Friday, September 14, 2007

Dead Poets Don't Praise Poetry

Here's a list of some innovations in the language of poetry:

1.) Juxtaposition of nonrational images
2.) Line lengths conceived according to normal speech rhythms
3.) Widely diversified vocabulary
4.) Reinvention of grammatical and verbal constructions
5.) Fortuitous rhyme, sometime rhyme in a regular pattern

Now, a hundred years ago in the language used by American poets (and not just in English, but by American poets writing in Yiddish, Spanish, and a host of other immigrant languages), these were not only innovations, but positively revolutionary. So my question is: how long does a revolution last? Most poems I see (and I see a lot of them) still meet these criteria: some very well, some in terribly self-defeating ways. Other questions: are revolutions in poetry inherently good? Useful and worthwhile? Gratuitous? What are they intended to accomplish, and how do we know when they have succeeded? When a revolution succeeds (this one did!), what do we do next - enjoy the fruits of our forebears' labors or push the envelope. (I mean, just because electricity was harnessed generations ago doesn't mean we should like to live without it, though ecologically a case may need to be made for its replacement; see Freeman Dyson's recent essay in the New York Review of Books, "Our Biotech Future," for more on this incredible and perhaps necessary possibility.) How can we judge when a revolution utterly fails? Do poets need to think... as a practical matter, do they think... about these questions?

The list I've given isn't meant entirely to be a straw-man list; it's derived from Ruth Whitman's introduction to her translations, published by October House in 1972 (a year after the poet's sudden death) of the American poet, Jacob Glatstein, who write in innovative Yiddish. Glatstein, by the way, is no obscurity - he is one of the very greatest poets of the Yiddish language used in America, and therefore one of America's great poets. His poems are still fresh and arresting, and his work, though sometimes hard to find, has never disappeared from print. The list, in any case, is very striking to me, because both so-called post-avant-guard and so-called SOQ poets take them completely for granted (even if they say they do not).

When Ezra Pound and Harriet Monroe were corresponding about having Zukofsky edit what we now call the Objectivists issue of Poetry magazine, he said, "Hang it all [...] You ought not to let the magazine drift into being a more passive spectator of undefined & undefinable events." (EP's "A Few Don'ts" from a 1913 issue also arguably still set parameters for most contemporary poetry to some extent. I suppose nobody really follows his exhortation, though, to "go in fear of abstractions) Harriet, of course, held the now-(in)famous view that to have great poets there must be great audiences - a good subject for further discussion; but to what extent shall we say that not only magazines (if they are) but poets (if they are) passive spectators of "undefined & undefinable events." What is to be done?

Yrs. for rested totality in the reader's mind...

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