Kenneth Burke
Kenneth Burke; drawing by David Levine

In 1924 Kenneth Burke published his first book of fiction, The White Oxen, and Other Stories. His first book of criticism, Counterstatement, appeared in 1931. Now, ten books later, we have his Collected Poems. The collected short fiction, The Complete White Oxen, includes the book of 1924 and additional pieces rescued from magazines living or dead.

It is good to have the early fiction available again and a new edition of Towards a Better Life, Burke’s sole novel. When we put these beside Counterstatement, we have the generating source of the Complete Works, subject to the excellent qualification that Burke is still working, eloquent and sleepless as ever, a born insomniac. The later books are his Enigma Variations on themes discovered in the early stories and proposed for contemplation in Counterstatement. This is in keeping with Burke’s procedure from the beginning: discovering something in practice, he ponders it in principle. Criticism is the tribute he pays to creation. Prince Llan, hero of an early story, devotes himself “to seeing how, if a given thing is so, other things follow.” Given experience, he looks for the symbols of experience, as T. S. Eliot distinguished between the experience and its meaning, knowing that a man may have one and yet miss the other.

In a recent autobiographical story, “The Anaesthetic Revelation of Herone Liddell,” the hero offers a design for living, sleepless in his lonely tower. Start, he counsels, with “the sheer physicality of life,” the human organism “as simply one more species of alimentary canal with accessories.” But then, in keeping with “the thinking of the body,” allow for the sustaining miracle of language, since man is the symbol-using animal. Finally, consider the motives peculiar to this special property, “this miracle, or accident, or morbidity, of language—a plane of symbolism capable of pointing toward ‘perfections’ intrinsic to itself.” To live by these perfections, the prone hero reflects, would be to live under the sign of their sheer formality, according to ultimates proper to the medium. Such a life, he concedes to his quarrelsome self, would be a fiction, from the standpoint of the body, but it would have the sanction of its own coherence. What more could a patient in a hospital want?

Later, the hero develops the design in musical terms, appropriate to an author who for a time wrote musical criticism for The Dial. Suppose you are a musician, a composer, and suddenly a theme occurs to you, “like an unopened bundle of possibilities.” You accept what the gods have given, and you develop variations on the gift: “successively, you make it brisk, playful, plaintive, pensive, solemn, grandiose, nostalgic, muscularly ingenious, and the like.” At the very least, he says to himself, “you have produced a form by carrying a principle of consistency into an area that threatened it with disintegration (disintegration insofar as the principle of consistency risked becoming lost in the variety).”

It is my impression that this is the principle, born of Counterstatement and the white oxen, which Burke has reared and nurtured, the care of forty years. The threatening variety is the material of the later books: for handy reference, Permanence and Change (science, technology, religion, change, perspective, symbolism), Attitudes towards History (acceptance, rejection, yes and no and perhaps), The Philosophy of Literary Form (where everything flows, War, Hitler, Capitalism, Freud, the Divided States of Depression), A Grammar of Motives (act, agent, agency, scene, purpose), A Rhetoric of Motives (magic, style, fulfillment), The Rhetoric of Religion (words of first and last things), and Language as Symbolic Action (mind, body, money, faction, drama, mystery, sacrifice, prophecy after linguistic events). “Insofar as you have succeeded,” Herone Liddell tells himself, “you have unified this variety.” Nay more, he urges, success in this enterprise would mean saturating the whole world with a single personal motive, “summed up in the attitude-of-attitudes that was implicit in your theme.” Areas of disintegration, one after another, succumb to form, Herone’s form.

SO THE RELATION between fiction and criticism is peculiarly close in Burke. In “The Man of Forethought,” Carter plans in loving detail his conquest of Clarisse, Dick’s wife; the detail is so engrossing, so satisfying in its cogency, that conquest is indefinitely postponed. In A Grammar of Motives Burke considers how an attitude, intended as preparation for an act, may take the place of the act. The story is playful, the criticism muscularly ingenious. Herone Liddell, an agnostic, resembles a believer, “for his distrust of pronouncements about the supernatural extended also to a distrust of the naturalistic critique of supernaturalism.” Sensitive to the ingenuities of dialectic, he knows “that one need not believe in God to love theology.” Somewhat impious, he relishes “the sheer stylistics of piety,” and lo his creator is given (by Whom?) the good grace to write The Rhetoric of Religion in which God appears on every page and is piously glossed in the index by the word passim. One thing incriminates another, the fiction calls to the fiction. An early story, “David Wassermann,” is a practice shot at Towards a Better Life; encomia and tirades, composed for their own sakes, point to human occasions for which they will be useful as well as decorative.


