Robert Richman's anthology, The Direction of Poetry, offers readers an opportunity to evaluate the neo-formalist esthetic. His selection of poems, underlying assumptions of his introduction, and the writings of others associated with the movement, all provide evidence of what neo-formalists value and produce. Richman writes, "To the general reader, who has all but given up on contemporary poetry as a source of pleasure, this book will come as something of a surprise. In both the United States and Britain, narration, characterization and, perhaps most significantly, musicality are showing new vigor." Brad Leithauser, whose major contribution to the world of letters is a narrative on the dilemma of coaching tennis during summer vacation, has publicly chastised American poets for their inability to scan. Helen Vendler's review of Leithauser's Hundreds of Fireflies asserts, "The best sign of poetic talent in a young poet, everyone agrees, is to have a gift for rhythm, the ultimate form of the stylizing of speech." (Emphases mine.) This "ultimate" stylization, this hierarchical privileging of meter over other decorations of poetry (Cleanth Brooks's term), is precisely what distinguishes neo-formalists from poets who have traditionally used received forms as part of the poetic palate in the service of their art. And therein lies the danger of their esthetic.
Most essays written about the resurgence of the "new formalism" have lacked dimension. For Terrence Des Pres, for example, American poets have been asked to choose between saving the word and the world. Wayne Dodd's well-intentioned but reductive essay equates iambic rhythms with a kind of literary fascism. Some writers see neo-formalism as the antidote to narcissism and obscurity. Still others view the movement as essentially harmless: why worry, they reason, about the resurgence of the tepid academic verse of the 1950s? Why worry that scholars have replaced American poets as the purveyors of taste? Because, I would argue, neo- formalists have a social as well as a linguistic agenda. When they link pseudo-populism (the "general reader") to regular meter, they disguise their nostalgia for moral and linguistic certainty, for a universal ("everyone agrees") and univocal way of conserving culture. Neo-formalism shares with other contemporary poetic "movements" formal solutions to perceived weaknesses of American poetry. By offering a critique of this esthetic and other poems that share some of their assumptions, I hope to establish more ambitious criteria for advancing the art.
Although you wouldn't know it from reading the mostly deadly poems in Richman's anthology, good poems are still being written in received forms. While the resurgent neo- formalists privilege sound and meter, the masters of received form -- Justice, Bishop, Wilbur, Kunitz, and Walcott (the Brahmses of the century) -- articulate form with vision. As Blake understood, vision is neither theme nor content: it inheres in the dialectic between language and perception. Sound and meter are the poetic decorations most obliquely related to and distant from vision. One can make a "beautiful sound" or hear a pronounced beat without associating either with a way of seeing. The neo- formalists' esthetic trivializes form, then, when it advocates musicality as the most vital sign of form, when it dissociates meter from vision. Why else would Vendler champion poets of such disparate talents as Charles Wright and Amy Clampitt, if not for their sonic pyrotechnics?
Vendler's review of Leithauser evidences her reductive, dualistic, esthete thinking about form as separate from vision. "Since the matter of lyric poetry is always and everywhere the same (time passes, experiences teaches, I am young, I am old, nature is beautiful, he loves me, he loves me not, someone has died, I will die, life is unjust, etc.,) critics of lyrical poetry have only two choices -- either to repeat, with solemn banality, the emotional matter of the poem or, more interestingly, to engage with the treatment of . . . the manner of stylization that the poet has resorted to."
Many of the poems in Richman's anthology, hypnotized by their own sounds and "stylizations," turn away from the world and collapse on themselves. As Dana Gioia banally and self-consciously writes in "The Next Poem":
How much better it seems now
Than when it is finally done --
the unforgettable first line,
the cunning way the stanzas run.
