Towards a New Direction in Poetry
(previously published in Tryst http://www.tryst3.com/ )
The Moderns, particularly Eliot and Pound, sought
new models to reinvigorate the tradition of poetry in English. Pound discovered the
Classical Chinese Poets, Eliot rehabilitated the Metaphysical Poets, both loved Dante and
both were heavily influenced by the French Symbolists, who were curiously influenced by
another American, Poe. This is all well known.
Plainly there was nothing in the Romantics and
Victorians to inspire Eliot and Pound towards a new voice for a new century. Hopkins
wasnt published until 1915 and Whitman was slightly suspect for his lack of
compression and the lack of prominence of the literary tradition in his work. Whitman was
really the poetic incarnation of Transcendentalism, of Emerson and Thoreau (though Emerson
was a fine poet in his own right). Still Neruda, who came after Eliot and Pound, found his
inspiration in Whitman as the first great poet of the New World.
In any case, Eliot and Pound briefly embraced
"Imagism," whose most famous principle was Eliots "objective
correlative" and whose signature poem must be Pounds "At the Metro."
Yet the movement was too narrow and could not contain the burgeoning modern revolution
that included everyone from Yeats to D. H. Lawrence, and a short list in English would
also mention H. D., William Carlos Williams, Robinson Jeffers, Robert Frost, Wallace
Stevens and Marianne Moore. I suppose in other languages one ought also acknowledge
Neruda, Lorca, and Rilke, though until his Duino Elegies, Rilke remains rather
close to tradition save for his inscrutable mysticism, which nevertheless was not new to
Parenthetically it is my opinion that the two
greatest, or at least most influential poets of the 20th century are Eliot and
Neruda. Is it not fascinating that their personalities were at antipodes, the one a
neurotic, oversensitive academic who became an Anglican Royalist, the other a man of great
energy and physical appetites who became a Communist? Clearly, it is not personality that
makes a poet.
Nearly 100 years after the Moderns, in a new
century where poetry sometimes appears more a participatory sport than a classical
discipline, it is nevertheless tempting to meditate upon what direction is most salubrious
for its future.
I recently re-read The Divine Comedy (in
Mark Musas excellent translation, Penguin Pocket Books). One thing Dante has
is a plain style. It is hard to misunderstand Dante if one allows for the many
anachronistic allusions in his text to Italian politics and medieval theological debates
and ecclesiastical history. To be fair, however, Dantes allusions were more relevant
to his audience than those in "The Waste Land" or Joyces
"Ulysses" were to contemporary readers.
Besides Dantes unpretentious style one must
stop to praise the genius of his pilgrims persona, a timid everyman with whom anyone
can identify, who hangs onto Virgil for sheer life during their fearful odyssey through
Hell and Purgatory. The persona of Dante the Pilgrim is reminiscent of Alice in Wonderland
or Dorothy in Oz, if not quite Lenny in Of Mice and Men, though certainly similar
to John Bunyans protagonist in Pilgrims Progress. Dantes narrator
plays it straight, sharing his amazement and fear, telling us when "he cant
bear to look," while Virgil plays the consummate guide. So Dantes plain style
and everyman persona make this perhaps greatest of all poems in any language an easy read.
Lastly, Dante was not afraid to state his opinions on anything, whether the merits of
Odysseus, whom he threw in the eighth circle of hell for being a liar, or the besetting
sins of a particularly egregious pope. Dante was above all opinionated, passionately so,
wrong on much but right about much, yet never ashamed to say what he thought. His poetry
and opinions and his sense of self as a medieval man are inseparable. He exemplified what
most modern men crave: integration with himself and his time.
It is interesting to note that although Dante was
Eliots favorite poet, Eliot wrote nothing like him. Dante was direct and Eliot
evasive. Although Eliot wrestled with the same spiritual themes, his playing field was not
one of faiths hegemony but of cultural disintegration, unbelief, and post WW I
despair. Thus Eliot, by nature, education, and as a man of his age, came at the central
questions of mans existence from a very oblique angle, though his poetry still has
the power to move us even when we dont understand it.
