American Poetry in the Age of Whitman and Dickinson

Paying Major Heed to Minor Poets

with 9 comments

Or not minor, no, definitely not, just underappreciated. Or better: insufficiently understood …

A few days ago Ron Silliman linked to a recent post of mine, Paying Little Mind to Major Poets. Today he has a response (link here). It’s a thoughtful note, and I’m thankful to Ron for working through my remarks so carefully, even if he does focus on the effect (my insistence on the importance of Marianne Moore — and dislike of others — and the rewriting of history that proposes), ignoring what I said about the cause (reading’s affective resistances and attractions, themselves historicizable, and the potentially distorting effects they have on understanding). The short answer, though, is that Ron is right: I am, at bottom, hallucinating a world — a future world from which the past looks very different than it does today.

The issue for me is when such hallucinations, which is to say errors, become legitimate revisions of understanding. Is the dividing line purely subjective? Or is it a matter of polemical interpretation? Or something susceptible of verification? If the last, what else could this verification be, if not the work done as a result? For instance, if Language Poetry is a reading of the New York School in which Coolidge, Greenwald, and Mayer are, counter-intuitively, more central than Berrigan, Berkson, and Padgett, what might the test of that reading be, if not Language Poetry itself? (And if you think, as I do, that the first three names are as significant as the last three, then Language Poetry has gone far toward passing the test, even if you don’t think you like it.) [1]

But beyond the issue of error vs. understanding, there is a subsidiary issue of how. How is it that the line gets crossed? How does it happen that an eccentric personal preference becomes the eccentric preference for a whole subculture, and then, under certain circumstances, the central preference for culture at large? The most famous example of this unlikely trajectory is Eliot’s reevaluation of the metaphysical poets, which became a modernist preference, and then, by way of New Criticism, part of a new hegemonic theory of poetry. Was that hegemony a distortion, or a legitimate revision of understanding? Or can we have it both ways?

Those last questions are deeply interesting to me. They go to the very heart of my present interest in nineteenth-century American poetry. How could they not when I speak of that century as “The Age of Whitman and Dickinson,” even as I try to map a lost landscape in which Whitman was marginal and Dickinson invisible?

Can one accept the present’s view of the past and still inquire into the past’s own view of itself? Or to put this another way: Can one eat the fruits of distortion, and then — fortified — go out and chop down the tree? And still have fruit the next season? Probably not …

Or maybe so! If we throw away the core, letting the seeds take root …

Anyway, go read Ron’s response, if you haven’t already. (I love his analogy to birdwatching.)


Regarding Moore herself: I’ve written before about her importance; the essay in which I did so (which incorporates, btw, a brief statement by Ron!) was published in Critics and Poets on Marianne Moore: “A Right Good Salvo of Barks,” edited by Linda Leavell, Cristanne Miller, and Robin G. Schulze. Much of the essay is available through Google Books (but not, alas, the pages with Ron’s statement; link here).

As an addendum to Ron’s note, though, let me add that the modernism I see with Moore at the center has nothing to do with her social relationships. I see her as the first American poet to make “the linguistic turn” (as it came to be known), and one who did so without ever reducing language to words and grammar. Rhetoric, she understood, is as intrinsic to language as any of the more material elements (such as letters and sounds); and though she did on occasion succumb to rhetoric — conceiving of readers in the old-fashioned way, as an audience to be swayed — her best work, composed with found language, demands a new kind of reader. In this sense, the difficulty of her work supports an entirely different pedagogical mission than that of Eliot or Pound.


1 [Back to text] I am thinking here of Ron Silliman’s anthology In the American Tree (1986), which includes Coolidge, Greenwald, and Mayer but not Berrigan, Berkson, or Padgett. That reading of the New York School was specific to a certain historical moment, though perhaps it would still hold true for Silliman and others who might have shared it. In any case, it is this notion of centrality (and others like it from my early education as a poet: Duncan’s insistence on H.D., Creeley’s insistence on Zukofsky, the Language Poets’ insistence on Stein) that I had in mind when I made my claim for Moore.

Written by Ben Friedlander

October 28, 2009 at 7:30 am

9 Responses

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  1. As I just said in a brief comment on Ron’s post, I think revisionism is inevitable: a way of looking again at history and seeing in it connections that might not have seemed relevant to the writers themselves at the time.

    As to the question of when revisionism is defensible, I think that as long as it illuminates issues or concerns that haven’t been illuminated before, it’s going to be worthwhile. And I suppose a lot depends on how authoritative one hopes one’s history is: Ron does seem committed to the idea that his historical perspective is simply an explanation of what happened, rather than an impression (and therefore also a creation) of historical events. And (as is also inevitable) people immediately note that even Ron’s version is A history, not history itself.

    Mark Wallace

    October 28, 2009 at 12:35 pm

  2. Hi Ben,

    I took your original comments on Moore in the spirit of “insistence” you describe below. You weren’t speaking as an anthologist, or an academic at a conference, but primarily as a reader, & probing the difference that makes to your relationship to individual poets.

    I like your idea here that part of the poet’s work is “insistence,” laying claims to forebears that seem eccentric till suddenly they don’t.

    rodney k.

    October 28, 2009 at 3:01 pm

  3. Rodney:

    Yes. And yes! But I can’t fault Ron for taking me literally, or for worrying about the consequences … he’s a dialectician; I’m an ironist.

    Which isn’t to say I disbelieve in right and wrong. But there’s a rightness in proliferating opinions and perspectives also. That proliferation is especially appropriate for modernism. And for the very reason modernism couldn’t actually have a central figure. Its size, scale, and complexity are not those of a single comprehending individual. Or transparent eyeball walking through the fields.



