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Dispersions and Freedom: The Situation of Contemporary Poetry


ISSUE:  Autumn 1984

Any attempt to assess the situation of contemporary poetry immediately encounters the inconvenient absence of an avant-garde. It is not possible simply to check the progress of the dominant movement—or even the two or three most advanced “schools”—in order to find out what of interest is going on. In fact, the current impossibility of an avant-garde is one of the most interesting characteristics of our moment.

In 1912, Ezra Pound’s rhetoric was deliberately inflammatory. You could see the glint in his eye as you listened to the snarl in his voice:

Poetry is not a sort of embroidery, cross-stitch, crochet, for pensionnaires, nor yet a post-prandial soporific for the bourgeoisie. We need the old feud between the artist and the smugger portions of the community revived with some virulence for the welfare of things at large.

Extremely conscious of his position at the center of a loosely confederated party of innovation, Pound reveled in the role of provocateur. Like W.B. Yeats, he delighted in “oppositions, ” both for the clarifying debate and for the sheer stimulation they produce.

In an atmosphere of conflict, the years immediately preceding World War I and extending through the twenties constituted a literary moment in many ways an opposite to our own. Pound, William Carlos Williams, T.S. Eliot, and others wrote with a sense of renovating poetry for the 20th century. Even admitting that literary epochs always look more coherent and purposive from the vantage point of a half-century later, the early 20th century was a period of startlingly rapid development, with the major modern writers themselves conscious of participating in a broad advance of technical discovery that was, to some extent, a collective endeavor.

It was a great period for movements—however contrived some of them were—with continental symbolist “isms” pointing out the advantages of publicizing one’s work under the banner of a “school.” In London, “Imagism,” the “Georgians, ” and “Vorticism” flourished briefly, while in New York the American modernists who stayed at home published in Alfred Kreymbourg’s journal, Others. But besides enjoying the practical benefits of association—the mitigation of loneliness and an opportunity to gain publicity as part of a group with a dramatic manifesto—the best poets of the period did conceive of contemporary poetry as a body of activity coherent enough to respond to and alter with their own work.

When the 23-year-old Pound wrote to Williams in 1909, commenting on Williams’s privately issued book, Poems, he complained of a lack of originality, prodding his friend with the example of medical progress. To the future physician he wrote:

Nowhere I think do you add anything to the poets you have used as models.

If I should publish a medical treatise explaining that arnica was good for bruises (or cuts or whatever it is) it would show that I had found out certain medical facts, but it would not be of great value to the science of medicine.

The poet’s duty, in Pound’s view, was always to add, to contribute “discoveries” of technique or sensibility that would advance the art.

The conception of literature as an art which moves forward, like science, through a series of individual discoveries seized upon, applied, and extended by others was to be pervasive and enduring. Eliot expressed it explicitly in his celebrated 1923 review of James Joyce’s Ulysses:

In using the myth, in manipulating continuous parallel between contemporaneity and antiquity, Mr. Joyce is pursuing a method which others must pursue after him. They will not be imitators, any more than the scientist who uses the discoveries of an Einstein in pursuing his own, independent, further investigations. . . . It is a method already adumbrated by Mr. Yeats, and of the need for which I believe Mr. Yeats to have been the first contemporary to be conscious. . . . Instead of narrative method, we may now use the mythical method.

Joyce paralleled the Odyssey in Ulysses; Yeats correlated the Greco-Roman myths with Irish folk tales in many of his poems and plays; Eliot involved Tiresias, Philomel, the Upanishads, and other mythical materials in The Waste Land; and it would be easier to name the myths which do not appear in Pound’s Cantos than those which do. All these poets and many others employed the mythical method to some extent, adapting it to suit their individual purposes and sensibilities, but all seeming to accept it as a requisite step to be made by those who would partake in the continuous, collective development of literature.

