Robert Archambeau, Stephen Burt, Ben Mazer
Based on talks presented at the Grolier Poetry Book Shop in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on March 14, 2014.
You Will Object: Notes on The Future of Poetry
As a coward and an academic, if that is not redundant, I must begin with a caveat: the future is hard to predict. But with that out of the way, let me say this about the future of poetry—two things are certain: it will be ubiquitous, and it will rhyme. And I’m not just talking about subtle rhyme, or ‘background rhyme,’ to steal a term from my illustrious co-presenter Stephen Burt—not just the kind of rhyme that, in modern poems like Auden’s “Musée des Beaux Arts” or Larkin’s “Mr. Bleaney” “would not usually draw more attention to itself than [would] other aspects of the verse.” I’m talking about rhyme that pushes itself to the foreground to showcase a kind of virtuosity.
Almost any respectable contemporary American poet you’re likely to be thinking of eschews this sort of rhyme on all but the rarest of occasions, and for good reason. As Anthony Madrid puts it in his still unpublished history of rhyme, The Warrant for Rhyme, “The vast majority of perfect rhymes in English are in very heavy rotation during the many centuries of English rhyming. In order to fetch a rhyme pair that would in any way be novel in itself, a poet… would have to travel a great distance—and the resulting rhyme would very likely have the character of a stunt.” But stunts—amazing stunts, comic stunts, aggressive stunts— are exactly what the most prominent practitioners of rhymed verse in America want, and achieve. Consider, for example, the words of Clipse:
All the snow on the timepiece confusin’ ‘em
All the snow on the concrete Peruvian
I flew it in, it ruined men, I’m through with them
Blamed for misguiding their life
So go and sue me then
Or those of Jay-Z:
Rollin’ in the Rolls-Royce Corniche
Only the doctors got this, I’m hidin’ from police
All white like I got the whole thing bleached
Drug dealer chic
I’m wonderin’ if a thug’s prayers reach
Is Pious pious cause god loves pious?
Socrates asks, “whose bias do y’all seek?”
All for Plato, screech.
I’m out here ballin’, I know y’all hear my sneaks
Jesus was a carpenter, Yeezy laid beats
Hova flow the holy ghost, get the hell up out your seats,
These are, of course, the words of rappers. And their rhymed verse is ubiquitous in our culture, and certain to continue to be so well into the future.
But you object! Perhaps you’re thinking “that’s not poetry, that’s rhymed verse” and using one or another of the arguments made to disentangle the two (I like Wordsworth’s, from the “Preface” to Lyrical Ballads, but Milton’s attack on rhyme is good, too). In any case, you feel there’s been some kind of slight of hand—and since I’m nothing if not accommodating, let me allow the objection, and change my thesis.
So this—it’s difficult to predict the future of poetry, but two things are certain: it will be ubiquitous, and it will be so delicately suggestive and allusive that we would be forgiven for thinking it comes straight out of Mallarmé’s symbolist playbook. Consider what Mallarmé said when, in 1891, he condescended to an interview with L’Echo de Paris: “…there must only be allusion. The contemplation of objects, the images that soar from the reveries they have induced, constitute the song. The Parnassians, who take the object in its entirety and show it, lack mystery…. the enjoyment of the poem… derives from the pleasure of step-by-step discovery; to suggest, that is the dream.” This is ordinary enough as a statement of French symbolist poetics: Paul Verlaine makes much the same point in his poem “Art Poétique,” when he declaims “… nothing but nuance!/Only nuance affiances/Dream to dream and the flute to the horn!” But is this sort of thing really ubiquitous in America? And is it our future (as opposed to their French past)? Yes!
Symbolist poetics are everywhere. They might even be in your pocket, if you’re one of those people who still uses a Blackberry to check email and make calls. Consider the name of that device—the people who named it certainly did. When the marketing people at Research in Motion (Blackberry’s parent company) approached David Placek of the publicity firm Lexicon with the device, they wanted to call it the “Mail Merge.” Placek and his team hated the name, for much the same reason that Mallarmé hated the flat-footed poems of the Parnassians: because it offered nothing but accurate description. What was wanted was nuance, allusion, connotation—and so we got “Blackberry,” a one-word symbolist poem of great intensity. Think of it! Of how the word “Blackberry” brings to mind (and here I am filching from an essay I wrote for another context):
…the seriousness and the sleekness of high technology associated with ‘black’ and the fun, happiness, and freshness associated with ‘berry.’ It also brings about another association with fruit, which in the context of information technology invokes Apple, and therefore alludes to ideas of innovation, high standards, and the David who challenges Microsoft’s stodgy Goliath.
