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Rx for American Poets

What an ambitious project for a critic to undertake! It’s usually the poets who are in the business of prophecy. Poets have always been introspective about their art and never more so than in these last two centuries when everything from religion, philosophy, morality, to the social order was constantly being questioned. It was not easy for some of them to continue writing the same old verses in the same old way while the world all around them was talking about revolution and freedom.

Since the Romantics, poetry has engaged in a critique of all of its past assumptions, not only in order to construct a new kind of poetry, but to question everything from morality to metaphysics. There was to be no longer one official truth impermeable to change, but many individual ones grounded in experience that each poet needs to examine for its authenticity, as if poems were a laboratory for all human endeavors. What is scandalous about the polemical pronouncements and manifestoes of poets since the end of the eighteenth century is their conviction that truth, which now eludes religion and philosophy, can still be found in poetry. “A poet participates in the eternal, the infinite, and the one,” Shelley writes in A Defense of Poetry, and then defines a poem as “the very image of life expressed in its eternal truth.” It’s lucky that the Church no longer tortures and burns heretics, otherwise being a poet would be the world’s most dangerous occupation.

Poets in the United States usually speak with more reverence for authentic experience than for the imagination. They cultivate strategies to make themselves sound sincere, as if poems were eyewitness accounts of real events and not artistic creations. We forget that Homer was blind, and like every good poet who came after him, he saw more with his eyes closed than most others see with eyes wide open. Poetry is one activity in life where consummate liars are not only admired but completely trusted. Of course, the hope for any poem is that it will convince the reader that this is exactly what happened, even if it did not.

With the advent of realism in fiction in the last century it was inevitable that poets, too, would start fretting about verisimilitude. How does a poem go about representing reality? Can language be a mirror? Perhaps it can, but not an ordinary mirror. Walt Whitman, Ezra Pound, and William Carlos Williams were only a few of the American poets discussed by Angus Fletcher who thought they had answers to these questions. What makes it tough on critics is that theory and practice rarely form a continuum since the relationship between reality and imagination keeps changing from poet to poet, and even from poem to poem, so that what often seems to be one turns out to be the other, or even more confusingly, a mixture of the two.

Angus Fletcher has a reputation as one of our most insightful Renaissance scholars and most wide-ranging theorists of literature and the arts. Among his previous books, the best known are The Prophetic Moment: An Essay on Spencer, Allegory: The Theory of a Symbolic Mode, and Colors of the Mind: Conjectures on Thinking in Literature. The Old Testament, Herodotus, Vico, Coleridge, Calvino, Stevens, Don Quixote, Milton’s Satan, and Visconti’s Death in Venice all come up in Colors of the Mind, a loosely related collection of essays on the ways in which the experience of thinking is conveyed in literature. Fletcher can write perceptively about the language of prophecy in Renaissance poetics, literary transparency or obscurity, the gnomic sentence and phrase, and he reflects on the possibility of silent thought. He is a collage artist. He gives the impression of having read everything from philosophy to modern physics as he juxtaposes ideas from these seemingly unrelated disciplines to shed new light on literary works. He is a critic who seeks the epistemological foundation of literature with a daring and originality that one rarely encounters today.

Fletcher’s new book boldly sets out to describe what is most American about American poetry and to envision the future of the poetic imagination in America. He wants to do for us today what Emerson did 150 years ago for his contemporaries, by writing a work that would have the same kind of broad cultural relevance. Whitman is correct, Fletcher says, in thinking that poetry is elemental for democracy and that our democracy implies an artistic revolution. He breaks with critics who see American poetry as being little more than an extension of the Romantic tradition and emphasizes what he calls our pragmatic tendencies, which beginning with Whitman have given us another poetics that in his view has not been fully acknowledged or extensively explored. What the early settlers found here as they stepped ashore was time removed from history, “a scene of unparalleled newness whose only signpost pointed to the unknown future.” It caused them to gradually forsake faith in the intricacies of older faiths and to become empiricists:

Whatever works has always been the American motto, as critical as e pluribus unum, although one wonders if they do not amount to the same sentiment, while before these slogans could take root, Americans experienced a long foreground of European natural history, and then the great intellectual divide, the publication in 1859 of The Origin of Species. Then at last an ancient poetic wisdom moved into communication with a profound and comprehensive scientific vision. This science continues to advance alongside the poetry we have seen anticipating it and to this day accompanying it. When it is working right, poetry is a kind of knowledge and always anticipates science in a free and imaginative fashion. Poetry has the advantage of being set free from assuming the burden of proof.

