I’ve been reading, off and on, Joseph Harrington’s Poetry and the Public: The Social Form of Modern U.S. Poetics, and it’s made me realize just how trapped we’ve become (me, too) in the structure of the debates over poetry that began with the rise of Modernism. Harrington quotes Allen Tate and John Crowe Ransom in particular to show that promoters of Modernism sought to exclude “public interest” from poetry and focus instead on “form and style.” Writers like William Rose Benét and all-but-forgotten regional writers like Gene Stratton-Porter bemoaned Modernism’s elitist spurning of the common reader. Of course, Modernism triumphed in the Academy; but what happened to “popular poetry”? My guess is that it was transformed into the lyrics of popular music: jazz, swing, folk, country, rock and roll; I don’t know if it’s been studied in this way, but my bet is the average American can quote hundreds of lines of song lyrics.
Those of us who write poetry whose impact depends on the music of its language—who live, let’s not deny it, either in the Academy or in its shadow—are left debating the same issues in the same way, only for a smaller audience: ourselves and our students.
Oddly enough, the academic triumph of Modernism has tamed it, turning it into what Charles Bernstein calls “official verse culture.” Within the Academy, “official verse culture” is the equivalent of Benet and Stratton-Porter’s “popular poetry”; that is, poetry written with its effect on the reader at least somewhat in mind: poetry that doesn’t refuse difficulty (it’s the heir of Modernism, after all), but which does concern itself—possibly to a fault—with intelligibility. The elitist Tate/Ransom line of argument is now represented by tenured professors like Bernstein and Kenneth Goldsmith, who sneer at intelligibility (a demotic gesture toward the lazy common reader), find validation for their practices in linguistic and language-philosophy theory—that is, in world-views completely foreign to the common reader. Thanks to the ongoing efforts of Ron Silliman, we are all familiar with these two types of poetry under the rubrics “School of Quietude” and “post-avant.”
I’d like to suggest that this division is spurious—a continuance of received categories that does not reflect the range and diversity of poets writing in America today. The polemic nature of the term “School of Quietude” and the derivative nature of the term “post-avant” should alert us to this fact.
Seth Abramson some months back made a brave, if doomed, attempt to develop other terms to describe various poetic practices. The problem, I see now (or think I see), is that his terms were based on formal characteristics; Seth acknowledged as much by noting his debt to New Criticism, the approach to textual analysis and evaluation that underpinned the Modernist hegemony within the Academy, and which to some extent made poetry seem little more than an elitist puzzle to several generations of students.
I haven’t thought clearly beyond this assessment, but I had an inkling of a way forward while listening to Wynton Marsalis‘s radio program “In the Swing Seat” earlier today. Marsalis devoted the program to discussing how a listener could identify the differing styles of trumpeters Don Cherry and Don Ellis. The descriptions of their style touched on musical techniques—time signatures, moving between registers, use of vibrato, etc.—but Marsalis also emphasized how each technique affects the listener. Like jazz, poetry’s American audience is small by comparison with the total audience for music; like jazz—and music in general—poetry is really a magician’s bag full of technical tricks—manipulations of meanings and sounds that stimulate reactions in readers; like music, poetry’s effects on each individual listener depend to a great extent on the listener’s openness to and experience with particular techniques.
What I’m trying to ask is if there isn’t a holistic approach to poetry that respects the differences among poets and among readers. This approach would not aim to valorize one use of poetic techniques over another; it would not aim to expand poetry’s audience. It would aim to break the stranglehold of the binary “popular” vs. “elite” paradigm that in my opinion has distorted the very idea of poetry in this country by reducing it to a choice of sides (or schools, or movements), a choice of “dead tradition” vs. “vital innovation.” Like life itself, poetry just isn’t that simple.
Williams (W. C., not Miller) hints at the approach I’m talking about in poem from the early 1950s, “The Orchestra”:
The purpose of an orchestra
is to organize those sounds
and hold them
to an assembled order
in spite of the
“wrong note.” Well, shall we
think or listen? Is there a sound addressed
not wholly to the ear?
We half close
our eyes. We do not
hear it through our eyes.
It is not
a flute note either, it is the relation
of a flute note
to a drum. I am wide
awake. The mind
Substitute “a poem” for “an orchestra” and you have a sense of what I, at least, am after: an approach that focuses not so much on the individual instruments—meter, rhyme, image, etc.—but on the relations that produce emotional and intellectual significance. “Relations,” of course, reach beyond the text as isolated and exalted by New Criticism, beyond literary movements, beyond the poetic tradition broadly construed, into our public life in all its dimensions—social and political, high and low, demotic and elite.
Of course, if such an approach were to advance productively, poets themselves would have to move beyond PoBiz, theoretical litmus tests, and the mindless pleasures of grinding their axes—all of which would require a degree of openness and confidence that we may not be willing to risk. There is safety in numbers, after all, which is why fish of a certain size and many poets like to swim in schools.