A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature
For years I told my writing classes that the reason South American poetry was so unpredictable line by line is because of the political upheavals most southern countries experienced since the Spanish Conquest. You can’t read a Neruda poem without sensing the political earthquake shaking the mind and pulling apart ordinary logic until it crumbled into sudden revelations of magic. The same, of course, with magic realism, and its defiance of all the conventions of English-language prose. Give me a revolution that makes every law tremble and a legislature wander off its foundations, and I’ll give you surrealism.
I made this argument against the stability of long-standing democracies in western history and their orderly forms of poetry. Look at the English, I reminded my juniors and seniors; it weathered the French Revolution, and managed to come up with the sermonizing complacency of most Victorian verse. Ezra Pound dismissed the Edwardians of the next generation as indulging in “emotional slither,” and summarized A.E. Houseman’s poetry, especially in his best selling book, “A Shropshire Lad,” as “Oh woe, woe, woe, etc.” Meanwhile, the French were reinventing poetry from the ground up, taking their cues from the crushing defeat of royalty by the end of the 19th century. Not sure I impressed my young scholars with these observations, but some took it all to heart and thought that by scrambling a few phrases they were channeling the volcanic souls of Lorca and Cesar Vallejo.
Of course, we had passed through the Great Depression, Pearl Harbor, Vietnam, Watergate, and had managed to sublimate a form of anarchy in Modernism, and by mid-century, in Beat Poetry. It was good, but it wasn’t quite the rupture with the long English past everyone thought it was. The stabilizing force of poetry was the fact that we were now the great superpower of the post-WWII era, which made the Pentagon and the White House feel like indestructible monuments. And it wasn’t long before waves of new, more ordinary poetry replaced Pound and Eliot, and academic verse nudged aside Ginsberg and Ferlinghetti.
I grew up in the era of confessionalism and maundering verse that was not far off from Houseman’s regrets. I liked Robert Lowell and felt the remorse and Sylvia Plath, but they were essentially a continuation of white subjectivity that you could trace all the way back in 17th century England. We had not advanced by much. Maybe that’s why Jorge Borges told me at a breakfast meeting in Austin, Texas, many years ago that he did not believe the Atlantic had severed the literary traditions of Europe. I was shocked at the notion at the time, but I realize now he was not talking not about continents but about race, about the roots of western ideas and attitudes. They were intact. They were safe from the violence of revolution and turmoil. They survived the shame of slavery, of colonization, genocide, and imperial brutality, and were part of the DNA of being white. The institutions that rule over the major poetry awards and access to publishers and magazines are conservative and traditional by nature, and guard their domain rigorously through the writing schools.
Hence, the iron bound consistency of much American poetry today. It is self-absorbed, somewhat pitying, and despite the increasing presence of women and poets of color, profoundly white in temperament. The mantle of cultural authority passed over to America by 1920 and most writers are powerless to alter its tenets and working principles. There is no outer world to such writing; the consciousness of the typical magazine poem is rooted in the ancient principles of selfhood and the privileges of a elite splinter of our polyglot, multicultural democracy. The belief that poetry is the soul of a culture, that the poet writes from the mysterious center of a faith, a belief system, a core of principles by which a nation defines itself and its vision may not have survived the post-literate era we live in now, but the poets and the managers of cultural dispersion carry on as if nothing has altered the certainty of what is being said.
I was always struck by the immaculate precision of Plath’s poetry, even as she was writing her final poems in “Ariel,” days before she would turn on the gas in her English flat and end her life. The poems scan, the phrasing is a perfection of the English tongue. The suffering she reports comes to us on the glittering surface of a mastery of style. The same with Anne Sexton, with W.D. Snodgrass, Lowell, and even John Berryman, who could write a version of Ebonics in “The Dream Songs,” but was also one of the world’s leading authorities on Shakespeare. He knew his English masters, and he could rise to their eloquence when the blood was pounding. They lived tortured lives but they lived them in the transcendent, rarefied glory of the English tradition. And they wrote on the eve of Black rebellion, the Orc-like rumblings of anger and resentment coming to the surface in the poems of Adrienne Rich. Maybe these writers were singing their swan song to the era of white hegemony. Maybe, but they weren’t especially aware of it.
I wanted to believe that the language poets who came after were onto something profound when they began to attack the syntax and processes of thought in their own poetry. It was the 1980s, and the locus of their poetry was the university, the enclave of western beliefs, and they were reluctant to allow into their circles the alien voices on the fringes of American literature. You don’t see Jerome Rothenberg and Robert Kelly hobnobbing with Charles Bernstein; rather, you see a new elite club of intellectuals shocking the bourgeoisie with their French-styled raids on conventions, if not on actual cores of belief. John Ashbery, the leading spirit of the movement, could explode almost any solemnity of verse with his intrusions of illogic and dizzying contradiction, but he was essentially satirizing the Victorian poem in much of his work, not attacking so much as poking fun at its gravity and high purpose. He had the puckish humor of an Edward Lear. That was as far as radicalism could go in the ivy-covered world of contemporary American verse. The movement, touted by all the publishers and leading journals, slowly faded away, and left few traces of its assaults on the citadel of white order.
It is ironic that during the glitzy days of the Hippie era, with peace protests and marches on Washington, the sound you heard in America was dubbed “the British invasion.” The Beatles opted to continue writing in the English tradition, while the Rolling Stones embraced Black culture, from the Mississippi Delta voices to rhythm and blues. They perceived the split vision of American reality, its English roots and the powerful, but suspect allure of Black passion. Together they ruled the music scene even as American poetry struggled to find its way in the ensuing mayhem of Vietnam and Nixon’s embrace of the silent, i.e., white, majority as his principal constituency.
Everyone is cheering on the contenders as they try to make their way into the mainstream of American poetry; but most if not all these noble efforts to overthrow white rule are successfully repulsed. I can’t read most of the poetry published by that once stunningly original and bold magazine, “Poetry,” or the weekly tokens of verse you find in “The New Yorker,” “The Atlantic,” the major university journals like “The Kenyon Review,” “The Southern Review,” “Sewanee,” and all the rest. I tire after a few lines, and begin flipping pages. I’m not moved by language that plunges to the depths of the poet’s suffering. I’m sure it’s real, and the ache in the soul is cause for reflection. But I’m aware of very little outside the room where the poet is writing. I don’t feel the world, or the throb of the streets, the tension that keeps tightening its grip around the heart of America. I thought Trump might precipitate a revolution, but the hope that he can be replaced will make us wait patiently. We let the unresolved issues and crises that face us mount up beyond the poet’s window, as the writer gropes for a language in which to imagine something beyond the claustrophobic assumptions we have accepted as our grasp of the world.
Paul Christensen is a poet and writer who divides his time between Vermont and the south of France.
Copyright 2020 Paul Christensen