They Have the Numbers; We, The Heights
On The Best of the Best American Poetry, 1988-1997.
April 1, 1998
With Responses From
Apr 1, 1998
22 Min read time
On The Best of the Best American Poetry, 1988-1997.
My title is from Thucydides and is spoken by the Spartan commander at Thermopylae. Culturally, we are at Thermopylae: the multiculturalists, the hordes of camp- followers afflicted by the French diseases, the mock-feminists, the commissars, the gender-and-power freaks, the hosts of new historicists and old materialists—all stand below us. They will surge up and we may be overcome; our universities are already travesties, and our journalists parody our professors of "cultural studies." For just a little while longer, we hold the heights, the realm of the aesthetic. There are still authentic poems being written in the United States. Elizabeth Bishop, May Swenson, and James Merrill are gone, but two great poets remain in John Ashbery and A. R. Ammons, and there are a score of contemporaries almost of their eminence. This anthology cannot assert that it contains all of the best poets and poems of the last decade. My charge was to select seventy-five poems out of seven hundred and fifty, and not to look outside of the volumes of this series. There is thus nothing here by Edgar Bowers in an older generation or by Henri Cole in the middle one, to mention just two poets whom I greatly admire. Nor would I suggest that all seventy-five poems I have chosen are going to be permanent achievements; I have made a heap of all the best I could find, where I was instructed to search. Nevertheless, there are poems here that should be perpetuated for future generations. These pass my personal test for the canonical: I have reread them with pleasure and with profit.
One of the ten volumes is not represented at all; I failed to discover more than an authentic poem or two in it. The series editor, David Lehman, kindly suggested some possibilities, but the poets involved had done better work elsewhere in these volumes. That 1996 anthology is one of the provocations for this essay, since it seems to me a monumental representation of the enemies of the aesthetic who are in the act of overwhelming us. It is of a badness not to be believed, because it follows the criteria now operative: what matters most are the race, gender, sexual orientation, ethnic origin, and political purpose of the would-be poet. I ardently wish I were being hyperbolical, but in fact I am exercising restraint, very difficult for a lifelong aesthete at the age of sixty-seven. One cannot expect every attempt at poetry to rival Chaucer and Shakespeare, Milton and Wordsworth, Whitman and Dickinson, Wallace Stevens and Hart Crane. But those poets, and their peers, set the measure: any who aspire to poetry must keep such exemplars always in mind. Sincerity, as the divine Oscar Wilde assured us, is not nearly enough to generate a poem. Bursting with sincerity, the 1996 volume is a Stuffed Owl of bad verse, and of much badness that is neither verse nor prose.
How could this have happened? The last thirty years of intellectual decline provide the answer: cultural guilt. Enthusiastic young men and women (and some of their middle-aged gurus) rushed forth in a Great Awakening of Rock Religion in the closing years of the 1960s. Their immediate provocation was the obscene American slaughter of the Vietnamese, but the Saturnalia that reigned for a few years, from Tokyo to Paris, quickly transcended the occasion. The epiphenomenon of the Revival went by soon enough, but it was clear to discerning spirits in 1968-70 that the consequences, though minimal for our capitalist society's ruling powers, would be endless for any cognitive and aesthetic activities throughout the Western world. Robber barons, in all countries, were immune from the contamination of the New Enthusiasm. Nothing has changed, except perhaps for the worse, in our political and economic life. The true legatees of the mock-Revolution were Ronald Reagan and now his parody, Bill Clinton. The change, all but catastrophic, instead afflicted our intellectual, cultural, educational, and aesthetic spheres, in a kind of Creation-Fall. Robert Hughes has termed what was born "the Culture of Complaint," whose hucksters—academic, journalistic, pseudo-artistic—I've named "the School of Resentment," a rabblement of lemmings leaping off the cliffs into the waters of oblivion.
Perhaps none of this matters, since good poems continue to be written, printed, and sometimes even read (whether well or not, few seem to care). Yet it will matter to some young people, as once it did, when we went to the poets to make our souls, as Yeats said. My mind was formed by Blake and Hart Crane, and then by Wallace Stevens and Shelley. The uses of great poetry are manifold, provided that an educated readership survives. Criticism, both academic and journalistic (a distinction that now scarcely exists), is dying, mostly because the universities have replaced literary criticism by "cultural criticism," a would-be social science. To survive, criticism would have to move outside the academy, but it certainly can find no home in the media. If what Walter Pater called "Aesthetic criticism" dies, then what he termed "Aesthetic poetry" must in time die also, since we will cease to know good from bad poetry. By "Aesthetic" in regard both to poetry and to criticism, Pater simply meant "authentic" or "good", since he kept in mind always the Greek meaning of aesthesis: "perceptiveness." If we lose all sense of the aesthetic, then we scarcely will see the difference between Emily Dickinson and Ella Wheeler Wilcox, or between John Ashbery and his weaker imitators.
