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
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.

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 and William James

September 26, 2015 § Leave a comment

In 1842, while Emerson was lecturing in New York City, the lecture series that included “The Poet” attended by Walter Whitman, a newspaper editor from Brooklyn, a newborn William James was brought to Emerson for his blessing. Ever since, Emerson has been viewed as William James’s intellectual godfather. James, later in his life, read through Emerson’s works carefully (more than once), and frequently cited his thought or expression–as he does in “On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings.” James is known for developing a philosophy of pragmatism. This essay isn’t from his book of that name (it comes a few years later, significantly after he does an extended rereading of Emerson in preparation for his 1903 memorial address “Emerson”), but it could be read as on its way to that perspective, especially the resolution it reaches for how we should act, given our blindness. Earlier in his career, James also published a monumental work on Psychology, which includes a famous chapter on “The Stream of Thought.”

For more reading and research on William James, should you want to purse this philosophical relation further, consult the following web sources:

William James (UKY site): links to digital versions of many of his texts and essays.

William James’ Cambridge.

For more on James’s interest in, and understanding of, Emerson, read his memorial address included in our Norton edition of Emerson’s works.

You could also read an essay that I have written on Emerson, James, and (as I argue) a relationship of ideas and context that concern rhetoric and the changes in liberal education that emerge with the new American university at the end of the nineteenth century. That essay, “Metonymies of Mind: Ralph Waldo Emerson, William James, and the Rhetoric of Liberal Education,” will be published in the journal Philosophy and Rhetoric. Here is the abstract (if you want to read the essay, I can send you the manuscript):

Critics in both philosophy and literary studies have rightly emphasized a “poetics of transition” relating the thought of Ralph Waldo Emerson to that of William James. However, less attention has been given to the ways that Emerson’s philosophy of rhetoric correlates with James’s rhetorical perspectives on psychology and philosophy. Fundamentally rhetorical interests in the contiguous circumstances and contingent reception of thinking link James to Emerson beyond matters of poetics and style. This essay correlates Emerson’s understanding of a rhetoric of metonymy as the basis of thinking with the principle of contiguity crucial to James’s philosophy of mind. This relation between rhetoric and philosophy reiterates a rhetoric of mind that both Emerson and James associate with the older liberal education of the college just at the point that it disappears into the professional, specialized disciplines of the emerging university in late nineteenth-century America.

One other line of thinking for further reading. Recall how James uses his dog–and our intimate relation to such animals, and yet our inability to understand them–as analogy for how humans are radically blind to all beings, human and nonhuman. This implication from James and his philosophy of pragmatism has been taken up by philosophers more recently and applied to the topic of environmentalism and animal rights. For example, the volume Animal Pragmatism: Rethinking Human-Nonhuman Relationships. I wonder if you see this sense of ethical relation to the world in Emerson’s philosophy of nature and experience, or would argue for this perspective as a counter to the ways Emerson seems to locate the natural world in the mind of the self. Something, perhaps, for a final project.

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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