Poetry Now and the Space We Live In
[From HUMANITAS, Volume VI, No. 2, 1993 ©
Humanities Institute, Washington, DC USA]
Not many poets of recent years have been able to handle Ezra Pound's
heady imperative--"Make it new!" It is too easy to be overcome by the ranting
energy of the Cantos and ignore the fact that the "it" even when made "new"
by Pound so often seemed very old--something anciently Greek, Chinese,
Anglo-Saxon, Provenüale--and the fact that the best things in the
Cantos are frankly Biblical. "Pull down thy vanity, I say pull down. /
Learn of the green world what can be thy place / in scaled invention or
true artistry, / Pull down thy vanity . . . ."
Perhaps this injunction, rather than the more famous one, might better
be heeded. For there is a certain vanity and impatience with scaled invention
characteristic of the poet who thinks he achieves true artistry by "making
it new" in the simple-minded application of the phrase: liberated from
the classy stiltedness of the past, free to walk his own feet and the metronome
be damned, and speak his own speech, just like in the real world, y' know.
An approximation of moral virtue seems to accrue to an "underground" even
when it is safely above ground and dominant. Its members have a healthy
respect for idiosyncrasy, they go their own ways--although one might suspect
(I do suspect) that one is witnessing, in Harold Rosenberg's wonderful
phrase, a "herd of independent minds."
Literary historians know the independent minds had a leader, a hero
with a cause, to whom they made actual or figurative pilgrimage, to "Paterson,
New Jersey." One has to admire William Carlos Williams for his dedication
to his art. I confess I admire his art itself much less--although one may
wish to put that down to doddering taste. I believe Williams when he talks
about the "variable foot" (as opposed to metrical regularity, that straw
bugaboo), although I do not hear it dancing in his poetry--and I know that
I do want dancing instead of walking. Or put my resistance down to my belief
that his poetry, as a proclaimed attempt to give the natural outlines and
depths of quotidian life their deserved due, is a manifest (and manifestoed)
failure, the stuff of a poet consumed by his theories and obscuring the
world's richness when he most closely adheres to them. But it is not so
much Williams the poet as Williams the inspirer of a few poets and a lot
of poetasters who concerns me here. For I admire his impact on American
poetry even less than I admire his poetic practice.
Karl Shapiro (in his admirably entitled In Defense of Ignorance, 1960)
made a really remarkable statement in praise of Williams' style: "it is
a workable style, one that permits him to write a poem almost at random."
If this could refer to a poet finding his proper voice, well and good.
But what happens, because of the enormous, intended, and cultivated influence
of Williams, is that . . . it is a workable style that permits one to write
a poem almost at random.
Williams once said to an interviewer, "Forcing twentieth-century America
into a sonnet--gosh, how I hate sonnets--is like putting a crab into a
square box. You've got to cut his legs off to make him fit. When you get
through you don't have a crab anymore." I make no brief for sonnets as
such--although, gosh, how I love them. But I suspect that when one resorts
to the use of force, and then amputation, it may be because of a want of
skill. But in any case I recognize how welcome Williams' metaphor must
be to some.
Hundreds of inspired poetasters, liberated from those constraints of
traditional (however modified) forms that demanded a certain minimum of
actual talent, discover their own "unique" forms by learning what Shapiro
called with approval "the secret" of Williams' form: eradicating the lines
between poetry and prose and art and life. No matter that the first is
a seductive gyp, a final solution to the oldest critical question, and
the second a lie.
The history of poetry is punctuated by--indeed to some degree may be--the
search for more cogent and naturalistic rhythms and a more convincingly
ordinary vocabulary. But the historical evolution toward the naturalistic
and ordinary was always countered and controlled by standards of admitted
artifice, and out of the tension between the two came the real and profound
music--or dancing. But make the standards of artifice (with some other
name, of course) equal to, no more than, the same as, or even comfortably
close to the habits of ordinary speech, and there is no music because no
tension--and no profundity specifically poetic. At the best, one could
say that the music arises from the tension between the reader's ancient
expectations conditioned by centuries of verse and what he actually hears
in the herd's prosy screed. But in that best case the poet needs, ironically,
precisely that reader whose "old-fashioned" tastes he tends to dismiss
as no longer relevant to provide what he no longer provides. Amidst such
creative passivity and dependence, what is poetry? The thing which is not
there? I enjoy being a reader--but only when the poet is working as hard
as I. When he isn't, and depends upon his any workable utterance to justify
itself by the simple fact of being workably uttered, then I recommend Pound:
"Pull down thy vanity, I say pull down." (While I wish that Pound had.)
