Walter Whitman, carpenter, journalist, temperance man, and opera buff, announced himself as the first modern American poet when he hurled "barbaric yawps" over the roofs of his unsuspecting countrymen. He intended to make the sounds of primal life in a poetic form that contained it but scantily. No word better describes what Whitman meant than appetite--he wanted more of everything that was life inside his poems. His nineteenth-century critics, easily shocked, derided his poetry as tasteless and without form. He sounded like what crude America was trying not to be. By the middle of the twentieth century, James Dickey would write that we were "dying of subtlety," by which he meant being civilized (85). Between them, T. S. Eliot is reputed to have argued, in 1932, that the true poet "must look into the cerebral cortex, the nervous system, and the digestive tracts." If that seems to call for an intimately personal poetry, Eliot would be more readily remembered for saying that "poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality" (10). American poetry early on posed itself the choice of styles as personal as the country-still mostly frontier--or as manicured as the graveled paths of estate gardens, where they adored talk of tradition.
To speak of a primary context for and characteristic of American poetry, we might say that, following the immigration of various peoples into a wilderness abundant with potential, pursuing a great and hitherto unacted idea--the democratic invention of a country--there follows a long period in which people yearn for the wholeness of cultures they have left behind. These cultures appear, in retrospect, virtuous, cohesive, and religious in authority. The ordinary labor of culture, whether pursuing mere survival or glorious imperialisms, selects and legislates parts of that culture as the visions of the people and their character. Other parts atrophy, rend, and vanish, only to reappear at some point as if summoned by another appetite. The natural action of life is change. An inevitable dialectic results between those whose imaginations turn to the past and those drawn to the future.
This dialectic begins to be observable in American poetry prior to the middle of the nineteenth century. Yet, providing we exclude oral poetries of native Indians and imported slaves, it is clear there is no American poetic identity before the Civil War. Ralph Waldo Emerson negotiates aloud for it in essays such as "The Poet," his evocation of it sometimes as palpable as the clouds of pigeons into which a man could shoot with no fear of missing. Emerson, of course, wrote poetry, but it was not especially American. Perhaps no American poet's work has been in print longer or is more recognized as American than Edgar Allan Poe's, but Poe was, as Emerson said in recognizing the heritage of English poetry, our tradition-loving "jingle man" (Meyers 265). Herman Melville, the great improviser of prose, wrote mostly old-fashioned verse, however it seems now to echo contemporary subjects. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, James Russell Lowell, John Greenleaf Whittier, and many who are now unknown wrote poems that were little different and certainly no better. Until the middle of the nineteenth century, American poets remained essentially English imitators.
How could it be otherwise? Americans were still displaced Englishmen, educated to look to the mother country for enlightenment and models of excellence. In all things cultural, London seemed the avant-garde. Architecture for colonial Americans up and down the Atlantic coast is graced by English gardens carved from a wild landscape. Similarly, colonial verse promotes American accomplishment as it memorializes Anglican parentage. That is the action of the pastoral and the elegy, dominant modes of nineteenth-century English poetry. Our poets applied these modes cautiously and in a manner more choral than personal. The sounds and formal qualities of English poetry are clear in stanzas by Emerson, Longfellow, and Melville:
By the rude bridge that arched the flood,
Their flag to April's breeze unfurled,
Here once the embattled farmers stood
And fired the shot heard round the world.
("Concord Hymn" 444)
But Ah! What once has been shall be no more!
The groaning earth in travail and in pain
Brings forth its races, but does not restore,
And the dead nations never rise again.
("Jewish Cemetery at Newport" lines 57-60)
When ocean-clouds over inland hills
Sweep storming in late autumn brown,
And horror the sodden valley fills,
And the spire falls crashing in the town,
I muse upon my country's ills-The
tempest bursting from the waste of Time,
On the world's fairest hope linked with man's foulest crime.
An incipient nationalism struggles here with formal habits and forecasts the psychic need for a story, a way of singing national identity, that Whitman would address. The stanzas are metrically conventional, syllabled in units of eights and tens, but with an uncertainty revealed by sliding back and forth between iambic and anapestic patterns and, as Melville shows, overwhelmed by a need to make a pretty point. Rhymes and syntax are dutiful and unremarkable. If there is a surprising, discursive, eighteenth-century edge, few readers now miss the shadow of revolutionary Romantic thinking and its fretful step. John Keats, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge provided the music, each dying before Emerson, who loved them. Great Wordsworth lasted until 1850. These visionaries charged American thinking and inspired change, themselves energized by the world they knew in flux, one perhaps alterable for the better by what they wrote. But first was the duty to rebuff and redo the work done by old Pope and others. The will to give voice to upheavals that were economic, political, social, and personal weaves throughout the revolutionary manifesto of Wordsworth's Preface to the Lyrical Ballads. Storms of change leading to a nationalist poetry also led to the self-isolating, culture-shearing force of the industrial age. Wordsworth's successor, Charles Dickens, dramatized the tale of the man who becomes something new, the orphan adrift upon the worst of times, dreaming of the best of times. Edgar Allan Poe, three years Dickens's junior, wrote virtually the same tale in blacker, Gothic, American verse.
Even as industrial abuse of the American Dream inevitably followed England's spoilage, American writers toiled in service of the idea that had brought them into existence. Our poets, even Poe, wooed a future sweet with the machinery of science. Benjamin Franklin, a Mr.-Fix-It genius of improvisation, half-icon of our national character, was so pragmatic that he could dispense wisdom on the management of either electricity or prostitutes. The Franklin spirit, if it had written poetry, would favor a code-less poem, plain egalitarian language--one resisting habit, decoration, and convention. Such a poem is extroverted; it values information, is impatient, and struts with conviction in its views. Optimistic, brash, even vainglorious at times, its education less systematic than patchy and quirky, this poetry would rig structures of fragments, shards, and chips of life into public soliloquies. Its appetite would be epic, but epic requires a national identity, or at least a poet's sense of such an identity; America had none. When Poe considered what this meant, he spoke as an orphan, and bitterly:
Science! True daughter of Old Time thou art!