II

We are a little suspicious of all this now. Not of the work, itself, necessarily. Nor, perhaps, of the methods and techniques the modernists developed. But among poets working today it is rare to find the notion that poetry progresses like science, that a writer looks to see where poetry has gotten to and thinks of the next possible or necessary step. We no longer imagine a literary colossus—the body poetic—striding into the future. The figure does not apply.

Rather we inhabit a moment of dispersions. The great issues of controversy during the first half of the century— diction, meter, and subject matter—no longer pack much punch. While the modern insistence that poetry should approximate current speech has become a commonplace, the battle against outworn poetic dictions has been won for so long that tolerance for experimentation with various dictions is great. In fact, play with contrasting vocabularies—high and low, archaic and new, technical and folksy—is an enterprise that interests many of the best poets writing today, including John Ashbery, A.R. Ammons, and others.

Ashbery, a connoisseur of tones and their connotations, seems to make in some of his poems a studied attempt to combine as many dictions as possible. One listener at an Ashbery reading a few years ago reported that he heard effects ranging from high Miltonic sonority to the lisped bluster of a Saturday morning cartoon character—sometimes in a single poem! Rid of apparent narrative or meditative sequence, these poems have as their “subject” the emotional associations attached to our words by past and current usage. Reading this segment of Ashbery’s work is like walking through a funhouse of bizarrely juxtaposed dictions. In “Daffy Duck in Hollywood,” for instance, we can detect echoes of Daffy Duck, Milton’s Satan, and Shakespeare:

  . . .He promised he’d get me out of this one,
That mean old cartoonist, but just look what he’s
Done to me now! I scarce dare approach me mug’s
  attenuated
Reflection in yon hubcap.

* * *

                        While I
Abroad through all the coasts of dark destruction seek
Deliverance for us all, think in that language: its
Grammar, though tortured, offers pavilions
At each new parting of the ways.

* * *

                  ”I like not this,
Methinks, yet this disappointing sequel to ourselves
Has been applauded in London and St. Petersburg. . . .”

In poems like this one Ashbery plays the grand decadent, gaily spending the accumulated capital of Western literary tradition. But if this work seems only to set in contention powerfully evocative tones and rhetorical gestures in an apocalypse of babble, there is also a potentially “constructive, ” satiric import to such pastiche. The various modes of discourse that Ashbery imitates, wrenched from their supporting contexts and starkly juxtaposed, test one another’s capabilities and limitations, exposing sentimentalities, excesses, and pretentions. This is especially true when the grist for Ashbery’s mill is contemporary usage—that cacophony of jargons and conversational disjunctions by which we daily attempt to know one another. Writers since Ashbery, therefore, are challenged by his critique of current and inherited dictions. To digest Ashbery, then, is not to imitate his eccentricities, but to write with a tenacious insistence upon accuracy and an ear acutely trained for the emotional timbre of words, mindful always of the potential for parody that haunts each line.

Ammons, writing with different intentions in his philosophical poem “The Arc Inside and Out,” combines the most colloquial of dictions (“shucking,” “bumfuzzlement”) with the most technical (“schemata,” “heterogenous”). After considering in this mixture of vocabularies two possible ways of looking at the world (through the simplifying exclusions of abstraction or through an inclusiveness that finally drowns all difference) he turns in the end to a plain style with incantatory repetitions which communicate a more instinctive response to the things we know:

. . .neither way to go’s to stay, stay
here, the apple an apple with its own hue
or streak, the drink of water, the drink,

the falling into sleep, restfully ever the
falling into sleep, dream, dream, and
every morning the sun comes, the sun.

Ammons’ motive for combining so many dictions in his poems seems to be to break down the fences we build between various provinces of thought and feeling, but in “The Arc Inside and Out” the welter of dictions in the poem’s beginning also emphasizes the simple lyricism of its ending. It is a powerful effect not allowed by early modernism’s reaction against all language but that of common speech.

