«A Dissertation by SARAH ELIZABETH HART Submitted to the Office of Graduate Studies of Texas A&M University in partial fulfillment of the requirements ...»
2. Jon Kertzer recognizes a convergence of the rhetoric of singularity expressed in literature and poetry, such as Wallace Stevens's poems, and Levinas's ethics. Kertzer claims, "Ethics and aesthetics... exhibit the same structure" in that "a specific obligation or artistic response is not subsumed within general rules or aesthetic forms" but rather "the particular" in both ethical and aesthetic contexts "stubbornly resists the generality to which it contributes" (Kertzer 228). For example, Kertzer characterizes Dylan Thomas's poem "A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London" as a World War II elegy that "refuses" to mourn a child killed in the Blitz, concluding that Thomas thereby "portrays most poignantly what must be true of all people at any moment: all are unique, mortal, and therefore irreplaceable" (220-221). Kertzer argues that "aesthetic particularity can be troubled into opening an avenue to ethical insight," affirming literature's ethical implications (232). Derek Attridge similarly links the literature's singularity with Levinas's ethics: Attridge argues, "The singularity of the artwork is not simply a matter of difference from other works... but a transformative difference... that involves the irruption of otherness or alterity into the cultural field" (136). The text's singularity is manifest in the reader's experience: "Singularity exists, or rather occurs, in the experience of the reader" (Attridge 67).
and being a good person," he claims that "some of the values are at work in both spheres" (130). When, as Attridge claims, "responsibility for the other is... a situation in which I find myself in," such situations include encounters with literature, which "constitut[e] me as a literary reader," and encounters with other people, who similarly demand my responsible response (126). Both Attridge and Kertzer affirm that literature, including elegiac poetry, has ethical effects on readers in a Levinasian sense.
thus helps us see an intersection between ethics, rhetoric, and poetry that turns on dialogue and loss.
Loss seems to be an event of contrast in which we encounter a tension between absence and presence. Absence becomes loss when viewed in terms of a previous, valued presence (even if that presence was only an un-actualized possibility). Lyric poetry's representations of loss allow us to explore how both presences and absences shape the meanings of our experiences. As Burke explains, the meanings of experiences seem to depend on our selection and deflection of situational factors. These contrasting processes suggest that dialogic contrast may define the limit of what is possible for us to experience. Swearingen suggests that "binarist contours" may define the nature of Western thought: "Dialectical reasoning continues to manifest itself in the binarist contours of Western thought about thought" (Rhetoric 258). Westerners may not be able to conceive of thought or experience in non-binary terms. By reading lyric poetry dialogically, we might bring such limits into better view. Such dialogic methodology seems to coincide with Plato's expectations of "true rhetoric" (Swearingen, Rhetoric 71).
Such an emphasis on contrast between ideas and situational factors suggests that dialogic contrast may not only exist between two persons. In this sense, I define dialogue as an event of contrast that juxtaposes two entities in terms of their similarities and differences. Dialogue constitutes a tension between presences and absences, a tension constituted in part by the loss/absence of identity.
I apply this dialogue heuristic not only to personal interactions (like those between authors and readers), but also to formal relationships. For example, I suggest that poetry and philosophy participate in a dialogic, reciprocal relationship with each other. Although poetry and philosophy differ greatly in their writing styles and means of understanding human experiences and language, both disciplines seem to be motivated in part by loss and absence. Philosophy pursues the limits of wisdom, relentlessly interrogating the absence of complete knowledge. Philosophical dialogue itself presupposes that no one individual is endowed with complete knowledge. Elegiac poetry is by definition inspired by loss, but other kinds of poetry also reach out to readers, attempting to turn the absence of connection with an audience into a present relationship.
Elegy and philosophical dialogue thus seem to share a dialogic contrast, especially in their respective comments about loss and mourning. This dissertation addresses poeticphilosophical dialogues about loss.
Cultural Contexts of Elegiac Loss This dissertation addresses elegiac lyrics, although many of the poems analyzed here are not conventional elegies. This project expands the concept of the elegy by considering how lyrics about various kinds of losses and grief may rhetorically evoke elegiac responses in readers. This criteria for elegies is not found in Peter Sacks's list of basic elegiac conventions, which focuses on the content and structure of poems and
the use of repetition and refrains, the reiterated questions, the outbreak of vengeful anger or cursing, the procession of mourners, the movement
Sacks's definition of the elegy as "a work, both in the commonly accepted meaning of a product and in the more dynamic sense of the working through of an impulse or experience" emphasizes the elegist's motives for writing, and he uses a Freudian approach to delineate the consoling effects that writing poetry has on the elegist (2).
What meaning, however, does such poetry, centered on the self, have for readers as the poet's audience? By reading poems rhetorically and tracing how elegies aim to evoke specific emotions in readers, this dissertation emphasizes the dialogic, relational aspects of the elegy. Such other-oriented elements allow elegies to inspire dialogic relationships between writers and readers, and among readers of various times and places. The ability to inspire dialogue may be the elegy's most healing feature for both writers and readers, which is why it is important to consider how even possibly narcissistic, sentimental elegiac conventions appeal to others—for example, by inviting readers to sympathize and identify with grieving speakers and characters. Such consideration entails attending to the many dialogic contexts of loss.