Who alterest all things with thy peering eyes.
Why preyest thou thus upon the poet's heart,
Vulture, whose wings are dull realities?
How should he love thee? or how deem thee wise,
Who wouldst not leave him in his wandering
To seek for treasure in the jewelled skies,
Albeit he soared with undaunted wing?
Hast thou not dragged Diana from her car?
And driven the Hamadryad from the wood
To seek a shelter in some happier star?
Hast thou not torn the Naiad from her flood,
The Elfin from the green grass, and from me
The summer dream beneath the tamarind tree? (12)
Poe's mother had died coughing blood as, apparently, he watched, at age two, in 1811. In 1829, Frances Allen, his stepmother, died. Between these two deaths, Jane Stanard, a friend's mother upon whom he had a teenage crush, fell to insanity and then death at age thirty-one. Poe, upon leaving the University of Virginia, returned to Richmond to claim his fiancee, Elmira Royster, arriving on the day of her engagement party to another man. Poe was eighteen (Silverman 34). There would be other similar tales in his future. The Diana violated in "Sonnet--To Science" is all the women in Poe's life, conflated and distanced by the sonnet's allegorizing. At the age of twenty, Poe wrote this poem, and abstracted the great felony of modern existence. Science had stolen the individual's life away from some larger community, and had stolen too the defining power of that larger thing.
The style in Poe's sonnet would prove far too habitual in its bag of poetic tricks for one poet already stirring in New Jersey. In 1855, Walt Whitman begins, "I celebrate myself, / And what I assume you shall assume" and, by the time he is finished in the 1891 edition of the great "Song of Myself," he tosses out most of what the English bards had floated across the Atlantic. Gone, in Whitman's scheme, are iambics; gone are syllable counts; gone are delicate rhymes and classical allusions--often poetry's stage props; gone is personified Nature; gone is Poe's fuzzy impressionism; gone is the shadow practice of hiding a personal life inside a poem's mask; gone is a poem as schooled art (there would be plenty of arguments over whether Whitman mastered or only avoided art); gone is a longing for that pastoral, seamless world that science had fragmented; gone is the fear of mutation, alteration, and change that T. S. Eliot would tell us meant "dissociation" from human sensibility. No longer Walter Whitman, now Walt--our Kiwanis booster, the king of positive thinking--saw only the American epic of progress. The spirit's growth, he believed, was commensurate with business, with success in the democratic idea. His was a boomer country of growth, not just more people, but more communities, myriads of opportunities, discoveries, jobs, health, wealth, everything literally unfolding the new world. In his love of gizmos large and small, of trains, steamboats, telegraphs, and materials--"brick, lime, timber, paint, glass and iron (so now you can build what you like)" ("Pictures")--an endless catalog, Whitman was Franklin's spiritual kin. He saw no need to write a poetry out of anachronistic myths, inkhorn lingos, and prissy poetic forms. Walt was the poet of men and women, here, now. The task was to open the poem to more life in the new, democratic way.
Whitman appeared like a comet, as if no literary evolution had prepared for his arrival, or even conceived him. But Emerson had provided the mystical fervor, and Franklin the Yankee can-do temperament. With these two impulses fused in Whitman, American poetry begins to achieve an identity that has never proven wholly stable, or entirely agreeable, for very long. What is often most considered the American poem can seem a resolution from a grange meeting of farmers mechanically bent to sweep aside obstacles to better production, a voice of conviction and utilitarian reach. Reasonable men reasoning spiritual perplexities accounts for the earliest mimetic, discursive, function-directed style. But the variable odes that nineteenth-century English poets were leveraging against that style appealed to a Romantic sensibility in America; odes, and their temperament, would spread like kudzu in the South. The Jeffersonian idea had set the will of the majority and the will of the individual into equality guaranteed by the Constitution and bled for by patriots. But this was political dialectic. The individual was, finally, more equal, and this individual was in every instance a come-here country maker and, thus, subject of the American epic of more life: the poem Walt Whitman called Leaves of Grass (1855).
When I was in graduate school, my professors, New Critical thinkers, spoke of Whitman's voice as "the Universal I" of the poem. Perhaps Americans needed to do to Whitman what the movies did to Clark Kent, Clark Gable, all the Clarks from small-town U.S.A. Whitman's voice was not Shakespearean, not Miltonic, not even very poetic to Anglo-tuned ears. Tennyson said, "Whitman is a great big something, I do not know what" (qtd. in Kirby-Smith 240). That "what" was a great, gray woofing, an American recitation. Some of us could hardly endure the howlingly bad and mercilessly funny lines Whitman could not seem to avoid writing. Pound and Williams balked, but knew no alternative; Whitman was their kin. Others had to depersonalize him until this "I" became cosmic. I am old enough now to see this falsified the man who meant to get one American life, as it was, on the page. Teachers still speak of Whitman's influence on contemporary poets with vague gestures toward his apparently unregulated lines, unconventional structure, aberrations, and stretches of rhetoric; they seem, remarkably, still baffled by his tapestry of improvisation and compensation. Thomas Kirby-Smith's brilliant study of the relationship between poetry and music, The Celestial Twins: Poetry and Music Through the Ages, echoes Tennyson when he says Whitman "is more of a phenomenon than a poet" (243). I think Kirby-Smith is wrong.
