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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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Afterword 276


Afterword All speech, written or spoken, is a dead language until it finds a willing and prepared hearer. Robert Louis Stevenson, Lay Morals I began this project with a warning, as much to myself as to readers, of the dangers of metaphors. They are both protean and seductive. Having worked and in some sense lived within this one metaphor, this one particu- lar way of reading, for more than a decade, and having developed it gradu- ally and only semi-consciously for several years before that, I necessarily will not be the best judge of its limitations. However, if language is ines- capably metaphorical, all readersfrom those who most fully submit to the text and most gratefully suspend all disbelief, to the most determinedly dis- interested deconstructionistsremain equally dependent on metaphor. While an awareness of the metaphor by which one reads is not a prerequi- site to deriving joy and even meaning from the written word, it is essential for a reader who is curious about the source of that joy and that meaning, and thus a component of a more general self-awareness. In its simplest terms, the origin of this project was a desire for that un- derstanding. I knew that I felt moved, not just emotionally but cognitively, when I read poetry, and that I felt frustrated when attempting to relate that experience clearly to others. I also realized that what made me judge a poem great was exactly this quality, this palpable but ineffable power to...

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