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August 14, 2007


water molecules.jpg [illustration source: Anders Nilsson and Hirohito Ogasawara] Nietzsche's now-familiar call at the end of The Antichrist for a moral revolution, a "transvaluation of all values", is a counterpoint to modern science's inexorable "transvaluation of sizes". The continuous drive of physics ever deeper and further into the realms of the small, the tiny, the only microscopically discernible and then even the subatomic has changed our attitudes to the relative prestige of the large and the small.

For a century and more now, the small has no longer been identified with the trivial. It was the West's phenomenal mastery of microworlds, brought about through the advancing disciplines of physics (guns), biology (germs) and chemistry (steel), that led to its long, political and economic dominance over global history. In modern history, rich men and rich countries have been those that can, figuratively speaking, pass through the eye of the minutest needle.

Modern poetry is rarely contextualized within a scientific frame. But it is clear that the trajectory of scientific inquiry has been a shaping factor for the values of modern, Western culture as a whole. And one of the most obvious formal characteristics of poetry written during the last 120 years or so, is that much of it is comparatively tiny. One need not actually read poems to see that. One can simply look at them. Pound spoke up for an art aligned with a civilization like that of Japan's, where "a work of art is not estimated by its acreage." But here he was displacing his intuitive understanding of the microphilic exoticism of avant-garde science in his own culture onto what he imagined an ancient "Oriental" culture to be like.

Modern poetry, defiantly unconcerned with "acreage", is not only small in terms of its typical physical dimensions. It is also full of accurately registered and carefully examined small things, from (to take examples from two early 20th century poems set below ground) Pound's faces like "Petals on a wet black bough" to Millay's single-column newspaper advertisements for "Where to store furs and how to treat the hair." Tininess is pervasive as well in Moore, Hardy, Eliot, and H. D. In fact, it is almost impossible to think of a modern Anglo-American poet whose work does not dwell within the culture (and cult) of smallness. If anything, this moral-cum-aesthetic appreciation (and the formal emulation) of the tiny is a more distinctive feature of Anglo-American poetry than of the modern poetry written in other languages.

Robert Frost's work, too, is replete with tiny details. The most obvious instance is the "Design" sonnet. But there is also the small object on the floor of the well in "For Once Then, Something": "What was that whiteness? | Truth? A pebble of quartz?" And that momentary glimpse of a far-off "something" in "A Cliff Dwelling" (from Steeple Bush). There, in a mirage of golden sand and sky, Frost's speaker claims to have seen a vision of the foot of a Native American vanishing into a cave "halfway up the limestone wall": "I see the callus on his sole | The disappearing last of him."

The signifying legitimacy of such small details in (small) modern poems is best seen not simply in a literary-historical context, a result of the early 20th century, avant-garde determination to purge poetry of the 19th century's love of prolixity, gigantism and endlessness. The receptiveness of poets and audiences in the 1910s and 1920s to an art of the reduced and the small is predicated on a general awareness that modern, that is, scientific, value had been "transvalued". The revelatory was now commensurate with the microscopic scale. Modern poetry is therefore a question not only of articulating Paterian "moments" but also of eliciting in words the immense power of the minute.

Much research on the subject remains to be done, as Fondatore would say.

Posted by njenkins at August 14, 2007 03:04 AM

With the exception of interspersed quotations, all writing is © 2007-09 by Nicholas Jenkins