Saturday, September 26, 2009

Virginia Woolf's Poetic Prose

There are some things that we struggle to define in literature. One of these seems to be poetry. I feel it can only be defined in opposition to prose. But what happens when an author uses the conventions of poetry in prose? Do you have a prose poem? This is not always the case. Virginia Woolf seems to weave the conventions of poetry into her short stories and it seems in some of her short stories, she is writing a prose poem. It seems that poetry and prose are defined as the author defines them. Woolf’s short stories blur the line between poetry and prose by using conventions from poetry with the presentation of prose (the continued lines without line breaks that create white space).

Kemp says “Woolf also expressed admiration for the Russian novelists, and shard with them a sense that chaotic or incoherent experience should be included in fiction” (62). I believe that this is why Woolf seems more poetic than conventional prose writers. One convention that Woolf uses that is present in all of her short stories is stream of consciousness. Though poetry is not considered to be stream of consciousness, modern and contemporary poetry lack a plot. Rather this poetry presents images and words that evoke the emotion.. Often these images and emotions can be seemingly unrelated. However, the poet strings them together in order to elicit an emotion. Compare how Dean young uses several images in his poem “Poem without Forgiveness” to the way Virginia Woolf uses stream of conscious to do the same thing for her readers.

You want to take back

the ugly thing you said, but some shrapnel

remains in the wound, some mud.

Night after night Tybalt’s stabbed

so the lovers are ground in mechanical

aftermath. Think of the gunk that never

comes off the roasting pan, the goofs

of a diamond cutter. But wasn’t it

electricity’s blunder into inert clay

that started this whole mess (Young 5-14)

Here young is using several different images, ideas, and metaphors in order to talk about an emotion/reaction to an event in a more abstract way, rather than just creating a straightforward plot. Woolf does this also in her short stories. For example, she says in “Monday or Tuesday,” “red is the dome; coins hang on the trees; smoke trails from the chimneys; bark, shout, cry ‘Iron for Sale’—and the truth?” In “Blue and Green,” she also does this, and she does it define the emotion or reaction that each color elicits. Woolf also does this on a larger scale with in her stories, jumping from character description to object, etc. For example, in “An Unwritten Novel,” there seems to be the cohesive idea of a woman with the speaker on a train. However, the speaker jumps from minute detail to description of inner thought so readily that a distinct plot is lost, and instead, we gain a sense of character and emotion. Woolf also uses concise word choice, something that modern and contemporary poets favor.

Woolf also uses alliteration in her short stories. In “An Unwritten Novel,” Woolf says, “They would say she kept her sorrow, suppressed her secret—her sex they’d say—the scientific people. But what flummery to saddle her with sex” (23). This repetition of “s” sound makes the sentence flow smoothly, and this uses of alliteration reminds the reader more of a poem than of short story. Both “Monday or Tuesday” and “An Unwritten Novel” are rich in these alliterations. Woolf also uses similes, which are not unique to poetry but are found more readily there. Also, she uses the repletion of phrases such as “that’s what always happens” and “hang still” in “An Unwritten Novel.” I feel like “Kew Garden” and “The Mark on the Wall” contain stronger plots and less poetic language. However, they do keep with strong imagery and a less clear plot than conventional short stories.

Having never read Virginia Woolf’s short stories, I was surprised by them. I loved the language and fluidity of the text. There is just so much going on in these short and concise stories that I feel I could read them repeatedly and still find them enjoyable because they don’t rely on plot.

Dean Young's “Poem Without Forgiveness” can be found at The Paris Review website.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Modernism and Visual Art

Glen Macleod’s chapter in The Cambridge Companion to Modernism, helped me understand the difference between the movements In modern art that had before been all jumbled together for me. Though I knew that there were differences, I tended to, like most people unfamiliar with art of this period, lump them all together. I found this article particularly helpful in understanding the readings from Bloomsbury Group Reader. Macleod talks about Picasso and Cezanne and cubism. There were three different stages of cubism. Cubism started as presenting scenes in abstract ways through geometrical shapes. The second stage is analytical cubism which the artists rarely used color in order to draw the attention of the reader to the form. Synthetic cubism is the third stage, and it was the adding back in of things (such as words, found objects, and color). Macleod says, “the cubist techniques of fragmentation, multiple perspectives, and juxtaposition are part of the standard modernist repertoire, from Eliot’s The Waste Land to Steven’s “The Man with the Blue Guitar” (202).

