Commentary Magazine


Professor Vendler's Garden of Verses

It is a commonplace that the putting-together of a literary anthology is in itself a creative act. One might even be justified in invoking Harold Bloom's already too-famous phrase and say that an “anxiety of influence” pursues anthologists no less than poets, for anthologists are interested not only in promoting those poets they most admire, but also in assailing earlier anthologists upon whose compilations they may themselves have been bred. Thus it is that dead poets who have found no place in earlier collections are duly dug up, poets included in previous anthologies are either cut down to a more manageable size or dismissed without a word of explanation, and upstarts of the newest generation suddenly find themselves rubbing elbows with venerable elders.

By its very title, one might think that the new Harvard Book of Contemporary American Poetry, edited by the well-known critic Helen Vendler,1 would concentrate precisely on the last-named of these groups, and that any controversy aroused by this anthology would touch upon her choice of younger poets. Yet in the event, these selections turn out to be quite unremarkable. Much more surprising in a book billed as a compilation of “contemporary” verse is the great preponderance of older poets (many of whom are long dead), and even among these poets, Professor Vendler's selections are highly unusual.

There is, to be sure, a problem of definition here. A question to which Professor Vendler does not really address herself in her otherwise not un-informative introduction is the meaning that should be given to the word “contemporary” when applied to poetry. In the visual arts, although the term can mean works created in the post-World War II period, it is used most often to refer to the art being created right now, an art whose nebulous origins can be but dimly glimpsed in the dark age prior to 1980. Contemporary art may be allowed to extend back to Andy Warhol and Jasper Johns in the early 60's, because they are still very much with us, but it would seem peculiar to hear Jackson Pollock or Henri Matisse called a contemporary artist. Analogously, in poetry the word contemporary would refer to poets who are not only alive today but whose contribution is ongoing. Thus John Ashbery would be included because he continues to develop, in addition to being very influential with today's younger poets, while Allen Ginsberg would be left out because his main influence was felt in the 60's, and to the extent that he still writes he is more or less repeating what he did twenty-five years ago.

Professor Vendler may intend the word contemporary to be taken in its larger sense, referring to poetry written after 1945; yet even if it were conceded that this is a worthy aim, since World War II does not mark so great a division in poetry as it does in the visual arts she would still have much to answer for. What, for instance, is Wallace Stevens doing here, especially when she has left out T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams, all of whom outlived him by rather a few years? Why is Langston Hughes included, when he is associated with the Harlem Renaissance of the 20's and even then was not the best black poet? What are Theodore Roethke's poems from the 30's doing here, or those of Randall Jarrell, who was never all that influential or all that good, as Professor Vendler herself would seem to agree, given the meager space she allots him? And it is also worth asking why poets surely better than many included here have been left out, among them Robert Penn Warren who is, if nothing else, very influential with the newest generation.

The upshot is that Professor Vendler does not exhibit a deep sense of where the roots of today's poetry really lie, or at any rate she fails to communicate her ideas successfully either in her introduction or in her selections of older and younger poets. The reader who approaches this anthology in search of enlightenment about our nation's poetry either in the 20th century overall or in the present generation specifically will probably not come away with anything other than a hazy and inexact general impression. And since the poetry included in this volume spans most of the century, there is also the danger that it will be mistaken for a wildly eccentric and misleading compilation of 20th-century American verse.

It must be said in Professor Vendler's defense, however, that she has managed to communicate a sense of the diversity of the poetry of our time without sacrificing her sense of quality. Resolutely representing each “tendency”—whether in feminist, homosexual, or black poetry, or indeed any other—she persuades us that while certain voices have not always been included solely upon the basis of their poetic merit, if they had not demonstrated such merit they would not have been included at all.

In giving us the work of an individual poet, moreover, Professor Vendler conscientiously conveys an idea of his general achievement without trying to shape him into something other than he is. She also attempts to be at all times characteristic in her selection, so that the reader who comes to a poet for the first time in this anthology will have a fair notion of his overall output. One would imagine that the poets, too, would be happy with the selections, because Professor Vendler has almost always shown them at their best. Finally, the newcomer to this often difficult and hieratic poetry will be grateful for Professor Vendler's choice of those poems which, in addition to being the best and most characteristic, also tend to be fairly readily understood.

