Prosody after the Poetry Wars
Caplan, David, The Antioch Review
"Phil, I'm so happy to be a contemporary: happy to share the language. Tho they climb only the stairway of lost breath, they lion come It is astonishing how they lion come s--Mary and I reading the books all afternoon--"
George Oppen, in a letter to Philip Levine, 1974
To understand the current state of prosody, we need flexibility and curiosity. Shrewd poets are opportunists, drawing from diverse influences. Their wanderlust frustrates those who seek to map uncomplicated lines of affiliation. In my epigraph, George Oppen hails a rather surprising "contemporary," a poet soon fated to serve as one of the avant garde's customary targets of abuse. Oppen's brief prose poem celebrates the "books" that he and his wife Mary have enjoyed "all afternoon," adding his distinctive spacing to Philip Levine's "astonishing" words. A more extensive collaboration can be observed in Robert Duncan's manuscripts. They show how Thom Gunn's book, Moly, provoked Duncan to draft a series of poems in the margins alongside Gunn's syllabic verse. A meditation on Moly, Duncan's sequence borrows certain phrases, rhythms, and a mythological framework, using the space that Gunn's poetry leaves. "Irregular meters beat between your heart and mine," Duncan writes, addressing Gunn. Duncan could not have made the connection more visible, naming his sequence "Poems Written in the Margins of Thom Gunn's Moly."
The 1994 anthology From the Other Side of the Century: A New American Poetry 1960-1990, contains more than one-thousand pages of poetry, including Duncan's "Preface to the Suite," but not Gunn's poem that inspired it, twelve pages of Oppen's work, but none written by the poet with whom he was "happy to share the language." Such omissions split a diverse literary culture into two halves, each of which pretends that the other exists only as its foil.
Literary criticism generally frames post-war and contemporary verse as a contest between "experimental" and "traditional" poets. Every decade or so, the terms shift, but the basic opposition remains nearly constant. Read as a rivalry, this division inflects the various "poetry wars," raging between the proponents of "the raw" and "the cooked," writers of "open" and "closed" forms, and L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Writers and new formalists. Too many valedictions to "the poetry wars" play slight changes on this pattern, confirming the metaphor's remarkable tenacity, its ability to guide even the discussions that putatively reject it. A collection of essays considers the state of American poetry "After New Formalism"; a symposium contemplates the same situation "After Language." Neither explores the possibilities that exist "after"--and between--both movements.
Prosody after "the poetry wars" demands a less antagonistic, more nuanced model of creativity, one capable of acknowledging how writers echo even the ideas they dispute. Unless we wish to repeat what the poet Greg Williamson calls "a hundred years of bickering" about poetic form, we need a critical vocabulary that clarifies the era's most interesting poetry, instead of ignoring it. I propose we discuss "contemporaries" who "share the language," not partisans who wage "wars."
Consider, for instance, H. L. Hix's remarkable sequence, "Orders of Magnitude." Collected in Rational Numbers (2000), it consists of one hundred ten-line sections, with ten syllables per line. Hix's term for the sections, "decimals," emphasizes that each one-hundred-syllable part offers a numerical microcosm of the whole. A section just past the middle suggests some of the effects that the poem's allusive style and numerical form achieve:
Let me start over. Not so I can speak clearly, but so I can mimic the gods. When they command the wind the wind obeys its own will. I understand the devil's one melodious truth but not the gods' polyphonic paradox. Not so I can say something else, but so I can mean more by the same thing, more than I meant then, more than I can know I mean now. …