If the Blackberry is dying, it is by no means the fault of the gizmo’s name:
We’ve become used to product names concocted in this way, so it’s difficult for us to grasp how this means of creating brand names is specific to an advanced state of the consumer economy. The naming conventions that gave us “Blackberry” represent a real departure from earlier naming conventions. “Blackberry” is not a brand name like those of the earlier industrial period, when a product was called “Murphy’s Oil” because it was oil, and sold by Murphy.
New products don’t have names like “Heinz Tomato Ketchup”—they have names like “Swiffer,” or “Dasani”—also products of the good people at Lexicon. They’ve systematized symbolist poetics, and placed them all around us, in a manner that only promises to become more intense and all-saturating in the market-researched future.
But you object! You object, perhaps because the notion that Mallarmé has been kidnapped by Pepsico is too sad to bear. Or maybe because you wanted to hear about art poetry—the stuff people in the poetry biz think of as poetry. And since I’m nothing if not accommodating, let me allow the objection, and change my thesis.
So this—it’s difficult to predict the future of poetry, but two things are certain: it will be marginal, and it will become increasingly about itself. Consider the trajectory of American poetry from the publication of Michael Wigglesworth’s The Day of Doom in 1662, through the Fireside Poets of the mid and late nineteenth century on through the modernism of Gertrude Stein and more recent avant-gardes. If we compress that whole history into a few sentences, what we get is this. We begin with an astonishingly popular Calvinist tract in verse, produced with less concern for the art of language than with the work of saving souls. By the time we get to the Fireside poets, we see American poetry even more popular, with no respectable household lacking its book of verse. But it wasn’t the art that put those books into those households so much as it was the respectability: those poets were figures who gave voice to the middle class’ values. The poetry was at the service of expressing and upholding those values, and treasured for that reason.
Then things get strange. Poetry becomes much less about popular public morality, and more about things particular to itself. So instead of The Day of Doom we get Tender Buttons, which sets out to treat language as language, rather than as a vehicle for theology or the maintenance of public decency. With Stein, and with a host of more recent poets who admire her, we see poetry that really foregrounds language for its own sake—something that becomes so commonplace in poetry that, by the middle of the century, the linguist Roman Jakobson calls it “the poetic function.”
The movement from poetry as a popular means of soul-saving and public morality to poetry as a kind of special use of language for its own sake runs concurrently with the growth of a subculture specific to poetry (journals consisting of nothing but poetry and poetry reviews, academics hired to be poets, degrees in poetry writing, and so forth). And the trajectory toward specialization continues, with a movement away from language and toward commentaries on the subculture of poetry itself. This is, after all, a major topic of Conceptualism, the movement making considerable waves in the tiny teacup of poetry culture, if nowhere else. Consider, for example, Vanessa Place’s chapbook titled $20, which consisted of twenty one dollar bills stitched together, presented under her signature, and sold—as a work of poetry—for $50 each. It’s a commentary on cultural capital and on what happens when something becomes designated “poetry.” It’s also a lot more specialized than The Day of Doom, in that it means most to those who equipped to see it as part of, and a commentary on, the little demimonde of poetry (a world which did not exist in the America of 1662).
But you object! That movement into linguistic and institutional self-refection may be one future for poetry, but surely it isn’t the whole future, or even the whole of the past! Robert Frost, for example, who was the exact contemporary of Gertrude Stein, carried something like the Fireside poet tradition function into the modern period, and Robert Pinsky has carried it into the present. So you object. Very well, and since I’m nothing if not accommodating, I will change my thesis: but I warn you, this is the last time.
So this—it’s difficult to predict the future of poetry, but two things are certain: it will be marginal, and it will be everywhere. This sounds contradictory, but only until one accepts what demographers (and, especially, marketing firms) have come to accept as fact: there is no mainstream America, not anymore. There are only margins, or identity groups—and each identity group has its politics. And along with these identity politics come a myriad of identity poetics: poetry that sets out to articulate ethnic identity, gender identity, racial identity, disability identity, generational identity, regional identity, or even professional identity (consider cowboy poetry). Sometimes this poetry remains invisible outside of its micro-community, sometimes it is taken up by and celebrated in the institutions of the poetry world. David Kellogg once demonstrated that Adrienne Rich was the identity poet par excellence, since she “participates in, or is read as participating in, the social claims” of multiple identities—feminist, gay, and disability-based. This kind of poetry promises to grow with the increasing diversity of America, and the need for new groups to claim their place and articulate their values. It is a far cry from art for its own sake, this identity-articulation, and in some sense more vital for having greater reach: one is reminded of what Arthur Henry Hallam once said about his friend Tennyson, who grew popular for articulating the ideology of the rising English bourgeoisie: “whatever is mixed up with art… is always more favorably regarded than art free and unalloyed.” So if you didn’t like my earlier claim about the increasing specialization of poetry and the increasing centrality of language-as-language, let this latest thesis about the future of poetry warm your heart.
