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"Is There a Plot in This Poem?".

I

I want to begin with a few acknowledgments: I have borrowed a good part of my title from Stanley Fish. I have enclosed my partly borrowed title in quotation marks in the manner of Leslie Fiedler, whose essay, "Come Back to The Raft Ag'in Huck Honey" got many people to think of the relationship between Jim and Huck in a way that they had probably not done before. And so, for a moment perhaps, you may believe that "Is There a Plot in This Poem?" is a real question, one that may have been asked by an actual student. It is not, but I like to think that it could have been, since my thinking about the relationship between these two words, "plot" and "poem," began when I was working with a pair of students whom I was teaching in a low-residency MFA Program. Every month, they would send me poems, and I would comment on the poems and send them back to the students. I found myself baffled by the work of one of these students, Student A, unable to figure out her intentions for her work, and unable to offer her the help she was eager to receive. At the same time, I had no trouble with the work of Student B; whenever one of her poems went off the rails, I could help her get it back on again. I was able to offer her advice that she told me was useful to her. I began, naturally, to wonder what the difference was between my responses to these two students, and eventually the word "plot" sprang into my mind: I seemed to be able to understand the "plots" of Student B's poems, but not those of Student A.

When I say "plot" here, I have to admit that I wasn't really sure what I meant by the term. I couldn't summon to mind any discussion of the word in relation to the kind of poetry that my students were writing. Do lyrical (for want of a better word) poems even have plots? As is usual when I am stuck like this, I went to the OED for help. Once I had whistled my way past the graveyard, the OED offered this by way of definition for "plot": "The plan or scheme of a literary work; the interrelationship of the main events of a play, novel, film, etc." The absence of a specific reference to plot as a feature of lyrical poems reinforced what I already knew: plot was not generally taken into account in any discussion of the kind of poetry most commonly written today.

2

The one discussion of plot in poetry that I was aware of was Aristotle's in his Poetics, but of course Aristotle was discussing dramatic and epic poetry, rather than the lyrical poetry that my students were writing. Nevertheless, Aristotle offered a beginning. You will recall that Aristotle lists six essential components of tragedy: plot, character, diction, thought, melody, and spectacle. Aristotle asserts that plot, the structure of the events of the play, is the most important of these elements, "the life and soul, so to speak," of tragic drama. The least important elements of the six are melody and spectacle, the musical and visual aspects of tragic drama. He is especially dismissive of spectacle, which, "though an attraction, is the least artistic of the parts, and has the least to do with the art of poetry." Aristotle moves tragedy even farther from the stage by asserting that "the tragic effect is quite possible without a public performance and actors." But how could the tragic effect be conveyed to an audience without performance? Why, in the same way that Harold Bloom receives his Shakespeare: by solitary reading.

As an undergraduate reading Aristotle's Poetics, I attributed his denigration of spectacle and his lack of enthusiasm for dramatic performance to a philosophical preference for theory over practice. It never occurred to me that one of the reasons why Aristotle privileges plot and non-performance so highly is that they were relative novelties in his time. Aristotle's discussion of these subjects comes after the first great transformation of consciousness in the West, the change that occurred with the passage from the spoken to the written word, from a world of orality to a world of literacy. The poems of Homer, we now know, were composed orally for spoken performances. As such, they were inevitably episodic rather than tightly plotted. As Walter J. Ong points out in his Orality and Leteracy,
    Persons from today's literate and typographic cultures are
likely
   to think of consciously contrived narrative as typically designed
   in a climactic linear plot often diagrammed as the well-known
   'Freytag's Pyramid' ... an ascending action builds
tension, rising
   to a climactic point, which consists often of a recognition or
   other incident bringing about a peripeteia,
 or reversal of
   action, and which is followed by a denouement ... This is the kind
   of plot Aristotle finds in the drama (Poetics
   1451b-1452b)--a significant locale for such plot, since Greek
   drama, though orally performed, was composed as a written text and
   in the west was the first verbal genre, and for centuries was the
   only verbal genre, to be controlled completely by writing. 


Ong goes on to contrast dramatic plot with plotting in the epic: "In his Ars Poetica, Horace writes that the epic poet 'hastens into the action and precipitates the hearer into the middle of things'." Hastening into the middle of things leaves little room for the ground floor of exposition that leads to the ascent in Freytag's Pyramid. The "conscious contrivance" of plot is not possible for the orally-composed epic poem.

