Literary Theory at War

Poetry is a Local Currency

Twentieth-century poetry was not a consistent movement. But what did spring up were coteries of poets and writers, more in England than the USA, and particularly in London. There were the usual disagreements but the Moderns were not personally at odds with the Georgians: they mixed with them socially and found much to admire in their work. Pound was asked to contribute to Georgian Poetry, and Eliot's poetry was liked by Munro and others. {15} We should not paint too rosy a picture, but exchanges like this were not published:

Opening Exchanges

‘Why is that?

— Because most mainstream poetry today is simply unreadable, and people quite sensibly ignore it. For example, intelligent readers skip past the poems in The New Yorker in order to peruse the much more inviting articles and advertisements.

It seems that you dislike the poetry in The New Yorker.

— They haven't published an interesting poet since Dorothy Parker and Ogden Nash.’


‘When he was a young man, Ezra Pound scribbled a sonnet every morning before breakfast. He had the good sense to throw the whole lot in the fire. A poet doesn't have to believe the Muse keeps appointments to see the virtues of regimen; and yet there's something pillowy and fin de siècle in Robert Bly's self-imposed discipline, to write a poem every morning before rising. Morning Poems has a dozy complacency (you feel some of it was written before waking). The book is composed in simple, declarative sentences, full of “wisdom” and “sentiment,” as if these were ingredients found in any supermarket; and like a Disney cartoon they're full of talking mice, talking cars, talking cats, talking trees. The poems peter out at sonnet length, the appetite for poetry exhausted where the appetite for breakfast begins.

One day a mouse called to me from his curly nest:
‘How do you sleep? I love curliness.’
‘Well, I like to be stretched out. I like my bones to be
All lined up. I like to see my toes way off over there.’
‘I suppose that's one way,’ the mouse said, ‘but I don't like it.
The planets don't act that way, nor the Milky Way.’
What could I say? You know you're near the end
Of the century when a sleepy mouse brings in the Milky Way.

This could hardly be more winsome or sickeningly ingenuous. After a few such trifles, just Aesop without his dentures (I'm especially fond of the talking wheat), a reader might feel he had wandered into a children's book by mistake.’ {17}

Or this:

‘Let me be specific as to what I mean by "official verse culture" — I am referring to the poetry publishing and reviewing practices of The New York Times, The Nation, The American Poetry Review, The New York Review of Books, The New Yorker, Poetry (Chicago), Antaeus, Parnassus, Atheneum Press, all the major trade publishers, the poetry series of almost all of the major university presses (the University of California Press being a significant exception at present). Add to this the ideologically motivated selection of the vast majority of poets teaching in university, writing and literature programs and of poets taught in such programs as well as the interlocking accreditation of these selections through prizes and awards judged by these same individuals. Finally, there are the self-appointed keepers of the gate, who actively put forward biased, narrowly focused and frequently shrill and contentious accounts of American poetry, while claiming, like all disinformation propaganda, to be giving historical or nonpartisan views. In this category, "The American Academy of Poetry" and such books as "The Harvard Guide to Contemporary American Writing" stand out.’ {18}

Underneath there were many reservations, but it took the ascendancy of Modernism to get Robert Graves in his 1965 Oxford Addresses on Poetry, to talk openly about 'the foul tidal basin of modernism.' {19} Even before that battle was joined, literary appreciation had begun its drift into academia, possibly with Scrutiny, where F.R. Leavis applied the approaches of T.S. Eliot, I.A. Richards and William Empson in a more sustained manner.

‘For Leavis and his followers, analysis was not merely a technique for precise description of literature, but a process whereby the reader could “cultivate awareness”, and grow towards the unified sensibility. Analysis was necessary because a poem resulted from a complex of associated feelings and thoughts. A great poem was not a simple, forceful statement of some well-known experience, “What oft was thought, but ne'er so well express'd”, but a profoundly original creation only fully comprehended after close textual analysis. Because of these attitudes, the practical critic spent his time discovering complexities, ambiguities and multiplications of meaning. He was attracted to irony and wit, because a poem with these qualities offers different layers of effect for interpretation. Long, discursive poems, such as Paradise Lost, which depend for much of their organisation on rational analysis, were undervalued, and the critics tended to treat all poems, and even plays and novels, as akin to lyric poetry in their structure of imagery.’ {20}

Many critics disliked the approach.

‘Helen Gardner and C. S. Lewis have pointed out that a student can be taught a technique of analysis, and do well in examinations, without any real appreciation of poetry whatsoever.’ {21} ‘Kermode's book is particularly famous for its attack on Eliot's dissociation theory. . . the whole theory has no historical justification. The theory was produced by Eliot as an attempt to define what he himself was trying to achieve in verse; it should never have been used as an historical truth determining the way in which poems are analyzed.’ {22}

But poets kept up the running.

