«A Dissertation by SARAH ELIZABETH HART Submitted to the Office of Graduate Studies of Texas A&M University in partial fulfillment of the requirements ...»
In this sense, poetry seems to affirm a human community across vast boundaries, which may account for the appeal of poetry in the face of crises like 9/11. Poetry's communal effect turns on its ability to affirm the humanity of writers and readers alike.
In her account of the poetry's mass popularity in the wake of 9/11, Dinitia Smith quotes former U.S. poet laureate Billy Collins, who observes that "in times of crisis it's interesting that people don't turn to the novel or say, 'We should all go out to a movie,' or, 'Ballet would help us.' It's always poetry. What we want to hear is a human voice speaking directly in our ear." Dickinson, Frost, and Wilbur all express "human voice[s]" successfully in their poetry, voices that remind readers of the "pitiable" state of human "mortality" (Collins qtd. in D. Smith; Walker 253). Such an appeal thus affirms readers' connections with everyone who has already and will have to face death. Lyric poems not only affirm readers' connections with a human community, however, but also affirm their own singular humanity. One of Collins's predecessors, Robert Pinsky, explains, "Poetry has an intimacy because it is in the readers' voice, in one's own breath... With poetry, you say it aloud yourself, in your own voice" (qtd. in D. Smith). Pinsky and Collins invite us to see Dickinson's and Frost's poems as expressing their authors' "human voice[s]" in a form that allows readers to actualize their own human singularity by reading the poems aloud (Collins qtd. in D. Smith). By affirming the humanity of writers and readers alike, poetry cultivates personal, dialogic relationships that seem to constitute, at least in part, the healing power of epideictic poetry.
Poetics of Loss Although Walker de-emphasizes contemporary poetry's "reconfirm[ation] of the group's existing pieties and hierarchies of value," deeming such community-affirming effects as merely "a minor kind of epideictic," the cultural and ethical significance of such effects are important in light of the poetics of violence that, according to Sychterz, culminates in modern poetry's responses to twentieth-century violence (Walker 330).
Sychterz explains that due to the "globalized wars and ever more potent weapons of mass destruction" during the twentieth century, this era is characterized by a "festishization of war" (137). In response to this cultural context of violence, "[p]oetry has increasingly become a privileged site for confronting violence in its myriad forms," which Sychterz corroborates with his analysis of wounds, scars, and lyric and narrative genres (Sychterz 137). Although this "fetishization" implies a celebration of violence, Dickinson, Frost, and Wilbur seem to emphasize mournful dimensions of loss, an emphasis that may be another side of the coin (Sychterz 137). In both celebrating and mourning violence and loss, poetry functions epideictically by mediating and influencing our responses to loss and violence. Indeed these poets' reflections on loss and affect seem to be a kind of rhetorical project that is essential to our collective processes of healing from and preventing future violence. Poetry may not only help us respond to loss in more ethical ways, but may also help us find more ethical alternatives to violence. As such lyric poetry seems like more than a "minor kind of epideictic" rhetoric (Walker 330).
The Value of Rhetoric As this chapter traces the rhetorical and ethical valences of Frost's and Dickinson's poems, it speaks to rhetoric's ability to contribute to literary criticism—an issue Don Bialostosky takes up in his analysis of rhetorical criticism's recent history. In addressing the division between deconstruction's and the Chicago school's conflicting definitions of rhetoric during the 1970s and 1980s, Bialostosky asks how rhetorical study might move beyond such polarizing, "stipulative" approaches and develop more useful tools for analyzing literature rhetorically. In hopes of promoting more useful rhetorical
criticism, Bialostosky raises a range of questions, such as:
This chapter responds to such issues by demonstrating that Frost and Dickinson assume their audience, whether external, internal, or both, is acquainted with loss and even death. This assumption contributes to these authors' appeals to human mortality, appeals that help create humane connections among writers and readers—connections that may be especially comforting and valuable to people coping with death and loss.