But the “principle of consistency” must be named. Let us say: in a bad time, art is good. The bad time is obvious because historical, the Twenties and their dirtyminded offspring, the Thirties. Art is good; imagination, language, their nuptial conjunctions. In Counterstatement Burke is concerned with “the varied ways in which men seek by symbolic means to make themselves at home in social tensions.” So the book studies the given terms of conflict: society and the individual, literature and life, bourgeois and bohemian, the imagination and “the increasing blatancy of our customs,” Nature and Grace. Thomas Mann and André Gide are praised for “trying to make us at home in indecision,” humanizing the state of doubt. An art may be of value, Burke proposes, by “preventing a society from becoming too assertively, too hopelessly, itself.” It may be good for us to be demoralized, worried, slow to act: there is dogma enough, God knows. There are enough certainties in high places. Literature may help us to prepare for real ills (life) by accustoming us to imaginary ills (poems). So creation is nothing if not critical. The motto of the imagination is “when in Rome, do as the Greeks.” In “Prince Llan” the hero muses with himself, thus:

The intellect is the most advisable narcotic, since it enables us to live a waking deep-sleep, to get the completeness of the facts, but without the poignancy. By the word I create, I act—which means, I slay. Man by nature a slayer. Having become too subtle to dispose of his maladjustments by the slaying of wild beasts, he turns to the slaying of his emotions. The intellect unites living with death, perception with immunity.

The corresponding myth is Perseus and the Medusa, recited in The Philosophy of Literary Form: “Perseus who could not face the serpent-headed monster without being turned to stone, but was immune to this danger if he observed it by reflection in a mirror.” So the poet’s style, Burke says, “is this mirror, enabling him to confront the risk, but by the protection of an indirect reflection.”

The good of art is the good of language, form, style. The good of style is ingratiation. If you find yourself reading, for the third time, an essay on Julius Caesar or the theory of evolution, and if you want to read the sentences aloud, you are living in style. Burke is a stylist: he does not feel obliged to write bad sentences to match the evil of the time. Johnson said of Richardson that if you were to read him for the story, you would hang yourself; “you must read him for the sentiment, and consider the story as only giving occasion to the sentiment.” I am content with that as a description of Towards a Better Life, especially if the reader is willing to add an interest in the sentences. Many of Burke’s stories have plot in the sense that Milton’s Comus has plot, where the reader’s interest in the events is sustained by his interest in formal development. The relation of verbum to res is well enough, but Burke is intrigued by the fact that the word “tree” has its own possibilities of “growth,” by grammar, location, syntax, and so forth, independent of the thing it names. Many of his nicest effects are achieved by declaring that independence, sending brave words aloft as trial balloons. The epigraph to The Complete White Oxen is taken from the first Book of Martial’s Epigrams, where the satirist says he would apologize for the freedom of his language, “lascivam verborum licenciam,” if Catullus, Marsus, Pedo, and Gaetulicus did not equally resort to it. As Stevens said, “we are conceived in our conceits.”

BURKE IS DEVOTED to language because it is the realm of possibility. In a poem “To the Memory of e.e. cummings” he writes of that poet, “You talked of fruit like dangling participles”; so it is relevant to say that Burke talks of dangling participles as if they were fruit. Sometimes he changes a grammatical rule and applies the new sentences to their human equivalents; as in “Six Grammatical Charades” he turns reportage into pageantry by eliminating from the English language its frigid possession of neutral gender. Nothing is left but masculine and feminine, that is, male and female: of sky and beach it is then permissible to say, “She warmed to his sunlight.” Herone Liddell, after his operation, writes to a friendly psychologist to express a feeling of loss. “I feel as though I had had my connotations cut out,” he says; and his friend, rising to the occasion, reminds him that at least he still has his denotations. Burke has a remarkable capacity for taking the pains of language; as he writes one of his best love-poems by using the signs along the Californian coast-road (Soft Shoulders, Cattle Crossing, Falling Rocks, Slippery-When-Wet, and the like). To this poet, words are yeast. Fielding speaks of the “drollery of style,” and in Burke, beneath the sophistication, there is a happy simpleton, like the fellow invoked in Herone Liddell’s conceit, a man delighting in the sheer affinities of sound. In Language as Symbolic Action Burke often takes the words on the page as starting point or ignition key; thereafter moving in either direction, back into feeling and motive, forward into the potentialities of language itself, knowing that in the phrase “symbolic action” he can underline now the adjective, now the noun. A man needs room to move.