In London the first major showing of Modernist art was held in London in 1910, and was called “Manet and the Post-Impressionists.” Roger Fry, who Macleod says has the greatest influence as an art critic, say in Retrospect that the Post-Impressionist name represents the “divorce from the parent stock” of Impressionist (Macleod 203; Fry 400). Fry’s critical work on art and artistic movements reached to literature in its influence on the ideas of New Criticism. In addition to Fry, Desond MacCarthy talks about the ideas of Post-Impressionism and like Fry, he defines the Post-impressionists against what the Impressionists embodied. He says, “The Post-Impressionists on the other hand were not concerned with recording impressions of colour or light. They were interested in the discoveries of the Impressionists only so far as these discoveries helped them to express emotions which the objects themselves evoked” (98). This seems to fit in line with the entire modernist movement in that is using tradition to move away from tradition and create something new. Also, it reminiscent of the ideas that we saw in Pound’s and Eliot’s ideas on writing. Eliot’s term of objective correlative is similar to art and the idea of using an object painted in a certain way to evoke an emotion. Instead of using images, colors in a new way, the poets of modernism are trying to use language in a new way. Clive Bell mentions this in his essay, “The Artistic Problem.” Bell says, “The artistic problem is the problem of making a match between an emotional experience and a form that has been conceived but not created” (104).He goes on to talk about how “realist” novels fail because they fail to capture the emotion. In this Bell is advocating for a different mode of expression.

Macleod also talks about the Dada movement, which he says, “seems to have completely passed over London” (209). He also calls it “a nose-thumbing challenge to all convention” (209). Surrealism is another art movement, but it started primarily as an literary movement. There were two camps of Surrealist painting, veristic which is illusionistic or dream-like, and absolute, which is more extreme. According to Macleod, by the 1930s, the art world in Paris was divided into the opposing groups of Surrealist and abstractionist.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Eliot's Poetry

T.S. Eliot poetry is modern in that it is written in free verse. He does not cling to a standard rhyme scheme, but he does tend to use end-rhyme without a specific form. For example in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” almost the entire first stanza is end-rhymed, but the third stanza contains only two lines that are end-rhymed. However, Eliot does hold to the haughty tone of the “traditional” poetry especially in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and “Portrait of a Lady.”

Also both “The Love Song J. Alfred Prufrock: and “Portrait of a Lady” both address an unknown “you.” It seems that Prufock, from the inclusion of love song in the title of the first poem, is addressing a woman/lover. He only addresses the woman directly in each poem very little and both times at the beginning of the poem. In “Prufrock,” he says “Let us go then, you and I” which comes in the first line (1). Later in poem he again refers to you when he says, “there will be time for you and time for me (2). In both of these instances, the you is paired with the me of the poem. In “Portrait,” he says, “You have the scene arrange itself—as it will seem to do—“ (5). In both poems, he talks about having tea. In “Prufrock’” and “Portrait,” it seems that it is him and the woman alone. In “ La Figlia che Piange,” the speaker is again addressing someone, but it is not with the pronoun of you. He is giving orders to someone. He says, “Stand on the highest pavement of the stair—/ Lean on a garden urn—/Weave, weave the sunlight in your hair—“ (16). This use of the imairtive gives the reader the idea that he is directing some woman to do things.

Also Eliot makes reference to Hamlet in “Prufrock” and Juliet in “Portrait.” Both of these Shakespearean characters bring up the thought of suicide, especially when looked at together because it is one of the aspects that contributes to the character of each play. Torrens sees the reference to Hamlet as reflection on the essay that Eliot wrote on Hamlet.

