View Full Version : Henry James and Poetry: A Personal Touch

Ron Price
03-17-2007, 06:09 AM

Since I began writing poetry seriously some 15 years ago(1992-2007) I have found that the line between prose and poetry is a fine one. The prose-poem is the primary poetry form of the twentieth century. This form allows me to blend the two forms into one whole. The following account from a journal called The Henry James Review1 helped me to reinforce what often feels like an artificial distinction between prose and poetry. I quote from parts of the article by one Philip Horne.

“I think I shall be among the English Poets after my death,” said John Keats in 1818. Henry James never went so far as to utter such a thought and isn’t literally, bodily that is, among the poets. Since 1976, however, there has been a plaque commemorating him in Westminster Abbey on the floor of Poets’ Corner which he once called “the great temple of fame of the English race.” He is next to Gerard Manley Hopkins and T. S. Eliot and at kitty-corners to Alfred, Lord Tennyson. Where I shall be is a completely unknown quantity. In all likelihood my grave shall be marked as is my wish in my will; in all probability I will be buried in a cemetary in George Town or Launceston Tasmania.

In the 1909 preface to The Golden Bowl Henry James speaks of the revising work of an author as the work of “a poet.” In case readers think he means only writers of verse, he makes clear “that the title poet is only a title of general application and convenience. It is intended for those who passionately cultivate the image of life and the art, on the whole so beneficial, of projecting it.” He goes on to say that the seer and the speaker under the descent of the god is the “poet,” whatever his form. He ceases to be a poet only when his form, whatever else it may nominally or superficially be, is unworthy of the god: in which event, we promptly submit, he isn’t worth talking of at all.

James and his fellow-writers are, in other words, “seers,” speaking under the inspiration of a god who descends on them; and whether a writer’s form is “worthy,” James finally declares, depends not at all on “so minor a distinction, in the fields of light, as that between verse and prose.” The mere fact that James writes in prose, then, is to him no disqualification for the noble title of poet. If a writer’s “form” is “worthy”—which I think means if it projects the image of life with a sufficient intensity or complexity—if its language attains a “poetic” weight or power, then the writer can be called a poet.

Edith Wharton tells us in her book A Backward Glance( Scribner’s, NY, 1964), “I never before heard poetry read as James read it; and I never have since. He chanted it and he was not afraid to chant it, as many good readers are, though they instinctively feel that the genius of the English poetical idiom requires it to be spoken as poetry. Many are afraid of yielding to their instinct for a special reading, a special production, of the poetry. The present-day fashion is to chatter high verse as though it were colloquial prose. James, on the contrary, far from shirking the rhythmic emphasis, gave it full expression. The stammer he had ceased as if by magic as soon as he began to read and his ear, so sensitive to the convolutions of an intricate prose style, never allowed him to falter over the most complex prosody. He was swept forward on great rollers of sound till the full weight of his voice fell on the last cadence.

James’s reading was a thing apart, an emanation of his inmost self, unaffected by fashion or elocutionary artifice. He read from his soul and those who never heard him read poetry knew what that soul was. For James, poetry was about commemoration and a means of keeping a value, a person, a part of the past, alive. Poems, to James, came to play a part in people’s lives and they rendered a service. They came to be a stimulus and an inspiration. One of the functions of poetry, he argued, was to communicate and preserve complex feelings and ideas, to sustain and unify a civilization. The language of poetry at its greatest intensity was a dazzlingly economical medium: it could trigger a complex set of compressed associations and powerful responses. “There were descriptive phrases and touches in some poetry which represented an extraordinary accumulation of sentiment, a perfect entanglement of emotion. To James this was the key to a civilisation. James’ prose can be felt as “poetic” and it is in this sense that he belongs “among the poets.” –Philip Horne, Henry James Among the Poets, The Henry James Review, Winter 2005.

It is some combination of a deep
passivity-activity need in me that
makes me want to go all the way,
something to compensate for the
gregarious theatrical side of life
that drives me to this prose-poetry.