Just as all dictions are available to the contemporary poet, he or she may employ any imaginable meter, however novel or traditional. The modernists’ campaign on behalf of free verse was extremely successful, and after a brief period of formalist academic verse in the 40’s and 50’s, the influence of the Beat movement again established free verse as the dominant mode in American poetry. So dominant, in fact, that until very recently many poets using traditional meters felt called upon to explain themselves, usually in defensive or apologetic tones. Currently, though, there is renewed interest in the most rigorous of prescribed forms, from the sonnet to the sestina and rhyme royal.

In 1981, the first issue of a newly established literary journal, The Cumberland Poetry Review, contained no fewer than eight sonnets and six other poems with regular rhyme and meter. Poets of what is sometimes referred to as “the New York School” have helped to revive interest in the villanelle, the sestina, and the other French and Italian forms, enjoying the ironies which arise when these stately patterns are made to accommodate the subjects of popular American culture and tones involving humor, whimsy, or nonchalance. Ashbery’s comic sestina, “Farm Implements and Rutabagas in a Landscape,” is a notable example. In a reference guide to contemporary poetry, it is listed under the subject heading, “Popeye,” and one of its repeated end-words is “spinach.”

Other poets have taken on the greater challenge of working in traditional forms without broad irony. They have been intent upon realizing the power inherent in these forms while applying them, without anachronistic effect, to contemporary matters.

The distinction of having revived the most restrictive form belongs, surprisingly, to a poet who otherwise has worked almost exclusively in an earthy, colloquial free verse. Robert Morgan has written about the resilience of his North Carolina grandfather in a 16th-century French form called the “chant royal,” which demands that the poet use only five rhyme sounds through 60 lines. What is more, the last line of each of five 11-line stanzas must be repeated as a refrain, leading finally to a 5-line envoi ending, again, with the refrain. Morgan’s achievement has been to meet the emergencies of the stringent form without having been deflected from his normal colloquial tone. Here, as a sampling, is the first stanza of “Chant Royal”:

Born in a notch of the high mountains where
a spring ran from under the porch, on
the second of April just one hundred years
ago this month, my grandpa was a weak one
to start with, premature, weighed a scant
two pounds twelve ounces. So fragile the aunt
who tended him that first night feared to move
him except for feeding and the changing of
diapers. He slept near the fire in a shoebox
with one end cut out. Against all odds he would prove
adequate for survival, withstanding all knocks.

As the poem proceeds through its five stanzas and envoi— employing the same rhyme sounds and final-line refrain—the repetitions of the form help to communicate the graceful insistence and tenacity of Morgan’s ancestor. With each refrain come the hard knocks and the survival. At the same time, Morgan’s apparent ease in the face of great formal difficulty mirrors his grandfather’s lithe negotiation of the real world’s perils. By the time we arrive at the envoi, the poem’s music has become a felt embodiment of the rigorous life it honors, and the poet can pray that his poem enjoy hardihood within bonds like that his grandfather exhibited in life.

ENVOI

Guardian ghost, inhere herein. Before Jove
may this music honor his example, improve
my time as he invested his, and no less unorthodox
discover significance in the bonds his fate wove
adequate for survival, withstanding all knocks.

As with other contemporary uses of elaborate forms, ironies pertain. Morgan has chosen to celebrate a New World mountain-dweller in a form used for the poetical contests of 16th-century French courtiers, but the irony of this choice serves to ennoble Morgan’s subject rather than diminish previous applications of the form. Furthermore, rather than working against the expectations that the chant royal promotes, Morgan has boldly attempted to realize its original power.

Some of the new formal poetry has seemed precious and affected, intending too narrowly either to display sheer virtuosity or to appear novel by adopting the old. But within the literary journals, recent anthologies, and even individual collections, free sits uncontroversially next to formal verse in a serenity that suggests good sense. No longer need we argue about acceptable meters; rather we can discuss the justice and accomplishment in the cadences of individual poems.

