American Poetry in the Age of Whitman and Dickinson

Posts Tagged ‘sonnets

American Hybrids

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Working backward in time, from the near present to the 1830s, by a combination of free and accidental association, in order to think forward: less a method than a way of passing the time — history as bookshelf, browsing as historiography.

American Hybrid (2009)

For a short time after its publication there was a lot of controversy over American Hybrid, a Norton anthology that made the claim — I guess I should say makes; it’s still in print — that poetry is no longer a matter of warring factions; the best poets now pledge no allegiance, it said — says — but jump sides at will. Or would if there were sides (which there are) (are not).

Let those parenthetical equivocations stand in for a fairer representation of the anthology’s own, which are not so much contradictions as uncertainties. For the purpose of the anthology has never been clear to me. I mean its editorial purpose, since the work is the work, produced for reasons — conscious and unconscious — of the authors’ own, which may or may not correspond to the imagination of the editors.  But what was that imagination? Did the editors intend to produce an historical account of the literary present, or an aesthetic theory, or a manifesto? By what criteria should I judge their labor? And how strictly should I judge?

My choice has been to take the anthology as something more personal and more effervescent than a history, theory, or assault: I see it instead as lending substance to a mood, and in this regard its success is much less qualified, as the substance is not a matter of accuracy, coherence, or influence, but richness and suggestion.

Christopher Pearse Cranch, Illustrations of the New Philosophy (MS Am 1506), Houghton Library, Harvard University. The caption comes from Emerson’s 1837 Phi Beta Kappa address, slightly misquoted: “They are content to be brushed like flies from the path of a great man.” (Click on the image for a larger view.)

The stumbling block for me (not that anyone is asking) is the title, which was meant to draw luster, I suspect, from postcolonial theory, where hybrid has become something of a master trope for the aftereffects of colonial relationships (and by extension the more symmetrical forms of engagement that occur between groups, ideologies, etc., which is how American Hybrid uses it). Associated in particular with Homi K. Bhabha, the trope of hybridity highlights the generative possibilities of such relationships, conceptualizing “an international culture, based not on the exoticism of multiculturalism or the diversity of cultures, but on … the ‘inter’ — the cutting edge of translation and negotiation, the in-between space — that carries the burden of the meaning of culture.”[1] That hybrid is a trope is often forgotten, however, though not by the editors and publishers of American Hybrid — witness the flag-waving butterfly on the cover, each of its wings coming from a different breed. A hybrid literally is the offspring of two different species, and it has, for much of its history, carried a negative association when applied to human beings (I think, for instance, of Ezra Pound’s Fascist propaganda, which refers sneeringly to “hybrids of the Anglo ghetto” ).[2] Postcolonialism is explicitly a critique of racism, so its redemption of the word is at once polemical and contextualized. Neither is the case with American Hybrid, which is unfortunate since some of the controversy over the anthology was owing to its “whitewashing,” as Craig Santos Perez put it, of American poetry and hybridity as concept. In any case, hybrid is not a trope I particularly like, no doubt for personal reasons: I am one generation removed from the eugenic nightmare of Nazi Germany (about which my father, a survivor, has written at length).

Christopher Pearse Cranch, Illustrations of the New Philosophy (MS Am 1506), Houghton Library, Harvard University. The caption comes from Emerson’s Nature (1836): “I expand and live in the warm day, like corn & melons.” (Click for a larger view.)

I should distinguish, though, between two versions of the trope, each of which is adopted in the anthology. Innocuous to me is the metaphor of poem as hybrid, especially in the horticultural form David St. John adopts at the end of his brief introduction (the second of two; the other, much longer, is by his co-editor, Cole Swensen):

I am persuaded by the idea of an American poetry based upon plurality, not purity. We need all of our poets. Our poetry should be as various as the natural world, as rich and peculiar in its potential articulations. The purpose of this anthology is to celebrate these exquisite hybridizations emerging in the work of all our poets. Let the gates of the Garden stand open; let the renaming of the world begin again.[3]

There is a certain confusion here — the Adamic citation at the end hardly points away from the fantasy of purity; and the slippage from “poets” to “poetry” does suggest that the former are the stock from which the latter’s “exquisite hybridizations” are produced — but to speak of poetry as cultivation, evoking a “Garden” of verses, is to till the very idea of culture in its most venerable form.

