Emersonian Poetics

October 6, 2015 § Leave a comment

In his chapter on “Emersonian Poetics,” Buell advances a fascinating claim: that Emerson’s poetry, which has long been viewed as weaker than his essays, which have long been viewed as the place where Emerson’s poetic sensibility shines–that the poems in some way are meant to fail. Buell argues from an understanding of what he calls an “aesthetics of unfinished business” and an “aesthetics of incompletion” that is part of a “Romantic Fragment Aesthetics” (109).

Does this make sense: given Emerson’s philosophy (as we have seen it in his essays, such as “Experience” and “Circles”)? given Emerson’s aesthetic philosophy proposed in “The Poet”? given his actual poetry? What of the implication, therefore, that Emerson has to fail as a poet in order to be a good Emersonian poet?

For some further thinking on this interesting problem/potential of Emerson’s poetics, we can turn to Joel Porte’s argument from “The Problem of Emerson” (included in our Norton edition). Porte contends that Emerson doesn’t fail as a writer, but that he has never, until more recently, been fully and appropriately read by critics as a writer, in terms of his writing.

The Emerson we now see, I am convinced, has always existed; indeed it is the same Emerson whom William James was moved to praise as an artist. This Emerson’s interest and appeal reside in the imaginative materials and structures of his writing–in his tropes and topoi, his metaphor and verbal wit, in the remarkable consistencies of his conceiving mind and executing hand. [684]

Here is an insight from Dan Chiasson’s recent New Yorker essay on Emerson’s poetics, and the difference between the essays and the poems:

Emerson’s essays are like wonder handbooks: they tell you where to find it, how to use it, what to do when it fails you. “Nature,” “The Poet,” “Self-Reliance,” “Circles,” “Experience”: you can use these essays to become enchanted; many dejected secular people have gone to them regularly to see the world in renewed and refreshed terms of beauty. They outfit you for a walk in the woods or an ordinary morning. They are modular: you can remember bits of one, bits of another, mess up the order, mix and match. Their authority comes not from the Church or the ministry but from the power of their prose. Emerson must have realized that half of the people in church were there to hear language electrified by the preacher; his essays are, as Harold Bloom put it, “interior oratory,” free-range sermons that make their own occasions.

Chiasson argues a thesis that compares to what Buell will pose in his chapter “Emersonian Poetics”: the argument of poems overwhelms the form. This makes the poetry fail to some extent in the poem, but succeed to a related extent in the failure–given the poetic theory of forms Emerson proposes. But Chiasson takes the argument a step further in suggesting the ways that Emerson’s poetics matter for his two most important, though different, “disciples” (Whitman and Dickinson). Here is his provocative conclusion: “If Emerson’s poems had been just a little better than they were, we might not have American literature as we know it. Our greatest writers, seeing their own visions usurped, might have been content to remain his readers.”

Talk about complication and conflict–very useful as the basis for our next writing project. Would you argue at this point, therefore, that Mary Oliver’s “Snow Geese” is a better or more faithful Emersonian poem than the poetry Emerson produced? Or 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
totally its apparent self:

I look for the forms
things want to come as

from what black wells of possibility,
how a thing will

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.

Is it too much to see this problem reiterated in the contemporary poetics of conceptual poetry, in the work of someone like Kenneth Goldsmith? I note, at least, the echoes back to “Quotation and Originality.”

Emerson’s Philosophical “Experience”

September 19, 2015 § Leave a comment

The best Emersonian readers I have studied and learned from all suggest that Emerson’s philosophy of experience is not merely discussed or developed in the essay of that name, but communicated through it. In a real sense, these readers argue, the experience of reading the essay “Experience” is a key part of its philosophy.

David Robinson, to take one example, provides an insightful critical reading of the ways Emerson’s essays work–which is also to say, the way Emerson works the reader through the essays. This can help us grasp Emerson’s philosophy of the essay, and the ways his essays do philosophy. In the next section of the course, we can pursue this further as a matter of his poetics (Buell, for example, will discuss “Experience” in the chapter on Emersonian poetics) and eventually his rhetoric.

Here is what Robinson writes about Emerson’s “Experience” in his book Emerson and The Conduct of Life: Pragmatism and Ethical Purpose in the Later Work.

The pattern of continual doubling back, in which every new idea or perspective develops its opposite, recurs even here, when it seems as if the problem of alienation had been settled by dismissing it as frivolous. Each step toward resolution in “Experience” generates a further complication. The hidden negation revealed by each successive affirmation forces the essay into successive turns of direction. The structure of the essay’s argument thus reflects the structure of the essay’s subject. The structure of “Experience” is the structure of experience.  [63-64]

Robinson’s point is that Emerson’s apparent contradictions in the midst of his essays–this is something he is known for, and often blamed for, the lack of consistency–entail a philosophical purpose. They are rather complications: ways that he pursues the complexity of the experience, and the thinking, that he is after. Here, then, is how Robinson characterizes the nature of an Emerson essay as a version of thought in the dynamic action of complication, which is to say, thinking.