Of course my four theses—which amount to either six or eight certainties, if my math holds—are not mutually exclusive. In fact, each one of them refers to an element of poetry’s present, and to contemporary activities that draw on different elements of the past (rhyme, French symbolism, aesthetic autonomy, identity politics). And one thing is certain: in the future, poets will continue to find things in the past worth reviving. Which things, we can’t say for sure, because it’s hard to predict the past.
ROBERT ARCHAMBEAU’s books include the studies The Poet Resigns: Poetry in a Difficult World, Laureates and Heretics: Six Careers in American Poetry, the poetry collections Home and Variations and Slight Return: Remix and Ekphrasis, and the edited collections Word Play Place: Essays on the Poetry of John Matthias, The &NOW Awards: The Best Innovative Writing (with Davis Schneiderman and Steve Tomasula), and Letters of Blood and Other Works in English by Göran Printz-Påhlson. In 2015 his translation of the Belgian Surrealists Gabriel and Marcel Piqueray, Beyond Gestures, will be published. He teaches at Lake Forest College and blogs at Samizdat Blog.
At all times since the dawn of print there have been poets in English praised and overpraised by their contemporaries—“most of the poets were bad, most of the critics were bad, and they loved each other,” as Randall Jarrell complained: on the other hand, as W. H. Auden remarked, “no work is undeservedly remembered,” and there has been no time since the dawn of print when some poets were not creating something that we can enjoy and learn by reading today. Some of the work we love now won’t survive at all, which is no reason we shouldn’t enjoy it, but is perhaps a good reason to look more closely, to see why it is the way it is, and what else is going on.
And to see the present—perhaps alas—we might have to see trends: by looking at groups of artists, groups of works, we can avoid a too-narrow focus on our very favorite single works (which would make us useless to history if we guess wrong), and we can help see how our favorite works arose, what contemporaries (if any—but almost always there are some) our favorite artists had in mind. Trend pieces, as journalists often admit, are odious—“trendy” is an insult for a reason—but if we look for clusters, trends, nascent movements, established schools, we can pay attention to what poets are reading, as well as to who they are reading, and we can avoid the twin errors of judging everything sub specie eternatis right away, and of dispensing descriptive praise, and nothing but praise, to every single contestant in the race. Instead, we can see how they run together, what teams they seem to form, who learned from whom, where they are going, and what’s ahead.
We can also see what’s immediately behind; what’s over, and what’s almost over, what ground has been covered and then some. For example, I don’t want to read very many more two-page neo-Surrealist poems made of images unified only by the author’s tone, and I think we have had enough panels and essays entitled “Conceptualism vs. Flarf.” Poetry that lasts must have something personal. I have been reading the letters of Robert Frost, a frightening poet but a great one: he says that poetry “begins as a lump in the throat, a sense of wrong” (410). There must be something personal, serious, in it, some complaint that cannot be resolved without language, nor without figurative means; the best of Flarf, like the best of conceptual writing, like the best of the language writers, like the best of the hypertalk poets of recent years, like the best of the neo-Surrealists, had an element of personal complaint against the world as it is, which their theories all failed to disguise.
But Frost also says that “literature... is... almost too emotional for school handling, almost too insubordinate and unconventional. The one thing that it is bound to be is what it is not told to be” (320). Flarf and conceptualism and hypertalk and for that matter the movements and schools that attempted to return to a status quo ante—various kinds of so-called formalism—are attempts to say that poetry should not follow the current rules: that it is not what we were told, but something far different; that it is always one step ahead. No such movement, no such claim, lacks potential value for the right poet, the right writer, if she can use it to make something moving and new.
