In the fall, I’m teaching a lecture course on poetic style, and so at the moment I’m reading things I hope will help me develop a sense of what poetic style is. As it turns out, “style” is an easy word to say — it’s even easy to say something like, “I dislike Swinburne’s style” — but a very difficult thing to think and talk about comprehensibly. What would I mean were I to say I dislike Swinburne’s style (I don’t; I think it — or what I believe to be it — is wonderful)? Would I mean I dislike the lushness of his music? Would I mean I dislike his poeticized dabblings in the sado-masochistic? Would I mean I dislike his many references to the sea (which border on content, but it seems to me in Swinburne’s poems such references are stylistic features)? Who knows? Certainly not me.
So, I’m reading Helen Vendler’s The Breaking of Style, in which Vendler talks about three of my favorite poets — Jorie Graham, Seamus Heaney, and Gerard Manley Hopkins — in ways that often clarify what style is, but just as often leave me wondering (but not in a bad way).
And I’m also reading Louise Glück’s Faithful and Virtuous Night, Jorie Graham’s Fast, and Derek Walcott’s White Egrets. Each of these books is written in what I take to be a self-consciously late style. Walcott, sometimes with great bitterness and self-laceration — out-Hardying Hardy — regretfully embraces his late style; Graham resists the very idea of a late style as traditionally understood, though, of course, the resistance itself becomes a late style; Glück seems to be writing about the possibility of having a late style, as if she had re-read A Village Life, in which her late style first appeared, and wrote poems to figure out what such a shift might mean, and how it could have happened in the first place.
Finally, I’m reading, in manuscript, Jeff Dolven’s Senses of Style: Poetry Before Interpretation, which talks about style in what strikes me as the most fitting way — by often talking about other things, particularly the biographies of Frank O’Hara and Thomas Wyatt through the lens of O’Hara’s love for Wyatt’s work.
But I should add that I am always reading Aase Berg’s poems — in Johannes Göransson’s translations — for what they can tell me about whatever it is I happen to be thinking about. They have a lot to say about style.