However, once poets began composing their epic poems to be read, consciousness changed, and new organizational patterns--plots, we might call them--appeared to receive new thoughts and emotions. In an aphorism that should be as well known as McLuhan's "The medium is the message," Ong says, "Writing is a consciousness raising activity." Coming out of the oral tradition, Homer's heroes, especially in the Iliad, are famously unreflective. In Book XVI of that poem, Achilles's soulmate Patroklos borrows the great hero's armor and sallies forth to frighten the Trojan enemy by pretending to be Achilles. When he learns that Patroklos has been slain and his own armor has been captured by the enemy, Achilles has what appears to be a nervous breakdown. He collapses and rushes off to the seaside in tears, where he meets his mother, the goddess Thetis, who promises him a new suit of armor fashioned by the divine armorer Hephaestus and orders him to wait there for her return. Achilles does not hypothesize any other solutions to his problem. It does not occur to him, for example, that he could borrow another's gear as Patroklos borrowed his, suit himself up, and plunge into the fray, where he might have a very good chance of changing the situation for the better. That lack of interiority led the psychologist Julian Jaynes to posit a time in human development when our brains were bi-cameral, divided between a plodding diurnal left side, which didn't really require much to keep it going, and a super-conscious right brain, which we experienced as a divine voice when the situation became dangerous and required correction. So Achilles, in a funk after the death of Patroklos, experiences his divine mother's voice, giving him his orders. Vigorously wielding Occam's razor, Ong sees this heroic unreflectiveness as nothing other than the way in which pre-literate people routinely experienced their world.

When Odysseus descends to the underworld in Book XI of the Odyssey, he meets the Prophet Teiresias and his own mother, who are both able to tell him what will happen to him on the rest of his way home. He also meets some of his colleagues who did not survive the Trojan War, and they can describe for him the circumstances surrounding their own deaths. But of the dead from generations earlier than those he has known, or of the living to follow his own generation, Odysseus learns nothing: if, as one of Robert Frost's characters opined, "the dead are holding something back," we do not learn what that something is in the Odyssey.

With literacy, however, comes an increasing interiority in which the representation of time expands greatly. In the Aeneid, an epic written in the first century B.C. by the Roman poet Virgil, the hero Aeneas, before he can found the city of Rome, must descend to the underworld even as Odysseus did. There he meets his father, Anchises, who proceeds to give him a grand tour that ranges from the mythical past to the historical present, explaining to him not only the economy of reincarnation, but displaying for him the entire history of Rome, the city that Aeneas has not yet founded, from the reign of the hero's posthumous son Silvius to the untimely death of Marcellus, the nephew of Augustus, the ruler of Rome in Virgil's time. Beyond that, of course, neither Virgil nor his characters can see.

Writing raises consciousness, and with literacy not only time but space opens up. Interior spaces now appear behind the eyes of characters in written epics, and those spaces are filled with emotional depths. Characters are able to feel passion for other characters, to tell their own stories, and to reflect on alternative possibilities for the situations in which they find themselves. In the Aeneid, and in Ovid's Metamorphoses, it is principally female characters who display these traits: Virgil wants Aeneas to be, like the characters of Homer's epics, not overly burdened with subjectivity, and Ovid probably wanted to poke a little subversive fun at the unreflective heroes of an earlier day.

Though these epics are the product of writing, there is only one episode in either of them where we see a character take pen in hand. This occurs in Book IX of his Metamorphoses, where Ovid tells the story of Byblis and Caunus, daughter and son of the eponymous founder of the city of Miletus. Byblis (whose name sounds like the Greek word for book, biblios, but is etymologically unrelated to it) falls passionately in love with her brother. Ovid leads her through carefully detailed stages of erotic entanglement, from unacknowledged desire through conscious resistance to unconscious acceptance:
    Often, however, when relaxed in sleep,
   an image of her passion came to her,
   an image of her lying with her brother,
   that made her, even sleeping, blush with shame. 


When Byblis awakens from her erotic dream, she argues with herself and with the fates that have made impossible the satisfaction of her incestuous passion. She first thinks of suppressing her feelings, and finally decides to confess them in a love letter to her brother Caunus, written in her boudoir:
                  Still in her bed,
   she lifts herself up and leans on her left elbow:
   Now let him see, she says, my decadence!
   What slope am I beginning to descend?
   What fire is conceived within my heart?
                 Her shaking hands set down the practiced words:
   She grips the iron stylus in her right
   and holds the blank wax tablet in her left.
   She starts and stops. Sets down--and then condemns.
   Adds and deletes. Doubts; finds fault with; approves.
   She throws the tablet down, then picks it up!
   She cannot say what she is striving for,
   and every tack she takes displeases her,
   who sometimes seems ashamed and sometimes bold. 