–Ron Price 17 March 2007

Ron Price
08-23-2007, 11:56 PM
After 5 months I post the following addition on Henry James and autobiography::thumbs_up

Autobiography's ultimate purpose, Henry James felt, was to fix the self for all time, to put forth the idea that the autobiographer matters and that his life is significant in the supposed order of things. I certainly like to think my life matters, that it has meaning in the ultimate scheme of things, that in writing this autobiography I am not merely imposing form on chaos, that all that I think is not merely an exercise in subjectivity, that my life is not so deeply private as to be beyond scientific scrutiny, that it derives its importance from factors beyond that which is unsystematic, even chaotic, uncommunicable and emotional in life.

The scientific domain contains an important element of subjectivity and total objectivity is always impossible. One of the key elements of science is that it exists in, indeed generates, a community, a framework, of interpretation. Indeed, the scientist can only function within such a community. That is also true, at least in some ways, for this autobiographer. The community in question for me is the Baha’i community and, more generally, the human community.

What makes my work scientific is that I am engaged in a “conscious, explicit organization of knowledge and experience.” I am not just engaged in making true statements. One can do this in any quiz or game like trivial pursuit. Proof, in scientific terms and in autobiography, “means nothing more than the total process by which we render a statement more acceptable than its negation.” An important caveat here is that the convictions I bring to this exercise, my feelings of certitude, indeed much that I might call tentative hypotheses for example, are part of a psychological state not part of my knowledge. Certitude can often be had with no knowledge at all and hypotheses are things anyone can make. Our emotions organize themselves around our convictions and become part of our way of life. This is one’s faith, one’s religion. And we all have a religion in this sense; there exists around this religion or faith a theoretical uncertainty and it exists for all of us. Such is some of the intellectual orientation, some of my foundation view, that I take to this autobiography.

Nothing convinces an artist more of the arbitrariness of the means to which he resorts to attain a goal, to assert this autonomy, however permanent it may be, than the creative process itself, the process of composition. The creative self, the source of this process, is a society of perishing occasions or selves and the context is an aesthetic one. The writer’s task is to develop a coherent system of ideas by which every item of his experience can be interpreted. The fundamental building blocks of nature are not bits of passive, inert, dead matter, but momentary unities of experience, actual entities which are involved in a creative advance into novelty. Such was Whitehead’s way of looking at the process. Although I have never been a serious student of Whitehead’s I have been broadly aware of his views for forty years.

Verse really does, in Akhmatova's words, grow from rubbish among other things. To express this same idea more elegantly, one could say that verse grows out of slime the same way as a lotus flower. The roots of prose are no more honorable. But there in the roots can also be found faith and thought--the lotus flower’s embryo. Without faith and thought no society can long endure and without a common humanity and a practical basis for world order appalling catastrophe threatens to engulf humanity.

As this autobiography has come to take form increasingly since I began writing it over twenty years ago, I have felt a measure of literary and psychological power and humility. Perhaps this is partly due to the fact that self-narrative is a tool used to gain self-determinacy. This work is also partly an illness narrative, partly a salvation narrative, partly a travel narrative, as autobiographers often call these sub-genres, and partly an act of becoming and re-becoming. Through self-narration I partly re-make myself, re-fashion and re-invent a new understanding of myself. With this story I try to resist the several disabling definitions that could label my life and so to write myself into/with a rhetorical normalcy. Narrative is used as a tool, a technology, that is intended to be a vehicle to freedom, self-definition, and self-expression. Unlike some writers, I have no obsession with being taken seriously. What consumes many words of many writers in an attempt to be taken seriously, consumes little of mine. I have not set this work before the public with the confidence, still less the complacency, of an established master. This book belongs to my middle and late adulthood. I had no reputation to defend, indeed, I was hardly known anywhere except by coteries so small and insignificant that it might be wondered why I bothered to write this work at all.-Enough for now.-Ron Price, Australia