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Abrams explains the neglected 'fourth dimension' of a poem: 'Oral activity' in its reading

M.H. "Mike" Abrams, Class of 1916 Professor of English Emeritus, asked the packed Hollis E. Cornell Auditorium audience if they could "taste those consonants" as he read aloud the final lines of W.H. Auden's poem "On This Island" (1936): "That pass the harbour mirror. And all the summer through the water saunter."

The reading was part of a presentation by Abrams, a leading authority on 18th- and 19th- century literature, literary criticism and European Romanticism, on "The Fourth Dimension of a Poem" Nov. 18 in Goldwin Smith Hall. Abrams, who has been a Cornell professor for 65 years, was the founding editor of "The Norton Anthology of English Literature" and general editor for 40 years. His many publications include "The Mirror and the Lamp: Romantic Theory and the Critical Tradition" (1953), ranked 25th on the Modern Library's list of "The 100 Best Nonfiction Books Written in English during the 20th Century."

Abrams explained the "enigmatic title" of his lecture by listing the four dimensions of a poem. The first dimension, he said, is "the appearance of the poem in print," its "physical aspect." The second dimension is "the sounds of the words when they are read aloud," and the third is "the meaning of the words that we read or hear."

In addition to all these is the fourth dimension, one that is ignored in everyday speech and is "almost totally neglected in discussions of poetry," said Abrams. This dimension is "the oral activity of enunciating the great variety of speech sounds that constitute the words of a poem," he said.

English professor Ellis Hanson said in his introduction of Abrams that the purpose of the lecture was "to reintroduce us to the pleasures of poetry." Abrams discussed all four dimensions of six poems by poets ranging from Emily Dickinson to A.R. Ammons, a late Cornell professor. Abrams, who has heard T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, E.E. Cummings and Robert Frost read their poems, said that "there's no one right way to read a poem aloud."

Since the lungs, tongue, vocal chords and throat are all involved in creating sounds, "the physical act of producing a poem begins next to the heart and ends in the brain," Abrams said; poetry is therefore felt to be "the most intimate of the arts," adding that it expresses in a complete and nuanced way what it means to be human.

In his discussion of each poem, Abrams focused on how the physical actions of uttering the words of a poem interact "with the meanings and moods that the words of the poem convey." For example, Abrams described the "tension and resolution" between the underlying pulse of the meter and an "expressive rendering" by reading aloud Tennyson's "Now Sleeps the Crimson Petal" (1847), an erotically charged poem about a waiting lover.

Abrams concluded with Ammons' poem "Mansion," which he said takes up the question: "What are we to make of life, knowing that we are mortal?" He noted that the poem is about death, as the speaker chats with the desert wind and acknowledges his mortality. However, Abrams added that the return to regular meter in the last three lines of the poem helps to make it "a poem about dying that celebrates the values of living." It is a "daunting challenge" to convey all this while reading the poem out loud, Abrams said. But, he added, "I can try."

Joseph Mansky '12 is a writer intern for the Cornell Chronicle.

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