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The State of the Art

ISSUE:  Spring 2012
The State of American Poetry

The year is 1712, and the state of the art of American poetry is, in a word, provincial. The best-known and best-selling American poem remains Michael Wigglesworth’s The Day of Doom: A Poetical Description of the Great and Last Judgment, written some forty years earlier and currently in its fifth edition. A bumpy, ballad-meter ride through Calvinist theology, it will remain popular for decades. When Francis Jenks writes about it in the Christian Examiner in 1828, he’ll remind his audience how much this strange, homespun work once meant to their countrymen. It was, says Jenks, “a work which was taught our fathers with their catechisms, and which many an aged person with whom we are acquainted can still repeat, though they may not have met with a copy since they were in leading strings.” It was, moreover, “a work that was hawked about the country, printed on sheets like common ballads,” and it presented, in language often graceless but equally often vivid “the common theology of New England at the time it was written.”

The Day of Doom represents a kind of poetry at the service of religion, written by men who do not consider themselves to be, first and foremost, poets. Wigglesworth, having turned down the presidency of Harvard, held the title “teacher at Malden Church in New England,” and saw himself as a man of God who happened to write poetry, not as a poet who happened to believe in God. When he died in 1705, there was not much by way of American institutions to support poetry, and his work found its way to readers through the primitive market for written works, carried by peddlers down the roads and river valleys of the land.

Poetry in England, of course, is much more sophisticated than in the humble cottages of New England: it’s been just a year since the publication of Alexander Pope’s An Essay on Criticism, a critical exercise the precocious poet had written in orotund heroic couplets back in 1709, at the tender age of 21. Stuffed to bursting with learning from Virgil, Homer, Aristotle, Horace, and Longinus, Pope’s poem holds the classics up as the greatest models for poetry, spurning the rustic form and grim pieties of Wigglesworth. Disdaining novelty for its own sake (“Regard not then if wit be Old or New / But blame the False, and value still the True”), Pope hews to the standards of Horatian decorum, in which the parts of a work unite into a seamless whole, which should both delight and instruct.

Unlike Wigglesworth, Pope doesn’t see himself as a man who happens to write poetry: he is something new: he’s a poet, in the sense of being a specialized kind of professional writer with a particular place in the evolving literary ecosystem. He’s benefitted from the old system of noble patronage, but he’s had enough success in England’s rapidly growing literary marketplace to take jabs at those literary men who sit “at the Great-man’s Board, / To fetch and carry Nonsense for my Lord.” Indeed, he’s done well enough with his new mock-epic The Rape of the Lock to see how a reading public, flush with new wealth from the financial revolutions of the last two decades, hungers for entertaining works that have the kind of classical sheen that could, through the appearance of refinement, lift the mere money-grubbing merchant who reads it into the rising class of cultivated gentlemen. He’s at work on a translation of Homer that will soon make him rich, and in a few years he’ll move to a villa at Twickenham where he’ll set to rewriting Shakespeare, regularizing the verse of the plays and excising errant lines so as to bring the bard closer to the correctness of classical writing. When these projects are complete, the state of the art of English poetry will be what Virgil would have wanted—had Virgil been, like Pope’s typical reader, status-conscious and market-rich, an arriviste Londoner looking to show that he knew an ode from an octave and a fish-fork from a fingerbowl.

But it is not 1712. It is 1812, and the embodiment of the state of the art of American poetry lies in a desk drawer in Cummington, Massachussets, in the eighty-one lines of William Cullen Bryant’s “Thanatopsis.” The poem, written by the teenaged Bryant, combines the old Puritanical sense of the brevity of life, of the ever-present grave, with something new, picked up from the poems of an earlier generation of English poets: the worship of nature. Daringly, Bryant suggests that our final home and spiritual destiny rests not in Heaven, but in the ever-living bounty of nature, into which we will merge when we die. Bryant’s poem echoes Wordsworth, anticipates the American Transcendentalists, and in a few decades will be lavishly praised by Poe in the great essay “The Poetic Principle.” But Bryant’s poem won’t see print for another five years, when his father sends it to the first literary journal in America, the recently founded North American Review.

