In confronting a selection of new poetry by Americans, we would do well to entertain some sentences from Tocqueville ( 1835) and from Santayana ( 1900). With these observations in mind, the new reader (for there are, notoriously, new readers as well as new poets in our literary culture) may proceed to a more judicious enjoyment. Here is the Santayana:
In these latter times, with the prodigious growth of material life in elaboration and of mental life in diffusion, there has supervened . . . a new faith in poetry's absolute power, a kind of return to the inexperience and self-assurance of youth. This new inspiration has made many poets indifferent to traditional disciplines; none of which is seriously to be accepted by them, for the reason, excellent from their own point of view, that no discipline whatever is needed. The memory of ancient disillusions has faded with time. Ignorance of the past has bred contempt for the lessons which the past might teach. Poets prefer to repeat the old experiment without knowing that they repeat it.
And here, seeming to anticipate the consequence is Tocqueville, sixty-five years earlier:
In democracies it is by no means the case that all who cultivate literature have received a literary education; and most of those who have some tinge of belles-lettres are engaged in professions that only allow them to taste occasionally and by stealth the pleasures of the mind. Accustomed to the struggle, the crosses, and the monotony of practical life, poets require strong and rapid emotions, startling passages, truths or errors brilliant enough to rouse them up and to plunge them at once, as if by violence, into the midst of the subject.
Ours, then, is a generation of poets that knows not the Law, and though the results of such ignorance are often brilliant, and certainly worth our delighted attention, we shall discover that the poetry of our moment, as in the volume that follows, is a literature of desperate measures, dreadful freedoms that only the strongest and most resolute talents can endure. Of course this is what such a culture as ours may want—only the strongest and most resolute talents.
Poetry is already a problematic if not a despised art in what I am calling our moment. Despised because popular. More people are writing what they believe to be poetry, what is even called poetry by their readers, their publishers, their