This sounds right, but can it be the whole truth in a country where the teaching of evolution is still a controversial issue? If it is, then our poets with their empiricism and their secularism are really at odds with the majority of their fellow citizens who are deeply religious and suspicious of scientific evidence. Leaving that aside for now, Fletcher is right; by considering the work of some poets he will see that something unprecedented has taken place in literary history. He proceeds to show what that is by examining the poetry of John Clare, Walt Whitman, and John Ashbery, whom he regards as key figures responsible for a revolution involving democracy, environment, and the imagination.

His first example is the English poet John Clare (1793–1864). A poor, land-laboring peasant who had little schooling and who still managed to accumulate a considerable library, he wrote many poems and essays on the natural world, politics, corruption, poverty, and rural folk life. In 1837, Clare had a mental breakdown and was admitted to an asylum. Four years later, we are told, he discharged himself and walked the eighty miles home in three and a half days, living on grass he ate along the way. Later that year, he was certified insane and was committed to an institution where he lived for the next twenty years until he died in 1864. For Fletcher, Clare was like a journalist whose native fields and woods were his beat. He took note of everything he came across, no matter how commonplace, delighting in what he saw:

so I went on with my heart full of hopes pleasures and discoverys expecting when I got to the brink of the world that I coud look down like looking into a large pit and see into its secrets the same as I believd I could see heaven by looking into the water so I eagerly wandered on and rambled among the furze the whole day till I got out of my knowledge when the very wild flowers and birds seemd to forget me and I imagind they were the inhabitants of new countrys the very sun seemd to be a new one and shining in a different quarter of the sky still I felt no fear my wonder seeking happiness had no room for it I was finding new wonders every minute and was walking in a new world often wondering to my self that I had not found the end of the old one the sky still touched the ground in the distance as usual and my childish wisdoms was puzzled in perplexitys.

Like Thoreau, who connected walking and writing, Clare had a love affair with perception. What we simply see, in all its immediacy, is what interests him. In his ability to wonder, and to take up that wonder as his guiding light, he reminds Fletcher of Pre-Socratic philosophers, such as Heraclitus, who rejected the mythical and religious tradition of their ancestors for a view of the world in which natural processes were no longer the whim of the gods but something to be studied with thoughtful attention. They were the first empiricists who were not satisfied with mere assertions, but who tried to gain support for their theories from the direct study of nature. Fletcher is wise not to overstretch this alleged resemblance between the two. Anaximander, Heraclites, Parmenides, and the rest of them were as fond of abstract speculation as they were of observation. Clare, on the other hand, has eyes firmly on the ground. He doesn’t go around looking for surprises; he just finds them:


I found a ball of grass among the hay

And proged it as I passed and went away

And when I looked I fancied something stirred

And turned agen and hoped to catch the bird

When out an old mouse bolted in the wheat

With all her young ones hanging at her teats

She looked so odd and so grotesque to me

I ran and wondered what the thing could be

And pushed the knapweed bunches where I stood

When the mouse hurried from the crawling brood

The young ones squeaked and when I went away

She found her nest again among the hay

The water oer the pebbles scarce could run

And broad old cesspools glittered in the sun.

The virtue of such poetry, according to Fletcher, is that it records without a need to pass final judgment on experience. In place of edifying thoughts on the miserable condition of the animal and its resemblance to our human predicament, the poem emphasizes the unplanned, the casual, the intensely and precisely observed. The mouse, who doesn’t appear particularly perturbed, simply runs back to her nest at the end of the poem. In contrast to a Romantic like Wordsworth, Clare immerses himself in the world; he doesn’t stand apart and hold forth. For him, perception comes before any other mental categories. Clare prefers to describe what he saw, Fletcher says, rather than build it into a rhapsody of Platonic themes. He resists allegory and takes the world as he finds it. What concerns Fletcher, especially, is the way the environment that surrounds the alert eye of the poet becomes a principle for organizing the poem.

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