Bryant’s reticence about sending his poem out into the world makes sense. He understands that he won’t be able to support himself as a poet: there’s no real patronage system in the American republic, and writing poetry doesn’t pay. After stints as a lawyer, and in the equally demeaning role of hog-reeve for the town of Great Barrington, Bryant will embark on a career as editor of various literary journals. Perhaps it is not coincidental that these journals will not survive: the break between the beliefs of literary men like Bryant, with their nature-worship and Romanticism, and the more conventional beliefs of the reading public, is becoming ever more apparent. While Michael Wigglesworth’s The Day of Doom echoed the public’s beliefs back to them, Bryant seeks, in his poetry, new kinds of truth, and exotic kinds of meaning. Bryant will finally come to fame and fortune not through poetry, but through his work as a newspaper editor. These labors will make him one of the leading opinion-brokers in the nation, but they will also temper his imagination. Among his last published works, in the 1870s, will be a two-volume set he edited called Picturesque America, a kind of coffee-table book avant-la-lettre, which finally merges his love of nature with topics the ever-growing, ever more democratic reading public could appreciate: armchair tourism and the spirit of nationalism.

Of course even Bryant, with his newfangled sense of a divine nature, would be behind the times in England, where the Romantics are pushing, quite fearlessly, into new terrain. It is 1812, and Lord Byron gives his politically heretical address to the House of Lords in praise of the machine-breaking Luddites. He also publishes the first installments of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, that great hymn to the glory of the individualist, “the most unfit / Of men to herd with Man; with whom he held / Little in common,” a man “proud in desolation” who will not “yield dominion of his mind to spirits against whom his own rebelled.” If the nature-religion of Wordsworth or the young Bryant quietly put the poet in opposition to popular belief, lines like these announce that opposition in fiery letters in the sky. The poem is a scandal to the mainstream reader, but also a best seller, especially in continental Europe, where the Napoleonic betrayal of revolutionary ideals left thousands of angry young men alienated and in need of rebellious pages over which to brood.

In terms of immediate impact, Byron’s work is clearly the state of the art of English verse, but in terms of eventual influence, Byron’s writing will be eclipsed by the ongoing work of another, older Romantic: Coleridge. 1812 is the year Coleridge gives his lectures on Shakespeare, introducing the idea of organic form, which dictates that the work of art mustn’t follow mechanically imposed rules, but generate its own rules from within. It is a great rebuttal to the neoclassical followers of Aristotle (among them one Alexander Pope). In the decades ahead the idea will open vast new continents for poetic experimentation. Just as important will be a poem of Coleridge’s that has been circulating in manuscript for years, but that won’t see publication until 1816. “Kubla Khan” gives us a speaker trying to make sense of a mysterious visionary experience. By presenting us with a series of suggestive, polysemous, and at times indeterminate symbols, it places its readers in a position similar to that of its speaker, trying to grasp an elusive yet powerful significance. If the state of the art of poetry has to do with its influence on the future, “Kubla Khan” is surely the state of the art of English verse in 1812. It is also a poem that recognizes the great problem poets will face in the years ahead: the problem of audience. At the end of the poem the visionary is confronted by crowds who cry “Beware! Beware! / His flashing eyes, his floating hair!” and close their eyes with “holy dread,” fearing this outsider who has tasted the milk of some exotic paradise. William Cullen Bryant’s “Thanatopsis” may have given some readers a shiver with its unorthodox views of God and nature. But Coleridge had already conceptualized the problem that Bryant encountered, the problem of the poet whose views are at odds with those of the mainstream of his society. Coleridge’s own bohemian life has shown him that the poet had, essentially, become homeless in society. He will spend years dreaming of a subsidized class of intellectual humanists, called the Clerisy, as a solution to the problem of modern intellectuals without patrons or significant markets for their works. Here, again, he anticipates the future, and the vast growth of universities in which so many poets will find their place and their pay.