‘Literary critics are rarely under fire and never tested by the high seas of artistic creation. Instead, as John Updike puts it when titling his own collected essays and reviews, they "hug the shoreline" of accepted practices and ideals. Their potshots are taken from behind the cover of their age's standards, and the long progress of the history of ideas.’ {23}

Academics needed a substantial body of new critical theory, and poets to exemplify its revitalizing insights. W. B. Yeats was clearly one of the greatest of twentieth century English poets, and a spate of books and articles sought to bring him into the fold. {24-26} But if Yeats knew Pound well, he didn't fully sympathize with his work, or always understand it. {27} Yeat's writing grew terser as he emerged from the Celtic twilight, and his interests widened to include the problems of contemporary Ireland, but still his preoccupations remained very un-Modernist: Symbolist images of swans, water, moon and towers, a brooding on the imaginative, inner life, a mannered style with uncontemporary diction.

Perhaps Thomas Hardy, whose style had hardly changed from the 1870s, could be repositioned? {28} David Perkins, whose survey of a hundred years of poetry on both sides of the Atlantic is truly admirable — well-researched, generous and perceptive — did his best, but found himself in difficulties. Writing of The Dynasts, he says:

‘Later he speaks of the "smart ship" and "smart" may be pejorative, but he also calls it a "creature of cleaving," responding positively to this adventurous swiftness. Throughout the poem his attitude is never settled, but wavers and hovers, balancing one phrase against the next. Many phrases are of the kind readers find “trite” and “awkward”, but they are not less effective for that reason. Triteness and awkwardness are here felt as reassuring human ordinariness, a plain honesty of utterance as Hardy records an almost mute depth of feeling and groping uncertainty what to think.’ {29}

But surely triteness is triteness: why not accept that Hardy was an imperfect craftsman, both in prose {30} and verse? The comment of the Saturday Review on the first appearance of Wessex Poems — ‘As we read this curious and wearisome volume, these many slovenly, slipshod, uncouth verses, stilted in sentiment, poorly conceived and worse wrought, our respect lessens to vanishing point’ {31} — was harsh, but indeed how they measured up to the expectations of the day.

Modernism was a jealous god, however, and made standards of its own. Hardy refused to lose himself in conventional sentiment or well-turned phrases. Hardy was deeply hurt and perplexed by life, and such honest doubts and comfortless broodings represented the age. Hardy's poems were simple and direct, written without classical trappings or Romantic attitudinising. We understand Hardy more through biography than his poetry or novels, and no doubt all poets would be closer to us if textbooks included their less admirable aspects: Hardy's misogyny, {32} Yeats's calculated affectations, {33} Eliot's ambition that encouraged his wife's association with Russell but had her committed when his career was threatened, {34} Pound's philandering and anti-Semitism, {35} and so forth.

So what happened to the broad church of Modernism? Perhaps there never was a movement as such, but only poets reacting in their own ways to individual circumstances. Perhaps poets remained unconvinced by the theory created to help them, finding it abstruse and over-ingenious: many are the stories of Eliot bemused and chuckling over Ph.D. theses on his work. And perhaps the subterfuges that critics adopted to fight a worthy cause came back to haunt them.

Which of these passages do we prefer?

It is the time of tender, opening things.
Above my head the fields murmur and wave,
And breezes are just moving the clear heat.
O the mid-noon is trembling on the corn,
On cattle calm, and trees in perfect sleep.


A bluebird comes tenderly up to alight
And turns to the wind to unruffle a plume,
His song so pitched as not to excite
A single flower as yet to bloom.
It is snowing a flake; and he half knew
Winter was only playing possum.
Except in color he isn't blue,
But he wouldn't advise a thing to blossom.

I have some doubts about both, but the first seems marginally better in its rhythmic fluency. But of this piece David Perkins says:

‘The poems of both Phillips and Field have been completely forgotten; to recall them may seem unkind, almost gloating. Nevertheless, since they were once esteemed, they show what, at a level of taste and intelligence below Watson's, the middle class assumed “poetry” to be. One can find in Phillips the plaintive “simple,” mealymouthed style that has been fondly read for at least the last two hundred years.’ {36}

The second comes from Robert Frost's Two Tramps In Mud Time, which appeared in his 1936 collection A Further Range. {37} Stronger writing, and more original, but nonetheless a bad poem, it seems to me: galumphing metre, unabashed clichés (cloven rock, poised aloft, hulking tramps), contrived rhyming, and a moralizing tag to boot. But in discussing Frost generally, Perkins says: ‘When in the twenties and thirties the Modernist tide came in, Frost remained prominent. The excellence of his performance ensured that. But most of the contemporaries with whom he had been and should be associated were lost from view. As a result, when we look back on twentieth-century poetry, Frost seems a relatively isolated and inexplicable figure.’ {38}

Is Perkins arguing something like the following: Modernism was a healthy reaction to the badness of late nineteenth-century poetry. As Stephen Phillips was popular at the time, his poetry must be bad. I will show that to be the case by selecting some particularly egregious example. I do not know, of course, but the approach is common and unhelpful. Could we gain a proper idea of Yeat's 1933 collection The Winding Stair and Other Poems from this snippet? {39}

Greater glory in the sun,
An evening chill upon the air,
Bid imagination run
Much on the Great Questioner;
What He can question, what if question I
Can with a fitting confidence reply.

