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Poetic Language and its Energies


Richard A. Nanian

Why do readers report being powerfully affected by great poetry? What happens to us when we read a poem? Literary criticism has struggled to answer these questions because it treats poems as material artifacts of one kind or another. But readers do not experience literary texts as lifeless and silent material artifacts. They hear voices in them and feel moved and altered by them. Plerosis/Kenosis offers a new way of reading poems by treating poems as dynamic – essentially as fields of energy – and by focusing on how poetry pushes language towards two contradictory goals: the desire to say more, to convey universal truths, and overwhelm the reader with intensity; and the desire to speak with perfect clarity and precision, to achieve the purity of mathematics or logic. The pursuit of both goals inevitably ends in failure, but poetry is most powerful and most affecting as it approaches these two extremes. Plerosis/Kenosis lays out a theory of poetic language and applies that theory to a wide range of beloved works by, among others, Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats, Poe, Whitman, Dickinson, Eliot, and Stevens. The theory establishes a framework that allows readers of poetry everywhere to articulate what a poem does to them when they read it, and the specific readings are original and illuminating. Moreover, the style throughout is lucid and accessible. Scholars, graduate students, and sophisticated undergraduates alike will find their understanding of poetry not only increased but indeed transformed.


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PART I A THEORY OF POETIC ENERGIES Chapter 1 Searching for a Metaphor 3 Chapter 2 Sublime Experience and the Atemporal Moment 32 Chapter 3 Elizabeth Sewell and the Limits of Language 57 Chapter 4 The Plerosis / Kenosis Polarity 85 PART II POETIC ENERGIES IN PRACTICE Chapter 5 Plerosis Ascending: William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, John Keats 117 Chapter 6 Poetry on the Brink: Robert Browning, Edgar A. Poe, Walt Whitman 159 Chapter 7 Pouring Out the Vessels: Emily Dickinson, T. S. Eliot, Wallace Stevens 206 Afterword 276 Works Cited 279 Index 287 Not even the visionary or mystical experience ever lasts very long. It is for art to capture that experience, to offer it to, in the case of literature, its readers; to be, for a secular, materialist culture, some sort of replacement for what the love of god offers in the world of faith. Salman Rushdie, “Is Nothing Sacred?”

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