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Rx for American Poets

As Fletcher readily acknowledges, he owes many of his ideas on Clare to John Ashbery, who spoke on the poet in the Norton Lectures he gave at Harvard some years back.1 What the two poets share is a fascination with the mere fact that something can be, that it exists in its own right. The Romantics maintained a hierarchy among experiences that come our way with the highest form reserved for the sublime. They were like mountain climbers impatient to behold the grand view. Clare is not in a hurry. In fact, he doesn’t mind wasting time, since he takes it in his stride that the uncanny can be encountered everywhere. In comparison, as Fletcher says, Wordsworth is virtually an ecotourist, prospecting for higher laws. The secret Clare knew is “that there is nothing but the day, which is always disappearing, reappearing, disappearing, reappearing again in a perpetual sequence.”

This may sound unfair to Wordsworth and the Romantics, but Fletcher has a point. One can get weary of visionary poems; their rhetoric can become insufferable and make the poet sound like a TV evangelist. Besides, there are other ways to approach higher mysteries. Fletcher blames the Romantics, but it seems to me that when it comes to American literature, Emerson may be even more of a culprit. And yet, there are few among us who are completely immune to visionary rhetoric for the obvious reason that we do, on rare occasions, have an experience that lifts us out of the ordinary and leaves us baffled, deeply moved, and ready to believe things we hadn’t dreamed of. One can feel that way while at the same time agreeing with Fletcher’s reminder that we do not live most of the time in exalted states. The content of our stream of consciousness is usually not so lofty. Our psychic life is more like a squabbling theatrical company trying to rehearse some play we don’t even know the name of. A poem ought to take the chaotic state of our minds and our constantly shifting viewpoints into account. Such a poem could begin anywhere and stop anywhere. There would be no closure, no summing up, only a temporary resolution of differences.

For Fletcher, Walt Whitman was the poet who invented that kind of poem by employing a new kind of descriptive technique that enumerates without pressing toward a conclusion. Whitman’s aim was the creation of a continuous present in which all the senses participate, a prolonged, open-eyed amazement at the world’s existence that the reader is made to share. Like the authentic democrat that he was, he treats everything and everyone with equal consideration. Description may seem antithetical to poetic imagination, but not for Fletcher. He is not interested in descriptive poetry, which concerns itself with some stationary landscape, interior, or object, but a kind of poem that can represent movement in the city streets and breaks down the distinction between the poet’s interior life and the world outside. It’s a poem that has neither narrative nor dramatic progression, where emotion and even the first-person pronoun are subordinated to an immersion in the quotidian. Fletcher calls it the environment-poem, a poem not about the environment, whether natural or social, but one that, he writes, imitates the reader’s own environment of living:

The environment-poem seeks symbolic control over the drifting experience of being environed, and it introduces the experience of an outside that is developed for the reader inside the experience of the work. While this outside/inside game closely resembles a stream of consciousness technique intended to reveal elusive states of mind, the environment-poem converts natural surroundings and their common surrogates, like the furnishing of a house, for example, into a surrounding that actually has more presence than any state of mind. It is as if the dream had become real.

When one reads such a passage, the thought intrudes that literary theory is most seductive, perhaps, when it is short on proof. One of the problems with A New Theory for American Poetry is that it provides little supporting evidence from poetry for Fletcher’s advocacy of the “environment-poem.” Do we really experience Whitman’s poems as enclosing us within an ego-less environment? Is that how we read “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry”? Or even the entire “Song of Myself”? Fletcher quotes “Sparkles from the Wheel,” a poem in which environment, as he says, is directly and thematically spelled out. Here’s the poem:


Where the city’s ceaseless crowd moves on the livelong day,

Withdrawn I join a group of children watching, I pause

aside with them.

By the curb toward the edge of the flagging,

A knife-grinder works at his wheel sharpening a great knife,

Bending over he carefully holds it to the stone, by foot and knee,

With measur'd tread he turns rapidly, as he presses with

light but firm hand,

Forth issue then in copious golden jets,

Sparkles from the wheel.

The scene and all its belongings, how they seize and affect me,

The sad sharp-chinn'd old man with worn clothes and

broad shoulder-band of leather,

Myself effusing and fluid, a phantom curiously floating, now here absorb'd and arrested,

The group, (an unminded point set in a vast surrounding,)

The attentive, quiet children, the loud, proud, restive base of the streets,

The low hoarse purr of the whirling stone, the light-press'd blade,

Diffusing, dropping, sideways-darting, in tiny showers of gold,

Sparkles from the wheel.</i>

Fletcher suggests that each spark is like each one of us, a very puny object suggesting the immense form of society at large. He says that Tocqueville

> had remarked that, faced with "the still more imposing aspect of mankind," democratic man is threatened by a deep emptiness: hence "his ideas are all either extremely minute and clear, or extremely general and vague; what lies between is an open void."

