Academic journal article Connotations : a Journal for Critical Debate

Elegance and Poetic Economy in John Crowe Ransom and F. T. Prince*

Academic journal article Connotations : a Journal for Critical Debate

Elegance and Poetic Economy in John Crowe Ransom and F. T. Prince*

Article excerpt

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In this essay I take up the notion of poetic elegance as a specific instance of the general idea of poetic economy. The kind of elegance I have in mind mediates between elliptical and redundant uses of language by combining urbanity of tone with a style that is not afraid of cultivating mannerisms. The result in the two cases I cite as illustrations-John Crowe Ransom (1888-1974) and F. T. Prince (1912-2003)is a type of personalized elegance that manages to appear elliptical while remaining committed to a principle of stylistic redundancy.1

In mathematics, science, and engineering, elegance refers to the directness and simplicity of the solution to a complex problem.2 In linguistics, elegance refers to the capacity to explain the largest set of linguistic phenomena with the fewest rules.3 In architecture, elegance signifies a balance between grace, economy, and strength. In poetic writing, elegance is mediated as achieved style, though hardly anything so obvious to the understanding could be more difficult to realize in practice. In classical rhetoric, elegantia constitutes one of the three qualities of style (along with compositio and dignitas) from at least as far back as the Rhetorica ad Herennium (c. 90 BCE).4 A surplus of affect, and a style degenerates into eccentricity; too little individuation, and a style sinks into anonymity. A balance between the extremes of the stylized and the prosaic is hard to find, and even harder to sustain. When that balance is accomplished with flair and panache, we have elegance; when it combines ellipses of thought and feeling with redundancy of words and images, we have poets like Ransom and Prince: authors whose appeal might remain confined to a minority among readers of poetry, but who deserve the kind of appreciation and attention devoted ordinarily to more well-established reputations.

Ransom is known less as a poet than through his association with American New Criticism, the Fugitive group of writers from the American South, the Agrarian Movement, also of the South, and his editing of The Kenyon Review.5 Prince, who was born in South Africa, but lived most of his adult life in England, is better known for his scholarly work on Milton and Shakespeare.6 Each has suffered the fate described by John Ashbery as being " somewhat known and a little read, if only so that he may be all the more quickly dismissed without the slightest twinge of conscience" ("F. T. Prince" 33)7

I aim to show how the idea of poetic economy finds a variety of elegant materializations in their best poems through a commensuration of lexical and syntactic means with semantic ends. The two poetic styles are by no means similar. Nor does syntax or diction play a similar function in their poems. In one respect Ransom is more consistent than Prince: he cultivates a style that depends heavily on seemingly archaic words and motifs; and his syntax helps reinforce the desire to establish a distinctive poetic persona through style. In Prince, each poem creates its own, unique stylistic microcosm. That makes it difficult to infer a singular stylist behind an almost bewildering variety of tones, prosodie forms, and variations in syntax and diction. He voices a host of implied speakers, whereas Ransom voices versions of himself, each indicative of how he would like to present a singular persona to his readers. The point of bringing them together is to indicate the wide scope for stylistic choices in the management of wordchoice and word-order, punctuation, pauses and silences, the rhetorical energies of poetic form and meter, and the ability to use tropes and figures to turn language to unexpected but fascinating and insightful ends.

In Prince, elegance of poetic writing is an effect to be realized in acts of reading that are attentive to how stylizations can inflect meaning. In Ransom, it is a rather more self-conscious characterization of a poetic persona that stands in for the poet, giving scope to explore the interface between stylizations and what I have described as types of commensuration. …

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