Looking for Poetry in America

Twentieth Century Pleasures: Prose on Poetry

by Robert Hass
Ecco, 308 pp., $17.95

Local Assays: On Contemporary American Poetry

by Dave Smith
University of Illinois Press, 256 pp., $19.95

American Poetry and Culture, 1945–1980

by Robert von Hallberg
Harvard University Press, 276 pp., $22.50

What is there to say about a poem? about poetry? about a national poetry? about a poetry and the culture from which it issues? These questions animate the three books under review, which perhaps answer, rather than face, the hard questions that must underlie any critical remarks. We have no well-developed literary theory of lyric poetry, chiefly because Aristotle codified his poetics in the light of epic and dramatic poetry. The hard questions might be said to be: Is there anything at all useful that can be said about a lyric poem? If so, in what terms? Are the terms determined by the poem, by its own culture, by our culture, or by transcultural philosophic universals? Can a poem be taken as a sign of its culture and, if so, how? How does a critic or a culture arrive at canonical preferences? Is the poem as linguistic sign different from the poem as cultural token, and if so, how? Can the word “poetry” as a collective noun have any intelligible meaning? Is the meaning confined within a national and historical border (allowing one to speak intelligibly of “English poetry” or “Greek poetry,” but not of “poetry”)? Is “poetry” mimetic, a representation of an external world? If so, is it mimetic through its images, or through its internal structures, or in some other way? Is all poetry necessarily narrative, even the briefest Iyric?

Every act of practical criticism, as the theorists remind us, assumes positions silently taken on these questions. Someone who often makes a pronouncement about “poetry”—as the poet Dave Smith does—assumes a universal notion to which the word must refer. Someone who entitles chapters “Tourists,” “Politics,” and “Pop Culture”—as Robert von Hallberg does—assumes that a cultural and social mimesis can be found in poetry. Someone who groups essays on Lowell and Creeley with essays on Tranströmer and Milosz—as Robert Hass, also a poet, does—claims the right to describe poetry written in languages he does not read.

In these books, arguments about basic premises—Is “poetry” a possible object of thought? Is it legitimate to read poems as sources of, or reflections of, cultural practice? To what extent can one “understand” a poem one reads in translation?—are not put forth. There are practical arguments justifying the omission. Two of these books—those by Hass and Smith—are largely collections of reviews or occasional essays directed at the general reader; the third, von Hallberg’s, hopes to cover a fair amount of cultural and historical territory. Yet in each case one would have liked some consideration of first principles, some account of stumbling blocks, some justification of the road taken. And one would like to be sure that some of the theoretical questions had been silently put, and satisfactorily answered, before the writing of the essay was undertaken.

Robert Hass, for instance, writes about Milosz (whom he has translated with the help of a native speaker of Polish, and of Milosz himself) as though Milosz were writing in English, and as though all it…

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