Even at the beginning of literate self-expression, we see the kind of behaviors common to writers of any time. After more erasures, inscriptions, and corrections, Byblis finishes her letter and immediately sends it off to her brother, who furiously spurns her advances. Byblis now considers a revision:
    'So swiftly set down upon the page
   what should have been concealed! I should have tried
   to understand his feelings for me first,
   with speech that hinted but did not commit....' 


Her attempt at revising her passion fails: Caunus, still horrified, flees Miletus to found another city; maddened, Byblis pursues him and ends up transformed into a flowing spring.

In making a connection between literacy and the expression of incestuous desire of one sibling for another, and in illustrating the catastrophic effects of that expression, Ovid may have had quite another point in mind. Nonetheless, in illustrating the way in which literacy aids, for better or worse, the expansion of subjectivity, he shows us the single most important difference between orality and literacy: words spoken can be blown away by the wind, misheard, misunderstood: "Did he say 'Blessed are the pacemakers, for theirs is the Kingdom of Devon?'" Words inscribed on a receptive ground, however, have a permanence quite unlike speech, as Byblis learns to her sorrow. It is fitting then, that she have the last word on this issue:
    'Nothing I do now will regain his trust,
   since he has read the letters that I traced
   desire revealed may never be erased. 


3

Whatever plot an epic has is revealed in the time of its oral performance by the voice of the poet or the reciter; in drama the plot is similarly revealed by the actors speaking on the stage. But with literacy the plots of epic and drama are also revealed to the eye of the reader, and are less dependent on time: the reader can stop, go back in the text, or jump forward to see where a foreshadowed event comes to pass. The new interiority that came with literacy needed new patterns in which it could be displayed. One of these patterns may go back to the oral culture; on the other hand, it is possible that it did not appear in poetry until poems were written down, as it is predominantly a visual way of organizing either individual lines or blocks of text. It is called chiasmus, and Greek and Latin poets were very fond of it. Somewhere before 55 B.C. the Roman poet Catullus wrote an epyllion, a short epic of 409 lines, arranged in eight mythological, thematically organized tableaus. These tableaus form a chiasmus, a pattern that may be represented like this:

ABCD(E)DCBA

In the first A section, Catullus evokes the heroic age when gods and mortals mingled on earth freely and happily. It was then, he says, that the hero Peleus first burned with desire for the goddess Thetis, and Zeus consented to their marriage.

The first B section describes the preparations for the marriage feast in Thessaly, culminating in a description of "a couch fit for the goddess" in the center of the hero's palace, "one made of polished Indian ivory draped with a purple / coverlet steeped in the crimson dye of the sea conch."

The first C section is an ekphrastic description of the scene on the coverlet, one in somewhat questionable taste for a wedding: we see Ariadne, abandoned by the hero Theseus on the island of Dia, after she has helped him slay the Minotaur and run away with him expecting fidelity and marriage. Catullus explains the situation that brought her to this dire condition.

In the first D section, Ariadne delivers a soliloquy complaining of her abandonment, at the end of which she summons the vengeance of the Furies, begging that "just as Theseus carelessly left me to die here,/may that same carelessness ruin him and his dearest."

The E section, the shortest of the whole poem, consists of five lines; in the third line "the ruler of heaven assented, majestically nodding," and thus sets in motion the actions of the second half of the poem. (While the first five sections vary in length, as do the last four, the third line of the fifth section is the exact center of the poem.)

In the second D section, the carelessness of Theseus results in the death of his father, and the hero's subsequent lamentation is parallel to that of Ariadne.

In the second C section, we return to Ariadne and see Iacchus searching for her: true love is on the way.

In the second B section, we return to the culmination of the wedding feast of Peleus and Thetis.

The second A section provides us with a conclusion in which Catullus expresses his regret over the separation of gods and mortals; owing to the corruption of the latter, the heavenly gods no longer come down to mingle with them on earth.