_____________

II

In her introduction, Professor Vendler has some thoughtful and thought-provoking things to say about the poetry and the poetic language of modern America. “This anthology,” she begins, “will be able to extend its charm only to those who genuinely know the American language—by now a language separate, in accent, intonation, discourse, and lexicon, from English.”

A kernel of truth is undeniably present in this statement: there is surely a difference between the English spoken in the United States and the English of the British Isles, and our spoken idiom is apt to find its way into the poems that contemporary Americans write. But to say that the poetry here presented will appeal only to those “who genuinely know the American language” is, as I understand it, to say that it will be appreciated solely by people who either were born here or have lived here for some time, and this is probably not so. I do not know how it feels not to be a native American, but since I am able, without being British or French, to understand Philip Larkin's somewhat dialectal “British” English, or the French of Blaise Cendrars, it would seem to me possible for a foreigner with little background in our specific use of the language to appreciate the poetry in this anthology. The point is simply that it is one thing to know a language actively, that is, to be able to speak it and write it, and entirely another thing to know it passively, that is, to understand what is written or spoken in it.

But more important than this, surely, is the fact that the crucial distinction between American and British English is one of vocabulary rather than one of grammar or word order. And the difference that does exist with respect to vocabulary usually has less to do with the names we give to things (with the exception of such obvious differences as saying “elevator” instead of “lift”) than with certain expressions, mostly slang, which we sometimes substitute for ordinary words in order to make a statement more emphatic. When our poets use such slang and other conspicuously American expressions, they do so in order to accentuate primarily the emotional rather than the thematic thrust of a poem, and this merely reinforces the point made earlier, that even so idiomatic a language as that of much modern American poetry will be readily understood by non-native foreigners as long as they have had some grounding in the English that exists at the crossroads of all its dialectal aberrations.

In defining American English, Professor Vendler calls it “a language that has assimilated the syncopation of jazz, the stylishness of advertising, the technicalities of psychoanalysis, the simplicities of rural speech, the discourse of the university disciplines, the technology of the engineer, the banalities of journalism.” This she contrasts with “the principal English vocabulary of lark, primrose, and cottage farm.” In this statement she would appear, astonishingly, to subscribe to the notion that England is a nation of butlers. One wonders what she would make of these robust lines by Larkin, who was considered for the position of England's Poet Laureate:

They fuck you up, your mum and dad,
   They may not mean to, but they do,
They fill you with the faults they had
   And add some extra, just for you.

As is evident to anyone who has thumbed through an anthology of recent British poetry, all those “modern” expressions that inform American poetry, though not in the degree that Professor Vendler believes, are to be found with equal force in the works of our transatlantic brethren.

The truth of the matter is that, rather than there being a distinctly American way of writing poetry, the predominant idiom in all European languages today is as much governed by a single aesthetic as was the poetry of the 17th, 18th, or 19th century. As the Mexican poet Octavio Paz has remarked, “There is not (there has never been) a French poetry, an Italian, Spanish, or English: there was a poetry of the Renaissance, a Baroque poetry, a Romantic poetry. There is a contemporary poetry written in all the languages of the West.”

One could even say that in many respects contemporary poetry is more strikingly homogeneous than poetry ever was in the other epochs mentioned by Paz. And while it is true that the emergence of the United States as a world power has placed English in a position to influence other languages more than ever before, the poems in Professor Vendler's anthology are nevertheless recognizable first as contemporary poetry and only then as some uniquely American creation in which a distinct body of our fellow citizens share and poets of other nationalities just as distinctly do not.

_____________

III

Still, if Professor Vendler has not presented a convincing case either for an autonomous American language or for a distinctly American poetry, in her comments on contemporary poetry as Americans write it she is often accurate. In referring to John Berryman, for example, she points to a pervasive feature among all contemporary poets which she describes as an “imaginative claim to a personal territory.” The importance of this factor can scarcely be overestimated: every single poet included in this volume has in some way been touched profoundly by the quest for a unique voice or manner.

