- Richards and Williams:Spring and All and the Invention of Modernist Form
"The chief characteristic of poets," writes I. A. Richards in his well-known essay, "Science and Poetry," "is their amazing command of words" (italics in original).1 By this Richards does not mean that poetry can be written "by cunning and study, by craft and contrivance," that is, by "the technique of poetry added to a desire to write some"; his point is rather that "the ordering of the words" must spring from "an actual supreme ordering of experience." The true vocation of "genuine poetry" consists in its attempt to give the reader "a response which is as passionate, noble and serene as the experience of the poet." It is, in other words, only by being "the master of experience" that a poet can be "the master of speech" ("SP," p. 535).
In this respect, Richards's assertion that poetry "cannot be imitated" could be understood as insisting on the importance of poetry's "command of life" (fully as much as of its "command of words"): the real work of poetry is not so much to "mention" "men's current opinions" as to "show" "their attitudes," that is, "how they feel about this or that as part of the world" ("SP," p. 536). The task of the poet, therefore, is truly "to give order and coherence, and so freedom, to a body of experience . . . through words which act as its skeleton, as a structure by which the [End Page 217] impulses which make up the experience are adjusted to one another and act together" (p. 540).
For this reason Richards conceives of what he calls "pseudo-statement" as a primary and ultimate function of words in poetry: "the poet's business," he says, is not "to make scientific statements" but to make statements "regarded as 'poetically true'" ("SP," p. 543). The point here is not just that the pseudostatements (or words) of a poem need to be radically distinguished from the scientific (or "logical") ones; it is rather that although they are no longer scientific, they must somehow remain and still serve as pseudoscientific statements. Because Richards's idea of pseudostatement is meant to suggest the possibility of a "[re]conciliation" or reunion of "words" and "life," "mind" and "world" (or, more generally, imagination and reality), it is wrong to think of his sense of the primacy of pseudostatement as a romantic fantasy of a "[re]conquest" or total control of life by words, world by mind (p. 528). When, for example, he argues that a pseudostatement is a form of words that can only be justified by "its effect in releasing or organizing our impulses and attitudes"—in contrast to a scientific one justified by "its correspondence, in a highly technical sense, with the fact to which it points" (p. 542)—he means to vitalize and energize poetry not by ignoring the pressure of reality (or, in Richards's terms, "the neutrality of nature" [p. 548]), not by trusting the power of imagination (or, in his terms, "a world of pure phantasy" or "phantasmagoria" [pp. 549–50]) but by attempting to resist the pressure of reality with the power of imagination—or, more precisely, by seeking to transform the external ("the world") into the internal ("the mind") through the work of poetic thought.
Thus Richards's description of poetry (or its pseudostatements) as a main instrument by which "we order our attitudes . . . to the world" ("SP," p. 543) must be understood as above all an effort to achieve an emotional identification, where our mind (that is, our command of words) and our world (that is, our command of life) fuse together and become two-in-one. This is the situation in which our experience of the world is entirely (and paradoxically) dependent upon the work of the poetic imagination. Another way to put this might be to say that in poetry, as Richards puts it, "pseudo-statements" and "statements proper" "cannot conflict" (p. 544): indeed, no longer possible to make a rigorous distinction between "the Magical View" and "the scientific" (or neutralized) view of the world. "The imaginative life," in short, "is its own...