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The Teasers -- William Empson

Abstraction of a different kind...
(Poem #351) The Teasers
Not but they die, the teasers and the dreams,
Not but they die,
                 and tell the careful flood
To give them what they clamour for and why.

You could not fancy where they rip to blood
You could not fancy
                    nor that mud
I have heard speak that will not cake or dry.

Our claims to act appear so small to these
Our claims to act
                  colder lunacies
That cheat the love, the moment, the small fact.

Make no escape because they flash and die,
Make no escape
               build up your love,
Leave what you die for and be safe to die.
-- William Empson
'It was this poem, analysed by John Wain in Penguin New Writing in 1950,
which gave rise to the Empson revival. The poem is a slight one compared
to some of Empson's other pieces in this vein, but it has a musical
quality and is able to make abstraction sound mysterious and sinister.
The central point of the poem is hard to fix on, but it may be about the
puncturing of illusions and the wastage of effort.'

        -- George Macbeth, Poetry 1900-1975.

Elsewhere, Macbeth makes the comment that to the ideal reader of Empson
should be well-versed in science, linguistics, anthropology and of
course the history of critical thought...

The obvious parallel, of course, is John Donne. Empson is every bit as
universal a thinker as Donne, complex and intellectual, yet at the same
time never aloof or uninvolved - his poems, like Donne's, reflect a
passionate commitment to life in all its aspects.

Empson also displays an almost frightening degree of moral integrity -
some would call it moral bloodymindedness - in his poems; his work may
be intentionally obscure at times, but blinkered it never is. As a
result, his (relatively small) output has aged a good deal better than
that of his contemporaries in the 1930s, who (it now seems to us) were
blind to many of the problems that beset their generation.

All told, Empson remains a fine poet - perhaps even a great one - but
he'll never be popular. Perhaps he would not be dissatisfied with such
an epitaph.


[Minstrels Links]

'Missing Dates' is one of the two important villanelles to be written in
the twentieth century; I find it almost as powerful (in a very different
way, of course), as Dylan Thomas' magnificent 'Do Not Go Gentle Into
That Good Night'. The former is archived at poem #202 ; the latter at
poem #38 .

'Let It Go' is a sort of poetic apology for not writing more verse; you
can read it at poem #233

[Poetry 101 - Followup]

The contrast with Martin's equally abstract offering of yesterday
notwithstanding, my choice of poem was motivated by my choice of poet: I
wanted to run an Empson as a tribute. For Empson it was who first stated
the principles of poetic constructon (especially with respect to the use
of language to create a multiplicity of meaning) which are accepted as a
given by most critics today (and which formed the basis for my essay of
two days ago). After Empson's definitive study 'Seven Types of
Ambiguity', twentieth-century criticism would never be the same.

'Ambiguity - the use of words that allow alternative interpretations. In
factual, explanatory prose, ambiguity is considered an error in
reasoning or diction; in literary prose or poetry, it often functions to
increase the richness and subtlety of language and to imbue it with a
complexity that expands the literal meaning of the original statement.'

        -- EB


Empson, Sir William

  b. Sept. 27, 1906, Hawdon, Yorkshire, Eng.
  d. April 15, 1984, London

British poet and critic known for his immense influence on 20th-century
literary criticism and for his rational, metaphysical poetry.

Empson was educated at Winchester College and at Magdalene College,
Cambridge. He earned degrees in mathematics and in English literature,
which he studied under I.A. Richards. His first poems were published
during this time. Several of the verses published in Empson's Poems
(1935) also were written while he was an undergraduate and reflect his
knowledge of the sciences and technology, which he used as metaphors in
his largely pessimistic assessment of the human lot. Much influenced by
John Donne, the poems are personal, politically unconcerned (despite the
preoccupation with politics in the 1930s), elliptical, and difficult,
even though he provided some explanatory notes. Later collections of his
poetry included The Gathering Storm (1940) and Collected Poems (1949;
rev. ed. 1955).

Seven Types of Ambiguity (1930; rev. ed. 1953), one of the most
influential critical works of the first half of the 20th century, was
essentially a close examination of poetic texts. Empson's special
contribution in this work was his suggestion that uncertainty or the
overlap of meanings in the use of a word could be an enrichment of
poetry rather than a fault, and his book abounds with examples. The book
helped lay the foundation for the influential critical school known as
the New Criticism. Empson applied his critical method to somewhat longer
texts in Some Versions of Pastoral (1935) and further elaborated it in
The Structure of Complex Words (1951). Empson's verbal analyses were
based on the view that poetry's emotive effect derives primarily from
the ambiguities and complexities of its cognitive and tonal meanings.

From 1931 to 1934 Empson taught English literature at the University of
Tokyo, and he subsequently joined the English faculty of Peking National
University in China. He was Chinese editor at the British Broadcasting
Corporation during World War II and returned to teach at Peking National
University from 1947 to 1952. Empson was professor of English literature
at Sheffield University from 1953, becoming emeritus in 1971. He was
knighted in 1979.

He was also a distinguished poet who influenced younger poets in the
1950s. His Poems appeared in 1935, The Gathering Storm in 1940, and his
Collected Poems in 1955. Empson's poetry is characterized by ingenious
conceits using a subject matter drawn from astrophysics, mathematics,
and other sciences.

        -- EB

41 comments: ( or Leave a comment )

gayuh said...

i like this poem.. thanks for share

Kamagra said...

a little bit complicated to understand, but when you finally get the main idea, you discover a real art work, well anyway Empson is one of the best in this theme.

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