In subject matter, too, the trend established during the “revolutionary” early years of the century finally has cleared the field of controversy. Ford Madox Ford used to complain that his most moving experiences—watching a procession or observing townspeople conducting their business in the rain—were judged unfit for poetry by pre-WWI decorum, which was based upon Tennysonian nobility of sentiment and nostalgia for romantic nature poetry. Now, however, reviewers are more likely to complain against the privateness, triviality, or dailiness of contemporary poetry’s subjects. Yet the final result of these turnings has been, again, to produce an almost limitless freedom. Contemporary poetry can touch what it will. Opening a recent collection you might find anything—from the most transcendental meditations of James Merrill, Charles Wright, or Frederick Morgan to a recipe in the vivid work of Robert Hass.

III

If, in matters such as diction, meter, and subject matter, there is no current dogma or force of fashion, there can be no avant-garde. Against what would it define itself? No wonder, then, that we have coteries rather than movements, and those manifestos which appear from time to time are self-conscious or even self-parodic, seeming to acknowledge in their tone the absurdity of the gesture they make.

As early as 1959, Frank O’Hara seems to have realized that poetry no longer progressed by means of successive literary movements introduced by ringing manifestos. In his apparently satiric “Personism: A Manifesto,” he does intend to define a certain stance which he has taken in his poetry, but an important part of this stance—and the stance of his essay— is a refusal to be caged by earnestness. Here is an excerpt typical of the whole:

It [“Personism”] was founded by me after lunch with LeRoi Jones on August 27, 1959, a day in which I was in love with someone (not Roi, by the way, a blond). I went back to work and wrote a poem for this person. While I was writing it I was realizing that if I wanted to I could use the telephone instead of writing the poem, and so Personism was born. It’s a very exciting movement which will undoubtedly have lots of adherents. It puts the poem squarely between the poet and the person, Lucky Pierre style, and the poem is correspondingly gratified. The poem is at last between two persons instead of two pages. In all modesty, I confess that it may be the death of literature as we know it. While I have certain regrets, I am still glad I got there before Alain Robbe-Grillet did.

Part of the reason for O’Hara’s jocular tone here may be his weariness with the usually solemn greatness of the “Great Moderns.” In fact, his manifesto reads quite neatly as a parody of Ezra Pound’s account of leaving the Paris Metro, seeing beautiful faces, attempting to write about the experience, and discovering the techniques of “Imagism.”

It is also possible that O’Hara evades seriousness in his essay out of an anxiety that any latter-day manifesto can successfully compete with its major 20th-century predecessors. In any case, we have left behind the early modernist period of earnest debate on the technical and aesthetic issues of the day. O’Hara’s “manifesto” is one signal that such discourse is not currently possible.

Along with the absence of controversy on such subjects as diction, meter, and subject matter, another feature contributes to the “centerless” character of the present situation. No longer are there literary capitals, as London, Paris, and New York were centers of activity at the beginning of the century. Now there are innumerable outposts: university departments and writing programs, journals and little magazines, scattered large and small presses, and state and regional arts councils.

The current “scatter” is nowhere more evident than in the realm of publishing. The proliferation of little magazines and small presses, begun in the 1960’s, is a phenomenon worth an essay of its own. The 1965 International Directory of Little Magazines and Small Presses listed 250 entries; the 1977—78 edition contained roughly 2,000.

The intentions of these private publishers fall into three main categories. Some are interested in fine letterpress printing and the book as “art object”; they often do limited editions of collections by poets with national reputations, and a sometimes lucrative fine arts market has grown up around their productions. To cite an extreme example, a copy of Robert Lowell’s Land of Unlikeness, produced 40 years ago by Harry Duncan’s Cummington Press in an edition of 250, now sells for $3,000. But even more-recent limited editions, by lesser poets, are being sought by collectors. Charles Bukowski’s Love is a Dog from Hell, published in 1977, fetches nearly $100. For many collectors, buying such a book is like buying stock that rises and falls in value with the ups and downs of the poet’s reputation.

Other publishers who concentrate on books in pamphlet-size formats seem intent upon helping to circulate a poet’s work when he or she is in the early stages of a career. Their small books have produced a situation something like the one that existed in King James’ England, when the work of the court poets circulated in manuscript among a small appreciative audience. Now, however, there is no central court, and we discover only the pamphlets of our region or those that are brought to us by chance.