This same quest for individuality, it need hardly be said, has dramatically characterized all the arts for over a century now. But its presence is somehow more neurotically insistent in poetry than in any other art form. The reason for this is that, of all the arts, undistinguished poetry, and undistinguished lyric poetry especially, is least able to offer a convincing excuse for its existence. A novel may not be very distinctive stylistically, but as long as the narrative is done with reasonable competence, the illusion of reality created by the novelist will be sufficiently compelling to keep the reader's interest. The same may be said of a mediocre play or film, in which there is also the possibility of a good performance or a beautiful leading lady. Similarly, a fair piece of music still has the power to charm, and a mediocre work of visual art, even if less forgivable, can afford the sort of pleasure that derives from pure passages of color or the vivid representation of images; in addition, being a physical, possessable thing, a work of art can be exchanged for capital.

In contrast with all these, a mediocre and unoriginal lyric poem (for only lyric poetry is really being written today) can neither create an extended illusion, nor impinge directly upon any organ of sense, nor present us with the simulacrum of anything that would actually please if it were real, nor, finally, be bought or sold. A poem, in short, must be excellent or it has no reason for being. And since the excellence of modern poetry is defined by nothing so much as the persuasive individuality of the author, the poet must be entirely himself or he is nothing; thus does the quest for originality become a quest for poetic survival.

This was not always true, and it is to be regretted that we may never again be in a position to admire a poet for his conformity with a prevenient tradition. Among the poets included in Professor Vendler's anthology, it is only the best who occasionally let us forget that so much of what they write has been influenced by the compelling necessity to be at all costs original.

This obsessive clamoring for a distinctive idiom manifests itself both in what is being said and in the manner of its expression. Implicit is the conviction, shared by audience and poets alike, that poetry must be existentially at variance with the general order of things, and that all its practitioners should assume the role of the accursed and antisocial poète maudit. We live in an age of Catullus and Ovid with no one to aspire to the grandeur of Virgil or Horace. Although there is no reason, in theory, that a great poet could not emerge equal to the task of honoring the nature of things, given the expectations of publishers and reviewers and readers, such a poet would soon enough know what it means to be truly maudit. One has only to consider the confusion and chagrin induced in certain British poets recently when they discovered that they were being considered for the poet laureate-ship of England.

The man who was ultimately chosen for that position, Ted Hughes, is, at least in his poems, something of a wild man, probably best known to Americans for having been married to the legendary Slyvia Plath, herself included in Professor Vendler's anthology, where she can be found declaring, in a not uncharacteristic passage:

It stuck in a barb wire snare.
Ich, ich, ich, ich,
I could hardly speak.

There are obvious similarities between this sort of thing and these lines by Charles Wright:

Flash click tick, flash click tick, light
Through the wavefall—electrodes, intolerable
    curlicues;
Splinters along the skin, eyes
Flicked by the sealash, spun, pricked;
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

The vast majority of the poems included in this anthology strive consciously for such roughness, constantly demonstrating the desire to violate the politeness and poise associated with the poetry of earlier times. Indeed, the alacrity with which our poets assail the superannuated conventions of their art is at the same time something of a political statement, stressing the ascendancy of the individual will, of “man's unconquerable mind” (as Wordsworth says), over the tyrannous and inhibiting forces of society. But the ineluctable irony at the center of such violent expressions is that these outbursts are what society more or less requires of its poets.

This intricate and involved paradox, of a society in rebellion against itself and an aesthetic which is nonconformist at the behest of the very forces with which it will not conform, casts an unflattering light upon all but the very best poets collected in Professor Vendler's anthology. After all, if society had not set its canon against convention, most of these poets would eagerly be writing sonnets and heroic couplets, taking neurotic care to make sure that all their syllables added up and also that their moral fiber was suitably in evidence. Or are we to believe that the human race, in a period of scarcely two hundred years, has undergone such a transformation that whereas most poets once seemed pious stuffed shirts and Tories, now through their own unassisted inclinations they have become honest, free-spirited, and bumptious?

_____________

One of the more interesting turns that this rebellion takes, if something so consistently sanctioned may be called a rebellion, is a kind of subversion of poetic form from within. This makes use of many of the older conventions of traditional poetry but in such a way as to cast the more contemporary elements into dramatic relief. In her anthology, Professor Vendler has included several such poets, among them Theodore Roethke, Howard Nemerov, Robert Lowell, and James Merrill. Why is it, for example, that the following lines by Roethke (which are not included in Professor Vendler's anthology) could not have been written in the 18th or 19th century?

