A Look Round the Estate
The Hard Hours
The Harvester’s Vase
Iliad of Broken Sentences
How happy our poets should be these days! Relieved of all their former responsibilities, they can go about their business of making poems with words, as pure as any scientist alone at his Institute blackboard, solving theoretical problems that have absolutely no practical application at all. (A quotation, actual but not for attribution: “Anybody who discovers a cure for cancer in this place ought to be fired.”)
Both in the largest and in the smallest matters of their craft the Muse has let go her rules, and the destinies of their nations expect even less from poets than they can expect from their nations. Of course they may take political stands if they want to. But Clio no longer demands that they labor on some great Epick to bring their own lands and their mother tongue the glory that the greatest and choycest wits of Athens, Rome, or Italy, and those Hebrews of old, brought to their languages, gods, and armaments. We have had our few long poems—the Cantos, Four Quartets, Paterson…. Relieved of epic plots and heroes, even of romance heroes and heroic deeds, they are words: lots of words, it is true, but words. Poets need no longer frame even a tale. And from the Tragic Muse and the Comic Muse alike they are delivered. Pastoral, Historical, Satirical, Historical-Pastoral; Meditation, Argument, Ode, Elegy, Anacreontic…for gestures only or for parodies. Even that favorite twentieth-century mode, the dramatic monologue, is largely gone, and, to speak rather freely, the mode today is only that someone, generally to be taken for the poet himself, is writing—or speaking—words at no particular time to no one in particular. Words, we might say, appear, and declare themselves poems.
POETS need no longer study the old forms, nor practice to fill out with suitable matter the stanzas of rhyme royal or sestina; they need not ponder the English or the Italian sonnet, or the heroic couplet as against unrhymed heroics. Meter itself they can take or leave alone as they choose. Lines, if poets choose to set their words in printed lines, rather than to breathe them with their own voices onto tape or into amplifiers, even lines are all at their disposal, just as they please, and nobody asks them why they run on or stop short or just hang there. The protests and riots over free verse were calmed long ago, and integration reigns unquestioned, the ideal integration of the totally un-noticed. So poets have the perfect freedom of their words. Nobody really cares what they say or how they say it. A typical poem of today is a collection of words (unless it is a Concrete Poem), about as many words as are given to the obituary of a college professor or a minor millionaire, only in the poem the words have more white space around them.
This is meant to be descriptive, not invidious though it may sound so. Let me turn and defend our contemporaries. It was …
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.