on M.H. Abrams (1912 – 2015)

ImgresWilliam H. Gass at the New York Review of Books:

Many of Abrams’s essays in The Fourth Dimension of a Poem are defensive. They point to elements in poetry that are frequently overlooked, and aspects that should be attended to. They wish to protect the traditional humanist from the poststructuralist’s heavy boot. And often there is a tone not of defeat, but of hopelessness in the arguments of the opposing sides when Abrams refers to them. The issues seem so minuscule; yet one kind of thinking about literature is at war with another; the quarrel has been going on since caves were invented; and the price to the defeated side may be silence for centuries.

The poet composes the poem; the critic explains it. The poet is inspired to write the lines; the critic interprets them. But suppose, as has been proposed by followers of Jacques Derrida, there is no right reading of the work, no correct sense for it. Out of a cage of calculations, suppose we are free to choose the pigeon we like best.

It might be a rich source of amusement for a poet to wonder whether her poem about her broken heart could be interpreted as a ballad in praise of the changing seasons, or a song about pregnant girls who’ve been put in prison; but if the poem (à la Derrida) is receptive to any interpretation, the poet’s shattered heart can turn into a fistful of fluttering leaves by means of a single metaphor’s transformation; subsequently these leaves can be felt falling on prison walls with the fierceness of a heavy rain or the tears of a hundred captive nuns.

more here.

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