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:
A picture seen from within. The picture is unstable, a moving picture, unlimited drift. Still, the picture exists.
Although Oppen’s language is plain, he heightens it with echoes. He alludes to Blake, Whitman, and other poets; the old quatrain “Western Wind” reverberates through the whole book. Oppen also draws on his friends’ conversation, perhaps to less advantage. But a feature of his method (reminiscent of Pound’s) is the constant re-employment of his own phrases. Sometimes whole poems turn up afresh in new settings. The long sequence “Of Being Numerous” includes nearly all of the earlier, eight-part sequence “A Language of New York.”
This practice supports the main drama of Oppen’s work, which is the effort of the mind to reach clarity of vision by turning always upon itself, traveling back and forth between things and words, reconsidering and correcting earlier impressions or ponderings. As one nears the end of the whole book, the force of the retrospection rises. One must admire the poet as he contemplates death and still affirms the supremacy of the imagination which transforms the world in the act of seeing it truly.
Oppen also takes up the difficulty of being true to one’s unique vision without being disloyal to one’s community. He fully understands the ambivalence provoked by the challenge. Yet he does not weaken his devotion to a wife, a sister, a daughter, a city, or to the entire class of “the small poor.” Rather, by seeing them in the light of his imagination, he conveys his love. Merely by illuminating and thus celebrating intimate ties and humble people, Oppen’s poems become a criticism of irresponsible luxury—“The great utensiled / House / Of air conditioners, safe harbor / In which the heart sinks….”
Oppen’s identification of himself with the poor leads directly into his practice of poetry. Here he rejects fullness, richness, abundance. So he shies away from the sublime, from rhetoric, from anything like role-playing. The poet, he says, must be “impoverished / of tone of pose that common / wealth / of parlance”—a phrase in which “parlance” is chosen for its absurd richness.
For Oppen the original impression of an experience upon the mind is not something to be worked up or elaborated but rather to be cut down: the process of eliminating does the work of shaping. For him a complete sentence has less integrity than a fragment which the reader can finish by himself. How elliptical may one be—he seems to ask—and still suggest a meaning that carries an emotional charge?
So he likes to imply his meanings by juxtaposing impressions and omitting interpretative links. In a poem called “Workman” he compares his own habit of seizing and shaping an epiphany with the performances of a hawk and a carpenter:
Leaving the house each dawn I see the hawk
Flagrant over the driveway. In his claws
That dot, that comma
Is the broken animal: the dangling small beast knows
The burden that he is: he has touched
The hawk’s drab feathers. But the carpenter’s is a culture
Of fitting, of firm dimensions,
Of post and lintel. Quietly the roof lies
That the carpenter has finished. The sea birds circle
The beaches and cry in their own way,
The innumerable sea birds, their beaks and their wings
Over the beaches and the sea’s glitter.
The poet’s nature comes through his bare, simple, terse style as admirably modest and even self-effacing, determined not to interpose a flamboyant self between his reader and his world. Honesty, clarity, illumination, are his desiderata.
But sparseness has little power by itself. When Oppen rejects the common privileges of a poet, he not only adds little excitement to his language; he also risks bathos. The elliptical character of his style barely distinguishes it from the cryptic. When one receives his insights, they often sound like those of Pound and W. C. Williams, and though truly felt are unsurprising. Even humor is rare; Oppen sounds averse to wit or satire. I wonder whether by resisting the lure of abundance he has not been left with a style that is pinched and thin.
Geoffrey Hill, an English poet in his mid-forties, is easy to consider in American terms because he reflects the influence of American poets. Hill refers directly to Ransom and Tate. So one is not surprised that his early poems have something in common with those of the young Robert Lowell. Unlike Oppen, Hill finds no contradiction between witty writing and authentic emotion; and he desires richness of style. Like Yeats and Lowell, he seizes on intimate, private experience and tries to endow it with public meanings. Like Swift he possesses a deep sense of tradition and community which is (as Hill has wisely observed of Swift) “challenged by a strong feeling for the anarchic and the predatory.”
In most of his poems Hill tries to convey extreme emotions by opposing the restraint of established form to the violence of his insight or judgment. He uses savage puns, heavy irony, and repeated oxymorons. He uses bold, archetypal images and religious symbols while complaining of their inefficacy. He deals with violent public events—crusades, prison camps, civil wars—and denounces the hideous crimes performed by deluded men in the service of divinities (or ideals) which they clothe with their own vices.
But in his ambitions as a poet and his failings as a man he detects the sins that dismay him in others:
I have learned one thing; not to look down
So much upon the damned. They, in their sphere,
Harmonize strangely with the divine
Love. I, in mine, celebrate the love-choir.
Appalled by the moral discontinuities of human behavior, he is also shaken by his own response to them, which mingles revulsion with fascination.
Hill longs for moral coherence. He would like to close the gap between what he knows himself to be and what others see in him. So also the orders of family, society, and government show him a dispiriting view of possible goods corrupted by indeterminate evils. Though he wishes to find his own integrity, Hill dismisses the way of transcendence and the way of withdrawal from the world: he will not blame the devil for our villainy or look to the realm of pure spirit for salvation. Integrity is meaningless for him apart from experience, and experience must involve him in the corruption he loathes. Ideally he would be a priest-king-poet, one who could order the chaos, sanctify the routines of communal life, and celebrate the goods of the natural world.
In his poems on such subjects, Hill tries to stir the reader up with strong rhythms, a mingling of coarse and sublime particulars, and a tone of ridicule pierced by sorrow. He strains to be compact and explosive, gnarled and bruising. The effect is not fortunate. One gets the impression of muffled outcries rather than furious eloquence.