Gioia's poem on poetry has a lot of company. More than twenty of the one hundred-twenty poems in this anthology make poetry the central subject. Almost as great a number of poems are elegies. "Lonely" and "empty" are among the most commonly used words. So Richman's anthology pays tribute to a self-referential, decaying culture. We read about many sad love affairs (Anthony Hecht's ironic "The Ghost in the Martini," provides the most horrifying example of a deluded, aging poet lusting after, while disdaining, the "youthful" and "babbling" woman he hopes will save him from his own tortured, self-obsessed intellect.) We find much banal appreciation of the tragic beauty of nature. With the exception of Tony Harrison we see precious little acknowledgment of the social world. Richman condescendingly notes the exception: "In Tony Harrison's sonnets . . . rhyme and meter are brought to bear on the dialect of working class England. And what an unlikely coalition it is!" By making Harrison the exception, Richman links rhyme and meter to privilege. This is the only sentence, however, where Richman acknowledges his conservation ideology. Dick Davis's "Childhood of a Spy," projects the dominant, conscious ethos of the anthology: "Reality/Is something glimpsed through misted glass." Glimpsed, I might add, very occasionally.
Poems that privilege sound and meter are conservative, then, not so much because they privilege tradition, but because they decontextualize poetry. In the entire anthology, only Elizabeth Bishop's villanelle, "One Art," uses the predictable insistence of form to critique obsessiveness and moral certainty. Generally, if the poem sounds good -- in this anthology that usually means a throbbing iambic beat and an excess of assonance and alliteration -- it must be good. Donald Hall's hyper-personified poem, "Cheese" ("Pont l'Eveque intellectual, and quite well-informed") attempts to yoke sensual pleasure and death, but his comic figures and metaphors trivialize his melodramatic ending ("this solitude, this energy, these bodies slowly dying"). One surely cannot measure Hall's poem, then, by his gift for rhythm alone; his inability to understand tone and attitude dismantles the work.
When neo-formalists dissociate sound from vision they diminish the ambitions of the art; by privileging surfaces, they opt for idealized beauty over a more complex, observed world. One can read a poem like James Merrill's "Clearing the Title," the final poem in From The First Nine (not in the anthology, although Merrill is represented), and admire his fluent iambic pentameter, his complicated rhyme scheme, without acknowledging that the culminating experience of this poem involves the wealthy narrator sharing a beautiful sunset with a native "black girl with shaved skull." This "transcendent" moment allows him to make a commitment to his lover, to buy -- I swear -- a condo in Key West. The inherent racism of the poem -- equating the shaved black head with the many colored balloons in the last stanza, blurring the social differences of the narrator and the black girl -- points out the dangers of an esthetic that ignores what is seen in favor of the pure beauty of sound. Merrill's poem fails because he uses poor blacks as a backdrop for condominiums without understanding the full resonance of his metaphors. His inadequate, dissociative vision is insufficient to the historical and social contexts his setting and characters provide.
The examples of Gioia, Hall, and Merrill illustrate the inadequacy of the exaltation of meter as a center post for an esthetic; they also provide, I'm afraid, representative examples of the neo-formalist diminished, inward turning, idealization of culture.
The neo-formalists' authoritarian view of what constitutes music also leads to the trivializing of the art form. The anthology honors versifiers like Blumenthal, Leithauser, and Hollander, and excludes W.S. DePiero and Norman Williams because "such poets have an ambivalent attitude toward meter, moving in and out of it in their poems." What do we get instead? Predictable meters ("fixed," as Richman calls them) with predictably nostalgic sentiments. William Jay Smith's sing-song "Bachelor Buttons," and Alison Brackenbury's "Whose Window?" are representative poems.
Bachelor buttons are fine to see
When one is unattached and free,
When days are long and cares are few
and every green field sown with blue . . .
(from "Bachelor Buttons")
Whose window are you gazing through,
Whose face is stilled between your hands?
The glass grows deeper than your eyes
Whose quick lights sink: as feet through sands.
(From "Whose Window?)