So I am not going to say what the only directions for poetry are, because I do not think it has just one direction. Instead, I’ll give four directions in which American poetry will soon go, four modes that represent, not just something I like, but something I think we are going to see more of, in the next oh say ten years. All four directions suit writers who believe that poetry can take on projects different from prose, different from the memoir, different from exposition and journalism; they are all writers who have some sense of concision, some sense of the poetic sentence and line as something meant to be heard, and something that draws on traditions established not just by present conditions but by older poems. They may prefer Frost to Stein, or Stein to Frost, or Marianne Moore by seven leagues to both, but they are all in some sense personal, and all in some sense interested in a world outside the self. They fall into four categories—the first three I have described at length separately, elsewhere, though never in the same words; I will try to describe them together, here, in increasing order of how new I think they are.
First, the documentary or reportorial or environmental-area-study poem: the big poem composed in part of reported facts about a place, whether that place is a city or a watershed or a slice of suburban forest (as in Peter O’Leary’s terrific Phosphorescence of Thought) or an industrial waste ground (as in Juliana Spahr’s “The Incinerator,” as in parts of D. A. Powell’s Chronic) or an urban territory (as in Mark Nowak’s first two books) or a record of a way to climb a mountain (most of the parts of Brian Teare’s Companion Grasses).
This big poem full of facts about a place, a poem like a quadrat-study, like a map, like a record of a place, has had its place in American poetry at least since Williams’s Paterson, since Charles Olson and A. R. Ammons, if not since Bryant and Whittier; and it has had an even richer place in modern British poetry, from David Jones to Roy Fisher to Alice Oswald. The area study poem is big right now and will stay big, because ecology is big now, for obvious intellectual and moral reasons, because it allows poets to descend at once from the New Americans and from reportage—or, if they prefer, from Frost and from the present day; because it’s a large-scale organization that can include almost anything, and because it answers the charge that poets have nothing to say to the rest of the world.
The area-study poem is literally a way for poets to ground themselves, to say we have had our feet on the ground, even if our point of view lets us soar through the air. Those are the organizing principles (one close to the ground, one high in the air) in O’Leary’s Phosphorence of Thought, with its “kestrel... unleashing aerobatics to hover lustrously in a wind-groomed leewave” above the Des Plaines; and they are the organizing principles of such humbler poems as Mark Wunderlich’s “Driftless Elegies,” with its declining towns and its caged eagles, “their talons like pruning shears// gripping the perches of what will be/ their last home.” They are what connects the political histories and the linguistic collages of Craig Santos Perez to the Heideggerian meta-geographies of Jorie Graham’s Place: if there’s something those two poets have in common, it’s probably something that characterizes a whole lot of other poets, if not our whole age.
The area-study poem also says area matters, that where you are matters: not only does the area-study poem not have to be written in Brooklyn, or Iowa City, or San Francisco, it’s better, more interesting on first reading, if it’s not written about any of those spaces—if it brings into poetry, into the scrutiny of a language art, some space, some territory, some ecology, some community, that has not been treated this way before. If you write an area study poem about Paterson, New Jersey, you are William Carlos Williams, and if you write an area study poem about Harvard Square, you are probably an undergraduate, but if you write an area study poem about Tallahassee, or Guam, you may be doing something that no modern poet has done well before.
But you may not be doing it elegantly. You certainly won’t be doing it concisely. There are poets who seek concision, who want poems to be small, perfectly-made, accurately efficient verbal objects; as with Williams, they may be the same poets who write area studies, but not in the same poems. Often they have the same publishers as the area studies poets (the Cultural Society, Flood Editions, Omnidawn) as well as the same aural models (Oppen, Niedecker). Some of these poets write two- or three- or ten-line poems descended from the shorter Williams, and their day is not done. Some of them are very well-served by the Internet (which has turned out to be quite good at the dissemination of short poems). Some of them are epigrammatic, devoted to stating, or to ironizing statement (indeed, these poems shade into the epigram proper, as practiced by James Richardson); others make work analogous to miniatures and sketches in visual arts, devoted to seeing or hearing, as well as to making.
The best do both. Here is an exemplary poem of this ilk, a manifesto of a sort, by Joseph Massey: notice how he is asking us to look at the world, to bring each word back to the world, how his desiderata work against all the recent movements that separate words from the world, that box them all up on their own. The poem is called “Prescription”:
To think through
just far enough
outside the page.
A field drapes
in limitless revision.
that fill the gap
between two stones
imply the sky’s weight.
