Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Playing the Revolution Backwards

Yes, this is a theme with me, but I will keep at it because I keep finding wonderful examples. And also, it amuses me to watch the arguments of the past unfold. We will join them, remember. We're already half way there, even.

Thesis: Number one, anthologies are arguments. Number two, the argument that poets have just recently started writing poorly and willfully obtuse poetry is not true (they always have / they always haven’t). One version of the argument has been: Poets are obscure and write only for other poets. If poets would just write clearly and for the common reader, then poetry would be popular. The truth is, yes, many poets do write in a way that could be described as obscure. Yes, some poets do write mainly for other poets. But it’s also true that the great majority of poets have written “clearly” for the “common reader” and for all of their work, neither they nor poetry in general has gotten any more popular.

Just sayin’.

Today’s example, the introduction a front piece from New Poems by American Poets #2, Ed. Rolfe Humphries. 1957.

From the front matter:

The editor, Rolfe Humphries, himself a poet and translator of high reputation, has again exercised his function without obligation to any style or school. His guiding idea, as before, has been simply that in spite of the current belief that modern verse is obscure and defeatist, there are good poets in this country speaking out clearly and affirmatively. Again he demonstrates the truth of this.

Among the better-known poets herein, are Theodore Roethke, W.H. Auden, William Carlos Williams, Marianne Moore, Richard Wilbur, Louise Bogan, John Holmes, Mark Van Doren, Phyllis McGinley, Langston Hughes, May Sarton, and Louis Simpson. Among the new voices are many that will be better and better known in the coming years.


Take it away, Rolfe:

[A]s they say at the race track, tab the following as among those likely to get the job done [to win the major awards of the future]—Robert Bagg, Jan Burroway, David Ferry, George Garrett, Kim Kurt, Herbert Morris, Lisel Mueller, Anthony Ostroff, Charles David Webb.

This book makes no pretense to being a definitive selection; it is a random sampling, rather, of what goes on in American poetry today.


I sympathize with Humphries here. One wants to claim the future for the poets one selects for an anthology, as he does above, but one also wants to downplay the inherent argument aspect of anthologies by claiming something like “random sampling” as he also does. The fact that these two impulses make for a convoluted introduction is the ticket to ride.

Humphries continues into a more direct argument:


What does go on? Having been exposed to this quantity of material, an editor should presumably be qualified to proclaim Certain Significant Trends. I doubt that the evidence is really sufficient for sound conclusions, but will nevertheless venture a few remarks. For one thing, the obscure and the minatory, which E.M. Forster, less than a decade ago, considered the characteristic stigmata of modern poetry, seem to be disappearing. . . . For another thing, we have considerable return to form, not always, to be sure, fully realized; blank verse, the beat of iambic pentameter, takes over from the Amy Lowell type of free verse. And I have seen, this time, scores of sestinas and villanelles.

In his introduction to the recent Faber & Faber anthology of modern American poetry, Mr. W. H. Auden, after announcing boldly that Americans differ much more inter se than do the British, corrects himself in a footnote and notes what he calls the beginning of a disturbing tendency for everybody to write alike. I do not think this is necessarily a bad sign[.] . . . The poems he speaks of, (or the kind of poetry he means,) use a common idiom, rather consciously literary, very competently turned, showing considerable evidence of serious study of technique (thought the application may sometimes be grievously faulty), interested in observation almost to the point of catalogue, and withal rather noncommittal in spirit, not very reckless, just a bit chill, as if hedged with a cold war play-it-pretty-safe-brother kind of injunction.

This is the kind of verse that more than any other finds fashionable acceptance. Editors have little to worry about if they print it. Yet more than this goes on; if we are, on the surface, developing a common manner, underneath that surface we are also preparing, and practicing, the break-through, the antithesis of that thesis. The voice of the individual, however isolated, however unpaid, speaks out in its own manner; there are people, still, who are not afraid of being themselves. (There are also those who are too damn proud of it, but that is another story.) We have some of them in this book; their range geographically is from coast to coast, chronologically from septuagenarians to those barely out of their teens. We are grateful to them, happy to present them to you; we how you will like them, and tell them so.

New York City
June, 1957


A lot of what follows is boring, conservative, and harmless, alas (though he gave it the aggressive sell, and I admire that). But there are quite a number of poems that exhibit a cleverness and irony that describe well, I feel, the tendencies of the upwardly mobile, middleclass (or upper middleclass), white 1950s. Here are a few examples that I thought witty:

The Rider
Leah Bodine Drake

It is the East we dream of: there
We’d find the answer to despair,
The waters sweet, the women fair.

Seekers of truth ride through our land.
They scorn our commonplace and wend
Eastward. This we can understand.

There came a rider reined his beast
beside our fountain, cried “At last
I’ve reached the waters of the East!”

The East our shabby countryside
And nothing more? “You lie!” we cried,
And so we stoned him till he died.

The Ailing Parent
Lora Dunetz

Pity this man who, slave to an affliction,
Enslaves his drifting world beyond love’s premise,
Fastens a chain, ties a multiple noose;
No son escapes beyond his door.
                                                    He weaves
His self-destruction, not his self-protection,
For, crying
Each day: My end! each evening: I am dying!
he lives forever, while his children perish.

Basic Communication
Thomas Hornsby Ferril

Such dubious nomenclatures crowding in
Around, above, below direct intent:
You said I said you said I said begin
Again with what I meant you meant I meant.

We speak by muscling of after-rote,
The lust in us deserves and earns the quarrel,
The waggle tongue is captain of the throat,
No victory, no grace, no sprig of laurel.


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