The Continuity of American Poetry

The Continuity of American Poetry

The Continuity of American Poetry

The Continuity of American Poetry

Excerpt

. . . Ecstasy affords the occasion and expediency determines the form.

-- Marianne Moore, " The Past To The Present "

1. Argument

THIS is an account of the development of American poetry from the seventeenth century to the recent past. I have been concerned not with the history of the making of poems, but rather with the history which poems have made. The substance of such a history, of course, is the poems which count most -- those which have continued to teach us how to read our world, the better to think about it. ("Literature is news which stays news," as Ezra Pound has said.) I should hope some day for a proper literary history, in which we shall be able to comprehend our poetry in its totality, setting the lives and times of the poets against the lives and times of their poems. A good deal of bibliographical and textual investigation needs to be completed before we can expect that definitive book. Meanwhile, I have thought that it is time someone try to comprehend as a continuing series the texts which do, or should, count most with us -- so at least to map the territory which that definitive book will explore.

As one kind of study in literary history -- an "inside narrative," as I shall presently try to justify my calling it -- this is of necessity a study in cultural history. For the achievement of American poetry is a good measure of the achievement of American culture as a whole. The poet's particular relation to his culture -- his self-imposed obligation to make the best possible use of the language he is given -- is such as to put him at the center of the web of communications which gives his culture its characteristic style and spirit. The poet continually inquires into the genuineness and comprehensiveness of that style and spirit. He asks -- above all, in the United States he has asked -- how much it has cost to achieve them. And he measures the cost in terms . . .

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