A simple new approach to poems has come upon us; it may free us from the knotweeds of theory, obscure discourse or self-delighting ideologies that now guard poems. The method guides us to the poem’s fourth dimension - past the dimensions of visibility, sound and meaning. It says simply: take the poem into your mouth and speak it; let the poem’s physical body - enunciation - live within your body. This approach is so innovative and vivid that the book’s first page asks you to go online to watch the author demonstrate it.
There you will discover him to be the 100-year-old M.H. Abrams, still of Cornell University, author of two landmark volumes on Romantic literature - The Mirror and the Lamp: Romantic Theory and the Critical Tradition and Natural Supernaturalism: Tradition and Revolution in Romantic Literature - and first editor of the monumental Norton Anthology of English Literature. Abrams was born in 1912, before the eruptions of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land and James Joyce’s Ulysses, and while Freud’s Unconscious and Einstein’s Relativity were just suckling babes. A scholars’ Tiresias, Abrams can look over a century of readings, from Symbolism to New Criticism to Post-Structuralism, from the Great War to the small skirmishes called literature departments. (His graduate adviser at Harvard University warned him that “the profession was not open to Jews”.)
Like Tiresias, Abrams has come to prod us from our “post-Gutenberg fallacy of misplaced concreteness”. To approach poems “exclusively from an ideational level” is to “disembody them”. The “poem’s body is enunciated speech”, and our mouths its instrument: thus, poems remain “the most intimately human” form of art.
A naive truism? Not in practice. Abrams shows, in W.H. Auden’s On This Island, the tongue becoming a shoreline between liquid - “leaping light for your delight discovers” - and the solid end: “Stand stable here”. In Ernest Dowson’s droll Cynara, where the speaker confesses missing his lover (while he kisses a prostitute), the tongue dances the ls of “lost lilies” in the 1-2-3 of the then-riotous Viennese Waltz. This link may seem far-fetched - yet Abrams notes that Dowson’s friend Oscar Wilde had named that waltz in his poem The Harlot’s House. The tune, and its decadent admission, travels forward as well: a Cole Porter song uses Dowson’s phrase, “I’m always true to you, darling, in my fashion…”
Sonorous readings of poems, in which the mouth seems a cathouse or cathedral, and the tongue ever at play in its bed, turn to wider discoveries: the words of John Keats’ Odes are heard in 18th-century poems, and in Keats’ medical classes. Abrams has listened to Eliot, Ezra Pound, Robert Frost and Dylan Thomas read their works in person, has studied with the critics Douglas Bush and I.A. Richards; during the Second World War, he researched ways to distinguish spoken commands from background noise.
In other chapters, The Fourth Dimension considers if interpretations can be “correct” and how deconstructionists’ conduct in the world undermines their theories. French conclusions about “language-in-general” may stand between us and our first taste of a poem; they subordinate the precise motions of a poem’s “language-in-use”, and the poem as a special form of art. To call all things “texts” is to make My Left Foot both text and toe.
Though polite and pluralistic, The Fourth Dimension wonders: why construct an alien interpretive world when poems can enter you? Abrams’ light touch with patterns and ideas supports valuable readings of Immanuel Kant, William Hazlitt and David Hume, and poems ranging from those of William Wordsworth to his Cornell colleagues, poet A.R. Ammons and Vladimir Nabokov. If Abrams’ essay on Romantic “eco-criticism” seems dated, it is because we have now “talked our extinction to death” (Robert Lowell). In debate Abrams is less Samuel Johnson, kicking rocks to refute idealists, than sly Keats, whose tongue could “burst Joy’s grape against his palate fine”. Keats’ tongue once made bursting movements to say those words, and now ours can.
Abrams’ teaching, alas, seems lost on his student Harold Bloom, whose annoying self-referential foreword to The Fourth Dimension bugles from the School of Anxious Me. Here’s old Harold: “Looking through my forty years of copious marginalia, I find my own awakening to the secularized epiphany or privileged moment…”, etc. Kindly remove your subject-position.
Fortunately, the Ancient of The Fourth Dimension still guides us past the anchorites and system-builders pacing their paradigms, and past Freud and Einstein’s gloomy century of secret causation and perspectival relativism. After our first bike ride, first kiss and first Margaux, there’s now a first penetration - not with Bolero playing but with the poem, naked on our tongue.
The Fourth Dimension of a Poem, and Other Essays
By M.H. Abrams. W. W. Norton, 192pp, £18.99
Published 5 October 2012