Designs Less Palpable: Emotional Manipulation and Even-Handedness in Keats

by: Matthew VanWinkle

In a February 3, 1818 letter to his friend Reynolds, Keats rejects a reading experience that he associates primarily with Wordsworth: “We hate poetry that has a palpable design upon us—and if we do not agree, seems to put its hand in its breeches pocket.” The reproach is so scathing because it acutely observes how rapidly the poetry’s interest in its audience cools, from the importunate heat of the design to the indifferent withdrawal to the pocket. Keats is fuming primarily at Wordsworth’s dogmatism and propensity for self-congratulation, as we hear earlier in the letter, where Keats complains of being “bullied into a certain Philosophy engendered in the whims of an Egotist.”

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Yeats and Heaney: The Poetry Without the Pity

by: C.L. Dallat

When W.B. Yeats dismissed Wilfred Owen’s World War I poetry as “all blood, dirt & sucked sugar stick” (and omitted Owen, Sassoon, and Rosenberg from his 1936 anthology), he was making a powerful statement, not just about distaste for sentimental language and the role of pity in poetry, but about the poet’s duties and limits. He had already excluded writing war poetry from his own list of obligations in 1915’s “On Being Asked for a War Poem,” but only later became more coherent on the abjuration of pity as an unfit subject.

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Tell It Cool: On Writing with Restraint

by: Debra Marquart

For years, I’ve encouraged students to “tell it cool” when narrating a tale that is harrowing or emotional. A cool narrator can be a buoy in rough waters. I’ve always thought this advice came from Hemingway, but at this moment as I search my bookshelves for the place where Hemingway said it, I can’t put my finger on the quote. I know it’s in there somewhere, likely in one of the letters (bossy letters full of unsolicited advice and signed “Papa” when friends were just writing to ask for money).

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I Second That Emotion

by: Rebecca McClanahan

A few years ago, I attended a literary gathering and heard four poets and memoirists read from their work. They were all accomplished writers, varied enough in their approaches to evoke laughter, sighs, nods of acknowledgment, a collective gasp at one point, and, toward the end of the evening, some tears as well. Tears are not uncommon at readings, of course—I have cried at several—but in this case the tears came not from audience members but rather from one of the readers, who had warned us that she might “choke up” because of the emotional content of the autobiographical piece she was about to read. Her introduction, followed by a tearful presentation, suggested either that the work was too new to share publicly or that she had planned her reaction and was intentionally manipulating us. As she spoke, I sensed listeners growing more and more uncomfortable, as I was. Some leaned back into their chairs, some crossed their arms. The more emotional the reader’s performance became, the less effect it seemed to have, an unfortunate outcome, especially given that the work was potentially moving in and of itself. But it was as if the writer did not trust the work, or perhaps did not trust us to do our job as listeners: to bring our own emotional response to the work.

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Staying with Argos: Odysseus and His Dog

by: AJ Aronstein

Argos, the loyal dog of long-suffering, well-tanned, always-oiled Odysseus, appears only once in The Odyssey. At the sight of Odysseus, who returns to the island kingdom Ithaca after 20 years, Argos dies. Bam! Kaput. Struck down by a Zeusian thunderbolt. At this point in Book 17, no one other than the reader knows the true identity of the disguised and smelly Odysseus, who dresses like a beggar. Escorted by his loyal swineherd Eumaeus, Odysseus pauses to observe Argos from the distance of a few steps. But he can’t even pet the pup before steering back toward his wife’s suitors, whom he’ll slaughter in due course. Argos dies almost immediately after Odysseus turns away. Though the encounter takes fewer than one hundred lines, its brevity should not trick us into thinking about Argos’s death as a merely sad aside. A closer reading reveals how Homer manipulates his audience before the final act, using Argos to orient our empathy toward Odysseus. Moreover, if we stay with Argos a little longer, he reveals something essential about fiction’s capacity to wrap epic emotions into even the tiniest moments.

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