Should every creature be as I have been,
There would be reason for essential sin;
I have myself an inner weight of woe
That God himself can scarcely bear.

Wherein precisely consists the contemporaneity of this first quatrain of a Shakespearean sonnet by Nemerov?

We who survived the war and took to wife
And sired the kids and made the decent living,
And piecemeal furnished forth the finished life
Not by grand theft so much as petty thieving—

Or this, from a sonnet by Merrill?

We love the good, said Plato? He was wrong.
We love as well the wicked and the weak.
Flesh hugs its shaved plush. Twenty-four-hour-
    long
Galas fill the hulk of the Comique.

What is striking in all three of these excerpts is the smugness of the self-condemnation, in which Nemerov includes the rest of his generation and Merrill would seem to include the rest of Western society. In their attacks upon complacency these poets declare themselves to be sinful, thieving, and wicked—but less, one feels, out of any genuine self-hatred than out of a self-satisfied regard for their own becoming waywardness. Contrast these lines by Donne in one of his Holy Sonnets:

I am a little world made cunningly
Of Elements, and an Angelike spright,
But black sinne has betraid to endless night
My world both parts, and (oh) both parts must
    die.

Unlike Donne, our three authors do not use the “I” in a universal sense, and unlike other earlier poets they do not attack a universal failing impersonally. Instead they externalize their own putative failings in such a way as never quite to reflect discredit upon themselves, but rather to endow themselves with a kind of glamorous anti-heroism.

This attitude has formal implications. If it is essential that today's poets assert their radical individuality, one way to accomplish this is by locating themselves in opposition to poetic tradition. Thus it is that on the battlefields of their poems they seem constantly to be waging the same war that Eliot and Pound won for them unconditionally in. the first quarter of the 20th century. Occasionally this will take the form of a mannered and thoroughgoing obedience to the metrical canon of the past, in which the unmodulated iambic pentameter rolls on with a monotony whose effect is only to confirm most people's convictions that no one should write that way any more; to this formal insipidity is then added a formal waywardness—parallel to that spiritual waywardness I have already mentioned—such as the inexplicable absence of rhyme in Roethke's third and fourth lines as well as the missing foot in the fourth, or the curious admixture in Nemerov of the grandiose and the banal in phrases like “sired the kids.” Then there are such blandly pat and alliterative lines as “And piecemeal furnished forth the finished life” and “We love as well the wicked and the weak,” written as it were within quotation marks and understood to allude to formal conventions to which, it is implicitly signaled, the poet does not wholly subscribe. Thus do the struggles of early modernism continue to play themselves out in ever more effete and self-conscious forms.

_____________

IV

Helen Vendler makes a great deal of the influence on contemporary poetry of Wallace Stevens, who is (as I have already noted) the only poet of Eliot and Pound's generation to be included in her anthology. In one sense she may be right to include him, not only on account of his manifest excellence but also for his cultivation of a kind of superfine disengagement this is enjoying a reinvigorated vogue among today's poets. Yet if Stevens is to be judged more highly than Eliot, as he often is nowadays, he deserves the distinction only by virtue of his more copious productivity, which adheres more consistently to a very high standard. There is nevertheless something reassuringly human in Eliot's variations in standard, and this human quality endows his poetry at certain priceless moments with a grandeur and profundity which Stevens never matches.

The conditioned reader of Stevens's poetry in due course comes up against an overwhelming sense of limitation, a feeling that just as there is a high level below which Stevens does not fall, so there is another level, only slightly higher, beyond which he will never go. Although there is an undeniable beauty to many of his poems, which most of the poets in this volume will never realize the half of, still that beauty seldom alters its form, seldom varies in the degree of its intensity, and seems at all times to be placed in the service of one solitary idea (which is, paradoxically, the need for ridding oneself of ideas). Generations may pass before any of Stevens's countless commentators has the courage to avow that the poet has moments of greater and lesser lucidity, during the latter of which he becomes more or less incoherent, and that he does best when he surrenders entirely to his unsurpassed gift for appealing to the eye through the ear, as in the well-known opening lines of “Sunday Morning,” the poem which more than any other may be said to have made his reputation:

Complacencies of the peignoir, and late
Coffee and oranges in a sunny chair,
And the green freedom of a cockatoo. . . .