Back to the question at hand: To whom should we
look as a model for poetry in the new millennium? (I have already no doubt tipped my hand
First I think it important to acknowledge this as
the age of the sound-bite, the age of a video-driven, diminished attention span. So
academic and elliptical poetry, perhaps best typified by Jorie Graham, and the New York
School, at least as represented by the refinements of Ashberys late work, are out,
as they take far too much time and thought for any but aficionados. The same can be said
of many others, although I dont mean to denigrate the peculiar virtues of any
schoolcertainly there are poems by Graham and Ashbery I enjoybut their
besetting excess is a fondness for form over substance, preferring the nuances of language
in approaching a subject to the direct treatment of the subject.
I have long maintained that the communication of
poetic substance in the last thirty years has degenerated into a competition for an
original style, or form (no doubt helped along by deconstructionists), the art of
saying nothing, or nearly nothing, very eloquently. I consider this a bypath in the
history of poetry. Without painting with too broad a brush, we have reached a bit of a
dead end in contemporary poetry. When I read Graham I am most often bored. Blame my
impatience, my lack of appreciation for the layers of tentative meaning she so assiduously
employs, but rarely do I find a compelling reason to go on reading. Heres a short
example of what I mean, from "Le Manteau De Pascal," part six:
"You do understanding, don't you, by
The coat, which is itself a ramification, a city,
floats vulnerably above another city, ours,
the city on the hill (only with hill gone),
floats in illustration
of what once was believed, and thus was visible
(all things believed are visible)
floats a Jacob's ladder with hovering empty arms, an open throat,
a place where a heart might beat if it wishes,
pockets that hang awaiting the sandy whirr of a small secret,
folds where the legs could be, with their kneeling mechanism,
the floating fatigue of an after-dinner herald,
not guilty of any treason towards life except fatigue,
a skillfully cut coat, without chronology,
filled with the sensation of being suddenly completed
as then it is, abruptly, the last stitch laid in, the knot bit off
hung there in Gravity, as if its innermost desire,
numberless the awaitings flickering around it,
the other created things also floating but not of the same order, no,
not like this form, built so perfectly to mantle the body,
the neck like a vase awaiting its cut flower,
a skirting barely visible where the tucks indicate
the mild loss of bearing in the small of the back,
the grammar, so strict, of the two exact shoulders
As Eliot said about history in
"Gerontion," "the giving famishes the craving." One short lyric by
Frost does much more for me than such dilatory narratives that do not speak directly to
the human mind or heart, that must be sifted for nuances in order to obtain an
impact--which amounts to a second-order experience, not the primary experience of a lyric
by Wordsworth or Blake, for instance.
In our search for a new model from the past, as
there is nowhere else to look except within our own finitude, we cannot, of course, fall
back on the Moderns, with the exception of Frost, who sticks out like a sore thumb among
his contemporaries, as he spoke in the language of "men speaking to men," in
Wordsworths phrase, more than most
But I would like to put in a good word for
Robinson Jeffers and Czeslaw Milosz, since they often share Dantes directness. At
their best both are opinionated, not afraid to put blunt and impalatable truths into their
verse. They are no sleight-of-hand artists doing the dance of the seven veils. Admittedly
Jeffers later Greek sagas are hardly worth reading and Miloszs work can be of
uneven quality. But at their best, again, I admire their unapologetic directness. They
have something to say and can be very impolite about it. While at Berkeley Milosz even
wrote a poem that takes Jeffers to task for his misanthropic views. (I think Milosz felt
the need to attack Jeffers in part because the two were so much alike, not to discount
Miloszs religious objections to Jeffers philosophy.) I find it heartening to
read a poem that takes issue with another poets message, not his method.
Heres an excerpt from the close of
Miloszs poem, "To Robinson Jeffers":
"And yet you do not know what I know.
The earth teaches
more than does the nakedness of
elements. No one with
gives himself the eyes of a god....
Better to carve suns and moons on
the joints of crosses
as was done in my district. To birches
give feminine names. To implore
against the mute and treacherous might
than to proclaim as you did, an inhuman
Rather unfashionable in our age of tolerance to
take another poet to task for what he meant, isnt it?
