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 took to understand Milosz were a knowledge of Polish history. Of course Hass wishes to keep his eye on Milosz’s long and full career, not to “distract” us with ways and means of translation. But precisely in this eliding of the linguistic and cultural difficulties of Milosz’s work—which Hass is better placed to appreciate than the rest of us—something valuable vanishes from the essay. Nor is a joke on the subject of one’s own linguistic ignorance a way out of the difficulty. Writing on a (translated) poem by Tranströmer, Hass speaks of looking “across the page, with edified ignorance, at the Swedish.” “Edified ignorance,” as a phrase, is full of charm, not least the charm of honesty; but charm is not a secure base for criticism. Hass continues, on Tranströmer, in what seems to me a self-contradictory statement:
This is the way I come at Baltics which I like to read. I can’t know how good a poem it is because I know it only in Samuel Charters’ translation, but it is very interesting to me. Tranströmer is one of the most remarkable European poets of his generation.
Surely this is not satisfactory. Did Keats know how good Homer was in Chapman’s translation? If so, how? How does Hass know that Tranströmer is a remarkable European poet if he cannot know how good the poem is? Does he like to read it because “it is very interesting to me” or is it very interesting to him because “I like to read” it? The reader yearns for something more hardheaded here: a sense of questions asked, by the author, of himself, before he set pen to paper.
In Smith’s book, the questions posed and answered before the writing began would have had to be of a different order. Smith tends to press on us large declarative sentences:
Poetry is a dialect of the language we speak, possessed of metaphorical density, coded with resonant meaning, engaging us with narrative’s pleasures, enhancing and sustaining our pleasure with enlarged awareness. In comparison to ordinary uses of language, this dialect is characterized by efficient discipline: of sharper imagery, focused symbols, connotative power, deployed rhythmic suggestion.
If this is all equally true of the novels of Dickens or Proust or the criticism of Carlyle (as it is), then what is the reason to predicate it only of “poetry”? The prior question might have been asked: Is there anything that can be said of “poetry” that is not true of Proust or Dickens or Carlyle, and if so, what? In his wish to praise “poetry,” Smith is, here and elsewhere, really praising all imaginative writing, all poesis; but he could have made the extent of his claim clear—or restricted the claim to what is peculiar to lyric.
Robert von Hallberg—to take another example—writes, speaking of the work of James Merrill, “For Merrill, energy, invention, and ornamentation—not signification—are what make poetry.” But he does not suggest how signification can ever be said, in speaking of poetry, to be something different from those very qualities of energy, invention, and ornamentation. Nor does he explain where signification could be said to lie, if not in the invention of energetic words which, with their musical and figural ornamentation, correspond to the state of mind in question. Von Hallberg offers, as an example of Merrill’s tendency to periphrasis, two lines “describing a ski lift.” The two lines seem to him a leisurely self-indulgence: “Economy be damned: Merrill takes time to have fun.” The two lines in question are:
Prey swooped up, the iron love seat shudders
Onward into its acrophilic trance.
Now these two lines are not “describing a ski lift”; they describe one’s feelings in committing oneself to that ski lift, a different matter entirely. One feels like Ganymede scooped up in Jovian iron talons; the seat, made for two, resembles those porch gliders or love seats made just big enough for courting; the seat (with no visible machinery in it) lurches upward as though it had a reverse psychosis to acrophobia; one feels abducted, a forced participant in its mad love of heights. “I feel I have been swooped up by a bird of prey, clapped into an Iron Maiden ‘love seat,’ and made an unwilling partner in a folie à deux” is what this passage, very economically, “signifies.” The “invention” and “energy’ and “ornament” are its means of signification, and what it describes is a brief moment of panicky inner sensation, not a ski lift. Whether lyric “signifying” is properly the mimesis of a thing (a ski lift) or a state of mind (here, comic panic) is a question that one wants von Hallberg to have faced, if only to make his argument more persuasive.
I am only too painfully aware that exactly these reproaches could be uttered—have been uttered—about my own essays on poetry. And I do know the impossibility of a return to first principles before each sentence one commits to paper. However, we have all recently been put on notice, by the salutary sternness of literary theory, that our terms are likely to be interrogated, and that we might first interrogate them ourselves. And though nobody likes to be reminded of this obligation, I take the reviewer’s—and fellow practitioner’s—privilege to make the reminder, as much to myself as to the writers under review. Poetic language is itself so finely discriminating that it must impose a practice of discrimination and nuance on its critics as well.