Multiply this by five hundred pages, and you have the unique achievement of Wallace Stevens. The reader who forsakes the search for coherence in Stevens, and is willing to surrender himself wholly to the music, will find his greatest satisfaction in opening Stevens's books to any page and reading a few lines at a time. Such is the frequency with which critics and scholars have quoted Stevens, and such is the nature of his poetic gifts, that few modern poets would be better served by suffering the fate of Sappho and Sir Walter Raleigh, whose primary texts have all been lost and who survive only in those numerous and choice fragments that their contemporaries could not forget. For there comes a point in Stevens's poetry in which his method simply breaks down, and the attentive reader perceives through the mists of superabundant gorgeousness a human being struggling to make a good showing, hoping that his disconnected images will somehow pass for a theme of philosophical consequence.

In this regard, as in others, Stevens resembles that contemporary poet who, despite all their differences, most deserves to be called his disciple, John Ashbery. Ashbery shares with Stevens an aversion to ideas, and this is manifested in a similar failing (perhaps his only one), namely, the inability to persuade us that his many beautiful images have been invented to fit a larger whole. Yet Ashbery's poems, free of Stevens's icy formalism, also have an endearing commonsensicality that you will not find in Stevens. One of his principal virtues is a genuine humor, another a sensitivity to the ceaseless continuum of life on earth. Most of Ashbery's poems seem to take place in the afternoon, in the hours of purest sunlight, and during this perennial siesta Ashbery finds a context in which to distill the quintessence of Stevens's “pure being,” capturing it not only in what he says but in the very syllables he speaks:

             All we know
Is that we are a little early, that
Today has that special, lapidary
Todayness that the sunlight reproduces
Faithfully in casting twig-shadows on blithe
Sidewalks. No previous day would have
    been like this.
I used to think they were all alike,
That the present always looked the same to
    everybody

Or this (like the above, from “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror”):

             Hasn't it too its lair
In the present we are always escaping from
And falling back into, as the waterwheel of days
Pursues its uneventful, even serene course?

Ashbery has managed to intimidate many of his readers through the impenetrable entanglements of images and words in some of his poems, but there he is merely mistaking the nature of his own virtues, as though, having read too many of his exegetes, he actually has deluded himself into thinking he was ever able to articulate something of an intellectual heftiness. In fact, his sole virtue, considerable in itself, is that limpidity and directness which he must struggle never to lose sight of.

_____________

V

Stevens and Ashbery are almost alone in this anthology in being resolutely bored by politics. The most perverse statement of Stevens's inability to understand much besides his own poetry is to found in his “Prose Statement on the Poetry of War.” Amid the mirthless gravity of World War II he delivered an opinion so characteristically opaque and narcissistically stylized that I for one have never been able to make much of it, nor have I ever heard anyone give a convincing explanation of what he was trying to say. As for the rest, Professor Vendler says it best in her introduction: “These poets also, many of them, write within a post-Marxist clouding of the American self-image: voices of protest rise from women (Plath, Sexton, Rich), from blacks (Hayden, Harper, Dove), from the dispossessed (James Wright), from the counterculture (Snyder), from self-declared homosexuals and lesbians (Ginsberg, Rich), from Americans in opposition to American foreign policy (Lowell, Merwin).”

In selecting works by these political poets, Professor Vendler has on the whole shied away from their more tendentious efforts, whose artistry is not infrequently stifled by the vehemence of their advocacy. In the case of Adrienne Rich, however, it is paradoxically true that her activist bent has liberated her from many of the preoccupations that so often impede the poetry of the other women, and indeed the other men, in this anthology. For she alone seems to believe that poetry has a purpose more important than the poetry itself, and while historically such a belief has led to propagandistic doggerel aspiring to nothing higher than inciting revolts in factories, in the case of Miss Rich it seems to have spared her the anxiety of trying first and foremost to find an original voice. It is as though her ability to write well derived from her not being afraid to write badly. Her tone of voice is usually clear, direct, and unmannered, and the sincerity of her poetry is one of its greatest virtues. Thus, reminiscing about her grandmother:

I see you walking up and down the garden,
restless, southern-accented, reserved, you did
    not seem
my mother's mother or anyone's grandmother.
You were Mary, widow of William, and no
    matriarch,
yet smoldering to the end with frustrate life,
ideas nobody listened to, least of all my father.

