THE DIGNITY OF LYRICISM: Form Yes, Formalism No
"Not without celestial observations can even terrestrial charts be accurately constructed." -- Coleridge, 1830
The dignity of lyricism requires, in the context of the present American situation, an assertion of unadjusted spontaneity against a New Academy spirit. It is a spirit whose urbane blandness and "rehearsed response" recalls the excellences, the dead excellences of ancient Alexandria. The form that Alexandrianism takes in American poetry today is what we have elsewhere called (in 1947) "the critic's poet." As the "poet's poet" of yesteryear wrote mainly for fellow poets, so the critic's poet of today writes mainly for critics. The critic's poet and his periodicals and mentors concentrate mainly on technique, not even all technique but certain specialized subtopics of the technique of technique. That they neglect content goes without saying. Still worse, they neglect the quality of song most needed in lyricism: full-throatedness.
The overadjusted style of the critic's poet performs like a chewing-gum slot- machine. It responds to each counterfeit slug of critical jargon by emitting a jaw-breaking wad of allusion; if you listen carefully, you can hear the satisfied metallic click. Such a poet is activated not by inner lyric impulse but by outer fashions of criticism. He repeats mechanically (a Kimon Friar, to take a typical minor example, or a John Berryman) what the originators of the New Critic technique ( for example, John Crowe Ransom ) did creatively and spontaneously. Robots can do everything better than human beings. Except love and sing.
These conveyor-belt dons, and their quarterlies like Hudson Review, diffuse a miasma of anti-lyricism over the scene:
Instead of the professional marb of letters we have the professional critic, the young don writing in the first place for other dons, and only incidentally for that supremely necessary fiction, the common reader. . . . The pedant is as common as he ever was. And now that willynilly so much writing about literature is in academic hands, his activities are more dangerous than ever.... The pedant is a very adaptable creature, and can be as comfortable with Mr. Eliot's "objective correlative," Mr. Empson's "ambiguities" and Dr. Leavis' "complexities" as in the older suit of critical clothes that he has now, for the most part, abandoned. (1)
The aim here is not one of those indiscriminate attacks on criticism that characterize romanticism's incorrect faith in instinct. The aim is to honor, as indispensable in its proper station, the high calling of criticism, "New" or old, and to attack only the idolatry of criticism-for-its-own-sake. In its proper station, criticism is not independent of poetry nor dictatorial over it nor antecedent to it but dependent on the prior creative act. When this dependency is denied, content gets onesidedly sacrificed to form, full- throatedness to minor details of technique, fire to tact:
A poet may, with the use of a little tact, get off comparatively lightly with his contemporaries. They accept his work as "poetry," and as such it can remain an unacknowledged, and with luck an ineffectual, legislator. But when anyone brings the fires of art, of genius, too close to life itself, there is a far greater hostility, the hostility met by Carlyle, by Ruskin, by Newman, by Nietzsche.... Such writers, of course, do not play the academic game; they speak out too boldly, and this is, if not exactly dangerous, certainly bad form. But it may be worth remembering that, if they had always played the academic game, there would be no academic game for any of us. Scholarship and criticism alike are parasitic on genius; and when someone, whilst making no great claims for himself, devotes his life to the cause of such genius, he is fighting, if only we could see it, in the same cause of scholarship and criticism too.... If only those writers who are approved by contemporary criticism were to be read and taught, criticism itself would quickly wither.(2)
Almost all good modern poets have gratefully learnt from T. S. Eliot and thereafter, if truly unadjusted, revolted against the Eliot cult. His dictatorial cult differs from Eliot himself as Marxism differs from Marx. It is, therefore, unfair to blame Eliot for the humorless, sanctimonious exaggerations of his cultists. His vulnerability as an artist is on another score: despite his extraordinary merits of rhythmic and metaphoric precision (merits rightlythough indoctrinatinglyappreciated in the key English departments ), T. S. Eliot almost always lacks the final grace of poetry: sensuous texture. This grace you will find not only in two poets greater than Eliot, Keats and Yeats, but also in a poet otherwise often lesser than Eliot: Beddoes. So it does not of itself suffice to create major poetry. What it does do is make ideas dance, make cogitative verse musical, and make that music full-throated in the old, magic, unashamed fashion.
