A related feature of the abstract image—one which may make it increasingly attractive to poets—is that abstract statement permits a far wider range of subject matter than we generally find in a poem dependent entirely upon occasion. The emotional range, the subject matter of poems based upon a particular occasion—on a dramatic situation or incident—is necessarily limited, because such poems tend to seek their own justification in their occasion and therefore to seek moments of emotional or visionary intensity stemming from a particular event. As a result, the type of event they treat is apt to fall into the category of the unusual.
In a poetry that allows full play to abstract statement, however, a poem can generate itself out of its own language. Like philosophical discourse, it can find its raison d’être through the formulation of something like an argument. When a poem is not based upon any particular occasion—upon the relatively infrequent events in a person’s life that are intense—instead of being restricted to a narrative or testimonial character, it can adopt a discursive, “meditative” character; and when we encounter such poems, we can see that it is this type of discourse, with its fusion of the abstract and the concrete, that the genre of verse has traditionally seemed most adapted to framing, that our lingering modernist biases, expressed in the cliché “Show, don’t tell,” point directly to a dead end: poetry as mere description.
But one of the most attractive aspects of poetry has always been its capacity for pithy, epigrammatical generalization. Even in a fairly descriptive, image-rich poetry—for example, the poetry of Robert Frost—the finest moments are apt to exhibit a high degree of abstraction and explicit generality. Indeed, it may be that the language of poetry is ultimately distinguishable from the language of prose not by its imagery or its rhythm but rather by this epigrammatical quality—its ability to survive in the valley of its saying, to climb hand over hand, phrase after phrase, from one ear-catching rung of distilled experience to the next. . . .
This Holden chapter is endlessly fascinating and I would like to sit and study in depth. I would also like to over-prepare to teach Elena Poniatowska, and a few more things like that. The semester has started well, which is why I feel poetic. (If it were not for all these pesky websites created by ed-tech entities, I would be most happy.)
Readers may think I am melting down but really I am just doing analysis, or shaking off bad bits in some kind of whirling blender.