land and Four Quartets, Eliot creates a new sort of poetic fact. This consists of a deadpan association of past literature and present experience, with the past literature rendered anew and often rewritten, or placed in a fresh and modern context. Contemporary experience becomes what may be termed anachronistic fact, as when Hamlet, Hesiod, Dante and the Lazarus story from the Bible are suddenly reproduced in twentieth-century dress in Prufrock, or when the poet of the second section of Little Gidding, wandering the city streets of interminable night, meets his dead master, a compound of Dante, Swift, and Yeats, who reminds him of his poet’s task, To purify dialect of the tribe, only to leave him In the disfigured street, fading at daybreak.

We are dealing here, as readers of Eliot realize, not with mere literary allusions but with deliberately contrived violations of time and naturalism. This is the quintessence of modernism. Nor is the result merely a cultural linkage, with fragments of the past shored up against anarchy and madness. Fact itself has been redefined. It is now not simply something that happened, but something that keeps happening, or that must be kept happening by poetry if civilization is to survive as civilization. The aim of poetry at its highest is to turn history into a continuously present event.

This leads into the new type of knowledge. It is the knowledge that ordinary speech, even the speech of the street, is full of poetry, that it contains infinite poetic possibilities and that the routines and even technology of modern urban life are fitting and even exciting materials for the poet. Eliot is not the first poet to discover this. But he is the first in the twentieth century to make use of it. Eliot was at work on Prufrock as early as 1911, and while this catalytic poem shows the oblique influences of Jules Laforgue, Whitman and even Wordsworth, who had thought along similar lines, Eliot’s cunning departure, his originality, lies in his demonstration that ordinary speech need not be inflated or made rhetorical to become splendid. It is already splendid, or often so. So too are

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