• • •
Scolding the universities, or the media, is useless: enormous social pressures—that do not affect the people in general, or the Republican Congress and not very Democratic president the people elected—have been loosed upon institutions hopelessly vulnerable to cultural guilt. Every variety of "studies" at last will be housed: if sexual orientation is to be placed with race, ethnic group, and gender as sources of aesthetic and cognitive values, then why should we not have "Sado-Masochistic Studies," in particular honor of the god of resentment, the late Michel Foucault? If there is a Homosexual Poetic, then why not a Poetics of Pain? If representation-by-category is to be the law of the universities, and of all those they influence, what "minority" is to be excluded? Shakespeare and Dante were European males; is that worth remarking? William Wordsworth invented modern poetry. I do not know whether the more than fifty poets I anthologize all have read Wordsworth, but if they haven't, they have anyway, since all but a few write Wordsworthian poetry, in the broad sense. Even where they have ostensible subjects, almost all of the poems in this volume manifest Hazlitt's characterization of Wordsworth's work:
He takes a subject or a story merely as pegs or loops to hang thought and feeling on; the incidents are trifling, in proportion to his contempt for imposing appearances; the reflections are profound, according to the gravity and aspiring pretensions of the mind.
Hazlitt's personal ambivalence toward Wordsworth is palpable, but so is the critic's realization that Wordsworth reinvented poetry. Yet nearly all current published criticism of Wordsworth and almost any class taught on him at our universities and colleges now actively condemn this greatest of all modern poets on political grounds, because he "betrayed" his early allegiance to the French Revolution! By our means test, Wordsworth cannot pass. So absurd have the professors become that I can see no way to salvage literary study except to abolish tenure. Tenure is an archaic survival anyway, but it becomes pernicious when faculties are crowded by thousands of ideologues, who resent Wordsworth even as they resent Shakespeare. When I was a young teacher of poetry at Yale, the English Romantic poets were Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, and Keats, as well as Blake and Shelley, whose place in the canon I helped restore. On hundreds of campuses now, these poets have to share attention with the "women Romantic poets": Felicia Hemans, Laetitia Landon, Charlotte Smith, and Mary Tighe, among some others. These were, to understate, justly neglected verse writers, though superior to many in The Best American Poetry 1996. Anthologies of seventeenth-century English literature now give us, side by side with Donne, Ben Johnson, and Milton, a group including the Duchess of Newcastle, Lady Mary Chudleigh, Anne Killigrew, and the venerated Aphra Behn. I have seen my profession dying for over a quarter century now, and in another decade it may be dead. If its function is to appreciate and teach Laetitia Landon and Lady Mary Chudleigh, then the demise cannot come too soon.
More than ever before, American poetry needs aesthetic and cognitive difficulty.
One asks again: How could this have happened, and not just in the universities but in the publishing world and in the media? The New York Times essentially is now a countercultural newspaper. When Maya Angelou read a poem for Clinton's first inauguration, the Times printed the text, a monument of sincerity, and in an editorial praised this effusion for its "Whitmanian amplitudes." Recently, one of the Times rock critics proclaimed our contemporary Mozart to be the glyph formerly known as Prince. Literary satire is impossible when the Times exceeds Nathaniel West and Terry Southern in outrageousness. If all aesthetic and cognitive standards are abandoned by professors and journalists alike, then the tradition of American poetry can survive only by a profound inward turning.
• • •
Walt Whitman was not only the strongest of our poets (together with the highly antithetical Emily Dickinson), but he is also now the most betrayed of all our poets, with so much of the ongoing ideological balderdash being preached in his name. Whitman's poetry generally does the opposite of what he proclaims its work to be: it is reclusive, evasive, hermetic, nuanced, and more onanistic even than homoerotic, which critics cannot accept, particularly these days when attempts are made to assimilate the Self-Reliant Whitman into what calls itself the Homosexual Poetic. If we are to have gay and lesbian studies, who will speak for Onan, whose bards include Whitman and the Goethe of Faust, Part Two? The most figurative of all our poets, Whitman eludes every effort to entrap him in an ideology. As elitist a democrat as his master Emerson, Whitman continues with his ideas of representation to outwit his historicizing and eroticizing critics. The crucial figure in Whitman is neither his self—Walt Whitman, one of the roughs, an American—nor his soul, but "the real me" or "me myself," a conceptual image that prophesies Wallace Stevens, T. S. Eliot, and particularly John Ashbery:
Apart from the pulling and hauling stands what I am,
Stands amused, complacent compassionating, idle, unitary,
Looks down, is erect, bends an arm on an impalpable certain rest,
Looks with its sidecurved head curious what will come next,
Both in and out of the game, and watching and wondering at it.