The tensions in Emerson’s thought are apparent when one attempts to specify his intellectual position in a given essay, but to write such an essay off as contradictory misses a larger value, its ability to take the reader into an exemplary act of thinking…. They emphasize the living out of ideas. [12-13]

There is proximity in the critical insight that Lawrence Buell provides in his discussion of the “self-reliant thinking” that his essays provoked and performed: “His compressed, metaphorical prose was intended both to perform self-reliant thinking and provoke it” (68).

We see this performance at work in “Quotation and Originality,” where Emerson pursues a deliberate contradiction of his earlier and more famous essay on originality, “Self-Reliance.” Or rather, pursues a seeming contradiction. Or rather, shows thought and ideas to emerge out of differences that somehow relate. Emerson enacts a counterargument–a deliberate contradiction that serves a rhetorical purpose–and does so in an argument for the necessity of ideas always to be countered. Or, to use one of the keywords of that essay: recomposed.

Given the tradition of Emersonian originality, what should we make of the claim in”Quotation and Originality” that “all minds quote”? Is this view of writing and reading and, more broadly, thinking, as some form of quotation a contradiction of his earlier views of self-reliance and “creative reading?” Does this break from the earlier essays, or somehow extend the vision?

Emerson, mid-way through the essay, seems to admit his own contradiction when he begins to voice a challenge to what he has been saying of quotation. That voice sounds much like the Emerson from “Self-Reliance”: “Quotation confesses inferiority.” Is this just a case of Emerson contradicting himself, being willfully or whimsically inconsistent? (In “Self-Reliance he claims famously: “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.”)

Emerson, however, has always had a more complicated vision of originality–much as the notion of originality in writing and thinking is more complicated than conventionally presented in schools. Emerson’s vision of original quotation speaks to the essay tradition and its philosophy of relating the personal and ordinary in the world of the writer to the public world of the reader. A good essayist needs to work through quotation, and consider the relation between the quotation and originality of thinking. A better context for understanding the tension between originality and quotation, I suggest, is a rhetorical and logical tradition Emerson was familiar with. This philosophical context for the essay, for any essay Emerson might have in mind, opens up contradiction as a strong potential for an essay, when handled honestly. Contradiction becomes counterargument, a rhetorical strategy; the logic in the essay moves (is not fixed), is dialectical or dynamic.  Think, as Emerson liked to think, of the natural analogy of polarity. And so thought, and thinking in writing, when it accurately reflects its contexts as a natural process, moves between positive and negative poles. All things, as Emerson says, are in flux. The same should be the case, he suggests, for the ideas and arguments in writing. [For more on the rhetorical strategy of counterargument, with an eye toward bringing it into your own writing more effectively, consult this brief discussion of Counterargument from Harvard’s Writing Center.]

Composition and decomposition are the natural poles. Recomposition is the form of writing that generates from this. Reading such writing, as we also see by the end of the essay, participates in the recomposition by being inventive. Invention is a concept of classical rhetoric that speaks to the paradoxical but necessary tension between the originality of our ideas and argument and the given, quoted, borrowed structures and contexts that those ideas must live in, relate and respond to.  This is something you will be working through in your writing projects: taking an accepted or conventional or given understanding, raising questions or observing problems or confusion regarding that conventional view, and seeking in your response an answer that recomposes our understanding.

What place of recomposition–or, as it were, re-composure–does Emerson find and offer us, by the end of “Experience”? Where do we find ourselves?


Some further reading and thinking on the rhythm of Emerson’s thinking (and sentences).

I have lately been hearing a certain rhythm and tone of Emerson’s philosophical sentences, and in particular the devastating sentence from “Experience” that follows the revelation of the death of his son, in the rhythm of the Bon Iver song “Holocene.” We will be exploring later in the course the poetics of voice and style in essay writing. This is toward some initial grasp of that, how with Emerson and what he described as the “infinitely repellent particles” of his sentences we need to grasp not just what they say but how they sound. For Emerson, the philosophy (the idea, the sentiment, the argument, the “intellect”) is conveyed not just through the sentences, but in them. The sentences in “Experience,” it seems to me, offer syntactical and poetic renditions of: surprise, provocation, temperament, balance, mediation. They move us through the series of the essay, much as he argues we move with these ideas through the series and surfaces of life.