However, the time span and scenes are different in each of these poems. In “Portrait,” he describes a December scene in the first section, an April scene in the section and an October scene in the third section. In “Preludes,” the sections also show several different scenes, but they more disconnected than in “Portrait.” In “Prufrock,” it seems to be the narrator walking down the streets of a city, presumably London, and making observations, though they seem rather bleak. It seems to a rather straight through narrative. The streets are “half-deserted,” and he refers to them as the “muttering retreats/ of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels” (1). The repeated image of the yellow fog/smoke in the air gives the feeling of a dirty and grungy city. Eliot also says, “there will be time to murder and create” which at first seems a observation of the people and city around him. Since he is addressing a lover (it is a love song), I wonder if he is playing on the older double meaning of die with murder (He does mention at the end of “Portrait” that he smiled when he thought about speaking of dying). If this is the case, Eliot is playing with the language of sex and creation through sex.

I like sounds in Eliot's poetry. The rhymes do not seem forced and the rhythm of the poetry seems natural (what they were going for in modern poetry). However, I find it hard to get past him as a person (he seems way too elitist for me) and read his poetry for fun.

Monday, September 7, 2009

A Consensus of Modern Views

In “The Function of Crictism,” Eliot says, “I thought of literature then, as I think of it now, of the literature of the world of the literature of Europe, of the literature of a single country, not as a collection of the writings of individuals, but as ‘organic wholes’, as systems in relation to which, and only in relation to which, individual works of literary art, and works of individual artist, have their significance” (68). Eliot refutes the idea of the individual and instead places the emphasis on the movement of the time, in his case Modernism. Hulme speaks, though in a different concept, of this same concept of the individual not being able to escape a movement. Hulme says, “ You at any particular moment may think that you can stand outside a movement. You may think that as an individual you observe both the classic and the romantic spirit and decide from a purely detached. Point of view that one is superior to the other. The answer to this is that no one, in a matter of judgment of beauty, can take a detached standpoint in this way. . . Your opinion is almost entirely of the literary history that came just before you” (97). Though Hulme is arguing an entirely different point, he is saying near the same thing that Eliot says. An individual artist is part of the movement that he is born into. There are not many that could escape this. The same literary history stretches before poets of the same era, and the result is the movements of each era. Materer says that Eliot blames Blake’s culture that “failed to provide what a poet of his visionary kind needed” (7). For Eliot, it is not just that which proceeds the poet that affects him but also the poet’s present surroundings, so Eliot is freely admitting that his poetry is great because he comes from a great literary movement. (I do believe that he thinks his poetry great because Materer quotes him as saying to his mother that he believed the English people considered him the best living poet and critic (2).)

In ”The Metaphysical Poets, Eliot questions how much of their conventions were the product of a movement or school. However, it is hard to argue against the idea of modern school poetry because of Ezra Pound’s writings on the subject of what poetry of his time was in “A retrospect.” The poets of the modern period were moving away from tradition in their conventions of writing, Ezra Pound being a very influential voice in this new definition of poetry. Pound says that he, Hilda Doolittle, and Richard Aldington agreed on three principles of poetry, which he lists as

1. Direct treatment of the ‘thing’ whether subjective or objective.

2. To use absolutely no word that does not contribute to the presentation.

3. As regarding rhythm: to composer in the sequence of the musical phrase not in sequence of a metronome. (58).

He goes on to talk specifically about these three points and to give the reader a list of don’ts in poetry. Another interesting thing that Eliot and Pound both talk about in reference to poetry is that it should express emotion, but not necessary through an outward expression of emotion. The poetry itself through its images should bring the reader to the desired emotion.

I find it interesting that many of Pound’s and the modern movement’s ideas of poetry have stuck around to be thought in poetry writing class today (or at least in my experience). Though I learned all types of poetry, including set forms and meters, the modern poetry that is emphasized seems to go back to Pound’s three principles of poetry.