The Flowers of Evil: Gregorry Orr on Wordsworth and Flowery Language

by on Oct.23, 2014

There’s an interesting article by Gregory Orr in the latest issue of Writer’s Chronicle called “Foundational Documents and the Nature of Lyric,” which I think (of course) backs up all the arguments I’ve been deriving from reading Wordsworths’ Preface to Lyrical Ballads as a foundational anti-kitsch manifesto.
Orr begins with a relevant reading of Plato’s Republic as an anti-poetry foundational document of western culture: re-hashing Plato’s urge to banish poets from the ideal republic because or their irrational artform and his idea that if they tried to sneak back in they should be killed. To counter this foundational anti-poetic text, Orr brings in various Asian texts, finding in them an understanding and appreciation for the emotional nature of art and lyric poetry.

But what I’m interested in is his use of Wordsworth’s Lyrical Ballads.

I’ve discussed this document several times as an anti-kitsch manifesto (taking a cue from Daniel Tiffany’s writing on kitsch). Wordsworth rejects the “gaudy and inane phraseology” of the graveyard poets (derived, importantly, as a kind of translatese from Latin translations) in favor of a model of the poet as “a man speaking to men.” The flowery language is connected to sensationalism of mass media which also “blunts” the reader’s senses. It’s too much. It’s kitsch.

As I’ve argued in the past, kitsch is really at the heart of any art – any art can be turned “gaudy” if you choose to see it that way because art can always be seen as useless and gaudy, as opposed to the real stuff of work and politics.

I realize there’s a bunch of stuff going on in Wordsworth, but this is an important line of discussion issuing from his work to this day and I think Orr’s article really proves this.

For Orr, Wordsworth provides a welcome antidote to Plato’s anti-poetry stance. Most importantly for Orr:

“Wordsworth rescued Western poetry from its capture by the ruling classes. He returned it to ordinary people, understanding that anyone could and maybe should write poems or songs – that lyric poetry isn’t an elite art form, but is a human birthright. A birthright related to its essential function as a survival mode. All of us need poetry and song… Wordsworth rescued lyric from elitism by saying that the language used in poems isn’t a special, flowery language reserved for special people or a special class of people. Instead, he insisted it was “a selection of the real language spoken by men” (and women). Poetry was just us, speaking a little more intensively or rhythmically than we ordinarily speak, but not in some special language only available to social or economic elite. Wordsworth’s return to speech as the model for poetry was a crucial insight, but we in the West are still struggling to take it in and accept its full, democratic implications.”

There’s a lot to be said about Orr’s reading, and to some extent I obviously agree that Wordsworth’s document is revolutionary. But I want to focus on the way Orr sees “flowery language” as inherently elitist and undemocratic.

Flowery language (gaudy and inane phraseology) can afterall be written by anyone, and I would venture that often young poets are taught by their elders to reject flowery, “Romantic” language (I was when I was a teenager). One might say then that plain-spoken diction has become a kind of elitist Taste that we have to learn.

But there is something more important about this passage and that is that it assumes that “speaking a little more intensively” is somehow more human (a word Orr uses throughout to back up his claim).

Moderation is human.

To be human is to write poetry that is *a little more intensive* than ordinary speech.

That is to say that to write *way more intensive poetry* or *totally ordinary* speech would somehow be inhuman. And somehow undemocratic.
Kitsch rhetoric returns to this nexus of ideas over and over: kitsch is somehow inhuman because it’s *too much* or *not enough*.

Why might that be? A couple of years ago, Joyelle wrote “A New Quarantine Will Take My Place, or, Ambient Violence, or, Bringing it All Back Home,” a post about the Coldfront review of my first book, A New Quarantine Will Take My Place, which criticized my book for being “coercive” (ie undemocratic):

It’s relatively easy to process violent poetry when it presents a critique of violence. But what about when ambient violence makes a medium of a body and makes it a perpetrator of violence against itself and others?

