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Poetry and Its Others: News, Prayer, Song, and the Dialogue of Genres

Poetry and Its Others: News, Prayer, Song, and the Dialogue of Genres

by Jahan Ramazani

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What is poetry? Often it is understood as a largely self-enclosed verbal system—“suspended from any mutual interaction with alien discourse,” in the words of Mikhail Bakhtin. But in Poetry and Its Others, Jahan Ramazani reveals modern and contemporary poetry’s animated dialogue with other genres and discourses. Poetry generates rich


What is poetry? Often it is understood as a largely self-enclosed verbal system—“suspended from any mutual interaction with alien discourse,” in the words of Mikhail Bakhtin. But in Poetry and Its Others, Jahan Ramazani reveals modern and contemporary poetry’s animated dialogue with other genres and discourses. Poetry generates rich new possibilities, he argues, by absorbing and contending with its near verbal relatives.
Exploring poetry’s vibrant exchanges with other forms of writing, Ramazani shows how poetry assimilates features of prose fiction but differentiates itself from novelistic realism; metabolizes aspects of theory and philosophy but refuses their abstract procedures; and recognizes itself in the verbal precision of the law even as it separates itself from the law’s rationalism. But poetry’s most frequent interlocutors, he demonstrates, are news, prayer, and song. Poets such as William Carlos Williams and W. H. Auden refashioned poetry to absorb the news while expanding its contexts; T. S. Eliot and Charles Wright drew on the intimacy of prayer though resisting its limits; and Paul Muldoon, Rae Armantrout, and Patience Agbabi have played with and against song lyrics and techniques. Encompassing a cultural and stylistic range of writing unsurpassed by other studies of poetry, Poetry and Its Others shows that we understand what poetry is by examining its interplay with what it is not.

Editorial Reviews

University of Washington Brian M. Reed
“It is delightful to watch Jahan Ramazani do what he does best: delve into poets such as Hopkins, Yeats, Heaney, and Muldoon and show us the nitty-gritty of how their verse works. Anyone who loves poetry is going to come away from this book revitalized, prepared to think complexly about the modes of address that poets employ, as well as the kinds of writing that they habitually echo, distort, take apart, and reassemble.”
Wallace Stevens Journal - Lisa M. Steinman
"Ramazani casts much light on the question of what poetry is—or perhaps what it does. . . . [H]is approach opens new possibilities for reconsidering how poems. . . are in dialogue with philosophy or with contemporary writing about the visual arts."
“Illuminating analyses of a diverse set of poems. . . . Recommended.”
Twentieth-Century Literature
“After considering the historical contexts and thematic ties between works of different genres, [Ramazani] swoops in on passages of rich complexity and allusiveness, seizing the kernel of poetic distinctiveness. . . . Against a background of non­poetry, the specific features that make poetry recognizable suddenly stand out.”
Time Present: The Newsletter of the T. S. Eliot Society
“A wide-ranging affair that travels throughout the English-speaking world and is as engaged with the contemporary as it is with the established canon. . . . Marrying methodology and content, Poetry and Its Others becomes the rich and varied thing it sets out to consider.”
Boston University Bonnie Costello
“Jahan Ramazani is that rare critic who has read and understood a wide range of contemporary theory but is also a strong close reader, bringing his arguments alive through example. Poetry and Its Others is a capstone of the work he has done so far, combining his interests in genre, hybridity, and dialogism; his remarkably wide, global knowledge of modern poetry in English; and his commitment to poetry as a distinctive lens and language by which to encounter the world. This impressive and richly suggestive book moves through so many large areas of poetic dialogue and reciprocity with other forms that it will be important to poetry lovers both in and outside academia.”

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University of Chicago Press
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News, Prayer, Song, and the Dialogue of Genres

By Jahan Ramazani


Copyright © 2014 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-08356-8



Poetry and the Novel, Theory, and the Law

WHAT IS POETRY? From antiquity to the present, there have been innumerable efforts to grapple with this impossible but unavoidable question—impossible because poetry and its readers redefine it from one time to another, one place to another, perhaps even one work to another; unavoidable because every time we draw up a syllabus, submit a work to a poetry journal or workshop, or choose a poem to read at a wedding or funeral, we act on ideas about what a poem is and isn't. But even if we limit ourselves, as in this book, to English-language works from the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, the difficulty of crafting a precise definition of poetry that could include high-art formalism and creole performance poetry, sonnets and collage poems, W. B. Yeats's line "A terrible beauty is born," Gertrude Stein's "Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose," and Louise Bennett's "Jamaica oman cunny, sah!" should not be underestimated. Like plays, novels, films, and works in other genres and modes, poems are threaded together by family resemblances, but their variousness is hard to fit under one conceptual roof, built out of identifiable formal and thematic characteristics.