Walt Whitman created the poetry of one man in a literal context, place, and time--a man who located reality through his senses. He believed the transcendent lay in the immediate and in the dignity and value of the ordinary democratic man and woman. Emerson heard poetry in Whitman and praised it (until the sex overwhelmed him), perhaps because Whitman linked English poetic tradition to new-world life as no one else had. Whitman's was an urgent form, a hybrid, homegrown solution. In this, Whitman echoed what was everywhere about him, a nineteenth-century enthusiasm for ready-made potions, salves, chemistries, and improvisations. Whitman saw not as an orphaned changeling, not as the outsider, but as the democratized citizen the national idea had called for and the Declaration of Independence had authorized. He was inside: both voice and audience. Whitman believed his appetite for spiritual destiny mirrored any American's. Thus, he presents in his letters as reasonable his "discovery" that deck hands working the Brooklyn ferries kept copies of his books in their pants. His propensity for self-promotion is little different from Poe's anonymous self-advertisements in magazine columns. Both stand upon one conviction: the poet matters as entrepreneur of the spirit and must have a role in decisions and actions. For Whitman, as for none before or after, the poem is destiny's voice for the American masses. That such a grand role raised questions few might ask or answer in a cob-rough democratic society, Whitman knew well enough. His prefaces declared them: Who is the poet? Who is audience? What is the poem? What is the poet's function? If he blustered in those prefaces, he yet provided a consistent, evolving, public credo that placed at the center of visionary experience the individual's life. What would remain central for every American poet to follow Whitman would be this examining of self and community and the dialectical relationship of life in the life of poetry.
While Whitman imagined his poems ferried everywhere, the reclusive Emily Dickinson sewed hers into small, sealed packets, which she hid in the rafters of her Amherst house. She might not have imagined they were going to be pushed into anyone's jeans, but she certainly left them to be discovered, and they were. Dickinson's and Whitman's differences seem radical: Uncle Walt, a voluble, garrulous huckster; Emily scurrying, a seemingly shy, naive spinster. Hadn't she said she would not dare to read the scandalous Whitman? But perhaps such apparent difference isn't everything. If he was the poet of amplitude and she of compression, both are imaginations marked by the appetite for saying what the life was like then and there. Whitman, a Hoovering machine, embraces everything: taboos of the body, sex, language, religion, race, nature. Miss Dickinson quietly tells us what violence feels like, inner or outer:
I felt a Cleaving in my Mind-As
if my brain had split-I
tried to match it-Seam by Seam-But
could not make them fit. ("#937" 439)
Bluntly, she shows that modern life is different from what preceded it because of a change in people's consciousness of death:
It was a common night,
Except the dying; this to us
Made nature different.
("The last night that she lived" lines 2-4)
We are all dying, lost innocence complains. Yes, but pace makes all the difference, wit banters. For both Dickinson and Whitman, the poem's value consists in how much life it can carry and make felt, and beyond that, make repeatable experience. They have determined to speak in plain voices, though scarcely voices without distinction. They are voices tempered by the democratic trust that any life matters equally, is holy and exemplary--is, moreover, improvable, and has its inevitable identity of which idiom is but the signature, one whose revealed histories and contexts compose the mosaic of that identity.
This aggressive harvest of life is all the more remarkable before the fact that death, as one ages, looms increasingly as the ultimate, perhaps only, reality. Death makes a personal poetry eccentric, its presumptions questionable, its authority to make statements about the world suspicious. Poe, a religious spirit who, as Allen Tate notes, seems to write almost entirely about death (398), at times verges upon what Nietzsche famously would declare to the nineteenth century: that God was dead. He knew this meant the death of Nature except as a suspect compensation. Whitman and Dickinson remained less convinced. Always the optimist, Whitman believed in 5000-year cycles of progressive amelioration and the slow betterment of the human condition. Dickinson flirted with a potential transcendence as insubstantial as it was alluring. Both saw and understood the terrible consequences of the industrializing world and, despite vigorous wills to live fully, they suffered separation from a transcendent unity: not the world according to God, but the world according to the individual. If the democratic cosmos made every individual's vision coequal, why was one poem better, or even different, from another? Beyond minimal standards of quality, the answer had to be intensity, consciousness, awareness, even what philosopher Alfred North Whitehead calls "presentational immediacy." In 1897, William James's The Varieties of Religious Experience acknowledges what he termed "the full fact" (377), meaning a power of life in the self's experience that possessed memorability and expansiveness. It was exactly what the American poet wanted.
The signature task of the American poetic enterprise from the nineteenth century onward lay specifically in the tuning of the self's drama of growth to the composition of the democratic story. This poem must engage an impatient, unprepared, hustling audience; it must speak what even a Franklin-esque wariness can embrace. The poem needed and would use whatever resources, accomplishments, and myths any heritage brought into the American adventure; it must only resist the dead hand of the past. Inevitably personal, American poems must be ambitious for the scope and wisdom that psychologist Carl Jung would call "the big dream." Life in the life of poetry, as increasingly self-conscious poets saw it, seemed bound to manifest the oscillation of personal and universal, naturalism's dire reality and a mystical creator's presence that few would altogether deny Whitman, proselytizing, told us a great poetry required a great audience, suggested a great audience required a great poetry, and implicitly recognized what the historian of ideas, Lewis P. Simpson, has characterized as the dialectic between "history and tradition." It was also the dialectic between lyric--the personal form--and narrative--oddly enough, the collective form.
Poe's "Sonnet--to Science," an emblem of the dialectic, yearns for stability in a wobbled world: we feel it, but part of us resists its verse configuration as somehow untrue. We know this heart but not its idiom. To the democratic reader committed to affording all beliefs equal status, belief is a sort of style, like haberdashery, taken on and put away at will. A nonwriting democrat, however, tends to regard poetic form as, curiously, more significant, even permanent, than content; arguments about form are, ipso facto, political and religious debates conducted in disguise. Depending on one's stance, the unresolved dialectic is either the strength or the problem of American poetry at the end of the twentieth century.
