T

he purpose of this post is to begin a running list of key terms or favorite entries from the Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics (2012). I’ll begin today with excerpts or full entries from the following: recitation, music and poetry, and nature.

RECITATION. The act of repeating a written text from memory, often following conventions of elocution and dramatic representation, recitation has been central to the educational and social practices of many cultures. In Islam, for instance, Muslims are expected to memorize portions of the Qur’an, and recitation is a sophisticated art (one sense of the word Qur’an is “recitation”). In most Eur. cultures and esp. the Eng. speaking world, the art of vernacular (as opposed to Lat.) recitation of poetry played an important role in the 18th, 19th, and early 20th cs.

      The aesthetic and literary significance of recitation must be distinguished from the oral trad. In preliterate oral cultures (e.g., Homer’s milieu) and in settings that draw on oral cultures (such as the Appalachian folkballad trad.), the *performance is the text. The performer is expected to improvise and elaborate; his or her fundamental role is to participate in the creation of the poem and its meaning. Thus, the received poem is subordinate to, and dependent on, the performer (see oral poetry). By contrast, recitation, while it has an interpretive element, is not additive or improvisational; the point is to remember the written text accurately and to interpret it correctly. In other words, the performer is mostly subordinate to, and dependent on, the received text.
      Before the 18th c., well-educated boys were compelled to recite Lat. poetry and prose. After the Enlightenment, however, schools shifted their focus to vernacular langs. as they opened their doors to a broader population. By the early 19th c., schools in the Eng.-speaking world were teaching children to recite from poets such as Shakespeare, William Cowper, and William Cullen Bryant. Wide literacy also meant that moderately prosperous people could enjoy poetry at home; on both sides of the Atlantic, Robert Burns rivaled Shakespeare as a favorite because his lyrics in dialect lent themselves to dramatic recitation in parlors (see dialect poetry). During the 19th c., then, and in Europe and Latin America as well as Britain and the U.S., the recitation of poetry flourished in both the private and public spheres, reflecting and influencing the rise of the middle class. The Mexican critic Alfonso Reyes tells of such a family occasion, normally devoted to the declamation of romantic poetry, in which the Cuban poet Mariano Brull introduced the variety of *sound poetry he called the *jitanjáfora.
       In the romantic period and after, the art of recitation depended, in part, on the cult of the singular *poet. Poets became role models, and reciters not only mouthed their words but sometimes internalized their values (see absorption). This sense of identity through performance tended to favor poets whose work seemed to accord with conventional middle-class values: while it led to a backlash against figures like Lord Byron, others such as Alfred, Lord Tennyson and H. W. Longfellow ascended to secular sainthood. Recitations of poetry in schools, parlors, churches, union halls, and settlement houses were believed to have an elevating effect; to recite a poem was to express both ambition and subordination to established cultural authorities. Of course, cultural authority is never evenly distributed, and some poems passed quickly into the oral trad., becoming—like folk rhymes—subject to appropriation and improvisation; examples include Jane Taylor’s “The Star” (“Twinkle, twinkle,” 1806), or Elizabeth Akers Allen’s “Rock Me to Sleep” (1860). But poems by “great men” remained the standard in a culture of recitation that supported established literary authorities and conventions.
       The culture of recitation influenced the contract between poets and their readers, pressuring poets to write accessible lyric poems that sounded melodious when read aloud (see euphony). During the 18th and 19th cs., the most widely read poets produced works that engaged the voice and the ear. Some poems even took recitation as a topic, such as David Everett’s “The Boy Reciter” (1791): “You’d scarce expect one of my age / To speak in public on the stage / And if I chance to fall below / Demosthenes or Cicero / Don’t view me with a critic’s eye / But pass my imperfections by.”
       Elocution manuals stressed the value of both control and emotiveness as readers learned to speak in public while curbing their “imperfections.” Speakers were taught to practice articulation, inflection, emphasis, modulation, and pauses; to control their breathing; and to position their feet and hands properly. The poem was a demonstration not only of literary merit but of the speaker’s training. The link between recitation and bodily control has led Robson to link poetic meter with the experience of corporal punishment. From this perspective, recitation worked as a disciplinary measure that regulated young readers’ bodies and hearts. Many popular recitation pieces thematized self-making or “character building.” Rudyard Kipling’s “If” (1910), e.g., promises: “If you can keep your head while all about you / Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,” then, in the end, “. . . you’ll be a Man, my son.” To remember and recite such lines could be a way not merely to learn Kipling but to make Kipling’s values part of the speaker’s lived and voiced experience.
