Volta:  Toward A Century Of Real Inventions
Copyright © by Esther Cameron, 5/21/01

   At the turn of a century, a millennium, the expectation arises that something noteworthy will soon happen.  Perhaps that expectation increases the likelihood slightly.  A century or millennium is a poetic form, like an octave or a canto, at the end of which a volta or new departure may occur.  It should thus be possible to put in a word for a major shift in poetics.

   There are scattered signs of this occurring already, besides the decades-old argument about who killed poetry and whether it has indeed been killed.  For instance, in the July-August, 1999 issue of Harvard Magazine, in an article entitled “The Stirring of Sleeping Beauty,” deputy editor Craig Lambert observes a return to this long-unpopular concept of beauty in the academic world.   At at a conference at Barnard College in April, 1999, “Where Lyric Tradition Meets Language Poetry: Innovation in Contemporary American Poetry by Women,” Marjorie Mintz Perloff observed that constant innovation, after a while, can get old.

   If such voices persist and are amplified, we are in for a thorough housecleaning, after which the twentieth century may well be remembered as a time when poetry temporarily lost its bearings under the impact of the triumph of the scientific world-view, the explosion of technological innovation, and the accompanying social changes.  While science and technology gloried in the invention of devices that have altered the face of the earth, poets responded on the one hand by superficially imitating the inventiveness of science, and on the other hand by inventing their own ineffectuality.  They learned to make a virtue of being superfluous, powerless, and well launched on the path to  extinction as a no-longer-functional-organ of the human community -- a path they had been going down ever since the inventions of writing, of the printing press, but which with the invention of electronics took a precipitately steeper decline.   The effect of electronics on human society and human beings has suggested to some minds that perhaps the poets were not so superfluous after all.  It is our business to reinforce that suggestion; but to do so, we shall have to take a step back, and begin to learn the right things from science rather than the wrong ones.

   The twentieth century began with the whimper of Eliot’s Prufrock: “Do I dare/Disturb the universe?”  The physicist Freeman Dyson took up this question in an autobiographical work entitled Disturbing the Universe.  In that work Dyson admits to no Prufrockian hesitations; among other things he suggests that we fill the interstices of the solar system -- who says there’s no more room? -- with structures put together from materials found in space by self-replicating robots.   Poetry in contrast, according to Auden, was to “make nothing happen,” except: “In the prison of his days/ Teach the free man how to praise.”   To express distaste for this recipe, or to repeat without irony Shelley’s dictum that we are the unacknowledged legislators of the world, was to risk dismissal as quixotic, dangerous, uncool.  Could this be a classic case of intimidation, where the intimidees end up enforcing the edict on one another?  As a woman one recognizes the signs; MacLeish’s “A poem should not mean/ But be” sounds an awful lot like “Sois belle et tais-toi.”  That “reticient megalomaniac,” Paul Celan, murmured in his “Meridian” speech that “the poem does speak.”  But no one heard him.

   In the light of this suspicion, it is possible to view many aspects of modern poetics as signs of a “learned helplessness.”  In presenting this somewhat jaundiced view, this writer does not mean to deny that many fine poems have been written in the modern idiom by poets great and small, known and unknown. The formative impulse is strong and there has been much to write about.  Nor would the writer forget the verbal exuberance of the truly original modernists like Hart Crane, Dylan Thomas, Sylvia Plath, Paul Celan, who give us glimpses of a beauty never before seen.  But as the biographies of those writers show, it is a dangerous beauty.  Those great modernists who have abstained from self-destruction, like Eliot and Rilke and Auden -- perhaps one may also count Mandelstam, whose doom was not self-chosen --, were sustained by traditional devices.  The following remarks, subject to all the caveats that should always attend generalizations, spring from observations in the “postmodern” period, whose very name admits that the energy of modernism has dissipated and only its negative commitments remain, like a burnt-out facade standing black against the sky. So, let us bring up the wrecking ball.

