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The Poet As Teacher

ISSUE:  Winter 1991
The Didactic Muse: Scenes of Instruction in Contemporary American Poetry. By Willard Spiegelman. Princeton. $39.50 cloth, $10.95 paper.

In this ambitious study of contemporary American poetry, Willard Spiegelman employs a critical framework that is both admirably comprehensive and notably conservative. Beginning with a key injunction from Horace in Ars Poetica—”Poets aim either to benefit, or to amuse, or to utter words at once both pleasing and helpful to life”— Spiegelman seeks out the ethical and aesthetic lessons offered by our contemporary American poets, insisting that these poets have rejected the imperatives of modernism “in favor of more didactic stances.” Spiegelman writes, in fact, that “In the panorama of literary culture, it increasingly appears that modernism was an aberration,” a reaction to late-Victorian rhetorical and decorative excess. Spiegelman’s study is certain to be controversial not only in its view of modernism, but in its implied rejection of the bulk of current literary theory. Whereas many theorists consider the notion of language as a medium of communication (not to mention a medium of instruction) to be hopelessly outdated and naïve, Spiegelman asserts that our major contemporary poets perceive themselves as teachers and poetry itself as a means of reflecting political and cultural reality.

Spiegelman elucidates this thesis through a series of lengthy and intricate discussions of poets who share a didactic impulse but who might otherwise be viewed as extremely dissimilar. Beginning with “The Tempered Tone of Howard Nemerov” and an essay on the “moral imperative” in Anthony Hecht, Allen Ginsberg, and Robert Pinsky, Spiegelman’s discussion also encompasses A.R. Ammons’ poetry of nature and science, the political and feminist work of Adrienne Rich, and the discursive epic poetry of James Merrill. The Didactic Muse is far more, however, than a collection of essays vaguely joined together by a common thesis. As the book proceeds, Spiegelman surveys the didactic impulse in literature from the classical pronouncements of Horace and Aristotle, through the major documents of the Romantic poets (especially Wordsworth, the subject of Spiegelman’s previous book), to such assertions as this one by Robert Frost: “School and poetry come so near being one thing . . .it is but an extension from the metaphors of poetry out into all thinking, scientific and philosophic.” Identifying in the work of each contemporary poet the various traditional didactic stances—Nemerov’s Horatian “temperateness,” Rich’s “delicate humanism” which is “intimately connected to concerns for discovering truth in language and language as the proper vehicle for truth”—Spiegelman achieves, through his erudite command of poetic tradition combined with his sensitive analysis of individual poems, a powerful argument for the relationship of contemporary poetry both to the classical past and to current social and political phenomena.

If Spiegelman departs philosophically from current trends in literary theory, he also departs from most theoretical writing in the clarity and vigor of his prose. Although he discusses the rhetorical strategies of individual poets and poems in great detail, he is likewise capable of summary observations that are both judicious and witty. For instance: “Reading Ginsberg is like sitting at a microfilm machine quickly going through forty years’ worth of the news, only it is more moving, comic, and instructive. Allen Ginsberg, the dharma clown on the soapbox, a borscht belt comedian masquerading as Uncle Sam, turns out to be both the observant, paranoid outsider and the mythic voice of America itself.” He can also zero in, with deadly accuracy, on a poet’s characteristic flaws, as in this comment on A.R. Ammons: “Reading Ammons, one often wishes to tell him to get on with it, to avoid the simple detail (“ants ran over the whitish greenish reddish / plants”), the philosophical repetition (“the precise and necessary worked out of the random, reproducible, the handiwork redeemed from chance”), and the enthusiastic banality (“The wonderful workings of the world: wonderful, / wonderful”). But these are the price and correlative of magical visions.”

In the chapters on Rich and Merrill, perhaps the best in the volume, Spiegelman convincingly argues that both poets have suffered from wrongheaded critical assessments. Pointing out that Rich has mostly been discussed in the context of feminist polemic and “visionary anger,” Spiegelman insists that it is actually her exploration of language that distinguishes her art: “She has seldom received the literary criticism she most deserves; . . .most critics have ignored the real innovations and the intelligent accommodation in Rich’s poetry to linguistic concerns.” An accurate assessment of James Merrill has likewise been forestalled, the author argues, primarily because of Merrill’s reputation (based on his earlier work) as a “genteel poet,” an exquisite lyricist whose elegant language and lapidary high finish seemed to preclude “an intense, self-revealing honesty.” Thus critics reacted with hostile incomprehension to his epic poem, The Changing Light at Sandover, which Spiegelman calls “a modern georgic, a manual of instruction not in the limited Virgilian spheres of sowing, reaping, and bee-keeping but in the more expansive emotional realities of human life,” and an achievement which “has permanently altered the course of American poetry for the rest of our century.”

While most readers will admire the scope of Spiegelman’s work, there are times when his emphasis on classical and Romantic tradition tends to preempt a necessary consideration of these major contemporary figures as American poets. Although Spiegelman could hardly avoid considering one of the two great American forebears, Walt Whitman, in a discussion of Allen Ginsberg, Whitman’s own didacticism is hardly given its due in the book as a whole, especially considering his continuing influence on American poetry. This scanting of Whitman is particularly noticeable in that many of the didactic methods Spiegelman discusses—repetition, list-making, and outright poetic exhortation—are among Whitman’s trademarks. Even more glaring is the absence from this book of the other great American precursor, Emily Dickinson—particularly in the chapter on Adrienne Rich, a poet who has repeatedly acknowledged Dickinson as her single greatest influence. When Spiegelman writes that “Rich’s poetics has sought an irresistible means of defining the partiality of the self-in-experience through the nervousness implicit in [her] jagged poetic forms,” he neglects to mention that both her urge to define a partial self and her jagged poetic forms are largely derived from Dickinson. Likewise, several of the methods which Spiegelman associates with Nemerov—the definition poems, the riddles, and the relentless punning—are also familiar staples in Dickinson’s work, much more prevalent in her than in the poet Spiegelman adduces as Nemerov’s major influence, W.H. Auden.

These omissions aside, however, this book is chiefly distinguished by its inclusiveness and scope. Spiegelman urges us to see the American poetic enterprise as part of an ongoing didactic tradition that emphasizes the human and ethical significance of literature. In the process, he offers an example of critical prose that combines searching argument, scrupulous detail, and stylistic elegance. Although he remarks at one point, somewhat disingenuously, that “I do not wish to tackle, let alone refute, Derridean orthodoxies,” his book stands as a graceful challenge to the opaque and jargon-ridden prose of much current theoretical writing. If Spiegelman does not argue or “refute” directly, he does so through example, both in the informative content and superb execution of his book. The Didactic Muse, in short, teaches, and it is thus a worthy complement to the poets on Spiegelman’s distinguished syllabus.


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