Our poetry has little public presence and less consequence in our national life. A decade of Poets Laureate illuminates only the marginal, even irrelevant, character of the bard in the realm where life is governed. Even the laudable inclusion of a poet in the presidential inaugurations of democrats Carter and Clinton served, on the whole, to annoy television commentators who did not know what to say about them. This can hardly surprise when eloquent critics, the most prestigious and widely distributed journals, the juries and prize-bosses of our intellectual life display, in the guise of tolerance, little concern for what poems actually have to tell us. Able only to equate a poem's difficulty with putative success, critics have helped to isolate poetry, in the process devaluing its function as a lifevoice. Able only to measure value in sales dollars, publishers have forfeited an avenue upon which the soul is always to be found. Able only to grasp the superficial formula of Maya Angelou or this week's rock band, the ordinary reader isn't a reader at all. Able only to mumble coded secrets, poets often seem the village idiots so wickedly satirized by Woody Allen's Love and Death. Poetry is in trouble.
For American poetry to walk among us, it would need crutches, wheeled help, a team of attendants. If poetry is not a morbid goner, as observers argue, it might be the poster child for spiritual vacuity. Testimony about the patient's health is vitriolic. Critical studies in the last decade of the century were as much indictments as prognoses, among them Mary Kinzie's The Cure For Poetry In an Age of Prose, Jonathan Holden's The Fate of American Poetry, Vernon Shetley's After the Death of Poetry, and Dana Gioia's Can Poetry Matter? Poet-critic Stephen Yenser, in The Southern Review, paraphrases the diagnosis:
American poetry is in bad shape. By poets we mean a coterie of enervated
academics who praise and in turn practice a mediocrity, shun political
issues, and ignore the public at large, with the result that the public
returns the favor in spades. [The poets] have got fat and lazy, thanks to
sinecures at universities, honoraria for poetry readings, and grants. Even
worse, our lassitudinous, laconic poets have lost touch with the true
formalist impulse and have turned faute de mieux to a paradoxically prolix
"confessional," "lyric" mode notable for its homogeneity. (165)
Poetry is out of touch with our lives, is all the same, is boring--who needs it? Joseph Epstein, then editor of The American Scholar, created a little smoke in the August 1988 issue of Commentary when he wrote that "poetry no longer seems in any way where the action is. It begins to seem, in fact, to belong to a sideline activity" (15). His reason? Lyric poetry cannot, he says, tell stories, and thus refuses "to report on how people live and have lived, to struggle for those larger truths about life the discovery of which is the final justification for reading" (19).
Epstein may be right that poets have refused to compose a national report of who we are. But he is wrong about form. Lyric poems always tell stories. Even Aram Saroyan's wee one that goes "Wire air"--that's it, folks--hints at a story. Without battling once more over the turf-claims for lyric or narrative, we can say lyric poetry is typically brief, its language is imagistic, its nature is deliberately symbolic, and its speaker is an individual. Alternatively, we might say that lyric's vector points away from realism, while prose's vector points toward it. A story requires referentiality (the degree required has been responsible for notorious experiments with form among twentieth-century authors). Perhaps all lyric poetry has some intention of leaping free of this "real world" of contingent facts and phenomena, or means to recompose that world through assembled mosaic pieces that make up any individual book's collection, thus swapping Franklin's spirit for Whitman's.
While the poems of Whitman and Dickinson affirm the centrality of the self's story, Eliot's modernism finds that self so intractable and chaotic, so untrustworthy, that it requires chastening by form. The small dreams of personal life must be "transmuted" to history's large dreams. Early Modernism disguised the self in a deconstructed form, just as Poe had said in "The Philosophy of Composition" that he had manipulated traditional rhythmic form into the originality of "The Raven," of which he asserted "nothing even remotely approaching this combination has ever been attempted" (370). Then, in the American 1950s, as Donald Hall argues in his preface to the Contemporary American Poetry anthology, the swing of things hardened away from improvisation and toward a lyric of homogenized, pure style (28), one signifiable by John Keats's poem on a piece of pottery with its tautology: "Beauty is truth, truth beauty," adding for good measure his parental encomium, "that is all ye know, and all ye need to know." The tongue-and-groove artifice was the bien fait poem's goal. Richard Wilbur's "Ceremony" set the American standard:
Ho-hum. I am for wit and wakefulness,
And love this feigning lady by Bazille.
What's lightly hid is deepest understood,
And when with social smile and formal dress
She teaches leaves to curtsey and quadrille,
I think there are most tigers in the wood. (334)
Wilbur's iambic sextet prances. Allusions to mid-nineteenth-century French painting, the dance of leisurely royals, a life of coded gesture and verbal gamesmanship with an eyewink of meaning, and a final invocation of fairy tale announce a thin life. But removed from the hurly-burly of issues, this life appealed to academic GIs who, just five years before its publication, had marched through the horrors of World War II. Wilbur was one of those who needed songs about sitting with girls under apple trees. He echoed England's courtier poet Andrew Marvell and a flippantly sexual nonchalance that was symptomatic of a culture in denial. Like "Ceremony," fifties poetry is often escapist and elitist. The trouble isn't merely a blind eye to social problems, a retreat from poetic vision; it's what the vision offers. This form ignored what Whitman had called his "demonstrable" (Preface 6); it filtered out what was already here among us and reimposed what was back there, over there, a narrow, not a widened, dream of identity, not a life the country's people could live into; this old form lacked a credible balance of idiom and idealism upon which to bridge a future already looming--the future called "plastics" by the mid-sixties movie The Graduate. For a time, American poets disinvited what Whitman had invited to the party: our base selves. Ezra Pound learned it wouldn't work. William Carlos Williams knew it wouldn't work. Robert Penn Warren and Allen Tate, old-fashioned men of letters, acolytes to the architects of the impersonal lyric, gave it up in mid-career. Warren's essay "Pure and Impure Poetry" (1943) remains a powerful statement of why poetry's health, and hope, must communicate as well as prose, whatever its idiosyncratic and personal form, to express the American identity.
