Thursday, March 19, 2009

the panharmonicon

[from an abandoned essay on the panharmonicon]

In one of his many journal entries, Ralph Waldo Emerson envisions a new genre for a new country—the panharmonicon—which builds from oratory (namely the lecture and the sermon) and in which “everything is admissable, philosophy, ethics, divinity, criticism, poetry, humor, fun, mimicry, anecdotes, jokes, ventriloquism.” Aside from its startling inclusiveness, the panharmonicon serves as a salutary example of genre-opening: Emerson seeks to expand the possibilities for poetry by breaking down traditional generic boundaries.

Many of Emerson’s lectures are monologues, proto-performance pieces that, if performed by another, would be as vibrant and dramatic as a traditional dramatic monologue. According to Emerson, “A lecture is a new literature … It is an organ of sublime power, a panharmonicon for variety of note…”

Many of James Tate’s more recent dramatic monologues (see Worshipful Company of Fletchers and Shroud of the Gnome in particular) adopt a didactic tone—the narrators seem half-sane or otherwise under extreme psychological stress, but they do their best to convey their knowledge of the world and the urgency of that knowledge. In their own way, they lecture. The poems parody knowledge or, more specifically, the conveyance of knowledge. Erudition becomes a matter of particulars, not of breadth. While Tate’s dramatic monologues rarely approach or court the sublime, they do attain a “variety of note” that openly autobiographical poems cannot accommodate. This is perhaps even more evident in Tate's last three books, which feature free verse/prose poem hybrids narrated by various personae.

With increasingly porous boundaries between prose and verse, more and more poets seem to be realizing Emerson's vision. Which seems appropriate, since Emerson's poetry was in his prose.

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