A third kind of small press or little magazine is founded on the ideal of regionalism, actively working to reflect or foster a poetry distinctive of its locale. The editors of these presses necessarily draw upon the work of a limited number of poets, and their editorial philosophy often brings with it a bias in favor of “minor” poetry. The work they publish, therefore, is uneven. Nevertheless, in their effort to close the gap that has widened between poetry and the general public, many have succeeded quite well within their immediate communities. Their determined regionalism, however, is another sign of poetry’s current scatter.

The present map of poetry is also dotted with political cliques. Most of the major and minor political movements of our day have their poets. However, many of these poets—in their willingness to be identified mainly in terms of their political intentions—suffer the diminishment of specialization.

The borrowed French word clique—from cliquer: “to click or clap”—originally meant “those who applaud,” referring to a closed group of like-thinkers. Too much of today’s political poetry has been written for the clique which will recognize its own position and reflexively applaud. Too little digs beneath the established alliances to reach hard ground. And so, too little touches the deepest angers and exhilarations that provide the grounding for our politics.

This is not to belittle the political element in poetry. But in our greatest poems which include political references—such as Yeats’ “Easter 1916” or W.H. Auden’s “September 1, 1939”—we feel that political sentiment has been subsumed within the whole poet’s thinking, feeling, and imagining. It is a matter of proportion and temper. If a poet’s political intentions overpower all others, we sense that a part has become the whole, that he or she is merely working at the service of an “ism.” If a political poetry is not sufficiently ferocious and comprehensive, it will be too small for the attention of a whole man or woman. Subscribing to any “ism,” finally—whether political or aesthetic—leaves the poet partial.

The most vital political poetry of our day is feminist, and Adrienne Rich has for years been walking the tightrope between writing important poetry with political implications and producing mere propaganda. Insofar as her mythic approach to feminist issues involves her in the recapitulation of generalizations about men and women which can be turned to further discrimination on the basis of sex, she is working only to rally a faction. She is not providing us with valuable new information about ourselves. Rich paints with too broad a brush, for instance, in her categoric use of pronouns and her apparent search for a zone rid of men in this passage from the 1978 poem, “The Images”:

I pretend the Hudson is right-hand margin
   drawn against fear and woman-loathing
   (water as purification, river as boundary)
but I know my imagination lies:
    in the name of freedom of speech
  they are lynching us no law is on our side
there are no boundaries
    no man’s land does not exist.

The best poetry we know discriminates with such acuity, with such minute or grand precision, that it exposes the grossness and stupidity of those discriminations that lead to social injustice. Rich has also done this sort of work, as in a section of her 1974 poem, “From an Old House in America,” in which she discerns two contending strands that run through the relations of men and women:

Out back of this old house
datura tangles with a gentler weed

its spiked pods smelling
of bad dreams and death

I reach through the dark, groping
past spines of nightmare

to brush the leaves of sensuality
A dream of tenderness

wrestles with all I know of history
I cannot now lie down

with a man who fears my power
or reaches for me as for death

or with a lover who imagines
we are not in danger

Finally, it is irrelevant whether or not a poem is “political.” Politics is a subject like any other—like a man skating or a woman combing. We don’t judge poetry by its subject, but by the depth with which it treats its subject and the brilliance of its manner.

IV

We inhabit a moment of dispersions. Rather than meeting upon points of controversy, we range widely in many directions. There is more tolerance than argument about technical matters; and, as if in despair that poetry nowadays can find a general audience, many poets seem to be writing for a smaller, more immediate one, often regional or political in definition. The situation has implications for both readers and writers.

As readers in a moment characterized chiefly by diversity, we approach poets not for what they contribute to the current state of the art, nor by judging how they fit or do not fit the current fashion, but by seeking to encounter an unknown “other.” In a moment that defies description by generality, we are thrown upon the particular, the individual, and we wrestle with what Helen Vendler has called “the problem of other minds.”