Wastefulness is the second essential lack in the poet of The Waste Land. Missing is that sense of generous overflowing of so much talent that the talent can dare to squander itself even on nonsense and the fun of luxuriant affectations, on all kinds of egomanias and obsessive caprices; can dare, can afford all this because secure in the knowledge that it has enough left overafter these self-indulgences to produce vital creations anyway. Important, and insufficiently reckoned with, is the "anyway" quality, the "quand-meme- ness" of inspired art. (Like "love" and "death," "inspired" is a word in bad taste; the salonfahig critical taste of today is better equipped to cope with irony, ambiguity, allusion. ) No stingy hoarding of talent, getting the most out of every clutched grain of it, but exuberant profligacy seems to characterize the great, full-toned voices of world literature.
Without wastefulness, no generosity. Without generosity, no love, no Christian charity, ultimately no Christianity. When a poet lacks the vice of wasting himself casually, lavishly, then he also lacks the virtue of the full range, the universal human note, the rich careless vibrancy of authentic genius. This joyous, full-toned authenticity of the lyric experience is not often conveyed to poetry students today by the Eliot-Pound-New-Critic school. Absurdly denounced as a conspiracy and absurdly praised as a revelation, that school was a liberating force in its unpopular days (after 1912), a stifiing force in its faddish days (after the 1940's).
This appeal for spontaneity should not be confused with neo-romantic appeals for a bohemianism of would-be "geniuses" or for a romantic revolt of song and emotion against restraint and form. No, only within strict restraint and classic form can song and emotion be compressed into lyric intensity, instead of sprawling forth sloppy, formless, diffuse. The more restraint the better, Eliotic and New Critical; but meanwhile let our critic's poets not completely forget Roy Campbell's "bloody horse":
You praise the firm restraint with which they write--
I'm with you there, of course. They use the snaffle and the curb all right; But where's the bloody horse?
Nobody can predict how the new poets of today can ever achieve the vitality of the early Pound-Eliot movement that followed 1912. But one can easily predict how they will never achieve it: namely, by continuing to imitate Eliot and Pound, both of whom had the great virtue of not imitating but defying the literary dictators of their day. Because of that earlier necessary act of unadjustedness of 1912, Eliot himself was once accused of "impertinence" toward "older poets." Today it is critics of Eliot's who suffer the same accusation, now that the toreador of 1912 has changed into the sacred cow of today. Our Mandarins Junior Grade make official uniforms of Eliot's discarded garments but lack the originality with which Eliot so imperially filled those garments. It is not that the emperor has no clotheshe has too manybut that in most cases the clothes have no emperor.
Because lyricism requires unadjustedness, a maturity of technique in the very young is no longer the virtue it used to be till only yesterday. Even now, it does remain a virtue whenever its possessor remains sturdily independent. But many more young poets, lacking such independence, are frozen permanently into conventionality ( a conventionally "unconventional" modernism) by their own technical skill. Because the trail-blazers of the 1920's have become the elder statesmen of the 1950's, their imitators write from the start in these mature styles of their masters, styles originally hard-won but now an unearned inheritance. Such young poets, Glossarists of the New Criticism ab ovo, seem to be wearing an urbane, ironic smile already from birth. Their disease is premature maturity.
But other younger poets, teachers, and students are outgrowing this stereotyped modernism and resisting its dominance of much of the college-anthology field. Many of that younger group believe the best of all the pocketbook anthologies of verse to be 100 Modern Poems and 100 American Poems, both edited for New American Library by Selden Rodman. His two anthologies, when taken together with his art manifesto The Eye of Man. 1955, are a rallying-point for unadjusted taste and the restoration of content, a rallying-point against the current fashion of a trivial formalist veneer in both poetry and painting. What Rodman rightly urges is not less form but equal respect for content also, defined as "a projection through tangible symbols of the artist's attachment to values outside art itself." This most pioneering of editors Rodman was among the very first to discover and print Theodore Roethke and Robert Lowellhas long been a universal catalyst in poetry, painting, criticism. The important part of his anthology 100 Modern Poems is the foreign verse, showing the French influence on our symbolism, the Celtic influence ( Yeats, Dylan Thomas ) on our lyricism. The trans-Atlanticity of these two indispensable influences refutes the chauvinism of our literary isolationists.