At Algecirus — A Meditation Upon Death is a fragmentary piece where Yeats's legendary playing of sense against the metre ends up with an over-pat phrase. A failure, but no reason to deny the stunning accomplishment of the collection as a whole. Poets need to be judged on their best work, when most will declare for Frost. But unless we think the Phillips piece that Perkins chooses to single out for attack is self-evidently bad — and it doesn't so seem to me — we must wonder why the standards that apply to one poet do not apply to another. If we don't stigmatise a leading academic as incompetent or dishonest, what is left us? That the literary scholar's task is perhaps not to review, which is a matter for the small presses and their endless squabbles, but to:

1. Explain and find an audience for the poet or poets under study.

2. Research into the bases of criticism, recreating literary theory and its contemporary philosophy.

3. Dethrone the elitist and monolithic criticism of the past with its lofty and supposedly universal standards.

Contemporary Battles

In a widely-read study of contemporary poetry, Vernon Shetley quotes a passage from Gjertrud Schnackenberg's Supernatural Love, a poem that appeared in her apparently ‘highly praised’ volume The Lamplit Answer: {40}

I twist my threads like stems into a knot
And smooth "Beloved," but my needle caught
Within the threads, Thy blood so dearly bought,
the needle strikes my finger to the bone.
I lift my hand, it is myself I've sewn,
The flesh laid bare, the threads of blood my own,
I lift my hand in startled agony
And call upon his name, "Daddy daddy"--
My father's hand touches the injury
As lightly as he touched the page before,
Where incarnation bloomed from roots that bore
The flowers I called Christ's when I was four.

He criticized it for rhythmic monotony and triviality, adding:

‘Good metrical writing involves a great deal more than filling out a pattern of accented and unaccented syllables with occasional variation.’


‘New Formalist partisans often accuse free versers of being obscure or inaccessible, but readers also turn away from triviality, and one may be trivial (as indeed one may be obscure or inaccessible) in measured as well as free verse.’

True enough, but why is such a large argument being built on one poem or book of poems? Little of New Formalist work is as over-written as this. Vernon Shetley goes on to say ‘. . . the connection between using conventional verse forms and these various populist impulses seems even more elusive. Poetry is not likely to regain its lost popularity, much less its lost cultural authority, by attempting to compete directly with popular culture, or by attempting to match the accessibility of popular cultural goods. And in a world where younger professors of literature, not to mention younger poets, often appear to be only hazily informed about the principles of versification, it's difficult to see how metrical composition will, by itself, engage the interest of a broad, nonspecialist public.’ {41} True again, very probably, but poetry by those of whom Vernon Shetley approves — Elizabeth Bishop, John Ashbery and James Merrill — has been no more popular.

Anyone frequenting workshops and writing circles will know that writers are overwhelmingly sincere, and many readers, their heads filled with modern theory and reviews, will probably not grasp what this page is trying to say — any more than did readers of Dana Gioia's essay a decade back, {54} the extended controversy notwith- standing. {55}

Even well-known poets can seem confused. James Fenton's God, A Poem includes: {56}

'I didn't exist at Creation,
I didn't exist at the Flood,
And I won't be around for Salvation
To sort out the sheep from the cud—
'Or whatever the phrase is.
The fact is in soteriological terms
I'm a crude existential malpractice
And you are a diet of worms.

Or perhaps the confusion is deliberate. Wendy Cope's Engineer's Corner has her parodies of contemporaries and a tongue too sharp to be mistaken for light verse. We have returned to formal poetry, only we haven't: {57}

Yes, life is hard if you choose engineering —
You're sure to need another job as well;
You'll have to plan your projects in the evenings
Instead of going out. It must be hell.
While well-heeled poets ride around in Daimlers,
You'll burn the midnight oil to earn a crust,
With no hope of a statue in the Abbey,
With no hope, even, of a modest bust.
No wonder small boys dream of writing couplets
And spurn the bike, the lorry and the train.
There's far too much encouragement for poets --
That's why this country's going down the drain.

And with Tony Harrison's Long Distance II we have emotion kept at bay by the deliberate ineptness of the verse: {58}

Though my mother was already two years dead
Dad kept her slippers warming by the gas,
put hot water bottles her side of the bed
and still went to renew her transport pass.
You couldn't just drop in. You had to phone.
He'd put you off an hour to give him time
to clear away her things and look alone
as though his still raw love were such a crime.

By posing as amateur poetry, Tony Harrison's piece is having its cake and eating it. Formal poetry is back, but only teasingly, with lines to make us wince if the poet were serious — as though his still raw love were such a crime.