The conduct of any critical argument is evinced as much by its tone as by its premises, as Matthew Arnold knew when he criticized the prevailing tones—evangelistic, assertive, homiletic, denunciatory, hortatory—of the English criticism of his day. He thought it entirely too “Hebraic,” and urged a “smiling Hellenistic lightness” (James Merrill’s words) on English public discourse. Arnold’s own flexibility and sardonic wit can be said to stand for the Hellenic form of argument, over against Carlyle’s Hebraism. Eliot’s criticism—the most powerful of the twentieth century in English—descended more directly from Arnold than from Carlyle or Ruskin, and it set the “cool” analytic tone of the New Criticism, which aimed at the casual sophistication of the French causerie withouth ever quite attaining it.
It is improbable that any of these three European models—the Hebraic, the Hellenic, the causerie—could survive unchanged in the United States in this last quarter of the twentieth century. They were in fact challenged by the lively, intimate comedy and pathos of Randall Jarrell’s reviews, so absorbing his reader into the joint enterprise of appreciating poetry that they seemed a letter from a friend. But Jarrell’s wit and sureness of taste could not become repeatable; he established no school. The Hebraic model has been of use to Marxist and feminist criticism in their earlier stages, but both have rapidly become increasingly academic, theoretical, and speculative. The gracious lightness of the Hellenistic model has been more visible in the writing of foreigners—Frank Kermode and Roland Barthes come to mind—than in the work of American-born critics. The causerie repels the earnest American mind by its relaxation of manner. When we interrogate the three books under review, we find the Hebraic tone still with us, but wearing its rue with an American difference.
In the work of the two poets, Hass and Smith, a determined effort toward the colloquial (by contrast to the discursive or written model) keeps asserting itself. Academic writing may seem to the poet too enslaved to the head, too unconscious of the body, too much that of the scribe, too little that of the bard, manifesting too strongly the formal written character, too little the genial social utterance. Both Hass and Smith want to rehabilitate the personal essay. Hass’s essay “Images,” after quotations from Blake and Eliot and Basho, continues:
My wife in the lamplight is rubbing lotion into her skin and examining mosquito bites. That morning we had been lying on warm granite beside a lake the melting snow fed and her breasts are a little sunburned.
Two pages later we are back to Chekhov, Williams, Cézanne, Blake, Wordsworth, Machado, and Milosz. A few pages later:
I am a man approaching middle age in the American century, which means I’ve had it easy, and I have three children, somewhere near the average, and I’ve just come home from summer vacation in an unreliable car. This is the selva oscura.
Moments of such bathos mark the difficulties of the tone Hass has chosen. This kind of writing, while wanting to be social, informal, and seductive, is in fact so stylized—in its intimacy-to-total-strangers—as to be unsettling. Or perhaps this is only the Californian manner, and we will all be doing it in a few years. All critics feel some confidence that the course of their sensual life has reverberations in their intellectual life (and vice versa), but it is not certain that interpolated narratives of the one belong in the testimony of the other.
When Hass writes plain criticism (as in his admirable expositions, for the common reader, of the work of both Rilke and Milosz), he is interesting, learned, and deft, though sometimes, to my taste, sentimental. He is too fond of coercive words: terrible, painful, wonderful, terrifying, agonizing, mysterious, shocking, raw, seductive. Such words not only say “Admire with me”; they are shopworn. I know, from experience, Hass’s difficulty here; one wants not only to describe a great writer like Rilke but also to praise him, to draw attention to his qualities in terms the general reader will recognize as praise. Poets feel so keenly that academic teachers dilute the intensity and volatility of poetry that they press ever harder, in their own writing about poetry, to insist on the passional investment that art calls for from its readers.
Dave Smith shares this insistence of tone, especially in urging on us, in two essays, the power of Robert Penn Warren’s poetry:
What terror now not to know what had been certain reality, to have to conjecture “perhaps” and to relive the old contingencies, the old hope of continuity—and what courage to make this choice!… For even if the promise of reality will be only the scalding of flesh and the not-knowing, passion is all. Passion is feeling; man is feeling; poetry is feeling. In his self-interrogation Warren rejects his earlier Tempest tone and, like Lear, calls on the crack of winds.
The tone heard here—a very American one—is that of the lay sermon, in which the spiritual instruction of a pupil is undertaken by a spiritual initiate. What is odd, in both Hass and Smith, is that this celebratory, initiatory, and hortatory tone coexists, as I have said, with remarks from the sensual life of every day. Smith’s essay on Richard Hugo begins:
I had been rereading Richard Hugo’s poems during the 1979 World Series in which the all but trounced Pittsburgh Pirates made a stunning and memorable comeback to win going away. I remarked to a friend watching that last televised game that Hugo was the George Raft of poetry. I meant to imply that Hugo was a player of tough-guy roles. My friend, without blinking, said that Hugo was instead closer to the manager of the Pirates, or would be if he chewed. We were, I think, both right.