In order to gain perspective on the elegy's dialogic contexts, this dissertation analyzes a small collection of brief lyrics that represent anthology pieces more or less indicative of the literary canon. Some poems like Gerard Manley Hopkins's "Spring and Fall" and Emily Dickinson's "After great pain, a formal feeling comes" (hereafter cited as "After") appear in The Norton Anthology of Poetry, a general anthology of English poetry. On the other hand, Robert Frost's "Desert Places" comes from the Anthology of Modern American Poetry, which focuses on English poetry written in a specific time and place. Richard Wilbur's poem "Boy at the Window" does not actually appear in an anthology of which I am aware, but as a short lyric that shares structural and thematic similarities with anthologized poems, it is the kind of poem by a nationally-acclaimed author that tends to get anthologized. By applying the category of anthology poetry in this broad way, this dissertation aims to consider how the appeals of loss function within the literary canon.
These pieces not only represent appeals of loss and grief directed to the specific audiences of their poets; they also represent appeals that have been affirmed and endorsed by the literary community. By endorsing certain poems in anthologies, the literary community prioritizes these poems as the kinds of works that students should be introduced to, and thus these poems take hold in our cultural memory. For example, many American high school and college students—whether English majors or not—may be familiar with some of Robert Frost's poems like "Nothing Gold Can Stay" from introductory writing and literature courses. For students who do not pursue careers related to literature, these selections may remain some of the poems they know most thoroughly and remember most readily. In addition, anthologies and the works they include tend to be more easily available to readers, even those who may not be familiar with a poet's collected works. Finally, because poems that have been anthologized repeatedly—such as Shakespeare's sonnets—are recognized by so many audiences, entertainment media like films and new fiction may allude to these works as a kind of cultural appeal. These works are part of the citational pool that constitutes a cultural consciousness. For example, even middle school readers may learn about Frost's "Nothing Gold Can Stay" from S. E. Hinton's repeated allusions to it in The Outsiders.
Such poems, anthologized and perhaps holding an even greater cultural presence, may become part of our cultural memory as multiple generations learn about them. In this respect, they may even function like Burkeian "terministic screens" insofar as these poems provide terms for negotiating experiences of loss. For example, in Wider than the Sky: Essays and Meditations on the Healing Power of Emily Dickinson, diverse Dickinson readers express how consoling her poems were to them when they faced various kinds of loss and trauma. Mell McDonnell narrates her struggle to survive the United Airlines Flight 232 crash, integrating fragments from Dickinson's lyric "'Hope' is the thing with feathers" throughout her chaotic thoughts (65). When faced with death, the "Emily Dickinson poem [rose] to the surface" of McDonnell's memory, preserving the possibility of hope in a traumatic experience (65). McDonnell affirms that short, memorable lyrics function as terministic screens, especially for individuals in situations of loss. Such poems may serve similar functions on the cultural level, as affirmed by the collection of essays itself, when these poems are anthologized for a broad readership.
By attending to the elegiac valences of various anthologized lyrics, we may observe appeals to loss as a repetitive trend throughout anthology selections. Why do such elegiac appeals seem so prevalent in the anthology genre? Why do some elegiac lyrics seem to have such enduring appeal? In anthology selections, appeals to loss become a common literary ground providing communal contexts for dialogue among scholars, students, and members of the public. Is such a communal, dialogic effect uniquely elegiac in some way? Such questions require us to consider not only the audiences to which these poems appeal, but also what audiences they may exclude. By prioritizing certain poets and audiences—and thus possibly perpetuating certain cultural, ethnic, or gendered biases—do anthologies themselves perpetuate or invoke particular kinds of cultural and/or aesthetic losses?
My focus on elegiac appeals in anthology poems addresses a narrower scope than, for example, Spargo develops in The Ethics of Mourning by tracing themes of loss across all literary genres. Because short, anthology poems emphasize mnemonic devices like alliteration, rhyme, and rhythm patterns—almost asking to be remembered after initial readings—their form seems to be an important element in their enduring cultural presences. Analyzing these poems' enduring appeals may show us something about how our culture continues to negotiate grief. In Poets Thinking: Pope, Whitman, Dickinson, Yeats, Helen Vendler suggests that the patterns of poetic forms, including seriality and images, that characterize the oeuvres of poets like Emily Dickinson and W. B. Yeats structure the patterns of these poets' very thoughts. Rejecting the assumption that thought resides only in rational, scientific, and forensic realms, Helen Vendler shows how thought is also emotional. My methodology echoes Vendler's interpretive approach, as I identify enduring philosophical implications of emotional responses to loss. I think poetic forms may express not only emotions, but also our philosophies about loss and dialogue. By emphasizing loss and dialogue as experiences of contrast, I address not only the values of loss and of poetry itself, but also the value of what we as literary critics do. When we attend to the dialogic relationship between poetry and philosophy, we may address the ethics of our profession and may approach more inclusive, more humane ways of practicing literary scholarship.
Elegiac Rhetorics In examining loss and dialogue in lyric poetry, I expand the concept of the elegy by considering how lyrics about various kinds of losses and grief may rhetorically evoke elegiac responses in readers. This emphasis on the readers of elegies challenges writercentered definitions of the elegy, like that given by Peter Sacks, who describes how the elegy's formal conventions express the elegist's own motives for writing. Although Sacks's Freudian approach helpfully delineates some of the consoling effects that writing poetry has on the elegist herself, this dissertation revises such writer-centered concepts of the elegy by asking how elegies rhetorically invoke ethical relationships between writers and readers. By reading elegiac poems through Kenneth Burke's rhetorical theories and Emmanuel Levinas's ethics, I argue that these poems express that, as Levinas suggests, subjectivity is fundamentally structured by ethical relationships with others. This argument also revises Levinas's claims, however, by demonstrating the rhetorical and elegiac dimensions of his definition of ethical subjectivity. My rhetorical approach demonstrates how lyrics about loss engage, via deeply personal perspectives, the same kind of elegiac subjectivity that Levinas describes in sweeping philosophical strokes.