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