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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 Five Plerosis Ascending: William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, John Keats Poetry heals the wounds inflicted by Reason. Novalis, Detached Thoughts S the conclusion to Part I suggests, I believe that what has been called Romantic poetry qualifies as radically plerotic poetry, and that the ple- rotic drive is a more consistent and a more interesting characteristic of these poems than any supposed adherence to a revolutionary politics, metaphysics, or theology. If this is true, the first place to look in English literature for evi- dence that plerosis is truly the defining energy of Romantic poetry is Word- sworth’s famous 1800 Preface to Lyrical Ballads. WORDSWORTH: VIVID EXCITEMENT AND PASSIONATE TRUTH (AT A RATIONAL DISTANCE) Despite the many dissatisfactions that Coleridge and later critics eventu- ally expressed towards its theories, the Preface’s influence on English poetry remained unsurpassed by any contemporary document. Should the Preface not demonstrate some connection to the principles we have associated with plerosis, we will have reached an impasse before attempting a reading of a single poem. Fortunately, we need only read as far as the second sentence to find what we seek: Lyrical Ballads “was published as an experiment, which, I hoped, might be of some use to ascertain, how far, by fitting to metrical arrangement a selection of the real language of men in a state of vivid ex- citement, that sort of pleasure and that quantity of pleasure may be imparted, which a Poet may rationally endeavor to impart” (v). Critics since Coleridge,...

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