The contrast between the health of poetry in Britain and the US is striking. American poetry has been butchered by the professorsby Michael Lind / July 20, 2001 / Leave a comment
at the beginning of the 21st century, the contrast between the relative health of poetry in Britain and its dire condition in the US is striking. In Britain, the Poet Laureate is known if not always respected and the selection of the Professor of Poetry at Oxford makes the newspapers; in the US, nobody can tell you the name of the Poet Laureate (answer: Stanley Kunitz). The best British poets, such as Seamus Heaney, James Fenton, Charles Causley, Tony Harrison and Wendy Cope, use traditional verse techniques in innovative ways to write about a range of subjects in a variety of genres, including political satire and light verse. In the US, by contrast, almost all of the prestige poetry is written in the early 20th-century mode of “free verse”-that is to say, lines of prose chopped up at arbitrary points-and almost all of it consists of relatively short poems, usually a domestic epiphany or a description of a scene or item as its subject. Hardly anyone writes poetry in the US other than professors-and hardly anybody reads it, other than the professors who write it.
The collapse of American poetry into the black hole of academic obscurity is a process that has been occurring for half a century. As recently as the 1920s and 1930s, poets like Robert Frost and Robinson Jeffers were celebrities. Edna St Vincent Millay had her own radio programme. The book-length narrative poems of Edwin Arlington Robinson and Stephen Vincent Benet were bestsellers. Between the wars, as in the 19th century, American poets were more likely to be journalists, men of letters, or even public figures than professors-John Quincy Adams, the sixth president, translated Horace.
All of this changed when a gang of professors hijacked American poetry. TS Eliot and Ezra Pound-two expatriate Americans with PhDs-inspired several generations of literary intellectuals to believe that, in Eliot’s words, “poets in our civilisation, as it exists at present, must be difficult.” Their idea of difficulty was baffling readers with untranslated bits of Sanskrit (Eliot) and Mandarin Chinese (Pound) and writing poems that could not be read, only deciphered, sometimes with the help of footnotes like those the author appended to The Waste Land. This was new. Greek and Roman and Renaissance poets, like those of the 18th century and the Victorian period, had sometimes used allusions that would baffle the ignorant, but they counted on being understood by educated contemporaries. Even the Alexandrians of Ptolemy’s Egypt, like Callimachus, who have come to symbolise mandarinism in art, wrote poetry that courtiers and generals of the Hellenistic era with a basic liberal education could appreciate.
But Eliot and Pound were alienated even from the elite of their era in a way that Virgil and Dante and Shakespeare and Goethe and Tennyson had not been. The two expatriates wanted a coterie art that would ward off the uninitiated because they detested modern, mass, democratic civilisation. Eliot, an admirer of the French authoritarian ideologue Charles Maurras, famously declared his support for Anglo-Catholicism, classicism and royalism, while Pound made radio broadcasts during the second world war on behalf of Mussolini and Hitler. Both men vilified Jews in their poetry; Eliot also treated the Irish as the exemplary subhumans of the democratic age (Sweeney Erect).
After the first world war, the esoteric right-wing modernism of Eliot and Pound found enthusiasts among the “southern fugitives,” a group of reactionary professors of literature centered at Vanderbilt University in Nashville. After spending the 1930s writing polemics on agrarian economics and white supremacy, the wiser fugitives like Robert Penn Warren and Allen Tate metamorphosed into purely literary figures. In this capacity, they and allies like Cleanth Brooks moved north and conquered the Ivy League English departments in the 1940s and 1950s, spreading the gospel of Eliotic/Maurassien coterie culture. Oddly enough, these missionaries of aristocratic reaction found allies among many Jewish Trotskyist intellectuals, who equated popular art of any kind with the crude MassCult of their rivals, the Stalinists of the popular front era. Writing in 1971, the poet Kenneth Rexroth spoke of “the highly select Trotskyite-Southern Agrarian Establishment.”
Rexroth summarises the fate of US poetry after 1945: “Within a very short time after the second world war, all but a few American poets of any reputation had been recruited into the universities. Every college in the land competed with every other to catch a ‘poet in residence.'” The Babylonian captivity of poetry on the American campus has been prolonged by the explosion of “creative-writing” programmes, each of which offers an MFA (Master of Fine Arts) in novel-writing, short-story writing or poetry-writing. Most of the products of these programmes are mediocre, but this has not prevented patiently networking MFAs from capturing the institutional power bases of what remains of “serious literature” in the US, where they use their connections to puff their allies and deride their rivals. The feuding MFAs are probably no more vicious than the court poets around Maecenas or Elizabeth I, and rivalry among artists can produce great art. Not, alas, in this case. The reason is that the MFA programmes were founded at the moment that the most prestigious American poets completely abandoned writing metrical verse (that is to say, verse) in favour of free verse (that is to say, prose).
The first disciples of Eliot and Pound in the American professoriate, the so-called “academic formalists” of the mid-20th century, had followed their gurus in favouring an elite coterie art, but they had not imitated Old Possum and Ez in abandoning metrical verse. Instead, in their own poetry, they followed WH Auden, a virtuoso of almost every verse technique. The influence of Auden can be seen in the attention to craft in the work of the best mid-century academic formalists, James Merrill and Richard Wilbur.
But then in the 1960s, Robert Lowell, the most famous though not the best American poet of the day, told the Paris Review: “I couldn’t get any experience into tight metrical forms… Prose is in many ways better off than poetry.” It is difficult to imagine Frost, or Tennyson, declaring that, gosh, writing good verse is just too hard, or being taken seriously if he had. But Lowell’s abandonment of verse for chopped-up prose at the height of his ephemeral fame legitimated free verse for countless American poets who had never mastered the difficult craft of prosody. Thanks to their influence, several generations of American poets who cannot tell the difference between a heroic quatrain and an Alcaic stanza have convinced themselves that they are poets.