A paragraph later, the tone has changed to the academic:
Reading Richard Hugo’s Selected Poems one discovers a poet of unusual continuity in vision and execution. There are the benchmarks of change and of some evolution, but he does not show the radical alterations of style or thought which mark his contemporaries.
A few pages later, we are listening to a lay sermon:
[Hugo’s] poems depend upon his own hard self-accusations: he drinks too much, he wastes himself, he lacks courage, he is fat, ugly, uneducated, unsophisticated, inferior, an orphan. Who among us isn’t all that? Who isn’t a wrong thing in a right place? And who doesn’t carry imagination’s dream of getting right, that particular fervor of our national mission?
What is implied by such changes of tone, cohabiting in a single essay, is a refusal to take a single position or to accept a single form for critical writing. Is an essay on poetry an anecdotal conversation between friends, or a critical description, or an exhortation to a higher self-scrutiny? Does it descend from the familiar letter, from the gloss on the sacred text, or from the sermon? The control of tone in Samuel Johnson, in Arnold, in Eliot, even in Jarrell, means that they were surer of their authority of position and of the homogeneity of their putative audience. Critical practice in America nowadays suggests that the critics are not sure of themselves or of the audience they address.
This uncertainty about where one stands is visible even in the third book under review here, a book written by a university critic for an academic audience. Unlike the books by Hass and Smith, it is not composed of occasional essays directed by the expectations of a particular journal or by the presumption of a general audience. Nonetheless, von Hallberg too mixes the formal with the vulgar:
On occasion Merrill can be snotty, often when he deals with people he considers, if only for the sake of a poem, his inferiors.
Or he can move into the homiletic tone of spiritual instruction:
Pinsky writes with confidence that not every perception needs to be rendered striking in order to count as poetry; the importance of much of life rests on its being understood in common with others, live as well as dead. That too is richness, though it is bare of braveries.
Usually, however, von Hallberg maintains an academic distance. When that distance becomes jarring, one begins, reading him, to sympathize with the poets and with their wish to break down that distance. Here, for instance, is “Hell,” a war sonnet by Lowell:
“Nth Circle of Dante—and in the dirt-roofed cave,
each family had marked off its yard of space;
no light except for coal fires laid in buckets,
no draft of air except the reek, no water,
no hole to hide the excrement. I walked,
afraid of stumbling on the helpless bodies,
afraid of going in circles. I lost the Fascist
or German deserters I was hunt- ing…screaming
vecchi, women, children, coughing and cursing.
Then hit my foot on someone and reached out
to keep from falling or hurting anyone;
and what I touched was not the filthy floor:
a woman’s hand returning my wor- ried grasp.
her finger tracing my lifeline on my palm.”
And here is von Hallberg’s comment:
The poem moves nicely toward its emblematic conclusion (Lowell rather liked to close poems with tableaux…).
One may find, as I do, that this comment moves rather too quickly outside the poem it addresses; it recoils, one could even say, from the inner shape of startled contrast in the poem—the stumble, the expectation of the filthy floor, the surprise of the human hand. The poem, considered from the inside, ends not with a “tableau” or an “emblem,” nor is it “moving nicely” toward a conclusion. Rather, it ends with a moment of surprise, gratitude, steadiness, conveyed in the three quiet verbs “touched,” “returning,” and “tracing,” after the powerful kinetic verbs “hit,” “reached out,” “falling,” “hurting.” It is the tendency of the academic critic to stand aloof and say, “Nice conclusion; emblematic tableau.” Von Hallberg continues, of the ending, “Its point is perfectly clear. Human mortality is the thing that can keep us from hitting absolute bottom.” It is this too rapid moving on to “points” and propositional summings-up that sets poets’ teeth on edge, and presses them to stress instead the dynamic inner movement of the poem.
These examples are sufficient to show how baffling it is to attempt to write well about poetry. Not only can one offend by a too-rapid movement to précis; there are other perils. One’s critical language is always in danger of being usurped by, or contaminated by, the metaphoric and passional language of the poet in question; and the more original and powerful the poet, the greater the likelihood of such contamination. Critics of Warren begin to sound grand and visionary, of Hugo, tough and hard-bitten, of Rilke, yearning and delicate, of Stevens (as I know from my own prose), Francophone and rhapsodic. The alternative, of course, may be to sound remote and external to the poetry.
