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From High Modernism to Postmodernism

ISSUE:  Autumn 1988
A History of Modern Poetry: Modernism and After. By David Perkins. Harvard $25.00.

Nine years ago I reviewed for Southern Review the first volume of David Perkins’ history of modern poetry, which had taken him seven years to write. Now Perkins’ second, concluding volume— A History of Modern Poetry: Modernism and After— is available from Harvard. It shares all the virtues of the first volume. One of Perkins’ aims is to broaden the poetic canon. In this second part of his history he appraises the work of 160 poets, as compared with 130 in the previous volume. Aside from the sheer mass of material to be covered, his most difficult task has been organization. A survey such as this may proceed temporally by chronology, topically by movement, or geographically; Perkins adopts all three modes, running American and British poetry neck and neck, as he did in the previous volume, sometimes handling poetry by the decade. Chronology has compelled him to split the careers of the great moderns in two, except for that of Yeats, which is covered completely in volume one. Eliot and Pound straddle both books, the early careers of each being handled in volume one, the later careers, in volume two.

Perkins is to be commended once more for putting poets and their poetry in context, for providing political and socio-economic background and, even more, for demonstrating the anxieties of influence. He recognizes that in the arts progress is dialectical, proceeding through “a continuing dialectic of emulation and resistance.” Beginning with the critical and poetic hegemony of T.S. Eliot entre deux guerres, Perkins shows successive generations of English and American poets simultaneously attracted to and repelled by the program and products of this high priest of modernism and seeking through modification, in Pound’s phrase, to “make it new.” Perkins seems to recognize in this volume, to a greater degree than in his first, how many poets again fell back on Romanticism in order to inject more vitality into poetry once the atmosphere of the high modern mode, desiccated by a decade and more of New Criticism, had begun to seem “thoroughly small and dry.” As Perkins says, to trace the intricate and vexed relationship of Modernism to Romanticism in itself would fill many volumes.

In the twenties the tide of Modernism was at its height: The Waste Land and Ulysses erupted upon the scene and a galaxy of English and American poets were at work extending the capabilities of the language in the United States, England, and on the continent of Europe. Taking the year 1928 as an example of this efflorescence of genius in the twenties, Perkins points out that in this single year were published the last poems of Hardy, the first of Auden’s, Lawrence’s Collected Poems, and the best of Yeats’ volumes, The Tower. The next decade would see English and American poetry diverge.

In this transatlantic survey, Perkins alternates between American and British poets, showing how in the thirties the poetry of “MacSpaunday” (Auden, Spender, MacNiece, and C. Day Lewis) in England was an attempt to respond to political and economic pressures, to write “popular” poetry harking back to traditional national models. Auden’s generation was constrained by events to write socially conscious, committed poetry, to editorialize, generalize, and moralize— yet this poetry continued to be modern. Perkins describes his own first encounter with W.H. Auden in terms that may remind us of Pound’s envious comment on the young Eliot: “He has actually trained himself and modernized himself on his own.” Studying Auden in college, Perkins says Auden’s struck him as “the first poetry I had read that simply took the modern world for granted.” And though Auden declared in 1932 that he was rebelling against “Writing [that] gets shut up in a circle of clever people writing about themselves for themselves,” his poetry remained difficult and often esoteric, frequently accessible only to a few who were in the know.

In the United States the hegemony of Eliot lasted much longer than in England; it still held the professorial in thrall after poets had begun to abandon the Eliotic modern meta-physical mode in the fifties—for poets recognized that the best of the modernists could not be bettered in their own vein. The example of Eliot in theory and practice was enshrined in the New Criticism which, Perkins demonstrates, embraced two generations of poets, critics, and poet-critics. Kunst wird Kritik. There were the original New Critics—John Crowe Ransom, Robert Penn Warren, Cleanth Brooks, R.P. Blackmur, Allen Tate, I.A. Richards, William Empson, and Yvor Winters—who first promulgated the doctrine that poetry should be densely complex, intellectual, impersonal, ironic, and witty and that the reader’s attention should be focused exclusively on explicating the text, and then came a second generation of poets bred up on these doctrines—John Berryman, Randall Jarrell, Robert Lowell, W.S. Merwin, Howard Nemerov, Richard Wilbur, and others.