Of course, such strategies did not go unchallenged:

‘Nonetheless, the work of both Bloom and Perloff have circulated academically in ways that may legitimize and exclude certain writers and modes of writing. Both have their limits. Bloom reductively dismisses much 20th century writing, while Perloff tends to claim that certain tendencies in poetry are specifically 20th century creations. In Jed Rasula's The American Poetry Wax Museum (1995), we see a hyberbolic example of a good-guy/bad-guy account of the poetry field. As a historical narrative of how power circulates in the poetic community, this book is highly useful. He traces much of the division in the American poetry scene of the last 50 years to a split over who was heir to the Pound throne — on one side there's Berryman and Lowell and on the other there's Olson, Zukofsky and Duncan. This division can be traced through the battle of the anthologies in 1959-60, and many of the “big names” of the last 35 years, in their official pronouncements at least, have thrown their chips either on one side or another (despite the calypso singers laughing at them).' {59}

'But Perloff wants to bastardize the considerable musical achievement of John Cage, rendering it a theoretical referendum on the agenda of the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets. Perloff's dependence upon the critical dimensions of Cage's work seems to be the problem endemic to all L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry — their criticism IS more interesting than the poetry (music) itself. Their attempts to blur the distinction between poetry and criticism acknowledge as much. L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry as well as most post-modernist poetry is dissipative — entropic would be a borrowing that would get Gross and Levitt's blood boiling (which reminds me of the funny story of how John von Neumann convinced Claude Shannon to make a trope of the term, entropy, in Shannon's foundational paper on Information Theory.)' {60}

'Related to the fetish of "imagery" is another phobia, the phobia against abstraction. "No ideas but in things." This is someone's provocative flash which has somehow turned into a dogma, and as such is just as onesided and dangerous as the kind of abstraction gone berserk whose consequences we all know. Unless we allow ourselves a certain degree of abstraction we are faced with a series of unrelated concrete phenomena which we cannot put together. Unless we put things together we cannot comprehend them. The obsession with the concrete can mean a suppression of thought. Indeed, in the obsession with "imagery" one may discern an unconscious parallel to the state of mind which the visual media work hard to induce. There, too, and increasingly in recent years, viewers are bombarded with sequences of images that never add up to anything. One knows for what purpose this is done.' {61}

'According to the typical academic understanding of the work of poets since the 1960s, both the critic and the poet have been freed from the restrictions of craft; the poet, they seem to say, is no longer a liberator, but the liberated. Thus ironically contrary to what Heidegger and Rorty have recently hoped, today's poets are not liberators; many of them claim instead what appears to many to be nothing more than a petulant personal liberation, which they fail to understand is their historical birthright. It is almost now a standard chapter of a poet's life that she or he describe some struggle and eventual emancipation from the constraints of form or the confines of a particular verse-genre or critical ideology, whether imagism, formalism, new-formalism, new criticism, or the local dogmas of a university workshop.'

'Free verse is another loaded term. Again, one might ask: free from what? . . . Timothy Steele, in his masterful study Missing Measures, points out that Eliot, Pound, Ford & Co. confused idiom with meter in ways previous verse revolutionaries such as Dryden and Wordsworth did not. One wonders how tools which had assisted in producing the riches of the English language suddenly came to be seen as constraints; this would be similar to a carpenter seeing nails as constraints because they keep the house from falling apart. Regardless, the term soon came to imply freedom from verse. . . Initially, this definition sounds nonsensical: free verse claiming to be free from verse while still asserting it is poetry. . . . By the time one reaches the Nineteenth Century one can find as fine a thinker as Matthew Arnold making the imbecilic statement that Dryden and Pope were masters of English prose rather than poets. . . Therefore something written in verse is not necessarily poetry. It is not that large a leap to hold that if something written in verse is not necessarily poetry, poetry does not need to be written in verse.' {63}

'Timothy Steele in his book Missing Measures has traced the process by which the understanding that poetry was some thing more than language arranged metrically turned into the belief that poetry was something quite other than language arranged metrically, and meter, which until the late nineteenth century had been a sine qua non of poetry, was thrown out of the window. The same thing seems to have happened to paraphrasable meaning: the recognition that poetry was something more than its language's paraphrasable meaning has become the dogma that paraphrasable meaning is unpoetic, or at least that a poem approaches the poetic in so far as it is unparaphrasable. This would have been a very weird doctrine to anyone before 1800, and to almost anyone before 1900 (that is, in those now almost unimaginable days when large numbers of people besides poets bought, read, and cared about poetry). Even Coleridge, who was hardly the most stalwart advocate of poetic clarity, is on record as saying (in his Table Talk) ‘Poetry is certainly something more than good sense, but it must be good sense at all events; just as a palace is more than a house, but it must be a house, at least.' {64 }

Theory Apparatchics

Modern poetry and literary criticism feed off each other, and to invalidate doubts about quality has grown an elaborate defence that serves to outlaw dumb questions, to make poetry valuable to the extent it exemplifies theory, and to issue patents of use. The originating concept is now the defining point of excellence, something that cannot be reproduced without charges of plagiarism. Poetry is drawing closer to conceptual art, where ideas precede technique, and the critic's task is to create new areas of debate. All art forms have their theory, revisited when the public is faced with something unusual, or when the usual bases of criticism seem to founder. But though recent years have seen an explosion in publications in this field — books, journals, magazine articles, references in poetry reviews —starting perhaps in the late 1960s, when it started making inroads on literary criticism in many university departments — theory has always been with us.

