The Poet's Value
To the Editor:
The article in your July issue by Francis Golffing and Barbara Gibbs (“The Public Voice: Remarks on Poetry Today”) seems to me to deal with the subject in a peripheral manner, too remote from any central, vital issue. Skillfully analytical in their assumptions, the authors do not seem as much concerned with value as they are with establishing categories in which, they feel, poetry finds itself today. . . . Aside from the fact that I find the vitality the authors attribute to the attitude expressed by one group (Ginsberg, Kerouac, and company) totally unconvincing, the entire process of “weeding out” and “grouping together” seems to me too private and arbitrary. . . . It seems to me impossible to bring a sense of unity, and with it clarity, to a topic when it is approached from an angle of separateness. To say that this poet is out to break down the fences separating him from “life” (a supposition I find difficult to grasp) and that that poet is writing merely for the “act” of writing (a frivolous excuse not worthy anyone’s attention, it would seem to me) puts the emphasis too heavily on mannerism and cause. This seems to me contrary to the position of the poet—perhaps more isolated but in evidence in every age—who has never willed himself into the service of poetry but has somehow found himself there, and having discovered his allegiance, has never been satisfied merely to establish some personal motif (which he does easily) but has struggled desperately to serve, as best he can, the impersonal demands of poetry itself. “Not by wisdom do poets write poetry but by a sort of genius and inspiration” (Plato in the Apology) .
A more fundamental, a more traditional approach is no doubt possible when dealing with “the reality of verse.” Can poets not be evaluated in terms of the excellence of their service (and here I mean the range they can reach in exploring the art they serve)? It seems to me in evaluating trends in poetry in any given period, a fundamental direction has always mattered. Proceeding on the assumption—a safe one, I believe—that the “fire” of poetry would not be kept alive but for those men and women, however few, who serve it, is it not these poets, poets who take their art to its furthest possible limit, who take it so far that it transcends itself as a conscious art; is it not those poets who transcend the (perhaps?) necessary fences by linking their art to the most secret, the most hidden and at once most lofty recesses of the human insight out of which poetry surely comes and which it seeks to praise and immortalize, poets who in short are endowed to keep alive poetry’s most fundamental and singular tradition: to illuminate; is it not these poets who carry on the single direction that has mattered and—can there be any doubt of it?—matters still? I am sure the authors, themselves distinguished poets, would agree.
Any investigation into the vitality or, as the authors put it, the reality of verse, ought therefore to clarify how effective or how ineffective poets are today in keeping alive this single tradition. How effective are America’s poets today in recharting poetry’s “grand dimension,” grand whether the expression be lyrical, tragic, metaphysical, etc.? This is a question I wish the authors would explore—they are certainly qualified to do it.
New York City