The plot of Catullus's poem would surely have struck Aristotle as episodic, though certainly it can assume the shape of Freytag's Pyramid, with the god's assent to Ariadne's prayer poised at its peak. Catullus was not the only writer to employ chiasmus in this fashion, nor was it only used in poetry. Somewhere around the year 85 A.D., the figure we know as the evangelist Matthew composed the gospel bearing that name. Matthew's gospel is not written as a chronological narrative; rather, its plot forms a chiasmus. Catullus wrote in Latin verse, Matthew in Greek prose. What they had in common was that their texts were written, were meant to be performed by a reader or by a speaker. The plot of Greek drama reveals itself either to the ear or the eye, by the actor on stage or the reader in his chair, but the plot created by chiasmus reveals itself only to the eye. Chiasmus is also inseparable from the medium on which the works that employ it were composed. The Catullus and Matthew were both inscribed on papyrus rolls. If you want to experience them as their first audience did, just imagine yourself reading columns of vertical text from something about the size and shape of a roll of paper towels, an experience well-described by Franca Arduini in The Shape of the Book From Roll to Codex : "To read the text, one would hold the roll in his right hand, using his left to unwind it and simultaneously rewind the part that had already been read. When the reader was done, the roll would be completely wound in his left hand, so that to read it again, he had to unwind and then rewind it to return to the beginning of the work."

Now if this sounds a bit more cumbersome than turning on one's Kindle, with a little practice you could no doubt arrange the papyrus roll so that the two A sections at either end were placed side by side. So with the B, C, and D sections. A cultured young poet in ancient Rome would have a sophisticated mythological poem that could be read either straight through from beginning to end, or thematically, with related sections placed together for comparison and contrast: here we see Ariadne abandoned by one lover, there you see her sought after by another. If you were the Evangelist hoping to persuade your audience that even though Jesus had come to an ignominious end he was nonetheless the Messiah, the patterns revealed by chiasmus--here is His birth, and here is His rebirth, or resurrection--would help you to make your case.

Chiasmus and the plots it generated disappeared sometime in the third or fourth century of our era, when papyrus rolls were replaced by the codex, a precurser of the book, usually made of vellum, the leather made from the hides of calves. Chiasmus must have seemed no longer useful as the plot of a long text imprisoned, whether verse or prose, in the unyielding pages of a book, so it disappeared and was soon forgotten. Not entirely, as it turns out. In the "Author's Prologue" that Dylan Thomas wrote for his Collected Poems, the poet arranged 102 brief lines so that they rhymed chiasmically. The poem begins,
    This day winding down now
   At God speeded summer's end
   In the torrent salmon sun ...
and ends with
   My ark sings in the sun
   At God speeded summer's end
   And the flood flowers now. 


Thomas was said to be greatly disappointed that no one noticed what he had done, but why should they have? His plot, spread out over several pages, is neither audible nor visible. James Merrill used chiasmus much more successfully in a late poem called "Pearl," an irregular ode that employs chiasmus to meditate on the various forms that loss reveals in a lifetime. Because "Pearl" fits on a single page, we can take in its chiasmic structure. Its beginning, middle, and end lines ("Well, I admit ..." "Of grit ..." "Shuts on it.") should give some indication of its impressive skill. The only large-scale use of chiasmus that I know of in a recent literary work is the novel Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell, in which the plot unwinds through five different literary genres (Journal, Letters, Mystery, Parody, Science Fiction) to be stopped by an apocalypse and then unwound again in the opposite order to its conclusion.

4

Father Ong argues that with increasing literacy (more solitary writers creating works for solitary readers) came increased consciousness: "Though inspiration continues to derive from unconscious sources, the writer can subject the unconscious inspiration to far greater conscious control than the oral narrator. The writer finds his written words accessible for reconsideration, revision and other manipulation until they are finally released to do their work." The plots of novels become less episodic, more tightly wound, until, in 1841, Edgar Allan Poe brings the "pyramidically structured narrative to its peak in his 'Murders in the Rue Morgue'."

Generally regarded as the first Western detective story and the first sealed room murder mystery, Poe's classic tale contains elements repeated or developed in later examples of the genre: an elaborately constructed mystery solved by a hyper-rational detective, in this case, one C. Auguste Dupin, and narrated by an anonymous and less intelligent roommate who lives with him in a symbiotic bromance. The detective's ability to find significance in seemingly unimportant clues leads to the surprising denouement. Ong describes it so: "In the ideal detective story, ascending action builds relentlessly to all but unbearable tension, the climactic recognition and reversal releases the tension with explosive suddenness, and the denouement disentangles everything totally--every single detail in the story turns out to have been crucial--and, until the climax and denouement, effectively misleading."