Warren and late, taught by Modernist Eliot, in turn taught Robert Lowell to write a poetry that ambitiously engaged life, not one that merely gestured toward it. It is almost that simple. Lowell, in ascent, saw what bard Bob Dylan would sing from the American heartland in the early sixties, that "the times they are a changin'." In 1959, Lowell published Life Studies, poems about what we now call family dysfunction. He included prose, de-emphasized rhyme and regular metric, and registered scalding confessions; he critiqued political events. He described socking his Dad over a girl's reputation. Tate, scandalized, said it wasn't poetry at all. But few poems from that period have the staying power of Lowell's. He put the feel of life in poems the way photographers take it from chemicals--with sudden immediacy--for, just as his late poem "Epilogue" says, he presents the "lurid, rapid, garish, grouped / heightened from life, / yet paralyzed by fact." Lowell's American poem renders "each figure in the photograph / his living name" (127).
The history of contemporary poetry after Lowell is known: the search for form capacious, flexible, and alive enough to engage a fleeing audience. Sickness may be the cause, timidity and impotence the results, but other factors deserve consideration. Poetry's audience is statistically the largest in history, one expanded by population, education, and by voices newly enfranchised. Women, blacks, gays, Hispanics, and Asians appear in anthologies, book contracts, and public forums as never before. More than one hundred and fifty books of poetry are published annually, many by small, regional, or government-seeded presses. Ubiquitous literary magazines publish poems. Subjects, perspectives, and authors seem to have guaranteed rights to publication. All the life one might desire fills somebody's poem publicly. Yet poetry's audience, it's said, flees with each new season. Why? Is Joseph Epstein right about what's wrong in poems? Another essayist, fiction writer Phillip Lopate, writing in The New York Times Book Review, says: "when I come upon a poem in a magazine, nine times out of ten it is disappointing." Yes, yes. Commonly, and quickly, we argue that the verbal magic is gone. But Lopate adds that the "atrophying of verbal eloquence has been going on for some time." True: Milton, Wordsworth, Poe, Whitman, and Wilbur also complained about the poets' new words.
Both critics and poets increasingly have charged poetry's distemper to the expanded graduate writing programs. Gay voice Bruce Bawer and conservative Donald Hall sound remarkably similar caustic complaints about a mediocre poetry that fails to compete with the art's giants (Bawer 251; Hall, Death 18). The mediocrity they hate is, perhaps, the freshness other readers cannot do without. As an editor, I see a daily flood of submissions by poets who seem immune to what language can be made to do and not do. Worst, perhaps, is a ubiquitous mechanical ability that lacks sensitivity to nuance and style. Doubtless, reasons for this are complex and multiple, saying much about American character and education, and sighing for the hell in a hatbox we are headed to. Poetry's critics, like the poets, now resemble small dogs fighting over tidbits. The poetry they blister as personal has little vitality; like the poems, the criticism is rarely more than learned habit and compulsive typing.
What, then, explains the sales of Maya Angelou, the noisy followers of Robert Bly, the academic pandering for John Ashbery and Jorie Graham--work that ranges from the transparent to the impenetrable? What supports the parallel reality movement hawked by self-declared language poets, the once-upon-a-time renegades now legitimatized by the Norton Postmodern American Poetry anthology? Poetry apparently sells enough to justify publication of those one hundred and fifty books, to say nothing of the online market's entrepreneurs. Perhaps W. C. Fields's saying "never give a sucker an even break" characterizes the democratization of poetry that John Milton reserved to "fit audience, though few." Who actually reads poetry? People under the age of thirty? Poetry can't compete well with movies, videos, computer interaction, talking novels geared to a voyeuristic spectatorship that may render page readers obsolete. Yet, if electric technology has changed everything utterly, there remains what Larry Levis calls "the geography of the psyche" ("Eden"), which seems explorable only by a life-centered poetry that recovers a world of the lost self extending through American imaginations from Poe to the present, Levis saw among his generation of poets a "new homelessness," which meant a lack of identity he saw best attended by a poetry more narrative than lyric.
The two decades following the Age of Lowell were dominated largely by image poets who seemed to want life pressed into poems as girls once pressed flowers into books. The sixties and seventies tapped a strong interest in translation and imitation, spurred by Asian presence from China to Japan to Vietnam, reaffirming earlier surrealist interest in Spanish, French, and Italian traditions. Robert Bly and James Wright (the only Deep Imagists who matter) tried to stir the inner consciousness through Rorschach-like word pictures. Fresh in its touch of dream-quivery depths, abrupt as the venal world it so adeptly charted, this poetry grew as tiresome as any hunk of haiku. By the nineties, the image tradition looked gimmicky, its poems interchangeable bargain merchandise. Robert Bly's snowy revamp of Emerson led to California-styled hymns of wry witness rebroadcast through the students of Yvor Winters like Robert Hass, poems weirdly interactive as myth-chant and self-help text. Poetry's realism passed through Iowa City, reappearing in new versions/visions. What people called Confessional--although almost no one agreed to what this meant--plodded on as a poetry of personal tales, neither image snapshot nor moral rave.