       Recitation, however, was not only a social performance; it was a feat of memory. William Wordsworth’s The Prelude implies that the self is literally made of memories; from a romantic perspective, then, memorized poems—like other memories—become integral to the speaker’s selfhood. Although many recitation pieces stress character building, many more express and elicit a longing for the past, as in J. G. Whittier’s “Barefoot Boy” (1855): “From my heart I give thee joy / I was once a barefoot boy!” In this poem, the act of repeating a *refrain is also an exercise in nostalgia and in self-assertion. To repeat a poem learned in the past is to, in some sense, recover a past self. Moreover, the practice of recitation raised, and continues to raise, questions about the nature and functions of poetry generally. When a poem is recited, what precisely is being remembered? How much depends on the text, and how much depends on the speaker?
       By the mid-20th c., the practice of Eng.-lang. recitation of poetry was in decline. Progressive 20th-c. educators sometimes called it “drill and kill,” implying that rote memorization deadened both the poem and the reader’s enthusiasm for poetry. However, there have been sporadic calls for a revival. In his intro. to the anthol. Committed to Memory, Hollander suggests that learning a poem by heart is still one of the best ways to understand it fully. He argues that, far from “killing” poetry, the act of recitation brings poems alive by engaging the voice, the ear, and the mind. In much of the world, this lesson remains fully understood.

(A. Sorby)

MUSIC AND POETRY (Gr. mousikē, “the art of the Muses”). Our best evidence about primitive song suggests that melodies and rhythms precede words, that the first step toward poetry was the fitting of words to preexistent musical patterns. Primitive cultures did not make the distinctions we now make between music and poetry: the Egyptian “hymn of the seven vowels,” e.g., appears to have exploited the overtone pitches present in the vowels of any lang. The ancient Gr. ling. system of pitch accents was strikingly similar to the tetrachordal system of ancient Gr. music. Spoken Gr. moved between two stable pitches, a high pitch (indicated in post-Alexandrian texts by the acute accent) and a low pitch (indicated by the absence of accent); these pitches framed an area from which the sliding pitch indicated by the circumflex accent arose; the grave accent may also indicate such a medial pitch. Gr. music also moved between two fixed pitches; these tones, a perfect fourth apart, framed a middle area containing two sliding microtonal pitches. The ling. pitch system operated independently from the rhythmic system we now call quantitative meter; high-pitched syllables did not necessarily correspond with long positions in the meter. But the scraps of ancient music we possess do show a general correspondence between pitch accent and melodic shape, and studies of “accentual responsion” in the lyrics of Sappho and Pindar suggest that the poet’s choice of words in an *antistrophe may have been constrained by an attempt to have those words correspond to the melodic pitch pattern established in the *strophe.
       The Greeks used the same word, mousikē, to describe dance, music, poetry, and elementary education. Mousikē was essentially a “mnemonic technology,” a rhythmic and melodic way of preserving the wisdom of the culture; alphabetic writing, the next advance in mnemonic technology, forced changes. It was adopted as a musical notation soon after its introduction, with letters of the alphabet written above the vowels in a poetic line to indicate pitches. Thanks to the quantitative conventions of Gr. meter, no separate rhythmic notation was necessary. The visual separation of pitches and words in the new notation began to separate the once unified arts; alphabetic writing led to both rhetorical and musical theory, the latter of which, thanks to Pythagorean mysticism, quickly became concerned with advanced theoretical and mathematical problems virtually divorced from performance. […]
       In the early Middle Ages, liturgical chant became longer, more complex, and more ornate, despite attempts by Charlemagne and Pope Gregory I to arrest its devel. When the lengthy melismatic passages sung to the last a of the word alleluia proved hard to memorize because church singers had a much less accurate notational system than the now-forgotten letters of the ancient Greeks, monks began writing words for them; the resulting works were called sequences or proses, though they employ many devices we would call poetic. By fitting new words to a preexisting melody, such sequence poets as Notker Balbulus (ca. 840-912) again altered poetry, moving it still closer to mod. stanzaic form, including *rhyme. The *troubadours and *trouvères, composer-poets writing in the vernacular, took over and extended the formal innovations of the sequence, producing increasingly complex stanzaic forms with elaborate rhyme schemes. In their art, poetic form was more complex than musical form, and by the time Dante defined poetry as a combination of music and rhet., music had become a somewhat metaphorical term. Not only were the It. poems in forms derived from the troubadours normally written without a specific tune in mind, but poetic form itself had become sufficiently demanding to occupy the attention once devoted to making words fit a preexisting tune. […]