These are conventional, generic poems whose regular rhythms reinforce their unexamined perceptions. The dissociation of sound, sense, and intellect, then, reminds us of the danger of art in fin de siecle, the danger of appreciating esthetic beauty, formally and thematically, at the cost of the observed, sensory, disturbingly contingent world. As Charles Simic ironically writes, in his World War II poem, "Traveling Slaughterhouse": "When I close my eyes everything is so damn pretty." Closing our eyes while opening our ears creates a myopic, unimaginative poetry.
Clearly, poems written in received forms can be moving and persuasive. It is intellectually bankrupt, however, to accept that unless a poem is written in a received, fixed form the art is corrupted. Such an argument disguises the true enemies of neo-formalism: democratic relativism and subjectivity. "The free verse orthodoxy" Richman writes, "has insinuated itself so deeply into our respective poetic cultures that the entire conception of form has been corrupted." Listen to how closely this rhetoric resembles Alan Bloom in The Closing of the American Mind on the dangers of "democratic relativism": "It is not merely the tradition that is lost when the voice of civilization elaborated over millennia has been stilled in this way. It is being itself that vanishes beyond the dissolving horizon." (Emphasis mine.) To privilege the iamb and a fixed number of feet, then, foregrounds Richman's univocal idea of culture.
The neo-formalists' perhaps unconscious exaltation of the iamb veils their attempt to privilege prevailing white Anglo-Saxon rhythms and culture. We shouldn't be surprised that the somewhat patrician poet Derek Walcott is the only obvious person of color in Richman's anthology, the only person whose culture and history might originate in a different music; it is difficult to understand why a sensitive reader might feel virtuous concerning his or her inability to hear music or poetry in the cadences of C.K. Williams or Lucille Clifton or in the multiple voices of John Ashbery. Even the anthology's arrogant title, The Direction of Poetry, reinforces the notion of a single voice of civilization. We shouldn't consider it coincidental that Richman writes for the politically and socially conservative New Criterion. Although it may cause discomfort to neo-conservatives, we live in a world of many cultures many voices; our poetries are enriched by otherness, by many different kinds of music and varieties of meters. Their narrow-minded appreciation of cadence and music unconsciously creates a kind of cultural imperialism.
It is also no accident, as others have remarked, that at a time in our history when neo-conservatism dominates our social and political life, when the American Empire is shrinking, that the poetic fashion parallels the historical moment: conservative poets want to restore art to the nostalgic ideal of fixed harmonies, of pure beauty and grace, to restore the "essential moral values" of "western civilization" (Bloom); their ideal poetry, then, might resist a constantly changing and -- for those who uphold the values of a declining imperial culture -- decaying world. In fact, the dominant stance of the anthology, like the dominant stance of most neo-formalist poetry, is elegiac. I count at least two dozen poems that evoke the a priori condition of loss and diminishment. As Donald Justice says in "Psalm and Lament," "But there are no more years. The years are gone." X.J. Kennedy's elegy proclaims, "Poets may come whose work more quickly strikes/Love, and yet -- ah, who'll live to see its likes?" The implicit, sentimental, ahistoric premise behind many of these poems is that humankind is, in Sartrean terms, essentially melancholic; one only has to look at the tonalities of poems from other historic moments, however, to understand the neo-formalists' resignation, their desire to console, is social and cultural: their desire is to resist change and the possibility of change formally, intellectually, and emotionally.
The nostalgia for an essentialist, universal vision actually makes Richman's vision of poetry comfortably bourgeois: "The poetry here is appealing and accessible, hard the remote and unfamiliar territory contemporary verse has long been perceived to be." This pseudo-populist yoking of the accessible and the appealing is know-nothingism. Accessibility, here a nostalgia for universality, may be comforting to the reader, but in art it is neither a virtue nor a vice. When, as an undergraduate, I had difficulty reading Conrad, I assumed his inaccessibility was at least partially my responsibility. The real question is, of course, whether the reader's labor is sufficiently rewarded once he or she gains access to the writer's work.
