To begin, I’d like to list some qualities (requirements?) of contemporary poetry:
– Very interesting language, an extremely personal style
– A great emphasis on connotation, texture (as opposed to direct statement)
– Extreme intensity, forced emotion, violence
– A good deal of obscurity
– Emphasis on sensation, perceptual nuances
– Emphasis on details, on the part rather than the whole
– A tendency toward external formlessness and internal disorganization
– All tendencies are forced to their limits
– Emphasis on the unconscious, dream structure, the thoroughly subjective
– Attitudes anti-scientific, anti-common-sense, anti-public
– Not a logical, but an associational structure
Do you see your poetry, and the poetry you admire, in this list of characteristics? I do. I mean, I see a description of my poems and the poems by living poets I most admire. And yet this list is entirely cribbed from Randall Jarrell’s “A Note on Poetry,” written at the behest of James Laughlin and published in one of the New Directions “Five Young American Poets” anthologies—in 1940.
“A Note on Poetry” is fresh as a daisy, though whether that’s a compliment to Jarrell or a diss on us is open to debate. It made a splash at the time because it seemed nobody had understood Modernist poetry as an extension of Romanticism until then. We are still Romantics. Poetry is the repository of every vestigial romantic and spiritual longing, everything para- and hyper- and super-. And yet most of us don’t subscribe to Christianity, the Kabbalah, theosophy; most of us aren’t really mystics, except when we believe that our private languages will become magically transparent to the right reader. Yes, we write in poetry dialect.
So, even though Kent Johnson isn’t exactly wrong about the social forces at work keeping poets from criticizing each other, there seems to me an intransigent philosophical issue underpinning them. As poets, we’ve set up the whole shebang to be either/or, black-or-white, love-it-or-leave-it by emphasizing “very interesting language”—poetry dialect. You either fall in love with the poet and their dialect or you don’t. You either get the top of your head taken off or you don’t. Or—my favorite—it “heals” you or it doesn’t. It’s subjective and irrational, post-avant and third-way, hybrid and legitimate.
So Johnson is asking a lot when he calls for an “Augustan spirit of drollery.” The Augustans are widely (ignorantly) perceived as having been the dullest poets in literary history, being merely intelligent rather than imaginative. (“The Rape of the Lock”—I should hope to be so unimaginative!) That misperception serves a much-needed purpose: to help Romantics persist in their notion that one can be a Genius without being smart.
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