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The Depth of Herbert's Voiceprint: Intentional and Unintentional Traces in the Poetry of Alfred Corn
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To further the ongoing conversation about the influence of Herbert's poetry on modern poets, I wish to invoke a term currently enjoying favor in studies of Donne's analogous influence: what Judith Scherer Herz calls Donne's "voiceprint," the product not so much of one poet's occasional imitation of another but of a more profound, more substantial engagement of one poet with the "psychology" and "linguistic system" of another. The "later writer greets" Donne, "trying on his language and looking inside his imagination." The ensuing "encounter," Herz explains, "happens less in the manner of a Bloomean agon or an overreaching than simply as a willingness to listen, to reimagine, to make over as one's own." Often enough, it results from the kind of preoccupation non-poets might consider obsession: Edgell Rickword carries his two-volume Muse's Library Donne to the Front in 1917; Rupert Brooke tours Germany with Baedecker and Donne (the latter as much of a guide as the former?); Joseph Brodsky learns English for the express purpose of translating Donne; Tennessee Williams asks a friend to read him Donne poems for several hours as consolation on the night his first play Battle of Angels bombed during its first performance; Paul Muldoon "swallows Donne whole" to elegize Warren Zevon. In each case, one poet finds in another poet's imagination a spur for moving his or her own. The voiceprint is the verbal residue of this activity. Like a fingerprint, which captures in finely oiled lines a unique material trace of the original, it is composed of all the verbal traces that show through in the subsequent new work - allusions, echoes, stanza forms, logical or grammatical structures, phrasings, and of course, repeated words, all refracted through the imagination of another and in response to the demands of the new poetic context.

Donne's voiceprint often enough issues from a fascination with his personality and with his fascinations - with death, say, or love, or what Raymond-Jean Frontain aptly calls, the "need to make disparate parts or experiences cohere." To return to Herz, "it is Donne in his texts" the later poet "greets," Donne who fascinates through a "language" and a "vision" "oddly transportable over the centuries." For the character of the Herbertian voiceprint, we would do well to start with a distinction Seamus Heaney makes in contrasting a "political activist" view of poetry with what he terms a "visionary" view of poetry, the latter emerging from the "self-delighting inventiveness" at the heart of poetic craft. In contrast to the "heckler," for whom poetry must be harnessed to social movements to be useful, Heaney believes we must not slight the "imperative" to "redress poetry as poetry, to set it up as its own category, an eminence established and a pressure exercised by distinctly linguistic means." During the writing process, the visionary poet's "movement is from delight to wisdom and not vice versa," Heaney writes. "The felicity of a cadence, the chain reaction of a rhyme, the pleasuring of an etymology, such things can proceed happily and as it were autistically, in an area of mental operations cordoned off by and from the critical sense." The poet must dive into the pleasures of wordsmithing to render a compelling vision, a "counter-reality" capable of balancing his or her "historical situation."

Not surprisingly, Heaney finds in Herbert's "self-delighting" verbal "inventiveness" an example of a "fully realized poetry," where the "coordinates of the imagined thing correspond to and allow us to contemplate the complex burden of our own experience." That Herbert's poetry is more readily approachable "as poetry" than that of the majority of his contemporaries is a central condition of the nature of his influence for many practicing poets today. For, more often than not, it is less the specific claims Herbert makes about his particularly Protestant point of view that show through in the work of subsequent poets than it is a habit of language use that enables other poets to grasp, however momentarily, the insights available in their own experiences. In much the same way, Herbert grasped the mini-movements of his own spiritual life. Herbert's verse invites poets more...



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