Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

Reflections on Textual and Documentary Media in a Romantic and Post-Romantic Horizon

Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

Reflections on Textual and Documentary Media in a Romantic and Post-Romantic Horizon

Article excerpt

WHEN I BEGAN MY GRADUATE WORK AT YALE IN 1963, ROMANTIC STUDIES were in a state of intense renewal that everyone in the program was aware of. (1) Though our register was merely academic, we all felt the force of Wordsworth's "Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive." The Visionary Company (1961), recently published, was a kind of sacred text, and over the next three years we passed around for discussion among ourselves a handful of essays by M. H. Abrams, Harold Bloom, Paul De Man, and Geoffrey Hartman that would soon become defining works for Romantic and Post-Romantic studies. In 1970 Bloom gathered a core set of these materials into the canonical collection Romanticism and Consciousness, interlacing his own and other advanced work with essays by distinguished academic precursors of the previous generation. It proved to be such a commanding book that the rest, as we say, is history, even if only academic history.

Here I will ask you to rethink that academic history, which settled in the 1970s and 1980s into a particular and somewhat distorted appreciation of our past 200+ years of poetry. Fortunately, other histories were coming into play at the same time. Especially important was the growth of a movement in poetic practice as diverse as that academic movement would prove to be. It was a global movement, but in America its first names were Beat Poetry, The San Francisco Renaissance, The New American Poetry, Ethnopoetics, the New York School, and finally Language Poetry. This loose poetical enterprise, like the tighter academic one, moved to reconsider the grounds of poetic expression. But whereas the academy's approach was conceptual and philosophical--it would eventually consolidate as the Theory Movement--the poets' thinking was being shaped by their direct experience with material culture. Crucial to understand is that the poets constellated outside the academy around self-publishing and small presses often founded and run, at every level of the work required, by poets themselves. That institutional fact not only inflected the work with clear social and political goals, it involved the poets in direct personal contact with the materials, means, and modes of production of their own work. The stylistic exponent of this productive orientation was an interest in the acoustic and visual resources of language. The message was in the media.

I will add one more prefatory comment before explaining my view of a "distorted appreciation of our past 200+ years of poetry." Though strictly personal, it is pertinent here because it helps to locate my relation to all these events. In 1966 I would leave Yale for an appointment at the University of Chicago, where my life would be even more profoundly overthrown between 1966 and 1970 than it had been in my previous years in New Haven. That overthrow would put me in an awkward, often conflicted relation to what I had been learning as a scholar at Yale. Between 1969 and 1979 I would publish six books. Three were academic studies of Byron and Swinburne published by the University of Chicago Press. At the same time, I began what would be a twenty-two-year project to edit the complete poetical works of Lord Byron, eventually completed (in 1992) in seven volumes. Swinburne, Byron, and scholarly editing were not high on the agenda of the Theory Movement, though two decades later the situation would be a little different, and four decades later--now--very different indeed.

The other three books were books of verse published by three small presses, all now defunct. Two were imprints set up by myself, my sister, and some friends, the other was a small press founded by the writer and artist Virgil Burnett, with whom I was to have a lifelong relation. Let me say that I do not consider myself a poet, though I have written a half dozen books of verse printed by small presses. Writing poetry for me has always been an exercise in trying to understand poetry. I am a pedant, not a poet, but I do take my pedantry seriously, though I hope not too seriously. …

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