The HyperTexts

Regarding The Great Poetic Divide

by Tom Merrill

I'm not sure it's a good idea to join either poetic church―in case there are only two. They both have their catechisms, and they both seem a bit too convinced. And both of them seem to have segregationist proclivities.

I remember, years ago, when I was following these things more, how discouraging it was to hear editor after editor saying they wanted only this, or only that, kind of poetry. Especially since the only kind of poetry most of them wanted was the kind I wasn't writing much of myself. It was a bit like being Irish in 19th-century Boston, where gracious storefront signs announced to everyone who should not apply. It was like being a member of an ostracized class. After decades of running into nothing but locked doors, maybe it was inevitable that chronic rhymers would become ghettoized; inevitable that they would react by founding a counter-movement just as stubborn and uncompromising as the arrogant attitude that gave rise to it, and would develop a camp mentality no less fierce and dogmatic than that of their detractors and critics. But however the Great Poetic Divide is explained, its existence seems to remain a fact―leaving poets little to choose from but extremes, the black or the white, alliance with either one or the other of two mutually exclusive poetic professions wanting absolutely no congress with each other.

I personally don't buy the prescriptions of either church. Neither the High Church of Formalism nor the Low Church of Whatever Isn't, seems to encourage poetic versatility. When I came across a review recently that remonstrated with a writer about cultivating such versatility, I thought how refreshing it might be if the remonstrator tried a little more of that himself. It might be an eye-opening experience to get out of one's pew for a change and try stretching one's capacities. A little experimentation could even yield a more comprehensive and embracing perspective. Militant song and dance men on one side, vs. militant atonalists on the other, seem to limit one's poetic options unnecessarily. One could hope for a little more cross-fertilization, a little more cohabitation between poetic religions; and for a climate that might stimulate the growth of interesting new hybrids.

The point of the Poetic Revolution that was occurring a century ago, was not to abolish rhyme, and it certainly wasn't to abolish musical composition. The revolutionaries themselves did not completely abandon such things. The demand for something different in poetry was symptomatic of a profound boredom and impatience with the stilted lingo and standard themes and sentiments of the poetry of yesteryear. It all seemed cast in the same mold, and a moldy mold at that, and it all seemed remote from modern concerns, a quaint carryover from a distant time that no longer existed. Some freshness was desperately desired, some relief from a manner and mindset that had grown stale and begun to grate on the modern ear and the modern spirit. It was time for a more vital, more energized, more exciting and more realistic poetry.

Neither Dickinson, with her singular telegraphic style and unique sensibility, nor Poe with his obsessed rhythms and profound morbidity, nor Whitman with his unabashed Bohemianism, had triggered any movement to rescue poetry from its stagnation. Moldy mediocrity had continued to prevail despite such rare instances. But meanwhile, life had begun accelerating at an unprecedented rate in every other area of human performance. Invention and discovery were the hallmarks of the era. From Teddy Roosevelt leading a cavalry charge in 1898, to the introduction of mechanized warfare less than twenty years later, seems as good a measure as any of the high velocity at which things were moving. Why should it be any different with language? Such people as Edison, Bell, Marconi, Ford, Fleming (to whom I probably owe the fact that I'm still alive), the Wright Brothers, Einstein (Darwin came a little earlier, having blown the creation myth out of the water in 1859) were busy in the background of that watershed period, radically altering people's picture of the universe and society's operations with epochmaking contributions. In the middle of so much sea change, the arts could hardly stand still, without falling into irrelevance and obsolescence. No wonder the ceremonious old literature was quickly losing currency, its hold on the modern mind; it just wasn't up to the job, and had begun to seem radically out of date.

"The genteel tradition," George Santayana's stinging epithet for what he regarded as academic America's governing culture at the turn of the last century―a culture he personally had found stifling and an impediment to honest expression―was under heavy assault and losing ground fast to critics like himself who were eager to help subvert it. He dubbed that culture "retrograde," regarded it as superannuated, and characterized it as representing a somewhat eviscerated brand of American Calvinism not yet rendered wholly harmless. In its weakened form, this intellectually bankrupt cultural religion still demanded a sort of blind complacency and superficial optimism in the face of the facts of life―still insisted existence be veiled in polite observances rather than challenged by unsettling observations. At Harvard he had felt muzzled by a sort of vestigial code of etiquette that was still being imposed by that culture on speech and action. No wonder he came out on the side of those who were ready for a disinhibiting regime, and for a more freespoken and vital literature that did not overlook or forget life's actual conditions or one's real thoughts and feelings about them. He credited Walt Whitman as the first American poet to leave the genteel tradition entirely behind and seemed to approve of the departure completely.

I think the Poetic Revolution, as well as having been inevitable, was a very good thing. For all the abuse heaped on Pound and his disciples and confreres, his call for more inventiveness and boldness in poetry did yield some spectacular results. Quite a few exotic cultivars emerged and flourished during that uniquely progressive literary period: cummings, Stein, M. Moore, Eliot, even that old crypto-medievalist Pound himself; and best of them all, in my own opinion, Wallace Stevens. Our poetic heritage has been immensely enriched by such additions. It's hard to fault a movement that helped bring into existence so many rare, intriguing―and inspiring―new species of speech. And that opened the door in poetry to voices unlike any heard before. Individual genius seems to have thrived under Pound's rallying cry.

The two poets that speak to me most have very different styles and voices―one a supreme master of the traditional lyric, the other a revolutionary hybrid. To quote from the first:

     "...let God and man decree
     Laws for themselves and not for me;
     And if my ways are not as theirs
     Let them mind their own affairs.
     Their deeds I judge and much condemn,
     Yet when did I make laws for them?
     Please yourselves, say I, and they
     Need only look the other way.
     But no, they will not; they must still
     Wrest their neighbor to their will,
     And make me dance as they desire
     With jail and gallows and hell-fire...

And these handsome lines from the second:

     Two things of opposite natures seem to depend
     On one another, as a man depends
     On a woman, day on night, the imagined

     On the real. This is the origin of change.
     Winter and spring, cold copulars, embrace
     And forth the particulars of rapture come.

     Music falls on the silence like a sense,
     A passion that we feel, not understand.
     Morning and afternoon are clasped together

     And North and South are an intrinsic couple
     And sun and rain a plural, like two lovers
     That walk away as one in the greenest body,

     In solitude the trumpets of solitude
     Are not of another solitude resounding;
     A little string speaks for a crowd of voices.

    The partaker partakes of that which changes him.
    The child that touches takes character from the thing,
    The body, it touches. The captain and his men

    Are one and the sailor and the sea are one,
    Follow after, O my companion, my fellow, my self,
    Sister and solace, brother and delight.

"The partaker partakes of that which changes him." And a little gameness can indeed lead to discovery, and to new ways of seeing and saying things.

The HyperTexts