This kind of poetry combines exacting scrutiny in and of language, exact attention to how we see and hear, with generous attention to what we see and hear, to what’s out there beside the self. It’s going to get a bit more popular among poets and among nonscholarly readers because it’s got unusual potential, and because such poems are so easy to circulate (some can be Tweeted). It’s going to get more academic critics’ attention because it is so compatible with Object Oriented Ontology, about which I will say no more today, and it’s going to attract more poets—more imitators, perhaps alas—because it’s such a beautiful corrective to what the magazines had last decade.
On the other hand, it’s not much fun: it nearly skips over the pre-modernist history of poetry, the repertoire of techniques by which poets made English interesting, and verse impressive, before December 1910, in order to wring more use out of kinds of poems, kinds of lines, invented in the decades afterwards. The way that Americans learn about poetry, or do not learn about it outside “creative writing,” encourages this foreshortened view of literary history, and it is possible to write terrific poetry (it had better be) without giving up this foreshortened view, without immersing oneself in the greater past. (There was a time when critics wondered if anybody would write very good English poetry who had not been immersed in both Latin and Greek.)
But the pre-modernist past can help; it contains many objects of great beauty, many techniques (rhyme among them) we can still enjoy, and it contains many resources—in the verbal and in the visual and in the aural arts— that unimproved nature, and unadorned machines, lack. I have become increasingly interested in something that looks like an arriere-garde, some poets who mostly do not know each other and have never lived in Chicago (only some of them have been to Iowa) but who have converged around styles nearly Baroque, kinds of elaboration for its own sake, resistances to the demand that poetry—or human beings, or art, or anything—be of use.
These poets go out of their way to defend ornament, both in the fine arts and in the applied arts (for example, costume and makeup), and they tend to defend the self-consciously feminine, though they can also worry about money, about whether they count as decadent, about whether “decadent” is an insult or a queer compliment or a value-neutral description.
Above all they are acoustically complicated: they are playing with the sounds of language, with the possibilities of syntax (sometimes they use more than one language at a time). They push off from plain styles, from plain truths, as swimmers push off from pool walls. Their visual analogies often come from the late Baroque, or from the rococo, and their stated ideas, when they are not explicit about feminism, sometimes sound like Walter Pater, though their verse never sounds like verse from the 1690s or the 1890s; sometimes it sounds a bit like Marianne Moore. My favorite poets writing in this vein are Robyn Schiff and Angie Estes. Take Estes’s “Pallino, Pallone,” a poem about hearing Italian and speaking English, in which she has a ball with the Italian words for “passion” and for “ball”:
To have a small ball
in Italian, avere il pallino di, is to be crazy
about something: a filched lifeblood
bagel, a big illogical loggia...
agile, biologic bail for my icefall hood
and a hedged, bifocal feel. (25)
Or take her “Cache,” with its
leers of else, ready for hire.
We filled the room
with stargazer lilies, the scent
of a sentence when it’s ready
Lest you think such writing frivolous, much of the book it comes from, and part of that very poem, concern the loss of her mother and father: Samuel Johnson notwithstanding, where there is such energy for fiction, there may be a great deal of grief.
There is also a great deal of self-conscious technique. These nearly Baroque writers complement in some ways, and extend or counter in others, the trend of five and ten years ago when every third book had sestinas, alphabetical acrostics, anagrams: they show that they have become poets, that poetry is a craft they took pains to learn, as well as showing that we can have fun with it. For the writers at home in the nearly Baroque—writers also at home with the history of poetry, with the transatlantic history of other arts—craft is a means to the personal, as well as a way to place it, to make it sound good.
But that sort of craft—elaborate, backward-looking, self-conscious, perhaps time-consuming—is also a way to make it sound old. If you want your poetry raw and personal, if you want it to set you apart from the past, if you want it to speak to the people of your generation who read a lot but who do not read poetry all the time, if you want it to take advantage of the new sense of time, the new immediacy, that we might or might not feel in a digital age, if you want to speak from a page to people used to MP3s and to the screen—then you will need to figure out something else.
And it seems to me that while the present belongs in varying measure to the area-study poem and to the heirs of Williams who make small objects and to the nearly Baroque, the future might belong to something rawer, something closer to performance, something that attacks the line between poetry as such and other kinds of expression, other verbal art: I do not necessarily like this trend or align myself with it (I feel much closer to the nearly Baroque) but I want to acknowledge it.
