I’ve never developed a settled opinion on the relationship between poetic complexity and poetic durability. Do Shakespeare’s sonnets trump Michael Drayton’s because they are more complex? (They are more complex both conceptually and rhetorically.) And if so, are we to value Conrad Aiken above William Carlos Williams, for example, or Louis Zukofsky above Philip Levine?
These are ultimately questions involving The Canon and the people in charge of it. I do not mean you and me, of course. I mean the Poetic-Critical Complex (akin to the military-industrial complex) that thrives on mumbo-jumbo and secret hand-signs; the ersatz-priestly literary class that maintains its power by convincing a rather gullible percentage of the public that only members of the Complex can understand the culture’s most important poems. (I once had a professor who proclaimed that critics are more important than the writers they explicate because the public would never understand the latter without the good offices of the former. No joke.) Since the Complex decides the shape of the Canon, we have generations of students bludgeoned into thinking that “The Waste Land” is a great poem, that they are to blame for the incomprehensibility of The Cantos, and that if “An Ordinary Evening in New Haven” seems boring, the fault lies not in Stevens’s stars but in themselves. My view of all this leads me to see the “post-modern” as a splinter-cult: Dissenters from the main orthodoxy yes, but finally just another flavor of the Complex.
Whether The Canon is traditional or post-modern*, it is a construct of arbiters whose livelihoods depend on the complexity of the works they’ve included. No complexity, no arcane explication; no arcane explication, no Ph.D.; no Ph.D., no tenure. In his book The Poetry Home Repair Manual: Practical Advice for Beginning Poets, Ted Kooser notes (citing Karl Shapiro) that “the poetry of the twentieth century was the first poetry that had to be taught.” This is arguable, but what is not arguable is the fact that whole reputations have come to depend on the complexity of texts.
I wish I could draw some conclusions from this. All I feel sure of at this point is the fact that not all complexity is created equal, that The Canon is clearly the creation of people with a professional stake in keeping simplicity out of it, and that simplicity per se is no more to be valued than complexity per se. I’m also aware that I seem to be searching for a theory, but trust me, I am not: theories always pale in comparison with reality. (Is that statement in itself a theory? Uh, oh.) However such thinking might proceed, I hope it might lead to an approach to poetry that does not alienate the vast community of human beings who, as Williams put it, “die miserably every day for lack of what is found there.”
* One indication of the splinter-cult nature of this subgroup is the fact that its members can’t give themselves a name that actually lets go of the Complex.