R.P. Blackmur & "tradition"

Reading in & about essays of RP Blackmur, & really liking it. Unlike his more doctrinaire contemporaries, A. Tate, Yvor Winters, & other New Critics, who insisted on establishing strict moral-theological rules of order for the critical enterprise, Blackmur's approach reminds me of Eugenio Montale's "superior dilettantism".

Literature & poetry seem to be, at one basic level, the free play of human imagination. No matter how severe, serious, obsessed & tragic the writer may be, there's a form of "make-believe" going on which is irreducibly playful. & I think this dimension gives the critic a place to stand, an independence. The notion of "tradition" - literary tradition - is a purely critical notion. It has no application outside the sphere of criticism itself. But within criticism, it seems to me that tradition is rooted, not in cultural, religious, or any other kind of mores; rather, real tradition is grounded, paradoxically, in this free play of imagination. It's something grounded in aesthetics, in the sense of beauty.

I'd hate for my statements to be taken as an argument for art-for-art's-sake or pure aestheticism. On the contrary, I think most good art emerges from deep within the larger world of human behavior, history, experience, feeling & thought. It absorbs & reflects upon all those things that impinge upon our sense of beauty. This is the basic challenge to any art which would escape various forms of decadence, futility, desiccation. But the other side of that challenge is the goal of actually making something beautiful or meaningful from all those impingements. & criticism's call to evaluate the results of that challenge, in particular poems & works of art, is ultimately rooted in the tradition of the free play of the imagination. This grounding gives the critic a means to appreciate & evaluate the qualities of poems which may stem from values & beliefs very different from, even at odds with, his or her own.

(Incidentally, Blackmur, like any good critic, bases his commentary on patient, careful evaluations of individual poems - both good & not-so-good samples from a poet's work. This is a modus operandi which Mairi keeps practicing here at the Plumbline, thereby setting us a fine example.)

[cross-posted to HG Poetics blog]


Mairi said...

I like Blackmur's comment - in A Critic's Job of Work - that criticism is the formal discourseof amateurs. "When there is enough love and enough knowledge represented in the discourse it is a self sufficient but by no means an isolated art. It witnesses constantly in its own life its interdependence with the other arts. It lays out the terms and parallels of appreciation from the outside in order to convict itself of internal intimacy; it names and arranges what it knows and loves, and searches endlessly with every fresh impulse or impression for better names and more orderly arrangements. It is only in this sense that poetry is a criticism of life; poetry names and arranges, and thus arrests and transfixes its subject in a form which has a life of its own forevers separate but springing from the life which confronts it. Poetry is life at the remove of form and meaning; not life lived but life framed and identified. So the crticism of poetry is bound to be occupied at once with the terms and modes by which the remove was made and with the relation between - in the ambiguous stock phrase - content and form; which is to say with the establishment and appreciation of human or moral value." It seems relevant to all of us who spend our time blabbing on about poetry. Something to aspire to.
Which essays were/are you reading?

Henry Gould said...

Thanks for this, Mairi. Right now I'm reading some of his earlier essays on poetry (on Dickinson, Yeats...).

He was a big Yeats fan. I'm interested in the affinity between Blackmur, John Berryman, Yeats... thinking lately on their focus on (somewhat Jungian, I guess) "unconscious" (it is Berryman's DREAM SONGS, after all).

Thinking about how art acts as a kind of lure. & you can take that lure in different ways - for example as an incitement to fulfill desires; or, as a kind of displacement/sublimation/moral reflection of same. I'm tending these days to the latter. Somewhere Robert Frost wrote something about Yeats - sorry, I forget the exact words - it was a bit of a criticism - saying Yeats was too enthralled by the erotic. (Something in that general direction, I think, anyway.)

I have this line in a poem somewhere I attribute to "William Blackstone" - kind of a reversal of Shakespeare's "Ripeness is all" - "Repentance is all." Sounds fairly dour & puritanical, I guess. But I am trying to suggest the idea that the human heart has reasons & desires of its own, which are distinct from eros per se. The heart seeks peace, above all - the "peace which passeth understanding". & this comes (I think, anyway) through the grace of a recognition of one's own self-centered sinfulness. It's a dimension of forgiveness, I think.

Anyway, I seem to be rambling here. But I'm thinking about how the "lure" of art's beauty could be interpreted as a kind of spiritual game of the human heart - a very sly game.

Dave King said...

Interesting thought, that tradition is grounded in the free play of the imagination. It appeals on the intuitive level, though I am not sure how it would work in practice. Still, the idea is growing on me as I think about it.