The Elegy of Style, The Style of Elegy

A word is elegy to what it signifies.
— Robert Hass
In which utterance is there ever a face — and not a mask?
— Mikhail Bakhtin

For Gustave Flaubert, style is elegiac; it is, he writes, an “irrevocable farewell to life.” He says early in his career: “One achieves style only by atrocious labor, a fanatic and dedicated stubbornness.” The process of writing, for Flaubert, is essentially a process of connecting, of cutting excess words, of substituting other words, of altering phrases and perceptions — a negative process of continual worry. We often call these sorts of “adjustments” stylistic changes, orienting our thinking according to the classical model proposed by Aristotle where style is what we add to content for “clarity” and “dignity,” or according to the renaissance model where style is considered as “clothing” or “costume” for the essential body of thoughts underneath.

However, for Flaubert, as Roland Barthes has pointed out, “These corrections are not in any way rhetorical accidents; they affect the primary code, that of the language; they commit the writer to experiencing the structure of the language as a passion.” The Flaubert goal — fluidity of style — is not only a surface that seems to project the reader along smoothly, thus masking the torturous process of writing, but is more importantly a triumphant, philosophical victory over those negative forces. In the end, style is an elegy to an elegiac mode of thought. Style ultimately has to do with vision, not grammar.

Style is a form of that untelling, what is unexpectedly revealed in the switch between musical instruments, in the inappropriate words that seem suddenly right, what is revealed about our mortality despite the poem’s best efforts.

Aesthetic distance, for Flaubert, is style, the ability to keep locating the self in new contexts of language. It is the essence of what Mikhail Bakhtin calls a “carnivalistic style” — in his book on Dostoyevsky’s Poetics, he writes that the point of writing is not the presence of a specific linguistic style but the counterpointing of different styles. Style is the way the poem moves, almost beyond the words themselves. In his poem “By Heart,” contemporary American poet William Matthews asks, “Which came first, style or content?” What the poem suggests is that the masses of things we live among are nothing until they are stylized, as a jazz musician knows in putting down one instrument for another, one mood and vision for another. In the end, the narrator muses, “Content is what style’s failed.” Content is style. The poet, then, the stylist, becomes like the poet in Mark Strand’s “The Untelling” who writes several versions of a scene in several styles through which he begins to understand that it is not one version but the idea of versions that is important — only to end at a title, the title of the poem he has become a character in. Style is a form of that untelling, what is unexpectedly revealed in the switch between musical instruments, in the inappropriate words that seem suddenly right, what is revealed about our mortality despite the poem’s best efforts. It is a way of untelling our mortality, of trying not to speak it so elegiacally, and yet failing because words themselves always fail us. “Much goes unsaid,” Matthews says in “Construction.” Flaubert, too, in his constant whittling down, knows the secret of this untelling; and André Breton knows in trying to get at the beginning beyond words, Akhmatova in the silent image of the other that often haunts her poems; Matthews knows in the way our worst words untell more than we bargained for in an unforeseeable future. Style, to adapt a phrase from another American poet Robert Hass, is elegy to what it signifies, itself, a notion that John Ashbery and James Tate exploit in their seemingly unemotional poems.

All the poets I have mentioned here are known as great stylists, and all, with the exception of Akhmatova, in some sense suffer from a common misperception among readers and even younger poets that style precludes emotion and thought, is only a surface consideration. On the other hand, I don’t want to suggest by the choices of poets to discuss here, especially in the cases of the American poets Ashbery, Tate and Matthews, that a good style has complex contradictions and ironies, involves a comic or at least tongue in cheek tone. I focus on these poets because they provide good examples for a principle that can be extended to all poetic styles: that style is always a matter of tension, that it fights against something.

Page 1 of 12 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 View All

Printed from Cerise Press: http://www.cerisepress.com

Permalink URL: http://www.cerisepress.com/04/10/the-elegy-of-style-the-style-of-elegy

Page 1 of 12 was printed. Select View All pagination to print all pages.