From Evelyn Waugh’s The Loved One:
“Dennis sat in one of the arm-chairs, put his feet on the trolley and settled himself to read. Life in the Air force had converted him from an amateur to a mere addict. There were certain trite passages of poetry which from a diverse multitude of associations never failed to yield the sensations he craved; he never experimented; these were the branded drug, the sure specific, big magic. He opened the anthology as a woman opens her familiar pack of cigarettes.
“Outside the windows the cars swept past continuously, out of town, into town, lights ablaze, radios at full throttle.
“‘I wither slowly in thine arms,‘ he read. ‘Here at the quiet limit of the world,” and repeated to himself: ‘Here at the quiet limit of the world. Here at the quiet limit of the world” . . . as a monk will repeat a single pregnant text, over and over again in prayer.”
I posted earlier about evocative phrases that seem to be evocative only, in some way, through cheap trickery, and here they are is again. Dennis Barlow is not only a poetry addict, but a well-known hack poet, and like nearly every character in a Waugh novel, is entirely superficial and devoid of any genuine concern for the world. Whether we’re only meant to be laughing at Dennis for his superficial use of the poem (Tennyson’s “Tithonus”), or whether Waugh is making fun of Tennyson as well (which seems likely), this sort of relationship between reader and phrase is familiar. All Dennis is after, here, is the physiological effect that the particular phrase “at the quiet limit of the world” has on him. There is certainly something wrong with his superficial style of reading and failure to move beyond the old and familiar, and that is the main point of this scene, but it also brings up an issue about poetry in general that I can’t resolve. I can’t come up with a qualitative difference between a good poetic phrase, which still has a primary purpose of creating sensations, and a “branded drug” that may turn off the discerning reader, but that is nevertheless effective. What makes one way of evoking a sensation seem ‘cheap’ while another does not?
One major difference, I suppose, is originality, which bears on the reader as well as on the poet. Outside of poetry, one example of the “branded drug” I’ve found is the use of of the word ‘American’ to give a sense of import to a title. Thus, American Pastoral, American Psycho, American Gods, American Splendor, American Graffiti, American Beauty, American Beauty, American Gangster, American Gangster, American Water. The word, used in this context, seems to have turned, over the years, into an empty commonplace used to signify that This Is Big And Important. (American Pie doesn’t count because it is nearly impossible to make food sound serious.) The reason it might seem empty now, as it seems for me, is simply that it’s been done so many times before – setting the doubts that that casts on the creator aside, that gives it the sense of being prepackaged, particularly since it is used in the title, where it can easily resemble a brand.
But it’s not just originality or novelty, and it’s not just the fact that flashy phrases can distract from bad writing, dull ideas, aesthetic blunders, and so on. Some phrases just seem easier than they ought to be, and we, too clever to be so readily manipulated, push them away. I think there is more to our preference for poetry that avoids taking shortcuts on the way to our seratonin glands than simple admiration for the amount of effort put in by the poet. But where exactly is the corny different from what we perceive as genuinely powerful?