The Modern Voice in American Poetry

The Modern Voice in American Poetry

The Modern Voice in American Poetry

The Modern Voice in American Poetry

Synopsis

Proposing that modern American poetry requires "limber criticism", informed but not straitjacketed by contemporary theory, William Doreski links the major American modernists to each other and to the larger social and cultural world. His concerns include voice, rhetoric, history, and interiority (imagination) and exteriority (landscape). Doreski examines the work of well-known poets - concentrating on Robert Frost, Wallace Stevens, William Carlos Williams, Marianne Moore, T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and Robert Lowell, but also including Alan Dugan, Robert Pinsky, John Ashbery, and Louise Gluck - from a fresh angle, often focusing on less-discussed poems (such as Eliot's "Portrait of a Lady"). Modernist poets experienced a vast shift in the relationship between poetry and society. Two principal themes underlie Doreski's criticism of their work: first, that they turned to drama, prose fiction, and extraliterary sources to expand the rhetorical range of their poetics; second, that their poetry demonstrates their conflict between a responsibility to history, tradition, or society and their desire to generate a world of their own making.

Excerpt

Issues of voice and related rhetoric problems have shaped discussions of poetry since the era of Coleridge and Wordsworth. Major innovations in genre, especially the development of the historically informed dramatic monologue and various dialogic modes, offered fresh opportunities for poets of the late Victorian and early modernist periods, so that much of the history of modern poetry -- as Herbert F. Tucker summarizes it in his essay "Dramatic Monologue and the Overhearing of Lyric" -- is the incorporation of history and the intrusion of narrative and dramatic impurities into the meditative and lyric voices. Or, as Tilottama Rajan puts it in discussing the earlier romantics, "Lyric is increasingly absorbed into larger structures which place it within a world of difference" (195). The major modernist poets -- Eliot, Yeats, Stevens, and Pound -- as well as first- generation postmodernists like Lowell and Berryman, recapitulate the process by rediscovering lyric in their early work, then learning to "exploit the internal otherness of the dramatic monologue" and, in the case of Lowell at least, overcoming subjectivity even in frankly autobiographical writing by generating for the personal voice a privileged historical perspective (Tucker, 239). As Tucker describes the process, "When the lyric bubble burst within its bell jar, poetry became modern once again in its return to the historically responsive and dialogic mode that Browning, Tennyson, and others had brought forward from the Romantics" (239).

The desire for purity in lyric, as it still occasionally arises, seems regressive, and historical and dialogic modes of discourse have almost . . .

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