Archive for May 4th, 2019

“Not ordinary speech, but extraordinary speech”: Robert Pinsky on John Milton and the American imagination

Saturday, May 4th, 2019
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Milton’s man in America

“Great art is great not because it enters an academic curriculum, and neither is greatness affirmed by the awarding of prizes or titles. But great is not necessarily a vague term. It can indicate work that penetrates the shapes, feelings, ideas, and sounds of a culture, as in the cadences of speech. Sometimes that kind of penetration is so deep, so transforming, that it is nearly invisible, or barely acknowledged.” So writes Stanford poet (and friend) Robert Pinsky, in “The American John Milton,”  a 2008 article I just discovered in Slate.  Milton’s ideal “is not a poetry based on ordinary speech—which has been one Modernist slogan—but extraordinary speech.”

Two excerpts from the former U.S. poet laureate’s article:

Here is an interesting, continuing conflict in American writing and culture: the natural versus the expressionistic, or simplicity versus eccentricity, or plainness versus difficulty. American artists as different as Robert Frost and William Carlos Williams belong more or less in the “ordinary speech” category. On the other, “Miltonic” side of that division about word order in the mother tongue, consider the expressive eccentric Emily Dickinson, who in her magnificent poem 1068 (“Further in Summer Than the Birds”) writes this quatrain about the sounds of invisible insects in the summer fields:

Antiquest felt at Noon
When August burning low
Arise this spectral Canticle
Repose to typify

In these lines, the natural and the mysterious become one, an effect arising not just from the words (“Canticle”) but also from their order.

***

In the days when the Fourth of July was celebrated on town greens, the occasion was marked by fireworks, band music, and speeches—speeches that almost invariably quoted John Milton, the anti-Royalist and Protestant poet. Anna Beer, in the preface to her useful new biography Milton: Poet, Pamphleteer and Patriot, points out Milton’s considerable influence on the Founding Fathers. English writer Peter Ackroyd published, in the ‘90s, a novel called Milton in America, imagining the poet’s actual immigration—an outgrowth, in a way, of the more remarkable, actual story of Milton’s work in the American imagination.

I once heard the great American poet and iconoclast Allen Ginsberg recite Milton’s poem “Lycidas” by heart. Nearly every page of John Hollander’s indispensable anthology Nineteenth Century American Poetry bears traces of that same poem. In Ginsberg’s published journals from the mid-’50s, he assigns himself the metrical task of writing blank verse (and succeeds with subject matter including his lover Peter Orlovsky’s ass: “Let cockcrow crown the buttocks of my Pete,” another perfect pentameter).

By the way, Derek Walcott made his students memorize “Lycidas” – so Ginsberg wasn’t alone. Read Robert Pinsky’s article in its entirety here.