The Renewal of Literature is an Emersonian essay in cultural criticism; Emersonian, because many of its concerns—originality, power, genius, language—are Emerson’s, and because Richard Poirier’s procedures, like Emerson’s, are interventions rather than sequences of argument. Indeed, the book may be interpreted as a development of Emerson’s assertion, in “Self-Reliance,” that “power ceases in the instant of repose; it resides in the moment of transition from a past to a new state, in the shooting of the gulf, in the darting to an aim.”

But I must go against the spirit of the book to the extent of describing some of its instants of repose, its resting places.

The first is an attack on “the humanistic intentions and values commonly ascribed to the arts,” the belief that “the writing and reading of literature have a culturally redemptive power.” Poirier argues that “this belief cannot be sustained by the actual operations of language in literary texts.” Literature itself “shows the futility of this quest for truth, values, and exaltations.”

The particular values that Poirier ascribes to humanism are those that endow the human presence in the world with the birthright of selfhood. Humanism encourages us to believe that everyone is, apparently by divine definition, a continuous entity, whether it is called self, as in psychology, or soul, as in morality. Each self acts in the world by virtue of the energy that we call its will: a lapse into passivity marks a crisis in our humanity and, if it persists, a disaster. The reading of literature is supposed to sustain us because it shows the obstacles the will has to surmount and its eventual success in those endeavors.

Poirier is casual in defining the humanistic tradition. Perhaps he thinks it sufficiently described as Arnoldian. But Arnold points in many directions. The humanistic one would be best indicated by a reference to I.A. Richards as marking its culmination, because in Science and Poetry (1926) Richards claimed that “poetry is capable of saving us.” Arnold thought that poetry would save us by enabling us to retain the emotions of spirituality without having to believe in anything. Richards thought it could save us by showing, in achieved poems and fictions, that the inevitable conflicts among our impulses may be resolved. The equilibrium of a central nervous system in good working order is Richards’s model, since it is constantly subject to shocks and constantly recovers itself.

In The Renewal of Literature, as in Poirier’s previous books, when Arnold is arraigned T.S. Eliot isn’t far behind. But Eliot can’t be blamed for humanistic consolations. In “The Humanism of Irving Babbitt” (1928) he attacked humanism as a specious substitute for religious belief. In “Arnold and Pater” (1930) and again in The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism (1933) he rounded upon Arnold for setting up Culture in the place of Religion, and leaving Religion “to be laid waste by the anarchy of feeling.” Eliot’s view was “that nothing in this world or the next is a substitute for anything else; and if you find that you must do without something, such as religious faith or philosophic belief, then you must just do without it.”

I will describe in a moment how Poirier intends to discourage the humanistic exaltations, but first I have to mark the second of his resting places. This is an attack on Modernism; or rather a complaint that Eliot single-handedly captured literature on behalf of procedures we now call modernist. These procedures were his own, to begin with, and then by affiliation those of Pound, Joyce, and Wyndham Lewis. Eliot contrived to establish Modernism as identical with modern literature by enforcing the impression that his own practices in poetry corresponded to historical inevitability and therefore were of great consequence. His “promotional genius,” as Poirier calls it, had its immediate impact upon F.R. Leavis in England and, in the US, the conservative “Fugitive” critics, notably John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, Robert Penn Warren, and Cleanth Brooks. A few years after the publication of The Waste Land and Joyce’s Ulysses, these critics presented the procedures of Eliot, Pound, and Joyce as virtually canonical.

The clearest sign of Modernism was the immediate difficulty of the works in question, especially The Waste Land, Ulysses, and Pound’s Cantos. Poirier refers to

the effort by a particular faction of writers to promote the idea that in twentieth-century literature, difficulty is particularly necessary and virtuous, and, second, in the complicit agreement, by a faction of readers, that the act of reading ought to entail an analogous degree of difficulty attributable, again, to cultural dislocations peculiar to this century.