   The first of these negative commitments is the aforesaid belief in newness, the demand for nonstop invention, the cliché phobia. Read Homer, who plugs in half-lines and even whole lines that are ready-made formulas, and yet every scene is fresh and unforgettable. On the other hand the literary journals and anthologies are packed with poems that scrupulously avoid cliché -- and can scarcely be read with attention. From communication theory we know that constant newness is actually detrimental to comprehension and retention. For understanding redundancy is necessary. Originality is best absorbed when it is bonded with conventionality, when it occurs as the one thing that is different against a familiar background.  Twentieth-century poets have been much influenced by the original imagery of Emily Dickinson; they have overlooked her monotonous little-hymn tune, the colorless thread on which all those bright beads are strung. Originality without repetition is like a diet consisting entirely of condiments.

   Moreover: whereas in science one invention seems to lead to another and another, endlessly, inventions in the field of poetry have in the last century led to a dead end.  One invention doesn’t inevitably bring about another, except insofar as you feel the need to do something different.  (This is Bloom’s famous “anxiety of influence,” which does not appear to exist in physical science.)  Once you have knocked off rhyme and alliteration, put a spoke in the wheel of meter, fragmented the line and even the word, there is not much left to do in that direction; and once you have learned to frustrate expectations of meaning and lead the reader around in mazes that have no center, there is not much left to do in that direction either.

   Allied to the commitment to newness for its own sake, is the phobia against archaism, inversion, and any form of “poetic” diction, the dictum that you must “write as you speak.” Certainly in the hands of a master of form like Frost, the colloquial tone can be refreshing.  However, in the long ages when poetry was an essential function of human society, poets did not feel at all obliged to mimic the spoken word.  Homer wrote a dialect that probably was never spoken, a dialect trimmed to the fit the dactylic hexameter.  Dante, the first great colloquialist, fudged his Italian endings with abandon.  And who can have ever spoken the language of Shakespeare’s sonnets -- except, precisely, Shakespeare when he was speaking in sonnet form?  For poets of small, medium and large stature, elevated diction throughout the ages has functioned as a kind of ritual signal, like a ceremonial costume, which not only gave poetry dignity but also made poets and listeners feel more secure in the presence of uncomfortable truths, of that invitation to step out of one’s own skin which it is art’s business to offer.  Moreover, archaism served to affirm that continuity with the ancestors which is part of the foundation for human solidarity.  The intimidation of “You can’t say it that way anymore” is to be resisted.  In a sonnet defending archaism, this writer concluded: “Nor have the common people any say/ In faithless speech, that knows not yesterday.”

   What “write as you speak” really means, is that poets no longer have the right to construct a poetic domain, a separate reality.  Poets try not to sound “poetic” the way girls wear “unisex” names, the way some Jews used to refer to themselves as “citizens of the Mosaic persuasion.”  Like any disfavored group we are trying to lose our accent.

   Another aspect of the devotion to newness has, of course, been the penchant for writing in verse without rhyme and meter, which for some reason is called “free.” As the poet Leonard Borenstein points out in a recent poem, life is based on pattern; to be released from pattern is to be dead. Although striking things can be said in a poem without pulse and respiration, there are few great sustained performances in that idiom.   The regular line of traditional poetry was the foundation for sustained composition and sustained attention. It was, in fact, a relaxation technique which promoted concentration and learning.

   The disturbance of aural-kinesthetic structures has led to an increasing reliance on the sense of sight, both in the physical presentation of the poem and in the devotion to “imagery.”   In the current Poet’s Market many magazine editors call for “original imagery”; accordingly, many poets feel obliged to come up with a striking and original trope at least once every two or three lines. But like a fireworks display, such an exhibition of metaphor fades quickly in the mind. Yes, in Shakespeare too the metaphors tumble one over the other. But in Shakespeare the metaphors are not recherché, they are sparks involuntarily thrown off by a mind existentially at grips with some great theme.  Moreover, it is possible to write a good poem using few or no images.  The most-praised love poem in Russian, Pushkin’s “Ya vas lyubil (I loved you once)” contains at most one dead metaphor.  It relies on syntax, on aural and kinesthetic effects which form an impressive Gestalt and make us feel the presence of suppressed passion.