If we turn for help to the Oxford English Dictionary, we find poetry defined as "[c]omposition in verse or some comparable patterned arrangement of language in which the expression of feelings and ideas is given intensity by the use of distinctive style and rhythm; the art of such a composition. Traditionally associated with explicit formal departure from the patterns of ordinary speech or prose, e.g. in the use of elevated diction, figurative language, and syntactical reordering." Similarly, in an introduction to a poetry anthology, The Poet's Tongue (1935), W. H. Auden famously called poetry "memorable speech," explaining that it heightens "audible spoken word and cadence," "power of suggestion and incantation," "alternating periods of effort and rest," and "tension between" personal and inherited rhythms, while emphasizing "[s]imiles, metaphors of image or idea, and auditory metaphors such as rhyme, assonance, and alliteration" and "the aura of suggestion round every word." Though highly useful, these and other distillations are vexed by what they exclude: poems that avoid patterning or intensity, free verse poems without mnemonic structures, poems written not in "elevated diction" but in a vernacular, and so forth. They are also vexed by what they inadvertently include, such as sermons and political speeches, jingles and James Joyce's or Virginia Woolf's novels. Acknowledging the permeability of these boundaries, at the start of an anthology published a year after Auden's, Yeats lineated as poetry a sentence of rhythmic prose by Walter Pater—a reframing that earned Yeats an unlikely spot in a recent anthology of conceptual poetry. Auden, too, was well aware that the qualities he ascribed to poetry—rhythm, figuration, sound patterning, and polysemy—aren't exclusive to it, and so he cited alongside Housman and Shakespeare a popular song and a schoolroom mnemonic for remembering a Latin gender, as well as the "good joke" made by the poetry-phobe who unwittingly "creates poetry." But this laudable theoretical elasticity doesn't resolve all the issues: if it did, and if Auden thought jokes and mnemonics were indeed poems, why didn't he include them alongside the sonnets, ballads, and epigrams indexed in The Poet's Tongue?

Some critics believe that poetry's one inarguable distinction is its being written in lines, but even this identifier is imperfect: it would turn menus, shopping lists, and timetables into poems, while excluding oral poetry and prose poems. Poetry draws on and intensifies features of language in other oral and written uses, from which it can never be conclusively separated. As Roman Jakobson noted when grappling with the question "what is poetry?," the fact that the "same alliterations and other types of euphonic devices" appear in other kinds of discourse, including jokes, gossip, and everyday speech, blurs "the line of demarcation between poetry and nonpoetry." As indicated by his example of the echoic, rhyming, assonantal, alliterative campaign slogan "I like Ike," the poetic function, if usually secondary outside poetry, isn't exclusive to poetry; nor is it the only linguistic function operative in poetry (the referential, the emotive, and the conative can also play a role). "The borderline dividing what is a work of poetry from what is not," he wryly observed, "is less stable than the frontiers of the Chinese empire's territories."

One way of trying to get around these difficulties is the adoption of a more circumscribed vocabulary, devolving umbrella terms such as "poetry" and "lyric" into more limited historical and subgeneric groupings, such as "twentieth-century British sonnets" and "modern American elegies." This strategy of disaggregation limits the scope of the problem and avoids flattening historical and cultural differences. But intractable boundary questions remain. What is included and shut out by "British," "American," or "modern"? Does "sonnet" mean any fourteen-line poem, or are specific meters and rhyme patterns and themes also prerequisites, and what about near-sonnets? Does "elegy" include only poems of mourning for individuals or also blues poems and group laments and works of self-mourning? Moreover, can a poetic subgenre be quarantined in a specific time and location? What about poetry's transnational bearings and transhistorical memory? What about the skeins that thread through it from disparate times and places? Whether framed broadly as "poetry" or limited to the sonnets and elegies, villanelles and aubades of a particular era and culture, genres are not easily sequestered.

But to discard "poetry," "sonnet," "elegy," and "epigram" as interpretive frameworks because of their untidiness would be to make unrecognizable the ways in which individual works invoke and resist genre conventions. The "transgression requires a law," writes Tzvetan Todorov, and Jacques Derrida adds that a text "cannot be without or less a genre. Every text participates in one or several genres, there is no genreless text." Genre descriptors such as "poem of mourning for the dead" and "fourteenline poem"; or "composition in verse," "patterned arrangement," "intensity," "distinctive style and rhythm," and "elevated diction, figurative language, and syntactical reordering"; or "speech" made "memorable" by rhythm, figuration, sound patterning, and polysemy, should be seen not as defining elegies, sonnets, and poems but as pragmatically delineating what cognitive psychologists call "schemas" and what Hans Robert Jauss terms "horizons of expectation," which "can then be varied, extended, corrected, but also transformed, crossed out, or simply reproduced." Like beauty, genre is at least partly in the eye of the beholder. A kitchen note can be reframed as a poem, such as William Carlos Williams's "This Is Just to Say"—an act that in turn reshapes expectations of poetry. Because genres vary across time and space, and because individual works both activate and press against the genre assumptions brought to bear on them, critical use of the term "poetry," as of the terms "elegy," "sonnet," "ballad," "sestina," "epigram," "ghazal," "pantoum," and the like, requires a pragmatic awareness both of the power of genre terms and of their unavoidable overreach and imprecision.

