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The State of the Preface Address: on Wordsworth and Common Speech

Written by

Tom Thompson
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Year

2005

Type

Debates & Manifestos
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Manifestos are an unruly lot. In opposition to a reigning ideology, they create vibrancy. But in support of dominant power? They stultify. This is true of William Wordsworth’s Preface to Lyrical Ballads. Written when he was just 28 years old, it had a tremendously generative run of at least 150 years. But Wordsworth wasn’t shooting merely for a good run; he wanted "to interest mankind permanently." I don’t know about eternity, but I know that two centuries after it was written, the Preface is certainly considered "definitive." Only, how much does it matter?

When Charles Bernstein praises Ron Silliman’s poems, he positions the work precisely against the type of poem championed by Wordsworth’s Preface: Silliman’s poems "may discomfort those who want a poetry primarily of personal communication, flowing freely from the inside with the words of a natural rhythm of life, lived daily" (Content’s Dream). Admiring how Silliman’s poems work against "official verse culture," Bernstein makes it official: The Preface, written to support a poetic "experiment" in 1800 is now the rule. Wordsworth, of course, wrote against his own "official verse culture," and did so precisely by writing "from the inside with the words of a natural rhythm of life, lived daily."

In 1800, poetry in English was most prominently composed in the highest diction--issuing either from divine circles (the Muse or God), or from urbane ones (first "at Court," then more generally among London intellectuals). Wordsworth, however, proposes something different: Poetry as a radically solitary act, originating not in the extraordinary but in the ordinary. Calling the poet "a man speaking to man," he points us away from both George Herbert’s divine interlocutor and Thomas Wyatt’s courtier. He opens poetry up to common speech--and therefore a new prosody as well as content--an opening that eventually worked its way into such openings as Charles Olson’s Projective Verse: "the HEAD by way of the EAR, to the SYLLABLE / the HEART, by way of the BREATH, to the LINE."

What a liberation! The Preface appeared right on the heels of the French and American revolutions to toss out the old high subjects, the gods and mighty heroes, the palaces and wars--turning as if for the first time to "incidents and situations from common life." Indeed, writing about "common life" is now as widely accepted as it is wildly divergent--encompassing everything from Frank O’Hara’s sly lunch poems to the way Claudia Rankine’s steady, ferocious Don’t Let Me Be Lonely catches at the private terrorisms of our new world order. All so different, and yet all standing (as Olson says) as "the private-soul-at-any-public-wall."

But let’s not go overboard. Wordsworth works to "bring [the poet’s] language near to the language of men," yes, but note that "near." It underscores the separation as much as the relationship between the poet’s language on the one hand and the common on the other. Wordsworth’s imagination is itself a super-human creative force, an auto-muse. His poet is only "like" your garden-variety person, similar but ever so much more so: "Endowed with more lively sensibility, more enthusiasm and tenderness, who has a greater knowledge of human nature, and a more comprehensive soul."

 

Ask anybody what they know of the Preface and they’ll repeat--whether with pride or a grimace--"emotion recollected in tranquility." That’s the line Wordsworth wants the reader to take away (so much so he repeats it). And it is the line that cements his reputation as the poet who presages Freud, the first to work with personal memory and private psychological nuance. But memory’s not the whole game here. Even his most ardent admirers miss what he writes next: "By a species of reaction, the tranquility gradually disappears, and an emotion…is gradually produced, and does itself actually exist in the mind." Wordsworth has the poet worked up into a new state here, the imagination superseding any biographical moment. Whether accessed from his sister’s brilliant journals or his own imperfect memory, Wordsworth uses the idea of something concrete supposed from the past to generate a new feeling, a state wholly of the imagination: think of Wallace Stevens’ Florida and Christine Hume’s Alaska.

But finally, Wordsworth’s ambitious Preface is limited by his belief that "common" speech is so vital because, and only because, it gets us back to an "original" set of words fixed to "original" objects. Language is a material, a technology, not a talisman of primal authenticity. Nor is it, as Wordsworth may have hoped in his own de-stabilizing times, a fixable marker of national identity. What stable origin could be found for the English spoken in 1800, much less 2004? The farther back you trace an "English" word, the more it blurs into Latin, Greek, Celtic, and Germanic. And what of the ways it’s so smartly adaptable to shifting circumstances? Of course language is based in the past, but it’s not bound by it. Sometimes lively, sometimes literally deadly, there are distinct Englishes used by lawyers, politicians, therapists and sports announcers in still-evolving ways. These ways profoundly affect the grounds for poetry. In the last five years we have poets like Geoffrey G. O’Brien appropriating (and undermining) the language of the Patriot Act, Timothy Donnelly deploying the manic patter of a game show host, and D.A. Powell using Donna Summer lyrics utterly sincerely. And then there are poets such as Harryette Mullen, who so brilliantly spark off the dreamy collisions in our Englishes--as if a dictionary could contain it all: "Tricky Dicky true blue trust buster turkey jerky…" All this is our language, "real language really used by men" and women. These are poets who use what’s given, the language of our instance, just as Wordsworth used his own memory and language--that is, imaginatively, for something new, something telling, going forward.