2.12.2009

Discordia Concors - Metaphysical Wit

I may be getting ahead of myself, & of the School, here. If so, please bear with me, &/or set me right.

But it seems that there may be a potential contradiction in the general principles (or preliminaries) as sketched out in the early posts of the Plumbline School.

If on the one hand we are looking for a "middling", understated, modest style - which, hypothetically, would allow for a disinterested representation of real things/experience/subject-matter - in other words, if the "golden mean" is to be found primarily in a smooth presentation, a modest manner fitting ordinary matters -

well, this seems, very approximately, to correspond to a Johnsonian/Augustan sort of "decorum". "What oft was thought, but ne'er so well express't" (Pope), or however it goes.

Whereas, on the other hand, the idea of a conjunction of opposites - the electric, exciting, risky Discordia Concors (a "concord of discordance") -

well, this corresponds to Johnson's much-maligned "Metaphysical School", its elaborate, stilted, artificial Conceits. Doesn't it?

I'm just throwing this out there - off the top of my head. As WC Williams put it, "dissonance leads to discovery". So maybe we can find some middle path along here somewhere, even between these contraries : some sort of new rich & rugged style, which encompasses both ends of the spectrum.

Just thinking out loud here.

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Perhaps one way to resolve this conundrum would be to say that "discordant" poetics describes the current reigning style - manifest in all the different groups & tendencies. Here jarring juxtapositions - "elliptical" and "dissonant" poetics - are the equivalent of Augustan/Restoration smoothness, clarity, and didacticism. How so? Because dissonance is understood as realism : our present world is, precisely, dissonant, discordant. Flarf is the new realism.

All the more need, then, for a plumbline.

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[postscript]

My disorganized speculations here are sort of embarrassing... all this needs more study & thought. But I sense there's something worth pursuing in it. So I will try to clarify a little, & maybe others will jump in & help out.

We have been talking about mediation, proportion, the "golden mean" as aspects of aesthetics and style which might have some bearing on our own work & that of our contemporaries. We suggested a kind of stylistic transparency and understatement as a way to find a balance between the poem and its subject-matter, so that neither side outweighs the other, and so that the form or manner of the poem is in proportion to its theme.

The issue of mediation as a process which both balances and distinguishes between opposing contraries - in the geometric sense of finding the midpoint between 2 sides - could be said to underlie the styles of two different literary eras.

For the Elizabethan/Baroque/Metaphysical poets, where the literary values included tension, intensity, brilliance, and rhetorical force, a process of mediation was translated into the idea of "wit" - the yoking together of disparate things in a startling metaphor or simile, which captures the imagination.

For the Restoration/Enlightenment period - of Pope, Dryden, Samuel Johnson - very different literary values came to the fore. This was a new era of rationalism, science, and political stability; its values were clarity, blunt social satire, moral didacticism, literary order, decorum, smoothness. For these poets, the Elizabethans were rough and uncouth in style, metrics, manner. This was the era of the perfect machine-tooled heroic couplet, when Shakespeare's plays were "improved" in order to smooth out the rough edges. It took Eliot's essays on Donne and the Metaphysicals, 200 years later, to revise this estimate.

What we see in these two contrasting eras are differing concepts of proportion, fitness, beauty. The Elizabethans' sparkling wit, their stylistic discordia concors or fusion of discordant things, was, in the eyes of the Restoration, not really "fitting" anymore : their metaphors remained discordant : two things yoked together which didn't belong together. For the Restoration poets, moderation or fitness involved a kind of stylistic efficiency : the exaggerations of style are smoothed over and subdued on behalf of clear, rational and elegant presentation.

I think it might be worthwhile to explore this historical debate - and others like it - in the context of our own times and our own writing. Because once we start looking for examples of synthesis/juxtaposition, harmony/discord, in contemporary poetic theory and style, I suspect we will discover them to be pervasive.

What if we tried to determine our own acceptable notions of the literary "golden mean" - the elements of style which, for us, provide effective, elegant, or beautiful mediations and transmissions of non-poetic ideas and experiences, of history at large?

9 comments:

J.H. Stotts said...

not under-statement, but right statement.

Henry Gould said...

Yes, agreed.

Helps to remember the specific context in which this Plumbline project was launched : I was involved in a blog-debate over the poetry phenomenon called FLARF. I was thinking about the contrast between an "extreme", "excessive", "baroque" literary style - which draws attention to itself - as opposed to a more transparent kind of writing, which disappears into its representations and further compositional aims. (ie. the passage of dramatic poetry, from Shkspre's Macbeth).

J.H. Stotts said...

what if we're being too reasonable?--maybe we should be talking about what we're not, or the negatives of what we are.

the erotic is ataphatic; the conjunction of opposites is a thanatotic. there is a destructive, dismissive element to any great poem--the golden mean of perception can't be filtered through anything but rot, because that's what we're surrounded by (rot being just another word for time, the same way health is just another word for disease, seed, for germ).

J.H. Stotts said...

FLARF is the exact opposite of what we're aiming at, right?
i agree, poetry is exactly what that noise isn't.

Henry Gould said...

Sounds very metaphysical, J.H.! Or baroque. Or maybe mannerist. ("Rot"... Time... Durer's Melancolia...)

I'm still looking for that happy medium. The plain & clear is not necessarily the obliging & staid. Sometimes it's the shattering truth.

Shakespeare... gentle, imperturbable... & the author of MACBETH...

J.H. Stotts said...

hamlet and macbeth--gentle? gentleness anywhere in shakespeare is irony.
and imperturbable? all his faces are disturbed. maybe unfathomable--if there was a bottom we would see it because he lets us look straight down into clear waters, not still, though.

Henry Gould said...

I'm thinking of the anecdotes about Will the man. Gentle Will. The Swan of Avon. & his pleasing, mellifluous verse. There's some of both... there's a charm in the comedies, & the romances, along with the depths of the tragedies. All-around Will.

J.H. Stotts said...

we should be nice, whatever our poetry. but it isn't his manners that makes shakespeare a genius. and mean, perverted men have been some of the greatest writers.

J.H. Stotts said...

some of my favorite writers make by responding to their gross inadequacies--boris ryzhii, d. thomas, lawrence, lowell, berryman...
some, in spite of them--afanasy fet.
and some are good people, too.
morality is no measure for poetry--or, rather, poetry allows for a morality that often has no other outlet--literally coups de grace.