Richard Wilbur, who never made the pilgrimage to Paterson, once wrote
that a certain respectful obliqueness is necessary for one to transmute
the things of this world into art, that no one makes a "genuine act of
creation" without a "feeling of inadequacy." I appreciate the confession,
or the faith, of a genuine poet.
That "obliqueness" is another name for a form which is beyond the autonomous
self-satisfaction with one's own voice. For that is what the celebration
of ordinary speech is; make no mistake of it. The "poet" is saying: Whenever
I speak it's poetry, or at least pretty damned close to it, with a mere
adjustment here and there advised, maybe.
This is an enormous sea-change in the oldest verbal art, more than a
matter of just another stylistic innovation. Poets, or enough of them,
have always been egotistical of course; Blake and Yeats and Frost leap
to mind before that clause is completed. One can think of little poetry
that is not in first person singular whether actually grammatically so
or not. The poet may have been an egotist, but the poetry itself was also
something other than himself. Poetry was not entirely his. It had its own
resistant necessities. In some sense he had to carve a poem, as if the
language were marble. "So I rise up early / To erect my rhyme," the poet
in the Icelandic Egil's Saga has it; "I pile the praise-stones, / The poem
rises." Poetry was a kind of labor, was a sinewy architecture. But, now:
it is a workable style allowing one to write a poem almost at random. Insofar
as the poetry of ordinary speech, of direct un- or barely-mediated utterance,
is a form, then the form of poetry, like some poets themselves, has become
egotistical. Have you read any, say, John Ashberry lately?
I think I know how some Christians feel about some liturgical changes
and those translations of the Bible to make the language "more relevant
for today's world." I probably have no right to complain about the tin-eared
revision of the Episcopalian Book of Common Prayer, not having been inside
Henry VIII's house of God since 1957, but I can imagine the complaints
of those parishioners who miss the Elizabethan-Jacobean cathedral tones.
Let me imagine the argument of some resistant Christian:
"I am told the changes are for clarification's sake, availability of
meaning. But is there anyone who'll sit in these pews for whom the meaning
isn't already clear in broad outline and necessary specifics? Instruct
me by sermon in crackerjack language if you like. But I don't come here
just to be instructed, but to worship; and I'm not convinced God appreciates
our talking to him as if he were an insurance agent. I am told that these
changes are to halt the exit and encourage the entrance of old and prospective
communicants who just don't feel as I do. Well, this may sound somewhat
prideful, but . . . . Should the church try to serve the cold and the lukewarm
by denying the needs of the faithful? Should those who love the beauty
of the service in its appropriate different-ness, as generations have,
be told that they must sacrifice for the sake of those others who are to
be pampered in their insensitivity to the beauty? Sacrifice may be in some
cases a Christian virtue, but look!--something dishonest is going on here.
For even if you succeed in increasing the enrollment, the thing they're
enrolled in is now fundamentally changed so that the experience of being
in here is not fundamentally different from being outside. Maybe the nature
of God doesn't change, but the nature of worship does; it is no longer
elevation of oneself and hard work; it is easy non-extension of oneself,
passivity, self-satisfaction, real pride."
Now, as an analogy this is not perfect. But it has some virtues. The
literary world is not a church, and poetry is not a liturgy. Reading poetry
is not worship. With the new Book of Common Prayer the old may be thrown
out, while on the other hand the dominance of the poetry of ordinary speech
does not mean you cannot read Anthony Hecht. Nonetheless--. The poet is
saying to the traditional reader of poetry that he, surely, can be counted
on to read in any case, while there are so many other potential readers
that might be reached if certain innovations (read "compromises") are made.