Violence runs all over the house of A New Quarantine Will Take My Place. It animates a cavalcade of victims and victors, including the victim/victor I (the conqueror worm!). The violence also extends to the reader, as a recent review in Coldfront noted:

“Two criticisms are that the use and reuse of images can lead to sometimes tiresome redundancies and repetitions, and that the whole book as a continuous poem can lead to a page-turner effect a la The DaVinci Code where the reader is coerced, rather than compelled, to keep reading. Importantly, Johannes Göransson keeps you reading.”[ii]

This quote (correctly, it seems to me, if knicker-twistedly and with a reflex/reflux dig at supposedly degrading mass culture)diagnoses the violence that runs from the book to the reader as redundancy, repetition, and coercion. It courses out of the medium of the book.

If I go back to Joyelle’s post, we might say that a poetry that offers critique (a typically experimentalist take on poetry) is democratic, as is a poem that just does a “little more intensive” than ordinary speech.

It is evil and undemocratic to enter into the “ambient violence” – because, as Wordsworth noted, this sensationalistic overflow of images blunts your senses. (There’s also the connection between mass culture – Davinci Codes – and kitsch.)

I go on about this for some length because I come across this sentiment over and over. People ask me why I’m being so sensationalistic; why in an age of overflow of images of violence, I would choose to enter into this ambient violence, rather than try to find a way out of it. This is a strand of Wordsworth’s poetics that gets re-hashed and re-hashed.

The key is: Either you position yourself outside of this sensationalistic and “ambient violence” (as a critique, as a “human” moderate poetry) or you enter into it. I think you should enter into it.

Or, as Joyelle puts it:

Johannes’s book is to see this convulsive reflectivity repeated to the point of utter-, over-, and supersaturation, as violence is ‘mediated’, that is, reaches the speaker through media, including the media of his own and others’ bodies, as he discharges violence through the person of his own body (and directed against his own body) at objects, persons, places, infants, girlfriends, forms, his thigh and torso, as he thus becomes a medium for violence working in every direction. The provocative potential of this book is the idea that a book is itself a medium for violence and coercion, the Coldfront complaint. This is not a diagnosis I think Johannes would reject, given the totalness with which he commits himself to this total economy of violence, assuming no pose of ‘ethics’ or sham ‘critique’ which would suggest one could remove oneself from this supply-chain, from this fray, by any instrument but death. And even then. Death. The Conqueror Worm. The Emptor (Buyer). (Caveat emptorem, emptor!) The pre-emptor. The bitch to watch, to watch out for (see you in my dreams. Not if I see you first.) The new quarantine that will take your place.

ave maria
To go back to Lucas’s brilliant post:

You might need to become Ave Maria, “the chicken saint from the cult of death.”


Orr’s article ends with a moving consideration of Wordsworth’s claim that we should write about emotions “recollected in tranquility,” detailing his own struggle with the traumatic experience of accidentally killing his brother, and how it took him years to write about that event.

Orr also writes about a famous poet who went to Vietnam but how the poems he wrote at the time of this traumatic experience was less “real” than the poems he wrote 25 years later. I don’t know the poems he talks about, but might it be that the poems he wrote originally was “too much,” did not have the proper distance.

Could it be that the veteran poet ritualized his grief in garb and scars? Could it be that he had not yet learned how to write like a human? And could that be because “the human” became a fraud in Vietnam? Could it be that the human has become a fraud in an age of pink fracking symbols? Could it be that it was a fraud all along?


11 comments for this entry:
  1. James Pate

    Really interesting post…I like the idea that many workshops teach us “how to write like a human,” that writing like a human involves a series of stylistic choices, a certain kind of editing, etc. — in other words, not really more “human” at all, but an aesthetic presented as something very human.

    I think this is the anxiety many literary writers in both fiction and poetry feel toward genre too — fear of that “page-turner effect” mentioned in the Coldfront review, the sense that the non-literary is less human because it doesn’t recognize the tropes of “the human” that underlines so many workshops.

    To a certain extent, I think this might be one reason Zizek often uses genre films (like Hitchcock) to discuss a very non-humanist approach to psychology…

  2. adam s

    WW’s “recollected in tranquility” has always seemed off to me–recollected can make presentness/thrumming sensation less likely, ditto tranquility–unless it turns totally amazingly eerie-intimate like with some Celan (or Keats’ Odes, which are deliciously trancy/tranquilizing/narcotic, though delightfully not recollected): “speak, you also…but give it the shade…” or Trilce, which has an extraordinary quality, for me, of being like sumptuous, fat-crackly meat suddenly turned crystal lattice, or vice-versa. “Fecapital ponk” (could easily be not perfectly quoting) is one of my favorite poetry moments. Hopkins on Wordsworth is entertaining–he suggests WW’s poetry, mostly, is Parnassian, or elevated, but rarely amazing, and this idea implicitly seems to challenge the “real language…” notion.