It’s something we can already see in a raw writer who covers adult experience, such as Rachel Zucker (who combines it with memoir) or Darcie Dennigan (who combines it with science fiction), or in Harmony Holiday, or in Ariana Reines, or in Patricia Lockwood (whose new book is already a big thing). All these writers use modes that blur poetry and not-poetry; all are comfortable with very long lines, and with associative prose. It is no coincidence that Holiday has experience as a dancer, nor that Reines writes for the stage. I think that like it or not we are going to see Ariana Reines as an influence, as a starting point, for a lot of first books, just because she seems so out of control, so much able to say almost anything, so at home in an environment of permissive immediacy, and because she is not content to shock: in Reines’s frustrating, repetitive, overlong, and yet in some ways important new book Mercury we get pages of post-Flarf shockaroonies like “Nothing makes my heart beat/ Nothing makes my heart beat/ Nothing makes my heart beet like/ free tub porn,” and meta-art meditations like “Pleasure/ As an idea/ Is friendly and boring” and monostichs like Jenny Holzer’s slogans, earlier forms of immediate, multimedia art: “I CAN’T WAIT TO GIVE UP THE GHOST.”
This new raw poetry is out there already, in Reines, in Zucker, elsewhere, and some of it’s just a mess and some of it’s in good books. (Some of it takes the women of the New York School as a particular model—Alice Notley, Bernadette Mayer.) But it’s something that is going to work itself out among writers we are just beginning to see, the writers whose first significant publications are not in bound litmags but on Tumblrs, such as Illuminati Girl Gang, which runs raw, uneven, promising poems that could also be performed—poems that are not just diary entries, poems that are crafted, but not too crafted; poems that are almost, but not quite, “confessional,” almost spontaneous, almost like speech; poems that are the Hegelian synthesis of which confessional poetry was the thesis and sarcastic or Flarfy poetry was the antithesis; poems that have the relationship between intimacy and privacy, between the presence of the performing body and the need to reach across distance and use words, that I have just now seen danah boyd identifying in the lives of today’s networked teens: poems that are to Rookie, or maybe to Hyperallergic, as the poets of the nearly Baroque are and should be to the New Yorker or Bookforum; poems that are often in prose, sometimes in very long lines, and never in received forms. Sometimes the poems are typographically unusual or take advantage of web layout; sometimes they land somewhere between poems and raw prose. Here is Daniela Olszewska from Illuminati Girl Gang no. 3:
And here from Parlor, an Internet-only journal edited by another Illuminati Girl Gang contributor, are lines written in collaboration between Megan Boyle and Vicki Tingle:
my blood left my body for a summer
it came back better blood
i knew it had secrets but i let it in
then all i heard were secrets
i don't call it blood anymore
the object of the game is to collect memories until you have something to say
no, the object of the game is to dodge the boom mic in car chase scenes
here is the most honest introduction i'll never say:
‘empathy and empty are almost the same word. i’ve got a feeling you’re looking for a highly customizable mirror. Let’s get started, what’s your name?’
This language doesn’t seem to me as durable, as thoughtful, as the best of Estes, or Jorie Graham, or A. R. Ammons, or Terrance Hayes, or Niedecker, or Johnson, but that’s not the point; the point is that these poets take advantage of a new openness, a new medium, and of some quite traditional goals for lyric, and the point is that nobody has ever been able to sound like this before.
There is something going on (I am being vague and colloquial here on purpose) with the neo-confessional and the styles fostered by new media, with generational change, with distance from prior art, with the weird flat bright combination of distance and no distance encouraged by social media, with the narrowed distance between “slam poetry” and other poetry as experienced by people younger than me: something that is going to affect the best poetry books of the near future, soon.
STEPHEN BURT is Professor of English at Harvard and the author of several books of poetry and literary criticism, among them Close Calls with Nonsense; The Art of the Sonnet (with David Mikics) and Belmont (poems). For more, see www.closecallswithnonsense.com.
To begin with, two hazards, one positive, one negative, made two decades apart from each other, and bookending the period that we think of as entailing modernism and high modernism.
Shortly before his death in 1918, Guillaume Apollinaire, that most European and seminal of early modern poets, who straddled the nexus between symbolism and romanticism on the one hand, and modernism on the other, wrote, in a critical essay entitled “L’Esprit Nouveux et les Poetes”, or “The New Spirit and the Poets”:
The new spirit which is making itself heard strives above all to inherit from the classics a sounds good sense, a sure critical spirit, perspectives on the universe, and on the soul of man, and the sense of duty which lays bare our feelings and limits or rather contains their manifestations.