Poets younger and older turned, one after the other, to stories of the sews adventures. Louis Simpson's The Adventures of the Letter I is built on Lowell's model for what Stanley Plumly calls "the prose lyric." The prose lyric seeks to maintain language intensity with orchestrations of image and sonic effects that are idiomatic but variable in lines with a subterranean metric base, in lengths normally a page but sometimes exceeding one hundred and fifty lines, or four pages. This poem wants to embrace prose opportunities for discourse, description, and meditation, especially to experience the unfolding of time and space that gives an individual life event its particular aura of realistic force--and seeming, therefore, to be a truth narrative. It is, in fact, an imitative or false narrative in which chronological story is always subordinate to lyric imperatives. The prose lyric applies the language of felt facts to events that are explored ostensibly in pursuit of the self's individual meaning and communal definition. Robert Penn Warren's Audubon, in seven lyric parts, appears to record the biography of John James Audubon, the task of a genre other than poetry. Speaking as himself in the last section, Warren further violates the impersonal "contract" of narrative and offers an invocation that tradition has always placed at a poem's beginning. The result permits the poet to tell us that, while we can approach identity, it is as ruthless as time in its changing. All the poem can do is pray well for a good story:
TELL ME A STORY
Long ago, in Kentucky, I, a boy, stood
By a dirt road, in first dark, and heard
The great geese hoot northward.
I could not see them, there being no moon
And the stars sparse. I heard them.
I did not know what was happening in my heart.
It was the season before the elderberry blooms,
Therefore they were going north.
The sound was passing northward.
Tell me a story.
In this century, and moment, of mania,
Tell me a story.
Make it a story of great distances, and starlight.
The name of the story will be Time,
But you must not pronounce its name.
Tell me a story of deep delight. (Audubon 31-32)
Warren's poem, like Poe's sonnet, is a parable wherein a natural event, understood to be a function of invariable life processes, induces in the observer a childlike mystery and appetite for life. The event is made of, rendered by, and remains in, words, clear and repeatable. "Tell Me A Story" calls up an image of the dialectic--history and tradition, or art--that invokes ritualistic opposites. It dramatizes the voicing of a deep need for stories of the human crisis and triumph, and Audubon, as artist and American pioneer, shows us exactly what Warren means his poem to discover: fortitude, courage, patience, fidelity, and love as virtues that give meaning to our lives even when we cannot see their actions enacted. Warren doesn't have to ask, "What gives my life meaning?" As Audubon demonstrates, the answer is a story of almost inexpressible delight: a personal narrative. Without this, poetry is enervated and becomes merely the record of consciousness no more compelling than yesterday's sports statistics. Yet such stories, boringly expressed, have indicted poetry as too personal, with each layer of the self's tawdry experience peeled away to leave no language that answers when we ask what the poem has to do with us. Nevertheless, an excessively personal poem may not reveal too much life. Surface eccentricity may be mistaken for that story of deep delight. Or the poet may misread journalistic report for the suggestive power of carefully adduced detail. If the material of life doesn't yield a poem full of life, its poverty of phenomena and lack of texture often enough show its flaw: the poem asks the reader to do the poet's work. Deliberate obscurity is not the same thing as a deconstruction of perspective. Hermeticism leads to the poem as mental trick--a crossword puzzle in verse. Words are referential tools; story is meaning-construction. Lopate understands it is neither the self as exhibitionist nor the structure of narrative competing with lyric that dulls contemporary poems. He argues:
Paradoxical as it sounds, American poetry today suffers not from being too
personal or confessional, but from being not personal or confessional
enough. Often the poet pulls back from providing just those biographical
specificities and idiosyncratic reactions that would bring him alive as an
authentic individual. (39)
Warren's story of deep delight is Jung's "big dream" speaking in harmony with the authentic individual. This is a dangerously impressionistic observation, I know. Moreover, the absence of such stories may be a result of the original democratic idea, the equalization of migrated cultures. Freedom, we might say, is a big dream, but one that often looks very different to this Palestinian or that Israeli. Does the enforced multicultural teaching now practiced convey Jung's big dreams in which one's personal story becomes recognizably the communal core of identity? Do universities teach dreams? Does this country possess the courage to affirm a common code of principles, of manners? It is hard to worry about the life in a poem when one must worry about the life holding a gun on us in the dark, when one knows there are people dying for lack of healthcare or a meal in the world's richest nation. Perhaps that is why we need the poetry with the secret news people are dying for lack of, as William Carlos Williams tells us--the poetry of the big dream.
The poets who write of that life are voices of conscience and of consciousness. Theirs is not the optimism of simple answers to problems, but a celebration of life's indomitable spirit and the joy in language that participates most deeply in what life is. They do not so much compel us by the encyclopedic sweep of a Whitman, for few are ever Whitmans, but by the act of telling accurately the tale of one man or woman, showing how the world feels, how one life is to that mind. This too creates our national identity. One recent poet who has written his part in this mysterious fable is the late Larry Levis.
Nothing is harder to describe than the style that makes a writer distinctive and memorable, doubtless because it carries the writing personality at its best and because it touches the reader's best self. Whitman felt the American character could be carried into poetry by an element he described this way: "A wild strawberry, a wild grape has the very quality, the distinctive tang. Our poetry lacks `race.' Most of it might have been written on England or on the Continent." (1) "Race" is now a suspicious word, but to Whitman it was positive and essential.