But it is not 1812. It’s 1912, and everybody’s been talking about progress: technological progress has been so rapid that a new term—“state of the art”—was introduced two years ago in Henry Harrison Suplee’s engineering manual Gas Turbine: Progress in the Design and Construction of Turbines Operated by Gases of Combustion. Social progress has been rapid, too, especially when it comes to communications and transportation. International travel and the availability of books and journals from other countries has started to make national distinctions in literature less meaningful: Americans write in Paris, and the leading poet among the well-informed English is an Irishman, W.B. Yeats. There’s been a great deal of progress in literacy, too: the number of literate people in the English-speaking world has roughly tripled over the past half-century, and well over 90% of the population have at least rudimentary reading skills. One might think poets would celebrate this rise in reading, but many view the development with suspicion. A decade ago, in the essay “What is Popular Poetry?” William Butler Yeats lamented the effects of modern literacy. The old oral tradition of the peasantry, Yeats said, was the “true poetry of the people,” and it gains its resonance from a framework of allusions familiar to the whole community. The words of this poetry “borrow their beauty from those that used them before,” and their full power comes from depicting events as if they were “moving before a half-faded curtain embroidered with kings and queens, their loves and battles.” Modern life and modern mass literacy cut people off from their old folk beliefs, and deprive poets of the means to communicate with any kind of subtlety. The poet is driven to private references, delicate hermetic symbols, and personal mythologies: an exaggerated version of the visionary’s position at the end of “Kubla Khan.” It’s a desperate situation. What to do?

All over the Western world the response of the sort of poets we might think of as “state of the art” has been to start pushing language away from shared reference, and toward an emphasis on sound and the formal properties of language. If you can’t count on communicating with the new mass public, why not turn away from the kind of communication that depends on shared reference? Sure, you could dream of shoring up the fragments of old systems of reference against the wreckage—but you could also start exploring the non-referential parts of language, and thinking of them as the essence of poetry. In a year’s time the Russians will invent zaum, a poetry of sound alone, and a few years after that Hugo Ball will read “Karawane,” a poem of leaping, senseless syllables, at the Cabaret Voltaire. And just this very year, Gertrude Stein, holed up in bohemian Paris, will finish Tender Buttons, whose strange little loops of language don’t aim at the kind of resonant expression Yeats finds so difficult in the modern age.

Stein has the financial wherewithal to be a writer unconcerned with the financial success of her works, which is just as well: when Tender Buttons finally appears in 1914, it will be under the imprint of Claire Marie Press, described by Mabel Dodge as an “effete and decadent” enterprise, bohemian and “absolutely third rate.” The book will sell poorly, but steadily, to a very specialized, self-consciously literary audience, high on the heady fumes of formal experimentation. The book will continue to sell slowly for decades, and still be in print in a century’s time—ignored by the broad public, treasured by the elect few.

Of course, the year isn’t 1712, 1812, or 1912. It’s 2012, and you are probably among the hyper-literate elect who still read Tender Buttons. You’ve read “Kubla Khan,” too, and maybe a canto or two of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage. “Thanatopsis” and Pope’s Essay on Criticism may or may not have been something covered in your undergraduate literary survey, but they probably aren’t among the poems you turn to for pleasure. And all the bookies assure me that the odds are heavily against The Day of Doom—so popular for so long—having been a part of your literary education.

Our way of relating to the past tells us more about ourselves than it tells us about the past, and it’s significant that most of us don’t find much immediately appealing in Pope, still less in Wigglesworth. The direct influence of either on our poetry is rare. A few current formalists admire Pope, but even with them, there’s often a certain pastiche quality to their more Popian work: one thinks of R. S. Gwynn’s Narcissiad, a pastiche of Pope’s Dunciad, itself a pastiche of Homer. I can’t think of a single contemporary poet ever mentioning the importance of The Day of Doom to his or her development. But what does this tell us? American poets, nowadays, tend to be specialists, writing poetry as poets. That is, they’re just not like Wigglesworth, who wrote poems only as a means of serving some larger cause. For us, poetry is an autonomous art, not a subordinate art like political poster printing, or the carving of altar-pieces, or the filming of commercials. But American poets aren’t specialists the way Pope was. Pope was a market-oriented specialist, serving the needs of a newly rich public anxious to fit in with the established gentry, yearning for English versions of the classics and easily grasped norms of taste. Poetry in our time and place very rarely serves the needs of the kind of mass-audience that would make it viable in the marketplace, and rare is the poet who will tell you, with a straight face, that she’s writing with an eye on making the best-seller lists.