   Related to the fetish of “imagery” is another phobia, the phobia against abstraction.  “No ideas but in things.”  This is someone’s provocative flash which has somehow turned into a dogma, and as such is just as onesided and dangerous as the kind of abstraction gone berserk whose consequences we all know. Unless we allow ourselves a certain degree of abstraction we are faced with a series of unrelated concrete phenomena which we cannot put together. Unless we put things together we cannot comprehend them.  The obsession with the concrete can mean a suppression of thought.  Indeed, in the obsession with “imagery” one may discern an unconscious parallel to the state of mind which the visual media work hard to induce. There, too, and increasingly in recent years, viewers are bombarded with sequences of images that never add up to anything. One knows for what purpose this is done.

   The anti-intellectualism implied in the negative commitment against abstraction is seemingly contradicted in some quarters by a poetry that is inaccessible to the common reader. Until Mallarmé, obscurity was seldom considered a virtue.  Where meaning was hidden (generally as an effect of intimidation -- see Leo Strauss’ Persecution and the Art of Writing), it was hidden behind a facade that at least appeared intelligible.  The statements of science are not intelligible to the layman, but we tend to credit them because we see concrete results from physics. For hermetic poetry to inspire a similar confidence, one would have see some similarly concrete result, some improvement in the world springing from the investigations of hermetic poetry. Absent this, one is reminded of legal contracts deliberately so constructed that the party who cannot afford to hire a team of lawyers has no idea what he or she is actually agreeing to.

   Along with what appears to be a suppression of genuine thinking, one notes in recent poetry a consistent dryness of tone, a restricted range of emotion, an emotional shallowness, what the physicians call flat affect.  True, recent poetry often tells of horrific events, events which cannot but arouse emotion in the reader. But, precisely, it is the events, not the poetry, that arouse the emotion.  Perhaps there is an influence from journalism here; the journalist is not supposed to “editorialize,” and one hears this word in poetry criticism sometimes. But the traditional poet, by “editorializing,” gave the reader some company in sorrow.  In the presence of a poem with flat affect detailing some ghastly event, the reader is abandoned, as in the presence of the newscaster’s ghoulish cheerfulness.

   One would search the present scene in vain for the intensities evoked in “To a Skylark”, “Ode to the West Wind”,  “Ode to a Nightingale”, “On the Late Massacres in Piedmont” and “On His Blindness”, “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day”,  “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways”,  “The Ancient Mariner,”, and in many lesser works where the expression of strong emotion, even in the absence of the masters’ overpowering skill, was kindly tolerated. Indeed this general tolerance was the background against which the great songs of love and indignation, rapture and terror and devotion, could arise. Hovering over the modern and postmodern world is a great fear of ridicule and rejection, the natural consequence of the fact that poets, having lost their lay audience, must present their works almost exclusively to competitors -- and to competitors, too, who are full of frustration seeking an outlet.  The poem which openly expresses a deep personal emotion naturally becomes a target.  The flatness of the postmodern poem is self-protective.

   With the freedom and courage to express the full range of emotion, the expectation of empathy, we have lost an overarching quality of traditional poetry: nobility.  “No bull” is the slogan, implying that nobility is only that. Yet in his Human Nature, which ponders deeply the constitution and future of the human species, the sociobiologist E.O. Wilson says that in the quality of nobility lies our best hope for the future. Hopefully poets, formerly its main suppliers, can resume production.