Larry Levis, like Walter Whitman, made an unlikely candidate for a model American poet on the face of appearances. He was raised on a grape-producing ranch in the dry cowboy country outside Fresno, California, educated at the local university, and proved himself able to fail at the usual American stations of success before he succeeded. We know a good deal about him from his poetry: a dreamer, one to be found at rock concerts where smoke often blew, he seemed not given finally to deep convictions, but was aware of himself as a citizen in a politically errant country. He was a sort of intellectual who emerged from blue-collar atmospheres and families; he loved the vineyard life for its pastoral character and its community of struggle; he knew how to work hard, to hunt game, to read the stars as he read desultorily several languages; he leaned toward the difficult, art-for-art's-sake poetries of symbolist Europe; he lived in a seldom-compromised loneliness; he did not easily find himself at home in communities where he taught or in relationships. Yet he was a father who loved his son and a teacher whose students he took as seriously as he took himself. He died prematurely of a heart attack in 1996, at the age of forty-nine.
I first knew Larry Levis in 1973. We were young men, though I was older by five years--more, it may be, if personal experience of trauma counts. From my perspective as a just-discharged sergeant in the Vietnam-era U.S. Air Force, he seemed an arrogant, hip, star-dazzled, Keats-to-be on the make. His poems reflected his age and the politics of the age. Wrecking Crew (1972) won the prestigious Pittsburgh Prize, establishing him as a comer. Its poems were the image-burst lyrics of his teachers at Fresno, Syracuse, and the University of Iowa, notably Philip Levine, Mark Strand, Charles Wright, and Donald Justice. He won prizes. He was in all the right magazines. He was the handsome husband of the beautiful poet Marcia Southwick--and the more attractive because of an apparent vulnerability not easy to name.
Our first meeting turned out badly between us. For a time, I dismissed him as one of the lightweight pretenders. By the late seventies, I had published several collections of poems. An unexpected letter arrived from Larry, saying he liked my poems and thought we were more or less writing the same style--poems that were elegiac tales of our particular tribe. So, after his letter, I found that I had always admired him. Or maybe it was that I saw his poems better in a less competitive light. I saw that he intended to wed sensibility to life memories informed by (not exactly about) the tranquility of his boyhood orchards and the human cost of making them thrive. Maybe I admired the real affection he felt for working people--migrants, especially, and those with few dreams--and he seemed to have, without putting it this way, an unbending affirmation for the American ideal of ethical and moral fairness, our original charter. Or maybe it was a hawkish intelligence in poems that rarely missed an opportunity to look through life events for that more permanent vision, the big dream all artists seek and too often miss. He knew how to focus a street fight between men scrapping over the little nothings that mean everything, and he could show us injustice, not merely chant around it; he knew how to make the look of a grape-cutting knife shocking and memorable. He had a tension in him that came of the contest between the part of him that adored beauty and the part that was, for lack of a better term, a pragmatist. A farm boy, after all, he was practical to the core in some ways. I think two things happened to make him write what James Wright called "the poetry of a grown man" (212). Larry accepted himself, the life he had lived and had in him, for better and worse. Where once he had written easy-blame polemic, now he followed his finger-pointing inside to his own hurts.
He got better with each book too. His vision evolved into a demanding, detailed, cohesive view of what Americans were as well as what they wanted to be. His poetry stands on understanding solidarity and complicity. He had the original and remarkable innocence that alone prevents any of us from being bullied into submission and, if we are poets, into imitation. His innocence came with the grit Emily Dickinson had. Like her, he knew the world for what it is, and he knew the true poet cannot blink.
Larry Levis was not the first poet of my generation to die, and I cannot say that I thought his death would cut as keenly as it has. It would be wrong to claim we were close friends, although I saw him from time to time over the years, always with increasing pleasure and the sense of an uncommon presence. His absence seems almost daily to gain weight in my memory, perhaps because I have come to regard his poetry as steeped in that "race" Whitman required. The Selected Levis (2000) displays an American identity inextricably rooted in his life but made to expand until it echoes collective self-recognition. It was my fortune, as editor of The Southern Review, to publish "Elegy With a Thimbleful of Water in the Cage," the centerpiece of Levis's remarkable posthumous collection, Elegy (1997). I had heard him read this poem four times in public, had asked to publish it, and lived with it enough to convince me Whitman would find it satisfying as a fusion of poetry and a national consciousness.
"Elegy with a Thimbleful of Water in the Cage" manages more multi-layered, hard-edged stories than some contemporary novels, yet it proceeds with a delicacy of expression few manage. The poet says he sent a letter some years ago to an unnamed but listening recipient. What was in the letter, we are not told; what the effect of the letter may have been, if any, we are not told. We learn that the mailing occurred in New Hampshire at a post office inside a rural store. We are given additional sites for the narrator's life events as the poem veers forward through the years, but we learn little more of the stories pertinent to Piedra, Paris, Piraeus, Athens, and San Francisco than of that post office. Even so, a sort of Conradian authority convinces the reader that these are significant stops in the geography of a psyche whose growth unfolds before us.
One story anchors all the others. The Roman myth of the Sibyl of Cumae holds that the Sibyl, a priestess, asked for eternal life and received her wish, and, because she forgot to ask for her youth, she was given also an eternity of physical shrinking, suffocating, and final invisibility. But Levis doesn't begin his poem with this. Enigmatically, he says: "It's a list of what I cannot touch," and, only after he has worked through memories that contain dying trees in Paris, flowers like innocence, and the postal counter with its sleeping cat, does he arrive, as if he has peeled an onion, at the Sibyl who was placed in a bird cage:
not to possess her,
But to protect her from pedestrians, & the boys of Athens rattled
The bars of her cage with sticks as they ran past yelling,
"Sibyl, Sibyl, what do you want?"--each generation having to
Listen more closely than the one before it to hear
The faintest whispered rasp from the small bitter seed
Of her tongue as she answered them with the same
Remark passing through time, "I want to die!" As time passed & she
Gradually grew invisible, the boys had to press
Their ears against the cage to hear her.