Linked to the neo-formalists' desire for universality, an ideology which disguises its refusal to acknowledge difference, is the neo-formalists' high regard for impersonality and tonal distance. Their exaltation of the public poet disguises their fear of and disdain for the intimate. Their rhetoric appears to address the dilemma of narcissism, of too much self, in American poetry. If we all have the same values, they reason, writing personally becomes self-indulgent. In one of his introductions to the Yale Prize for Younger Poets, James Merrill praises George Bradley because Bradley, unlike so many young American poets, remains a detached observer, avoids writing about his personal experiences. "Personal history, what it means to numberless poets harvesting it even as I draft this sentence, is simply put on hold." His reasoning is seductive: the difficulty, though, is Merrill's refusal to acknowledge subjectivity as a starting point -- all perception begins in the interior world. A poem's intensity is, in part, connected to intimacy and our identification with the feelings of a speaker. Given Merrill's privileged personal history and his obvious ambivalence toward intimacy, one can understand his irritation in reading "personal" poems. It may be true that there is an abundance of self in American poetry. But the annihilation of self will not eliminate narcissism; by favoring the repression of the experiential, it merely sidesteps the question. The real problem for American artists is finding a sense of "relation" between self and other, the inner and outer world, the personal and social worlds. American poets, partially because they have become more and more marginalized, have forgotten the scope of the project of poetry, have perhaps lost faith in recovering access to those ambitions.
American poets have few resources to create a dynamic between the interior world and the exterior, the personal and the social. Our confessional poems are domestic; the poems' details often have no architectural significance beyond tonality and whim; our social and political poems lack scope and perspective; like the neo-formalist poems, they suffer from an excess of moral certainty and a lack of experiential reference. In "Mrs. Krikorian," Sharon Olds's recent poem in The Nation, the speaker believes she can understand the slaughter of millions of Armenians because of her generous Armenian third grade teacher. "I end up owing my soul to so many,/to the Armenian nation...." Carolyn Forche's prose poem "The General" (The Country Between Us) was written after the poet spent a couple of months in El Salvador, and the poem shows it; its moral certainty privileges the narrator's superiority and celebrity status ("What you have heard is true: I was in his house") while turning the general into a caricature of evil. The severed ears in the poem are literary ears, borrowed directly from Hemingway. Ironically, Forche's view of her experience was insufficiently individuated; she was a tourist to other people's suffering; she didn't see sufficiently into her experience to transform the consciousness of any reader who didn't already share her values.
American writers are too often only witnesses, tourists, to most human suffering and pleasure. John Berger, in The Success and Failure of Pablo Picasso, understands the dilemma of modern artists: " they are far away and unseen -- so that at home most people are protected from the contradictions of their own system: those very contradictions from which all development must come." Many of us live in an academic world where experiential knowledge is turned inward and upward. We elevate the artist to the ethereal, we deny the connections between self and other, we separate language from social relations. We revere the isolated individual's imagination as if genius were static, hereditary, a gift from God as if there were no dialectical or historical relationship between the world and the self. And, as we all know, we write without any real sense of community or audience. As Berger says, "Imagine an artist who is exiled from his own country, who belongs to another century, who idealizes the primitive nature of his own genius to condemn the corrupt society in which he finds himself. What is his difficulty likely to be. Humanly he is bound to be very lonely. But what will this loneliness mean to his art? It will mean he does not know what to paint. It means he will run out of subjects. He will not run out of emotion or feelings or sensations, but he will run out of subjects to contain them."
