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The Style of Their Epoch

Helen Vendler in The Breaking of Style:

Poets are often praised for insight or wisdom, and they may, as persons or writers, exhibit those qualities; but Pope came nearer to the truth in his clear-eyed remark that what we find in poetry is “What oft was thought, but ne’er so well expressed.” Neither poets nor their readers like to admit that poems enunciate “what oft was thought.” Yet poets are not primarily original thinkers; they, like other intellectuals, generally think with (and against) the available intellectual categories of their epoch. Philosophers, rather than poets, invent the thought of their epoch. What poets (and other artists) invent is the style of their epoch…

I don’t know if I entirely agree with this anymore, but for some time I was quite relieved to think it might be true.

That is, I had believed that novelty was necessary in artifice and thought. This crippled me, since I have never thought much of novelty, and the burden of chronic originality weighed on me. After all, there is almost certainly nothing new under the sun, and the oldest things tend to be the most interesting, by virtue of their ubiquity (death, for example) or their mystery (say, love, or religious fanaticism). But what new ways can you talk about these things? What can be said that has never been said before?

Well, honestly, there’s nothing new anywhere. It’s all — I swear, all — been said before. So. What is novelty? Who cares? All any of us ever need is to think about the old things in new ways or to talk about the old things in new ways. But generating new things through art? Better to stick to drugs for that.

So, yes, now that I’ve meandered my way through this, I suppose I do still agree with the above quote. Since it’s the philosophers (god help us) who think about the old things in new ways, and the artists (god help them) who talk about the old things in new ways.