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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

Turtle Island

by Gary Snyder
New Directions, 114 pp., $1.95 (paper)

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 celebrated men who crucified their bodies on the cross of the creative imagination; and a fearful number of critics have urged us to admire poems born of exemplary persistence in “making.”

In the careers of several poets—Plath, for example—the whole question of literary judgment sank to a whisper because they had (we were told) sacrificed their very lives to their work; and critics who doubted the value of the actual writing seemed like barbarians rending the veil of the temple. Even survival has now become a source of panegyric. To have continued writing into old age is, for some critics, an achievement that makes any further achievement supererogatory.

This detachment of poetry from literary skills has ancient and modern causes. In part it derives from a simple idea of expressiveness, the belief that any parallel between style and meaning is a sign of excellence, and that the use of established forms must imply an adherence to the established social order. By this doctrine, whoever feels dissatisfied with things as they are must depart boldly from the formal expectations of his reader. Broken phrases, coarse words, awkward rhythms would then disclose one’s sympathy with oppressed minorities.

The doctrine is not without its point. One of the good deeds of the older generation of modern poets—especially Stevens, Pound, and Cummings—was to report on the battles fought between greeting-card morality and the literary conscience. Our social and political institutions now depend for their health upon the sickness of language and taste. For the labor of dramatizing that opposition, no writers have taken more responsibility than the poets.

During the postwar years of prosperous conformity, it was natural that the rift between the nation and its poets should widen. From the administration of Eisenhower to that of Johnson, a dogma of our literary faith was the mutual exclusiveness of art and the public life. Lowell embodied the attitude in his poem “Inauguration Day,” and Nixon finally reciprocated with an edict to his footmen: “The arts you know—they’re Jews, they’re left wing—in other words, stay away.”

But the existence of such a dichotomy is not the same as the equivalence of innovative forms (or shapelessness) to revolutionary ardor. Chaos is best conveyed not by chaos but by the order against which its nature becomes visible. The fragmentation of syntax can express madness, carelessness, or a loathing of the reader. Only a very innocent poet or critic believes that boring poems deserve to be read because they mirror the truth that life is boring. Yet even Donald Davie takes a step in this direction when he says that Pound’s Cantos may mirror, in their large, unpredictable patterns, “the rhythms of discovery, wastage, neglect, and rediscovery that the historical records give us notice of.”

Today it might be more interesting for the reader to be offered an ironic contrast between rich, subtle technique and the ideology of protest. As a model, Baudelaire might be an alternative to the disintegrating line of Whitman, Williams, and Charles Olson. Some readers might prefer being charmed to being pummeled and frustrated by turns.

But at work with the shallow notion of expressiveness has been a shallow concept of democracy. In this country the rise of Andrew Jackson signalized the opening of a long era of distrust of careful speech. For 150 years, villainy and articulateness have been confused in the American mind. A number of poets have half-consciously bowed to the idol and imagined that by avoiding art they have been serving the people.

Yet humble, nonliterary men and women do not warm to the sound of free verse. Poetry belongs for them to the realm of ceremony, and they want it clearly set apart from workaday language. They look for hymn-like stanzas, metered and rhymed, delivering a measure of soothing morality—e.g., birthday verses and the words of popular songs. To give them what they seek is not a labor of democracy but of commerce.

To complicate the separation of poetry from art there is also the sheer difficulty of winning friends for most of what passes for poetry today. Those who are not determinedly sympathetic cannot easily be persuaded to turn page after page of ill-directed itemizations. We are sometimes told that it is undemocratic elitism to expect a poet to possess either a special talent or a special training. We are implicitly advised that it is the reader and not the author who must submit to judgment. Some critics seem to hint that the prosperity of the literary commonwealth depends on the readers’ not expecting too much pleasure from the writers—that it depends indeed on the full employment of voluntary poets.

But this is again an accursed idea of democracy. We have no duty to accept whatever is put before us. There is an obligation to be sympathetic, to allow the artist a second and a third chance, to give our attention to the excellent parts of his work and to set aside the disappointing. We have to encourage poets who sound promising, even if they fail to please us deeply. But not forever! We also have to declare our dissatisfaction with repeated efforts to exclude us.

For much of the violence of recent poetry is defensive. Unable to hold the reader who lives outside his circle, the poet defies him and hurls denunciations at his retreating back. As the habitual readers of new poetry abandoned more and more of the field to the spontaneous writers and their advocates, an old Bohemian practice grows more common. Instead of trying to win an audience, the embattled poet appeals to others in his plight and joins forces with them to blame the community of unbelievers.

In the end, some turn against language itself. They feel uneasy because they cannot make it serve them, cannot capture their listeners or convey their own insights through speech. Rather than try to acquire expressive skills, they fall back on silences, white spaces, portentous gestures of inarticulateness.

Now it is perfectly true that all words taste stale to a unique genius, and that he feels they misrepresent the freshness and fury of his vision. But one does not master the problem by invoking the name of Rimbaud and spurning every kind of rhetoric or poetic. I wonder whether the best way for a creative mind to direct its energy is to exalt intuition above the rest of its faculties combined.

Meanwhile, the addicts of poetry are waiting. What they desire is fresh insights into the human condition, eloquent language, subtle forms, a true connection between the poem they read and the living tongue. Poets exist who satisfy the desire: Lowell, Elizabeth Bishop, James Merrill, James Schuyler—and one could easily extend the list. Recently, Robert Penn Warren has stepped out of his familiar wrappings and produced moving, funny, daring poems that rise from the ashes of the old Fugitive.

The appearance of George Oppen’s Collected Poems invites us to place his work in this context. Oppen was born in 1908 and his first book, Discrete Series, was published in 1934 with a preface by Pound. He deals with the process of making the self at home in the world—that is, the imaginative self in the world it must define. For him the work of the imagination is to naturalize us to our universe. In this activity the poet may seem to start from the way he sees particular objects or persons. But he is really following the reciprocal movement of the mind between the tangible, external reality and the reality of the self.

Frequently, therefore, Oppen considers places or creatures he loves, and meditates on the current of feeling or thought reaching from him to them and back. The order of his themes is seldom discursive, for he does not unfold a series of reflections leading rationally from one to the next. Rather, his themes emerge discretely, as the poet’s attention reverts to the object to consider it again and yet again. So the poem is often less a sequence than a set of observations and insights stemming from a common center:

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