The State of Poetry

Collected Poems

by George Oppen
New Directions, 263 pp., $15.95

Somewhere Is Such a Kingdom: Poems 1952-1971

by Geoffrey Hill
Houghton Mifflin, 130 pp., $6.95

The criticism of poetry in this country has been rendered immobile by the history of American taste. Fifty years ago, writers who now look canonical were noticed with indifference or ridicule. Even Cummings—who, read aloud, charms one in a surprisingly traditional way—offended so many editors that he called one of his books No Thanks and dedicated it to a list of publishers who had turned it down.

To recommend or explain the new writing of the Twenties, men of good will like I.A. Richards and R.P. Blackmur offered new principles of judgment. They argued that expressive rhythm was more effective than familiar meters. They justified erratic rhymes as appropriate to erratic states of mind. They analyzed obscure images and disclosed subtle meanings that depended on complexity of style. They took work that sounded anarchic and assigned a firm place to it in the traditions of American or European literature. Waldo Frank connected Hart Crane with “a great tradition, unbroken from Hermes Trismegistus and Moses.”

Eventually, manuals came out (above all, Understanding Poetry by Brooks and Warren) that harmonized iconoclasts like Eliot and Pound with Whitman, Browning, and tamer authors. Definitions of literature and art were stretched radically; and effusions that would once have been called barbaric yawps came to be heard as grace notes of civilization.

But while the scope of poetry widened, the power of exclusion shrank. If free verse became acceptable, how could one reject any work merely because the verse sounded inept? If transitions were unnecessary, and the poet might hop freely from theme to isolated theme, how could any shape be condemned as disorganized? If obscurity no longer mattered, and Blackmur might praise a poem by Stevens while announcing that he did not understand it, how could profundity be distinguished from opacity?

The line that led from Eliot and Pound involved learning and allusiveness. A reader who felt unsure of their art might still appreciate their cultivation, and agree that whether or not the stuff was verse, it certainly was highbrow. But William Carlos Williams jettisoned the humanistic tradition and set up local history in the shrines of Virgil and Dante. When his epigones crowded into the little magazines, they contributed dubious regions of easy language and domestic experience to the territory of poetry.

For many persons, subversive ideology, esoteric learning, mysterious “deep” images, and scandalous self-revelation became sufficient marks of the lyric gift. To judge poetry, some critics relied less on analysis than on affiliation, and the praise of what might be called aesthetic heroism. If an author could be linked to Pound, his archaisms were vindicated, even though he might lack Pound’s ear, eye, wit, and taste. If his pages resembled those of Williams, his triviality became tolerable, even though he wrote without Williams’s humor, warmth, or accuracy.

At the same time, a heroic devotion to literature became a standard of merit. Instead of praising a man’s accomplishment, advocates praised his devotion to art. A fearful number of poems (especially by Berryman) have…

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