But a greater problem for those of us writing commentary on poetry is the American compulsion to “communicate,” intensified by our profession as teachers. The wish to reach out to audiences rapidly becomes a tendency to write down to them. We assume that readers need paraphrases of works written (after all) in their own language, and that they require a rehearsal of elementary moral attitudes. None of us, I fear, escapes such tendencies. But it is worthwhile occasionally to remind oneself that one’s writing exists first of all as a way of explaining things to oneself, and not to others. All of us—including the three writers under review—become most interesting when we address a question genuinely unanswered when we sit down to write.
There are such questions in each of these books, since each contains an implicit argument about contemporary American poetry. Each of these critics is answering for himself the question “Which recent poets have moved me, or assuaged me, or enlightened me in powerful ways?” There is some overlapping of the answers, and some difference in the perspectives; but these critics (all of them near the age of forty) are essentially defining and defending their own youthful attachments of twenty years ago. These are all really books about the Sixties.
Dave Smith, himself a southern writer, argues for the importance of Robert Penn Warren and James Dickey, as well as for James Wright, Richard Hugo, and Philip Levine. These are all “masculine” poets (though in different ways) and they are perhaps less attractive to women (I speak for myself here) than to men. Penn Warren writes in large elemental terms, with a cosmic sense of the degree to which nature and man are pitted against each other and yet constrained to a symbiosis; he reaches for the grandest of words, the most transcendental of symbols, the most ambitious claims of moral vision (even when that vision is despairing or occluded). His poems open themselves out into long, loose-limbed sequences, ranging far in space and time. Smith loves this large reach in Warren, and writes generously about it, for example in a passage on a poem about migrating geese:
All bodies of the world’s body are husks, vehicles, containers, for that current which may pass through even small wires. Energy is life. Warren is recalling the totemic and hieratic images that for fifty years have served toward defining the condition of joy: hawk, owl, beasts, lovers, landscapes of crag and sublime contrast…. It is not, therefore, surprising that even in this ferociously eschatological reexamination of everything, Warren would return to [the migrating] geese, to his feeling for that image of what was moving in the blind darkness. He had felt his passion was mirrored in the unchosen and lyrical yearning of the geese.
As usual, Smith’s emphasis—here as in his other essays—is on the poet’s repertory of images. Smith is far less likely to examine the poet’s words as such—yet this is where an adverse criticism of the poets he admires would begin. Warren’s image of the migrating geese in the poem “Heart of Autumn” may in itself be a moving one; but can the same be said of Warren’s language about it? In watching the geese, Warren says, he feels himself transformed:
…I stand, my face lifted now skyward,
Hearing the high beat, my arms outstretched in the tingling
Process of transformation, and soon tough legs,
With folded feet, trail in the sound- ing vacuum of passage,
And my heart is impacted with a fierce impulse
To unwordable utterance—
Toward sunset, at a great height.
A reader might well be put off by the tough legs with folded feet, by the awkwardness of syntactic difference between the apparently parallel arms and legs, by the phrase “my heart is impacted with,” by the unpleasing changes of rhythm, and by the nineteenth-century “sublimity” in the words about inexpressibility at the close. A poem can of course survive such difficulties, and perhaps Warren’s poem does. But I would like to see greater recognition of the questionable nature both of Warren’s language and of his large moral assertions (Smith quotes approvingly, “Passion / Is all. Even / The sleaziest”). A criticism that loves imagery is likely to slight both phrasing and syntax.
Smith is more willing to concede problems in Philip Levine’s writing. His praise reveals some of the qualities he values in a poet, as he says of Levine:
Though he takes on the largest subjects of death, love, courage, manhood, loyalty, etc., he brings the mysteries of experience down into the ordinarily inarticulate events and objects of daily life. His speaker and subject is the abused and disabused spirit of the common yet singular self. He risks the maudlin, the sentimental, the banal, and worse [in order to be] “A man alone, ignorant / strong, holding the burning moments / for all they’re worth.”
In poets like Levine and Hugo, a rough confrontation with the ordinary, in order to make it articulate, stirs Smith’s admiration. His fine essay on Hugo—the best, to my mind, in the book—sums up in a quick and excellent portrait sketch the way in which the life of one male writer might speak to that of another:
Fatherless and abandoned by his teenage mother, Hugo was raised by elderly, severe grandparents in White Center, Washington, then a semi-rural, poor suburb of Seattle. Enforced churchgoing left him feeling he owed something, spiritually dunned all his life. Shy, awkward, and isolated, he believed himself not only the cause of his ill fortunes but also unregenerately weak, worthless, and ever “a wrong thing in a right place.” He grew up admiring local toughs for their violent courage. He extended this admiration later to sardonic movie stars, detective heroes, and British Royal Air Force flyers, who seemed to have a stylish, right manhood. He feared, hated, and coveted girls, and compensated by making himself a skilled baseball player, fisherman, and dreamer. His tutelary spirits appeared early and never abandoned him—waters, sky, hills, ocean, fish, birds, and drunks. All meant unimpeachable and continuous acceptance, private dignity, and sweet, if unrecognized, belonging.