What is different today is its fragmented and strident nature, and its use in justifying work that would have seemed thin or incompetent to earlier generations. Marjorie Perloff, for example, in her own writings and those of writers she champions, questions these assumptions, expecting them to be squarely faced. Because her arguments are spelled out, and because her articles are readily available on the Internet, {65} with those of commentators {66} I will look in some detail at one of her expositions.

First, we should note the many perceptive articles on her site: notably those on John Ashbery, {67} Tom Raworth {68} and Language Poetry {69}. But if little explanation is needed for these entertaining and undemanding pieces, the same can't be said for the work of Kenneth Goldsmith and John Kinsella. {70}. First an example of Goldsmith's work:


Walks. Left foot. Head raises. Walk. Forward. Forward. Forward. Bend at knees. Forward. Right foot. Left foot. Right foot. Stop. Left hand tucks at pubic area. Extracts testicles and penis using thumb and forefinger. Left hand grasps penis. Pelvis pushes on bladder, releasing urine. Stream emerges from within buttocks. Stomach and buttocks push outward. Stream of urine increases. Buttocks push. Sphincter tightens. Buttocks tighten. Thumb and forefinger shake penis. Thumb pulls. Left hand reaches. Tip of forefinger and index finger extend to grasp as body sways to left. Feet pigeon-toed. Move to left. Hand raises to hairline and pushes hair. Arm raises above head. Four fingers comb hair away from hairline toward back of head. Eyes see face. Mouth moves. Small bits of saliva cling to inside of lips. Swallow. Lips form words.

‘Why is this description of the most ordinary and trivial of human acts so unsettling?’ asks Perloff. {70} Her response is to invoke Swift (‘the inherent hideousness of the human body by means of gigantism’) and Wittgenstein (‘Goldsmith defamiliarizes the everyday in ways that recall such Wittgensteinian questions as 'Why can't the right hand give the left hand money?'‘) Well, yes, anything pressed so closely against us can be unsettling — peer at an insect through a magnifying glass — and language can be defamiliarised easily enough. But the human body is not inherently threatening, and Wittgenstein is not celebrated for elaborating difficulties but for showing how to sort them out. Then comes Whitehead: ‘the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead, whose famous Fallacy of Misplaced Concreteness (e.g., if a tree falls in the forest when no one is there to hear it fall, does it make a sound?) is apropos to Goldsmith's narrative.’ And then Joyce and Beckett: ‘Here, then, in Beckett's words about Finnegans Wake, "form is content, content is form. [The] writing is not about something; it is that something itself."’

I find the poem interesting, up to a point, but wonder if the parade of names is necessary. Whitehead is known for many things, {71} but his Fallacy of Misplaced Concreteness relates to degrees of abstraction, to the dangers of taking the words about something for the object itself. {72} I suspect Perloff is thinking in her tree in the forest example of the 'God in the quad' limerick {73} on Berkeley's philosophy. {74} But she may well be right in believing that the poet wants us to understand his work through Wittgenstein and Whitehead's philosophy, and certainly any responsible critic must follow up the pointers left for readers. Perloff's articles are notable for their close attention to the text of poems, and she is prepared to work at an understanding where many reviewers will not. David Zauhar, in his review of her books, remarks:

‘Perloff's guiding assumption in Radical Artifice is that poetry most suitable in an age dominated by the mass media is the radical artifice of avant-garde poetics, as opposed to the reactionary artifice of neo-formalist poets and the cataleptic artifice of workshop lyricism (neither of which is overtly conscious of itself in relation to a larger social and political world). This radical poetry foregrounds its production on the workings of syntax and diction rather than on the fabrication of the image and creation of the personality of the poet (the "voice" in other words). Such poetry requires its readers to explore the language on the page immediately in front of them, and to contemplate the relation of language in general to the world. Thus, such poetry simultaneously invites the reader's participation in the construction of meaning, while also alienating readers who are (not unreasonably) put off by the violation of conventional modes of communication.’ {66} Perloff indeed notes in Goldsmith's poem:

‘The more the language of description breaks down into non-sense and neologism, the greater, ironically enough, the need to make value judgements. The hand is now unaccountably "sad," the "eye," missing, the "crease" (between fingers?) "unnaturally lumpy." One cannot, it seems, remain detached from one's body, from one's own reactions. "Slight pleasure gained from dig into finger and then pleasured by sharpness," remarks the narrator (Fidget 59), now wanting to put his stamp on events as they occur. The language becomes his language.’ So far, so good. We can see why, of Whitehead's many contributions, the Fallacy of Misplaced Concreteness will be interesting to Perloff. Initially the poet's body is presented in matter-of-fact detail, and now that presentation is undermined by a breakdown of language. That could be unsettling to Postmodernists who believe that language is the primary reality.