Among our most prominent and more senior poets, Ammons presents us with the philosophical man, alone at the periphery, continually discovering it to be a center. Ashbery is a cubist of dictions, plundering Western literature’s store of vocabularies and tones, and juxtaposing them to present quick-shifting emotional vistas. James Merrill, a lyric poet lately stretching himself through discursive and narrative work, has received whole myths and cosmologies through the Ouija board. In Rich, a revolutionary polemic, with its urgency of purpose, contends with traditional aesthetic assumptions about the scope and timelessness of art. And Derek Walcott has appropriated the Western poetic tradition and employed its voices from the viewpoint of the previously colonial West Indies. One should also speak of Seamus Heaney, Allen Ginsberg, Robert Penn Warren, and several others, but the paragraph grows unmanageable. The point is this: the reader of contemporary poetry encounters a bewildering number of separate and largely private worlds.

That the absence of preoccupying movements or short-lived controversy has encouraged us to greet the individual poet’s work on its own terms can be welcomed. Poetry, after all, is where we hope to meet one another most candidly and intimately. However, there are dangers attached. The list of epithets in the previous paragraph was intended to refer beyond itself to rich and varied reading experiences within the work of each poet. But such epithets can also represent a sadly inadequate residuum if we trivialize the art of reading into a mere search for “distinctive voices.”

If we read poets with the sole interest of knowing the thrill of translation into another’s world, we can demand that a poet be too narrowly himself. Many young poets, under the pressure of being celebrated early for an original voice, have been trapped by that voice, ending their careers prematurely in repetition and unintended self-parody. Mark Strand has been aware of this pressure to the point that he has lectured on “The Anxiety of Self-Influence.” Other poets, less susceptible to such pressure, nevertheless have been persistently misread. The diversity of their accomplishment has gone unnoticed or unwelcomed by readers aiming only to savor a distinctive manner.

Besides the pressures that the contemporary audience can apply, the poets of our moment have chiefly to contend with the lack of any focused situation from which they might “push off.” Controversy is invigorating, as the modernists knew, but our period is permissive rather than prescriptive. A poet looking for the stimulation of working with or against contemporary trends will find himself at sea.

That sea is very calm. At times it seems the very image of a stultifying entropy: the flat, imperturbable surface of stagnation.

Have we rejected the myth of progress in the arts in favor of mere dilettantism? Does the lack of serious controversy reveal a failure of critical nerve? Do our various regionalisms betray an exhaustion of ambition? Or is the apparent scatter actually a grand democratization of literature such as Whitman would have celebrated?

I do not know. But for the contemporary poet with a taste for the “major,” for the poet with nerve and ambition, who need not derive his impetus either by conformity or reaction, the moment holds promise. No style or technique is so unfashionable as to be unavailable; no poet or period of our literary heritage is so untouchable that it cannot be learned from, borrowed from. All the elements are at hand.

Furthermore, when there is no argument between a going orthodoxy and its opponents, a writer’s attention is less likely to be narrowed. Undistracted, he is free to work along a broader front, freer than ever to attempt his astonishing syntheses.

Yeats thought a poet progressed by “setting chisel to the hardest stone” or by donning the mask of everything he is not. Similarly, Coleridge listed the reconciliations which characterize the highest work of the imagination: the reconciliation “of sameness, with difference; of the general, with the concrete; the idea, with the image; the individual, with the representative; the sense of novelty and freshness, with old and familiar objects; a more than usual state of emotion, with more than usual order; judgement ever awake and steady self-possession, with enthusiasm and feeling profound or vehement. . . .” In addition to these balancings, we might also say that the poet, “described in ideal perfection,” would reconcile styles and strategies hitherto thought incompatible, would exhibit a range of voice hitherto unseen.

If Yeats and Coleridge were right, and poetic greatness is characterized by an ever-widening imaginative reach, then our present dispersions give the capable poet all the room he will need. When he surveys our flat, unruffled waters, he will not think of the world run down to its maximum entropy. Instead he will see a primitive chaos and remember the potent, brooding Word.

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