Since its boundaries are porous, its conventions unfixed, poetry is sometimes said to transcend genre altogether—a genreless genre. If genre is restricted to stable, constraining, sharply delimited categories, as in the phrase "genre fiction," surely poetry is no genre. But genre is more fruitfully understood as a web of crisscrossing family resemblances with closer and more distant relatives, which are, writes Alastair Fowler in extending Wittgenstein's metaphor, "related in various ways, without necessarily having any single feature shared in common by all." These resemblances may strengthen or dissipate over time, are identifiable at higher ("poetry") and lower levels ("sestina") of abstraction, and are coproduced by hermeneutic acts that build shared horizons of expectation. "Poetry" may be conceptually ragged and historically unstable, but little more so—within period and cultural limits—than other broad areas of cultural production that have richly rewarded genre study, such as film and the novel.

A major reason for poetry's ineluctable messiness as a concept is that genres are not sealed off from one another, transmitted in isolation through the centuries, but responsive, in A. K. Ramanujan's words, "to previous and surrounding traditions; they invert, subvert, and convert their neighbours"; "a whole tradition may invert, negate, rework, and revalue another." Poetry and other genres are "processes," "open systems," in Ralph Cohen's words, and "each genre is related to and defined by others to which it is related." Genres change as they absorb and resist other genres. Hence, all genres are ineluctably intergeneric, and all genres are genera mixta. Poets are constantly enlarging (Marianne Moore's welcoming of "'business documents and // school-books'") and narrowing (Stéphane Mallarmé's restrictive "Donner un sens plus pur aux mots de la tribu") the intergeneric scope of what is understood to be "poetry," "lyric," "sonnet," "elegy," "ballad," and so forth. Narrow it too much, and a poetic genre risks choking in self-parody. Enlarge it too much, and it risks vanishing into unrecognizability, unable to activate the genre-based assumptions that propel the hermeneutic circle of literary engagement.

In a dialogic understanding of genre, poetry is infiltrated by and infiltrates its generic others. But not according to the preeminent theorist of the dialogic imagination, Mikhail Bakhtin. He famously conceived of poetry as monologic and exclusionary, "suspended from any mutual interaction with alien discourse, any allusion to alien discourse," "destroying all traces of social heteroglossia and diversity of language." "The language of the poetic genre," he flamboyantly asserted, "is a unitary and singular Ptolemaic world outside of which nothing else exists and nothing else is needed." Although in his influential formulation the novel is the omnigeneric genre par excellence, while poetry is purist and exclusivist, already in Homer epic poetry was an expansive compendium of genres, and while modern epic poems such as the Cantos, The Waste Land, The Bridge, Trilogy, and Paterson obviously contain generic multitudes, lyric poems also take up, internalize, and refigure other genres. Even if lyric poetry has a stronger centripetal torque than prose fiction, its seemingly monologic tendencies have, at the least, what Bakhtin calls "dialogic overtones":

However monological the utterance may be (for example, a scientific or philosophical treatise), however much it may concentrate on its own object, it cannot but be, in some measure, a response to what has already been said about the given topic, on the given issue, even though this responsiveness may not have assumed a clear-cut external expression. It will be manifested in the overtones of the style, in the finest nuances of the composition. The utterance is filled with dialogic overtones, and they must be taken into account in order to understand fully the style of the utterance. After all, our thought itself—philosophical, scientific, and artistic—is born and shaped in the process of interaction and struggle with others' thought, and this cannot but be reflected in the forms that verbally express our thought as well.

Poetry is deeply influenced by earlier poetry, as writers from T. S. Eliot to Walter Jackson Bate and Harold Bloom have shown, and so a poem is sometimes thought of as being "born and shaped" almost entirely in response to earlier poems. But even though poetry has an especially long and deep memory of earlier works and forms, it is also "born and shaped in the process of interaction and struggle" with other discourses, other genres, other kinds of utterance. Poems come into being partly by echoing, playing on, reshaping, refining, heightening, deforming, inverting, combating, hybridizing, and compressing extrapoetic forms of language.