In a passage such as this, Smith’s narrative talent and gift for description carry the reader into Hugo’s sensibility with consummate ease. James Wright’s poetry of the depressed Ohio working class moves Smith to another form of identification; and he can say of Dickey’s “wandering hero” that though he is “engaged in motorcycling, hunting, flying, climbing mountains, or making love,” nonetheless he is “like most Southern writers, divided in his loyalties to the self as macho realist and the self as intellectual.”
It is clear that these were the poets whom Smith depended on in the Sixties and Seventies for spiritual kinship and sustenance. He can read other poets with appreciation—there are commendations here of Sylvia Plath and May Swenson, for instance—but those are admirations from a distance. The question, “How can a man act and yet think, plunge into nature and yet live in the mind?” is the most urgent one for Smith and for the poets he most warmly recommends to our attention; this question generates his canon.
Robert von Hallberg’s central question has to do with what he calls “culture poetry”—a poetry that speaks from, of, and to the center of its own culture, rather than from an adversary position. Von Hallberg argues against the view that supposes that the poet must always be an outlaw, speaking from the margins of society to a coterie of other marginal listeners, occupying himself with esoteric or hermetic concerns. Von Hallberg wants to prove that there have been, between 1945 and 1980, many American poets who shared the general experience of other American citizens, and wrote about those central experiences in an accessible language embodying centrist positions, political and cultural. This is an interesting and fresh argument, and von Hallberg makes a persuasive case for it, up to a point.
Von Hallberg is writing a sociology of literature in the Fifties, Sixties, and Seventies while leaving out the chief protest movement of that era, the Beats. Of course he excludes them a priori, since his intention is to write about poets taking positions at the center of things and writing of widely shared experiences. But his chapters nonetheless cry for inclusion of the Beats, whose positions may now seem more central than they did at the time. A chapter on “Tourism” that leaves out Ginsberg’s poems of Europe and India, a chapter on “Pop Culture” that leaves out the Beats’ original incorporation of pop culture, a chapter on “Politics” that leaves out the Beats—these are impoverished chapters, finally.
Because the topics of von Hallberg’s book are so interesting, one wants to see them fully treated; and a full treatment of tourism, politics, and pop culture in poetry between 1945 and 1980 would be good to have. However, von Hallberg wants to exclude “outlaw” poetry, and so the Beats must go. But what dictates that Ammons be excluded, and Ed Dorn included? One must simply take von Hallberg’s canon as the grouping of poets who have meant most to him—Turner Cassity, Ed Dorn, John Hollander, Anthony Hecht, Robert Lowell, James Merrill, Charles Gullans, Robert Creeley, Robert Pinsky, James McMichael—a selection that has the virtue of originality and new combinations. Lowell and Merrill are rather uneasily accommodated in the argument, since von Hallberg slights Merrill’s poems of sensuality (not a centrist experience?) and Lowell’s poems of domesticity and divorce in favor of Merrill’s poems about tourism and Lowell’s about politics (the topics under which they are treated). Von Hallberg—with tastes resembling those of Yvor Winters for the rational and the metrical—in effect compiles a selective anthology of contemporary poetry to show that various common American activities—going abroad, engaging in political action, participating in pop culture, living in suburbs—have entered American poems. (Von Hallberg argues as well—perhaps truly, but I think unconvincingly—that systems analysis too has entered American poetry, notably in the work of Robert Creeley.)
Von Hallberg raises, by the topics he chooses, the question of what lyric poetry ought to be doing about social questions. He tends to praise poets (Charles Olson, for instance) for a “commitment to didactic, discursive poetry” and to suggest that social structures and positions are ripe material for poetry:
As a subject for poets, the recent history of intellectuals is rich, complex, and central to the national culture. Moreover, most of the audience for poetry comes from this class, which makes the analysis and representation of the subject all the more compelling.