Zauhar on Perloff's books again:

‘There are three main ways in which this [critique of the image] has occurred: (1) the image, in all its concretion and specificity, continues to be foregrounded, but it is now presented as inherently deceptive, as that which must be bracketed, parodied, and submitted to scrutiny — this is the mode of Frank O'Hara and John Ashbery, more recently of Michael Palmer and Leslie Scalapino and Ron Silliman; (2) the Image as referring to something in external reality is replaced by the word as Image, but concern with morphology and the visualization of the word's constituent parts: this is the mode of Concrete Poetry extending from such pioneers as Eugen Gomringer and Steve McCaffery, Susan Howe, and Johanna Drucker; and (3) Image as the dominant gives way to syntax: in Poundian terms, the turn is from phanopoeia to logopoiea. "Making strange" now occurs at the level of phrasal and sentence structure rather than at the level of the image cluster so that poetic language cannot be absorbed into the discourse of the media: this is the mode of Clark Coolidge, Hejinian, Charles Bernstein, Rae Armantrout, and Bruce Andrews among others; it comes to us from Gertrude Stein, from whom image was never the central concern, via Louis Zukofsky and George Oppen.’

More heroes of contemporary Modernism, but we do learn how poetry has moved on from Pound's imagism. Before commenting further, however, let's look at the second work Perloff is reviewing: John Kinsella's Kangaroo Virus. {70}

They might call it Œrail country' as the tell-tale signs are there
immediately the skin deeply
scraped, the bones grey and strewn about. (20)
Imprint: like they've seen it before,
these old-timers, cast in plaster,
referencing the direction of a roo,
even so, the forest thinner, shrinking. (62)

Perloff introduces this section with:

‘“If literature is defined as the exploration and exercise of tolerable linguistic deviance,” write Jed Rasula and Steve McCaffery in the introduction to their new anthology Imagining Language, “the institutional custodianship of literature serves mainly to protect the literary work from language, shielding it from the disruptive force of linguistic slippage”. Such slippage has increasingly become a poetic norm, creating a poetry that serves as a new conduit for communication. My second example of what Joyce referred to as the verbovisivocal or "vocable scriptsigns" is a recent collaboration between two Australians, the poet John Kinsella and the sound artist/ photographer Ron Sims, called Kangaroo Virus. Like Fidget, Kangaroo Virus exists in electronic form, like Fidget , it has a performance score this time on a CD that accompanies the book and, like Fidget, it is a documentary, informational poem that relies heavily on empirical observation. But unlike Fidget's reliance on the tape recorder, Kangaroo Virus is made up of short free-verse lyrics by Kinsella, each of which has an accompanying photograph by Sims.’

Yes, but is ‘literature defined as the exploration and exercise of tolerable linguistic deviance’? Some poetry by some poets does use language in unusual ways, but much does not, even that by great poets. We can't define poetry by a feature that is not invariably present, and doing so would make literature of any 'tolerable linguistic deviance' whatever — an intolerably easy thing to achieve.

It's also difficult to see how if ‘the institutional custodianship of literature serves mainly to protect the literary work from language, shielding it from the disruptive force of linguistic slippage’ how such ‘slippage’ has become a ‘conduit for communication’. For non-communication, it might be thought. The malicious may even feel that ‘the institutional custodianship of literature’ has become invested in theorists, who shield it from the disruptive need to say something intelligible.

The plain truth is that Kinsella's work doesn't need such treatment. The poem is perfectly understandable, if somewhat prosaic. Why such critical erudition that doesn't actually describe what is going on? Perhaps Zauhar and Perloff have done their best with the review assignments given them, but there must also be the suspicion that poetry has discounted craft for ill-understood theory. Rather than state the obvious and say that the poem is experimental, something that has deliberately distanced itself from 'discredited' styles of poetry — and describe what's been achieved as a consequence — Perloff has mounted an unnecessary show of erudition. Also suspect is the strategy, which would base literary quality on the wealth of scholarly references a critic can make to the work, enlightening or not. But with the claims of Postmodernism so overblown — see sections on Barthes (7) Derrida (8), and Davidson (30) — there are more sensible approaches to fall back on, by which the poem does not fare too well.

And this is a great pity. We would welcome poems with more depth and intellectual bite. Suppose, instead of a teasing allusion to Whitehead, Kinsella had followed through the Fallacy of Misplaced Concreteness. To quote from the Stanford Encyclopedia entry: {71}

‘Whitehead's basic idea was that we obtain the abstract idea of a spatial point by considering the limit of a real-life series of volumes extending over each other, for example, a nested series of Russian dolls or a nested series of pots and pans. However, it would be a mistake to think of a spatial point as being anything more than an abstraction; instead, real positions involve the entire series of extended volumes. As Whitehead himself puts it, “In a certain sense, everything is everywhere at all times. For every location involves an aspect of itself in every other location. Thus every spatio-temporal standpoint mirrors the world.”’

