Plumbline Table Talk

On NPR this morning, the host interviewed short-story writer Antonya Nelson. When asked why she wrote stories rather than novels, she said she thought short stories were a little like poetry, because they tend to focus on small scenes, small dramatic moments - that she wasn't so interested in managing large-scale plots, all the machinery of the novel, but rather the little dramas which sometimes fall under the radar.

I pricked up my ears. Nelson was talking about poetry as a species of drama. This "struck a chord" with something mentioned recently here : Eliot's notion of drama as a summation of the "voices" of poetry; the idea that we might consider the values of drama, rather than lyric, as the standard of critical measure & interpretation.

In all modesty, I feel like we've suggested enough germs of ideas, in our early days here at Plumbline School, to keep a dozen AWP conferences busy. But a laundry basket of inchoate ideas is one thing - how to give them some useful relevance & coherence (& starch), is quite another. We're just getting started.

With that in mind, I'd like to recap a few of those ideas. I say "we" - but for now, I'm talking only about my own ideas. I'm not ready to paraphrase Joseph's or J.H.'s just yet. Any "grand synthesis" is yet to come, far in the future of the Plumbline School... & there will be other, new voices joining us too (I hope).

We've talked about forwarding certain literary values in our writing, and searching for them in the literature around us. These values involve a nexus of equilibrium : a point of balance and mediation, capable of serving as a kind of catalyst, fusing styles/subjects, matter/manner. We described how this notion has ancient roots in the concept of proportion - the "golden mean" - a synthesis, a mediation between contraries, which, on the one hand, brings them into balance, and on the other, reinforces their unique integrity (the whole more than the sum of its parts; yet the integrity of part not dissolved in the whole). This disinterested, objective midpoint of expression - the plumbline - makes possible a balance between form & content, medium & message, artifice & representation.

We've talked about the values of dramatic poetry (for Shakespeare, Eliot) as involved with the interpenetration of poetry and experience. The objectivity of situation & character represented by Shakespeare's Macbeth was shown to bear fruit, be justified, by actual occasions - for example, Lincoln's reading of passages of the play to his cabinet : so the intensity of actual historical situations, and the intensity of poetic drama, mutually mirror one other. Today's contribution to this topic, by a fiction writer on NPR, might further clarify this notion. Drama, in poetry, is not always explicitly historical, at least in the narrow sense of the term - ie., grand symbolic events of famous people & powerful forces. More compact forms (poetry, short story) can zero in on smaller dramas - find significance in the "insignificant". (On the other hand, I think it's worth keeping in mind the hypothesis that world history itself might be, essentially, drama.)

Finally, we started to talk about how these issues of aesthetic balance, rightness, proportion, have their background in past literary battles over appropriate style. The conflict between the Elizabethan/Baroque concept of "wit" (as forging a new metaphor, a new vision or insight, by fusing seemingly-discordant elements) and the Enlightenment/Restoration approach (of discursive elegance, reasonableness, clarity) has its counterpart in contemporary debates over what are the most valid forms of poetic expression, the most valuable ranges of representation. If we are still seeking for that point of balance from which proportion emerges - that "conjunction of opposites", where disparate, discordant things find their unforeseen affinities, and where poetic speech discovers its adequate means (the "happy medium") - then these old issues of style & rhetoric (the rugged vision of the Metaphysicals, the genial discourse of the Restoration) will surface again, in new ways.

Obviously these notions are still pretty theoretical, abstract, dry - have yet to prove relevant. Specific examples have yet to appear. It seems unlikely there will ever be an identifiable "plumbline style", for example (though anything is possible). Instead, what we might be building is a general framework for measurement : the "plumbline" (as we are beginning to define it) a basic aesthetic "rule" (like a metric system, or the cubit, or the furlong), applicable to a wide variety of distinct modes of poetry-making.


J.H. Stotts said...

the dynamics, i think, are the drama of THOUGHT, which poetry is singularly able to tackle.

Baumb said...

liked your train of thought, mate