Inevitably one wonders whether, as this was happening in fiction, a similar process was not occurring at the same time in poetry as well, for after all, the poets too were increasingly solitary writers writing for solitary readers. One might expect in poetry a development similar to that of Poe's great invention, the modern detective story. Interestingly, only a year after Poe's publication, Robert Browning published "My Last Duchess," a poem with a plot as tightly woven as Poe's--in fact, something of a detective story--and one that has given birth to a literary genre as enduringly popular as the mystery story: the dramatic monologue. The term "dramatic monologue" has two applications: one of them is to a verse or prose soliloquy in a play, and the other is to the kind of poem generally regarded as the invention of Robert Browning: his "Duchess," or his "Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister." In A Glossary of Literary Terms the critic M. H. Abrams describes three features of the Browningesque dramatic monologue:
    A single person, who is patently not
 the poet, utters the speech
   that makes up the whole of the poem, in a specific situation at a
critical
   moment [...]. This person addresses and interacts with one or more
other
   people; but we know of the auditor's presence, and what they say
and do,
   only from clues in the discourse of the single speaker. The main
principle
   controlling the poet's choice and formulation of what the lyric
speaker
   says is to reveal to the reader, in a way that enhances its interest,
the
   speaker's temperament and character. 


When Browning's poem begins, its unnamed speaker is showing someone a portrait that he had commissioned of his "last duchess ... / Looking as if she were alive." We realize that the sitter is now dead, but we have no reason to suspect anything untoward about her death, and the speaker presents himself as a genial, accommodating host, eager to display a valued possession to someone whom he thinks will clearly appreciate it:
                            I call
   That piece a wonder, now: Fra Pandolf's hands
   Worked busily a day, and there she stands.
   Will't please you to sit and look at her? 


The guest will be sure to wonder not only at "the pictured countenance" but at Fra Pandolf's ability to capture "that spot of joy upon the Duchess' cheek," a sign, we realize, of a nature spontaneous, attractive, and courteous. As the speaker continues, we come to learn that these qualities are precisely what he found objectionable in his last duchess. The tension builds as the depth of his revulsion becomes increasingly apparent, until, "I gave commands/Then all smiles stopped together. There she stands/As if alive." The murder is revealed, but of course there is more to come: one further revelation about the reason for the guest's presence:
          Will't please you to rise? We'll meet
   The company below then. I repeat,
   The Count your master's known munificence
   Is ample warrant that no just pretence
   Of mine for dowry will be disallowed;
   Though his fair daughter's self, as I avowed
   At starting, is my object. 


The genial host is revealed as a murderer, potentially a serial killer, and his auditor will have to decide whether or not he wishes to be the Duke's accomplice. As with Poe, every detail turns out to have been both necessary and misleading.

There is, however, one great difference between Poe and Browning. In Poe, the function of plot is to reveal the murderer, thus solving the mystery. Character as such is unimportant in Poe's story: neither the Orang-outang who has committed the murders nor the nameless narrator has any character to reveal. Nor does the denouement reveal anything of C. Auguste Dupin's character that we did not already know. But for Browning, the purpose of the plot is, as Abrams says, to reveal for us the character and temperament of the speaker. This is, of course, the difference between the detective story, which effectively ends when we learn whodunit, and serious literary fiction, where the function of the plot is the revelation of character. This is not to say that character is wholly unimportant in the mystery genre, but that such character as is revealed to us is generally revealed before the solution of the mystery and is pretty much independent of it. We are usually presented with the character of the detective wholly formed before the action starts, whether it is M. Dupin, Sherlock Holmes, Nero Wolfe, or Nigel Strangeways, and any subsequent engagements with the solver of the mystery usually repeat what we know already about them, rather than offering us any real surprises about their character or temperament. Like Poe's "Murders in the Rue Morgue," Kafka's "Metamorphosis" is a locked room mystery, but one in which there is no detective, and one in which we never learn whodunit. We are left at the end with an insoluble mystery, but with all sorts of interesting revelations about Gregor Samsa and the members of his family.

Whether written in prose or poetry, the plot of serious literary writing serves to reveal character. But to move our discussion back to poetry, does it matter whether the speaker of the poem is employing a person or speaking in his or her own voice? Samuel Maio tells us that it doesn't. In his Dramatic Monologues: a Contemporary Anthology, Maio argues that dramatic monologues are much older than Browning, and ignores Abram's first point, admitting to his anthology poems that would appear to be written in the poet's own voice. In justification of this practice, he cites Browning himself, in his introduction to The Letters of Percy Bysshe Shelley, "where he distinguishes between two types of dramatic verse: the 'objective' and the 'subjective'." The objective monologist is the one who writes the persona poem; the subjective monologist "does not look externally but internally,-a character is not created nor a persona used, but a speaking voice seemingly aligned with the poet's own." This too, in Browning's view and Maio's, may be considered a dramatic monologue.