   The restriction of range of emotion is linked to a great extinction of genre. One prominent contemporary woman poet, while caring for the child she has borne, addresses to that hapless infant a long, sophisticatedly talky poem, ending with a quotation from a lullaby. You would think that a poet privileged to give birth and to rear a child, would come up with an original lullaby for other mothers to sing. But poets don’t do that any more. Similarly, many magazines in their call for submissions specify: no love poetry, no religious poetry. “No didactic poetry” goes without saying. But poetry was in past ages a learning tool.  It helped people to pull together what they had experienced, to draw the lessons from that experience, to make maps of reality, orient themselves in the world.  It transmitted both information and standards.  It was frequently didactic, sometimes in humble ways like that mnemonic for the number of days in the month, sometimes in grandiose ways like Lucretius’ Of the Nature of Things or Milton’s Paradise Lost.

   Since we may no longer teach, of course we are also supposed to avoid “moralizing”; this, one is told, puts off readers, who would rather be manipulated by hacks of all kinds who flatter their delusions of grandeur and invulnerability.   The divorce of poetry from moral aspiration came about as part of the revolt against “Victorianism,” in the name of freedom.  But it could also be said that in ceasing to support the domestic community, poetry has been extruded into a social vacuum.

   There is a scene in Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man which makes this poignantly clear. Stephen, in an interview with a priest, has just declined to enter the Church.  He goes home and finds his younger siblings preparing to cope with yet another eviction. One child begins to sing “Oft in the stilly night,” and the others join in.  Stephen listens and hears the sadness in their voices, and words of Cardinal Newman come to his mind: “...that pain and weariness yet hope of better things which has been the experience of [Nature’s] children in every time.”  The reader of this scene knows that Stephen will be leaving not only the Church, but also the community which his siblings represent.  He will not make songs which they can sing to console themselves for the hardness of their lives, to overcome their solitudes in the common voicing of loneliness, to keep alive their hope of better things. They, for their part (perhaps this comes first) will turn on the radio, later the television, the boom-box, the video, the computers in their respective rooms, and not even notice he is gone. And if he tries to come back, they will listen with bored impatience to this old fashioned stuff that tells them what they no longer can bear to hear and offers them a consolation in which they can no longer believe, since they plainly see that it is now everyone for himself or herself.  He probably wouldn’t even be able to get them all together in the same room.

   Of course, the Marxist moral is obvious. The Industrial Revolution had emptied out the home as a center of production; the electronic revolution made possible the invasion of the home and its integration into the marketplace, where kinship ties and all other forms of human solidarity become irrelevant and the piece of work that is man is gradually broken down into a mechanism capable of greed and fear and little else.  “Things are in the saddle”, as Emerson already wrote, “and ride mankind.” Through the inertia of culture, through the accident of a prim little woman’s ascent to the throne of England, the home and the home-made individual soul managed to make a last stand in the nineteenth century; but the writing on the wall was clearly legible by the dawn of the twentieth.  For a while it looked as if the dissolution of the home as a center would have one positive effect, namely the liberation of women from the “confines” of the home and their acceptance on equal terms with men in the shaping of a wiser and juster commonwealth.  But in recent decades it looks as if the mass of women have merely been liberated out of house and home. Against this background one must understand the derision and oblivion which have fallen in recent decades on Teasdale, Millay, Leonie Adams, the astonishing yet almost unknown Ruth Pitter -- all poets of integrity with much to say in the traditional idiom. And against this background one must read all the poetry of the departure and exile which has made Dante seem so contemporary; also the range of phenomena known as “the dehumanization of art,” the anxious dissocation of the artistic community from the values of the home by the celebration of the acte gratuite, the artist as immoralist, the confusion of shock value with artistic value, with each new offense against the sensibilities of mother and child celebrated as an artistic triumph. It looks very much like what Anna Freud calls identification with the aggressor, the artistic community trying shortsightedly to insure its survival by joining in the attack on those same human solidarities which have always given art its meaning and its function.

   To sum up: when an activity has lost its function and its purpose, it becomes more difficult to specify criteria for product and performance. In the absence of community, in the absence of the formal standards that once provided some objective standards for performance pseudo-standards have been evolved: no cliche, no archaism, no steady rhythm, no nobility, no moralizing, no love poetry, no religious poetry, no didacticism, but plenty of visual distractions, of attention-getting gestures meant to seem original. Poetry has in many places become indistinguishable from pose.