This account of the rhetoric of Modernism elides some important details. Ransom wasn’t enchanted by Eliot or The Waste Land; he reviewed the poem harshly, and quarreled with Tate about it in both public and private. I don’t know that Ransom and his colleagues took much account of Joyce till Finnegans Wake appeared in 1939 and Ransom wrote about its aesthetic implications. In the early days the New Critics were concerned just as much with Conrad and Yeats and Hardy as with Eliot. But I don’t quarrel with the general outline of Poirier’s literary history, and I agree that the widely used text Understanding Poetry (1938) by Brooks and Warren, and Brooks’s Modern Poetry and the Tradition (1939), worked much in Eliot’s favor. I agree, too, that difficulty, especially in the form of paradox and a range of historical and mythical allusions, soon began to count as a sign of the artist’s scruple and conscientiousness.


Poirier argues that one of the dismal consequences of establishing Modernism under Eliot’s domination was the suppression, in American universities and colleges, of every other sense of literature and life. The particular neglected sense for which he cares is Pragmatism, specifically the version of it that he traces back from Dewey, William James, and C.S. Peirce to Emerson. He maintains that the pragmatic tradition running or darting from Emerson to the philosophers and certain poets—notably Frost and Stevens—was overshadowed by Modernism and, until recently, “kept in hiding or repressed.”

The connection between Emerson and American Pragmatism was first made, so far as I know, by Kenneth Burke in his Attitudes Toward History (1937). Burke took some of his evidence from the chapters in Ralph Barton Perry’s The Thought and Character of William James (1935) that deal biographically with Emerson and the elder Henry James and then with the relation between the latter and his son William. Critics of Emerson, notably Harold Bloom in his Agon (1982), have been emphasizing the Pragmatist side of Emerson. Richard Rorty’s essays, especially those gathered in Consequences of Pragmatism (1982), have provided a vocabulary in which some relations between Pragmatism and literature may be discussed; though he hasn’t drawn the line of Pragmatism back as far as Emerson.

I gather from George Herbert Mead’s Movements of Thought in the Nineteenth Century that the first commandment of Pragmatism is that “the process of knowing lies inside the process of conduct.” Knowledge apart from its role in determining conduct is not to be considered. In that characterization, I don’t see how Pragmatism is a philosophy at all; it is rather a method of proceeding, an expedient to avoid the delay of dealing with metaphysical questions. A Pragmatist doesn’t ask, What is Truth or Being or Substance, but rather, What are the likely consequences if I assume that such-and-such a state of affairs is or is not the case? Dewey’s Experience and Nature, William James’s The Meaning of Truth, Pragmatism, and A Pluralistic Universe allow me to think that Pragmatism is a labor-saving device by which the true is declared to be, as in James, “the good in the way of belief.” What Pragmatism recommends is “the attitude of looking away from first things, principles, ‘categories,’ supposed necessities; and of looking towards last things, fruits, consequences, facts.” I can’t see how a Pragmatist would have anything to say about last things, but about intermediate things he would be encouraging. The political value of Pragmatism is also clear, and I note that the best thing about Dewey, according to Rorty, is that he used philosophy “as an instrument of social change.”

Pragmatism is useful to Poirier because it helps him to trace certain congenial attitudes continuously from Emerson to Frost and Stevens and to find them still active in Norman Mailer, John Ashbery, A.R. Ammons, and John Hollander. The crucial attitude is a willingness to live by change, transition, and mobility, rather than to demand the security of an ontological guarantee. The Emerson whom Poirier reveres is the one who recommends practices that can’t quite be performed, workings that can’t be content to end as works, thinking so volatile that it resists the fate of sinking to rest as a thought, genius that acts upon the means rather than toward the end. Like Emerson, Poirier would have us dart from whatever system is in place to acts that disrupt it; from the syntax of a language to the interventions that dissent from it; from a concept to the performative utterances that play upon its surface. He is something of a Luddite in these incitements, but I concede that for each of them he has Emerson’s authority, and he quotes his master brilliantly.