Neo-formalism owes its popularity, in part, then, to the desperate loneliness of American poets. Our poets, the serious as well as the careerists, take up one formal movement after the next, hoping to bring back a mythical age when poets were priests instead of professors. We no longer have a Robert Frost to look up to, though; essentially, we no longer have a culture that lionizes its artists. Writing like Frost, as Richman and others like Joseph Epstein ("Who Killed Poetry?" AWP Chronicle, May 1989, Vol. 21, No.4) assume, won't create an audience. It is no secret that international conglomerates' purchase of publishing houses and book stores has narrowed the audience for poetry. The executives at Gulf and Western are not readers: their interest is profit, pure profit. The "independent" Houghton Mifflin Company, publisher of Richman's anthology, has cut its poetry list by three-fourths for financial reasons. Although university presses have recently taken to publishing more poetry, they can't distribute their books because bookstore chins won't stock them. So outside of university communities, "general readers" can't find books of poetry. American poets' "flat democratic voices" haven't killed poetry, as Richman suggests: poets are victims of a culture that considers art as a commodity, when it considers art at all. Qualified teachers have been chased out of the educational marketplace because of the scarcity of work, low social status, and low paying jobs; poetry is rarely taught in schools, and when it is, it is most often taught badly. If we want to consider the issue of audience, then, we must look beyond the poet, and we certainly can't reach backward to restore the poet's role in culture.
The best poets of our age, and of any age, use all the vehicles of craft to create a dramatized, inclusive experience. And that inclusiveness, which makes simultaneous and integrated the pleasures of language and culture -- indeed, language as culture -- is a far better measure than meter for poetic talent. Berger, in discussing the modernity of cubist paintings, actually provides an even more ambitious measure of artistic accomplishment that could easily apply to poetry as well as to painting.1. The choice of subject.In other words, poets must recognize the dialectical relationship between word and world. Poets must strive for integration of sight and sense; we must also value context, the way in which discourse dramaticizes perception.
2. The materials used. In painting, Berger refers to physical surfaces; writers could certainly substitute the surface of the language as one of the criteria for poetic talent.
3 The way of seeing. Cubists discussed this issue in terms of the "interlocking of phenomena."
Clearly no program, formal or otherwise, can create a poetry of value, can affect the relationship between writer and audience, between word and world. If the relationship between language and experience is dynamic and oblique, if the enemy of poetry is certainty, a writer must honor the truth of contingency in his or her discourse and vision. No formal program will advance the art or the place of art in culture: an attentive, precise, and open consciousness is required. Terry Eagleton, in "The Writer and Commitment," quotes Engels (who chastises a party hack whose propagandistic novel lacks dimension) on creating a truly ambitious art. "By conscientiously describing the real mutual relations, breaking down conventional illusions about them, [the work of art] shatters the optimism of the bourgeois world, although the author does not offer any definite solution or does not even line up openly on any particular side." Engels quite rightly sees art as a dynamic, unsettling experience, one that challenges the writer's and reader's vision of the world.
Where then do we look for signs of hope? Clearly the great poets of Latin America and Eastern Europe live inside history, and their imaginations are enlivened by that perspective. Closer to home, a new generation of British and Irish poets, from Douglas Dunn to Tony Harrison to Michael Hoffman, from Eavan Boland to Seamus Heaney, Medbh McGuckian and Paul Muldoon, have created a poetry out of the ashes of the British Imperial culture. They understand the relationship between the personal and the social in part because they are brave -- they pay attention -- but also because their relationship to the social world is tactile and immediate. They can't escape to the suburbs or the university: the evidence of the effect of culture on the individual intrudes on their daily life. In "Durham," Harrison writes:. . . You complain
that the machinery of sudden death. . .
shouldn't interfere with sex.
They are sex, love, we must include
all these in love's beatitude.
Bad weather and the public mess
drive us to private tenderness....
