John Ashbery
John Ashbery; drawing by David Levine

What an ambitious project for a critic to undertake! It’s usually the poets who are in the business of prophecy. Poets have always been introspective about their art and never more so than in these last two centuries when everything from religion, philosophy, morality, to the social order was constantly being questioned. It was not easy for some of them to continue writing the same old verses in the same old way while the world all around them was talking about revolution and freedom.

Since the Romantics, poetry has engaged in a critique of all of its past assumptions, not only in order to construct a new kind of poetry, but to question everything from morality to metaphysics. There was to be no longer one official truth impermeable to change, but many individual ones grounded in experience that each poet needs to examine for its authenticity, as if poems were a laboratory for all human endeavors. What is scandalous about the polemical pronouncements and manifestoes of poets since the end of the eighteenth century is their conviction that truth, which now eludes religion and philosophy, can still be found in poetry. “A poet participates in the eternal, the infinite, and the one,” Shelley writes in A Defense of Poetry, and then defines a poem as “the very image of life expressed in its eternal truth.” It’s lucky that the Church no longer tortures and burns heretics, otherwise being a poet would be the world’s most dangerous occupation.

Poets in the United States usually speak with more reverence for authentic experience than for the imagination. They cultivate strategies to make themselves sound sincere, as if poems were eyewitness accounts of real events and not artistic creations. We forget that Homer was blind, and like every good poet who came after him, he saw more with his eyes closed than most others see with eyes wide open. Poetry is one activity in life where consummate liars are not only admired but completely trusted. Of course, the hope for any poem is that it will convince the reader that this is exactly what happened, even if it did not.

With the advent of realism in fiction in the last century it was inevitable that poets, too, would start fretting about verisimilitude. How does a poem go about representing reality? Can language be a mirror? Perhaps it can, but not an ordinary mirror. Walt Whitman, Ezra Pound, and William Carlos Williams were only a few of the American poets discussed by Angus Fletcher who thought they had answers to these questions. What makes it tough on critics is that theory and practice rarely form a continuum since the relationship between reality and imagination keeps changing from poet to poet, and even from poem to poem, so that what often seems to be one turns out to be the other, or even more confusingly, a mixture of the two.

Angus Fletcher has a reputation as one of our most insightful Renaissance scholars and most wide-ranging theorists of literature and the arts. Among his previous books, the best known are The Prophetic Moment: An Essay on Spencer, Allegory: The Theory of a Symbolic Mode, and Colors of the Mind: Conjectures on Thinking in Literature. The Old Testament, Herodotus, Vico, Coleridge, Calvino, Stevens, Don Quixote, Milton’s Satan, and Visconti’s Death in Venice all come up in Colors of the Mind, a loosely related collection of essays on the ways in which the experience of thinking is conveyed in literature. Fletcher can write perceptively about the language of prophecy in Renaissance poetics, literary transparency or obscurity, the gnomic sentence and phrase, and he reflects on the possibility of silent thought. He is a collage artist. He gives the impression of having read everything from philosophy to modern physics as he juxtaposes ideas from these seemingly unrelated disciplines to shed new light on literary works. He is a critic who seeks the epistemological foundation of literature with a daring and originality that one rarely encounters today.

Fletcher’s new book boldly sets out to describe what is most American about American poetry and to envision the future of the poetic imagination in America. He wants to do for us today what Emerson did 150 years ago for his contemporaries, by writing a work that would have the same kind of broad cultural relevance. Whitman is correct, Fletcher says, in thinking that poetry is elemental for democracy and that our democracy implies an artistic revolution. He breaks with critics who see American poetry as being little more than an extension of the Romantic tradition and emphasizes what he calls our pragmatic tendencies, which beginning with Whitman have given us another poetics that in his view has not been fully acknowledged or extensively explored. What the early settlers found here as they stepped ashore was time removed from history, “a scene of unparalleled newness whose only signpost pointed to the unknown future.” It caused them to gradually forsake faith in the intricacies of older faiths and to become empiricists:


Whatever works has always been the American motto, as critical as e pluribus unum, although one wonders if they do not amount to the same sentiment, while before these slogans could take root, Americans experienced a long foreground of European natural history, and then the great intellectual divide, the publication in 1859 of The Origin of Species. Then at last an ancient poetic wisdom moved into communication with a profound and comprehensive scientific vision. This science continues to advance alongside the poetry we have seen anticipating it and to this day accompanying it. When it is working right, poetry is a kind of knowledge and always anticipates science in a free and imaginative fashion. Poetry has the advantage of being set free from assuming the burden of proof.

This sounds right, but can it be the whole truth in a country where the teaching of evolution is still a controversial issue? If it is, then our poets with their empiricism and their secularism are really at odds with the majority of their fellow citizens who are deeply religious and suspicious of scientific evidence. Leaving that aside for now, Fletcher is right; by considering the work of some poets he will see that something unprecedented has taken place in literary history. He proceeds to show what that is by examining the poetry of John Clare, Walt Whitman, and John Ashbery, whom he regards as key figures responsible for a revolution involving democracy, environment, and the imagination.

