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Learning from a Modern Master

Robert Barker/Cornell University Photography
M.H. Abrams, Ithaca, New York, 2008

Hour One

During the days I spent in Cornell’s philosophy department as a graduate student in the late 1940s, I thought poorly of English departments, and believed myself, concerning literature, beyond instruction. However, after the first humbling year among the mathematically minded, I needed some relief. My fellow students were firecrackers. Their bursts of stardom lit the intellectual landscape. I was the damp fuse one lights and then impatiently waits for.

There was a class on Psychology and Lit that came recommended. So, in my armored costume of a smartass, I came to the first meeting of this class in time to hear its youthful leader, M.H. Abrams,* cite…who?—Coleridge; quoting…whom?—the Reverend James Bowyer…huh? “In the truly great poets …there is a reason assignable, not only for every word, but for the position of every word.” To meet the Principle of Sufficient Reason on my first day!

The following semester I attended Abrams’s seminar on Coleridge. We were studying the Biographia Literaria in the following fashion: each of us was assigned a book or bunch of books mentioned or consulted by Coleridge, and told to come to our sessions prepared to explain just what these references were and how they fit into the Biographia as a whole. I could not imagine a better method of approach, especially since my subject was the reception of the Lyrical Ballads of Coleridge and Wordsworth. To my new task I brought writers mostly of my own time—Eliot and Pound and Yeats, Faulkner and Joyce and Ford Madox Ford—and critics fresh from the bakery like Blackmur, Ransom, Tate, Empson, and Brooks. They taught me how to read, how to reread, even to overread—slow read and rapid read; they readied me to admire Finnegans Wake and its subsidences. Ulysses was not hard to read, just difficult to understand; Pound’s Cantos were difficult to read, therefore the proper measure of a man.

John Donne was splendid when we first set our eyes on him, but even a greater poet when we got through with our inquiries. Shelley, some said, did not vacuum very well. Congratulations for enjoying such prejudices should be directed to whom, then? Not to a “he,” not to a “him,” but to a “we” whom we called the New Critics. They also came equipped with fallacy detectors, purifiers, instruments of analysis and deduction, mops to sweep up multiple meanings: they enlarged poems, they did not diminish them. Above all, they were largely poets—good poets—themselves.

Hour Two

Many of Abrams’s essays in The Fourth Dimension of a Poem are defensive. They point to elements in poetry that are frequently overlooked, and aspects that should be attended to. They wish to protect the traditional humanist from the poststructuralist’s heavy boot. And often there is a tone not of defeat, but of hopelessness in the arguments of the opposing sides when Abrams refers to them. The issues seem so minuscule; yet one kind of thinking about literature is at war with another; the quarrel has been going on since caves were invented; and the price to the defeated side may be silence for centuries.

The poet composes the poem; the critic explains it. The poet is inspired to write the lines; the critic interprets them. But suppose, as has been proposed by followers of Jacques Derrida, there is no right reading of the work, no correct sense for it. Out of a cage of calculations, suppose we are free to choose the pigeon we like best.

It might be a rich source of amusement for a poet to wonder whether her poem about her broken heart could be interpreted as a ballad in praise of the changing seasons, or a song about pregnant girls who’ve been put in prison; but if the poem (à la Derrida) is receptive to any interpretation, the poet’s shattered heart can turn into a fistful of fluttering leaves by means of a single metaphor’s transformation; subsequently these leaves can be felt falling on prison walls with the fierceness of a heavy rain or the tears of a hundred captive nuns. Poets might not mind what interpretation is given to their words as long as honor is heaped upon them; but critics will—it will put them out of business.

Abrams says, in his collection of essays Doing Things with Texts (1989):

For Derrida…it is a matter of all-or-nothing; there is no intermediate position on which a determinate interpretation can rest, for if no meanings are absolutely certain and stable, then all meanings are unstable and undecidable.

Absurd connections produced in this way are found to be funny, however, because we still see in the various parts of these jumbles a grimacing face or a tired dog or the picture of a nun peering out a barred window onto a wet courtyard covered with scarves. And it is usually easy for a group to see hints of the same likeness in several Rorschach images. In short, amidst this chaos there still dwells some meaning. Defendable connections have been made. That is what Finnegans Wake says to its reader as the text resubsides in lengthy wavelets down the page.

I am holding up my hand in class. I want to look smart. Add something to the discussion. Dominate the game.

I was a cryptologist during World War II. We sent signals dressed in randomly selected five-letter groups. Wouldn’t these resemble Derrida’s undecidables?

Only on the face of it, young man. The wartime messages that were concealed by an outpouring of alphabets—when decoded—were expected to be as sturdy as a table, clear as tap water, short as a fuse. A periscope in an open sea implies a submarine beneath it (symbol system 1). The presence of the submarine beneath the periscope is recorded on a map that fixes the boat’s location (symbol system 2). The location of the submarine beneath the periscope is encoded (symbol system 3) and then sent by Morse (symbol system 4) to other ships that begin to take precautionary measures—zigzags (symbol systems 5, 6, 7…).

Let’s look at an actual scrap of Yeats’s composing, in this case the poem he first called “What Matter,” which was published as “The Gyres” in the 1930s:


Version 1

What matter—wrinkled rocky face look forth
What’s thought too long can be no longer thought

Version 2

What’s thought? What’s thought? Old rocky face look forth
What’s thought too long must be no longer thought

Version 3

What’s thought too long—old rocky face look forth
What’s thought too long can be no longer thought

Version 4

Old cavern man, old rocky face look forth
Things thought too long can be no longer thought

Version 5

The gyres! The gyres—old Rocky face look forth

Version 6

The gyres, the gyres—old rocky face look forth
Things thought too long can be no longer thought

Version 7

The gyres! The gyres! Old Rocky Face look forth; (a)
Things thought too long can be no longer thought (b)
For beauty dies of beauty, worth of worth, (a)
And ancient lineaments are blotted out. (b)
Irrational streams of blood are staining earth; (a)
Empedocles has thrown all things about; (b)
Hector is dead and there’s a light in Troy; (c)
We that look on but laugh in tragic joy. (c)

We can follow the starts and stops, the cancellations and erasures, of countless trials before the final version is given permanence on the printed page. It is as if Yeats were hunting for a pair of exclamatory lines with which to open the perfect poem.