Though von Hallberg is right in fearing that poetry can thin itself out to insignificance when it forgets the social and public life, I think his notion of social responsibility in poetry is too narrow. He laments:
From the end of World War II until the early 1960s American poets had little to say about the differences between the intelligentsia and the working classes…. Poets seldom spoke of the one corner of the class structure that concerned them most directly. [Italics mine]
“To say about” and “to speak of”—von Hallberg’s verbs—suggest that the only way poetry can include political and social realities is to make statements about them. This is the criterion used by Allen Tate when he remarked that Keats’s ode “To Autumn” was a beautiful piece of style but had little to say. (Geoffrey Hartmann has shown that it has everything to say about social change in the way it alters the structure of the Greek cult hymn and attitudes of worship.) It may be that discursive “speaking of” is not lyric’s way of embodying social realities. “In truth,” said Yeats, “we have no gift to set a statesman right”—but he did not mean by that, as his work shows, that one could not embody political and cultural realities in verse. Von Hallberg limits the means of lyric when he wants from it discussions of the class structure or differentiations between the intelligentsia and the working classes.
The great work of reinscribing social and political content in lyric has to be done anew in each generation. Tennyson’s “Idylls” and Browning’s monologues did it for the Victorians; for us, it was done by the great modernists. But because the modernists often embraced cultural positions that the larger American public did not ratify, that public, von Hallberg believes, began to think that poets (such as Pound and Eliot) were always on “the other side.” And because modern poetry was difficult (his argument continues) the public gave up on the reading of poetry altogether. Now, the mere sight of lines of poetry frightens average readers, who need, in his view, to be reassured that there is a great deal of contemporary poetry that they could both read and ratify. Hence his book.
It’s an argument to which one may accede with some reservations. The reasons why the general public does not read poetry are probably neither political (“Read those outlaws? those fascists? never!”) nor psychological (“I could never figure out that difficult stuff”). Rather, the reasons for the marginal status of lyric poetry tend, I would guess, to be largely historical and institutional. Poetry is not systematically and intensively taught in America as it was in Europe; since most world poetry does not reflect American history or culture, it was thought irrelevant to our nation. Each European nation cherishes its poetry (and the classical poetry born on the same soil from which it grew) as part of the deposit of patriotism, and therefore institutionalizes it in the schools. There are no such reasons for America to institutionalize Virgil or Milton. To demonstrate that poetry is really about your life and mine and can be understood without difficulty cannot institutionalize poetry in America if a large social commitment to it as a patriotic value does not exist.
That large social and educational commitment may eventually be made here, at least to American poetry (it is probably too much to hope that it will be made to classical and European and English poetry). And von Hallberg’s reminder that American poetry embodies a great deal of American cultural history, as it has been experienced by large numbers of Americans, will help perhaps to create that commitment. Dave Smith and his chosen canon of poets remind us, too, that the Depression, industrialization, worker migration, and so on also appear in the contemporary lyric. It is useful to be told—especially in the moment of the private lyric—that a poet can aim at the entire social experience. Von Hallberg’s chief example of such a poet is Robert Lowell. Yet von Hallberg is uneasy with Lowell, for reasons not explicit, but which may be deduced from the ways in which Lowell does not fit von Hallberg’s demands:
It is proper…to ask of the very best political poets…that they offer guidance on particular political issues, that they be of abiding help in the determination of political policy (that we ask of political poetry at least as much as we do of political prose)…. If we ask of political poetry only that it be surprising, opinionated, extreme, we would sell poetry short because along with such a notion goes the belief that prose, not poetry, bears the greatest intelligence and utility in regard to our collective public life.
Although Lowell certainly believed in the political witness of poetry, he did not use his poetry to give advice for public policy. In fact, he referred to a letter to the President attempting to give such advice as “my manic statement.” Lowell’s poetry narrates his own political actions and fears; it is autobiographical rather than homiletic. Even the most powerful poets (Milton, Wordsworth) have turned to prose when they wanted to address political affairs directly. The symbolic nature of poetry, and the discursive and explanatory nature of prose, obtrude themselves here, and von Hallberg should perhaps have explored the generic differences that press a poet entering political discourse toward the use of prose.
Von Hallberg is far more comfortable when he writes about the poetry of his contemporaries Robert Pinsky, James McMichael, and Frank Bidart—all of them with connections to California. These poets lie well inside his central wish—that American lyric should reflect the surrounding American culture. All of them are explicit and discursive poets, without prejudice toward the common life, about which they all write with unforced sympathy (von Hallberg accurately perceives a patronizing of the common life in some other poets purporting to treat it). Von Hallberg has high praise for Pinsky’s An Explanation of America (“one of the markers by which the literary history of this period will be known”) and for McMichael’s Four Good Things (“I can imagine no greater justification of the line of culture poetry during the last four decades than that it led to a book of such range of feeling and delicate intelligence”). This praise, however, avoids engaging the question of flatness of language in such poetry:
Pinsky writes with confidence that not every perception needs to be rendered striking in order to count as poetry; the importance of much of life rests on its being understood in common with others, live as well as dead.