The principle is reflective and, as well, reflexive. The flowers of thought grow from the dung of experience, but gardening is hard work. Burke thought of calling his book of poems “The Orphan’s Cheek,” in deference to a Spanish proverb which says that the barber practices on an orphan’s cheek. Imagine then an orphan who tries to make an honest living as a barber. So we come to Burke’s Collected Poems, his most personal book, the cheek bared to the razor. Burke has never been a professional poet, so he can afford to be an amateur, like Donne or Swift. If he has the experience of an anxious scholar, he has the aesthetic of a gentleman, with appropriate hints of gallantry in diction. We assume that his theory in this matter coincides with that announced in the “Anaesthetic Revelation of Herone Liddell.” “I dote,” Herone says, “on thoughts of verse that would have but fragments of meaning, like shells the sea has pounded into bits: the nearness to nonsense might help accentuate the lines in their formality.” Then follows an exemplum, “Entrance with Fanfare,” which may be read again in the Collected Poems.

Presumably the way to read this poem is to be content with a general impression (Shakespearean, Falstaffian note) and then to let the details define the impression, if they will, more precisely. If some details are intractable, let them go; we are gentlemen, too. Herone goes on to speculate on “Mother Goose,” a poem which comes as close to a poet’s Heaven as any poet is ever likely to achieve. Poetry can be pure, he says, only when it attains to “the gestures and tonalities of itself, being statement but ‘in principle.’ ” We may love verse most “for its bare prosody, needing meaning only because by shades of meaning we increase the subtlety and range of accents.” We recall that in Counterstatement Burke discussed “Mother Goose” as an example of “conventional form,” where a form is so appealing as a form that it is sought for its own sake. “Mother Goose” offers a pure beginning and a pure end but nothing in the middle, so its nonsense underlines formal appeal. Many of Burke’s own poems are engaging in this way; like his “Problem of Motives,” selected some years ago by Marianne Moore as a masterpiece.

BUT BURKE’S POEMS are rarely pure, despite Herone’s aesthetic. The poet admires purity and would have it for his poems if he could disengage himself from the impurity of his experience. But he is morbidly loyal to that old hag. So he settles upon an amateur mode of poetry, reserving it for certain moods, including moods of uncertainty. The epigraph to his first collection of poems, Book of Moments (1955), was taken from Emerson: “Our moods do not believe in each other.” I do not know the occasion in Emerson, but I assume he trusted his moods to come together amicably enough at some level of being. Burke allows his moods to speak freely, the moments to declare themselves as they will, for they are absolute. He thinks of them as having names, in capitals: Delight, Promise, Victory, Regret, Departure, and so on, picturesque. Other moments are called Yes, No, Maybe, Look, Huh?, Please, and (in devotion to Miss Moore, “the deft poetess”), Nevertheless. Some moods are so impure that they resolve themselves in “editorials,” to give them Robert Frost’s description when he adverted to some of his own moody poems. But most of Burke’s poems sound as if they were written by a Wandering Scholar, a wordman sleepless in a motel between late night and early morning. The corresponding themes include these: first and last things, dreams, insomnia, traffic, money, politics, contamination (“I’m a Rachel Carson man”), and Progress, hated for its siren songs. The poet yields to the mood, knowing that it is his own, however poor, and knowing also that any mood is eternal, so long as there are people around to compare it with their own.

The Collected Poems include the Book of Moments and a big batch of poems written since 1955. Predictably, the recent poems are distress-signals. Burke has always been something of an agrarian, certainly a pre-lapsarian, as befits a man whose postal address is R.D.2, Andover, New Jersey. So he has no time for circumspection when the poems come to Big Business and its cohorts. In this poetic rhetoric weeds are a good sign, factories are bad. Vermont is the place to be:

Industry dies
That once again
The streams may quicken
With the strike of decent trout.

