Emerson’s Poet: The Convertible
October 4, 2015 § 3 Comments
No, Emerson’s convertible is not a car–though given Emerson’s interest in “the highway” (a phrase he will use in “Experience”) and in the ways the Emersonian spirit is taken up by artists of the road (Whitman, Kerouac, Springsteen), it is not too much of a stretch. Emerson’s “convertible” has come up often in his writing; this key word appears in “Poetry and Imagination,” for example:
Your condition, your employment, is the fable of you. The world is thoroughly anthropomorphized, as if it had passed through the body and mind of man…. We are advertised that there is nothing to which man is not related; that every thing is convertible into every other. [Norton edition, 302]
Emerson goes on to refer to this convertibility as “this metonymy.” I thus identify in Emerson’s interest in the convertibility and conditions of life that poetry highlights, or should, four related characteristics or (to use his term) “conditions” of Emerson’s poetics.
Art is the path of the creator to his work. The paths, or methods, are ideal and enternal, though few men ever see them, not the artist himself for years, or for a lifetime, unless he come into the conditions. [“The Poet,” 196]
I would argue that these four conditions of Emerson’s vision of writing and the writer are crucial to American literature but also in need of remembering. We don’t think of these much when we think of the words: poet, poetry, writer, literature. Convertibility means that poetry (like the Poet) is…
- democratic: the focus is on the “daily” (and its transubstantiation) and the social, the common and even the low; sounds most like Whitman in these references. He views Shakespeare’s genius along these lines as well.
- pragmatic: the focus is on “use” and the uses of poetry and nature; think William Carlos Williams (no ideas but in things); think William James; think of the end of “Experience”: the transformation of genius into practical power.
- metonymic: the focus is on relation and contiguity (the proximities) as well as contingency (accident, surprise); what lies near; the near explains the far–and the fact that language is the means or medium of this convertibility, as well as one of its best examples. I referred to metonymy initially in our reading of Emerson’s Nature (his understanding of relation, of parts related to an unseen whole. For further thinking on the poetics of metonymy and its difference from metaphor, read this post from my blog on The Essay.
- organic: the focus is on living forms. “Rightly, poetry is organic. We cannot know things by words and writing, but only by taking a central position in the universe and living it its forms. We sink to rise” 
Think how this last point and principle–sinking to rise–reiterates the previous three. Convertibility thus relates the local to the global, the near to the far. And it unsettles (to use the word from “Circles) or de-centers the individual at the very same time that it relates her or him to something larger–but something other. Think of this line from “The Transcendentalist” where Emerson has in mind the “manifold” symbolic nature of the world–and think of the poetic implications for this concept, the sort of writing that such a vision of relational thought would create.
His thought,–that is the Universe. His experience inclines him to behold the procession of facts you call the world, as flowing perpetually outward from an invisible, unsounded centre in himself, centre alike of him and of them, and necessitating him to regard all things as having a subjective or relative existence, relative to that aforesaid Unknown Centre of him. 
As a way to grasp the poetics (the writing) of this passage, not just its concept, is it too much to see and hear in Emerson’s first sentence, the transition marked by the dash, Whitman’s ellipses or Dickinson’s dashes? We will have to wait and see. This is suggests that as we turn a corner in the course to focus on Emersonian Poetics, on his interest in the Poet, and his influence in American poetry, particularly by way of poets such as Whitman, Dickinson, Stevens, Frost, are into new territory? Or are we continuing to think about Emerson’s philosophy of intellect, of the scholar, of experience?
Here is a recent reading of Emerson’s essay “The Poet” by the contemporary essayist Sven Birkerts. This suggests that there is a familiar problem that we encounter in Emerson’s conception of poetry and the poet’s stance, or argument. One word for that familiar problem: soul.
[The image is from Robert Frank’s The Americans, the book by the photographer I would offer as an Emersonian artist/poet; I think of photography in metonymic terms–the way it represents the “conditions” of its subject]