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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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Chapter One Searching for a Metaphor A good metaphor is something even the police should keep an eye on. G. C. Lichtenberg, Sudelbücher E EADING is an essentially metaphorical activity. As Paul de Man ob- served, “Metaphors are much more tenacious than facts” (Allegories 5). By metaphor, de Man did not intend self-consciously showy literary riffs, like the fog of Chancery that opens Bleak House or the spirit-spout Ishmael sees off in the distance in Moby-Dick, although these may linger in our memory long after other parts of their novels have faded; he referred instead to the figurative roots of all language. In this regard, two sources of meta- phor’s tenacity are apparent. Metaphors facilitate thought. One can work with a metaphor, build upon it, growing increasingly dependent upon it be- cause to abandon it means relinquishing its gifts. Also, metaphors are pro- lific. Once taking root anywhere in a theoretical structure, a metaphor tends to infest the whole like some kind of hardy rhizome, becoming inseparable and ultimately indistinguishable from the structure itself. That a metaphor is inevitably a falsehood or error matters little, for as de Man himself con- cluded, “no language would be possible without this error” (Allegories 152). As much as any humanistic endeavor, literary criticism is both enabled and constrained by its metaphors. The specialized knowledge possessed by those who regularly work with and within language provides no special immunity to metaphor’s effects. On the contrary, we may be more susceptible, as sail- ors...

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