A handful of our poets, most notably C.K. Williams, Gerald Stern, Sandra McPherson, and Charles Simic, manage to write about the social world with self-consciousness and without the fixity of moral certitude. C.K. Williams's cinematic narrative, "Still Life," (whose title serves as an ironic pun from Tar, confronts the narrator's idealized nostalgia, and acknowledges, qualifies, and undermines it; using highly charged and focused images, narrative strategies of interruption and retrospection, and rhythmical repetition and variation, Williams explores the shifting relationships among memory, desire, and imagination. The poem honors the narrator's longing to bridge the gap between discourse or metaphor and heightened experience; although the narrator's desire is ultimately defeated by sequence and passage, the poem complexly balances the virtues of sex and imagination, "the promise of flesh," against "resignation" - - the powerless acknowledgment that time passes and the poet's recreation of the moment provides insufficient intensity and invention.
STILL LIFE All we do -- how old are we? I must be twelve, she a little older; thirteen, fourteen -- is hold hands and wander out behind a barn, past a rusty hay-rake, a half-collapsed old Model T, then down across a barbed-wire gated pasture -- early emerald rye- grass, sumac in the dip -- to where a brook, high with run-off from a morning storm broad- ened and spilled over -- turgid, muddy viscous, snagged here and there with shattered branches --in a bottom meadow. I don't know then that the place, a mile from anywhere, and day, brilliant, sultry, balmy, are intensifying everything I feel, but I know now that what made simply touching her almost a consummation was as much the light, the sullen surge of water through the grass, the coils of scent, half hers -- the unfamiliar perspiration, talc, some- thing else I'll never place -- and half the air's: mown hay somewhere, crushed clover underfoot, the brook, the breeze. I breathe it still, that breeze, and, not knowing how I know for cer- tain that it's that, although it is, I know, exactly that, I drag it in and drive it -- rich, delicious, as biting as wet tin -- down, my mind casting up flickers to fit it -- another field a hollow -- and now her face, even it, frail and fine, comes momentarily to focus and her hand, intricate and slim, the surprising firmness of her clasp, how judiciously it meshes mine. All we do -- how long does it last? an hour or two, not even one whole afternoon: I'll never see her after that, and strangely (strange even now), not mind as though, in that afternoon the revelations weren't only of the promises of flesh, but of resignation -- all we do is trail along beside the stream until it narrows, find the one- log bridge and cross into the forest on the other side: silent footfalls, hills, a crest, a lip. I don't know then how much someday -- today -- I'll need it all, how much want to hold it, and not knowing why, not knowing still how time can tempt us so emphatically and yet elude us, not have it, not the way I would, not the way Iíll want to have that day, that light, the motes that would have risen from the stack of straw we leaned on for a moment, the tempered warmth of air which so precisely seemed the coefficient of my fearful ardor, not, after all, even the objective place, those shifting paths I can't really follow now but only can compile from how many other ambles into other woods, other stoppings in a glade -- (for a while we were lost, and frightened; night was just beyond the hills; we circled back) -- even, too, her gaze, so darkly penetrating, then lifting idly past, is so much imagination, a portion of that figured veil we cast against oblivion, then try, with little hope, to tear away.
The poem begins with the small ("All we do") and, by using the present tense, makes the past immediate. So the reader begins with the romantic hope that the past can be restored by memory and imagination. The first parenthetical clause, though, undermines that hope with tentativeness and vagueness ("I must be twelve, she a little older") and the first observed details suggest the threat of decay ("rusty hay-rake," and "half-collapsed old Model T"), simultaneous with ecstatic overflow ("run-off," "spilled over," "turgid"). In the middle of the stanza Williams intensifies and underlines this knowledge by shifting from lyrical, assonant, almost insistently iambic beats to slower, more heavily accented lines.
The narrator's self-conscious retrospective knowledge, "I don't know then" and later "but I know" -- the work of imagination -- admits context (place and day) intensifies and consummates what he formerly believed, as an adolescent, was romantic love. He also admits the "muddy viscous" nature of his attempt to decipher meaning from that experience: he can't even separate the scent of her from the air. In stanza two the narrator's senses are heightened by sight and smell, and once again the reader shares the poet's desire for an enlivened imagination to restore the Keatsian moment.
