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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.

«Richard A. Nanian's study of poetic language and its energies is an original and bold attempt to conceptualize both the anatomy and history of modern poetry that has the philosophical sweep, critical sophistication, and elegant clarity of a Northrop Frye or a Kenneth Burke. Dr. Nanian's rejection of the ‘artifactual’ model of the poetic text for a dynamic one of its language acting upon the reader, coupled with his core premise of the two opposing directions of poetry culminating in the experience of the sublime at the limits of language, makes for a revisionary mapping of the landscape of Anglo-American poetry from the Romantics to the Modernists. The first and theoretical part, his innovative paradigm of poetic energies in terms of the plerosis/kenosis binary, is clearly and cogently articulated. The ensuing close readings of individual poems in support of his thesis of a shift from the plerotic Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Keats, to the kenotic Dickinson, Eliot, and Stevens, are eye-opening in their striking combination of probing insight and artful appreciation. This thoughtful, ambitious, and lucidly written study of the nature and language of poetry deserves a wide audience.» (Eugene Stelzig, Distinguished Teaching Professor of English, SUNY Geneseo)