Occasionally, Poirier’s reading of Emerson is debonair, and I am left wondering why he needs to be so bold. Here is one such passage:


More than Cooper in Home as Found, more even than Henry James in the book on Hawthorne, Emerson saw that America’s bareness did not make it innocent of inherited culture. It actually made it more complicit, as if the country’s “enormous disproportion of unquickened earth” (Journals, October 1842) totally exposed it to foreign radiations.

But this is not what Emerson says in the Journals for that date:

This feeling I have respecting Homer & Greek, that in this great empty continent of ours stretching enormous almost from pole to pole with thousands of long rivers and thousands of ranges of mountains, the rare scholar who under a farmhouse roof reads Homer & the Tragedies adorns the land. He begins to fill it with wit, to counterbalance the enormous disproportion of unquickened earth. He who first reads Homer in America is its Cadmus & Numa, and a subtle but unlimited benefactor.

“Exposed it to foreign radiations” isn’t anywhere implied in Emerson’s passage.

It is a problem, as acute in Emerson as in Poirier, that the rhetoric of transition and mobility which enhances the darting rather than the aim makes the aim, the substantive resting place, seem far more stolid than it is or has to be in practice. The state departed from, too, has to appear dogged, by comparison with the force of mind that flies from it. Poirier writes of the psychological or moral self, either in the humanist or the Christian dispensation, as if it were fixated upon its unity; but, whatever may be the case with humanism, the moral self according to Christian morality is agent and victim, and if without grace, it is more liable to chaos, temptation, and sin than to unity of self. Again when Poirier writes of language, he makes it appear a glum and literal-minded structure, like Esperanto, until the game of “troping” begins. By troping Poirier means,

the turning of a word in directions or detours it seemed destined otherwise to avoid. Thus Emerson, admitting in Nature that “the charming landscape which I saw this morning, is indubitably made up of some twenty or thirty farms,” owned by people he then proceeds to name, goes on to say that “none of them owns the landscape. There is a property in the horizon which no man has but he whose eye can integrate all the parts, that is, the poet.” This is a nice example, because even while Emerson is troping on the idea of possession, he is at the same time claiming that the power to trope is greater than any more obviously economic power.

Poirier is always dividing language in this way, as if some form of dualism were an obligation:

“Genius” is commonly assumed to involve a mastery of the codes and signs by which a culture structures itself. It therefore also offers a clue to any latently subversive content that these codes and signs might have accumulated during their long passage through many histories. Marvell’s punning is an example of this, as is Thoreau’s; so, too, is Shakespeare’s troping of words within different contexts.

But Marvell’s puns, like Thoreau’s and Shakespeare’s, are not external to English, any more than is Emerson’s “landscape”; they are already in the language. It is factitious to represent a language as if, say, a metaphorical capacity had to be introduced to it, on the analogy of invading forces external to the structure they try to enter. At every point in his consideration of language, Poirier divides it into an official institution and, as if outside the walls, guerrilla forces commanded by a genius.

It would be an irony if a rhetoric in the service of transitive energies were to set up constraining roadblocks additional to those it hoped to dislodge. One of the embarrassments of language is that it tends to turn inchoate conditions into nouns. In The Renaissance Pater speaks of “objects in the solidity with which language invests them.” So it may be the case that the nominative flair of language is preventing Poirier, as it prevented Emerson, from converting his favored energies into gestures on the move. But in any case I can’t follow him when he implies that the relation between troping and the language in which it occurs is one between freedom and constraint. My trope is no more mine than is the language in which, against which, and from which I turn. Troping is only an abstract name for acts performed in a language already dirty from previous handlings. If I choose to call it freedom, I am free to do so. But the freedom can’t be absolute, or set off against a correspondingly complete constraint. Each is relative to the other.