Here is the sentence, rendered with breaks to notice the rhythm and repetition we can hear:

So is it with this calamity:

it does not touch me:

some thing which I fancied was a part of me,

which could not be torn away without tearing me,

nor enlarged without enriching me,

falls off from me,

and leaves no scar


Emerson and the Lyceum; or, Reading Buell like an Emersonian

September 2, 2015 § Leave a comment

We will be using Lawrence Buell’s Emerson as our critical guide throughout the course. Buell is a prominent scholar of Emerson, Transcendentalism, as well as the field of environmental literary criticism; he is also a model student from what I am calling Emerson’s School. He can help us not only learn about Emerson, but learn how others have learned from or related to him, and thereby how we might also learn as scholars, creative readers.

As you read a chapter in Buell’s text during a given week–they are usually due on Friday when your blog response is due, so I recommend reading a bit each day alongside the other reading, not leaving Buell for Thursday night–you can work on forwarding some information and insight into your reading of Emerson. By “forward,” I have in mind what Joseph Harris (in his book Rewriting: How to Do Things with Texts) calls “forwarding,” a way scholars engage with other texts, working and reworking its ideas into our responses. You can do this in your notebook, using it as a basis for class discussion: quoting specific passages in Buell (much as you would quote passages from Emerson) that you want to borrow and/or raise questions about. Then, in your blog response, you should weave one of Buell’s insights and your response to him into your response to Emerson (and the other assigned writers) for that week. Thereupon, when you turn to your writing projects, you can further forward and extend, as well as refine, your response and your use of Buell’s critical insight.

You can use this as a basic rubric for forwarding, two key components (adapted from Harris):

  1. Authorizing: Quote and summarize a key passage from the text (in this case, the chapter from Buell’s Emerson) that is of interest, that you would like to bring into class as providing us, or at least you, with some help in understanding Emerson and one or more of the texts we have been reading. This is they way Emerson started with his notebooks. In addition to the quotation, add a 1-2 sentence summary of the context surround the quote. One way to do this with Buell: pick one of the subsections from a chapter that you have a particular interest in or better grasp of: for example, the “Emerson as Public Lecturer” section of “The Making of a Public Intellectual” chapter that focuses on Emerson and the American Lyceum as a key context for Emerson’s thinking and writing. What is that context? What are some keywords that Buell offers us.
  2. Extending: After quoting and summarizing, move toward your interpretation of what the possible insight is, how you as a creative reader (braced by Buell’s labor and invention) might connect that information to one of the texts you have in mind this week. Developing or extending from Buell’s critical insights gives you a way to extend further the emerging insight you are pursuing in your blog–and potentially in your writing project. Make a connection between Buell and a text he doesn’t mention, or another passage from a text he mentions. Explore how this idea collaborates with your idea, or how it complicates it–or possibly, how you would counter Buell. This is a reminder that one effective way to extend and develop an interpretation (and avoid merely continuing the summary) is to raise questions, and seek to answer them, and draw distinctions between what the author argues and what you want to argue.

Scholarship is built upon this dynamic activity of forwarding and responding to reading, both authorizing where our ideas come from as well as extending them into different forms and contexts. I take this to be something of what Emerson has in mind when he refers to “creative reading” in “American Scholar.” This is also how Emerson worked as a reader and writer, as Buell argues in his focus on the Lyceum. Buell insightfully describes the flexibility of Emerson’s composition method (see pages 27-29), the ways he moved from journal and notebooks (authorizing his ideas in relation to what he read), to its extension first in a lecture (something like a weekly blog), then further extension and revision for publication in an essay. This passage offers particular insight that is of interest to me, and to the work on Emerson that I am working on right now with my scholarship:  the insight is that all of Emerson’s work, from speaking to writing, has a distinctively rhetorical purpose. Buell locates this with reference to Emerson’s lecture (and later essay) on “Eloquence” and calls it his “theory of the essay.” Forwarding Emerson from that essay, Buell notes the purpose of “eloquence” (or oratory, or rhetoric) is, “to alter in a pair of hours, perhaps in a half hour’s discourse, the convictions and habits of years” (29). [In fact, rereading this section of Buell, I realize that I should forward this insight on Emerson’s rhetorical “theory of the essay” into my work in progress, my essay on teaching Emerson in a course on the essay.]

This dynamic discourse, altering the audience, is what the Emerson essay, like the lecture, attempts to do. And this is what the scholar, reading those essays, altered by them, also attempts to do in writing her or his own essays.

This is the key rhetorical method that Emerson brought to his work as a public intellectual, or what Buell calls “lecturer-as-intellectual” (29). As we read and practice this in our work, we will give more thought to the rhetorical contexts of our work. One of the ways we will do this: working toward a final project that will reach both toward refined, published work–like an Emerson essay–as well as toward an Emerson lecture, a presentation of our work.

Some related questions I will continue to ask as we engage with the rhetorical Emerson and his legacy as public intellectual: where is the public intellectual today? what is her method of composition? where is the lyceum? where is it missing in our culture?

Transcendentalism: The Luminous Allusion of Emerson’s School

August 12, 2015 § Leave a comment

Consider this complicated image of transcendentalism, courtesy of Google Books.