His first example is the English poet John Clare (1793–1864). A poor, land-laboring peasant who had little schooling and who still managed to accumulate a considerable library, he wrote many poems and essays on the natural world, politics, corruption, poverty, and rural folk life. In 1837, Clare had a mental breakdown and was admitted to an asylum. Four years later, we are told, he discharged himself and walked the eighty miles home in three and a half days, living on grass he ate along the way. Later that year, he was certified insane and was committed to an institution where he lived for the next twenty years until he died in 1864. For Fletcher, Clare was like a journalist whose native fields and woods were his beat. He took note of everything he came across, no matter how commonplace, delighting in what he saw:

so I went on with my heart full of hopes pleasures and discoverys expecting when I got to the brink of the world that I coud look down like looking into a large pit and see into its secrets the same as I believd I could see heaven by looking into the water so I eagerly wandered on and rambled among the furze the whole day till I got out of my knowledge when the very wild flowers and birds seemd to forget me and I imagind they were the inhabitants of new countrys the very sun seemd to be a new one and shining in a different quarter of the sky still I felt no fear my wonder seeking happiness had no room for it I was finding new wonders every minute and was walking in a new world often wondering to my self that I had not found the end of the old one the sky still touched the ground in the distance as usual and my childish wisdoms was puzzled in perplexitys.

Like Thoreau, who connected walking and writing, Clare had a love affair with perception. What we simply see, in all its immediacy, is what interests him. In his ability to wonder, and to take up that wonder as his guiding light, he reminds Fletcher of Pre-Socratic philosophers, such as Heraclitus, who rejected the mythical and religious tradition of their ancestors for a view of the world in which natural processes were no longer the whim of the gods but something to be studied with thoughtful attention. They were the first empiricists who were not satisfied with mere assertions, but who tried to gain support for their theories from the direct study of nature. Fletcher is wise not to overstretch this alleged resemblance between the two. Anaximander, Heraclites, Parmenides, and the rest of them were as fond of abstract speculation as they were of observation. Clare, on the other hand, has eyes firmly on the ground. He doesn’t go around looking for surprises; he just finds them:


I found a ball of grass among the hay

And proged it as I passed and went away

And when I looked I fancied something stirred

And turned agen and hoped to catch the bird


When out an old mouse bolted in the wheat

With all her young ones hanging at her teats

She looked so odd and so grotesque to me

I ran and wondered what the thing could be

And pushed the knapweed bunches where I stood

When the mouse hurried from the crawling brood

The young ones squeaked and when I went away

She found her nest again among the hay

The water oer the pebbles scarce could run

And broad old cesspools glittered in the sun.

The virtue of such poetry, according to Fletcher, is that it records without a need to pass final judgment on experience. In place of edifying thoughts on the miserable condition of the animal and its resemblance to our human predicament, the poem emphasizes the unplanned, the casual, the intensely and precisely observed. The mouse, who doesn’t appear particularly perturbed, simply runs back to her nest at the end of the poem. In contrast to a Romantic like Wordsworth, Clare immerses himself in the world; he doesn’t stand apart and hold forth. For him, perception comes before any other mental categories. Clare prefers to describe what he saw, Fletcher says, rather than build it into a rhapsody of Platonic themes. He resists allegory and takes the world as he finds it. What concerns Fletcher, especially, is the way the environment that surrounds the alert eye of the poet becomes a principle for organizing the poem.

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

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

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

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

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


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

Withdrawn I join a group of children watching, I pause

aside with them.  

By the curb toward the edge of the flagging,

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

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

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

light but firm hand,  

Forth issue then in copious golden jets,

Sparkles from the wheel.

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

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

broad shoulder-band of leather,

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

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

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

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

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

Sparkles from the wheel.

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

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

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

His theory becomes far more plausible when he turns to John Ashbery’s poetry. As a poet of fragmented consciousness, immersed in dailiness, for whom even his own identity is a perennial issue, Ashbery is the ideal subject for Fletcher:

But since I don’t understand myself, only segments

of myself that misunderstand each other, there’s no

reason for you to want to, no way you could….

As Fletcher says of Ashbery, “the lyric ‘I’ is forever being diffused into You, He, She, and We and They, and various kinds of It,” so that a poem of his becomes a special kind of fragment—what is conventionally called the beginning and the ending has been removed. By frustrating all the usual expectations of coherence, the poem pushes the reader into the unknown. It’s a poetry where the reader has to be ready for digressions, and whatever other surprise comes along. According to Fletcher, poems of this kind are dedicated to showing how we adapt to the environments into which we are thrown by life. If they work, the poems have a way of adapting themselves to meet communicative needs of the reader at many levels. This, of course, is true of poems in general, but never more so than in Ashbery. In any case, Fletcher’s theory works better with Ashbery’s long poems like “Flow Chart,” “A Wave,” and “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror” than with short ones, like this one from his new book2 :


After the shouting in the wilderness

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

behold I handle you, mournful love,

like a scene in a cigarette pageant.

Your face is as white as linen on a board.

I pray that the skies will soak up your electricity,

the birds founder and come to heel,

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

and tragedy draw his petticoat across your face

because it doesn’t happen enough.

A lifeboat almost swamped by shrugs, your famous kisser

now floats over all American cities like a drapeau.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This Issue

May 12, 2005