A Revolution in Taste, by Louis Simpson
Modernism and Beyond
A Revolution in Taste: Studies of Dylan Thomas, Allen Ginsberg, Sylvia Plath, and Robert Lowell.
By Louis Simpson.
Macmillan. 198 pp. $12.95.
“If you want to be a writer, write!” declares an obscure English novelist in one of Louis Simpson’s poems. “Write reviews. Write articles. Write anything.” This seems sound advice in a time when literature has succumbed to a sort of division of labor: the poets compose poetry, the novelists turn out novels, the reviewers review. Simpson has apparently followed it himself. An accomplished poet whose autobiographical narratives are as absorbing as a good story, he has published two books of criticism in the last three years: Three on the Tower: The Lives and Works of Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, and William Carlos Williams and now A Revolution in Taste, which more or less takes up where the earlier work left off.
Simpson’s own poems belong to the democratic mode now in vogue; composed in a willfully prosaic idiom designed to avoid the stigma that attaches to the “literary,” they confine themselves to a homely, modest voice utterly without pretension. His last collection, Searching for the Ox, made use of dialogue, specific reference, and the circumstances of his own life in the manner of Robert Lowell’s Notebook sonnets, but with none of their rhetorical urgency. Even so, Simpson managed to achieve the compressed language and cadence that poetry demands.
Criticism, however, requires a rather more vigorous prosecution of argument if it hopes to persuade or instruct; in his critical works, Simpson’s pose of humility comes across as truculence, a defiant simplicity. Deliberately naive, he adopts the style of one writing a primer and offers up versions of literary history that resemble the composite portraits of fugitives—in other words, recognizable to no one.
“In the 19th century,” he writes in A Revolution in Taste,
Romantic authors praised nature and celebrated the individual. The artist with his unusual powers of feeling was regarded as a hero. But by the middle of the century disillusionment had set in: that is, artists were disillusioned. Science and industry were making great advances, and people seemed to think little of art, only of making money.
Such a gloss is not wrong, precisely; but to whom is it addressed? It could hardly be intelligible to those unfamiliar with the period; and to those who are, Simpson’s potted summations of history and literary influence seem hopelessly oversimplified.
What is the argument of A Revolution in Taste? Apparently, that the modernist movement represented by Eliot and Pound—in particular their demand for impersonality and their plundering of the literary past—has succumbed before the turmoil and self-obsession of our time. As exhibits of the mode that has succeeded them, Simpson selects, more or less at random, four poets of a later generation—Thomas, Ginsberg, Plath, and Lowell—who “created art out of the confusion of their lives.” Mingling biography, textual commentary, and opinion about their temperaments and work, he has produced what are essentially summaries of others’ scholarship. Indeed, so heavily does Simpson draw on standard sources that pages at a time consist of virtual paraphrase.
When it comes to his own literary opinions, Simpson’s laconic irreverence does provide a few moments of wit. Berryman’s Dream Songs, he writes, “were like singing in the shower.” Deflating Pound’s fatuous Social Credit theories, he notes wryly: “If Pound wanted to change the system of banking, it was in order that artists might be free to do as they liked.” And Dylan Thomas’s letters are said to evoke “the atmosphere of a pub shortly before closing time when talk is loud and the foaming tankards pass swiftly across the counter.” But the only real literary doctrine to be found in A Revolution in Taste is that formal conventions of verse will no longer serve to represent the diffuse, fragmented culture that has arisen over the last two decades. Resolutely anti-literary, Simpson derides what he calls “accomplished” or “academic” verse, by which he means simply verse composed in traditional forms. But surely accomplishment is one of the qualities that determines art. Since when has it become a pejorative term? And to say that Lowell and Auden “stood for poetry written in traditional forms and in a language removed from actual speech” is just wrong. Their whole effort was to fuse colloquialism with the literary tradition to which they had apprenticed themselves.
Simpson is quick to condemn the ideas, political and other kinds, of his subjects. Of the arch, snobbish pose Eliot cultivated in his essays, he observes (in Three on the Tower): “Outside in the dark were multitudes who did not understand, wailing and gnashing their teeth.” And in A Revolution in Taste he discloses his antagonism toward Lowell in the very first sentence: “Robert Lowell was born into the class of people in Boston who used to hand down standards of ethics and culture to the rest of the country.” Exploiting Lowell’s revelations about his mental illness, he intimates that the poet was “not well,” and thus remote from life. For “these neurotics to find the way there”—that is, to discover what is significant in life—was no more probable than for “a member of the Yale Club to enter Aladdin’s cave.” In Simpson’s mind, poetry seems to be a political, even a class issue.
This is not to say that the dangerous ideas promoted by so many of the greatest writers in this century should be condoned. Pound, Eliot, Yeats, Williams, D.H. Lawrence, and even Lowell were guilty of anti-Semitism in some form or other (though Lowell was far from vociferous about it, and Simpson can find only a single derogatory reference to Jews in his work); the matter has often been discussed, notably in John R. Harrison’s The Reactionaries: A Study of the Anti-Democratic Intelligentsia. But the very condition Simpson deplores—the sense of being denied the consolations of a distinct literary tradition—is in part what prompted these writers to embrace reactionary ideologies; they were determined to acquire for themselves the social and cultural authority necessary to advance their work. And while they may be faulted for having succumbed to what Philip Rahv once called “the megalomaniacal disposition of modern art,” theirs was an aristocracy of literary talent, not of birth.
Moreover, Simpson himself is no populist. Allen Ginsberg’s unkempt personality displeases him, and he is obviously troubled by the anarchy of contemporary American poetry, which has become “almost exclusively a means of self-expression.” Why? Because “the impersonality of the modern bureaucratic state” has destroyed the poet’s audience (Simpson never specifies quite how). He seems resigned to the proposition that poets can only “create a feeling of community among a few thousand readers” while awaiting “the birth of a larger community.” But what a curious, fatalistic, passive, and self-limiting notion this is. The pervasive sense of impersonality is precisely what inspired some of the classics of modern poetry, from Eliot’s “Prufrock” to Auden’s “September 1, 1939.”
Simpson persists in addressing himself to “a few thousand souls in sympathy with one another,” “bound together by something closer to their heart’s desire than the noise of the world.” No wonder poetry has lost its audience! Those of us with blunter sensibilities, who have to listen to the world’s noise, are grateful whenever an artist can interpret it for us.