2.27.2009

Eliot & the lingua franca

"Every revolution in poetry is apt to be, and sometimes to announce itself to be a return to common speech. That is the revolution which Wordsworth announced in his prefaces, and he was right; but the same revolution had been carried out a century before by Oldham, Waller, Denham and Dryden; and the same revolution was due again something over a century later. The followers of a revolution develop the new poetic idiom in one direction or another; they polish or perfect it; meanwhile the spoken language goes on changing, and the poetic idiom goes out of date... No poetry of course is ever exactly the same speech that the poet talks or hears : but it has to be in such a relation to the speech of his time that the listener or reader can say 'that is how I should talk if I could talk poetry.' This is the reason why the best contemporary poetry can give us a feeling of excitement and a sense of fulfillment different form any sentiment aroused by even very much greater poetry of a past age.
"The music of poetry, then, must be a music latent in the common speech of its time..."
- T.S. Eliot, "The Music of Poetry" (1942)

2 comments:

Joseph Duemer said...

Eliot's idea here became the conventional wisdom, for a while anyway. Certainly, the idea that the poem ought to be made of ordinary language, as Eliot says here, was the theory underlying the pedagogy at the Iowa Writers Workshop when I was there in the late 1970s. And by that time, this "ordinary language" approach was already being attacked from both "left" and "right" as The Workshop Poem. The emerging LANGUAGE poets disdained the autobiography and slack intellect of such poems; just a bit later, the New Formalists would attack the Workshop Poem for slack surrealism and lack of metrical rigor. Each critique had elements of truth. The problem for me is that the work produced by the the practitioners of the "left" and "right" schools does not offer me what I need as a poet.

(It seems to me, from the outside looking in, that the "left" critique / poetics has been more successful in producing a worthwhile and engaging body of work than the "right" group. But I don't find much of the work on either extreme personally very useful.)

With the Plumbline School, it seems as if one of the things we're trying to do is go back to what Eliot says about ordinary language and figure out (like Dryden, Wordsworth, Eliot himself) how to use the lingua franca of our time for purposes of poetry.

Henry Gould said...

It occurs to me that the Black Mountain/Projectivist stream offered a somewhat different direction.

A certain artlessness, on behalf of the Whitman/Pound/WCW/Olson bent toward the ongoing "poem of a life".

The poem's rhetoric is not grounded so much in "plain speech", nor in the persona-speaker of detachable short poems, but in the marginal poet's ongoing struggle to articulate ANYTHING, against the grain of cultural isolation & neglect. The distinction between the poem & the poet's life-notations is erased to some extent. (It's also something of a romanticized image - the solitary struggling indomitable constant-singer...)

One pitfall here is the Pound/Olson tendency toward the omnivorous Maestro-Ego... every stray thought, notation is part of the poem.

Maybe the "plumbline" again aims for some midpoint there - between the various masks of confessional poetry, the reification of Language in experimentalism, the idolatry of received forms in the new-formalists, the limitless, artless egoism of Projectivism...