       In Ren. poetry and music, techniques initially developed as virtuoso modes of construction, such as rhyme in poetry and chordal harmony in music, began to acquire expressive values. A new rereading of the ancient poets and rhetoricians, with fresh interest in persuasion, emotion, and the moral force of sounds, was an important factor. Med. composers had often worked out their music before pasting in a text, but Ren. composers normally started with a text and worked in various ways at animating or expressing it. Josquin des Prez (ca. 1450–1521), who used dissonant harmonies at painful moments in the text, pointed the way toward the witty rhetorical musical expression of the It. *madrigal school, which developed a number of harmonic and melodic “word-painting” conventions for setting words dealing with running, weeping, dying, and so forth. When Cardinal Bembo’s edition of 1501 restored Petrarch as a model for *lyric poetry, composers of secular songs were compelled to increase the musical sophistication of their settings, and in searching for musical equivalents of Petrarchan *oxymorons—“freezing fires” or “living deaths”—they developed a more expressive use of harmony. Despite this general motion toward expression, however, the highly elaborate methods of construction typical of med. art survived, as virtuosity or mysticism, in both arts, esp. in England, where the hidden numerical schemes of Edmund Spenser’s poetry and the abstract patterns of John Bull’s keyboard fantasias provide extreme examples.
       The increased attention to the rhet. and meaning of poetry on the part of composers did not satisfy the literary reformers now called the “musical humanists” (the Camerata of Giovanni de’ Bardi in Florence and the Académie of Jean-Antoine de Baïf in Paris). Fired by ancient myths concerning the capacity of music to arouse various passions, these men concluded that it would do so most effectively by submitting to the rule of the text: they opposed independent musical rhythm, arguing that music should exactly follow the rhythm of the poem; they opposed the staggered declamation typical of the madrigal, favoring homophonic, chordal singing or *monody. Such composers as Claudio Monteverdi paid lip service to the aims of this reform program but did not allow it to deprive their art of the techniques it had developed since the Middle Ages. Operatic recitative is the most familiar legacy of musical humanism, but Monteverdi’s operas show as much attention to musical construction as to literary expression. By the later 17th c., opera singers had become more important in the public view than either composers or librettists, and arias designed for vocal display became a central part of operatic practice.
       While most Ren. poets possessed some technical understanding of music, thanks to the importance of music in the traditional school curriculum, poets in later centuries often lacked such knowledge, and their mimetic theories of musical expression proved increasingly inadequate. In 18th-c. vocal music, such composers as J. S. Bach continued to employ versions of the mimetic word-painting techniques of the madrigal; Alexander Pope’s witty lines on “sound and sense” in the Essay on Criticism are a poetic analogy. But composers, unlike poets, were able to use materials that originated in such local *mimesis as building blocks from which to construct a larger structure. Trained by such rhetorically organized texts as Johann Fux’s Gradus ad Parnassum (1725), a treatise on counterpoint praised by Bach, they were also learning to combine canonic procedures with an increasingly stable tonal grammar; these devels. liberated instrumental music, which could now embody several kinds of purely musical meaning. The willingness of later 18th-c. concertgoers to attend purely instrumental performances demonstrated once and for all the inadequacy of Ren. theories that had maintained that music’s only legitimate function was to animate texts. Mimetic theorists, however, shifted their ground. No longer able to maintain that composers were imitating words, they now insisted that they were imitating or expressing feelings, a doctrine that led to the Affektenlehre, a systematic catalog of musical formulas for expressing passions.