This passage, it seems to me, confuses two things—the nameable experiences we all share (love, grief, etc.), and a believable rendering of those (very intangible) experiences in language. To clothe common perceptions in striking language, not to enunciate striking perceptions, is the function of poetry. Every perception, without exception, does indeed, in poetry, need to be rendered strikingly; it does not need to be rendered striking. All poetic language is language strenuously composed beyond the requirements of information, and therefore striking, perhaps most striking when most apparently “transparent.”
One of the most provocative of von Hallberg’s chapters takes up explicitly the question that the two other books under review here take up implicitly—the question of the poetic canon. Von Hallberg believes that critics consciously set canons (the books that should be read, or studied in school, or anthologized) in order to establish standards of judgment for an audience, and that they thereby cooperate in an ultimately political objective:
Canonists worry about what will enable a community of readers to distinguish first- from second-rate thought and expression. A national canon stands as proof that such distinctions can be made so as to command assent; that the nation asks from its writers support for its policies, at the very least its educational policies; that one national objective is to preserve, by education, a hold on the past and a claim on the future.
I don’t think that most of these assertions hold water. A recent issue of Critical Inquiry (of which von Hallberg is an editor) was devoted to the question of the literary canon, and in that issue Hugh Kenner established, briefly and clearly, what to me seems the truth of the matter—that canons are not made by governments, anthologists, publishers, editors, or professors, but by writers. The canon, in any language, is composed of the writers that other writers admire, and have admired for generations. The acclamations of governments, the civic pieties of anthologists, the hyperboles of marketing, the devotion of dons, have never kept a writer alive for three or four hundred years. It is because Virgil admired Homer, and Milton Virgil, and Keats Milton, and Stevens Keats that those writers turn up in classrooms and anthologies. And writers admire writers not because of their topics (Blake and Keats thought Milton quite mistaken in his attitudes) but because of their writing. And writers admire writing not because it keeps up some schoolmasterly “standard” but because it is “simple, sensuous, and passionate” (as Milton said)—strenuous, imaginative, vivid, new. The canon is always in motion (as Eliot reminded us, and as formalists have always known) because new structures are always being added to it by subsequent writers, thereby reshaping the possibilities of writing and of taste; but the evolving canon is not the creation of critics, but of poets.
As for the nation asking from its writers support for its policies, at the very least its educational policies, it is hard to imagine any free modern nation either making such a request or obtaining such support (dictatorships are another matter). No writer of any substance would support what passes, in most modern nations, for elementary and secondary education in the humanities—rote learning, indifference to the mother tongue, and a complete absence of genuinely subversive, fanciful, imaginative, or critical thought. Von Hallberg genuinely wishes—as who does not—that America could export a coherent high culture along with its pop culture. And perhaps in time that may happen. But it is not so easy to have a canon here as in a comparatively tiny and homogeneous European country. The very diversity of taste in the three books under review suggests that we have, for the contemporary scene, an Yvor Winters canon, a southern male canon, and a Californian canon. One could easily add a women’s canon, an East Coast canon, a black canon, a Naropa canon of Buddhist writing, and so on.
Robert Hass’s Californian canon is a polyglot one. Like von Hallberg (they were both trained at Stanford), he admires Wright, Creeley, McMichael, and Lowell, but he adds Tranströmer, Brodsky, Milosz, and Rilke, judging them to be normal possessions for the younger American poet. As indeed they are, along with Neruda, Amichai, Vallejo, Zbigniew Herbert, Trakl—the list could be extended almost indefinitely. The contemporary American poet-critic is far more likely to read across—in world poetry of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries—than to read back in English verse. (A well-known poet and teacher of creative writing remarked to me, unashamed, that he had never read George Herbert.)
Most of the aspiring young poets in creative writing classes know no poetry by heart. It looks as if the classical and English canon may be slipping out of our grasp, to be replaced by a modern canon of unrhymed and translated pieces. This will surely not stop the mighty workings of the imagination, and Hass’s book demonstrates how powerfully Milosz and Rilke have entered his ways of thinking about poetry. And yet what can substitute, in a poet, for a hoard of poems in the mother tongue, known so intimately that they become nature, not art? (Of course it is even better if the poet has three or four mother tongues, as Milton did.) In this way, Pope was nature, not art, to Byron; and Tennyson to Eliot; and Shakespeare to Browning. Can Rilke, in translation, be nature in the same way to Hass?