What we admire from the past is just as significant as what we ignore. “Kubla Khan” is a perfect poem for those who think of poetry as discontinuous with ordinary language, as a special form of writing that isn’t just prose plus special effects, like rhyme and meter. “Kubla Khan” gives us language that resists straightforward communication, language inviting ongoing interpretation, language that makes special demands on the reader: demands for careful attention, and for the tolerance of ambiguity and indeterminacy. These demands aren’t different, in kind, from the demands the poems of Tender Buttons make. And it matters that so many more contemporary American poets know and admire these poems than know and admire Wigglesworth, or even Pope. It tells us something about where we are: we are in the realm of the poem as autonomous creation, demanding to be seen as a language art, not a medium for religion or a means of joining an established social elite, or a means of making money.

The emphasis on the freedom of poetry to revel in its role as a primarily linguistic artifact, and the emphasis on the poet as a non-commercial specialist in an unpopular art form, go hand-in-hand. They both fit neatly into the institutional framework in which a plurality of American poets finds their home: the university. Like its German model, the American university is built on the assumption that there are discrete, autonomous areas of knowledge, each with its special object of study and methods appropriate to those objects. Initially, the university model presented a problem for poets and poetry critics, whose object of creation and study seemed to have so many dimensions: political, social, religious, linguistic, and so forth. What could be more inimical to the departmental model of knowledge than a poem? But in the late 1930s, American poets and poetry critics found the keys to the magic kingdom of academe. In 1938 John Crowe Ransom claimed that, unless poetic form and poetic language became central concerns, the American English department might “almost as well announce that it does not regard itself as autonomous, but as a branch of the department of history, with the option of declaring itself occasionally a branch of ethics.” Cleanth Brooks would later assert that, unless form and the special nature of poetic language became paramount, professors of poetry would find themselves “quietly relegated to a comparatively obscure corner of the history division,” or be “treated as sociologists, though perhaps not as a very important kind of sociologist.” Much has happened since the late thirties, including a kind of hybridizing of literary studies with history and sociology. But the notion of poetry as an independent academic specialty has remained, and, if anything, been strengthened by the growth of creative writing programs: no university worthy of its quadrangle is without a specialist in modern poetry, and another specialist in the writing of poems.

Given the emphasis of academe on discrete fields of knowledge, it should come as no surprise that the dominant kind of poem produced by the poets in—or emerging from—the American academy emphasizes the special nature of poetic language, rather than, say, the poem as a means to religious salvation. Elliptical poetry, after all, offers us a kind of disjunction and obliquity very much at odds with the communicative norms of ordinary language. It is no coincidence that the very term “elliptical poetry” comes into use shortly after Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren define the modern, autonomous study of literature, when Warren uses the term to describe poems without “definition of situation, movement of narrative, logical transition, factual description” in his 1942 essay “Pure and Impure Poetry.”

Contemporary elliptical poets may or may not have strong religious or political convictions; they may or may not yearn for success in the marketplace. The kind of work they create, though, is most notable for being a special use of language. Consider Anne Carson’s “Sleepchains,” in which we read:

Who can sleep when she—
hundreds of miles away I feel that vast breath
fan her restless decks.
Cicatrice by cicatrice
all the links
rattle at once.
Here we go mother on the shipless ocean.
Pity us, pity the ocean, here we go.

As Stephen Burt put it when he quoted the poem in his seminal essay “The Elliptical Poets,” “syntactical slips and breaks and un-accompanied suggestion do all the work.” Language operates in a special, poetic sense and in this regard it is perfectly adapted to its academic home in the English department.

The sociologists of culture have some useful terms for describing what has happened to American poetry: the “heteronomous principle,” the “autonomous principle,” and the “idea of specific capital.” The heteronomous principle of art maintains that the success of art is measured in terms outside of art itself: success in the market, in the field of politics, or in the field of religion, for example. The autonomous principle maintains that success in an art is a matter of succeeding in terms specific to that art. Poetry has traveled a long way from the heteronomous principle of poetry in 1712 toward a more autonomous principle. Coleridge certainly saw poetry as largely governed by the autonomous principle. Yeats lamented the decreasing ability of poetry to make an impact in fields beyond the literary, and Gertrude Stein more-or-less set up housekeeping in the field of autonomous art, with success measured in terms of dazzling linguistic innovation more than anything else. Under the auspices of the university, poets have come to accept the autonomous principle of success: large sales of poems based on market success, such as those of Jewel or Shel Silverstein, are often viewed as failures in terms of the autonomous principle. Poems that forefront language play, formal innovation, and the post-Ashbery special poetic language of ellipsis have a greater legitimacy under the contemporary autonomous principle of poetry. If the rewards of the market come in the form of economic capital, the rewards of an autonomous field, not subject to other fields, come in the form of capital specific to that field: prestige among other producers. That is the capital available to, and often cherished by, many American poets today. It is also the capital embodied in letters of recommendation written by other poets, the capital tallied up in the publication lists on curricula vitae, and the capital conferred (along with some economic capital) by anthologists and prize committees.

