Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Nothing sets poetry back: On American poetry

Nothing sets poetry back fifty years. It's as if you're graphing a line of progress; as if each generation was getting closer and closer to the roseate goal of perfect poetry. And along comes some dastardly bastard who through his influence sets us all back fifty years. That's nonsense. Poetry isn't proceeding in that line anyway. No one can demonstrate to me that the poetry being written today is any better - generically - that the poetry Keats wrote. Our language may have changed, our concerns may have changed, but you can't demonstrate that. You can't demonstrate the myth of progress, that each decade poetry is getting better and better and better until some day there will be a millennium and everybody will write poetry that will be absolutely, ravishingly fantastic. It's utter bullshit. Any concept that any one poet or critic can set poetry back is all rubbish. Poetry isn't going anyplace anyway, so how can it be set back?

... I hate these people who are more concerned with the zeitgeist, the spirit of the times, where something is going, and what is happening to American poetry, than the act of creation itself... [Y]ou're not involved in some historical process which is consciously shaping the future of American letters. It's English Department talk. It's the talk of people who are more interested in the historical process than they are in the poetic moment... When they come to evaluate the historical process and what's going on in this country, I'll be long dead. It will make no difference to me. But no one will take away from me the moments of poetic creation and reshaping of the world. Small as they may have been. Unimportant as they ultimately, historically, turn out to be, they are the heart of poetry. And this is what the poet ought to be concerned with.

-- George Hitchcock, ca. 1978

Americans have a peculiar affinity for marking their history off in decades. Each decade in turn gives rise to its particular and often exaggerated zeitgeist, which literary and social historians promptly embody in a "generation."

-- George Hitchcock, ca. 1958, in a review of On the Road and Howl for American Socialist

Pictured: Five generations in one photograph


Steven Fama said...

"Our language may have chanced . . . ."

Great typo there Don, assuming that's what it is. Paging Dr. Freud...

Don Share said...

You give me too much credit, Steven! Fixed it. Darn hand-held devices: now that's something that has chanGed!!

Yr. grateful D.

Ralph Waldo Emerson said...

There is no more deviation in the moral standard than in the standard of height or bulk. No greater men are now than ever were. A singular equality may be observed between the great men of the first and of the last ages; nor can all the science, art, religion, and philosophy of the nineteenth century avail to educate greater men than Plutarch's heroes, three or four and twenty centuries ago. Not in time is the race progressive. Phocion, Socrates, Anaxagoras, Diogenes, are great men, but they leave no class. He who is really of their class will not be called by their name, but will be his own man, and, in his turn, the founder of a sect. The arts and inventions of each period are only its costume, and do not invigorate men. The harm of the improved machinery may compensate its good. Hudson and Behring accomplished so much in their fishing-boats, as to astonish Parry and Franklin, whose equipment exhausted the resources of science and art. Galileo, with an opera-glass, discovered a more splendid series of celestial phenomena than any one since. Columbus found the New World in an undecked boat. It is curious to see the periodical disuse and perishing of means and machinery, which were introduced with loud laudation a few years or centuries before. The great genius returns to essential man. We reckoned the improvements of the art of war among the triumphs of science, and yet Napoleon conquered Europe by the bivouac, which consisted of falling back on naked valor, and disencumbering it of all aids. The Emperor held it impossible to make a perfect army, says Las Casas, "without abolishing our arms, magazines, commissaries, and carriages, until, in imitation of the Roman custom, the soldier should receive his supply of corn, grind it in his hand-mill, and bake his bread himself."