‘Further, according to Whitehead, every real-life object may be understood as a similarly constructed series of events and processes. It is this latter idea that Whitehead later systematically elaborates in his imposing Process and Reality (1929), going so far as to suggest that process, rather than substance, should be taken as the fundamental metaphysical constituent of the world. Underlying this work was also the basic idea that, if philosophy is to be successful, it must explain the connection between objective, scientific and logical descriptions of the world and the more everyday world of subjective experience.’ Whitehead is not making a simple point about language. He is wondering how we arrive at a sense of external reality, the abstractions we make to conceive of space and time, and how objects we place in that space/time framework have a reality outside those abstractions. How do we avoid chasing our tails — the hermeneutic circle — and what is the nature of reality itself — questions Kant (13) and Heidegger (17) came to very different conclusions about. Whitehead's (23.3) solution was not to have Berkeley's God {74} enabling reality, nor even a substratum of substance, but something living and evolving: process, he called it. Whitehead's enduring work was Principia Mathematica, which he wrote with Russell, and Process and Reality {75} may be now more of interest to theologians and philosophers of religion. But the attempt to unify space, matter, time and purpose is surely a more fruitful approach than Postmodernism's despair with language, which it declares to be only deceptive. Whitehead tried to accommodate a new view of science with traditional human needs, and his 'permanence amid change' has affinities with Chinese poetry that continues to be read. Whitehead's philosophy is not for bed-time reading, but if we take just one of his paragraphs —

‘Philosophy is the self-correction by consciousness of its own initial excess of subjectivity. Each actual occasion contributes to the circumstances of its origin additional formative elements deepening its own peculiar individuality. Consciousness is only the last and greatest of such elements by which the selective character of the individual obscures the external totality from which it originates and which it embodies. An actual individual, of such higher grade, has truck with the totality of things by reason of its sheer actuality; but it has attained its individual depth of being by a selective emphasis limited to its own purposes. The task of philosophy is to recover the totality obscured by the selection. It replaces in rational experience what has been submerged in the higher sensitive experience and has been sunk yet deeper by the initial operations of consciousness itself. The selectiveness of individual experience is moral so far as it conforms to the balance of importance disclosed in the rational vision; and conversely the conversion of the intellectual insight into an emotional force corrects the sensitive experience in the direction of morality. The correction is in proportion to the rationality of the insight. Morality of outlook is inseparably conjoined with generality of outlook. The antithesis between the general good and the individual interest can be abolished only when the individual is such that its interest is the general good, thus exemplifying the loss of the minor intensities in order to find them again with finer composition in a wider sweep of interest.’ {76} — we can see just how much more interesting Goldsmith's poem might have been if it incorporated such ideas. Confucians would particularly enjoy the first sentence. {77} and the second is not far from Pound's objective in the Cantos. Even the last points out the difference between the perfection of minor art and the wider effect of great art.

Downgrading of Literary Criticism

Companies do not waste time honing their mission statement but proactively adapt to changing circumstances and needs. The more successful are ‘outside-in’, i.e. they continually learn what their customers want by market research, innovation and testing. All company managements, of whatever stripe, are judged on results, moreover: share price, profitability, productivity, product quality, and market share. {103-104} Modern poetry is concerned with none of those things, but, in contrast, often seems to glory in its unpopularity, seeing it as proof of intellectual superiority. Whatever its limitations, {105} the New Criticism did attempt some quality controls, setting standards, discovering what worked and what didn’t, and why. Radically new work was not rejected out of hand, but compared with the traditional, and some balance sheet drawn up of gains and losses, without which all enterprises founder. But critical theory has replaced literary criticism in many universities, and often seems closer to politics than sound business practice, i.e. resorts to oversimplification of issues and voter (tenure and publishing) bribery. What literary criticism does survive tends to be narrow and specialized, aimed at fellow academics rather than the general reader. {106} That old ideal of universities, the cultivated, rounded and wisely educated man, has disappeared. Even back in 1999, only 9% of students taking the PSAT (Preliminary Scholastic Aptitude Test) indicated an interest in the humanities, and English teachers now seem to have lost faith in both their abilities and their subject matter. {107} Indeed the more interesting books and Internet articles {108-110} already seem dated. Perhaps that was only to be expected, given the poetry world’s attack on the old standards.

The articles — well-chosen, intriguing, often illuminating — that round off Paul Hoover’s Postmodern American Poetry: A Norton Anthology {111} focus on the need to experiment, to perform and dissolve conceptual boundaries, but say nothing on the poet’s larger responsibilities: to bear witness, engender emotion and insight, entertain and make some sense of the world. It would be unkind to quote the articles out of context, since they have to be read for what they are: proselytising and provisional, an aesthetics made up on the hoof to illustrate or justify work, indulging in too much name-dropping, but sincere, earnest and hopeful. But the aesthetics displayed is very thin and poorly understood. To all the striking statements one can say, ‘Yes, but . . .’, and realize that it’s the ‘but’, the yawning gaps in a proper understanding, that have allowed critical theory to undermine the current status and practice of literature.