Christopher Pearse Cranch, Illustrations of the New Philosophy (MS Am 1506), Houghton Library, Harvard University. The large speech bubble comes from an attack on Transcendentalism by Andrews Norton: “Those may here become aware of the venom of the serpent who have only been admiring its bright colors & glittering eyes.” The serpent is George Ripley, who had answered one of Norton’s earlier attacks. The other bubbles read “Is that the Transylvanian?” and “Monstrum horrendum ingens informe &c!!” The caption comes from Lalla Rookh: “Some flowers of Eden ye still inherit, But the trail of the Serpent is over them all.” (Click for a larger view.)

The other version of the trope appears in Swensen’s introduction, and the genetic aspects are there highlighted. She speaks of “writings and writers that have inherited and adapted traits,” and refers to her poets as “THE NEW (HY)BREED.”[4] Like St. John, moreover, she ends on a reference ill-matched to her announced aims. In her case, the reference is a citation of Mallarmé, “to give a purer sense to the language of the tribe.”[5] Impurity, I should think, would be a more appropriate goal in this context; and since the poetic legacies at issue for Swensen were earlier defined nationally (as French or English in origin), I find myself thinking about the purity of “the tribe,” which cannot be the last thought she wanted me to have.

I hasten to add that I see no malignant design in this troping. It is just something I do not care for, hence my sensitivity to it; and when the anthology appeared, it kept me from sharing in the mood.

I am not entirely sure why I am going into such detail about my response to the anthology (or rather, my reasons for not responding), except that I came across a modernist precedent for the anthology’s conceit, which in turn suggested another precedent from the nineteenth century, and I did not think I could talk about these precedents without sorting out my original feelings. Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Ben Friedlander

August 2, 2012 at 11:27 pm

The Center of Modernism (Not)

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gotham-book-martI’m getting far afield of the nineteenth century here, but I couldn’t resist posting the picture to the left as a followup to my last post, which referred to Marianne Moore as the center of modernism (my modernism, I would add, if that qualification means anything).

The picture, taken at the Gotham Book Mart in 1948, is a famous one, though it’s not exactly a gathering of the gods. How could it be, with Stevens and Williams both missing in action? (Both lived within driving distance.) The occasion was a party for Osbert and Edith Sitwell, who were visiting the United States on a lecture tour, and a picture of the occasion appeared soon after in Life. The full text of that issue is available through Google Books (link here). The article, which is on the Sitwells, begins on page 164; there’s a photo on page 169 taken just before or after the one I’ve reproduced.

Anyway, I thought of this picture because I faintly remembered that Moore sits in the center. Which turns out to be false: the woman in the center is Edith Sitwell. Moore is a little to her right, just under Auden, who is staring over everyone else from a ladder.

Now Sitwell is in many respects a more interesting figure than Moore for the purposes of this blog, as she’s a poet who commanded a great deal of respect in her own lifetime (witness the coverage in Life), but who has since fallen out of general currency. She still has admirers; Lisa Robertson is one. And I am too, after a fashion. I love her Poet’s Notebook, which I first read at Robert Duncan’s behest — he mentions it, I think, in one of his essays — and I hold Façade in high regard. Also, I once edited a magazine with Andrew Schelling called Dark Ages Clasp the Daisy Root; though the title comes from Joyce, I found it in a commonplace book by Sitwell. So yes, I think of her as a figure well worth rescuing from oblivion, if that’s in fact where she’s headed. The kind of poet I would write about here, if only she had flourished a century before (and been American). Not the center of my attention, but part of a circle well worth turning in my head. Read the rest of this entry »

Leopardi in America

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Scrolling through the title list of the American Verse Project, I came upon George Cabot Lodge’s Song of the Wave (1898). Intuition, or something, told me to look closer. When I did, I found the following dedication:


Which pleased me no end, as Leopardi is a poet I admire in the abstract but find almost impossible to read: I really liked the idea of getting to know him again through an American poet who took him to heart. Even a minor or bad poet might help! A few summers ago, I made a fairly intense effort to read all of the Canti. Unfortunately, the word “lugubrious” kept drifting into my head as I made my way, distracting me with its ungainly shadows. I mean, how concentrate on a poem like “All’italia” when lugubrious keeps floating over the page, blocking the sun? It’s a poem that needs all the light it can get! In the end, I gave up reading altogether for a desecrating mistranslation. And yes, I was on a plane when the idea first came to me: Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Ben Friedlander

September 4, 2009 at 10:14 pm

More Lint

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Matted in my head, as in the filter of a drying machine.