At this point, though, the issue of how we know whether a poet is speaking in his or her own voice may seem far more unsettled than otherwise. How confident can any of us be that John Donne, even in his love poems, is writing in his own voice? The early modern French poet Christine de Pisan wrote heartfelt elegies for her beloved husband, and also wrote a ballade complaining about the irrational jealousies of a spouse she despised; we may think of this as a persona poem, or that she was only lending her own voice to another woman's situation. In any event, one suspects that neither Donne nor Christine would have given much thought to authenticity. It is even more difficult to say whether the voice of the speaker of a poem read in translation is that of the original poet or that of his or her translator, a difficulty that seems to increase as we go back farther in time. What we know about the speaker is that he or she is in some sense imagined, a persona. As Hugh Kenner once put it, in a collection of his essays entitled Historical Fictions, "To make speech course through verse means imagining, impersonating a speaker." Ong strongly believed in a fictionalized reader, without whom the writer cannot proceed. But isn't the writer also a fiction too?

If we accept the fictional status of both writer and reader, there cannot be much objection to the idea that there is very little difference, if any, between dramatic monologue and the kind of lyric poems we (and many of our students) write these days. It seems to be described fairly clearly in this modification of Abrams is description of the dramatic monologue:
    A single person, who may or may not be the poet, utters the speech
that
   makes up the whole of the poem, in a specific situation at a critical
   moment [...]. This person addresses, and may interact with, one or
more
   other people; but if so, we know of the auditors' presence, and
what they
   say and do, only from clues in the discourse of the single speaker.
The
   main principle controlling the poet's choice and formulation of
what the
   lyric speaker says is to reveal to the reader, in a way that enhances
its
   interest, the speaker's temperament and character. 


If we go back to the source of the lyric tradition in the West, we find Sappho, as translated by Aaron Poochigian in his Penguin Classics version of her poems:
    That fellow strikes me as god's double,
   Couched with you face to face, delighting
   In your warm manner, your amiable
   Talk and inviting
   Laughter--the revelation flutters
   My ventricles, my sternum and stomach
   The least glimpse and my lost voice stutters,
   Refuses to come back
   Because my tongue is shattered. Gauzy
   Flame runs radiating under
   My skin; all that I see is hazy,
   My ears all thunder.
   Sweat comes quickly, and a shiver
   Vibrates my frame. I am more sallow
   Than grass and suffer such a fever
   As death should follow.
   But I must suffer further, worthless
   As I am ... 


The issue of whether Sappho is speaking in her own voice seems both insoluble and unimportant. Sappho might be writing a persona poem, or she might not be. We can never know for certain. A single speaker who may or may not be the poet utters the speech that constitutes the poem, confessing her passion for another woman whom she addresses directly, and what we know about her auditor we know only from the speaker. The purpose of the plot of the poem is this revelation of the speaker's temperament and character to the auditor and to the reader, who, in a sense, stands in for the auditor.

A straight line could be drawn from Sappho's ode to Larkin's "Aubade," the one an erotic poem haunted by death, the other a premature elegy haunted by Eros. In either case, the plot of the poem is the revelation of the poet's character, in the hope that a lover (in Sappho's case) or the audience for poetry (in Larkin's) will find the poet's character attractive and be persuaded to remain in the poet's presence until the poem's conclusion.

The plot of such poems serves to reveal some aspect of the speaker's character, and to return briefly to the students I began with, it seems to me that Student B probably had a more mature sense of her own character, a greater degree of self-consciousness, than Student A, as well as a better understanding of the ways in which information of that nature can be communicated to another.

Once it has been set down on the page, such information continues to address others in that culture where it is embedded. It does so even in the absence of a speaker, who, as Hugh Kenner reminds us, is an imitation or impersonation, a fiction whose words are engraved onto a supportive surface, an approximation of permanence. In the words of Father Ong, "There is no way directly to refute a text. After absolutely total and devastating refutation"--the deaths of Sappho and Philip Larkin, for example--"it says exactly the same thing as before. Texts are inherently contumacious."
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Author:Martin, Charles
Publication:Southwest Review
Article Type:Critical essay
Date:Mar 22, 2014
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