By contrast, in the work of another woman, the late Elizabeth Bishop, who is an equally good but not a better poet, there is always uppermost a concerted striving after victory over unyielding meters and challenging and arcane subjects. Like her friend James Merrill, with whom she has much in common, Elizabeth Bishop always seeks a finespun reconstitution of the material world into something rich and strange, one that will be purer than all the imperfections and fatigue of the flesh. Like Marianne Moore and Stevens, she is too vain to allow herself ever to be seen except in full dress, yet her creations are somewhat less agile than those of the two older poets, and the striving which they manage to conceal is not infrequently too evident in her verse.

Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath, who both committed suicide, are as a rule too unbalanced to take much interest in anything outside of their own problematic psyches; they may be considered feminists only in the sense that they cultivate a shrillness designed to explode any myth of woman as a soft and caressable creature. In Plath's poetry there is furthermore an unassuageable anger directed both against her own father and against the institution of maternity, as though she intended to sever herself even from these last and heretofore indestructible bonds of human nature. As for the vaunted confessional integrity of her poems, any conscientious reader must at some point begin to harbor the distasteful suspicion that in submitting them for publication, Plath forfeited all title to honesty and was aiming for something else entirely: namely, fame and the esteem of her readers.

How different from this filial and maternal abdication is the renowned “Kaddish” of Allen Ginsberg, a long poem which Professor Vendler has had the bounty to quote in full. The tone of this poem has all of the vigor and little of the stridency of Ginsberg's later homoerotic and anti-capitalist works, which rarely rise above pornography on the one hand and sophomoric propaganda on the other. It is written in the paragraph stanzas of Whitman, and while Professor Vendler asserts that Whitman is “our greatest American poet,” I would say that there is in Ginsberg's use of the language a higher consistency of condensation, which partakes more fully of what we usually mean by poetry.

Ginsberg is in one sense quite similar to Ashbery, to whom, in so many other respects, he is diametrically opposed. Both men have only one virtue, but a pervasive and an idiosyncratic one, for the exercise of which it is essential that Ashbery be entirely Ashbery and Ginsberg entirely Ginsberg. We should not go to them for a classic or definitive utterance of anything other than themselves, and it would be foolhardy to expect from them a carefully reasoned or even clever meditation on anything. Rather, the pleasure to be derived from their poetry is the pleasure that arises out of a certain conjunction of syllables to which only they know the secret. If the reader develops a taste for this conjunction, he will seek it out in their poetry, and no matter what the ostensible subject matter, as long as the treatment is identifiably theirs it will give delight. As with that other long poem that Professor Vendler gives in its entirety, Ashbery's “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror,” so in “Kaddish” the reader may find his greatest pleasure to consist as much in dipping into it anywhere as in reading it as a coherent narrative.

_____________

VI

Helen Vendler's selection of poets from the latest generation, like Dave Smith, Louise Glück, Albert Goldbarth, Jorie Graham, and Rita Dove, really cannot be faulted, since they are all fairly representative, and none of them is conspicuously bad. But perhaps it will serve as a sufficient indictment of the present state of American poetry to note that she could easily have found ten or twenty other poets of equal quality without too drastic an alteration in the overall effect of this final part of her anthology. This is not to say that they are unoriginal, or even that they are ostensibly very similar to one another; the virtue of uniqueness is after all a precondition for their inclusion. But since none of them rises to too conspicuous an eminence over his contemporaries, taken together they cannot but give the sense of a drab and uninspiring coda tacked on to the more serious business that came before.

The title of precedence over all other living American poets will now have to be fought out by Ginsberg and Ashbery. Yet, at the risk of concluding upon a lugubrious note, it must be admitted that neither in America nor abroad is there now an English-language poet of the very highest stature, or even one approaching that slightly lower stature of Eliot, Stevens, and Yeats.

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