      Two fundamentally opposed conceptions of music were now coexisting uneasily: poets and philosophers continued to insist on the mimetic function of music, now calling it a lang. of the passions, but composers and some theorists, by developing the tight musical syntax we now call the tonal system, had given music a grammar of its own, a meaning independent of imitation that made possible such larger forms as the sonata-allegro. The romantic poets, just as ignorant of musical technique as their Augustan predecessors, now embraced music for the very qualities that had made it unattractive to those older poets, its supposed vagueness, fluidity, and “femininity.” They sought in their poetry to imitate these myths about music, not the logical, witty music actually being written by such composers as Franz Joseph Haydn. In the cause of a more “musical” poetry, the romantics loosened Eng. syntax, while Haydn and W. A. Mozart were tightening and refining musical syntax. But eventually these romantic and literary myths about music began to affect composers, and in the music of Hector Berlioz, Franz Liszt, and Richard Wagner, all of whom acknowledge literary influences, a similar loosening of musical syntax takes place. Later 19th-c. composers frequently embraced poetic aims: “program” music, the idea of the leitmotif, the revived claim that music could express emotions and tell stories.
      Wagner’s opponent Eduard Hanslick insisted on the autonomy of music, espousing the revolutionary idea that musical structure itself was the real subject of music. Contemporaneous poetic theories of *autonomy were somewhat similar in their drive to separate poetry from its subject matter. But while Hanslick rejected all attempts to describe music as a lang., the poetic autonomists (E. A. Poe, Oscar Wilde, Walter Pater) claimed to want to make poetry more like music. Fr. symbolist poetry (see symbolism), in its fascination with sound and its attempt to maximize the extent to which words in a poem acquire their meaning from that particular poetic context alone, attempts to realize the program announced in Paul Verlaine’s familiar declaration de la musique avant toute chose (music before everything). Still, the waning of the tonal system in 20th-c. music and Arnold Schoenberg’s success in devising a new system for composition suggested again the limitations of attempts to describe music in ling. terms. Twentieth-c. relations between the arts often followed the old axes of numerical construction: Schoenberg was profoundly influenced by the mathematical constructive procedures in the poetry and music of Machaut; in his “expressionist” period, he used poetic line lengths to determine musical structure. Alban Berg organized his Lyric Suite on a sonnet by Stéphane Mallarmé but suppressed the text; W. H. Auden, in seeking a musical sophistication of technique, invented poetic forms closely related to the serial techniques of mod. music. Despite the large differences in the way music and poetry are practiced in the mod. world, Ezra Pound’s cranky insistence that “poets who will not study music are defective” acknowledges the advantages of a long and fruitful partnership.

(J.A. Winn)

NATURE. In their classic study of the term, Lovejoy and Boas teased out 61 categories of meaning for our word nature. Given the term’s vast breadth and cultural significance, Williams’s observation, which has been repeatedly echoed (often in exasperation) by literary critics, is hardly surprising: “any full history of the uses of ‘nature’ would be a history of a large part of human thought.” Complicating matters, our concept of nature was influenced not only by the Lat. natura, from whence our word derives, but by the Gr. physis and OE cyn. Nonetheless, while their hists. are intricate and circuitous, behind each of these words lies a single, shared meaning.
       Physis, natura, and cyn each originally denoted birth and growth. This core meaning is so old that it predates the first Gr., Lat., and OE utterances, having its origin in two IE words: bheue (from which we get physis) and gen (which gave us natura and cyn). Although the ancient IE sense of birth and growth is rarely invoked when we use the word nature today, this meaning was still available to Heraclitus and his student Cratylus: to both philosophers, physis signals birth, growth, and passing away, the endlessly reoccurring process of becoming, whereby everything everywhere is ever coming into and out of existence. Because Cratylus observed that such change happens quickly, he criticized (as Aristotle noted) “Heraclitus for saying that one cannot step twice into the same stream, for he himself thought it could not be done even once.” Doubting that lang. could successfully represent nature, which he saw as manifestly and wildly in flux, Cratylus chose to communicate only by gesturing, silently pointing to nature endlessly in flux.
       Because he argued that lang. failed to represent nature successfully, the mute and gesturing Cratylus was profoundly worrisome to Plato. Fortunately for Plato, he found a teacher, Socrates, who promised to save lang. from the relentless flux of nature by postulating a fixed and immutable realm securely “beyond nature” (metaphysikē), which, he reasoned, is what lang. must refer to, or at least should represent, if uttered truthfully by a knowledgeable person. Not content with merely theorizing this supersensory realm, in his dialogue Cratylus (389c), Plato triumphantly underscored this achievement by redefining physis as equivalent to his changeless Ideas (which he postulated as existing only in the metaphysical realm), thereby turning the old definition, which Cratylus still echoed, on its head.