That Whitmanian "what I am," his "real me" or "me myself," is both an inspiration to strong American poetry after him and a reproach to the cultural and erotic dogmas now circulated in his great name. It is no accident that the best American poets who have emerged from Whitman—sometimes insisting that they owed him nothing—are formalists, major artists of verse: Stevens, Eliot, Hart Crane, and even Ashbery when at his most gravely traditional. Cast out the aesthetic, and you cast away Whitman, who was a major poet and a poor prophet, and who was, above all else, a very difficult poet, whose synecdoches do not unravel without very frequent rereadings. Authentic American poetry is necessarily difficult; it is our elitist art, though that elite has nothing to do with social class, gender, erotic preference, ethnic strain, race, or sect. "We live in the mind," Stevens said, and our poetry always is either Emersonian or anti-Emersonian, but either way is informed by Emerson's dialectics of power:
Life will be imaged, but cannot be divided nor doubled. Any invasion of its unity would be chaos. The soul is not twin-born, but the only begotten, and though revealing itself as child in time, child in appearance, is of a fatal and universal power, admitting no co-life. Every day, every act betrays the ill-concealed deity. We believe in ourselves, as we do not believe in others. We permit all things to ourselves, and that which we call sin in others, is experiment for us. It is an instance of our faith in ourselves, that men never speak of crime as lightly as they think: or, every man thinks a latitude safe for himself, which is nowise to be indulged to another. The act looks very differently on the inside, and on the outside; in its quality, and its consequences. Murder in the murderer is no such ruinous thought as poets and romancers will have it; it does not unsettle him, or fright him from his ordinary notice of trifles: it is an act quite easy to be contemplated, but in its sequel, it turns out to be a horrible jangle and confounding all relations. Especially the crimes that spring from love, seem right and fair from the actor's point of view, but, when acted, are found destructive of society. No man at last believes that he can be lost, nor that the crime in him is as black as in the felon. Because the intellect qualifies in our own case the moral judgments. For there is no crime to the intellect. That is antinomian or hypernomian, and judges law as well as fact.
That does not allow any room for the false generosity of any Affirmative Action in the judging of poetry. Printing, praising, and teaching bad poems for the sake of even the best causes is simply destructive for those causes. "We believe in ourselves, as we do not believe in others" is a truth that makes us wince, but no one ever can write a good poem without it. Tony Kushner, who could be a greater playwright but for his obsession with the ideologies of political correctness, ought to ponder Emerson's "Experience," from which I have just quoted. Every attempt to socialize writing and reading fails; poetry is a solitary art, more now than ever, and its proper audience is the deeply educated, solitary reader, or that reader's sitting within herself in a theater.
• • •
It was inevitable that the School of Resentment would do its destructive damage to the reading, staging, and interpretation of Shakespeare, whose eminence is the ultimate demonstration of the autonomy of the aesthetic. Cultural poeticians, ostensible feminists, sub-Marxists, and assorted would-be Parisians have given us French Shakespeare, who never wrote a line but instead sat in a tavern while all the "social energies" of early modern Europe pulsated into his quill and created Hamlet, Falstaff, Iago, and Cleopatra, with little aid from that mere funnel, the Man from Stratford. It has not been explained (at least to me) just why the social energies favored Shakespeare over Thomas Middleton or John Marston or George Chapman or whoever, but this remarkable notion totally dominates today's academic study of Shakespeare. First, Paris told us that language did the thinking and writing for us, but then Foucault emerged, and Shakespeare went from being language's serf to society's minion. No longer can we speak of the best writer--Auden's Top Bard--and if Shakespeare recedes, why call a volume The Best American Poetry? Certainly the 1996 volume should have been retitled The Most Socially Energetic American Poetry, and if I were not Bloom Brontosaurus, an amiable dinosaur, we could have called this book The Most Socially Energetic of the Socially Energetic. The madness that contaminates our once high culture cannot be cured unless and until we surrender our more than Kafkan sense that social guilt is not to be doubted. No thing can be more malignant than a disease of the spirit that sincerely regards itself as virtue.