All right, one says to oneself, but what happened to the poem that surrounds us like an environment and the peculiar experience of identification with it that a reader is supposed to undergo? Fletcher is much more persuasive when he speaks elsewhere about the distinctive phrases in Whitman that suggest a wave-like motion as we feel carried along by them, and when he describes the manner in which these phrase "units" combine into a larger union without recourse to logical progression. When it comes to explicating "Sparkles from the Wheel," he really doesn't have much to say about the poem and whatever textual analysis he does offer seems beside the point.

<p class="initial">His theory becomes far more plausible when he turns to John Ashbery's poetry. As a poet of fragmented consciousness, immersed in dailiness, for whom even his own identity is a perennial issue, Ashbery is the ideal subject for Fletcher:</p>

> <i>But since I don't understand myself, only segments

of myself that misunderstand each other, there's no

reason for you to want to, no way you could....</i>

As Fletcher says of Ashbery, "the lyric 'I' is forever being diffused into You, He, She, and We and They, and various kinds of It," so that a poem of his becomes a special kind of fragment—what is conventionally called the beginning and the ending has been removed. By frustrating all the usual expectations of coherence, the poem pushes the reader into the unknown. It's a poetry where the reader has to be ready for digressions, and whatever other surprise comes along. According to Fletcher, poems of this kind are dedicated to showing how we adapt to the environments into which we are thrown by life. If they work, the poems have a way of adapting themselves to meet communicative needs of the reader at many levels. This, of course, is true of poems in general, but never more so than in Ashbery. In any case, Fletcher's theory works better with Ashbery's long poems like "Flow Chart," "A Wave," and "Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror" than with short ones, like this one from his new book :

<p align="center">A BELOW-PAR STAR</p>

> <i>After the shouting in the wilderness

and the colors that don't quite match, and shouldn't,

behold I handle you, mournful love,

like a scene in a cigarette pageant.

Your face is as white as linen on a board.

I pray that the skies will soak up your electricity,

the birds founder and come to heel,

the drive-by stabbings evaporate into friendly if noncommittal steam,

and tragedy draw his petticoat across your face

because it doesn't happen enough.

A lifeboat almost swamped by shrugs, your famous kisser

now floats over all American cities like a drapeau</i><i>.</i>

They said you'd be here sooner. It's still early, but I can wait

no longer. It's bed and the movies for me.

Tomorrow, exceptionally, there may be a flawed native pearl for breakfast,

and in October, lots of weather, much of it cruder.

Very nice, but what's all this about? Is it a lament for lost love? A tongue-in-cheek yearning for the Sublime? Or is it a poem about the inability to give up that longing—as Meghan O'Rourke said of Ashbery's poetry in general in her review of <i>Where Shall I Wander</i> in <i>Slate</i>? If she's right, what happened to Fletcher's environment-poem, which was supposed to undermine Romantic poetics? The "environment" may be still there, but only as a strategy to involve the reader. The only way to unravel the ambiguities in "A Below-Par Star" is for the reader to become a poet too. Ashbery knows that a lyric poem with its long history is already full of ghosts of meaning. All poems are one poem. Poetry is like a deck of greasy tarot cards the poet keeps reshuffling; but in the case of Ashbery, he lets the reader be the fortuneteller.

<p class="initial">Despite its considerable learning, many fine insights, and some beautiful writing in its pages, <i>A New Theory for American Poetry</i> fails to make a persuasive argument since it makes no mention of most of our major poets and their own theories. Even when some are mentioned—as Dickinson, Pound, and Stevens briefly are—they do not add much to the argument. Where is Charles Olson with his "Projective Verse" and his idea of a poem as a field of action? Or Robert Creeley, who argues in his numerous essays that a poet can only write what is in front of his senses in the moment of writing? Where's A.R. Ammons, who said a poem was a walk, irreproducible, dependent on moods, thoughts that are never the same, an act of discovery, a chance taken? What happened to Williams, Ginsberg, Frank O'Hara, and dozens of others with their own ideas and poems? With his idea of the environment-poem Fletcher proposes a new knowledge of reality and new theory of the imagination, but he makes it easy on himself by not engaging with those who mulled over these same issues in the past.</p>

Still, much of what he says is right. Some of our poets since Whitman have indeed moved beyond the Romantic poetics toward a poetry that is more empirical. And yet, even that generalization is suspect since in the last hundred years there have been too many poets—Anthony Hecht, for example—who don't fit that description in the least and who wrote poems that are as American and as good as the poets Fletcher studies. Theory rarely approximates practice. Great recipes do not necessarily make great cooks. Some of the best ones don't even read recipes. Envisaging the future of the imagination is an impossible task because we cannot know what sort of world the poets will find themselves in and how that will affect what they write. If the US is still at war years from now, its citizens killing and being killed in return, it may make it hard to continue being wrapped up in oneself. "Only a poetry that resists its own transcendental impulses, as I show the environment-poem resists them," Fletcher writes, "will usefully address the most serious conditions of our time along with numerous global changes." Perhaps, but I wouldn't bet on it. Even if we no longer can bear to hear about the Sublime, my guess is that we won't be able to live without it either.
  1. 1

    Other Traditions (Harvard University Press, 2000); see the review in The New York Review, November 30, 2000.

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