In America it was not until the fifties that members of this second generation began to react against academic versification, seeking more unbuttoned, personal modes of expression. Then other models than Eliot came into vogue—notably Pound and Williams, to be followed later by Auden and Stevens. Pound had a small band of direct disciples: Basil Bunting, Louis Zukofsky, David Ignatow, and Charles Reznikoff; William Garlos Williams, together with Pound, inspired a host of poets of the Black Mountain group and others who were enamored of open form: Charles Olson, Robert Duncan, Robert Ely, Robert Creeley, and Denise Levertov.

Meantime, in England, war had supervened and during the forties there was a reversion to Romanticism, led by Dylan Thomas. The reaction against this in the fifties was the amorphous “the Movement,” which included poets as diverse as Philip Larkin, Thorn Gunn, Donald Davie, and D. J. Enright. 1954 was a watershed year on both sides of the Atlantic. This was the year Allen Ginsberg’s Howl shattered the American academy with its barbaric yawp, while in Britain Larkin’s bleak but genteel stanzas gave voice to the “low grade depression” and anomie of the welfare state.

The Beat poets of San Francisco in a sense prepared the way for Confessional poetry. The New Critical distinction between poet and persona was shelved and poets delved frankly into their own lives for subject matter once again. Perkins examines the abandonment of New Critical tenets and norms through the eyes of several poets whose poetry took a new lease on life around mid-century. Theodore Roethke pointed a new direction in The Lost Son (1948), trying his hand at an “elemental” romantic poetry, weary of “too many “well-written” poems: the tiny emotion expanded ludicrously beyond its own shape and size.” At the same time John Berryman, having, as Perkins describes it, “internalized the New Criticism as a superego,” decided to burst its bonds, observing: “It is not clear that poetry has benefited from the intense concentration upon it of modern criticism. There are things you cannot see with a microscope, for instance, you cannot see the sun.” Traditional in form as they seem, Berryman’s Sonnets and then his Dream Songs veer toward the colloquial, more open form and confessional exploration of intimate and harrowing emotions. A decade later in 1957, the Alexandrian Robert Lowell went on the lecture circuit and discovered that his erudite, highly wrought, densely symbolic and image-clotted early poems were virtually unreadable when read aloud! In Life Studies Lowell turned his autobiography into limber, spoken verse, trenchant and searingly personal with, as Eliot would have remarked, the mere ghost of meter lurking behind the arras. He showed the way to other poets we now think of as Confessional—Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Adrienne Rich, and others.

The followers of William Carlos Williams, meanwhile, had evolved a distinctively ecological, open-field type of poetry to which Perkins devotes an interesting chapter entitled “Against Civilization.” This kind of contemporary poetry came into its own in the sixties. It was pioneered by the Projectivists (Olson, Duncan, Creeley, Levertov) and is well exemplified by such contemporaries as Robert Ely, Gary Snyder, Galway Kinnell, and James Wright. Technically, it is generally in free verse and open in form, lineation following breath pauses, as prescribed in Olson’s “Projective Verse,” and it also follows Williams’ prescriptions for a strong spoken quality and resolutely American idiom. Perkins identifies a typical poem in this mode as presenting an excursion into nature by someone identifiably the poet, the poem revolving upon whatever the poet sees, feels, or does and the relationship thereby established with the natural environment. Such poems remind one of Wordsworth, though they do not exhibit the same romantic afflatus. Perkins defines our own period’s style as “spontaneous, personal, naturalistic, open in form and antagonistic to the idea of form, intensely skeptical yet morally concerned . . . imbued with feelings of vulnerability . . . acknowledging helplessness.” As such, it is a modern form of pastoral celebrating a nature tinged with terror. Perkins resurrects a term from medieval studies, “creatural,” to characterize contemporary verse because it emphasizes “man’s vulnerable and suffering body and mortality.” Such suffering helplessness is evoked in Lowell’s “Fall 1961,” for instance:

Our end drifts nearer,
the moon lifts,
radiant with terror.
The state
is a diver under a glass bell.