Recent books on poetry, while usefully extrapolating recurrent and long-lived characteristics, often treat poems as if they were for the most part elements of a self-enclosed system. But a poem faces both inward and outward: it enriches itself in its play on euphonies and dissonances within itself and across an array of earlier poems, and it feasts on, digests, and metabolizes linguistic forms of other kinds. In The Fourth Dimension of a Poem and Other Essays, M. H. Abrams distills poetry as utterance that highlights and exploits the "material dimension," "the physical aspect of language." In Lyric Poetry, Mutlu Konuk Blasing characterizes poetry as a platform for "the emotionally and historically charged materiality of language," "an excess of 'sense,'" and "a rhythmic beat between sense and nonsense." In Poetry and the Fate of the Senses, Susan Stewart sees poetry as "language that retains and projects the force of individual sense experience and yet reaches toward intersubjective meaning," language reliant on "rhythm and musical effects that are known with our entire bodies." The physical, musical, visual, sensual, semantic, sonic, individual, intersubjective, and other dimensions of poetry identified in these and other books also figure prominently in the ensuing analysis. Helping to keep in view "the poetic function," they avoid reductions of poetry to thematic idea, historical document, or cultural or psychological symptom. Already in the 1930s, Jakobson had argued that the poetic function, or "poeticity," "is present when the word is felt as a word and not a mere representation of the object being named or an outburst of emotion, when words and their composition, their meaning, their external and inner form, acquire a weight and value of their own instead of referring indifferently to reality." Poetry turns the material features of language into ends in themselves: "The set (Einstellung) toward the message as such, focus on the message for its own sake, is the POETIC function of language."

As valuable as this largely intrinsic conception is, it touches only lightly on poetry's extramural relations. It needs to be supplemented with a more interactive view of poetry's interplay with nonpoetry. The materiality, musicality, and self-reflexivity identified in the immanent structural view need to be set in motion by casting poetry into animated conversation with neighboring discourses. Jakobson should be supplemented by Bakhtin, linguistics by metalinguistics, poetics by dialogics. What I call a dialogic poetics combines "dialogic" in Bakhtin's sense of the term with "poetics" in Jakobson's. It takes seriously both poetry's specificity as poetry and its being shaped by its dialogic interactions with other discourses. Poetry is formed by both its "domestic" and its "foreign" relations. It is constituted both intragenerically and intergenerically. If it is long-memoried and self-referring, it must also be understood, as Cohen states of genre more broadly, "in relation to other genres," because its "aims and purposes at a particular time are defined by its interrelation with and differentiation from others." Its dynamic give-and-take with other genres, its butting up against and assimilation of various codified uses of language, its reversals and co-optations of multiple discursive forms—these engagements aren't secondary but fundamental, and they need to play a part in our thinking about what poetry is and is not, in any given time and place. What we homogenize as poetry is an array of heterogeneous and ever-evolving discursive processes that frequently attach themselves to nonpoetic genres, the incorporation of which stretches and reshapes what is thought to be poetry.

Preoccupied with considering poetry intrinsically, albeit as molded by historical or biographical circumstances, poetry criticism has less frequently explored poetry as an open system, dynamically responsive to other genres. But, to adapt Bakhtin's terms for the novel, poetry dialogizes literary and extraliterary languages, intensifying and hybridizing them, making them collide and rub up against one another. Further, by virtue of its exacting attention to form and language, poetry makes visible the structuring presuppositions behind the genres it assimilates. With its deliberate and irrepressible artifice, it makes "images of languages" it cites. When Williams and Frank O'Hara excerpt newspaper articles (as seen in chapter 2), when T. S. Eliot and Agha Shahid Ali interpolate Christian, Hindu, or Muslim prayers (chapter 3), when Rae Armantrout and Frank Bidart sample popular songs (chapter 4), they decontextualize these discourses as trope and raise to view the assumptions behind them. Even if poetry isn't quoting, it often places as if in quotation marks the languages and genres it absorbs. When Seamus Heaney wrestles with the news's positivism, when Gerard Manley Hopkins adapts prayer's address to the divine, when Patience Agbabi echoes song conventions, their poetry casts these extrageneric characteristics in relief. Despite Bakhtin's antipoetic views, we can say of such poetry, as Bakhtin said of the novel, that it exploits the "ability of a language to represent another language while still retaining the capacity to sound simultaneously both outside it and within it, to talk about it and at the same time to talk in and with it," "simultaneously to serve as an object of representation while continuing to be able to speak to itself." Because poetry can both represent and act within other languages, it provides searching reflections on a range of discursive genres.

Excerpted from POETRY AND ITS OTHERS by Jahan Ramazani. Copyright © 2014 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS.
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Meet the Author

Jahan Ramazani is the Edgar F. Shannon Professor of English at the University of Virginia. He is the author of four books, most recently of A Transnational Poetics, also published by the University of Chicago Press. He lives in Charlottesville, VA.

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