One Voice and Many: Modern Poets in Dialogue

One Voice and Many: Modern Poets in Dialogue

One Voice and Many: Modern Poets in Dialogue

One Voice and Many: Modern Poets in Dialogue


Dialogue poetry inevitably recapitulates the question of the One and the Many because such poems must be understood both as the product of the one voice of the poet and as the multiple voices of the poems' speakers. When dialogue poems address issues relevant to the One/Many problem, then, such poetry represents a union of form (associated with the Many by analogy with the body) and content (associated with the One by analogy with the soul). Different conceptions of the relationships between unity and multiplicity may be presented by varying the three distances inherent in dialogue poetry, each of which represents a degree of differentiation: the distance between the speakers, the distance between the poet and the speakers, and the distance between the speakers and the reader.


If you know whether a man is a decided monist or a decided
pluralist, you perhaps know more about the rest of his opin
ions than if you give him any other name ending in ist. To
believe in the one or in the many, that is the classification
with the maximum number of consequences.

—William James, Pragmatism

Both the One and the Many as well as man’s relation to them
must forever elude final formulation.

—Irving Babbitt, The Masters of Modern French Criticism

The relationship between form and matter is like a marriage;
matter must find itself in form and form must find itself in

—Louis MacNeice, The Poetry of W. B. Yeats

In his study of W. B. yeats, louis macneice takes a strong stand on the relationship between content and form in poetry: “It is an outrage to a poem to think of it as such-and-such matter plus such-and-such form, or even as a matter put into form. Form must not be thought of as a series of rigid moulds” (pwby, 19). “Artistic form,” he continues, “is more than a mere method or convenience or discipline or, of course, décor.” Furthermore, he argues, content and form interpenetrate in a manner analogous to the relationship between body and soul: “Just as one cannot, by the furthest analysis, completely deformalize matter, so one cannot completely desubstantialize form…. Artists use form not merely to express some alien matter but because form itself is a spiritual principle which calls for expression in matter.” As a compound of “form” and “matter,” a poem, according to MacNeice represents “a complex unity, that is, complex but a unity (or a unity but complex)” (22). Just as a marriage exists as a unity . . .

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