The difference between Poirier and me on this issue is that he distinguishes too neatly, I think, between language as “a heritage of tropes already made” and “the better heritage of troping itself.” It seems to me a false distinction, since troping, the moment it is performed and has become a trope, is inseparable from the first heritage. There is no better or worse. There are only certain linguistic practices, which in one light seem free and in another seem constrained. Late in the book, I find myself in full agreement with Poirier when he says that Stevens, with Emerson, “shows that if the individual is bound by Fate, then freedom is one of the characteristics of Fate.” But in the next sentence he says that “the poem, the act of writing going on in the poem, is itself the audible and inferably visible evidence of that freedom.” I would want to say, “of that freedom-and-Fate.”

I think I understand why Poirier wants to keep his forces separate while I would not much distinguish them. The reason becomes clear in a crucial passage on Emerson:

He was ready to teach us, long before Foucault, that if we intend ever to resist our social and cultural fate, then we must first see it for what it is, and that its form, ultimately, is the language we use in learning to know ourselves. Language is also, however, the place wherein we can most effectively register our dissent from our fate by means of troping, punning, parodistic echoings, and by letting vernacular idioms play against revered terminologies. Through such resistances, more than through directly political ones, sporadic evidences might emerge of some truer self or “genius.” Language is the only way to get around the obstruction of language, and in his management of this paradox Emerson shows why he is now and always essential.

A revisionist Defence of Poetry might be composed in that spirit. Literature exists, according to Poirier, “to challenge the inherited forms of language.”

It exists in and through the act by which it questions what at the same time it proposes; it challenges in one period—in one phrase—the images predominant in another, and it exposes as a figuration, a shadow, any term, like “human” or “natural,” which the culture at large may want to idealize for its own political or historical convenience.

It is a beautiful sentence, but I trust that literature would also interrogate its own idealizing acts just as sharply as those of “the culture at large.” “Human” and “natural” are not the only ideologically guilty words.

The Renewal of Literature offers, as a development of Richard Poirier’s earlier books and especially A World Elsewhere, The Performing Self, and Robert Frost: The Work of Knowing, a rhetoric of action and performance. Its terms of praise include: “transitive,” “vehicular,” “mobile,” “kinetic,” “volative,” “antagonist.” A political motive is evidently at work, and I can have no objection to such an aim. Poirier would wish, like Rorty’s Dewey, to use language and literature as instruments of social change. But his motive is a long-term one, it doesn’t put social institutions at immediate risk.

Indeed, I am not sure that it puts those institutions at risk in any particular way. Poirier is not proposing to displace Eliot, Joyce, and Pound. He can hardly claim that Frost, Stevens, Mailer, Ashbery, Ammons, and Hollander are neglected authors. It would make a certain pedagogical difference if a claim for equal time were lodged in universities and colleges on behalf of the Emersonian tradition as an alternative to the tradition of Modernism. But there are now so many diverse canons running around university corridors that an additional one wouldn’t disturb the authorities. I am sure the academy would regain its composure, having made a few adjustments to the curriculum.

What difference would Poirier’s program make to current axioms about the “self”? I feared, for a while, that the difference would be a major one, and that “the self” would become a disgraceful phrase however mildly recited. At one point Poirier says that the writing of literature in the Emersonian vein “quite naturally induces the supposition that the very idea of man, of the individual, of the self, ought to be done away with altogether.” Naturally? Surely not: the supposition could only arise if one cultural force were to defeat another. But to mitigate the threat, I find that in another chapter Poirier allows that the self may be retained provided it is risked and recuperated on the site of every act performed and is not regarded as a continuous blessing or a birthright:

The self can, however, be located here and now, not by reflection but, so far as Emerson and William James are concerned, by virtue of “acts.” These acts are variously named—“resistance,” “antagonism,” “transition,” “abandonment.” None has to do with compliance. They are reactive to any particular mode of expression, even the one you yourself might have chosen, if it threatens to fix identity or to locate it in some socially accredited idea of the human.

Why then is Poirier’s book subtitled Emersonian Reflections? And why is his relation to the Emersonian mode of expression so little reactive and so much a matter of endorsement? But I grasp at the straw, and am assured that I can locate my self by virtue of certain acts which, like the act of dissenting now and again from a major critic, I am willing to perform. My view is: any port in a storm.