By the 1950s, then, academic coterie poetry had driven out accessible poetry in the US, and by the 1970s, in a palace coup limited to the campus, free verse had defeated academic formalist verse. The last third of the 20th century saw a succession of short-lived schools-Black Mountain, Deep Image, LANGUAGE poetry-each of which consisted of a handful of professors advertising their wares with manifestos, using the ritualised language of aesthetic revolution inherited from the avant-garde of the first world war era. Under any label, the would-be revolutionary professor-poets all write pretty much the same kind of brief random descriptions and meditations in the same kind of amputated prose.
This history explains how it is that John Ashbery and Jorie Graham, professors both, came to be the most celebrated poets in the US today. Ashbery, who began as a sprig from the tree of Auden, writes rambling, surreal monologues. The work of Ashbery and Graham illustrates the observation of the late Australian poet AD Hope that in “present day America and in much of the world beside, the poet feels no obligation to his reader. He believes either that he is a sort of dark oracle or that he has no contract to communicate.” As a result, Hope said, “the rest of the world treats their poetry as a trivial game.”
Inevitably, a reaction has set in against the mass-produced free verse of the professor-poets. In the 1970s and 1980s, a number of younger poets and critics began defying orthodoxy and writing in the meters and rhyme schemes which the academic authorities had proscribed. By the 1990s the “new formalists,” as they were called, had two goals: to expand the audience of poetry beyond the universities, and to revive and renew the metrical techniques that had been discarded. Although verse narratives by Vikram Seth (The Golden Gate, 1986), Frederick Turner (The New World, 1985) and myself (The Alamo, 1997) sold better than most literary novels, the project of winning back the audience of fiction in prose, to fiction and drama in verse, has not yet succeeded. The efforts of the poetry establishment to win back readers have also failed, in spite of “poetry on the subways” and readings from “cowboy poets” on National Public Radio.
So far the new formalists have produced more manifestoes than masterpieces, and the movement may degenerate into another academic clique (almost all of them, like their rivals, make their living by teaching creative writing or literature). Even so, movements are remembered for the handful of geniuses they produce, rather than for the mediocrities. By general consent the leading figure of the new formalism is Dana Gioia, who is a very considerable poet indeed.
Gioia, who recently turned 50, should not be a poet at all, by the standards of the academic world. Before retiring in his forties to devote himself to literature, he had a successful career in business, becoming a vice-president of General Foods; he is happily married; he has no history of confinement in asylums, and is not a victim of substance abuse; he does not even own a black turtleneck sweater of the kind that authentic poets wear when posing for photographs. He earned the collective enmity of the creative-writing industry when he wittily vivisected it in a widely-read 1989 essay in the Atlantic Monthly, “Can Poetry Matter?” For the last decade, the professor-poets have avenged themselves by alternately pretending that he does not exist and denouncing him. Although Gioia is one of the few American poets whose books sell, a few years ago the MFA apparat ensured that his name was left off the invitation list to a White House conclave on poetry. But to the horror, no doubt, of the free-verse establishment’s tenured representatives, the only contemporary poet whom First Lady Hillary Clinton quoted was Dana Gioia.
But the snubs do not matter, because Gioia’s reputation as a poet and a critic has grown by word of mouth. This year has seen the publication of his third collection of poems, Interrogations at Noon, and of his libretto for the composer Alva Henderson’s opera, Nosferatu. Gioia is considered a slow writer by members of the campus poetry subculture who crank out a new collection of poems every year or so (it’s easy to be prolific when your lines don’t scan or rhyme). The accumulating size of Gioia’s oeuvre, however, is as impressive as its diversity. In addition to three collections of lyric poetry and the libretto, Gioia has translated Seneca, Eugenio Montale and other Italian authors (Gioia, a Californian by heritage, is of Italian and Mexican descent). His lyric poems have been set to music by dozens of composers. This matters because, in the words of the critic Gary Taylor: “Genre is itself important because different genres usually deal, in different styles, with different topics and materials, and so the mastery of more genres implies a greater variety of human stuff.”
Interrogations at Noon demonstrates that Gioia has a range matched in contemporary poetry in English only by James Fenton. Gioia, who studied at Harvard with Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Fitzgerald, can be as coyly allusive as the late James Merrill, in “Elegy with Surrealist Proverbs as Refrain.” But he can also turn to satire in “The Archbishop,” subtitled “For a famous critic,” and then again to a nature idyll of Goethean simplicity and strangeness in “The End of the World.” This haunting poem concludes: “I stood at the edge where the mist ascended,/ My journey done where the world ended./I looked downstream. There was nothing but sky,/ The sound of the water, and the water’s reply.” Unlike so many of his contemporaries, Gioia has avoided creating a niche for himself by adopting a single, predictable style or set of subjects. But if there were typically “Gioian” poems, they would be the lyrics in which the subject is the wistful erotic longing of personae who are beyond youth but not yet old. One poem in this vein, “Summer Storm,” is already well-known: “We stood on the rented patio/While the party went on inside./You knew the groom from college./I was a friend of the bride./We hugged the brownstone wall behind us/To keep our dress clothes dry/And watched the sudden summer storm/Floodlit against the sky.”
Critics of poetry such as this complain that it is akin to popular song. Those critics concede far more than they intend to. American popular music has conquered the world precisely because it unites the straightforward evocation of sentiments that our cynical intellectuals deride with the meter and rhyme that make language dance. In the work of Dana Gioia, American poetry dances as it has not danced for a long time.