Saturday, July 13, 2019

Learn the Author's Taste

One of the best things I've added to my repertoire of study tools is trying to learn the aesthetic taste of the author. When I feel something in the vicinity of disagreement with X, I write a little essay in which I describe the world from a perspective where X feels good/obvious/beautiful, trying to capture what things taste like at that vantage point.

For example, toward the beginning of the (excellent, highly recommended) prosody textbook The Poem's Heartbeat, Alfred Corn writes, "In no way should the inclusion of stress conferred purely by meter be considered a compositional failing. In the best examples, the slight (incantatory?) departure from ordinary speech patterns afforded by metrical stress makes for a useful rhythmic reinforcement of the content..."

He's talking about the fact that some poetry is meant to be read in a slightly artificial way. He gives the example of a line from "Ode to the West Wind" by Percy Shelley:

And by the incantation of this verse

If that string of words were spoken in conversation, the word "of" would likely receive the same stress as the last syllable of "incantation", or possibly a little less. But the poem is in iambic pentameter, so for the line to fit the surrounding meter, the word "of" needs to receive more stress.

When I read that section, I noticed a discomfort I'd been feeling almost constantly while reading, one that had previously prevented me from focusing on stress patterns in poetry. At that point, I did indeed consider purely metrical stress a compositional failing. I felt that poetry ought to take advantage of the rhythms of natural speech, without asking the reader to modify anything. Doing otherwise was cheating.

But when I read a textbook, it's because I want to gain access to the author's view of the world. I want to augment myself with their perceptions and understanding, to get their models and mine into the same mind so they can talk and work out their differences. In other words, I want to learn from them.

My favorite way of getting someone else's perceptions into my own head is to try to see things as they do, and to pay attention to the details of how the world seems and feels and tastes from that perspective. So I wrote a little essay for myself, trying to do that with what I imagined might be Corn's perspective on metrical stress, stepping into the world where it feels good to stress that "of" just a little more strongly:

Metrical stress is just another tool in the poet's toolbox of prosody.

It's just as legitimate as is musical pitch in the sacred chants of shamans or Gregorian monks, and serves nearly the same purpose. Singing a prayer creates a very different kind of experience than speaking a prayer; in song, more of the mind is recruited to move in a single direction, like a flock of sea birds diving all at once for their fish. Verse with strong meter does the same, but is even more hypnotic.

The more eager you are to give yourself over to the inexorable rocking rhythm of Ode to the West Wind, the more thoroughly Shelley succeeds. His spell penetrates and takes hold of you as no bit of mere rhetoric could. Resisting, insisting that 'that's not really how those phrases sound', is much like claiming you 'can't be hypnotized' while trying to not be hypnotized. It prevents you from receiving the enchantment in full.

I kept this incantatory invitation with me as I read new poems, re-examined old poems, and read the rest of the textbook. As a result, I'm much more aware, now, of the relationship between poet and reader. I think about what experience the poet designed for me, but also about how to be a more fertile soil for the artistic experience.

In fact, I'm inclined to re-learn all the poems I've ever loved, because of how much more they might have to offer if I offer myself as a more cooperative reader.

Ode to the West Wind


O wild West Wind, thou breath of Autumn's being,
Thou, from whose unseen presence the leaves dead
Are driven, like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing,

Yellow, and black, and pale, and hectic red,
Pestilence-stricken multitudes: O thou,
Who chariotest to their dark wintry bed

The winged seeds, where they lie cold and low,
Each like a corpse within its grave, until
Thine azure sister of the Spring shall blow

Her clarion o'er the dreaming earth, and fill
(Driving sweet buds like flocks to feed in air)
With living hues and odours plain and hill:

Wild Spirit, which art moving everywhere;
Destroyer and preserver; hear, oh hear!


Thou on whose stream, mid the steep sky's commotion,
Loose clouds like earth's decaying leaves are shed,
Shook from the tangled boughs of Heaven and Ocean,

Angels of rain and lightning: there are spread
On the blue surface of thine aƫry surge,
Like the bright hair uplifted from the head

Of some fierce Maenad, even from the dim verge
Of the horizon to the zenith's height,
The locks of the approaching storm. Thou dirge

Of the dying year, to which this closing night
Will be the dome of a vast sepulchre,
Vaulted with all thy congregated might

Of vapours, from whose solid atmosphere
Black rain, and fire, and hail will burst: oh hear!


Thou who didst waken from his summer dreams
The blue Mediterranean, where he lay,
Lull'd by the coil of his crystalline streams,

Beside a pumice isle in Baiae's bay,
And saw in sleep old palaces and towers
Quivering within the wave's intenser day,

All overgrown with azure moss and flowers
So sweet, the sense faints picturing them! Thou
For whose path the Atlantic's level powers

Cleave themselves into chasms, while far below
The sea-blooms and the oozy woods which wear
The sapless foliage of the ocean, know

Thy voice, and suddenly grow gray with fear,
And tremble and despoil themselves: oh hear!


If I were a dead leaf thou mightest bear;
If I were a swift cloud to fly with thee;
A wave to pant beneath thy power, and share

The impulse of thy strength, only less free
Than thou, O uncontrollable! If even
I were as in my boyhood, and could be

The comrade of thy wanderings over Heaven,
As then, when to outstrip thy skiey speed
Scarce seem'd a vision; I would ne'er have striven

As thus with thee in prayer in my sore need.
Oh, lift me as a wave, a leaf, a cloud!
I fall upon the thorns of life! I bleed!

A heavy weight of hours has chain'd and bow'd
One too like thee: tameless, and swift, and proud.


Make me thy lyre, even as the forest is:
What if my leaves are falling like its own!
The tumult of thy mighty harmonies

Will take from both a deep, autumnal tone,
Sweet though in sadness. Be thou, Spirit fierce,
My spirit! Be thou me, impetuous one!

Drive my dead thoughts over the universe
Like wither'd leaves to quicken a new birth!
And, by the incantation of this verse,

Scatter, as from an unextinguish'd hearth
Ashes and sparks, my words among mankind!
Be through my lips to unawaken'd earth

The trumpet of a prophecy! O Wind,
If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?

--Percy Shelley