The poem packs two “thoughts” in one self-reflective warning. A figure of speech floats above the text waiting for a weary line to come its way; perhaps an assertion will be asked to step forth from the page, and speak the poet’s mind. This is how a poem most often comes to be. Many other lines and pieces of later passages impinge upon what has come and what will come, each move causing an adjustment, so that the mental air is vibrating with altered refinements. Scarcely a word passes through these trials untouched.

In this case it is the biblical phrase “look forth” and the key first ideas, “things thought too long” and “can be no longer thought.” The gyres—Yeats’s word for spirals—do not blunder into the poem until version five. (In “The Second Coming,” written in 1919, the falcon flying in widening gyres cannot hear the falconer. “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.”)

What finally remains unchanged does not necessarily signify that the writer is satisfied with what’s been done; the perfect poem remains a wraith; nevertheless, only the poet is authorized to make changes. A magazine may purchase the rights to publish it but the author, alone, is its source. If an editor meddles, it is only by permission. In the first two lines of “The Gyres” we will find the poem’s initial title, “What Matter,” but in time this phrase will appear in the second stanza instead of the opening one.

Of course the creative atmosphere is not really crowded with ideally formed statuary or perfectly composed sonnets or tunes as frequent as bees. Yet as the artist alters lines of songs or traces a pair of thighs along a run of marble—erases, starts and stops, adds or subtracts—tries this, avoids that—to arrive more closely at some desirable station—perhaps in a baroque mannerist style such as this is—using everywhere nominalist lists because universals have been discarded—the artist’s actions will be as if the perfect instance did exist, as if a goal did persist—if only…

Hour Three

Roughly, back in the day, the writer created the text and spelled its edges; the critic presented it, assisted with its reading; and the reader—well—the reader read, another skill as important, and as rarely done well, as that of the art of writing itself. Whatever torture the poem went through was allegedly for its own good; the critic had to admire the more deeply understood poem that he had helped create by his efforts at understanding; but that was easy enough to do because most of the people analyzing and admiring were poets themselves; they may have been opponents of other critics but not of the poems, or the poets who wrote them either, or of readers eager to be taught.

Cleanth Brooks might write a book entitled A Shaping Joy. Imagine the shaping. Imagine the joy. Little did writers, readers, or critics suspect that in all those works, whose art had enlivened their lives, there lurked contradictions as friendly to the face as Iago’s, and as treacherous. Nor did he imagine that these beloved works were the habitations of spurious ideals, and exhibited such bad housekeeping that they gave readers license to muck about. This stirring of the pot was called “deconstruction” and its victims sometimes blamed the French, a few the pot.

Language departments swiftly succumbed because, apparently, they had nothing else to do, but they were also weary of the New Criticism, now old, and still an apparent opponent of scholarly, biographic approaches. This French import’s managed coup has been much argued in the academy. Abrams has examined these enthusiasms with his customary fairness in “Construing and Deconstructing,” an essay in Doing Things with Texts, as well as in The Fourth Dimension of a Poem. I hope to be excused for my cavalier treatment of deconstruction but I am overcome with gaiety at its departure.

Abrams quotes J. Hillis Miller (one of the spokespersons for the method) telling us what he’s up to:

The deconstructive critic seeks to find…the element in the system studied which is alogical, the thread in the text in question which will unravel it all, or the loose stone which will pull down the whole building.

In kindergarten, I was constructing a tower of blocks that an envious brat kicked over. This dismayed me, and I was ready to kick him in return, when he popped a couple of the letters of the alphabet into his pockets. I accused him of theft in front of our teacher. Upon examination Miller’s sentence is as stuffed as that kid’s pants.

(1) The deconstructive critic seeks to find… “Seek and ye shall find” is the saying he is thinking of but here he doesn’t need both seeking and finding, one will do. “Find” is perhaps too confident.

(2) The deconstructive critic seeks the element in the system studied… More padding. “System” is sufficient.

(3) The deconstructive critic seeks the element in the system that is alogical, the thread in the text in question… What other text are we talking about? “In question…” is a phrase that can go without capsizing the boat. By the way, “alogical” is a fancyfied word for “indifferent to logic.”

(4) The deconstructive critic seeks the element in the system that is alogical, the thread which will unravel it all. All of it? The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, for instance, uncoiling coils of snake? Or, with a yank on “the loose stone” pull down a volume of Faulkner? The statement seems to be widely directed, but just in case, how about deconstructing something by Longfellow, who always seems to have a solidly personal point of view?

(5) The deconstructive critic finds the thread in the system that will unravel it, or the loose stone which will pull down the whole building. Even those tales told by Edgar Allan Poe or his carefully plotted raven poem? Moreover looseness doesn’t pull. If removed, the building collapses from its own weight. Which is it going to be? The system is either a building or a sweater. The two metaphors—thread or stone—refuse to marry. May I suggest another image: in some cases the text may act like a wave that washes over us, followed by the undertow that draws us back. Fads do that too.

  1. *

    I have learned only recently that he is known to everyone as “Mike,” but he was Professor Abrams to me, and then became identified by his initials, M.H.A., when his books came out. I see no reason why he should remember now a W.H.G. However, my ignorance is a measure of the distance between us. 

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