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A Poetry History for the 1990’s

ISSUE:  Spring 1995
Columbia History of American Poetry. Edited by Jay Parini and Brett C. Miller. Columbia.$59.95.

In The Columbia History of American Poetry editors Jay Parini and Brett C. Miller have given us the politically correct critical volume for the 1990’s. On the whole, this is a good thing, for they have accurately reflected the current thinking about American poetry. Their method was simple. They simply solicited a diverse group of writers from various backgrounds and allowed them to freely express their opinions regarding a poet or poetic movement. The results are often fascinating. The current lack of consensus regarding the poetic canon encourages lively debate about the validity of traditionally held opinions and leads to some interesting “turf battles.” One representative example comes in John Shoptaw’s essay on James Merrill and John Ashbery, two respected contemporary poets. After noting that Merrill and Ashbery were both primarily influenced by Wallace Stevens, W.H.Auden, and Elizabeth Bishop, Shoptaw describes how Merrill’s and Ashbery’s followers refuse to acknowledge the other’s significance: “While Language poets dismiss the new formalists as retrograde versifiers created to fill a vacuum of conventional journals and awards, new formalists reject the Language poets as lineated literary theorists created to fill the vacuum of academic articles. Moreover, many (though by no means all) new formalists label Ashbery as a sloppy postmodern sham, and nearly all Language poets revile Merrill as an elitist premodern prosody manual.”

Of course, most of the differences of opinion are much more subtly stated than this one. But the jockeying for position is nonetheless evident. Many times it concerns correcting the “errors” of the past. As Mr. Parini notes in his introduction, “[o]ne of the chief tasks of criticism in the past decades has been the recovery of lost traditions. Women and African Americans, in particular, have been occluded, pushed to the margins, forgotten.” No such marginalization takes place here. The decades-long reordering of literary canon has, in effect, been collapsed between the covers of this book. Taking advantage of the opportunity to make a lasting impact on literary reputations, most critics adopt a tone of advocacy. Their purpose is to show why their subject deserves attention, respect, and praise—and to question the assumptions of the past. The questions raised are intriguing. For example: has Emily Dickinson’s stature as a feminist been given its due? Who really was the more experimental Modernist, Pound or Stein? Why are American poets so enthralled by the long poem? How have recent findings about possible ecological disaster changed the way poets write about nature? Who among contemporary poets will emerge as the most important to future readers?

In one of the collection’s strongest essays, Dana Gioia focuses Parini’s theme of recovering lost traditions on the role Modernism played in the evolution of critical judgment. Gioia’s primary purpose is to incite a reevaluation of Longfellow’s poetry “in the aftermath of Modernism.” But his secondary purpose is to show how Modernism’s tremendous influence narrowed the definition of valuable poetry and led to the diminished reputations of many worthy poets working outside that tradition, such as Longfellow. In addition to the presence of the “historical chasm that separates his age from our own,” Longfellow’s reputation fell because Modern critics favored a poetry that emphasized “compression, intensity, complexity, and ellipsis.” This bias fostered a devaluation of narrative poetry, Longfellow’s strength, and led to the emergence of “Emerson, Dickinson, Whitman, and—for the Symbolist’s sake—the critical half of Poe” as the major pre-20th-century poets. Gioia laments “[t]he simplified version of nineteenth-century American poetry that grew out of this critical tradition [and that] excludes so much interesting and enduring work.” But rather than an outright rejection of Modernism, “which was our poetry’s greatest period,” Gioia echoes Parini’s desire to recover lost traditions when he calls for critics to now “correct the blindspots and biases of its critical assumptions.”

In order to better understand specific blindspots and biases, one must gain an objective perspective on Modernism, which means reevaluating important individual Modern poets, such as Pound, Eliot, Stevens, and Williams. Parini and Miller devote a chapter to each of these writers, as well as assigning one on Hart Crane, “the James Dean of American poetry,” according to J.T.Barbarese. Of these essays, William Pritchard’s on Eliot stands out. His engaging and understated tone balances his impassioned argument as he develops the reasons he believes Eliot’s best poems will endure. His command of Eliot’s work allows him to toss off winning lines such as: “Indeed the weary futility is contradicted by the vitality of the verbal, aural performance.”

In addition to addressing the traditionally studied male Modern poets, Parini and Miller offer an essay on “Female Poets and the Emergence of Modernism” to off-set past bias. In this essay Margaret Dickie addresses the reasons females were “neglected in the conventional literary history”. At her most pithy she concisely—if somewhat unfairly—notes that one reason Gertrude Stein’s poetry is often overlooked by male critics is because her “contribution to Modernist experimentation [is] deeply dependent upon everything that patriarchal categories devalue: women ‘s erotic experience, the material of language, the play of the irrational process in narrative, the surface pleasure of the text.” Other essays providing a feminist perspective or simply focusing on female poets include Cynthia Griffin Wolff’s on Emily Dickinson and Jeanne Larsen’s on “Lowell,Teasdale, Wylie, Millay, and Bogan.”

