Elaine Scarry on Poetry’s “Deliberative Push”

15 07 2019

In her essay “Poetry, Injury, and the Ethics of Reading” (collected in The Humanities and Public Life, ed. Peter Brooks, with Hilary Jewett (New York: Fordham UP, 2014): 41 – 54)), Elaine Scarry seeks to discover “[w]hat is the ethical power of literature?” She additionally inquires, “Can it diminish acts of injuring, and if it can, what aspects of literature deserve the credit?” Scarry largely sidesteps the first question in order to make space to address the second; she states, “If we assume…that literature in fact helped to diminish acts of injuring…what attributes of literature can explain this? Three come immediately to mind: its invitation to empathy, its reliance on deliberative thought, and its beauty.”

Here, I wish to share Scarry’s thinking on the deliberative thought to be found in literature, or, as Scarry states, focusing her subject, “the deliberative push embedded in poetry.” I do this because it is most relevant to the concern of this blog: the poetic turn. Poetry’s deliberative push sounds a great deal to me like the dialectical organization that Randall Jarrell recognized in so many poems. (Jarrell’s discussion of the dialectical nature of so much poetry can be found in his essay “Levels and Opposites: Structure in Poetry,” and it is quoted here. [Scroll down.]) Those interested in considering Jarrell’s ideas about poetry’s largely dialectical nature will want to know about Scarry’s ideas about the deliberative push, and vice versa.

Here’s Scarry (with some of my own noted emphasis) on the historical contours of poetry’s deliberative push:

The connection of poetic composition to deliberation–to the “pro” and “con” of debate–is in the very first description we have of the Muses singing, the one Homer gives at the close of the first book of the Iliad. Thomas Hobbes, who was acutely interested in deliberation, wrote in his 1676 translation, beginning with the feasting of the gods, “And all the day from morning unto night / Ambrosia they eat, and nectar drink. / Apollo played and alternately / The Muses to him sung.” The alternating voices of the Muses are audible in Alexander Pope’s later translation, as in John Ogilby’s earlier one. Ogilby’s annotation to the lines states: “The Muses sung in course answering one the other…Anthem-wise; [the Greek Homer uses] being such Orations as were made pro or con upon the same argument.” He then invokes Virgil’s Eclogue, “The Muses always loved alternate Verse,” and Hesiod’s Theogony, “Muses begin, and Muses end the Song.” The argumentative structure enacted by Homer’s Muses is registered in every English translation, with the exception of George Chapman’s. Samuel Butler writes, “The Muses lifted up their sweet voices, calling and answering to one another”; in Richard Lattimore’s edition, we read of the “antiphonal sweet sound of the Muses singing”; and Robert Fagles has the “Muses singing / voice to voice in chorus.”

The Iliad is an epic ignited by the dispute between Achilles and Agamemnon, and we are more likely to associate dispute with epic poetry or with plays, as in the drama contests of fifth-century Greece. But many other genres of poetry have the debate structure built into them, as we can see by the word “anthem”–derived from “antiphons” or “verse response”–which surface in the translations. That an anthem, or hymn of praise, holds disputing voice within it reminds us that there is nothing anti lyric about this deliberative structure (my emphasis).

Many styles of poetry bring us face to face with acts of deliberation. The eclogue is a dialogue poem about the act of choosing, as in Virgil’s Third and Seventh Eclogues when a judge is asked to choose between the arguments of two shepherds. The word “eclogue” is derived from eklegein, meaning ” to choose.” Another example is the tenzone, in which two poets argue “in alternating couplets,” as Urban Holmes describes in Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics. The ten zone eventually took on other forms, such as the partiman or jeuparti, in which one “poet proposes two hypothetical situations.” One of the positions is then defended by that poet and the other by a second poet, each speaking in three stanzas. In his translation of Dante’s Vita Nuova, Mark Musa explains, “The Italian troubadours invented the sonnet form [of the tenzone], still a mode of debate in which the problem is set forth in a proposta inviting a riposta (using the same rhymes) from another poet.

While in the tenzone two distinct sonnets are placed in dispute, an oppositional mental act is also interior to the sonnet itself, particularly the Petrarchan sonnet form with its division into an octave and a sestet. While the volta, or “turn of thought,” is most emphatic in the Petrarchan form, it is also recognizable in Spenserian and Shakespearean sonnets (my emphasis).

Holmes directs attention not only to the poetic forms just enumerated but to others that entail a contest structure, such as the lauda, which calls for “responsive participation” and hence for dialogue, as well as the pastourelle, in which an aristocrat or knight attempts to seduce a shepherdess and is often outwitted by her of by her fellow shepherd.

The inseparability of poetic and disputational thinking is registered in the titles of many Middle English poems: “Parlement of Foules,” “Parliament of Devils,” “Parliament of the Three Ages,” “Dialogue between Poet and Bird,” “The Cuckow and the Nightingale,” “The Thrush and the Nightingale,” “The Owl and the Nightingale,” “The Clerk and the Nightingale,” “The Floure and the Leafe,” “Dispute between the Violet and the Rose,” “The Holly and the Ivy,” “The Debate of the Carpenter’s Tools,” “Wynnere and Wastoure,” “Ressoning betuix Aige and Yowth,” “Ressoning Betuix Deth and Man,” “Death and Liffe,” and, last but not least, “A Disputacion betwyx the Body and Wormes.”

Medieval debate poems occur in many languages, starting with the eighth-century Carolingian poem “Conflictus Veris et Hiemis.” John Edwin Wells, an early twentieth-century scholar of Middle English, notes that versions of the “Debate between Body and Soul,” which first occurs in English between 1150 and 1175, “are extant in Latin, Greek, French, Provencal, German, Dutch, Spanish, Italian, Danish, and English.”

There are also parallels in the Eastern tradition. Titles in Sumerian, Akkadien, Assyrian, and Babylonian poems often resemble those above. “Summer contra Winter,” “Bird contra Fish,” “Tree contra Reed,” “Silver contra Leather,” “Copper vs. Leather,” “Ewe vs. Wheat,” “Herdsman vs. Farmer,” and “Hoe vs. Plough.” Describing ancient Near Eastern dispute poems as “tools and toys at the same time,” Herman Vanstiphout argues that a serious lesson is at the center of these poems: “All coins have two sides.” Much later English counterparts share this lesson. Thomas L. Reed shows that although many Anglo-Saxon and Middle English poems feature a “right” position to which the wrong thinker can be converted, in many others the disputants are equals, and no final decision is made.

Reed demonstrates that in addition to all of the explicitly titled dispute poems, many of the major English works are debates: Beowulf with its “sparring” and formal flytings; Piers Plowman with its wayward and “enigmatic” path; Sir Gawain and the Green Knight with its disputations between green and gold, winter and summer, Christianity and chivalry, youth and age, sinner and mercy, discourtesy and treachery. The Canterbury Tales also features a “debate on marriage” extending across the tales of the merchant, the Clerk, the Wife of Bath, and the Franklin; the “flytings” between the Reeve, Miller, Summoner, and Friar,; and the overall “narrative competition” among the taletellers to be judged by Harry Bailly.

 

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