Our recognition of such ethical effects of poetry depends in part on rhetorical criticism that emphasizes relationships between speakers and listeners, writers and readers. Rhetorical criticism's emphasis on relationships helps us contextualize poetry— and literature in general—historically, biographically, and philosophically. Thus rhetoric helps us not only to recognize poetic dialogues between writers and readers, but also to negotiate dialogic connections between literature and other disciplines. These dialogic connections affirm literature's epideictic valences and the ethical value of rhetoric.
Perhaps through these various dialogic contexts, rhetoric appeals to us across boundaries of time, space, and experience, offering us hope in situations of loss.
ELEGIAC RESPONSIBILITIES: CONSOLATION IN DIALOGUE
"[F]rom the start, the other affects us despite ourselves" (Levinas, "Substitution" 118).
Consolation and Its Discontents In the wake of tragedy, the search for consolation seems like an appropriate motive for reading and writing poems. Theorists of the elegy, however, express conflicting attitudes about consolation. For example, Peter Sacks views consolation as the end of mourning. Writing poetry allows the elegist to fulfill "an act of substitution" by which she lets go of the lost other and "reattach[es] to a new love object" or objects, such as the poem itself, which serves as a "consolation prize" (114, 5). According to Sacks, "no work of mourning is complete" without substitution, which satisfies the elegist's search for consolation by ending her grief (114, 1).
Sacks acknowledges, however, that conventional elegiac mourning may seem unappealing to contemporary audiences frustrated by "the ways in which death has tended to become obscene, meaningless, impersonal" through "large-scale war...
genocide" and even modern medicine's advanced technologies, which can "clinically" conceal and de-personalize death (299). Jahan Ramazani echoes these concerns in his treatment of the modern elegy, noting "the vexed experience of grief in the modern world" fraught with "moral doubts, metaphysical skepticisms, and emotional tangles" (x). Ramazani claims, "We need elegies that, while imbued with grief, can hold up to the acid suspicions of our moment" (x). Such suspicions, Eleanor DesPrez indicates, may include concern about "language's inadequacy to" convey "not only personal grief but also large cultural and historical losses..." (Ramazani x; DesPrez 30).
Ramazani and DesPrez, along with Tammy Clewell and R. Clifton Spargo, critique Sacks's emphasis on consolation as an end to mourning and theorize antielegiac, and even anti-consolatory modes of mourning as alternatives to "compensatory" mourning (Ramazani 3). Ramazani argues, "In becoming anti-elegiac, the modern elegy... becomes anti-consolatory... anti-Romantic... anti-conventional and sometimes even anti-literary" (2). As an alternative to Freudian consolatory mourning, modern antielegiac mourning is, according to Ramazani, "unresolved, violent... ambivalent," and, above all, endless (4). Spargo likewise traces "a strain of melancholic or anti-elegiac lyric that foresees no end to mourning" and "resist[s]... elegiac conventions" (13).
Spargo sees himself extending Ramazani's and Sacks's descriptions of modern grief's frustrations; he recognizes "incomplete mourning" as "an ethical acknowledgement of..
. the radical alterity of the other whom one mourns" (13). Conventional grief and consolation may undermine the other's difference, further injuring the lost other, whom the mourner supposedly aims to protect.
Such injury may occur, for example, when a mourner uses a lost other to achieve aesthetic pleasure. Ramazani and DesPrez both observe "melancholic anxieties about redeeming loss as poetic gain" (Ramazani 7). DesPrez identifies such anxiety in Frost's "The Spoils of the Dead," which expresses an "anti-elegiac principle" opposed to "aestheticiz[ing]" the dead in order to maximize poetic "pleasure" (34). Aestheticization endangers the dead in that "the very act of commemorating another who has died entails limiting, even destroying, that other" as, according to Jacques Derrida, the mourner internalizes his or her "image" or "ideal" of the lost other, thereby destroying the other's difference even after her death (DesPrez 30; Derrida qtd. in DesPrez 30). DesPrez explains Derrida's fear of posthumously injuring a lost other: "Memorials, even those interior memorials that are the goals of the work of healthy mourning as Fred defines it, become, in Derrida's account, brutal ways to confine the other, to digest the past reality of the other into the present self," and thereby destroy the other's singularity, including the singularity of her death (31). Likewise, Tammy Clewell explains that Sacks's "model of compensatory mourning depends on a denial of otherness, a denial that occurs exactly at the moment the other is represented and memorialized" (52). This anti-elegiac perspective seems to view elegiac consolation as perpetuating harm to the lost other, and therefore prefers endless mourning over consolation.
