My inclination was at first to say, simply, that I am broadly in accord with what you say about diction in poetry and have, for now, nothing further to add. My feeling is that my poetry is made from almost nothing but diction. But reading your essay makes me realize I’m not sure I know what counts as diction and what doesn’t.
Maybe that’s why, on further thought, your essay leaves me with a question—one thing I am uneasy about. It’s your assumption that at some point, not so long ago, there was something that can be called “poetic diction” or “lyric diction” that can easily be pointed out: “embellishment, the use of uncommon words, ornate figures of speech, archaism, and sentimental phrasing.” Even putting aside sentimental phrasing which sounds like an aspect of subject matter rather than of diction, I’m not sure I believe this. You cite some lines from Keats: “O what can ail thee, wretched wight, /Alone and palely loitering? /The sedge is withered from the lake /And no bird sings.” As I read those lines, the first stanza of “La Belle Dame Sans Merci,” I can only put my finger on one single word that is archaic, “wight.” I’ll come back to this shortly. Or maybe there’s that vocative “O” that’s rarely found outside poetry, but does the inaudible difference between a prosaic “Oh” and a poetic “O” really count as a matter of diction? I don’t think that can be. So aside from that one word, all the others are quite plain and straightforward, and indeed the whole effect of the fourth line of the quoted stanza comes from its bluntness, and from the succession of simply monosyllabic words with which that bluntness is embodied. There is nothing flowery or rare in the diction Keats employs beyond that single “wight,” whose use is justified in any case by the poem’s basic fiction: It pretends to be an old ballad, and its narrative is set in medieval times. This puts it, of course, in the orbit of those phenomena that you see as the basis of kitsch. In any case, there’s a strange sort of conflating of perspectives going on in the poem: a modern, literate poet simulates in his writing an archaic form of poetry that would have been composed and transmitted orally, presumably by people of humble social and economic status—that’s the pastoral aspect of it, I guess—but there’s a further switch, because the humble man’s poem is about a knight, that is, someone of high social and economic status. If “pastoral” names the fantasies entertained by sophisticates about the simple, what’s the name for genres in which the simple entertain their fantasies about the sophisticates? There might be such a term in circulation, but I haven’t come across it. For now, I’ll just call it “counter-pastoral.” Anyway, Keats constructs his pastoral by simulating a counter-pastoral. Instead of writing a poem about shepherds, he writes the poem he might imagine a shepherd singing about a knight.
In any case, Keats’ choice of the word “wight” is justified by more than the desire to use an archaic word. It is, you might say, an everyday part of the archaic world conjured by the poem, and it is there to begin to induct the reader into this fiction. Does the poet choose the world he evokes as a means to use certain words, or does he choose the words as a means to make the world? I’ve got a quarter we can flip. In any case, the poem as a whole uses mostly very familiar words in its effort to communicate the idea of something antique and rare. This is summed up by a couple of lines that occur just about halfway through the poem: “And sure in language strange she said— / ‘I love thee true’.” Here, the old-fashioned element is nothing other than the obsolete (but still quite recognizable) familiar form of the second person singular. Otherwise there is no “language strange” here at all, simply the idea of one. Is this what you call “the maddening transparency of poetic kitsch”? If so, it’s the near-absence of poetic diction, rather than its evidence, that makes it. But then I have to wonder why I don’t experience the poetry that eschews rare vocabulary completely—from William Carlos Williams to Ron Padgett—as kitsch too.
I can’t help but recall, here, how Viktor Shklovsky pointed out over a century ago in his famous essay “Art as Technique” that Pushkin sometimes used vulgar, prosy diction to lend his poetry its sense of rarity in a context where fancier language would have been more conventional. Shklovsky attributes to Aristotle the idea that “poetic language must appear strange and wonderful; and, in fact, it is often actually foreign: the Sumerian used by the Assyrians, the Latin of Europe during the Middle Ages, the Arabisms of the Persians, the Old Bulgarian of Russian literature, or the elevated, almost literary language of folk songs”—that counter-pastoral impulse I mentioned. The wonderful and the banal are always changing places. Shklovsky’s idea could probably be translated into the terms of information theory, if one cared to do so. A signal can only be discerned by its improbability of occurring in a given context. Or translate it into gestalt psychology: a figure needs a ground to stand out from, but any figure can also become part of a background pattern. Maybe it would be radical today to put the word “wight” in a poem. But me? I’m afraid I’m not radical enough to pull it off.
Barry Schwabsky is art critic for The Nation and co-editor of international reviews for Artforum. His most recent collection of poetry is Trembling Hand Equilibrium (New York: Black Square Editions, 2015) and he’s just published a new book of criticism, The Observer Effect: On Contemporary Painting(Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2020).