Formalism at its ablest today, and its most influential, is represented by the New Critic method of explicating a text. When New Critics discard irrelevant historical, psychological, and "moralizing" encrustations ( the schoolma'am stress on biography), they splendidly teach us to read the text itself. When they discard the relevant historical, psychological, and moral aspects, they misread the text itself. A reader's response to a poem is a total response, a Gestalt in which aesthetic as well as ethical, psychological, and historical factors are inseparably fused together. It is a self-deception to try to separate them with neat demarcations; no alchemist of formalism will ever isolate some quintessence of "pure" aesthetics, to be judged only by certified "pure" mandarins of criticism. This inextricability of form and content may be illogical, undesirable; there it is just the same.
The greatest psychological change in America between the 1930's and 1950's has been the revolt against revolt. In politics this change has been sometimes salutary, sometimes dangerous. Salutary by discrediting the lure of communism and fellowtraveling; dangerous by often lending itself to temporary misuse by nationalist thought-controllers, thereby necessitating in those particular cases a revolt against the revolt against revolt. But if the change has been only a mixed blessing in politics, it has been almost entirely salutary in philosophy, art, poetry. Who today, even among the few remaining Marxists, would want to return to the wooden proletarian verse, proletarian novels, and "songs of social significance" that the New Masses used to feature in the 1930's?
As a result of this revolt against revolt, American and British poetryand often philosophyhave moved from their storming of every possible Bastille (including the decapitation of all those royalist capital letters) to a Bourbon restoration in both credo and technique. In credo, American and British poetry has often evolved from a semi-Marxist radicalism of the 1930's to a Christian liberal-conservatism of the 1950's. In technique, the same poetry has often evolved from free verse to rigorous strictness of form. For example, the representative evolution, in both credo and technique, of W. H. Auden.
In 1912 and 1913, the free-verse technique of Amy Lowell's Imagists seemed the last word in progress. It seemed so again in the proletarian verse of the 1930's, when social conscience added to free verse that defiant panache which that technique had lacked in the ivory-tower days of Imagism. But among the younger contemporary poets, free verse is dead and forgotten. The reason for its death is clear, unanswerable; you cannot, to use a metaphor of Frost's, play tennis without a net. The net of strict form, the more traditional the better, is the challenge that best evokes, provokes, irritates forth the response of beauty. On the need for rigor of form, there is no quarrel here with New Critic formalists. The quarrel begins only at the point where the rigor becomes mortis: the point where their ignoring of content (the importance of content and also the importance of communicating it) makes them as one-sided as the social poets of the 1930's, who overestimated content and sloppily ignored the need for form.
If we may be permitted to use the word "form" in the broader, more classical sense instead of their narrow sense of technique, then it would indeed become possible to say: form is art, form is all. In the broad, classic sense, form means not only technique but the pattern of the human spirit. This broader meaning of forma pattern as inextricably aesthetic, ethical, spiritual as the soul itselfis no alternative to content but includes it too.
Both life and literature depend on a formal framework: the first on ethical form, the second on aesthetic form. A reader of poetry would not be a real human being unless he belonged simultaneously to life and literature. Therefore, his human response to a poem is simultaneously ethical and aesthetic. The great conservative revolt against the formless, radical, materi- alist thirties is incomplete if it has no profounder form to conserve than the rhyme scheme of terza rima. What a mockery! As if Dante's terza rima pattern were something in a vacuum!instead of the mere shadow thrown by a vaster spiritual pattern. Formalism is a narrowly technical and unimaginatively literal application to verse of the conservative truth that liberty and beauty are sustained by the formal patterns of our traditional spiritual heritage. Form, yes. Formalism, no.