It strives further to inherit from the romantics a curiosity which will incite it to explore all the domains suitable for furnishing literary subject matter which will permit life to be exalted in whatever form it occurs.
It was Wyndham Lewis, that other seminal purveyor of modern art, who wandered Europe before world war one examining and studying the manifestations and outbursts of an incipient modernism everywhere, who announced on April 1, 1940 in the New Republic, “The End of Abstract Art”:
When an art dies, there is no announcement in the newspapers, as in the case of the demise of an eminent citizen. So no one knows that it is dead. It is still spoken of as if it were alive and kicking.
This article is a sort of obituary notice. It is written to announce the death of “abstract art.”
At last the Cube, the Cone, the Cylinder are still forever. They will never again stalk the streets of Paris. The Equilateral Triangle has breathed its last. Bracque’s abstract bric-a-brac is fast becoming junk. The most amusing collage will fetch nothing in Europe. Brancusi’s Egg has gone to join the Dodo’s.
But in all its forms—not only in its purest absolute—abstract art is no more. It is in vain to cite Picasso—his latest spawn is mere reflex action, from a lower center, that does not count any more than the stampede of the chicken after its head has been severed. A little kicking goes on, of a morning, in Monsieur Leger’s studio, no doubt (for he is still alive, of course). But all such activity today—however corrupt and involved with natural form—belongs to a movement that is dead. It just runs on for a while, here and there, the work of practitioners no longer young. But it always was, I am afraid, a bit of an automaton.
Abstract art—the real article, the simon-pure—was a modest little affair, though it made a great stir at the time. It had no pretentious metaphysic. It sought to be a visual music—a perfectly respectable ambition—but it was classed (by Herr Hitler among other people) as a peculiarly “decadent” idea.
Myself. I painted a number of “abstract” fugues, which nobody could understand, but which were in fact severely classical. Had this been revealed at the time there would have been a considerable scandal. People supposed these incomprehensible oddities to be so revolutionary and satanic that the thought of them kept them awake at night.
So in our time the deradicalization process that has taken hold of the minds and spirits of our poets has become all but complete. Critics and commentators, who are largely and almost to a man beholden to academic interests and criteria of perception and assessment, fail to see or feel the spirit of poetry itself, that which is most important about poetry but least subject to the constrained demands of interpretation, or explanation. The poets themselves have by and large abdicated the responsibilities and duties of one who would seek to add poetry of lasting value to the contributions of the world and the word.
They no longer read with the depth and breadth, or with the meticulous sensitivity got from wide and deep reading and a rich cultural inheritance, for our current culture is itself threadbare and thin on history and its own origins, a sense of existing not only in our own time, but with an equal respect for and knowledge of other times, past or future, and other cultures, present or possible; they are whipped and made docile by the exigencies of current mores and of the illustrious machine of cache awards and commercial publishers propagated by the creative writing boom—major publishers who, I might add, cannot even get very many people to buy, read, review, or even notice the poetry books that they publish, and rightly so, their contents being so execrable.
Either that, or the younger poets turn (rebelliously and superiorly they imagine) in the direction of the so-called Avant Garde—which is, of course, from any truly enlightening viewpoint, not avant garde in the least, but weak and deteriorating reiterations of essentially insignificant [formal, technical and spiritual] discoveries which were all of them made or predicted or insinuated decades and decades ago by the first generation or two of modernists who in several of their exemplars saw all of the implications of modernism and postmodernism in a nutshell and as a single revelation invoked by the grand cataclysm of modern experience from its beginnings. Their dribblings pall, go nowhere, leave us nothing, and will be forgotten. For the true avant garde is, and always will be, the individual pursuit of knowledge and illuminated expression, which needs must be cognizant of and philosophically sensitive to the formal attributes of the world and history which constrain and thus release the particularities of perception and expression. The illuminated, individual perception and expression, whether realized in formal meters or in gibberish, is the only real avant garde.
So what then of the future of poetry? The nature of the cosmos is old and secure, and the nature of life abiding, and abstractly cyclical, abstractions being obeisant to particulars, as particulars are to that which abides. The problems of poetry, and the nature of the poetic enterprise, are unchanging: and entirely subject to the exigencies of individual genius, acutely sensitive as it must be to the material and spiritual context of the world.
The everyberry’s nature doesn’t change.
Why would anyone suppose it had?
