Magazine article The Catholic World

The Poetry of Contact

Magazine article The Catholic World

The Poetry of Contact

Article excerpt

Every poet must face the facts of life within his own age before he can refuse, accept, or transcend them. Our century, like all that have preceded it, can be said to contain within itself forces of disintegration on the one hand and forces of integration on the other. The result is tension, and this tension in our era has created what has been called an age of anxiety (W.H. Auden) or containment (R.W.B. Lewis) or austerity (Marguerite Higgins). If a poet begins, as has already been mentioned, with the facts, as opposed to the scientist, who ends with them, it follows that he must see clearly before he can express or interpret, consciously or instinctively, what he has seen. I suggest that the expression of what a poet sees or begins with is the poetry of contact. To put it another way, the poetry of contact is simply a way of describing the expression of a poetic vision in contact with its time.

There are basically three possible results of contact: retreat, engagement, transcendence. The poetry of retreat is characterized often by disgust, aversion, escape into mere craft or other symptoms of withdrawal. The poetry of engagement attempts to affirm and capture the passing world of fact simply as phenomena. The poetry of transcendence is poetry that has been written by one who is able to see within and beyond the point of contact in what I choose to call visionary spirit.

The poetry of retreat is really a poetry of refusal. Almost all of the best modern poetry which confronts the more unpalatable aspects of contemporary life has something of the poetry of retreat about it. I would cite T.S. Eliot's "The Wasteland," Randall Jarrell's "Eighth Air Force," and Linda Pastan's "The Five Stages of Grief" as examples of poetry in which elements of refusal are present. But while Eliot, Jarrell, and Pastan confront the unpalatable and somehow integrate it into a poetic vision that is able to digest it, there are other less visionary poets who are incapable of rising above their own negativism. The poetry of the Beats was typical of this inclination. The failure of such poetry was that its own practitioners often merely orgied in their own chagrin. They made contact; they saw, often quite clearly, but they salvaged little from such contact beyond indignation and disgust. At times, like the apostles of the much over-rated phenomenon of Woodstock, they used their disgust merely as an excuse for self-indulgence and self-pity. A commentator named Gene Feldman wrote the following of them at the time, and it remains applicable to all other forms of retreat since the spirit remains definable even when the names of the movements change: "The Square has his suburbia with a picture window looking out over a graveyard, or he kids himself by chalking political slogans on subway stations. But the man who is Beat knows that he is alone, and that his problem is to live with this knowledge. As a consequence, his concern is primarily one of self-exploration, of perceiving the self in terms of connection with immediate experience. Not capable of the act of faith required by a belief in tomorrow, the Beat man values relationships only as they tend to reveal the truth of his existence."

Without going into the sociological implications of this statement, it seems to me that its negativism is apparent. By denying the possibility of an act of faith in tomorrow, which is not necessarily the chronological tomorrow or the "bigger and better" tomorrow of those who lack a tragic sense of life, the Beat poet and his spiritual kin disrupt the continuity of life itself. …

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