And the language the new audience will hear at the poetry reading is not
fundamentally different from what it would hear if it stayed away. And
finally, even if the literary world is not a church nor poems hymns, and
even if all the other analogies are similarly flawed, something else is
being changed, altered, dissipated, something that is to my mind a great
deal more vast than a church--so that one might stand, I should think,
with some hesitation and humility and at the very least ask, "Have I really
the right to do this thing?"
Imagine a society whose arts had no really distinguishing characteristics.
You attend a ballet to see people walk exactly as you do. You attend a
concert to hear horns imitating taxi cabs and strings suggesting screeching
tires, and indeed you are amused, for a while, by the familiarity. You
attend a poetry reading and hear, let us say, "What's for dinner, dear?"--something
you are equally capable of inventing. You go to a museum and find the paintings
replaced by exceptionally good mirrors. Now, for a while this might serve
a purpose: let us see and hear ourselves anew. But after that brief while
something else has happened which is really rather hard to get right. For,
you see, I am not talking about a four-day experiment in concert halls
and galleries; I am trying to imagine the standard condition of "a society
whose arts had no really distinguishing characteristics." Would you say
that society had a "Culture"?
I would not, I rush to say. I mean my negative first of all as a sort
of intuitive response, not stopping to define terms too closely just yet.
But now, a philosophical digression, if I may beg patience.
Consider a theme little considered now. A sort of "noble doubt" of the
absolute thereness of the world of phenomena, a skepticism at least, is--evidently--justified;
or so a great deal of our philosophic tradition would have it. Many, perhaps
most, would think that great deal greatly misguided--including perhaps
most of the present philosophical profession. But one needs here a balance
between seriously-considering and not-taking-matters-too-literally. On
the one hand, one does not wish to worry oneself crazy with uncertainties
about the stability of things, or run oneself ragged dashing periodically
into the woods to insure by one's glance that the trees remain there. But
this tends toward the too literal. I doubt that any philosophical Idealist
will fear to sit down: he knows that even if the chair is in some mysterious
way a product of human faculties, a mere appearance, it will be there unless
a prankster has removed it. On the other hand, no matter how much George
Berkeley's Principles of Human Knowledge moves one to befuddled irritation,
no matter how readily one would kick a stone with Dr. Johnson in refutation,
there is something "noble" about the doubt. That is not to say that an
absolute certainty that all is as it appears to be, and is here in assured
materiality, is ignoble; but this certainty is, well, a mental habit of
taking too much for granted with little appreciation of dark subtleties,
a practice in the sanguine. And it is a habit marked by a deficiency of
wonder. One needs here a certain sympathetic respect for those burdened
We tend to think the more Positivist thinkers have their heads screwed
on while some others are simply screwy. But Berkeley, for instance, while
not sure that a stone was what we would think a stone, hard and resistant
whether we see and touch it or not, wished to insure its ultimate thereness
by thinking it a thought of God; and that is not a screwy enterprise for
a bishop. When Immanuel Kant taught that we can perceive as far as the
phenomenal world (the realm of appearances) but, given the limitations
of our perceiving faculties, cannot know the noumena that exist beyond,
and that we cannot be sure that our faculties do not alter even the phenomena
perceived--was that not a dizzying discipline for such an extraordinarily
ambitious metaphysician? We like the word empirical--so down to earth.
But since for the Empiricists like John Locke or David Hume knowledge comes
through the senses and the senses can only sense phenomena, the Empiricists--as
they knew--had no privileged certainty of a reality supporting the apparent
world. And pragmatic--even more down to earth. But there is a curious problem
in Pragmatism that worried William James. If "truth" means a correspondence
with what is (the real structure of the world), which is not dependent
on the human mind, then what has happened when one subscribes to the Pragmatist
definition of a true fact: something that has passed successfully a process
of practical verification? Was that something not a true fact until verified
by a test set by a human mind? Is this a verbal quibble, or has one leapt
like a quantum into that strange world of quantum mechanics, where in some
sense the stuff of matter is born in the physicist's act of observation?