   What, if we can shake off this bad dream, might lie ahead?

   First, a few reading suggestions, to set the mood.  Reader, on finishing this essay, please go out and try to find a copy of Ruth Pitter’s poems. Then, write to a publisher urging that her poems be republished. You are in for a treat: a poet with an amazing range, from almost-Chaucerian robustness to the ethereality of Vaughan and beyond.  Her charity, humor and visionary hope will stand us in good stead.  Also recommended is Peter Beagle’s ultraliterate fantasy novel The Last Unicorn.  A popular work of the ‘60's, it belongs in a very small class of works -- Goethe’s “Maerchen”,  The Magic Flute, Buechner’s Leonce und Lena, Celan’s “Meridian” speech, Michael Ende’ Momo -- which have that peculiar grace invoked by Kleist in his essay “Das Marionettentheater”. “Mozartian” is the adjective that comes to mind.  This kind of work can hold in solution quite a lot of bitterness, and yet somehow suggest that perhaps it doesn’t  all have to go to smash after all.

   Second, it is good if people have begun to realize that beauty is the point of the whole matter.  It should be clearly understood that beauty cannot be produced by any aesthetic formula.  It is possible to dispel confusions that tend to prevent its appearance, but not to specify a set of techniques that will guarantee its appearance.  It is always this specific Gestalt, this balance of elements, which has never been here before and will never be repeated.  In this way, beauty is a repository of human freedom.  Because it is mysterious, even to the artist which it uses to accomplish itself, recognizing it always seems like a risk.  One is afraid of being mistaken, afraid of being ridiculed, and in the current atmosphere that risk is real. Anyone who wishes to see beauty reappear in the world of the arts, and in the world generally, must be prepared to take that risk.  In fact there is, as psychological studies have shown, some agreement on what people consider beautiful.  Though its law remains beyond our grasp, it is not arbitrarily subjective, but intersubjective.  When we find the courage to acknowledge it, we find one another.

   Third, once having discarded the fetish of innovation, we shall reclaim much of the power of poetic discourse.  The human nervous system has not changed, and it is to this system that the traditional devices of poetry are adjusted. Modern poetry may turn out to have enlarged the repertory of these devices -- that is a subject for another essay -- but only if we do not allow the new devices to invalidate the old.   In a good poem there needs to be a balance of the new and the old, the conventional and the original, to render communication possible and meaningful.  The slogan for the future, if there is to be one, will not be “Make it new” but “Do the subject justice, create beauty, with whatever means seem most appropriate.”

   Fourth, poets should begin again to exercise their range of emotion, to cultivate the genres and emotions which the twentieth century pronounced extinct.  This means, first off, becoming very wary of pronouncing a poem “sentimental”, “too poetical”, or the like.

   Fifth, as stated at outset, poets should being learning the right things rather than the wrong things from science. We cannot ape the gimmickry of technology, and scientific term-dropping just makes us look silly. But we could learn, or relearn, something from scientific humility, method and discipline. The acknowledgment of beauty, the pursuit of meaning, require these qualities just as much as the pursuit of “scientific” truth. Moreover, a knowledge of communications theory and behavioral psychology may help us to choose means that communicate rather than jamming communication, and to prevent the process of composition and reception from being distorted by antipoetic pressures.   If we can do these things, then there is no reason why poetry could not claim, or reclaim, the dignity of a science.  True, poetry (though as Richard Moore has reminded us it used to be called “numbers”) is based on “inexact” verbal language rather than on precise mathematical formulae. But the precision in poetry is not a matter of exact correspondence between word and object.  Rather, the precision comes in the finding of optimal arrangements for the names of things as given -- and thus, we cannot help hoping, for things themselves.  Poetry is the only science that deals with things as wholes and integrates them into ever greater wholes, with some sense of the totality of existence.  We can urge that, as such, it merits the attention of all who wish to preserve a humanly tolerable environment.  In reviving didactic and expository poetry, we can act as mapmakers, putting together a picture of reality within which people can again orient themselves. We may not be able to follow the specialties of the physical sciences very far into their respective labyrinths. But we can certainly integrate their broad outlines with the useful knowledge in psychology and the social sciences. And then we shall have something to say about law.

