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Criteria
Reginald Shepherd

T. S. Eliot said that the poet must be as intelligent as possible; Wallace Stevens said that the poem must resist the intelligence almost successfully. It is in the play between the intelligence of language and the resistance to intelligence of language as an object that poetry occurs. What matters is not what a poem can say, a preoccupation Harold Bloom shares with the multiculturalists he so despises, but what a poem can do. I look to poetry for what only poems can do, or what poems can do best--to alienate language from its alienation of use (the phrase is Adorno's), to treat language as an end-in-itself rather than a mere means: to communication, expression, or even truth. This moment of apprehending language as an in-itself and a for-itself provides both a model of the possibility and a palpable instance, however fleeting its recognition, of what Kant calls the realm of ends, the possibility of being-for-itself, of non-alienated existence. To imagine language as something which one simply "uses," either well or badly, is to imagine a world which is simply a collection of objects of use. Poetry leads us away from this instrumental reason.

For all his insistence that "our situation needs aesthetic and cognitive difficulty," Bloom rather willfully ignores Modernism, with its emphasis on the word as such, in favor of an etiolated version of Romanticism, in which the history of poetry is not the history of language acts but of conceptual images of "the real me," of "me myself." Bloom's'Romanticism is "a discipline in sensibility," a sensibility of which poems are the records: the poem is an epiphenomenon of consciousness, well crafted, but secondary. What, for Bloom, defines "strong" or "authentic" poetry as poetry, what distinguishes it from other forms of discourse? His history of modern poetry barely mentions Eliot, with his insistence that poetry is the continual extinction of the self, bypasses Williams, Moore, and Pound and ignores Oppen and Zukofsky (Objectivism, the poem as object), and canonizes Stevens as essentially a philosopher in verse, which wrongs Stevens's work. Whether he admits it or not, Bloom shares with those he most opposes--"the multiculturalists, . . . the mock-feminists, the commissars, the gender-and-power freaks, the hosts of new historicists and old materialists"--an aesthetic of transparency: poetry is reduced to what it says and represents. That he and his adversaries wish poetry to speak for different things--"wisdom" on his part, "ethnic, racial, and gender inclusiveness" on theirs--is a mere quibble.

As Mallarmé once reminded Degas, poems are made of words, not ideas. There are poets today who write such poems, for whom the poem is not an account of something but a thing in itself. Except for John Ashbery, they are not among the poets Bloom sees fit to mention in his tirade. Instead, he canonizes Amy Clampitt, like Elizabeth Bishop an erudite and amiable writer of erudite, amiable verse essays on a variety of topics. It is not the erudition but the amiability to which I object: her writing is dull, a mortal sin for poetry. Amy Clampitt is a writer for whom language has no independent existence: she has something of greater or lesser interest "to say" and she says it more or less well. But poetry is not versified thought (what Louise Glück calls "intelligent comment"), nor is it amiable or well mannered, as even a cursory reading of Hart Crane should have demonstrated to Bloom. Poetry is not an ornament to polite society, a social grace or cultured attainment: as Adorno reminds us, art is the enemy of culture, and culture tries constantly to kill art by mummifying it, whether in terms of "taste" or in terms of "political" responsibility.

What attracted me to poetry as a teenager was the possibility it offered not simply of being someone else but of being no one at all, of a dissolution of the bounds of identity: non-identity. For this black child growing up in the Bronx projects, it was precisely poetry's otherness that was liberating. It offered transformation, not representation. When I read T. S. Eliot, it was as much his words''strangeness and opacity as a sense of identification or recognition in them that enthralled me. Poetry's resistance to communication--an estrangement from alienation which restores language to itself--its refusal to be of use, is the promise of happiness it embodies, a promise continually broken by society but kept alive by art, which thus becomes a standing reproach to society.

A few poets today for whom the poem is something done, not something said are Michael Anania, Ben Belitt, Mei-mei Berssenbrugge, Kathleen Fraser, Ann Lauterbach, Michael Palmer, John Peck, Aaron Shurin, and Marjorie Welish. (I forgo consideration of my more immediate contemporaries, let alone any attempt at a comprehensive listing). Few would be acknowledged by Bloom, and they for the wrong reasons, as when he valorizes John Ashbery and Alvin Feinman as inheritors of an Emersonian project of self-creation. I value such lines as those with which I close not because of any statement they make about the problematics of knowledge or perception, the indefinable boundary of the visual and the visionary, but because something is happening in them that happens nowhere else:

    Vagrant, back, my scrutinies
    The candid deformations as with use
    A coat or trousers of one dead
    Or as habit smacks of certitude.

(Feinman, "Preambles," from Poems)

Originally published in the Summer 1998 issue of Boston Review

 



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