In some sense. I could say that of so much of the above; it is very
vague. But I do not wish to (and cannot) teach a lesson in metaphysics
and epistemology. I am after the wonder that the metaphysicians must have
felt. That wonder interests me more here than the subtle and manifold differences
between the philosophers curious enough to debate the issue in that long
heroic age of philosophy until recent modernity. Those other philosophers
who tell me not to worry, that the question is pointless, may be right.
But their world is--how should one say it?--less wonder-full. Wonder is
alien to the sanguine. You can wonder at something apparently certain (feel
surprise or amazement); you can wonder if (feel doubt). But even surprise
or amazement implies at least a second's doubt: otherwise, why be amazed?
Wonder and doubt cannot exist isolated from one another. And when one has
the courage to wonder-doubt about such a monumental what as all-there-is,
there is an intellectual nobility there.
What I am talking about is creation, that marvelously rich ambiguous
word. It contains the classical philosophic duality of subject and object,
the "two worlds": that of our devising and that which precedes and outlasts
us. Creation: the phenomenal world we inherit, the place we live in; creation:
what we create, including Culture, the space we live in. The advantage
of considering the matter from the perspective of the noble doubt is, quite
simply, perhaps polemically, that it dramatizes the urgency of the enterprise
of creation. All that doubting, all the insisting, all that wonder--it
is the creation of Culture, that urgent matter.
The insistent capital C is meant to distinguish it from such usages
as "the culture of the corporate boardroom," "the culture of poverty,"
"the culture of narcissism," all those instances when the word is used
as short-hand for "predictable modes of localized behavior and prescribed
ranges of expectation" or somesuch. And, moreover, to distinguish it from
that degenerate usage of the word to signify "society"; Culture is not
the mere collection of us. Culture, rather, is an almost tangible web of
art, speculative thought, historical recollections, cogent language, choreographies,
symphonic patterns--all created by human beings who thought that something
horrible would happen, something dangerous to the human species and his
habitation, if such were not made or thought. All of that the practical
man thinks of as mere ornamentation or occasional escape, but it is instead,
in Kenneth Burke's phrase, "equipment for living." Well . . . more than
We live not only in a world of geographic location and social relations,
but in a kind of mental space as well that has an almost "physical" resistance
about it. Culture is a thick medium through which minds move synaptically
to meet other minds and become stronger and more resonant through the tension
generated and energy required in the journey. Of course it is easy to exaggerate
a metaphor, and I do not want to harden mine into concrete. Nevertheless,
it is as something quasi-physical and resistant that I think of Culture.
When I think of it as something that is, I think of it as a rich, textured
space in which we live, the richness contesting and defining our motions,
almost like the physicists' dream of the ether. When I think of it as something
we do, I think of it as a thickening of experience.
Now of course some do not care to make the journey through the medium
at all. So be it. But it ill behooves a "poet" to think he is a poet when
he does not contribute to that resistant medium, when he would in effect
dilute it instead. If the poet of the dominant mode today contributes to
any "culture," it is to pop culture. One of the characteristics of pop
culture is that it creates no resistant medium. Another is that it requires
no sense of inadequacy before creation; one might say it provides workable
styles which permit one to make a piece almost at random.
Now, the problem is not simply that one poet's implicit disclaimers
of inadequacy are offensive to me and that I prefer the other who stands
with some humility before creation. You may hear in my tone a private need;
but I would not dare to rest my argument on a private need, insist that
a given poet sing me a song I like. Rather, I think the one is failing
the vocation of poetry--or is, perhaps, avoiding a job he knows he cannot
do. I use the word vocation half in the antique sense of "a summons or
strong inclination," a calling, knowing that some will answer a call they
have no call to. The poet of the dominant mode is no more than a comfortable
entertainer with some advertised pretensions to seriousness, rather like
the stand-up comedian who thinks of himself as a "satirist" and likes to
give disquisitions on the nature of comedy engag‚e to interviewers in search
of high-toned copy.