Probably the largest blindspot in American poetry that requires correcting remains the work of minority writers, especially that of African and Native Americans. Though it is still unsettling that these writers continue to be grouped primarily by race, they both receive distinctive and sympathetic discussion here. Essays focusing on early African American poetry, the Harlem Renaissance, the Black Arts Poets, and Native American poetry explore both the successful individual poets associated with these groups and the reasons why they remain outside the critical mainstream. Unlike the Harlem Renaissance poets and Native American poets who did not explicitly ignore the white critic’s literary values, the Black Arts poets, including Amiri Baraka and Gwendolyn Brooks, set out to establish a unique “black aesthetic” through music and essays as well as through poetry. William W.Cook looks at the origins of this movement, as well as at the lasting effect it has had on African American poets. In contrast to the Black Arts poets, the Harlem Renaissance “sought the broadest possible audience, and imagined their role as poets to be the kind of moral and intellectual authority that had characterized the Fireside tradition.” While the work of the best writers associated with this movement, such as Langston Hughes and Paul Lawrence Dunbar, has received consistent attention over the years, Arnold Rampersad surveys the entire movement and provides an excellent analysis of the subject. Regarding Native American poetry, Lucy Maddox explores how this writing, which is “in the strictest sense, almost entirely a twentieth-century phenomenon,” has had to evolve away from the cultural traditions that emphasized “oral productions that are distinguished by their perfomanitive context and their use,” such as the Navajo Blessingway Rite, before it could reach a wider audience. Presented in chronological order throughout this volume, these and similar essays make one wonder how this important writing—though admittedly outside the European tradition—was so completely over-shadowed for as long as it was.

The struggle to define a fair and accurate literary history is always intense, and Modernism’s influence on American poetry has been immense, but to leave the impression that these are the only issues relevant to this 894-page volume would be wrong. Many essays fall outside the boundaries of these concerns. Some take another look at often ridiculed groups of writers like the Beat poets, the San Francisco Renaissance poets, or the Confessional poets. Others address undervalued poets like Robert Frost, Theodore Roethke, and the Fugitive poets. Still others examine issues such as “Nature’s Refrain in American Poetry” or “The Twentieth-Century Long Poem.” The breadth of material covered is impressive, and it is to the editors’credit that none of the essays seems blatantly out of place or uncalled for.

But, of course, with a project like this one the problem lies more with what to leave out than what to include. The greatest failure seems to be a loss of nerve by Parini and Miller when it comes to addressing contemporary writing. Parini addresses this difficulty in his introduction when he notes that “[t]astes shift, and what looks to one generation like “major poetry” often reads like doggerel to the next.” Thus his solution— not a bad one, but a conservative one—is to focus on four major contemporary writers—John Ashbery, James Merrill, Philip Levine, and Charles Wright. However, his choice not to survey the current poets and their interests (as the companion volume of British Poetry does) makes the book seem incomplete. Of course tastes will shift. Nonetheless, even if the Language poets and the new formalists, for example, do seem eccentric and peripheral to future readers, their interests have consumed enough creative and critical energy to merit inclusion here.

Similarly, the influence of foreign poetry on recent American poetry is an important topic that is overlooked. For a time, in the 1960’s and 70’s particularly, it seemed that the influence of foreign poetry theories, especially surrealism, was going to radically change the face of American poetry. Why didn’t it? What lasting influence will it have? James Wright and Robert Bly, two influential poets and translators, barely get mentioned. Nor do Mark Strand and Charles Simic, who edited the excellent anthology Another Republic, and who have written original poems for 20 years. At a time when four foreign-born Nobel Laureate poets—Czeslaw Milosz, Joseph Brodsky, Octavio Paz, and Derek Walcott—spend much, if not all of their time in the United States, this issue calls out for analysis.

Finally, one must lament the absence of favorite poets. My short list includes Frank O’Hara, Donald Justice, Thorn Gunn, and James Tate. Every reader will no doubt enjoy compiling a list of grievances as he or she notes who is included and who is excluded. That said, the editors’ choice to conclude their selections with Edward Hirsch’s essay on Philip Levine and Charles Wright is inspired. They are two poets who have distinguished themselves as the best American poetry has to offer. Hirsch highlights their “visionary poetics” and shows how Levine “has created a memorializing poetics of human separation and connection” while Wright “has defined a radiant metaphysics of absence and aspiration, of the longed-for presence of the divine.” This exceptional essay provides a fitting conclusion to a book that offers an enjoyable, and sometimes provocative, look at American poetry.


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