The task of any poet, faced with a bombardment of sensory impression, a vast reservoir of recollected experience and images, and the disorderly swirl of feeling that accompanies them, is to select, record, and respond. Poets do so with the means granted not just by their native abilities but also by their moment in history, their relation to language (do they favor abstractions or concrete details, objective or emotional statements?), and their place in the world. With such means, great or small, poets must, in [Elizabeth] Bishop’s words, spar with the sun.
It is clear that the possibilities available by mid-century to poets of all stripes were far greater than the ones prevailing when Frost and Pound were apprentices. The wider resources were the result of numerous experiments, battles, mistakes, and a few remarkable successes in the first decades of the century. By the time the writers featured in this book were commencing their careers, it seemed that the struggle between metered and unmetered verse had been all but decided in favor of the latter. But not everyone was convinced. There was still an audience for measure, and there were still writers committed to it. Looking back over the postwar years, one can make a good case that the poems with the greatest staying power were in fact written in meter.
Yet meter is of course only part of the story, a proxy for even larger issues. The evolution of poetry in the twentieth century can also be read as the extended playing out of a contest between two different visions of human conduct and the nature of art as a reflection and shaper of human character. Broadly put, one vision sees the greatest human potential and the deepest sources of emotional and artistic experience in the liberation of the spirit from constraint—whether that constraint is expressed as laws, as social conventions, or as artistic submission to form. While such liberation need not imply an abandonment of rational process, in practice it often does, since reason is seen as second-guessing or “governing” emotion, and emotion is both the end and the wellspring of the freedom-seeking spirit. The other vision distrusts unbridled impulse. It views human nature as impelled by a craving will (or “drives” in psychiatric parlance) that, while potentially anarchic, can be made to function in social settings when modified and guided by rational control. Art, in this view, is—or ought to be—of a piece with behavioral ethics, in that it represents an integration of mind and emotion, an integration whose complexity can itself be a source of aesthetic pleasure.
Neither vision ever holds complete sway in human communities or in the arts. As ideals they are always to some extent in tension with each other, and they represent unrealizable ends of a continuum with many intermediate points around which social groups and artistic schools cluster. Nevertheless there are cycles. From time to time societies, in the name of social order or religious orthodoxy, impose stringent rules on behavior that may be indirectly reflected (or sometimes flouted) in artistic expression. And from time to time rebellions occur in which many of the strictures are thrown off and a “new order” (or disorder) supervenes. The Romantic movement that dominated Europe in the nineteenth century continued to have a strong influence in twentieth-century America despite countervailing trends. In many ways modernism remained in its thrall. Among poets it took the form of a rejection not just of “rules” governing the verse line but of ideas of decorum prescribing appropriate diction, subject matter, and style.
Poet Michael McClure recalls his vivid impression on first hearing Allen Ginsberg read “Howl” in 1955—a poem that seemed to break barriers of form and content (though in fact it is hardly formless) and in so doing to reject the social strictures of the times:
In all of our memories no one had been so outspoken in poetry before—we had gone beyond a point of no return—and we were ready for it, for a point of no return. None of us wanted to go back to the gray, chill, militaristic silence, to the intellective void—to the land without poetry—to the spiritual drabness. We wanted to make it new and we wanted to invent it and the process of it as we went into it. We wanted voice and we wanted vision.
The reaction to that rebellion occurred early but took some time to gather force. The writers who embodied it tended to articulate a clear connection be-tween poetic style and social ethics, as Richard Moore does in an essay called “Fanatical Poets and Reasonable Poets”:
In general, the only way to be free and original is to try to be conventional and controlled, and this, in general, is what all sonnets, all forms of art, tell us when we read them. It was through the discipline and conventions of speech that we left the world of beasts and gained our freedom as human beings; and it is through submission to the additional stricter discipline and conventions of the art that the poet gains his or her powers of wisdom and prophecy.
There is of course a considerable leap in logic from the social benefits of speech to the artistic benefits of verse conventions—a leap most writers are reluctant to make so unabashedly. Yet poets who feel passionately about their convictions tend to draw connections between the conduct of life and the principles of their craft. Discussing the contemporary dramatic monologue “Frieda Pushnik” by B. H. Fairchild, poet David Mason observes,
A story is a form. A form is often imaginatively liberating. The empathy Fairchild achieves in his poem might not have been possible by other means, and empathy is a civilizing value. We become monsters when we shut it down.
Now that the twentieth century lies in the past, I think a strong case can be made that the aesthetic—and the ethic—urged in the Moore and Mason quotations have produced some of the strongest poems of the period since the Second World War. They have also equipped younger poets with the tools and the sensibilities to probe further reaches of experience without destroying themselves in the process.
Part One of this book presents six poets on whom that case rests. All of them learned much about style and diction from the gains of modernism; all of them profited by the expansion of possible subject matter wrought by the generation before them. But they were far from undisciplined. They recaptured, sometimes tentatively, the sense of order, balance, and objectivity that had been abandoned, almost as a matter of principle, by the revolutionaries among their predecessors and their contemporaries. In their writing, clarity and subtlety became virtues prized as strongly as passion. As the relevant chapters make clear, none of them wrote uniformly strong poems; no one does. But they defined a clear direction that the poets of the present century are likely to pursue to their profit, and to ours.
Part Two examines some competing claims. In the first chapter I look back over the last sixty years of the twentieth century to rescue, perhaps, two or three reputations virtually forgotten in the scuffle. For it is not always the case that excellent poets inevitably find their rightful audience. Other factors, such as luck, ambition (or its lack), literary politics, and the tenor of the time play a role. Posterity may be wise, but she sometimes needs a nudge. In the next chapter I discuss five books of poetry put forward by tastemakers at the end of the century as candidates for special distinction. These books can be taken to represent the dominant type of modernist poetry at that historical moment, and their limitations are perhaps as instructive as their virtues. Less concerned with clarity of argument and formal structures, more intensely focused on the poet’s unique, private experience, they offer a clear contrast to the kinds of poetry examined in the first part of the book.
Part Three turns the mirror toward the critic, to ask how literary judgments are made, by what authority, and for what purpose. We start by looking at the career of one of the most influential and controversial critics of the twentieth century, who lived at a time when a scholar and critic could imply, if not assert outright, that his judgments derived from a superior understanding of a divinely ordained moral universe. Critics in today’s more agnostic world are by and large unwilling or unable to make such a claim, even though, as we have seen, an implied ethical motive runs through critical judgments on both sides of the continuing aesthetic debate. Of all the arts, literature, including poetry, seems to tread closest to people’s ethical lives and moral concerns. Since Plato, critics (meaning broadly those who think and write about literature) have intuited a relation between the two spheres. Yet most attempts to define such a relation have proved overly rigid, ethnocentric, illogical, or otherwise unsatisfactory. Perhaps the attempts have been misguided. The essays in this part take a different tack, suggesting it is more productive to observe how people develop ethical views and artistic tastes and to note whether, in some persons or groups, at some times, these views and tastes exhibit commonalities. In this way we may perhaps approach questions of taste and judgment without becoming judgmental.
Most people who care about matters of the spirit and the intellect assign poets a high place among those who make life worth living. It may profit us to inquire, as we pursue these byways, why the rank of the critic is rather less secure.
Jan Schreiber is a poet, critic, and translator. Over a varied career as a social scientist, software entrepreneur, and literary scholar, he has written frequently on American poets and the problems of understanding and evaluating modern poetry. He lives with his wife Frances in Brookline, Massachusetts.