       Plato thus marks a turning point in the hist. of the concept of nature, which resulted in nature’s being locked into (and seen as the inferior member of) a binary structure with the metaphysical. As a result, after Plato, “true nature” is often imagined as that which lies firmly beyond the flux of nature. This dualistic view quickly came to dominate Western thinking, first through Plotinus and the Neoplatonists, then in Christian thinking, esp. with the Scholastics, with heaven imagined as the superior, metaphysical realm and the soul actually at risk of contamination from the earthly environment. By the Ren., this view had become a commonplace. […]
       The manner by which Plato and Theocritus (along with a range of other Gr. thinkers) reconceived of nature had profound consequences. First, because nature was imagined in opposition to certain places, such as cities, it became more a spatial than a temporal category. Having inherited this view, we often think of nature as a place (such as a rural locale, following Theocritus), rather than that by virtue of which all places—and everything else, for that matter—are changed over time. Moreover, in setting up nature in opposition to culture, these Gr. thinkers presaged an enormously influential distinction, often first attributed to Cicero, between “first nature,” existing separately from human intervention, like an untouched forest, and “second nature,” which references human culture and works, such as a table made from the forest’s trees. This is an important distinction that is still very much alive today, as we often judge “naturalness,” be it of a place or a consumer product, on the extent of its human modification. The first/second nature dyad echoes a similar distinction that emerged with the Greeks, between nature and art, with the latter often being seen (such as in the close of Plato’s Republic) as an inferior reflection of nature.
       Not surprisingly, the question of the relation of nature to art is one to which writers from Aristotle through Edmund Spenser and into the 21st c. have repeatedly turned. Moreover, as Watson has recently argued, the issue of whether writers and artists could truly be successful in their efforts to represent nature caused a great deal of anxiety even in the late Ren. More recently, poststructural thinkers (such as Derrida), following the phenomenologists of the first half of the 20th c., have reopened this question.
      In both his Eclogues and Georgics, Virgil took up the question of first and second nature. In his first *eclogue, which both Alpers and Patterson argue established the paradigm for nearly all subsequent pastoral, Virgil reflected on the pastoral mode he inherited by considering how culture (by way of political decisions) can affect nature (i.e., first nature, in the form of a rural locale). Following Hesiod, Cato, and Varro, and postulating, like the authors of Genesis, that human beings once lived at peace with nature in a golden age but lost that perfect state through human folly, in his Georgics Virgil focused on the necessary creation of second nature through agriculture. In general, as ecocritics have repeatedly made clear, in Gr., Roman, Heb., and Christian thinking, human beings are frequently imagined as living in an adversarial relationship with nature, mandated to convert an inhospitable (in Genesis “fallen”) first nature into second through backbreaking labor.
       With nature understood in so many ways, its value was drawn into question for future writers. E.g., conceiving of nature as locked into two binaries (nature vs. the metaphysical, nature vs. city; being marginalized in the first, privileged in the second) raised a key question: is nature evil or good? The Ren. poet Petrarch, who wrote of his “hate . . . of Town, and love of the woods” in his letters, nonetheless related that he became “enraged” with himself for “admiring earthly things” (a beautiful mountaintop) when his mind’s eye should have been turned toward God and heaven. In some sense, this dilemma was resolved by thinkers after Petrarch, such as Baruch Spinoza, who, rejecting metaphysical dualism, saw God as not separate from but rather immanent in nature. This approach paved the way for the romantics, many of whom saw nature as a manifestation of deity.
       Not everyone, however, would see God as immanent in nature. Francis Bacon, e.g., who inherited the Gr. and med. trad. of imagining nature as a goddess, saw her not only as the most elemental and important object of scientific inquiry but (as Merchant, following Adorno and Horkheimer, has stressed) as desperately in need of control. To facilitate this project of gaining power over nature by way of knowledge, Bacon favored terse aphoristic prose, which has given birth to mod. scientific and technical writing. In contrast, as Fletcher has argued, from the late Ren. onward, writers took up the daunting challenge of developing poetic lang. that could describe and praise nature without making it an object of scientific enquiry. To Fletcher, this project culminates with the poetry of John Ashbery. [….]

(K. Hiltner)
Last update: 25-Aug-20 00:53