Rainer Maria Rilke observed a world where "Transience plunges into a
Nature, the things we move among and use, are provisional and perishable
. . . . Because of its temporariness, which it shares with us, we ought
to grasp and transform these phenomena and things in a most loving understanding.
Transform? Yes; for our task is so deeply and so passionately to impress
upon ourselves this provisional and perishable earth, that its essential
being will arise again "invisibly" in us. We are the bees of the invisible
. . . . Animated things, things experienced by us, and that know us, are
on the decline and cannot be replaced any more. We are perhaps the last
still to have known such things. On us rests the responsibility of upholding
not only the memory of them (that would be little and unreliable), but
their human and laral worth. ("Laral" in the sense of household gods.)
"These phenomena and things" that Rilke felt were being lost were not
uncommonly mysterious dark druidical forests and misty teutonic valleys
and such, but the common things: house, well, cloak, grapevine--or what
was being lost, rather, was an appreciation of their "laral" value. Any
generation may feel that things and attitudes of value are being lost through
progress, technology; and Rilke means that in part. But only in part, for
there is a native fragility independent of the moment: "Transience plunges
into a deep being." There's an urgency often found in Rilke's poetry that
stands considering. It seems to me more than merely fanciful, more than
a moment's trivial delight, when Rilke thinks of the dancer as the "transposition
of all transience into motion" (Verlegung / alles Vergehens in Gang), as
one whose "whirl at the close" of the dance (der Wirbel am Schluss) is
a "tree [created] out of movement" (Baum aus Bewegung).
The world's transience, its mutability: how durable these themes in
poetry! They may be the mode through which the (noble) poet perceives,
intuits, or fears the questionableness of phenomena, the way he expresses
the noble doubt. (The positivist Rudolph Carnap used to dismiss metaphysics
as poetry--in a way he was right.) And the "dancing" may be the way the
poet tries to preserve the world, as it were. I think that something of
this naivet,, or sophistication, I am not sure which--this urgency at any
rate--is part of the stuff of the genuine creative urge.
But I have to fall back here upon the logic of in some sense. I have
to in part because I cannot be sure that when William Butler Yeats observed
a dancer--"How can we tell the dancer from the dance?"--or Emily Dickinson
wrote "a certain Slant of light / Winter Afternoons," or John Clare "The
grass below--above the vaulted sky"--I cannot be sure that they actively,
consciously thought they were involved in a co-operative endeavor with
the familiar world to sustain the familiar world. I cannot be sure they
would not have kicked along with Samuel Johnson. And I have to fall back
on the logic of in some sense in part because I am not at all sure that
I can understand (even if I can at unpredictable moments) the noble doubt--except
as some broad metaphor.
Ultimately, it seems to me, the noble doubt, however differently expressed,
is a fine if extreme metaphor suggesting the knowledge, the surmise, or
the fear that without our wondering notice--without a kind of epistemological
caring!--there is something dull and sodden about the world of phenomena.
Of all the literary arts--more so than fictional narrative with its native
focus on relations human to human--poetry has (had?) in its unique disciplined,
strategically indirect ways carried on a kind of ritual dialogue with the
familiar world. So to suggest that the world might "disappear" is not to
suggest that it might literally vanish (nuclear catastrophe not considered
here) so that one (left floating somewhere for the sake of argument and
point of observation) would be staring at-through weightless-colorless
transparency. It is "only" to say that the world might become (as for some
it has become, as Rilke feared) stale mass, sodden isness, dead matter--humans
and things--that one can only engineer upon. It would not then be at all
likely that one would see any "angels" in the laundry as in a Wilbur poem,
"Love Calls Us to the Things of This World":
Some are in bedsheets, some are in blouses,
Some are in smocks: but truly there they are.
Now they are rising together in calm swells
Of halcyon feeling, filling whatever they wear
With the deep joy of their impersonal breathing;
Now they are flying in place, conveying
The terrible speed of their omnipresence, moving
Merely, preciously, mystical? Not at all. As a matter of fact: profoundly
And staying like white water; and now of a sudden
They swoon down into so rapt a quiet
That nobody seems to be there. . . .