A father’s no shield
for his child.

Skepticism unto nihilism is revealed in Jarrell’s “90 North”:

Here at the actual pole of my existence,
Where all that I have done is meaningless
Where I die or live by accident alone—

In Perkins’ survey of poetry from the twenties through the seventies, certain figures stand out not just for their importance but for the incisiveness of Perkins’ judgments of them. After reading this book, one begins to realize how the later careers of the greatest poets of this century, British and American, have been devoted largely to the composition of long poems. Though dismissive of Eliot’s verse plays, Perkins admires the Four Quartets as “the greatest long poem yet written in English in the twentieth century.” He is interesting on the subject of the vexed unity of Pound’s Cantos, remarking that, unlike Dante’s Commedia or Homer’s Odyssey, Pound’s odyssey is structureless and plotless, is a poem in quest of order and values. A lifelong mosaic of the vicissitudes of Pound’s life, the Cantos have no plot like Odysseus’ journey back to Ithaca, nor sacred meaning prior to and independent of human will, like The Divine Comedy. Pound was a modern Odysseus “voyaging in order to choose the purpose of his voyage. He was Dante in the dark wood, and he hoped that if he went through the chaos of experience and history, he would gradually see that it had a structure.” But did it and has it? The Cantos are extraordinarily discontinuous, disjointed, and disorienting. Perkins comes to the interesting conclusion that texture must compensate for lack of structure—the same judgment may be applied to Crane’s The Bridge and to Williams’ Paterson, presumably—”For . . . something must motivate us to continue reading, and if it is not an emerging sense of a whole, meaningful experience, it can only be the delight we have from moment to moment” in the successive details presented.

Readers of this impressive History of Modern Poetry will corne away with new knowledge and an enhanced and deepened appreciation, notably of Yeats, Eliot, Pound, Auden, Graves, Stevens, Lowell, Ashbery, and Merrill. I was particularly delighted by Perkins’ accounts of Auden and Stevens. He makes valuable observations about the heady blend in Auden of social analysis with depth psychology and useful distinctions between Auden’s early and late styles— the latter much looser, more leisurely and garrulous than the swift, elliptical, compressed, and witty style of his youth. Perkins seems very comfortable with Stevens who is, like Eliot and Pound, treated in both volumes. He points out what a late bloomer Stevens was, how nearly half his poetry was written during his last decade. Perkins knows Stevens’ temperament and outlook so well that it is almost as if he had been one of Stevens’ familiars. Thus he realizes the somberness at the heart of Stevens’ dazzle, his inveterate (somewhat fin-de-siècle) hedonism, his stoicism before the loss of belief, his desire never to rest in fact or fiction, in imagination or reality, but to be constantly oscillating between them. “The purpose or end was imagining, the activity itself, not whatever might be imagined,” observes Perkins. Or, as Stevens says, “Let be be finale of seem.” Perkins points out that, unlike Blake or Yeats, Stevens did not prescribe a supreme fiction, but merely pointed out some of its necessary attributes—that it would have to be abstract, to change, and to give pleasure.

Finally, it appears that in his serious discussion of John Ashbery, James Merrill, and other contemporaries, Perkins does extend the canon somewhat. About Ashbery, who defies criticism and has observed, “To create a work of art that the critic cannnot even talk about ought to be the artist’s chief concern,” Perkins contrives to be clear and perspicacious, while his final chapter on Merrill and The Changing Light at Sandover is sympathetic and generous. Perkins concludes that Men-ill’s long poem is “an enormous achievement with enormous limitations.” Perkins’ own survey of modern and postmodern poetry is, quite simply, a great achievement.


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