O Altitudo!

The Seamless Web

by Stanley Burnshaw
Braziller, 310 pp., $7.50

Stanley Burnshaw’s long and closely knit book opens with the declaration that “poetry begins with the body and ends with the body.” Like the snake with its tail in its mouth, it closes with the same sentence, adding “it begins in one and ends in another.” In between a lot happens, or nothing happens: rather, a large number of fascinating questions connected with the poet-poem and poem-reader relationships are raised, discussed intelligently and cooly, and gently dropped back into that dark and unchartable sea from which they came. Or, to put it another way, in between there is a well-chosen anthology of what poets, critics, philosophers, and psychologists have had to say about the nature of art, how it comes about and what it does. Some of Mr. Burnshaw’s own contributions are worthy of the company they keep.

But as an argument? If it is an argument, it comes to no conclusion, or to so many conclusions as to amount to the same thing. To have come to a clear and single conclusion, Mr. Burnshaw would have had to limit himself severely or else to cheat, or of course to be simple. The variety of factors involved in the genesis of a literary work may not be infinite, but it is not far off. The variety of effects produced by a variety of poems on a variety of readers may not be infinite, but it is quite near. Compared with the exploration of art, the exploration of the moon is a weekend assignment for schoolboys.

The intellectually myopic are not so likely, I suppose, to be blinded with science. Which may be why I found Mr. Burnshaw’s physiological, biological, cerebral, and zoological excursuses less illuminating than they were meant to be. The use in artistic investigation of scientific procedure and parallels is nearly always a mistake, if a well-intentioned one: the outcome is a rather sorry thing by the standards of scientific discourse, so that all the champion of the arts can say, lamely, is that everything has been explained except what matters. It has to be added that Mr. Burnshaw’s concern is not with poetry as ersatz fodder for scientific methodology, but with poetry as an activity of the most complex and indeed most momentous kind, and his dealings with it are a good deal more delicate than those of Richards’s Principles of Literary Criticism.

A poem comes out of the poet’s total organism, psychophysical, mindbody, and goes into the reader’s total organism…. Mr. Burnshaw’s first chapter is rich in expert witness, yet for all its recondite detail, it tells us little we didn’t know before. It doesn’t tell us as much (or as vividly) as Lawrence does in his lively, casual-seeming piece, “Why the Novel Matters”:

Now I absolutely flatly deny that I am a soul, or a body, or a mind, or an intelligence, or a brain, or a nervous system, or a bunch of glands, or any of the rest of these bits…

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