The Escape From Banality

Poetic tradition and poetic originality are contrary forces: we may characterize the creative impulse of the artist, on one dimension, as a flight from the banality of'a worn-out poetical fashion' [Eliot, East Coker], To revitalize the language of poetry, the poet draws directly on the resources of the contemporary language. As Eliot said, ' Every revolution in poetry is apt to be ... a return to common speech'.1 This description he applied not only to his own revolution, but to that of Wordsworth, and to that of Dryden and his older contemporaries, Waller and Denham.

The effect of the return to ordinary language in the present century has been far-reaching. The feeling that there are intrinsically poetical and un-poetical sectors of the language has been repudiated. Much of the old paraphernalia of poetic expression (e.g. archaism) has been overthrown, and poets have eagerly delved into the most unlikely resources, such as the terminology of aeronautics and finance. Pound, Eliot, and the poets of the thirties showed their determination to be rid of orthodox restrictions of choice by making use of flagrantly prosy and vulgar aspects of everyday usage. In the new poetry of the fifties, this flamboyance has given way to a more sober and easy acceptance of colloquialism, even slang, as a fit medium of poetic expression. A good example is Philip Larkin's Toads, given complete as an example for discussion at the end of the last chapter. Its idiomatic familiarity of tone is in many ways typical of recent British poetry.

On the other hand, poetic language cannot come too close to the ' ordinary language' of the day - if it does, it runs the danger of another kind of banality, an undistinguished style which is perhaps easier to illustrate from one of Wordsworth's well-known experiments, such as Simon Lee, the Old Huntsman, rather than from contemporary poetry. So we may think of the successful poet as avoiding banality on two dimensions: the banality of the poetic convention of the past; and the banality of the everyday usage of the present. These two forces pull in opposite directions, and there is rarely a firm balance between them. It appears that the steady weight of conservatism has to be counteracted, from time to time, with a jerk in the direction of' the language of ordinary men'. The progress of poetic language is something like a canal climbing a hill by a series of locks: the surface of the water, remaining horizontal, cannot help diverging from the land contour it attempts to follow, and a lock (in this simile, a poetic revolution) has to raise it every now and then by brute force towards the level of the land surface.


As I dealt in the last chapter with the pull of tradition, I turn in this one to the equivocal relation between the poet's language and the everyday language of his day. The two meanings of'creative' I shall deal with, therefore, arc concerned with only the second of the two kinds of banality which were the subject of the last section. A writer may be said to use language creatively [«] if he makes original use of the established possibilities of the language; and [6] if he actually goes beyond those possibilities, that is, if he creates new communicative possibilities which are not already in the language. Linguistic creativity in either of these senses may be paraphrased by 'inventiveness' or 'originality'. It is characteristic of all registers which have liberal tendencies, and supremely, of poetic language.

The following two eccentric utterances will help to show what is meant by this distinction:

1. The polar bears of the Arctic ice-cap have recently taken to wearing false eyelashes as a protection against snow-blindness.

2. Eins within a space and a wearywide space it wast ere wohned a Mookse.

In linguistics, it has recently become widely accepted that a language such as English has theoretically infinite resources, i.e. consists of an infinite number of sentences, most of which have actually never been uttered.2 This claim, though it seems extravagant at first, becomes credible when we consider that the largest English dictionaries, although they contain hundreds of thousands of entries, do not record the whole of contemporary vocabulary; and that any sentence whatever can be made into another, longer, sentence, by the addition of one of any number of possible modifiers, or co-ordinative elements. If this is accepted, then we, as speakers of English, have the capability of using language 'creatively' in the purely linguistic sense of making up sentences which we have never heard uttered before. I have made use of this capability in making up sentence (1) above, which is in all likelihood original, if only because of the unlikelihood of the event it describes. But more generally, practically every book we read (although there are no means of confirming this) must contain numerous sentences which have never occurred outside that book (if we discount reprints, quotations, etc.).

Sentence (2) above, for which James Joyce3 is responsible, is as undoubtedly unique as sentence (1): no one, except by the oddest coincidence, could have thought up that particular sequence of symbols before Joyce did. But it is original in a more radical sense than sentence (i), which was regularly formed according to the rules of English. Joyce's sentence breaks the rules of the language so markedly, that one would be in doubt whether to treat it as written 'in English' at all.

It may be objected that linguistic creativity, in either of these senses, need be nothing more than eccentricity. A literary effect, on this score, seems to be levelled to the status of a spelling mistake, a malapropism, or some other kind of linguistic aberration. This is true; to get from a linguist's to an artist's idea of creativity, we have to assess the significance, or communicative value of a linguistic deviation: something which will not be discussed until §4.2.1. None the less, being linguistically creative is the means to being creative in the literary sense; in fact, there is a rough correspondence, as we shall see, between the two linguistic meanings of ' creative' and two types of literary expression: the' prosaic' and the' poetic'.

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  • Semhar Aatifa
    How can i avoid banality in a poem?
    2 years ago
    What is escape of banality in stylistic?
    2 months ago
  • jacob
    What is escape of banality in poetry?
    2 months ago
  • p
    What is escape from benality in language?
    17 days ago
  • Alfredo Calabrese
    How can banality escaped from poetic language?
    13 days ago
  • david
    Who says that every revolution in poetry is apt to be ...areturn to common speech?
    9 days ago

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