Emma Lazarus, who wrote the most famous of all American sonnets, “The New Colossus,” made translations from Petrarch. So too did Thomas Wentworth Higginson, who domesticated the Italian form by inscribing it in an American landscape. In “Sunshine and Petrarch,” written for Atlantic Monthly in 1867, he describes a little cove set above a steep bank of buttercups and grass, then comments:

If Petrarch still knows and feels the consummate beauty of these earthly things, it may seem to him some repayment for the sorrows of a lifetime that one reader, after all this lapse of years, should choose his sonnets to match this grass, these blossoms, and the soft lapse of these blue waves. Yet any longer or more continuous poem would be out of place to-day. I fancy that this narrow cove prescribes the proper limits of a sonnet; and when I count the lines of ripple within yonder projecting wall, there proves to be room for just fourteen. Nature meets our whims with such little fitnesses. The words which build these delicate structures are as soft and fine and close-textured as the sands upon this tiny beach, and their monotone, if such it be, is the monotone of the neighboring ocean.

A beautiful tranquility. But sonnets are not tranquil by nature, if only because they are often occasioned by powerful emotions. Here are the last ten lines of one of the Lazarus translations; they enact as it were an argument within the sonnet against the placidity sonnets are said to exemplify:

This life is like a field of flowering thyme,
Amidst the herbs and grass the serpent lives;
If aught unto the sight brief pleasure gives,
‘Tis but to snare the soul with treacherous lime.
So, wouldst thou keep thy spirit free from cloud,
A tranquil habit to thy latest day,
Follow the few, and not the vulgar crowd.
Yet mayest thou urge, “Brother, the very way
Thou showest us, wherefrom thy footsteps proud
(And never more than now) so oft did stray.”

Petrarch’s straying footsteps work very well as a figure for free verse, and free-verse sonnets are the ones I know best from my own era  —  Ted Berrigan’s being the best known (though I have a special fondness for those of John Clarke). The prototype is Walt Whitman’s “Death-Sonnet for Custer,” published in the New York Daily Tribune on July 10th, 1876. Here is a reproduction of the manuscript, held by the New York Public Library:

Click for a link to the NYPL website and a larger image

Click for a link to the NYPL website and a larger image

The Walt Whitman archive reproduces the newspaper printing and gives a transcript here.

For a sonnet that takes issue with its own form, you cannot do better than Poe’s “Enigma” (1848): Read the rest of this entry »


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Minute shreds of information gathering in my head, as in a pocket or belly button…

I was watching an episode of Law & Order: SVU the other day and saw that one of the scenes was filmed in front of the statue of William Cullen Bryant. I tried to get a picture but was too slow. It’s the episode with Robin Williams (appropriately titled “Authority“).

Emerson was Harvard’s class poet the year Bryant read his Phi Beta Kappa poem in Cambridge (something I mention here). I’ve now found the poem Emerson wrote for commencement, and it bears comparison. Sample lines:

In this bright age, with seeds of glory sown,
The hand of fate hath placed us, — not our own.
When the old world is crumbling with decay,
And empires unregarded, pass away…

Bryant’s poem was called “The Ages”; here’s a sample:

Thus error’s monstrous shapes from earth are driven;
They fade, they fly — but truth survives their flight;
Earth has no shades to quench that beam of heaven;
Each ray that shone in early time to light
The faltering footstep in the path of right,
Each gleam of clearer brightness shed to aid
In man’s maturer day his bolder sight,
All blended, like the rainbow’s radiant braid,
Pour yet, and still shall pour, the blaze that cannot fade.

In a comment a few weeks ago, David Sheidlower praised Emerson’s phrase “horizon walls” from “The Romany Girl.” I see now that Emerson liked the phrase too: he drew it from his earlier poem “The Humble Bee.”

Lacan citing Julia Ward Howe???

Yes. In “Psychoanalysis and Its Teaching.” The reference comes after a brief discussion of Jeremiah’s sour grape, leading into a self-quotation. Here’s the reference:

This is what made me pen the following passage … , restoring the import of paternal authority … , conjoining it as one must — in the Biblical terms used by the female author of the American “Battle Hymn of the Republic” — with the curse of the mother:

And here’s the self-quotation (it comes from “The Freudian Thing”):

For the sour grape of speech by which the child received the authentication of the nothingness of existence from a father too early, and the grapes of wrath that responded to the words of false hope with which his mother lured him with the milk of her true despair, set his teeth on edge more than if he had been weaned from an imaginary jouissance or even deprived of some real attentions.

Howe wrote her “Battle Hymn” in 1861, at the start of the Civil War, during an exciting visit to the front line. She had the idea of writing new words to “John Brown’s Body”; the visit inspired her. She tells the story in her 1899 autobiography. The description is worthy of analysis by Freud; strange to think it was written at the same time as The Interpretation of Dreams: Read the rest of this entry »