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This article is taken from PN Review 145, Volume 28 Number 5, May - June 2002.

On French and English Poets David Gervais


Swift's notion of good writing as 'proper words in proper places' seems too pedestrian for all but the most discursive poetry. Poetry discloses something that lies not so much in its words themselves as in what we see above and through them, in an experience that is more than purely verbal. Its essence is not in words or syntax but music, what remains when words themselves have been transcended. The analogy may be no more than a metaphor but it points to what we seize on before we grapple with a poem's sense or meaning in Swift's way. Some critics, such as Yvor Winters, have questioned this approach but, even when it becomes doctrinaire, it can serve very different kinds of poem, from the epic and lyric down to light verse:

                               ... but his face
Deep scars of thunder had intrenched, and care
Sat on his faded cheek

has an affinity under the skin with 'the small rain down doth rain'. So too does Lewis Carroll's 'beautiful pea-green boat'. The expository writing Swift recommends to his young clergyman stamps the mind after such effects, a posteriori. Poetry can begin to operate while we are still trying to fathom its tone, not to mention its argument. Of no English poetry is this truer than of Shakespeare's Sonnets, try as we may to turn them into a biographical puzzle - as even the prosaic Shaw had to admit. Lines ...

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