Rx for American Poets

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…

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