Perhaps to take the harm out of vituperative poems, Burke offers an alternative explanation. Of course the times are bad, but a poet may enjoy the accents of vituperation for their own sakes and will seek appropriate occasion. Besides, “the writer may happen to be also a critic who never feels quite right about criticism unless it is moderate in tone and at least theoretically charitable.” So he is bound to have moods which reject his own urbanity, and these are likely to call for release in more aggressive verse with the tonalities of rage. Both in prose and verse there is recourse to Thersites, with a note of envy as from one master to another more accomplished still in vituperation. The source is often “self-pool of black night,” often the categorical anguish. Many of the poems are Ovidian, Tristia; others are Ovidian, Metamorphoses. Some are even devotional, as if to conjure into presence a God hitherto somewhat rejected if not despised: “My God, I humbly beg Thee—be.”

IT IS TIME to name the memorable things, or some of them. The best poems have that air of finality which gives Towards a Better Life its Johnsonian cast; a man’s best answer to the public rot. From Book of Moments I would choose “Problem of Moments” if it were not already bespoken by Miss Moore; thereafter my uncompiled anthology would require “The Conspirators,” “The Wrens,” (“Behind the giving-forth, wren-history;/ Man-history behind the taking-in,”) then the “Eroticon: As from the Greek Anthology.” The later batch has “Transformation,” and some wonderful fancies of might-have-been, like “Apostrophe: On Being Happy” and “The Protection of Property.” “The Scene Behind the Scene” turns some prose speculations into verse and is none the worse for its origin. “Prayer for Insomniacs” translates low morale into high spirits. But if the anthologist were confined to one or two poems, he might be happy with “Problem of Moments” and “The Conspirators.” Quoting the first, Miss Moore said of its musical finesse: “Here we have balance, compression, crescendo, and neatly articulated, impeccably accelerated rhyme, with each stanza punctuated by a rhymeword.” The poetess, richly attentive, admires deftness in others, deft herself. But these are indeed the terms in which Burke’s best poems are to be read and praised. “The Conspirators” has three stanzas, the first reciting the rituals of mutuality:

Beyond earshot of others, furtively,
He whispered, “You best”; she, “You above all.”
It was a deal. They did conspire to- gether,
Using the legalities, planning for preferment.

In the second stanza the poet sends the married folk into the marketplace, to make public property their own, marking its privacy as a function of their own:

Going into the market, they got tables,
Chairs, and other properties from the public
Stock-pile, taking absolute possession
For them alone. These things, all no one else’s,
They thought, plotting further to increase
Their store. To have, to hold, to love—theirs only.

The lovers have carried their “principle of consistency” into an area which would be dangerous if it were not curbed, as here, by force of principle. But there is no danger. The third stanza reads:

And after dark, behind drawn blinds, with doors locked,
And lights off, wordless in wedded privacy,
They went and got out the family jewels,
Put his and hers together, playing treasure.

It might seem that the event, by its absolute quality, defeats the word-man’s theories: the miracle of language is shamed by an even greater miracle. But we must watch how this poet uses the word “wordless” here and elsewhere. In The Rhetoric of Religion he says that the supernatural is by definition the realm of the “ineffable,” a realm intractable to language. So our words for that realm must be borrowed from our words for the empirical realm, daily experience. But later in the same book he ponders such relations as those between time and eternity, existence and essence, and, necessarily, between words and “the Word.” The text is the Confessions of St. Augustine. Pondering this last relation, Burke says:

The “eternal Word” by which the world was created must have been in silence, for there was as yet no matter and time whereby the syllables could arise and fall in succession.

So in “The Conspirators” the lovers are wordless, the poem says, not because speech is defeated or redundant, but because their love is silence, the ground of all speech. The occasion is absolute, the hyperbole runs, and therefore the attendant idiom is of first and last things, partaking of the eternal Word. Indeed, the intimations would fly out of time altogether if they were not drawn back to time, body, and empirical gallantry. As it is, the daily things are transfigured, magical; jewels, treasure.

This Issue

July 11, 1968