Feelings made articulate
Glenn C. Arbery on poetry and the intelligibility of the inner life
“In an interview for Atlantic Monthly, Peter Davison asked Richard Wilbur what he was most grateful to poetry for, and Richard Wilbur replied, ‘I enjoy being able to do something with the important feelings of my life. I think that to be inarticulate can be a great suffering, and I’m glad that my loves, and my other feelings, have sometimes found their way into poems that fully express them.’ Two things struck me about this artlessly honest comment. First is that it is exactly the kind of thing most people would expect a poet to say, because poets, as everybody knows, are beings who not only operate in a finer register than most, but whose capacities with language also allow them to say ‘what often was thought, but ne’er so well expressed’; they are allowed to go around, unlike most working people, taking their feelings seriously. The second is that very few people in my experience of academic life have explicitly and seriously spoken of poetry or literature in terms of feelings, as Wilbur has here. Quite the opposite. Literature as it has usually been taught can be analyzed in all kinds of ways, but they always lead away from feelings to meanings — and for good reason. ‘The feelings,’ John Crowe Ransom writes, ‘are grossly inarticulate if we try to abstract them and take their testimony in their own language. Since it is not the intent of the critic to be inarticulate, his discriminations must be among the [literary] objects’ (‘Criticism as Pure Speculation’ 882).
“Both the poet and the critic, then, begin with feelings but must be concerned with articulation. When Wilbur says that poetry has allowed him to ‘do something with the important feelings’ of his life, he implies that they would have remained unrealized in themselves had he not found a poetic form for them. The emphasis does not lie on commemorating or preserving these feelings like pressed flowers, but on giving them wit and wakefulness. Understood in this way, feelings require expression. If, remaining inarticulate, they cause 'great suffering,’ it follows that their full expression underlies the greatest pleasures of poetry. Reading a good poem should mean being drawn by a language alive in every syllable into the significant emotion that both requires and finds such articulation. One should be brought to self-knowledge in the welcome of a large recognition. Great poetry invites its audience into the feelings of Zeus, Dido, Iago, Cordelia, Ahab, Emma Bovary, or Alyosha Karamazov, and by this generosity — I think of the host’s ‘you shall be he’ in George Herbert’s great ‘Love (III)’ — articulates, puts in context, and so forms the feelings, good and bad, recognizable to all.”
— from chapter 5, “The Intelligence of Feeling and the Habit of Art,” in Glenn C. Arbery’s Why Literature Matters: Permanence and the Politics of Reputation (ISI Books, 2001). Arbery discussed this book on Volume 50 of the Journal, focusing on the matter of how a work achieves form. Also, on Volume 103 of the Journal, he discussed the power of poetry to capture and communicate truths concerning a well-lived life.