A Modern Philosophy

A Modern – not so Modern – philosophy of poetry:

I find it interesting, as well as disturbing, that the current trend of “modern” poetry criticism often dismisses any hint of “antique” language as unoriginal and irrelevant. In drawing attention to this I want to acknowledge that I am well aware of T.S. Eliot’s maxim that “any modern poet should say what he or she has to say in the language of his or her own time.” However, what do Eliot’s words mean if the language of the poet’s own time is a language that is becoming less and less musical, colorful and creative? My friend Natalie Fuhr-Salvatore remembers a Bulgarian watchmaker once telling her that the English language is “‘mechanical’ – that basically it is an unfeeling language with limited expression.” Whether you agree with this watchmaker or not, it is a sobering thought that this is the view of someone who spoke another language as their mother tongue — and who repaired very, very precise machinery.

Let me offer you the example of another artistic medium – music. Ludwig van Beethoven is regarded as an incredibly innovative and original composer, one of the greatest of all time. Yet if we examine the works of his later years, arguably some of the most original and profound ever created, then we find something surprising. In these works, including his Missa Solemnis, Ninth Symphony, and string quartets opus 130, 131 and 132, Beethoven does something that doesn’t jive with the modern-day version of originality; he makes use of “language” from the past. In the Missa, the Ninth, and in opus 130 and 131, he uses the voice of “fugue” to create powerful, innovative sections. In the Missa, the Ninth, and in opus 131 and 132, he uses ancient musical modes from the middle ages or early baroque. This is not viewed as “being stuck in the past” or as “lack of originality” by most music critics.

Let us also consider the music of Gustav Mahler – a man who was maligned and ridiculed in his own day for “re-orchestrating Beethoven,” for “borrowing all kinds of styles and having none of his own.” However, today, most critics would acknowledge that Mahler’s music is astoundingly original and that he put his own imprint on any of the styles which he “borrowed.”

And finally, let us turn to the composer Charles Ives. At his death (1954), Ives left incomplete a revolutionary, dissonant and complex work called “the universe symphony.” This work prefigures very, very modern music – even the music of today. It is sketched in a score that contains 20 independent lines of music in separate metres, which come together only on downbeats at eight second intervals. Yet, one of these themes – in such an incredibly avant-garde work – is based on the theme “Bethany” (Nearer My God To Thee) – a traditional American hymn tune. There it sits, right in the middle of this hyper-modernist (though incomplete) work.

Of course, you may argue that music is different to poetry, that its expression is non-verbal. Yet for some poets (e.g. myself) the musicality of poetry is not so far removed from the genre of musical composition. Now, under the modern conception of poetry, all “music” of a poem should come from surrounding linguistic environments, the parlance of the street and the home. Yet what if a poet is creating poetry that is half music and half poetry? What if the poet “hears” his or her creations in a way that “sings,” in a way that sweeps forward like symphonic waves or “soundscapes”? And, what if a poet hears words now rarely used, or not used for a while, as part of that “soundscape”? Even particularly “modern” poets will sometimes quote phrases or excerpts from long ago.

What am I trying to get at here? It would essentially be this: “If a modern poet chooses to use words such as ‘whence,’ ‘upon,’ or ‘weep’ in order to create ‘sounds’ or ‘sound-interactions’ that fit into the overall architecture of his or her poetry, just as some modern architects reimagine Greek or Roman styles in a modernist way, then why would this be considered unoriginal or blasphemous?”

Ultimately, the majority of modern poets are most concerned with authenticity and honesty and natural flow. And in a world that has adopted a moral, psychical, and religious relativism this should not surprise anyone. However, there are poets whose style involves a fire of musicality that surges up from depths that collect “soundscape” words and phrases to enhance the weave, the harmony, and the dramatic flow of the poem. This does not make these poets less honest or authentic, it makes them composers of “symphonic poems.”

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