The beginning of the third stanza's claim "I breathe it still" provides the last moment the poet can sustain faith in mimesis and freedom from sequence and passage. By the penultimate stanza, Williams settles neither for the easy romantic nor resigned vision. "Not knowing still how time can tempt us so emphatically and yet elude us," the narrator says; by the end of the stanza he must admit not only the limits of metaphor and imagination, but also the possibility of a fixed identity. "Not the way I would want to have that day . . . the tempered warmth of air which so precisely seemed the coefficient of my fearful ardor . . . those shifting paths I can't follow now/but can only compile from other ambles into other woods, other stoppings in a glade."
The final lines' self-conscious retrospective knowledge, "her gaze . . . is so much imagination . . . that figured veil we cast against oblivion," resemble Elizabeth Bishop's "Poem" ("About the size of an old-style dollar bill"} which ends with "the yet-to-be dismantled elms, the geese." Both narrators long to diminish the distance between art and experience, long for a world restored to paradise: their complex understanding of flux, of the distinctness and indecipherability of desire and discourse, break the illusory spell.
The poem succeeds because it takes the reader through a complex dramatic process, changing its mind, often expressing a longing, accommodating and withdrawing from the sentimental urge to believe in the heightened intensity of a single romantic moment. The pastoral landscape serves to advance plot and imagistic emblem of archetypal romantic experience. "Still Life"'s vision of temporality, of personal history, of the limits and ecstasies of imagination, inhabited in the snapped-off perceptions, rhythms, and narrative, embodies a much more incisive, less self-pitying stance than do the sentimental idealists of the Richman anthology. Williams's scope, his inclusiveness, his capacity to see the connection between the linguistic process and experience, makes "Still Life" a lasting poem.
Gerald Stern's "Behaving Like a Jew," (Lucky Life) addresses history and the social world more directly than Williams's "Still Life."BEHAVING LIKE A JEW When I got there the dead opossum looked like an enormous baby sleeping on the road. It took me only a few seconds -- just seeing him there -- with the hole in his back and the wind blowing through his hair to get back again into my animal sorrow. I am sick of the country, the bloodstained bumpers, the stiff hairs sticking out of the grilles, the slimy highways, the heavy birds refusing to move; I am sick of the spirit of Lindbergh over everything, that joy in death, that philosophical understanding of carnage, that concentration on the species. -- I am going to be unappeased at the opossum's death. I am going to behave like a Jew and touch is face, and stare into his eyes, and pull him off the road. I am not going to stand in a wet ditch with the Toyotas and the Chevies passing over me at sixty miles an hour and praise the beauty and the balance and lose myself in the immortal lifestream when my hands are still a little shaky from his stiffness and his bulk and my eyes are still weak and misty from his round belly and his curved fingers and his black whiskers and his little dancing feet.
Temporally, the poem begins after the plot has already begun. Stern compares the dead opossum to a helpless and innocent baby (later to be transformed and underlined by assonance to "rabbi"), and by the time the reader reaches line six he is led to believe Stern will echo Stafford's ecological territory -- human destruction of the natural -- in "Traveling Through the Dark." In line seven, beginning with the pun "I am sick of the country," (the poem rhetorically repeats "I am" five times in the poem, making it clear that the narrator's identity is completely at stake in his capacity for empathy), Stern extends the poem politically: the narrator reveals disgust for the country's indifference to the machinery of death. The historical context for this poem, written in the mid-1970s, is the Vietnam War. After the bombastic alliterative s's, hisses, of "stiff hair sticking. . . slimy highways" the poem slows with the shortened line "refusing to move" (by the end of the poem the narrator refuses to move, not because he's stunned by death but because he's steadfast in his identification with the victim); while the poem generally shifts from four-beat to six-beat lines -- when the crucial transformation of the poem begins, Stern slackens the rhythm to three beats in an eight-syllable line followed by anapestic variations in the illumination of the "spirit of Lindbergh": the Lindbergh metaphor is rich with conquering, aerial distance, and, of course, anti-semitism. The poem's clinical diction in these four lines mimetically imitates clinical detachment. The genius of the poem is its inclusiveness: it equates, dramatically Romantic and spiritual transcendence with indifference to all "animal" (including the human animal) suffering and oppression, while simultaneously standing bravely against mechanical domination over nature.