Eight hazards pooled from the bottom of the well:
There shall be these 8 conditions necessary for the creation of poetry of lasting value:
It is first this that the poets are after:
1. (VISION AND PURSUIT) There is no extricating music from the rapidity and sensual subtlety of thought which at first incites the poetic pursuit, and later propagates it. One begins with that knowledge which is unexplained, inarticulate, and elusive, yet richly in touch with the issues of existence and its grand forbears. First and foremost the poet is possessed by genius. An explicable gift of vision and its corresponding collateral in emotion, inform her from the start, of the mysteries of the world which are set at the heart of the philosopher’s stone. Iona, setting about to make a parcel of truth, reduced her audience to the size of her own tears. The family table, with its hidden mysteries, must some way, whether negative or positive, set its mark on the son. The poet stands apart from all these, and sees though her own way, the fruit of her labours, but moreover—her own original instinct, divining mysteries where others are only conducted over them. It is she who will linger over a window, staring out at a wind or a tree or a hall, and fill them with the belief in a despair of nature, causing them to resurrect the idol of a triallumphiance. The private institution of the picnic has been lost, and with it an incunabula of world perspective. One would admit a certain symbolism to forests.
The poet will feel in a vital instant in infancy the pull of a world view or a cosmic view that is archetypal, and it is this that we call genius: its expression in a “perfect order privately realized”.
by the waters of Leman . . .
What did Eliot mean when he wrote these words? He meant that he was dissatisfied with the state of intrigue and espionage that was ravaging Europe, performed for him by the image of the dead king of Bavaria Ludwig, whether or not less so by the image of the dead Archduke Rudolph (one would have to ask Marie), and by the unease with which any penholder must carve so dissociated an observation. That he should permit himself to voice the conscience of God . . . The statement is oracular. And must pose, and, mark you, for its reader alone, the question of the divine. The infant prodigy knows the existence of other worlds, other existences, other knowledge. Thus it is the first excitement and yearning of the poetic genius to wish to give articulate, felt expression to that which remains unexpressed, that which is the poet’s burden, call it the word of God, or what you will.
I seem to have already touched upon several of my “types”. No matter. To the proscribed naming—
But we are speaking of the poet. The condition that is elemental to poetry is meter, and its aural offbursts, color and tone, drama and idiom. The lasting poet must have a virtuoso familiarity with the elasticity and obedience of meter, in the great code of its many instances, as primeval as the beating of a brass band, as prime and primal as the white of mountain clouds.
Eliot made great dodges, that were very modern, early on, by 1918, but they were never repeated, and our language has sunk dead in them, troubled by their dry bed of classical spleen. Returning to Masefield, we find his fusion of sense and diction impeccable. English has had a certain lax quality. Eliot has gone to the grave with his, resurrecting the bones of further silences. They are worshipping at the St. Apollinaire. One must have something to build on. The extraordinary license of a felt synthesis of experience.
In order to bring vision to its greatest density and complexity, words must have plain dealing with truth, in order with all their other charges, and even at the fictive level, may it never be reached; and participate even as counters in the resurrection of Empire, whether of god or man. This is to say, in the fewest possible words, that they must be possessed of a world view, whether rehearsing the imageries of patronage, or cut from all but the vine, as in Samuel Beckett.
The infant prodigy aspires to excess of riches, which upon maturing provide the foundation for infinite subtleties of claritas dictum. And in consternation with their art, they must attain to that highest aesthetic of spiritual integration, exemplified by the circular closing of sentences, the manner in which the best sentences close in upon themselves, attaining to a circularity of form which partakes of the crosscurrents of civilized and primitive thought, cosmic order and sensation.
What the poet must possess is empathic imagination, the ability to project oneself into other situations, states of mind, private experience and historical epochs, inanimate objects, the mind of God . . . To read poetry with discerning eyes and a responsive pulse is to know the heart of these things.
The poet must be possessed by deep memory, entirely personal as well as cultural. The new poetry will have to return to single moments of catastrophic emotional importance, whether they are so silent as to remain inconspicuous to undiscerning eyes.
Freud said that anywhere he had gone, a poet had been there first. The world view of the poet must be reactionary, in the classical and cosmopolitan sense, and not in the currency of provincial and local slang. For the poet must lead us out of the bullrushes and into the promised land.
BEN MAZER is the author of Poems and New Poems (both Pen & Anvil). His critical edition of the Collected Poems of John Crowe Ransom, completed under the advisorship of Christopher Ricks at the Editorial Institute, is forthcoming from the Un-Gyve Press this fall.