There is somewhat in this image–“somewhat” (by the way) is an Emersonian phrasing for some thing, some part–that reiterates and anticipates our focus in this course on “transcendentalism” in the work of a major American writer, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and his influence on (his relation to, his “education” of) numerous writers or “students” who read and follow him, including Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, William James, W.E.B. DuBois, Frank Lloyd Wright, Ralph Ellison, Annie Dillard, Mary Oliver, and others. What is transcendentalism?

The cover of the book, a brief anthology of selected work from Emerson and Thoreau, suggests one primary association. Transcendentalism has something to do with nature–with writers interested in nature, a love for nature.  This interest will indeed be found in Emerson and the writers and artists that follow him. But the tree become head, or the head becoming a tree, offers something other than a familiar image of nature (familiar neither to tree nor to man); it’s interesting, but also somewhat unsettling. It makes me think of Emerson’s reference (in his second essay on “Nature”) to Nature as an incarnation or precipitation of mind.

The divine circulations never rest nor linger. Nature is the incarnation of a thought, and turns to a thought again, as ice becomes water and gas. The world is mind precipitated, and the volatile essence is forever escaping again into the state of free thought. Hence the virtue and pungency of the influence on the mind, of natural objects, whether inorganic or organized. Man imprisoned, man crystallized, man vegetative, speaks to man impersonated. That power which does not respect quantity, which makes the whole and the particle its equal channel, delegates its smile to the morning, and distills its essence into every drop of rain. Every moment instructs, and every object: for wisdom is infused into every form. It has been poured into us as blood; it convulsed us as pain; it slid into us as pleasure; it enveloped us in dull, melancholy days, or in days of cheerful labor; we did not guess its essence, until after a long time. [Emerson, “Nature”]

That imagery and idealism was caricatured in Emerson’s time, but also embraced. Transcendentalism is a cultural context for these writers (ideas and thinking from the mid-nineteenth century in America, particularly in the northeast where all three live and work); so it is one lens we can use. [and for more background on this lens, I refer you to Martin Bickman’s helpful overview of Transcendentalism]. But transcendentalism is also famously hard to characterize or fix into any final form or definition. That will also serve us as somewhat of a lens through which to read Emerson,  since I will argue that Emerson conceives of a literature and a writing/reading experience that is luminous and allusive. This is the language from “American Scholar” we will encounter in our first assignment:

One must be an inventor to read well. As the proverb says, “He that would bring home the wealth of the Indies, must carry out the wealth of the Indies.” There is then creative reading as well as creative writing. When the mind is braced by labor and invention, the page of whatever book we read becomes luminous with manifold allusion. Every sentence is doubly significant, and the sense of our author is as broad as the world. We then see, what is always true, that, as the seer’s hour of vision is short and rare among heavy days and months, so is its record, perchance, the least part of his volume. The discerning will read, in his Plato or Shakespeare, only that least part,–only the authentic utterances of the oracle;– all the rest he rejects, were it never so many times Plato’s and Shakespeare’s.

This sense of allusive (and elusive?) luminousness suggests both a problem and a potential for reading and grasping and learning from Emerson. That’s our primary goal–to learn from Emerson such that we, liberal arts scholars of the very sort Emerson often addressed in his lectures, may put his ideas to work in our scholarship; our secondary goal is to consider how others’ reading and learning from Emerson has shaped their work and more broadly, the current of American culture. (A tertiary goal, for me, as a scholar doing work on Emerson and his rhetoric of liberal education, is to engage you with some of these educational ideals shared between Emerson and the liberal arts tradition and see what I can learn from you in the process). Those writers and readers and learners have long pointed out the challenge of learning from an Emerson who is concerned precisely with how we learn, worried about the ways we are schooled. One well-known version of this recognition is given by Walt Whitman, who characterized “Emersonianism” in a piece titled luminously “Emerson’s Books (The Shadows of Them)”:

The best part of Emeronianism is, it breeds the giant that destroys itself. Who wants to be any man’s mere follower? lurks behind every page. No teacher ever taught, that has so provided for his pupil’s setting up independently–no truer evolutionist. (Whitman: Poetry and Prose [Library of America] 1055)

And, always, there is Emerson himself to reckon with. “I have been writing and speaking what were once called novelties, for twenty five or thirty years,” Emerson writes in an 1859 journal, “and have not now one disciple”: “Why? Not that what I said was not true; not that it has not found intelligent receivers but because it did not go from any wish in me to bring men to me, but to themselves. I delight in driving them from me…. This is my boast that I have no school and no follower” (JMN 14: 258).

Our primary critical guide throughout the course, the Emerson scholar Lawrence Buell, characterizes this challenge in this way: “Emerson as Anti-Mentor.”

To begin a seminar in this way is a matter of provocation. This is an Emersonian place to begin.

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