The Poet Whom Emerson Describes

September 16, 2011 § Leave a comment

Toward the end of “The Poet,” Emerson writes, famously: “I look in vain fro the poet whom I describe.” Famous, in large part, because it sounds like he is describing the kind of poetry we will get, in the next decade, with Whitman and Leaves of Grass. Many have imagined Whitman reading these lines and answering the call. When we get to Whitman, we will certainly get back to Emerson’s conception of the poet and see if it does indeed make sense to think of Whitman’s poetry as Emersonian.

But I also want to open a larger door on this question and suggest that we continue to think about the kind of poet/poetry–and more broadly, poetics–that Emerson describes: and to ask where we do or don’t find this in American culture today, or in more recent years. In terms of finding Emerson’s poet in the form of poetry, one American poet from late 20th century that is often thought of as Emersonian is A.R. Ammons. You can see from this description from the Poetry Foundation that he is viewed as Emerson’s “progeny.” Here is an example, his poem “Poetics”:

I look for the way
things will turn
out spiralling from a center,
the shape
things will take to come forth in

so that the birch tree white
touched black at branches
will stand out
wind-glittering
totally its apparent self:

I look for the forms
things want to come as

from what black wells of possibility,
how a thing will
unfold:

not the shape on paper — though
that, too — but the
uninterfering means on paper:

not so much looking for the shape
as being available
to any shape that may be
summoning itself
through me
from the self not mine but ours.

Where else might we look for Emerson’s poet–outside of poetry, or at least, outside of places we traditionally think of as poetry?  We will see that Emerson reiterates, particularly in “Poetry and Imagination,” that poetry is found in the low and common and familiar, in the street–and thus, he argues, people say they hate poetry and are in fact, in their everyday lives, poetic. In that sense, do we have in more recent years, or at any point in the last 100 years, an Emersonian poet of the everyday? Whom would you suggest?

If we follow Emerson’s thinking (the kind we see in the “Shakspeare” essay, for example, from Representative Men), this latter-day Emersonian poet would show more than a line of “influence” from Emerson. He or she (or it, given that I suppose it could be some sort of intelligent machine, these days) would at some level be more Emerson than Emerson, by showing/revealing the “Emerson” we share with him.

The editors of the Norton edition of Emerson’s Prose suggest (in footnote to “The Poet,” p. 192) that Emily Dickinson’s “inebriate of air” is inspired by Emerson’s discussion of the “intellect inebriated,” the poet who gets drunk on nature and genius, drinking God’s wine. See what you think; here is Dickinson (in a 1924 edited version of the poem):

I TASTE a liquor never brewed,
From tankards scooped in pearl;
Not all the vats upon the Rhine
Yield such an alcohol!
Inebriate of air am I, 5
And debauchee of dew,
Reeling, through endless summer days,
From inns of molten blue.
When landlords turn the drunken bee
Out of the foxglove’s door, 10
When butterflies renounce their drams,
I shall but drink the more!
Till seraphs swing their snowy hats,
And saints to windows run,
To see the little tippler 15
Leaning against the sun!

In our discussion of “Circles,” I began to list some keywords from the essay that I read as markers of Emerson’s philosophy of writing; that is to say, ideas and language that speak to Emerson’s ideas, but also are related implicitly to his writing: transition, series, circulation, proximity, surprise, experiment, enthusiasm, thinking, abandonment. Look for variations on these in “The Poet,” particularly around a keyword in that essay: metamorphosis. There is also this line from “Circles” that relates to writing in its focus on Emerson’s primary means of thinking the world and its metamorphic relations, words: The simplest words,–we do not know what they mean, except when we love and aspire. Difficult to fully comprehend what that means, but I would suggest it may be an Emersonian definition of what poets are doing with words. It makes me think, for sure, of Whitman and Dickinson. So in your reading of Emerson’s “Poet” and his poetics this week (and later with Whitman and Dickinson), look for love and aspiration in relation to words.

One final point. Whitman attends a lecture version of Emerson’s “The Poet” in New York City in 1842, and reports on it for a newspaper. The lecture has some differences from the published essay.



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