But there’s something else going on in American poetry, circa 2012, something related to the emphasis on poetry-as-language and the poet-as-specialist. There is also the urge to be au courant—something quite foreign to, say, Alexander Pope, who wanted to affirm the classics as lasting verities. There’s an accelerating replacement of one movement by another, in prestige if not in actual poetic practice. Confessional poetry? Long gone, replaced by a variety of identity-politics inflected forms of writing. Language poetry? Very hip, until the post-avant and ellipticism arrived. And the dominant ellipticism is now challenged, by “the new thing,” a term coined by Stephen Burt for the poets publishing with the Cultural Society; and, more prominently, by what Marjorie Perloff has christened “the conceptual generation.” Pierre Bourdieu calls this process of premature displacement “the social aging of art,” and notes that it comes about when the rewards of making art have taken the form of specific capital. Hollywood screenwriters write for the market and are relatively unconcerned with labeling their elders out-of-date. But American poets in 2012, like French painters in the late nineteenth century, tend not to have a market, or a heteronomous principle of valuation. They seek validation of a kind specific to the poetic field, and the way to gain it quickly is to delegitimize the older, more dominant practitioners. From this follows a flurry of movements, something approaching the condition of (to steal a phrase from the critic Jed Rasula) “every day another vanguard.”

Kenneth Goldsmith, in a 2007 essay called “The End of History,” gives us a remarkably candid testament about what it feels like to participate in this process of the social aging of art. Poetry, says Goldsmith, is “the epicenter of nonmaterial gain”—a field with its own specific capital, removed from the market. A former visual artist, Goldsmith recounts a conversation he’d had with a collector about why he was leaving the relatively more remunerative art world to become a poet. “While I was a successful artist,” he’d said, “I knew in my heart that I’d never be an important artist; I knew that … I’d never be able to change the history of the field.” “So you went for history rather than money?” asked the collector. “Yeah,” Goldsmith responded, “I think that if you ask any artist, they’ll tell you that a primary motivator to their becoming an artist would be to make history, not money.” And how does one make history, and claim one’s share of the specific capital available in the poetic field? By insisting on the rapid social aging of art. “A very close friend who has been called the most radical of the first generation Language Poets,” says Goldsmith, turned out to have “some very conventional ideas about poetry.” Unwilling to take “the next step” and embrace “the next generation’s writing, conceptual writing,” this poet was, in Goldsmith’s view, consigning himself to the past. In pioneering conceptualism, with its aesthetic of cut-and-paste and the found text (Goldsmith’s best known work, Traffic, consists of unedited transcripts of traffic reports), Goldsmith explicitly seeks to claim a space for himself in history by superseding the more “conventional” past. “Novelty” was a term of blame for Alexander Pope, but that term’s close cousin, “innovation,” has become a term of praise in our own time. One might think of Pope and Goldsmith as opposites, but in some sense they are quite the same: each is poetically responding to the social conditions of his time in a manner quite likely to earn him a place in literary history.

The conditions faced by Pope and the conditions faced by Goldsmith are, of course, quite different. Not only was there little interest in novelty in the neoclassical era of Pope, the very term “state of the art” lay two centuries in the future. We live a full century into the life of that term, and it now applies in fields quite distant from the realm of the gas turbine, for which it was invented. Indeed, perhaps the most salient feature of our own moment in the history of poetry is the prominence, and the durability, of the notion of a state of the art, of the perpetual replacement of one vanguard by another. This, itself, tells us a great deal about where we are in the history of American poetry, and where, in the immediate future, it may be going.


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