Sincerity is not nearly enough to generate a poem.
Shakespeare, precisely because he is the only authentic multicultural writer, demonstrated that our modish multiculturalism is a lie, a mask for mediocrity and for the thought-control academic police, the Gestapo of our campuses. Each time I make the mistake of glancing at the Yale Weekly Bulletin, I shudder to see that the dean of Yale College has appointed yet another subdean to minister to the supposed cultural interests of another identity club: ethnic, racial, linguistic, with gender and erotic subsets. Shakespeare, performed and read in every country (with the sporadic exception of France, most xenophobic of cultures), is judged by audiences of every race and language to have put them upon the stage. Shakespeare's power has nothing to do with Eurocentrism, maleness, Christianity, or Elizabethan-Jacobean social energies. No one else so combined cognitive strength, originality, dramatic guile, and linguistic florabundance as virtually to reinvent the human, and Shakespeare is therefore the best battlefield upon which to fight the rabblement of Resenters. Our multiculturalists are reductionists; the 1996 volume actually is asserting: "Our bad poets are just as good as your bad poets." Shakespeare, pragmatically the true multiculturalist, is the least reductive of all writers; his men and women never invite us to believe that when we know the worst about them, then we know exactly who they are. Emerson, in Representative Men, caught this best:
Shakespeare is as much out of the category of eminent authors, as he is out of the crowd. He is inconceivably wise; the others, conceivably. A good reader can, in a sort, nestle into Plato's brain, and think from thence, but not into Shakespeare's. We are still out of doors. For executive faculty, for creation, Shakespeare is unique. No man can imagine it better. He was the farthest reach of subtlety compatible with an individual self,—the subtilest of authors, and only just within the possibility of authorship. With this wisdom of life, is the equal endowment of imaginative and of lyric power. He clothed the creatures of his legend with form and sentiments, as if they were people who had lived under his roof; and few real men have left such distinct characters as these fictions. And they spoke in language as sweet as it was fit. Yet his talents never seduced him into an ostentation, nor did he harp on one string. An omnipresent humanity coordinates all his faculties. Give a man of talents a story to tell, and his partiality will presently appear. He has certain observations, opinions, topics, which have some accidental prominence, and which he disposes all to exhibit. He crams this part, and starves that other part, consulting not the fitness of the thing, but his fitness and strength. But Shakespeare has no peculiarity, no importunate topic; but all is duly given; no veins, no curiosities; no cow-painter, no bird-fancier, no mannerist is he: he has no discoverable egotism: the great he tells greatly; the small, subordinately. He is wise without emphasis or assertion; he is strong, as nature is strong, who lifts the land into mountain slopes without effort, and by the same rule as she floats a bubble in the air, and likes as well to do the one as the other. This makes that equality of power in farce, tragedy, narrative, and love-songs; a merit so incessant, that each reader is incredulous of the perception of other readers.
If this be Bardolatry, then let us have more of it, for it may be the only medicine that can cure us of the French blight that afflicts our culture and our academies. It is no accident that poetry is the principal victim of the decline and fall of our literature faculties. Almost no one these days is taught how to read a poem; there are very few who know how to instruct in the difficult art of interpretation, and the going ideologies distrust poetry anyway. How do you politicize this?
All day within the dreamy house,
The doors upon their hinges creak'd;
The blue fly sung in the pane; the mouse
Behind the mouldering wainscot shriek'd,
Or from the crevice peer'd about.
Old faces glimmer'd thro' the doors,
Old footsteps trod the upper floors,
Old voices called her from without.
She only said, "My life is dreary,
He cometh not," she said;
She wept, "I am aweary, aweary,
I would that I were dead!"
The sparrow's chirrup on the roof,
The slow clock ticking, and the sound
Which to the wooing wind aloof
The poplar made, did all confound
Her sense; but most she loathed the hour
When the thick-rooted sunbeam lay
Athwart the chambers, and the day
Was sloping toward his western bower.
Then she said, "I am very dreary,
He will not come," she said;
She wept, "I am aweary, aweary,
O God, that I were dead!"