This ethical critique of consolation, however, seems to negate the important healing process of consolation on which mourners' well-being depends. Ramazani, DesPrez, and Clewell seem to imply that mourners like Dickinson's and Frost's speakers—who express depressed, death-like attitudes—should remain in their paralyzing, perhaps even dysfunctional grief. Because grief is often a crippling experience, consolation seems essential for grievers' well-being. Where is concern for the griever in these critiques of consolation? Are we compelled to mourn endlessly, forever denying our desire for consolation, in order to avoid further injuring our lost loved ones? I take these theorists to be describing contemporary anxieties about consolation, not prescribing that we and all mourners should forever deny our desire "to alleviate... sorrow" ("Console"). For example, Clewell identifies "Maya Lin's Vietnam Veterans War Memorial, Claude Lanzmann's Shoah, and Toni Morrison's fiction" as "abandon[ing]" consolation, as it is conventionally represented (53). I suggest, however, that these theorists—and the poets I analyze in this chapter—may value unconventional kinds of consolation through which mourners' responsibility to lost others endures. We can remember lost loved ones—our memories of them may even continue to shape our relationships with other people and our worldview—without continuously grieving.
In a letter Freud wrote almost a decade after his daughter died, he describes a kind of unending mourning that might still temper sorrow. Freud writes, "Although we know that after such a loss the acute state of mourning will subside, we also know we shall remain inconsolable... the gap... remains something else. And actually this is how it should be. It is the only way of perpetuating that love which we do not want to relinquish" (Freud qtd. in Clewell 61-62). Such "endless mourning," for Freud, means sustaining one's "love" for the lost other, continually responding to her difference even after her death (Clewell 65; Freud qtd. in Clewell 62). This kind of mourning "condition[s]" the ego's very "existence," giving it "an elegiac formation" (Clewell 65, 64). Despite the "inconsolable" tenor of such unending grief, the mourner's "sorrow" may be partially alleviated by a sense that she sustains her relationship to the lost other, even if she refuses to idealize the lost loved one ("Console").
Spargo suggests that consolation may coincide with endless mourning. He admits, "Any elegy's turn against grief may eventually be put in the service of its own consolatory purposes," although "such turns" remain "revisionary" in that they resist "the history of consolation and the strategies of commemoration..." (Spargo, Ethics 128).
Anti-elegiac, anti-consolatory dissent resides in "a set of dialectical resistances embedded in the elegiac genre" (Spargo, Ethics 129). The elegy, therefore, seems to assume a "dialectical" form based on "the existence or working of opposing forces" or "tendencies" within the genre (Spargo, Ethics 129; "Dialectic"). Such oppositional tensions seem to coincide with DesPrez's description of the "dialogic structure" of mourning in some of Frost's poems, such as "Home Burial," in which different mourners address each other (32). Spargo and DesPrez indicate that dialogic mourning may be more ethical than substitutive or compensatory mourning because dialogic mourning is unresolved and therefore continues to respond ethically to the other's alterity.
In this chapter, I analyze three poems—John Donne's "A Valediction Forbidding Mourning," John Keats's "This Living Hand," and Christina Rossetti's "Remember"— that, through both elegiac and anti-elegiac means, appeal to readers' value of dialogic connections with others. I suggest that this appeal does function as a kind of consoling aesthetic pleasure—but that this kind of consolation is deferred or redirected away from substitution for the other that ends mourning. I view these poems rhetorically, considering how they stage speaker-listener dialogues that, in turn, allow the reader to engage dialogically with the poem itself. This dialogic effect consoles by affirm the reader's subjective ability "to be able" and her capacity for responsibility to and for others (Levinas, "Time" 42).
Indeed, the appeal to our value of dialogic connections seems deep and abiding;