The behavior of some American formalist poets and artists resembles a dapper parasitic insect named "podurans," as described in one learned text:
Podurans . . . these tiny active sprites live as indifferently tolerated ant- guests, flitting about the nest apparently undetected by their hosts and picking up debris or stray bits of food.... These guests are harmless enough to their social benefactors and are but little modified to live among them save as they are apparently gifted with a neutral odor and with sprightly ways whereby they slip unobserved through the densest throngs.
Certainly we may admire (knowing that verse butters no parsnips) the charming ability of this sprightly parasite to pick up "stray bits of food." Those of us who were born in New York may also applaud their "slipping unobserved through the densest throngs." But is a "neutral odor" the highest role of the poet when the issue is not some ephemeral partysquabble but the recording of good and evil? On this score, Dante and Miltonand it seems we are again permitted to mention Miltondon't smell neutral.
Here, then, is the real issue that divided Parnassus into two camps during the most important literary controversy of the decade. Namely, the controversy over whether Ezra Pound's Pisan Cantos are, as leading Poundians claim, one of "the greatest masterpieces" of modern man, or whether they are excluded from such greatness not only stylistically but on grounds of moral insensitivity (for example, to Belsen crematories ) . The last public statement ever made by George Orwell was the comment of that admirable Unadjusted Man upon the 1949 Bollingen Prize, awarded via the Library of Congress to Ezra Pound. In May, 1949, Orwell wrote in Partisan Review:
Some time ago I saw it stated in an American periodical that Pound only broadcast on the Rome radio when "the balance of his mind was upset." . . . This is plain falsehood. Pound was an ardent follower of Mussolini as far back as the 1920's and never concealed it. He was a contributor to Mosley's review, the British Union Quarterly.... His broadcasts were disgusting. I remember at least one in which he approved the massacre of the East European Jews and "warned" the American Jews that their turn was coming presently.... He may be a good writer (I must admit that I personally have always regarded him as an entirely spurious writer), but the opinions he has tried to disseminate in his works are evil....
When Orwell objects to the poet's gloating over the Nazi massacres, is the objection valid only politically or also aesthetically? Poetry must be judged by poetic criteria, never by political ones. But even when we restrict ourselves to judging Pound's Pisan Cantos by poetic criteria alone, it can be demonstrated, line for line, that his gloating callousness toward the victims of Nazi gas-chambers has correspondingly diminished his purely poetic effectiveness. It has done so by diminishing his capacity for human sympathies, his sensitivity, his receptivity. This diminution narrows all aspects of the creative imagination together, equally including poetic and spiritual ones. To give specific examples from Pound's actual text: would even the proverbial observer from Mars, some pure aesthete free from the "aesthetically irrelevant prejudices" of anti-fascism and of human compassion, find beauty in lines like the following? "Petain defended Verdun while Blum was defending a bidet." Or: "Geneva the usurers' dunghill / Frogs, brits, with a few dutch pimps." Or the book's message that, by resisting fascism, "the goyim go to saleable slaughter" for "the yidd.... David rex the prime s.o.b."
The same sterilizing of the creative imagination took place in the once- promising novelist Ilya Ehrenburg. When the imagination gets overadjusted into serving totalitarian Agitprop, whether communism in Ehrenburg's case or fascism (via American Populism ) in Pound's case, the same aesthetic aridity results. A mechanized pogrom-spirit dehumanizes not the victims but the victors: its practitioners, its apologists. What dehumanizes, de-lyricizes: in terms of pure l'art pour l'art, entirely aside from politics and from ethics. This conclu- sion, in calm retrospect toward a distant controversy, seems the most important single lesson emerging from that same controversy. (4)
The emergence of that lesson was hindered at the time by irrelevant and unjust accusations from both sides, thereby temporarily reducing a serious aesthetic controversy to political demagogy. Irrelevant to the above real issues and irrelevant to the above aesthetic case against the Pisan Cantos were the now-forgotten articles accusing the Bollingen committee of sharing Pound's fascist sympathies. Thus to slander one's non-fascist opponents as fascists, instead of meeting their arguments on their own serious level, is as out-of- bounds as that other recent demagogy of slandering one's non-communist opponents as communists.