I suppose that any time you write about art you are in part composing
a confession, and of more than taste. Some occasional half-articulate mutterings
aside, residues of youth, I am not a religious person except in the broadest
sense: the "numinous" and such I like to contemplate. And I do not think
the earth a god's extension of his substance (or even in Berkeleyan fashion
his thoughts) or the heavens his abode. So I do not really think there
are any angels in the wash, or any lares in the walls. But I think it very
important to be able to say there are. This is not a matter of bad faith.
It is a matter of imagination in service of respect for the material of
Doubtless the secularization of society is a positive thing. At least
I know I do not want to live in anything approaching a theocracy. But the
total secularization of the world? For "secular" need not imply merely
the disestablishment of the ecclesiastical: it can imply the absence of
the mysterious, the magical, the wonder-demanding non-cashable suggestive
in the most quotidian aspects of life--laundry, even. The poet has traditionally
been one who stood in the way of the secularizing of the world's body,
the mere engineering of it, so to speak. His chosen job was to know that
the richness of the world does not respond to barked commands, that it
reveals something of itself only after respectful entreaties, oblique strategies
(as any quantum physicist knows!), charms so to say. This required a certain
formal indirection, a "use of language . . . deliberately and ostentatiously
different from talk," as W.H. Auden said when characterizing poetry as
Now it might be objected that this is a very expensive metaphor I am
working. And who need buy it? And that it is too exclusive. Surely poetry
has traditionally done other things besides the quasi-metaphysical labor
of carrying on a ritual dialogue with Creation. Indeed. I agree. I only
wish to suggest with one extensive example that poetry was a serious enterprise.
I do not think the dominant mode of our poetry today is such an enterprise.
Poetry could do its other things as well only by virtue of being a different
kind and use of language, even "ostentatiously" so, as Auden put it.
One is a fool to stand in the road of literary-linguistic history and
shout "Stop!" The language will change, inevitably; and so, therefore,
must poetry. The poet-critic Josephine Miles has charted how over several
centuries the value-laden words of poetry have changed from the abstract
goodness, truth, and beauty, to the still abstract but rather more political
liberty and freedom, to the more concrete or natural waters, rivers, rain,
trees, and stones, to in our time, as we've moved indoors, so to speak,
road, street, house, room, walls, windows, glass. Or, I might add, laundry.
All true. As an example she quotes Robert Hayden's "Those Wintry Sundays,"
a recollection by the poet of his father, some representative lines of
which I present.
When the rooms were warm, he'd call,
and slowly I would rise and dress,
fearing the chronic angers of that house,
Speaking indifferently to him,
who had driven out the cold
and polished my good shoes as well.
What did I know, what did I know
of love's austere and lonely offices?
But what makes the poem work is not the rooms and house and shoes, surely;
but instead the chronic angers of that house and the apparent artlessness
of what did I know preceding of love's austere and lonely offices--none
of this being garden-variety rhythm or diction, with offices of course
not "offices" at all. So we are talking about quite different things. And
Hayden's poem is itself a quite different thing from, say, Ashberry's "The
Instruction Manual," whose first two lines are typical of the seventy-two
that follow: "As I sit looking out of a window of the building / I wish
I did not have to write the instruction manual on the uses of a new metal."
I also wish it.
Of course there are things the poetry of ordinary speech can do. (There
are things anything can do.) Primarily, through its quick and easy familiarity,
even its private obscurity, it can suggest to us the great ego-stuffing
falsehood that we are all, deep down where it really counts, poets--so
what is all this about Dylan Thomas' "labour," his "craft or sullen art/
Exercised in the still night"? But what it cannot do--because its makers
are focused so proudly on their own "natural" voices, liberated in herd
from the metronome and other such oppressions, and encouraging the reader,
who has a voice like that, as everyone has, to stay at home content with
himself--what it cannot do is contribute to Culture, that space with a
marvelously rich lingua franca inaccessible to egotistical monolinguists.
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Updated 29 July 2010