The domestic equivalent of civil wars is the ambivalence of sexual passion. On this topic Hill’s self-mockery and irony are more appealing than on the grand themes of moral outrage. Giving himself the name of Sebastian Arrurruz (for St. Sebastian and the arrows of love), he has written a set of agreeably wry, stylized laments over the memory of lost love; and in the sequence he manages to smile ruefully at the very scheme he is executing:
Oh my dear one, I shall grieve for you
For the rest of my life with slightly
Varying cadence, oh my dear one.
Hill’s latest poems are a series of prose pieces devoted to an imaginary spirit of the English Midlands. This figure is the poet as reincarnation of King Offa, ruler of the British kingdom of Mercia in the eighth century; and it represents that union of private and public, history and immediacy, that Hill wants. The poems are called “Mercian Hymns,” and ambiguously celebrate the poet’s links with his own region as if they were scenes from a monarch’s life.
The tone varies from mock-epic to elegiac, as sour memories of childhood and maturity mix dreamily with impressions of landscape and the artifacts of Offa’s reign. Most of the hymns are too unsure of their direction to reach a significant goal, but a few capture the grotesque wistfulness of a talented boy’s conceit.
So a quarrel with a classmate over a toy plane merges happily with the wars of an eighth-century king named Ceolred and with Offa’s interest in coinage:
Ceolred was his friend and remained so, even after the day of the lost fighter: a biplane, already obsolete and irreplaceable, two inches of heavy snub silver. Ceolred let it spin through a hole in the classroom-floorboards, softly, into the rat-droppings and coins.
After school he lured Ceolred, who was sniggering with fright, down to the old quarries, and flayed him. Then, leaving Ceolred, he journeyed for hours, calm and alone, in his private derelict sand-lorry named Albion.
Nobody who reads Hill’s collection will doubt that he has the attributes of an excellent poet. But his desire to produce stormy emotions with a few calculated gestures seems wrong for his technical resources; the quasi-sublime rhetoric does not move one, and the poet probably knows it. I suspect that his anger and self-mockery are due as much as anything to the frustration he feels over his lack of an authentic voice.
Geoffrey Hill thoroughly understands the dialectic of good and evil within the self, and its relation to the moral ambiguities of history and society. He is well on the way to a moving poetic style—less powerful, I think, than he would like it to be, but strong enough for his purposes. “Mercian Hymns” probably brings him to the edge of his best work, which is still to come.
Gary Snyder does not take Hill’s road to moral coherence; and his new book represents not so much a development as a hardening. As usual he mixes Zen Buddhism and American Indian mythology with a dislike of urban industrialism and an exemplary concern for the wilderness. An attitude that might be called stoic primitivism dominates his social philosophy. Like most primitivists, Snyder assumes that human nature is essentially disposed to benevolent conduct. To account for social evils, the primitivist has to blame institutions that corrupt our native disposition.
If he were logical, he would then try to show how benevolent dispositions can give rise to evil institutions. But this problem is one the primitivist does not like to contemplate. He prefers to treat technology, urbanization, mass production as modern aberrations which people can be taught to abandon.
Yet there are good reasons for connecting those recent phenomena with gigantic improvements in the conditions of life of men below the station of the ruling class; and there are equally good reasons for believing that before the advent of those phenomena most lives were threadbare, uncomfortable, and nightmarishly dependent on the caprice of men in power. Mature and thoughtful minds hardly need to be informed of such truths.
Snyder’s doctrines are more attractive to younger minds, to those who have given up the relations of necessary dependence—that of citizen to a half-corrupt government, or son to aged parents, husband to a disagreeable wife, or sibling to a dumb brother—and who are strong, bright, and attractive enough to make their way in a voluntary society of people like themselves. According to Snyder, human beings are “interdependent energy-fields of great potential wisdom and compassion—expressed in each person as a superb mind, a handsome and complex body, and the almost magical capacity of language.” He never explains how one is to care—joyously and spontaneously—for the old, the ugly, the frail, the stupid.
In his untrammeled free verse, Snyder supplies illustrations of the life spent in harmony with natural rhythms. He represents this as painlessly available to those who truly desire it. In the routines of Snyder’s own family—healthy husband, devoted (and tireless) wife, two good-looking infants—the chores and mutual responsibilities appear to be deliciously compatible with individual freedom. The relation between his children is summed up by the boy’s gesture of patting the baby brother on the head, when he is sad, and saying, “Don’t cry.” If there are jealousies, rivalries, quarrels in this family, the reader is never told. Perhaps there are none.
Yet when one examines it, the life of harmony with natural rhythms—and with the community of all living men—appears voluntary and without stress only for those who accept the doctrine of stoic primitivism, i.e., for the saving remnant. Talking about the wrong-minded others (i.e., nearly all of mankind), Snyder sounds less permissive. “Must” is the auxiliary he favors. The need for haste, in the face of nuclear bombs and the pollution of the environment, is too great for him to feel like waiting for gradual, voluntary conversions.
Those who like Mozart’s operas, art museums, and cheap books may wonder just how these will be supplied when all the world is tucked away in places like Marin County. Snyder does not linger over these issues. He says that wastefulness, for example, “must be halted totally with ferocious energy.” We have heard these impersonal verbs before, in the mouths of Robespierre and his benevolent descendants; and although the poet himself renounces the use of force, history tells us what his impatient followers may attempt. As Snyder puts it, “Nothing short of total transformation will do much good.”
January 22, 1976