Such unjust exaggerations disfigured not only the anti-Pound side but also the side of defenders of the award. Even today, the majority of such defenders still picture even the aesthetically-serious critics of the award as thick- skinned philistines, incapable of judging poetry on its own aesthetic terms. No aesthetically-serious critic of the award was denying the positive contributions of Pound to American literature, contributions already familiar anld well-publicized in the leading literary circles. Only a critic vindictive toward a figure whose present plight merits compassion, only a critic more concerned with winning a debate than with justice, would deny the occasional ( though uncharacteristic ) presence of beauty in Pound's later cantos also; the "pull down thy vanity" passage is the particular instance that comes to mind.
Technical virtuosity, a l'art-pour-l'art formalism, is preferable to a soap- box poetry that prostitutes art to political propaganda by talking only about the poet's "social responsibility," not about his responsibility to the standards of his craft. Virtuosity is not virtue; but unlike soap-box poetry, virtuosity at least does respect the standards of its craft and is, therefore, the lesser evil. But why confine poetry to this false choice between Agitprop and furniture polish? We have a third alternative: not the moral preachiness of didacticism, but the moral insight of lyrical humanity. Moral insight is as much a part of the human condition as love and fallibility. Moral insight can no more be omitted in a poetry of the whole, three-dimensional human being than can love and fallibility. Beauty, not social utility is the highest goal; on this first postulate of art and life the author and the formalists agree. But the formalist has yet to learn the second postulate: you will capture beauty only by seeking more than beauty.
A catalyst needed only rarely, objectionable in other situations, is not objectionable in the present one, as a way out from aridity, a way out from the anti-lyricism of the Eliot empire and the mandarin critics. That needed catalyst will be a rube voice or else a voice from Toidy Toid Street, a voice grating and ear-splitting, tactless and uneducated, too autodidact to be spoilt by current fashions of good taste, a voice shrill with embarrassing excitement, no Noble Savage (to be dandled by dandies) but the Ignoble Savage, gauche with the integrity of vulgarity, redeemingly vulgarian because restoring content to formalism, communication to hermeticism, spontaneity to an art decadent with elegance. Via an anger so risky but alive, lyricism may or may not return to America. But it will never return via the present Alexandrian museums: ask the beesthey know when a flower is glass.
The coming return to communication between poets and readers will communicate, among other things, an ethical content. But never, never by explicit sermonizing; rhymed editorials, even on the side of the angels, kill lyricism. And lyricism is the one great function left to the poet, now that the inroads of science and of prose have deprived him of his earlier, non-lyrical roles of law-giver, philosopher, prophet, seer. This depriving is just as well. Lyricism is enough; one metaphor, one lyrical gesture of the joy and bitterness of the human heart, can still give us implicitly more moral insightnot didacticism but insightthan "all the sages can." For that matter it gives a more human insight than any romantic "impulse from the vernal wood." And certainly more than the statistics of positivist science.
Statistics and test tubes have their place; so have editorials and ideologies; but it is not they that will move the sun and the other stars. Lyricism and love the two are synonymous lyricism and love are the only flame that fuses form and content, aesthetics and ethics, without sacrificing either. When young Mozart was a very young child, an older friend, Gottfried von Jacquin, wrote down these words in Mozart's album to guide his great art: "True genius without heart cannot existfot neither high intelligence, nor imagination, nor both together make genius. Love! love! love! that is the soul of genius."
1 Donald Davie in the periodica the _Twentieth Century_, London.
2 G. Wilson Knight in the exciting new Oxford periodical, Essays in Criticism.
3 Exceptions the almost Keatsian sensuous texture in <<La Eiglia Che Piange" and the "brown hair" passage of "Ash Wednesday."
4 Cf. the chapters on Pound and Stefan George in P. Viereck, Dream and Responsibility, University Press of Washington, D. C.. 1953.
Last modified: Thursday, 31-May-2007 09:41:34 EDT