Who then do I recommend as models?
First, William Blake. He wrote the most powerful
short lyrics in the language. Though eccentric in his theology, he paints human nature and
nature herself with passion, intensity and brevity. His poem, "Tyger! Tyger!" is
the most anthologized poem in the language, and for good reason. Is there a more powerful
lyric in English extant? We all know it, but its a good exercise to read it again:
Tyger ! Tyger !
Tyger! Tyger! burning bright
In the forests of the night
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?
In what distant deeps or skies
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand dare sieze thy fire?
And what shoulder, & what art,
Could twist the sinews of thy heart?
And why thy heart began to beat,
What dread hand? & what dread feet?
What the hammer? what the chain?
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil? what dread grasp
Dare its deadly terrors grasp?
When the stars threw down their spears
And water'd heaven with their tears,
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lamb make thee?
Tyger! Tyger! burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?
Like Dante, Blake is also not hard to understand, with the exception of his longer
allegorical works (which require an excursion into post-Swedenborgian mysticism and
private symbolism). So when I speak of Blake, I have in mind his short lyrics, the most
popular of which are found in Songs of Innocence and Experience.
Ive already mentioned my second model,
Dante. Take Blakes lyrical power, add Dantes directness and everyman appeal,
and I submit you have a poetry that might attract a larger audience than current fare.
I have written a few poems like this and given a
number to Trysts editor for her choosing (http://www.tryst3.com/),
as an example of where I think we ought to go, not where I necessarily will
go as a poet, as I suffer from peculiar limitations (like every poet) that might make this
bad advice for my particular talents.
Again, I think the overarching error of current
poets is a persistent tendency to indulge themselves in extended imagery, detail, and word
play before ever getting to the point, if there is one. As I have said of MFA programs,
presently estimated to turn out some 20,000 "professional poets" a year, their
tragicomedy is teaching students how to say something before they have something worth
saying. As is said of the dead atheist, "All dressed up and nowhere to go." Form
is an extension of substance, not an extension of itself, or poetry must necessarily
become bankrupt, as much of it already hasat least for those whom Harold Bloom calls
"the common readers."
To elaborate, one might call me an advocate of a
more epigrammatic poetry, a poetry of compressed power utilizing all the accumulated
weapons of formalism and symbolism, employing Chinese lucidity and Dantean accessibility,
a poetry strong enough to muscle aside, perhaps, for a moment, the information overload
that constantly attends those who might otherwise be tempted to actually sample
I should praise our most popular living poet,
Billy Collins, for his accessibility and everyman appeal. In a recent article by Bill
Marvel in the Dallas Morning News, April 30 2004, Collins said:
"I was brought up on the Mount Rushmore of
. I committed those sins of obscurity myself. I bought the connection
between difficulty and value that was involved in these very difficult poets. It took to
my 30s to get rid of this."
Further, he remarks:
"I think of the poems as very intimate
communication, a whispered confidence between two people. I don't write for the podium, I
write for the page."
I think it is Collins intimate voice that
makes him so popular, as our culture is starved for intimacy, and certainly his voice is
to be preferred over "the sins of obscurity." Yet his work lacks lyrical power,
opinionation, and quotability, qualities necessary to my proposed category, which, for
lack of a better term, I have dubbed "Power Lyrics." Perhaps such a poetry could
be an antidote to the acronym I coined some years ago, PEMLODs ("Personal Emotive
Monologues with Lots of (concrete) Details"), a term similar to
one Ive encountered elsewhere, "The Iowa Workshop Poem."
This doesnt mean power lyrics have to
rhyme. Their chief measure of success should be quotability, as only phrases that actually
enter the language enjoy the highest poetic immortality, as in:
"I should have been a pair of ragged claws
Scuttling across the floors of silent seas."
"Home is the place, that when you go there,
They have to take you in."
"When forty summers shall besiege thy
"Did he that made the Lamb make thee?"
"Petals on a wet, black, bough."
"a locomotive spouting violets."
"Pitched past pitch of grief."
"A violet by a mossy stone."
"And what rough beast
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
These fragments have I shored against our ruins.
C. E. Chaffin