Standard of Poetry Today

Back in 1994, the above-mentioned and well-put-together Norton Anthology {111} contained a decided sprinkling of successful poems. My count was 20 odd in the 477 poems or selections printed. Not too good for 50 years of American writing, one might think, but most do not amount to what is needed by poetry of any stripe. American work should employ American idioms, and it’s sensible (though possibly limiting) to employ everyday speech for contemporary themes. But surely not the:

Pedestrian (e.g. David Antin’s a private occasion in a public place)

I consider myself a poet but im not reading poetry as you see
I bring no books with me though ive written books I

Endless shopping list (e.g. Anne Waldman’s Makeup on Empty Space)

I am putting makeup on empty space
all patinas convening on empty space
rouge blushing on empty space {113}

Coy (e.g. Bernadette Mayer’s Sonnet 15)

A thousand apples you might put in your theories
But you are gone from benefit to my love

Pretentious (e.g. Kenneth Koch’s Alive for an Instant)

have a bird in my head and a pig in my stomach
And a flower in my genitals and a tiger in my genitals

Perverse (e.g. Clayton Eshleton’s Notes on a Visit to Le Tuc d’Audoubert)

bundled by Tuc’s tight jagged
corridors, flocks of white {116}

Or the breathless ‘this is a poet talking to you’ tone (e.g. Robert Duncan’s Poetry, a Natural Thing).

The poem
feeds upon thought, feeling, impulse,
to breed itself,
a spiritual urgency at the dark ladders leaping.

Only Allen Ginsberg, Bruce Andrews, Susan Howe, Amiri Baraka and Bob Perelman seem to have any larger, political awareness. Postmodernism dislikes ‘grand narratives’ but few of the poems even concern themselves with the issues of the workaday world, or indeed offer anything that could conceivably interest the general reader — assertive, refreshingly different, coterie-centered, obsessed with the process of writing, intriguing in small doses: that’s about as generous as one can truthfully be. However modest may be that achievement, the later work collected in the 2006 Oxford Book of American Poetry is even more negligible. {118} Nor does a survey of the small press output {119} prove any less depressing. Most offerings are not poetry by any usual meaning of the word, and fewer still are wholly successful, even within their own limits. William Logan is surely correct: {120} current American poetry is in a bad way. Even poets on the public circuit seem embarrassed by questions like: ‘what does poetry do?’ {121} ‘Its gatekeepers believe poetry matters because it's poetry, not because of what it says.’ {122} Certainly the aims of poetry are discussed, endlessly in literary circles — the excellent The Great American Poetry Show had listed 4774 articles and essays by March 2016. {123} — but their tone overall is more defensive than celebratory, quoting authorities rather than striking out for higher ground.

State-Supported Poetry

Serious poetry has become almost exclusively university-based. {124} It is tertiary education and associated MFA teaching courses that give contemporary poets their salaries, status and publishing opportunities. But if academia has become practically their sole refuge, that refuge is also under threat. {125} Political correctness, budget cuts, perpetual assessment by students ill-placed to judge, disappearing tenure, and uncertainty over the bases of literature itself have created an academic rat race where it is the astute political operator that best survives. {126} Work must conform to academic standards, support the narrow tenets of Modernism, and not seriously question establishment views. Indeed, given today’s erosion of civil liberties, {127-129} is probably wise for poems to say nothing of any social significance whatever.

Tenure in the humanities is hard to gain, and increasingly easy to lose. {130} Outside tenure there is only part-time and ill-paid teaching. Beyond academia itself there is practically nothing: academics are not trained in journalism, and the balanced and well-researched article is not what popular outlets want. Alternative media are expanding, of course, but still struggle to pay their authors a living wage.

Public appointments expect public views, as Amiri Baraka found. In 2002, a year after 9/11, the black American poet and activist read a long poem criticizing America and including questions about the Israeli intelligence warning of an impending attack on the twin towers. {131} It was in his usual no-holds-barred, in-your-face style, {132} and the poet was writing from an establishment position as the poet laureate of New Jersey. The response was loud and predictable. The Jewish community accused him of anti-Semitism, and demanded his resignation. {133} The mainstream press demonised him as anti-American. {134} The literary world distanced itself from his views, but pleaded for artistic freedom. {135}

No one pointed to the obvious, that firstly the poem was crude pamphleteering and, secondly, there was nonetheless a pressing need for a sustained, detailed and transparent investigation into the 9/11 tragedy, as there still is. {136-138} The media shot the messenger, or tried to, as the unrepentant Marxist wouldn’t lie down. Baraka did not resign, and the Governor was obliged to discontinue the position. A literary world so dependent on the public purse will encourage a poetry that knows its place, i.e. be adventurous in arcane and theoretical matters, but not seriously threaten the mainstream narratives that govern American life. Parallels with Persian court poetry, {139} and literature under Imperial Rome {140}, underline the obvious dangers.


References are given in Chapter 45 of the Literary Theory in Depth ebook, from which this page is quarried.