Stern's "Behaving Like a Jew" fulfills the wish of James Wright's "A Blessing": the poem confronts the price and reward, frailty and boundarilessness, of "breaking" into blossom. Stern shows remarkable breadth of tone, a constant shifting of attitude: from the moment we hear the colloquial "get back into my animal sorrow" (in almost Ashberyesque diction), the reader must be prepared for the poet to undermine those predictable transcendental sentiments ("the immortal lifestream"), a cultural code which disguises American conquest and indifference. Stern's allegiances are to the body, to the Jewish body, but also to the body of the teacher (the Rabbi). Sense and intelligence in the poem are united by sight and touch: "and my eyes are still weak and misty/from his round belly...."
Both Williams's and Stern's fervently emotional poems fuse narrative and meditation with the heightened intensity of lyric. Both poems avoid stasis and predictability, advancing the stances of the poem by qualification and transformation, honoring the observed over predictable moral sentiment, syntax, diction, and meter. Enlivened by large contexts, their ambitious subject matters resonate with the simultaneity of the personal, linguistic, and cultural. Sandra McPherson's "Two Poems on Definitions of Bitch," Charles Simic's "Prodigy," Gregory Orr's "Solitary Confinement," Stanley Kunitz's "River Road," George Oppen's "Vulcan," "John Ashbery's "Melodic Trains," Michael Burkard's "Deathbed," Anne Winters's "Two Derelicts," and Rita Dove's "The Satisfaction Coal Company" and "Thomas at the Wheel," all provide examples of poems that make engaged, dramatized, and surprising connections between the self and the social world, the moment and history.
Most American poets, though, like most Americans, are in a terrible hurry and substitute formal solutions for substantive problems. How do we combat the problem of too much self, not enough world? Repress the self or sublimate it. Blame the lyric. Annihilate the "I." Advocates of narrative poetry try to make a virtue out of Wordsworth's naive strategy of "reproducing reality" in "The Cumberland Beggar" without acknowledging the impossibility of penetrating the other (read Coleridge's brilliant critique of Wordsworth in chapters XVII & XVIII of the Biographia Literaria to understand the limits of their esthetic). I take seriously narrative poets' conservative desire to "restore the verse line." Language poets demand that we interrupt the poetic process so, like good post-modernists, we can acknowledge the artifice of the work of art. We forget that Coleridge's distinction between word and thing accomplished their work almost two hundred years ago. We forget that Barth and Barthelme exhausted this device in American fiction some fifteen years ago. What is more narcissistic and repetitive than making the work of art, discourse itself, the subject of the art?
If we forget the primacy of the Romantics' understanding of vision (as Blake says, "If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, infinite"), American poets risk contributing to the myopia, the diminishment of the art form. The mistake of the neo- formalists, then, is the mistake of all those who believe that form has a life of its own. We read Keats's poems not because they make lovely sounds, although they do, but because those sounds are connected to perception, and those perceptions dramatize intensely the relationship between the admittedly uncomfortable contingent self and a shifting world. A poetry of fixed forms can only console; it cannot transform. The neo-formalists miss the irony of the urn's statement, "Beauty is truth, truth beauty, -- that is all/Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know." If we want our poems to live, in every sense of the word, we need to know and see much more and we need to know it soon.
John Berger, The Success and Failure of Picasso (New York: Panthean Books, 1965).
Terry Eagleton, Marxism and Literary Criticism (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976).
Robert Richman, The Direction of Poetry (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1983).
Helen Vendler, "The Creeping Griffon," New York Review of Books, Sept. 23, 1982.
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