From Sight to Shenandoah
A few years ago the editor of the Bellingham Review proposed the following two works—a passage from Scalapino and Hejinian’s Sight, the text of Bernstein’s “Shenandoah”—as representative examples of contemporary experimental writing.1 What kind of commentary, she asked, “might help a general audience understand these poets’ tactics a little better”?
The academic commentaries in the earlier chapters of this book address the editor’s question. But that kind of writing isn’t what the editor wanted. Why? So that a professor with academic credentials might come to the rescue of some estranged readers? Perhaps. I’ve never known. But the assignment made me think that such a question is always in play, even for our traditional poetic inheritance. Has it used itself up? Was Byron talking about more than himself when he observed:
I have spent my life, both interest and principal,
And deem not, what I deemed, my soul invincible.
—Don Juan, canto 1, st. 213
And yet how inspiriting that expression of bankruptcy! Several years earlier, when he was shoring up his ruins with a bolder front, he put the same point very differently, imagining himself as a Promethean figure,
Triumphant where it dares defy,
And making Death a Victory.