  3. Johannes

    Yeah that’s a real Eshleman-ism at its best (fecapital ponk).

  4. adam s

    Stemming from JP’s post…The idea that literary is antithetical to page-turning is disheartening to me: I totally want to turn pages, and much prefer that literary means leads me to turn to them again, for more turning! That’s an awesome quality of Melvin Tolson’s Harlem Gallery: the poem is totally “difficult,” but it’s not a slow read–at-least to me; his brilliant pacing keeps one coursing down the page/through the pages, even as those pages necessitate further immersion. I am definitely biased though: fiction aside from genre work is not usually what I go to/for in the past six years.

  5. adam s

    Johannes, your comment gives me the smiles/grins.

  6. Johannes

    Here’s some facebook discussion about this post from Daniel Tiffany and Ian Newman (whose scholarship is on ballad revival among other things):

    Daniel Tiffany: Despite what Orr says, Wordsworth is very much part of what he calls the elite. And Orr ignores Wordsworth’s vitriolic condemnation of popular culture in the Preface (to the Lyrical Ballads). Wordsworth detests the effects of the emergence of popular culture on poetry–and he says so–yet his reliance on fashionable balladry (as the vehicle for his poetic manifesto and the book of poems it introduces) exposes him to the dangers of poetic kitsch.

    Johannes Göransson: Yeah I tried to bring in the popular culture thing and its sensationalism. Orr also ignores that Wordsworth didn’t actually include women… He wants Wordsworth to be this populist all-american prototype of the democratic poet, but it’s of course more complicated than that. But the fact that he wants to read Wordsworth that way is revealing I think… He could have brought in Keats! From the stable!

    Ian Newman: Totally agree with Daniel Tiffany here. Wordsworth takes a basically popular ballad tradition and repackages it for a gentlemanly audience. (Scott McEathron, btw, is great on this). But your discussion of the gaudy made me think about Swift’s Lady’s Dressing room: “Such order from confusion sprung / Such gaudy tulips raised from dung.”

  7. Daniel

    Despite what Orr says, Wordsworth is very much part of what he calls the elite. And Orr ignores Wordsworth’s vitriolic condemnation of popular culture in the Preface (to the Lyrical Ballads). Wordsworth detests the effects of the emergence of popular culture on poetry–and he says so–yet his reliance on fashionable balladry (as the vehicle for his poetic manifesto and the book of poems it introduces) exposes him to the dangers of poetic kitsch.

  8. adam s

    I like this, though don’t know JK’s bio enough to get it: “He could have brought in Keats! From the stable!” Supposedly George Herbert once helped a pony be unstuck mud, which doesn’t quite gel with stables, but…it’s adorable!

  9. Michael Peverett

    That’s a fab post, thank you!

  10. Phil Estes

    Great post, I will have to check out Orr’s article. They put Writer’s Chronicles in our mailboxes all the time; I usually just trash them.

    The questions you ask about Orr’s Vietnam buddy–how his poems are more “real” later on–are important, because it goes to the Wordsworth RT-crowd’s exploitation of experience when it comes to poems. It reminds me of my time working at my master program’s journal, where our editor often emphasized “clean and clear prose.” He used some essays from a friend’s Community College course written by Vietnamese immigrants about their experience coming to the states. Our editor cut everything out of their essays that he thought “was too much or incoherent” and left only the scenes of violence because these were somehow “more clean” than the sentences conveying emotional violence.

    The anti-kitsch people seem to fetishize language more so, especially if it is the other or experiences that could make one part of the other; look at any small Midwest poetry journal: the work presented is often flowery and often about the experience and the “real” curios of the other–bamboo, gongs, teepees.

  11. Johannes

    Exactly Phil. Your comment is incredibly important – the relationship between ethnic/foreign and kitsch is as I always say one of the most important ones.