Towards a New Direction in Poetry

The Moderns, particularly Eliot and Pound, sought new models to reinvigorate the tradition of poetry in English. Pound discovered the Classical Chinese Poets, Eliot rehabilitated the Metaphysical Poets, both loved Dante and both were heavily influenced by the French Symbolists, who were curiously influenced by another American, Poe. This is all well known.

Plainly there was nothing in the Romantics and Victorians to inspire Eliot and Pound towards a new voice for a new century. Hopkins wasn’t published until 1915 and Whitman was slightly suspect for his lack of compression and the lack of prominence of the literary tradition in his work. Whitman was really the poetic incarnation of Transcendentalism, of Emerson and Thoreau (though Emerson was a fine poet in his own right). Still Neruda, who came after Eliot and Pound, found his inspiration in Whitman as the first great poet of the New World.


In any case, Eliot and Pound briefly embraced “Imagism,” whose most famous principle was Eliot’s “objective correlative” and whose signature poem must be Pound’s “At the Metro.” Yet the movement was too narrow and could not contain the burgeoning modern revolution that included everyone from Yeats to D. H. Lawrence, and a short list in English would also mention H. D., William Carlos Williams, Robinson Jeffers, Robert Frost, Wallace Stevens and Marianne Moore. I suppose in other languages one ought also acknowledge Neruda, Lorca, and Rilke, though until his Duino Elegies, Rilke remains rather close to tradition save for his inscrutable mysticism, which nevertheless was not new to German literature.

Parenthetically it is my opinion that the two greatest, or at least most influential poets of the 20th century are Eliot and Neruda. Is it not fascinating that their personalities were at antipodes, the one a neurotic, oversensitive academic who became an Anglican Royalist, the other a man of great energy and physical appetites who became a Communist? Clearly, it is not personality that makes a poet.

Nearly 100 years after the Moderns, in a new century where poetry sometimes appears more a participatory sport than a classical discipline, it is nevertheless tempting to meditate upon what direction is most salubrious for its future.

I recently re-read The Divine Comedy (in Mark Musa’s excellent translation, Penguin Pocket Books). One thing Dante has is a plain style. It is hard to misunderstand Dante if one allows for the many anachronistic allusions in his text to Italian politics and medieval theological debates and ecclesiastical history. To be fair, however, Dante’s allusions were more relevant to his audience than those in “The Waste Land” or Joyce’s “Ulysses” were to contemporary readers.

Besides Dante’s unpretentious style one must stop to praise the genius of his pilgrim’s persona, a timid everyman with whom anyone can identify, who hangs onto Virgil for sheer life during their fearful odyssey through Hell and Purgatory. The persona of Dante the Pilgrim is reminiscent of Alice in Wonderland or Dorothy in Oz, if not quite Lenny in Of Mice and Men, though certainly similar to John Bunyan’s protagonist in Pilgrim’s Progress. Dante’s narrator plays it straight, sharing his amazement and fear, telling us when “he can’t bear to look,” while Virgil plays the consummate guide. So Dante’s plain style and everyman persona make this perhaps greatest of all poems in any language an easy read. Lastly, Dante was not afraid to state his opinions on anything, whether the merits of Odysseus, whom he threw in the eighth circle of hell for being a liar, or the besetting sins of a particularly egregious pope. Dante was above all opinionated, passionately so, wrong on much but right about much, yet never ashamed to say what he thought. His poetry and opinions and his sense of self as a medieval man are inseparable. He exemplified what most modern men crave: integration with himself and his time.

It is interesting to note that although Dante was Eliot’s favorite poet, Eliot wrote nothing like him. Dante was direct and Eliot evasive. Although Eliot wrestled with the same spiritual themes, his playing field was not one of faith’s hegemony but of cultural disintegration, unbelief, and post WW I despair. Thus Eliot, by nature, education, and as a man of his age, came at the central questions of man’s existence from a very oblique angle, though his poetry still has the power to move us even when we don’t understand it.

Back to the question at hand: To whom should we look as a model for poetry in the new millennium? (I have already no doubt tipped my hand on Dante.)

