I’m continuing to enjoy The Story About the Story, an anthology of essays on literature, many of which (although not all) are written from a personal perspective. This is the kind of book I read slowly, an essay at a time, whenever I feel inspired to pick the book up. I’m about seven essays in at this point. I won’t write about each and every one, as not all of them inspire me to write, but Sven Birkerts’s essay “On a Stanza by John Keats” is one I don’t want to neglect.
Birkerts starts off on a lofty level, considering what it means to encounter beauty in art. He decides that:
When we are stirred by beauty in a particular work of art, what we experience is the inward abolition of distance. It is only when we try to put our finger on the source of the sensation, when we try to explain the beauty, that the horizons are reversed. At that moment the near becomes the far, much as it does when we try to fathom our own reflection in the mirror: The more intently we look, the stranger becomes the object of our scrutiny.
He then turns to a more specific mission: “I set myself what seemed at first a simple task: to say why Keats’s ‘To Autumn’ was beautiful.” This mission leads him to embark on one of the closest readings of a poem I have ever read. The essay is about 12 pages long, and about eight pages of it is devoted to looking as closely as possible at the 11 lines of the poem’s first stanza. Birkerts does all the usual things people do when they close read — he looks at the meanings of words and their order and their sound qualities, but he does it in such loving detail and with such beautiful writing that it’s no ordinary close reading. He also looks at aspects of words people don’t often focus on — the way we move our mouths as we recite the poem, and how those movements affect our experience. Here’s what he decides about what makes “To Autumn” beautiful:
I am convinced that the beauty of the ode is to be sought with the fine crosshairs of sound and sense, that it inheres in the subtlest details and is sustained from breath to breath — that generalizations will serve for nothing. We experience such a rapid succession of perfectly managed sensory magnifications that we are, in a strange way, brought face to face with the evolutionary mystery of language. The absolute rightness of the sound combinations forces us to a powerful unconscious recognition: Sound is the primal clay out of which all meaning has been sculpted.
After finishing his close reading, Birkerts briefly considers a question that comes up in my literature classes a lot: the question of whether the author “meant to put that there.” Are these consciously created effects Birkerts is uncovering? Are those effects there but not consciously created? Or is Birkerts just reading too much into the poem?
When these questions come up in class, I tend to answer in two ways — answers that seem contradictory, as a matter of fact, but I’m open about that and don’t mind their contradictions. One is that yes, the author probably did “put that there,” because generally the effect we are discussing that provokes my students’ skepticism isn’t a terribly complicated one and I’m pretty sure the author really did know what he or she was doing. My students just aren’t used to the idea of an author having such great control over language and that’s because they are relatively new at literary analysis. My other answer is that it doesn’t matter what the author intended, both because language takes on a life of its own beyond the author’s complete knowledge and control, and because we can never truly know what an author intended. Even if the author tells us what he or she meant, we still can’t really trust that report because does the author really know what happens at the moment of creation?
Birkerts offers answers to these questions that are similar to mine, but expressed in terms I like and will probably borrow. He says, first:
Let’s not forget that we read poetry in the odd hour, as amateurs; Keats pressed his lines into place with the full intensity of his being. When a poet is composing, the value of every sound is magnified a thousand-fold. His radar is attuned to frequencies that we are not even aware of….I would argue, therefore, that not only (A) if you find it, it’s probably there, but also (B) however much you find, there is sure to be more.
I like that. Keats was a professional! He can work magic with language that we amateurs can only marvel at. His other answer is that as long as you believe the unconscious is involved in the poetic process — which he thinks it obviously is — then:
it is not a case of the poet’s inventing lines, but rather of his finding sounds and rhythms in accordance with the promptings of the deeper psyche. The poet does not rest with a line until he has released a specific inner pressure.
So there’s more going on when a poet writes a poem than he or she is consciously aware of, and it’s impossible to account for what a poet intended or didn’t intend. It’s all part of one big messy process that, as Birkerts says, the poet “presides over.” It’s too mysterious to analyze much further than that.
Birkerts essay is a beautiful one — a fitting tribute to a marvelously beautiful poem.