Years and years ago, I read an essay by Richard Eberhart, "Will and Psyche in Poetry," and it became something of a touchstone for me in reading poems. As a thumbnail code, it was a sort of default guide. But as it turns out, the definitions of "Will" and "Psyche" I've followed all these years have been my own, not Eberhart's. Now I've read the essay again, and realize either my twenty-something brain read only what it wanted to then, or that my fifty-something brain (along with my thirty- and forty-something brains) conveniently forgot the part of the essay I wasn't interested in. Eberhart was much more judicious toward Will than I have been in my life, and ultimately saw both Will and Psyche (possibly) residing in the other.
Oh, fine. Go yin-yang and golden mean on me; I'm still not interested in fairness after all these years. My young self wanted to know what Keats meant about "negative capability," what Graves meant about the presence of the Goddess, what Eliot meant about coming back to where we started out from, and knowing that place for the first time. My personality is withdrawn, reclusive; I'm better at hearing than seeing. I'm more interested in the unseen than the seen, not because I'm subtle, but because I'm cowardly, and have felt from early years on there's more danger there. Will seems too obvious to me, with its chest-thumping, its demands to be lauded. Here's Eberhart: "The Psyche state in poetry pertains to, exemplifies, or takes off from peace, quiet, calm, security, harmony, proportion, concord, tranquillity, freedom as from something (war, for instance), serenity, stillness, and silence ... Will is wish, desire, inclination, pleasure, appetite, passion, purpose, determination, choice, intention, entreaty, command, decree, power, arbitrary disposal, self-control as in a man of strong will, zeal, volition."
Others have made a similar dichotomy, though phrased differently and with different emphases. My own has always been an attempt to understand the difference between the poetry that wills itself into being, via the brain, logic, the determination on the part of its maker to be a poet, and the Psyche poem, more prized, of "inspiration"--of the "lights," the soul, the heart, the Muse, the god. The latter seems the truer poem, the poem that directly accesses the ground of being. The poem of will ultimately deceives: not only is it susceptible to cleverness, but the force of the cleverness itself can turn out to be the real, if unconscious, subject of the poem; the poem's agon can be played out several levels above the ground of being, fooling the poet, and possibly the reader. The poet of will is the poet of the middlebrow: the will is the organ working furiously behind that furrowed middle brow.
The middlebrow isn't the standard of the age, of course; but it's the commonplace everyday knowledge of the age, and serves its purpose, as I now finally realize. At its highest, the middlebrow orders things, makes lists, codifies, and marshals rhetorical strategies, clevernesses, even deep learning, into homilies. When we think of homiletic types of literature, we immediately become condescending: Sunday school sermons and the like. It's age-old experience mushed up into spoon-sized servings. And that's probably a reasonable reading of the immediate past, with the added value that it lets us off the hook in the present. But in fact the middlebrow in any age is precisely the shrewd packaging of homily in contemporary terms that is just a step or two in advance of us. That's probably why we turn on it so fiercely when we catch up with it and pass it.