Corpus as Concept: Poetic Sensibilities in Literary-Theoretic Discourse

There are two parts to an argument I want to make but lack the qualifications: 1) showing poetry, and poets in large, express, across their corpus, a worldview or way of seeing; 2) showing that literary-theoretic discourse actively leverages poets as concept handles in meta-level discourse (discourse about discourse; that is, to talk about how we talk about the world, to interrogate worldviews and discourses. Reading digs a channel, a channel dug with others’ words, through which communication can pass. Poets become stand-ins for sensibilities, the mystical, religious Blake held in opposition to the more level, moderate Wordworth (as in Kirsch’s Why Trilling Matters). Or the romanticism of Wordsworth held in opposition to the chthonic, darker Coleridge (as in Paglia’s Sexual Personae).

It strikes me that one of the significant secondary functions of poetry is the establishing, over a body of work, a sensibility (and that those poets which make lasting dents are often those who crystallized a sensibility in words). This sensibility is the gleam of an approach, the impossible edge of things, the intangible relationship between Seer, subject, and Seen, object.

It is little coincidence that so much poetry operates as cathexis, as gaze, as an interpretation of a visual field or subject, e.g. of a pond lovely or lurid. While it is the language that makes it poetry, the language also carries with it an orientation, a mode and yield of consideration. One ruminates on objects/subjects/systems; in other words one orients oneself to the objects/subjects/systems. The reader’s understanding of the Seen expands, but also his interpretive tool kits (known in psychology as schemata).

The establishment of a new interpretive lens through cathexis of a known subject is akin to what in Russian formalism is known as defamiliarization. The familiar is distorted, made to look new, through a new interpretation. Novel ways of looking are slowly but eventually integrated into the cultural perspective, so that many are eventually naturalized into familiarity. Crucially, the subject must be at first familiar to be defamiliarized: if the reader has no understanding of X, he cannot understand the separation between mode of interpretation and object of interpretation. How can one recognize a “take” — a structure of meaning created by a combination of inductive and deductive strategies applied to “known facts” or “determinate data points” — without some grasp of what said data points are. Academic interpretations of history frequently differ along the lines of invisibility — intentionality, cause and effect, hypothetical alternatives, the “weight” of different actions as characteristic/synecdochic — without little disagreement over the facts of recorded events as they are. Similarly, the poet works with intangibles in choosing symbol, in choosing synecdoche, in choosing represented sample.

It is also no coincidence that Paglia, in Sexual Personae, uses the Wordworth-Coleridge opposition interchangeably with her inter-antagonism of Rousseau-Sade. Wordsworth and Coleridge are operating as forms of philosophy, coherent interpretations of human nature and social order.

Worldviews attract. For a poetic (or philosophical) interpretation of the world to “resonate” with a generation, the way Trilling argues Blake resonated with post-War generations, and the existence of Blake’s corpus allows the interrogation of a concrete worldview. Without a body of text, the deconstruction of a way of seeing is almost impossible. Blake is an analogy, a way to indirectly critique. To say that the Blakean worldview is en vogue among a group is to propose a category of orientation which can be challenged without quibbling over specifics. New and unknown sensibilities, such as the Beat sensibility to Trilling, can be processed as related to a known factor. It is a problematic way of understanding the present, but it is the only way.

William Wordsworth, not William Blake, defined nature for nineteenth-century culture. Visiting France in the early 1790s, Wordsworth read and admired Rousseau… Wordsworth’s refusal to acknowledge the sex or cruelty in nature is one source of the palpable repression in his poetry, which constricts and weighs it down… Blake wants sex without nature. Wordsworth wants nature without sex. As Rousseau is answered by Sade, so is Wordsworth answered– by his friend and colleague, Coleridge… From Coleridge comes the savage line of nineteenth-century pornographic daemonism, Poe and Hawthorne to Baudelaire, Wilde, and James. The bitter war between Wordsworth and Coleridge goes on for a hundred years. (Sexual Personae)

Extended more largely to all media (since all media bare worldviews, cf. Lynch and Kafka, if not so explicitly and centrally as poetry), we can understand the so-called postmodern condition as, in part, the accumulation of ways of seeing (or conceptual schemata) in a way which triggers both a crisis of subjectivity/objectivity/truth and also the kind of Romantic Irony cognitive-affective state where people both 1) take a “stance” but 2) acknowledge (cf. Kegan’s 5th stage) that their personal way of seeing is limited, complementary to other ways that merely circle reality



“…whatever the reason, when I consider the respective products of the poetic and of the philosophic mind, although I can see that they are by no means the same and although I can conceive that different processes, even different mental faculties, were at work to make them and to make them different, I cannot resist the impulse to put stress on their similarity and on their easy assimilation to each other.” (Trilling, “The Meaning of a Literary Idea”)

2 responses to “Corpus as Concept: Poetic Sensibilities in Literary-Theoretic Discourse”

  1. […] other, related project is the idea of a “corpus as a concept,” (update: link) that part of the primary information carried in poetry is worldview. Not just the content […]


  2. […] the reader’s body of personal experience, their worldview or outlook, their existing psychic schemata of the world. We might call this “personal resonance,” the feeling of recognition one […]


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