The anxieties revealed by these books center on the use of poetry and the claims that may be made for poetry. The ritual and liturgical uses of poetry have so far vanished that it seems unlikely that they will reappear; (even the memory of them is so far faded that Hass can mistranslate the Latin hymn he sang as a boy, rendering “Pange, lingua” as “Eat, my tongue” instead of “Sing, my tongue”).
None of the three writers dares claim only an aesthetic value for poetry. Von Hallberg wants a directly civic value, Smith and Hass want an ethical value, all three want a strongly mimetic value and a strongly communicative value. These are of course questions not to be settled in a review, but I myself think aesthetic value, properly understood, quite enough to claim for a poem. No matter how apparently mimetic it may look, a poem is an analogous, not a mimetic imitation, algebraic and not photographic, allegorical and not historical. What it represents, ultimately, is its author’s sensibility and temperament, rather than the “outside world”—but of course that sensibility and temperament have been shaped by the historical possibilities of the author’s era. Thus, in representing a sensibility, the poem does represent a particular historical moment. The poem ingests, it is true, the outside world (which it uses for its images, it symbols, and its language), but it does so, as Marvell said, in order to color everything with the mind’s color, reducing to zero (“annihilating,” said Marvell) the entire creation into its own mentality:
The mind, that ocean where each kind
Doth straight its own resemblance find;
Yet it creates, transcending these,
Far other worlds and other seas,
Annihilating all that’s made
To a green thought in a green shade.
Even the civic, even the ethical, take on, in the achieved poem, that suffusing green—and so become not the civic or the ethical but “Wordsworth’s sensibility in an ethical moment” or “Lowell’s sensibility musing on civic virtue”—another of the protean “fire-born moods” (Yeats) of the mind, another waving of the various light in the mind’s plumes (Marvell), another snowflake (Merrill), “another bodiless for the body’s slough” (Stevens). Naturally, all kinds of ethical and civic topics turn up in poetry, as do trees and flowers and ladies’ eyes; but they are all material for the transformation into green. Once they are “greened,” they enter into the dynamic system of relations in the poem, and their allegiance is reordered in that magnetic field, which extends outward to the entire oeuvre of the poet, and thence to culture itself. The referentiality of language in a poem is more inward than outward, even when the topic of the poem is a civic or ethical or mimetic one.
This does not mean that a poem has no subject but itself or language; on the contrary, a poem may very well be about one’s mother, or the march on Washington, or the Warsaw ghetto. But it is about such things as they figure in the psychic and linguistic economies of a particular body of work; and those economies are taxing, subtle, and complicated systems to describe. No short essay can do them justice; not even many books (when a great poet is in question) can do them justice.
Because language is the medium of poetry, and language cannot, when used according to any of the possible rules of its coding, not communicate, there is, it seems to me, no need to worry about poetry’s “communicating” itself. All poems grow easier with time, even The Waste Land. And there is no need to worry about “universality” or speaking for everyone. “The true poem has a single human voice…yet it is also the echoing voice of all men and women,” according to Smith. This is to claim too much: “It is the vice of distinctiveness,” said Hopkins, “to become queer.” Perhaps all good poems are in this sense very odd, in order to be distinctive, serving a restricted group of readers (as perhaps Smith’s own “masculine” poets do) in order to represent the very distinctions upon which experience and language depend.
In trying to speak for “all men and women” the poet risks losing selfhood altogether. The United States is probably one of the less coherent nations of the world, and poets rightly feel uncertain about their canon, their audience, and their culture. Eight thousand years from now, when American culture is as old as European culture now is, our descendants may find themselves in possession of a consolidated and homogeneous culture. For the moment, we have to be patient with our own diversity, and even rejoice in it.
All three of these books contain ambitious and successful essays inviting the reader to appreciate the poetry that the author admires. I think especially of Smith on Hugo and Wright, of von Hallberg on Pinsky and McMichael, of Hass on Milosz and Rilke. The two books by poets both contain personal essays as well, among which Hass’s reflection on images and Smith’s fragment of autobiography (“An Honest Tub”) help to define the poetic vocation as they experience it. All three books are uneven and uneasy as they protest too much, in terms not well defined, the value of poetry. Their very uneasiness seems to me a sign that criticism assuming an authoritarian and impersonal voice (concealing, as we know, many private anxieties and a poetic program) is being challenged in a personally revealing, awkward, and morally hortatory American style, confiding and hectoring at once. It sets all the old questions of commentary up for investigation once more, and that is surely what each generation of critics is born to do.
November 7, 1985