American Poetry in the Age of Whitman and Dickinson

Academic and Dreary

with 3 comments

Over on Facebook, in a comment stream linked to the last post, my old friend Michael Boughn wondered if academics can be trusted to sort out the good, bad, and ugly of nineteenth century American poetry. Aren’t poets the ones who ought to do this work? And on the same comment stream, Don Share wondered if the work, once done, could ever be of interest to anyone but academics. Ouch!

Here are three thoughts, not quite answers, in response:

1. Judgments of worth are ultimately subjective, so I wouldn’t want to say that one kind of judgment is inherently more trustworthy than another. But it’s true that an academic judgment is not always shaped by the interests of poetry. This is what I meant when I said that the poets of the Norton serve the interests of a theme, not the other way around. Academic labor stirs things up; it brings memorable poetry to the surface, but also things that are not so memorable; it muddies the waters. Isn’t that its use? Dislodging things from the past, making reappraisal necessary?

2. “Academic,” however, is Michael’s word. I tried to avoid it before, speaking instead of scholars and teachers, saying that teachers split the difference between a scholar’s needs and those of the common reader. But Michael reminds me that the scholar and common reader are only two points of a triangle; poets watch over the third corner. Why I forgot this, I think, is that poets ― the poets I care about ― have ceased to be interested in re-imagining the century. It’s astonishing, really, how stable the poets’ nineteenth century has become, especially when you consider the volatility of the early twentieth. The Pound Era became the Stein Era, but what changed in our view of the fifty years before that?

This leads directly to Don Share’s question:

3. Have poets ignored the nineteenth century because there’s nothing worth reappraising there? Obviously, I don’t think so, or I wouldn’t be devoting so much attention to the era. But substantiating that faith, or rather making it convincing, isn’t so simple. Judgments of dreariness are subjective, hence they have no objective answer, and subjective answers that are able to win converts require evangelical skill. I lack that; my temperament is more rabbinical. Not Pharisaical, mind you (that would mean academic and dreary, right?), but more passionate in study than espousal; readjusting tradition in every act of interpretation. Which means that I find texts insufficient in themselves. Value accrues in the way we read them. I hope to make that value clearer in what I continue to post here. Assuming I do continue.

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Written by Ben Friedlander

June 12, 2009 at 9:14 am

Posted in Everything Else

3 Responses

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  1. You’ve raised some great issues about the heritage and meaning of 19th c. AmPo, and I’m very grateful for that. It is a vastly misunderstood (and under-taught) era, and when I was teaching I never found a student with any curiosity about it beyond the canonical Whitman & Dickinson. I tried to get a few of them to look into the admittedly fatiguing Library of America anthol. of 19th c. poe. – but they didn’t go for it. Could be the new vol. 3 of Poems for the Millennium will show how interesting and downright exciting poetry of the 19th century really was….

    Don Share

    June 12, 2009 at 9:39 am

  2. Regarding your second point, Ben, I think it was poets who re-imagined the nineteenth in the first place, redsicovering Whitman and Dickinson in the midst of the official poetic history centered on Holmes, Bryant, Longfellow, Melville, Emerson etc. They recognized that Whitman and Dickinson were writing not just in relation to their past and their present, but also the future, that the conversation they entered and carried forward was as much of the future as it was of the past. The same can’t be said, I think, for those other poets, whose interest remains “historical” i.e. the stuff of “literary history” and academic careers as opposed to being a living part of an ongoing discourse (I love Clarel, by the way, but even so continue to wish Melville could have thought his way out of the tetrameter). It’s not that there aren’t some fine poets there, but are they going to change the way you write? are they going to enter into the conversation you carry on with Blake’s authors in eternity?

    Michael Boughn

    June 12, 2009 at 4:20 pm

  3. I wish I could believe your story about the poets’ rescue of Whitman and Dickinson. The reception histories don’t bear it out. I’m not at home with my books around me, so I can’t give you chapter and verse, but both of those poets entered the twentieth century with meaningful readerships, and Whitman at least had a veritable advocacy group (see, e.g., Conserving Walt Whitman’s Fame: Selections from Horace Traubel’s Conservator, 1890-1919, ed. Gary Schmidgall [Iowa UP, 2006]). American literature was just getting started then as an academic field, and the first “official poetic history” (the Cambridge history published around the time of WWI) included a long section on Whitman. The only other poet from the post-Civil War years accorded the same treatment was Sidney Lanier. For the first half of the twentieth century, the literary historians were much more certain about Whitman’s worth than the poets were, or anyway than the modernist poets were. They did have a fondness for Dickinson; she became part of the modernist canon associated with New Criticism. But this I think worked against her with much of the postwar generation. The Beats, for instance, who made Whitman so central to their work, had much more use for Poe’s poetry than Dickinson’s.

    I do get what you’re saying. What poets make of their predecessors is absolutely essential to the ongoing life of the art. But where do poets get their information? How many poets go seeking after forgotten predecessors whose works are no longer in print, no longer talked about? It often takes a scholar or teacher to bring a forgotten work to the attention of a poet, or to a poet in the making, and its value to that poet may take years to manifest itself. So really, you need to ask me in fifteen years if all this recent scholarship is having any impact.

    Ben Friedlander

    June 12, 2009 at 10:21 pm


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