A further question arises, but one to which Poirier has a vigorous answer. What would the self do if its existence were to depend upon certain acts and if it were to be disabused of the humanistic comforts? Poirier urges the self to consider the possibility of disappearing. But it turns out that even in this intimidating notion there is a saving clause. “I will be showing,” he says, “how passages of writing, even as they call for self-erasure, unavoidably also call attention to the self as a performative presence in the writing.” Indeed, the Emersonian self is often found imagining states of feeling and states of being that it does not feel obliged to carry into practice. It is a strange form of Pragmatism which encourages me to engage in negation so that I may enjoy the capacity to negate. But I have no quarrel with a program in which I can have a place, however lowly.

But I still have to ask whether or not Poirier’s book implies a new kind of reading. Sometimes he seems to doubt the efficacy of either writing or reading. “The prologue to this book,” he writes, “as well as my earlier A World Elsewhere, is meant to refute the illusion that any effort of style can radically transform history or language or effectively break the coherencies they impose upon consciousness.” He finds this doubt in Emerson, too, who “became less sure that acts of turning, troping, overturning, and the like could accomplish anything beyond their own literary exemplifications of human will and desire: one could do at least that much for want of anything more efficacious to do.”

In the event, Poirier proves himself not a new kind of reader but a superlative reader in an accepted tradition. No new concept of criticism is entailed by the passage, extraordinarily responsive and generous, in which Poirier says that Eliot “became a poet precisely because he embraced those conditions which prevent others from becoming one, of being ‘moved’ by something even while not knowing what to make of it.” Or by the passage, still on Eliot—“he moves, falteringly, toward the formation of images and concepts which dissolve as soon as he has reached them”—which makes Eliot’s poetry sound wonderfully Emersonian; except that Emerson apparently made such moves experimentally and Eliot because he couldn’t help himself.

But the skills that make Poirier a better reader than almost anyone else are most on show in his account of some poems by Stevens, including “Death of a Soldier.” It is not easy to draw Stevens into the fellowship of Pragmatists: there is little or no evidence of a relation to William James, Dewey, or Peirce. His indebtedness to Santayana, Vaihinger, Valéry, Mauron, and many other writers suggests that he preferred to trust his hunches in these matters, and to proceed opportunistically. Poirier doesn’t claim that Stevens was a Pragmatist, but he shows what some of Stevens’s poems come to, if you read them in an Emersonian light.

Poirier’s main antagonist in the interpretation of “Death of a Soldier” is Harold Bloom, chosen because Poirier regards him as a major critic limited by humanistic assumptions. I shall not come between them. It is enough to say that where Bloom sees in the passing of clouds at the end of the poem “the movement of a larger intentionality,” as if the poem pointed consolingly to a continuing life, humanly sensed, despite the soldier’s death, Poirier disavows the desire for consolation: “Stevens has phased the poem into a mood wherein the human will, instead of registering its supposedly inherent resistance to self-dispersal, simply relaxes into it.”

What Poirier seems to be offering, as an epitome of many such experiences, is the pleasure of a disengaged imagining, freed from the responsibility of maintaining a unified sense of self. We are to relax, with Stevens in “The Death of a Soldier,” even—or more especially—among situations conventionally held to be deprivations.

The alternative possibilities—of discovering a form of the human which emerges from the very denial of its will to become articulate, or of looking at a landscape from which the familiar human presence has been banished and of enjoying this vista without thinking of deprivation—these are options few readers seem willing to take, even when the writing invites them to do so.

I don’t at all mind taking the option, since taking it is itself an act of will. If I choose to enjoy the bareness of a landscape, I so choose, my will is still affirming itself in its abeyance. Besides, Stevens has a poem for every mood, he is a mind for every season. He can be quoted, like Emerson, to nearly any purpose. When I hear him in Pragmatist company, I recall another poem of his in which a man finds that “the will demands that what it thinks be true.” I recall, too, that in “Circles” Emerson says that “our moods do not believe in each other.”

This Issue

June 25, 1987