   Sixth, in order to make this map, we need to take seriously the communication that occurs among us poets when we share our work.  We need to develop a guild ethic, a sense that our works, put together, add up to something.  We need a macropoetics that will guide us in setting our works in relation to one another, rather than allowing them to cancel one another out.  We need to devote some creative effort to devising forms of organization that will permit the expression of individuality, yet also also enable the formation of a collective vision.  This is a difficult problem, but it should not be dismissed as insoluble.  Certainly poets cannot and should not be organized after the monolithic fashion of the hunting party; but perhaps they could form kinship structures, based on the intertextual connections of their works.

   Seventh, in the name of all that may still distinguish humans from berserk robots, we should be trying to rebuild some of the burnt bridges between the artistic world and what remains of the domestic community. We should consider  as our allies and potential audience all the people who want to restrain media violence, to reduce abusive behavior, to restore fairness in the economic sphere, to rebuild communities, or just to raise a child to be a decent human being. We should read what they are writing and reading. We should try to pitch our voices so that they can hear us.  We should undertake to persuade them that they need us.  Beauty is proportion, and proportion is indispensable to any just adjudication of social conflicts.

   Eighth, we ourselves need a central symbol of our desire for a place in human society.  We need a prize to keep our eyes on. Suppose we set as our goal the establishment in every city of a “House of Song”, with large and small rooms for meeting, and with an archive that would store every poem submitted by poets in the area.  With the help of the computer, this is now feasible. The existence of such a place would be immensely helpful, given what we know (we should know more) about the psychology of homo poeticus. Solzhenitsyn once said that he could bear the deaths of his children more easily than the destruction of his books.  In order to achieve literary immortality, that strange form of biological survival, we are often willing to tear one another apart; Zola said that Dante, not having lived among writers, had an inadequate notion of hell. If all poems were to be preserved, if every poet, however disregarded, could hope that someday his or her work would be resurrected, we would all relax greatly. Moroever, the symbolism of the “house of song” would reaffirm the loyalty of the poet to the realm of the Mother. It would also recall the Temple (the Hebrew word for which means simply “house”) and that almost-forgotten phrase of the ‘70's “Earth Household.”

   We should advocate for the establishment of these houses at public expense. This would not be like government grants, which are awarded to individual artists and are thus a divisive factor.  The “House of Song” would represent an acknowledgment by the community of the need for this utility. The Light and Power Company.  Eventually, we should also attempt to assure compensation for all poets who have completed some curriculum and are willing to act as community ombudspersons. This would have to be in connection with a general program for a just distribution of rewards and incentives. We poets are the test case of capitalism. We cannot possibly be compensated by the hour, because the time it takes to write a poem cannot be measured, and we cannot be compensated by individuals because our work does not (despite copyright law) ever really become anyone’s possession.  But a lot of things are really like that, which is why capitalism needs to be modified.

   Obviously such a modification is far in the future, with innumerable ifs, ands and buts to be deliberated, in the light of the synthesizing intelligence of poetry, in the light of beauty and with a sense of proportion. But if we can take the first few steps now, we may look forward to a century of real inventions, inventions that will make things happen, rearrange the universe, perhaps even put humankind back in the saddle.


(This essay appeared in BELLOWING ARK, January-February 2000.)


[Dan replies: You make some good points, Esther, although your views on structure sound awfully like the shackles that brought us the Eugene Field era in poetry. But a big NO WAY to ANY public $ being spent on the arts- especially letting local poobahs get a chance to construct their cronyistic fiefdoms. Art is art, Esther- not social science. What in the hell qualifications does poetry writing bring to the job of ombudsMAN? Puh-leeze!]


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