Metaphysical Poetry: From Early Modern through the Millennium
"The heart," wrote Emily Dickinson, "is the Capital of the Mind." But Dickinson was elusive, more so in being reclusive, and in her "ecstatic Nation," where you‘re asked to seek "Yourself," that capitalized word may be unsettling too. Meanwhile, when love, death, human frailty, faith or disbelief, often suffused with sexuality, take possession of poetry, through a brilliant derangement of language at the edge of impossibility, who can tell what‘s in the mind. But if you respond to the challenge, and are willing to pursue a thought, beyond what you thought you could think, you may very well take heart from that. Whether with irony, paradox, or mind-stretching metaphor, the poems we‘ll be reading are passionate, but passionate as thought—so deeply felt, indeed, that as we think about such poetry, viscerally, in the body, it appears to be thinking us.
That‘s what T. S. Eliot had in mind when, writing of the metaphysical poetry of the seventeenth century, he described its perceptual power, however elliptical or circuitous, as "the sensuous apprehension of thought." As he was defining what poetry should be in the twentieth century—and his own poems, surely, had a lot to do with that—he gave a retrospective status to a poetry of ambiguity. Even at this historical distance, one of the most compelling things about reading John Donne or Andrew Marvell is that, if you‘re engaged with any intimacy, you may—as Freud said we must in modernity—learn to live in doubt. Given the dubious state of the world after the millennium, no less after 9/11, there seems no alternative to that. But, if you think about it, it‘s doubt that prompts questioning, which unsettles the "certain certainties" of any presumably reasoned, but actually doctrinaire, or ideological view—or even, from some uncritical reflex, your own "subject position." There is, of course, a subjectivity to poetry, but even in being elusive, as premised on the belief that precision is next to godliness, it may even serve politics by cultivating an awareness for reading between the lines.
The readings for the seminar will move across history from the period we once called the late Renaissance (now "early modern"), to the Eliotic modern, or that of Wallace Stevens, its witty accretions of high intelligence, through the visionary poetics of Harte Crane or Robert Hayden to the linguistic deposits of Susan Howe, who thinks of herself today, as in her writing on Emily Dickinson, as a metaphysical poet. As for the reading between the lines, the lines themselves will change considerably as we move into regions of the mind where, where with signs of divinity as dubious as the notion of a soul, poets will be struggling with ideas in a material world that seems to defy transcendence. And then our task—as in the quirky concentration of Marianne Moore, seemingly engaged with trivia and inconsequence—will be to discern the metaphysical when it sneaks up on us, or with paradox and ambiguity maybe leaves us behind. So, too, with the exquisite indirection and luminous eye of Elizabeth Bishop, as it brings a "rainbow, rainbow, rainbow" to a "pool of bilge," in an otherwise mere semblance of a potentially redeemable world, where the metaphysics, to be sure, is something other than theological—and if not at all Creationism, still an exacting matter of intelligent design.
Colin Burrow, ed. Metaphysical Poetry (Penguin Books, 2006)
Jane Donahue Eberwein, ed. Early American Poetry (Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 1978)
Susan Howe, My Emily Dickinson (New Directions, 2007)
Jahan Ramazani, Richard Ellmann, Robert O'Clair, eds. The Norton Anthology of Modern and Contemporary Poetry, 2 volumes (Norton, 2003) The Norton Anthology comes in a two-volume packet.