• • •
It is ironical that, in this bad time, American poetry is of a higher quality than our criticism or teaching of poetry. Four major poets who appear in this book—Elizabeth Bishop, James Merrill, Amy Clampitt, and the still undervalued May Swenson—are gone, yet there are poems here by Ashbery, Ammons, and at least a dozen others that I think will endure, if only we can maintain a continuity of aesthetic appreciation and cognitive understanding that more or less prevailed from Emerson until the later 1960s, but that survives only in isolated pockets. While it is true that several of the greatest American poets—Whitman, Dickinson, Stevens, Hart Crane—had either no or little authentic critical response during their lifetimes, they at least did not have to endure a cultural situation fundamentally hostile to aesthetic and cognitive standards of judgment. I marvel at the courage and desperate faith of our best younger poets, who have to withstand the indifference or hostility not just of society in general, but also of the supposed defenders of poetry, who now will advocate it only as an instrument of social change. If you urge political responsibilities upon a poet, then you are asking her to prefer to poetry what can destroy her poem. Emily Dickinson had the inner freedom to rethink everything for herself and so achieved a cognitive originality as absolute as William Blake's. She had economic and social advantages that Walt Whitman did not enjoy, yet like Whitman she did not have to confront ideological persuasions either irrelevant or inimical to aesthetic ambitions. Wallace Stevens could take for granted the autonomy of the aesthetic; how would Harmonium otherwise have been possible, or Hart Crane's first volume, White Buildings? I write this introduction out of the conviction that a literary critic has no political responsibilities, as a critic. My obligation is only to help (if that I can) make it possible for another Elizabeth Bishop or May Swenson or James Merrill to develop without being impeded by ideological demands. I am more than aware that the Resenters speak constantly of "the ideology of the aesthetic" and of "the Romantic ideology," but that is simply a playing with loaded dice. The only pragmatic aesthetic I know is that some poems intrinsically are better than others, while Romanticism, as I apprehend it, is a discipline in sensibility and in perception.
In his essay "Politics," Emerson provides a spark for these times:
It makes no difference how many tons weight of atmosphere presses on our heads, so long as the same pressure resists it within the lungs. Augment the mass a thousand fold; it cannot begin to crush us, as long as reaction is equal to action.
The Resenters prate of power, as they do of race and gender: these are careerist stratagems and have nothing to do with the insulted and injured, whose lives will not be improved by our reading the bad verses of those who assert that they are the oppressed. Our schools as much as our universities are given away to these absurdities; replacing Julius Caesar by The Color Purple is hardly a royal road to enlightenment. A country where television, movies, computers, and Stephen King have replaced reading is already in acute danger of cultural collapse. That danger is dreadfully augmented by our yielding education to the ideologues whose deepest resentment is of poetry itself. What John Hollander remarks of Whitman—"The poetry, like its title, looks easy and proves hard"—is true of almost all great or very good poets. But there, I hope, will be one of the crucial uses for us of the best American poems: more than ever before, our situation needs aesthetic and cognitive difficulty. The mock poetry of Resentment looks easy and proves easy; unlike Whitman, it lacks mind. When I think of the American poets of this century whom I myself love best, I begin always with Wallace Stevens and with Hart Crane. Stevens subtly gives us what be calls "the hum of thoughts evaded in the mind," and Crane urges us to the most difficult transcendence ever visualized by any American poet. Their heirs, including Elizabeth Bishop, Merrill, Ashbery, and Ammons, have carried forward this mingled legacy of thoughts available to us only in poems, and yearnings made palpable only in complex imaginings. Mastery of metaphor and power of thinking are the true merits of the best American poetry of our time. I give the last words here to the sacred Emerson, from his Whitman-inspiring essay "The Poet," where the freedom of poetry is ascribed to "tropes" and to "thought":
The poets are thus liberating gods. The ancient British bards had for the title of their order, "Those who are free throughout the World." They are free, and they make free. An imaginative book renders us much more service at first, by stimulating us through its tropes, than afterward, when we arrive at the precise sense of the author. I think nothing is of any value in books, excepting the transcendental and extraordinary. If a man is inflamed and carried away by his thought, to that degree that he forgets the authors and the public, and heeds only this one dream, which holds him like an insanity, let me read his paper, and you may have all the arguments and histories and criticism. All the value which attaches to Pythagoras, Paracelsus, Cornelius Agrippa, Cardan, Kepler, Swedenborg, Schelling, Oken, or any other who introduces questionable facts into his cosmogony, as angels, devils, magic, astrology, palmistry, mesmerism, and so on, is the certificate we have of departure from routine, and that here is a new witness. That also is the best success in conversation, the magic of liberty, which puts the world, like a ball, in our hands. How cheap even the liberty then seems; how mean to study, when an emotion communicates to the intellect the power to sap and upheave nature: how great the perspective! nations, times, systems, enter and disappear, like threads in tapestry of large figure and many colors; dream delivers us to dream, and while the drunkenness lasts, we will sell our bed, our philosophy, our religion, in our opulence.
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April 01, 1998
22 Min read time