    I really like your example of Cesaire in the comment at Ron’s blog. That might be, among American poets, a sequel to the story of the metaphysicals. And I like what you say about illumination, which adds to what I said about the work that results.

    Ron, of course, hardly agrees with himself, historiographically speaking. He’s not calling people who read Whitman and Dickinson and then pick and choose among the rest “a-literate.” In fact, he’s a good example of what I was saying in my earlier post: that proximity wreaks havoc on consistency; that it’s hard to respond to the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in the same way. It’s just that his inconsistency is a little different from mine. But then, our historical perspectives are a little different.

    Well, I defended all that in myself; I’ll defend it in Ron.

    Ben Friedlander

    October 29, 2009 at 6:20 am

  4. Ok, let’s not go ahead and get all Lacanian in terms of a linguistic turn — but instead go back to the notion of the Word. You can’t really honestly avoid turning back instead to a thinker like Hamann, rather than Lacan. Poetry is the natural language of humanity. In the Garden of Eden, everything spoken was poetry. And good poetry returns us to the Garden.

    Kirby Olson

    November 3, 2009 at 6:25 pm

  5. “To like reading and writing is to like words. The root meaning, as contrasted with the meaning in use, is like the triple painting on projecting lamellae, which — according as one stands in front, at the right, or at the left — shows a different picture.” Marianne Moore, “Perspicuous Opacity” (1936)

    Ben Friedlander

    November 3, 2009 at 10:29 pm

  6. Eliot believed that we could, indeed, “change the past” simply by looking at it with altered lenses (or different prejudices). Are we at liberty to accept or reject our literary inheritance as it is transmitted to us through the usual organs? Certainly!

    Are we obliged to think of (or read) writers in the way that their contemporaries may have done? Obviously not. It’s interesting to speculate about what readers may have made of Hemingway’s “cubistic” prose in those early stories, but did his contemporaries perceive this as we do? Almost certainly not. We can rearrange the pieces of the puzzle endlessly (well, not endlessly, but a lot), placing, alternatively, Eliot, Pound, Moore, Joyce, Williams, Stevens at the center and making a separate case for each in a hierarchy.

    I do find troublesome the notion that one can construct a “social” context out of the Modernists, and make value judgments about their art based on that (or on political grounds). Does Eliot’s screwy religiosity forever color all the poetry after Prufrock?

    I think the academy, as a phenomenon of criteria–finding thematic priorities through deconstruction and exegesis–is a 20th Century thing, which may or may not influence the future of read/ing/ers. As much as I appreciate Stein’s place in the development of textual experiment, I question whether her works will ever be read in 50-100 years. She’s de-emphasized the narrative structure of content to such a degree that here books aren’t about anything. Can literature which has no subject ever be read by a generic public?

    I agree with your thoughts about Moore. Her formality is much more “modern” than The Waste Land, or Harmonium, or Cathay, etc. And she makes “sense” in a way that Pound doesn’t in The Cantos. I see in her big synthetic structures a precursor of the work of Silliman and Watten, though they may strenuously deny it. The difference being that she still insists upon syntactic rules (no matter how skewed and twisted) whereas the latter two take license to new liberalized extremities. I see Ashbery as the inheritor of the philosophical musings of Stevens, and the iterative speculations of Wittgenstein (expressed through colloquial speech). I don’t see anyone as having “followed” Moore–maybe because it would be impossible!

    Curtis Faville

    November 4, 2009 at 3:51 pm

  7. Curtis, thanks for this. Value judgments are indeed troublesome: insufficient, inescapable … explaining the judge more than the judged. For me, though, the value of value judgment is what it allows you to say or do after. Anyway, apart from all that, I really like your phrase “new liberalized extremities.” That’s a keeper!

    Ben Friedlander

    November 4, 2009 at 9:06 pm

  8. Hi Ben,

    Just noticed your blog (saw a link in my stats). I like it. It’s serious and I like the theme you used – clean and straightforward.

    It’s curious though. Your blog, like Silliman’s or Word-Dreamer are all of a flavor. It’s no wonder Silliman picked up on your post. You seem able to speak his language – highly theoretical, referential and jargonized – (at worst, academese).

    There’s nothing wrong in this. However, it *is* a specialized language and knowledge that limits ones audience. Seems to be generational *and* it finds its counterpart in the poetry written
    by this generation.

    Reading Silliman and the various “satellite blogs), as I call them, really begins to make me feel post-baby boomer or post 20th Century. 20th century poetry, with all of its preoccupations and fading, grizzled warriors, seems as distant to me as the Victorians.

    //Joanne Kyger’s poetry will prove far “more lasting” than that of Robert Frost, Lowell is for the most part unbearable (and some of Duncan is likewise), YET dot dot dot//

    Hard to take the guy seriously when he cracks a nut like this.


    November 7, 2009 at 7:09 pm

  9. Thanks, Vermont!

    I’ve been teaching Uncle Tom’s Cabin this week — Vermont is the home and nickname of Miss Ophelia. How can I not think of you as “Cousin Vermont” when you praise this blog for being clean and straightforward? Those are just the values “Miss Feely” is looking for in the St. Clare kitchen, but hopelessly.

    What you say about my language is no doubt true, though I aim to write in “plain American which cats and dogs can read” (as Marianne Moore once put it). I’ve not yet decided the sort of book I want to write about this material, whether it should be scholarly or something else. The style of the blog will likely change — for worse or better — once I do know.

    In any case, most of what I write about here will indeed be as distant as the Victorians. That’s just the era I’m trying to understand! But I hope you come back and skim on occasion.


    Ben Friedlander

    November 8, 2009 at 8:18 am

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