And then one day the voice became too faint, no one could hear it,
And after that they stopped telling
The story. And then it wasn't a story; it was only an empty stage.
The stage he seems to mean is that upon which Levis himself stands to unite his tale with the Sibyl's, his life with hers. I think it is no small task for a farm boy from Fresno to credibly marry his life to that of an ancient spirit-poet and, moreover, to make his tale speak for a national generation. A retelling of poetic tales (this one is Ovid's) marks a poet's knowledge; it extends connection between the life of the tradition and the individual. It is a staple of cultural learning. Not surprisingly, Levis treats the poem as a moral tutor. He introduces the Sibyl only to withdraw her slowly until she is evidenced by nothing more than what seems a breeze rippling the surface of the water in her thimble. A poem of psychic travel needs a Virgilian guide to make sense of such enigmas as the Sibyl, and so Levis sidles into another story, that of Stavros, a cafe-keeper in an unnamed Theater district (possibly in San Francisco). Stavros lectures in the manner of bards and raconteurs; he tells stories and sings. He mentions that the Sibyl was still alive when Nazi officers arrived to violate the sanctity of his home, thus abrogating the narrative's historical definition. For Stavros, all time is one time; for Levis, all time is one mind. The story the Sibyl tells, retold by Stavros, then retold by Levis, and, as we read, retold by us--for all that--is a story of the soul of poetry endangered but flaring ahead. It must be, and is, rooted in the pastoral of the natural body, in those details of exact place and event. Nevertheless,
As the years passed, as even the sunlight began to seem
As if it was listening to him outside the windows
Of the Midi, he began to lose interest in stories, & to speak
Only in abstractions, to speak only of theories,
Never of things.
Then he began to come in less frequently, & when he did
He no longer spoke at all. And so,
Along the boulevards in the winter the bare limbs of the trees
One passed in the city became again
Only the bare limbs of trees, no girl stepped into them
To tell us of their stillness. (lines 72-82)
Stavros spirals off to chase Pentecostalists and invest himself in glossolalia. How savage seems that indictment of speaking "only in abstractions" and how self-scalding for one of the young poets of that time when every poem was a political argument against America. I do not think, either, that the de-sacralizing of Nature can be more effectively put: without stories that are big dreams, the matter of the world is only cellular.
In 1938, John Crowe Ransom's The World's Body voiced the fear of violation that underlay the New Criticism and the poems of the Vanderbilt Fugitives. Ransom's anxiety over the disappearing rural life has turned into the United States Environmental Protection Agency, and Chicken Little must still fear the sky will fall. As those early modernists felt the bulldozing that accompanied conflict between old and new, Levis felt the turbulence of the sixties in waves of change that washed over and altered California, which seemed then America central. When San Francisco's good feeling turned to predation, drugs, violence, meaningless sex, infringement of freedoms, and the corrosive acid bath that was Vietnam, what remained but a broken body? And where was the principle Whitman had promised?
Poverty is what happens at the end of any story, including this one,
When there are too many stories.
When you can believe in all of them, & so believe in none;
When one condition is as good as any other. (lines 103-106)
Relativity sucks. Levis describes a condition of despair, a self without definition, like the Sibyl's, and thus unnatural in its state, sustained only by and within the story that is itself held only by relation to places, events, memories, and narrators. Levis asks: "What do you do when nothing calls you anymore?" (118). Abstractions--religious, legislative, aesthetic--seem not to answer. Only a list of "things I cannot touch" will answer. He begins with story, weaving the untouchable until it becomes palpable and useful, helping to sustain the life that totters under its own weight, and the story becomes a sort of letter the spirit sends. To a girl, a lover, a muse? To us, certainly. In it is declared what matters, that which can make one condition better than others. Levis finds that particulars, artfully fused, lead back to abstraction, and so the elegy praises the acts of composition, expression, linkage, and memory as forces of vitality and civilization. Nothing could be more personal.
"Elegy with a Thimbleful of Water in the Cage," so dependent on the apparent narrative of a traveler's memories, has, however, no narrative structure. It is made of overlapping circles, partially scored lives that touch at some point, a lyric of final and utter loss--because life can't go past that cage. An elegy must praise the dead for their value to us, and Levis's poem praises the poets and visionaries, but its greatest praise is offered, I think, for gesture rather than person, leaving us a poem whose realism is as memorial as its mystical tale is enchanting. I do not know if Larry Levis set out to establish an American identity, but I know that anyone who lived through the sixties and more in this country must feel this is a true and powerful portrait of who we were, of what happened to the innocents. Surely, it is not too much to say that "Elegy with a Thimbleful of Water in the Cage" is an emblem of my generation and, in the way of poetry, is therefore the tale of all who commit themselves to life under an idea. I cannot help observing too that even one good poet can keep alive what Americans came here to do, and to be, those who want the good country built in courage, who would pass on the good news of our lives. Almost as if he had received the message from Whitman and Dickinson, Levis tells us the simplest and most personal thing at the end of his poem:
I pass the letter I wrote to you over the sleeping cat & beyond
The iron grillwork, into the irretrievable. (135-136)
What made Larry Levis both a poet and an American resides in that gesture, which is a witness to the unbreakable cry for freedom, the work of poetry.
Louisiana State University
[Editor's note: This essay was presented as the Lewis W. Britton Lecture at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., on October 25, 1999.]
(1) I believe it is in his 1855 Preface that Whitman uses the word "race" in this manner, but I have been unable to locate its exact whereabouts among the notes I made for this essay.
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Dave Smith is Boyd Professor of English and Coeditor of The Southern Review at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. His most recent books are The Wick of Memory: New and Selected Poems 1970-2000 (2000) and Floating on Solitude: Three Books of Poetry (1997). Additionally, he has written one novel and a collection of short stories.