First I think it important to acknowledge this as the age of the sound-bite, the age of a video-driven, diminished attention span. So academic and elliptical poetry, perhaps best typified by Jorie Graham, and the New York School, at least as represented by the refinements of Ashbery’s late work, are out, as they take far too much time and thought for any but aficionados. The same can be said of many others, although I don’t mean to denigrate the peculiar virtues of any school—certainly there are poems by Graham and Ashbery I enjoy—but their besetting excess is a fondness for form over substance, preferring the nuances of language in approaching a subject to the direct treatment of the subject.

I have long maintained that the communication of poetic substance in the last thirty years has degenerated into a competition for an original style, or form (no doubt helped along by deconstructionists), the art of saying nothing, or nearly nothing, very eloquently. I consider this a bypath in the history of poetry. Without painting with too broad a brush, we have reached a bit of a dead end in contemporary poetry. When I read Graham I am most often bored. Blame my impatience, my lack of appreciation for the layers of tentative meaning she so assiduously employs, but rarely do I find a compelling reason to go on reading. Here’s a short example of what I mean, from “Le Manteau De Pascal,” part six:

You do understanding, don't you, by looking?
The coat, which is itself a ramification, a city,
floats vulnerably above another city, ours,
the city on the hill (only with hill gone),
floats in illustration
of what once was believed, and thus was visible —
(all things believed are visible) —
floats a Jacob's ladder with hovering empty arms, an open throat,
a place where a heart might beat if it wishes,
pockets that hang awaiting the sandy whirr of a small secret,
folds where the legs could be, with their kneeling mechanism,
the floating fatigue of an after-dinner herald,
not guilty of any treason towards life except fatigue,
a skillfully cut coat, without chronology,
filled with the sensation of being suddenly completed —
as then it is, abruptly, the last stitch laid in, the knot bit off —
hung there in Gravity, as if its innermost desire,
numberless the awaitings flickering around it,
the other created things also floating but not of the same order, no,
not like this form, built so perfectly to mantle the body,
the neck like a vase awaiting its cut flower,
a skirting barely visible where the tucks indicate
the mild loss of bearing in the small of the back,
the grammar, so strict, of the two exact shoulders —

As Eliot said about history in “Gerontion,” “the giving famishes the craving.” One short lyric by Frost does much more for me than such dilatory narratives that do not speak directly to the human mind or heart, that must be sifted for nuances in order to obtain an impact--which amounts to a second-order experience, not the primary experience of a lyric by Wordsworth or Blake, for instance.

In our search for a new model from the past, as there is nowhere else to look except within our own finitude, we cannot, of course, fall back on the Moderns, with the exception of Frost, who sticks out like a sore thumb among his contemporaries, as he spoke in the language of “men speaking to men,” in Wordsworth’s phrase, more than most

But I would like to put in a good word for Robinson Jeffers and Czeslaw Milosz, since they often share Dante’s directness. At their best both are opinionated, not afraid to put blunt and impalatable truths into their verse. They are no sleight-of-hand artists doing the dance of the seven veils. Admittedly Jeffers’ later Greek sagas are hardly worth reading and Milosz’s work can be of uneven quality. But at their best, again, I admire their unapologetic directness. They have something to say and can be very impolite about it. While at Berkeley Milosz even wrote a poem that takes Jeffers to task for his misanthropic views. (I think Milosz felt the need to attack Jeffers in part because the two were so much alike, not to discount Milosz’s religious objections to Jeffers’ philosophy.) I find it heartening to read a poem that takes issue with another poet’s message, not his method.

Here’s an excerpt from the close of Milosz’s poem, “To Robinson Jeffers”:

And yet you do not know what I know.
The earth teaches
more than does the nakedness of
elements. No one with
gives himself the eyes of a god....
Better to carve suns and moons on
the joints of crosses
as was done in my district. To birches
and firs
give feminine names. To implore
against the mute and treacherous might
than to proclaim as you did, an inhuman

Who then do I recommend as models?

First, William Blake. He wrote the most powerful short lyrics in the language. Though eccentric in his theology, he paints human nature and nature herself with passion, intensity and brevity. His poem, “Tyger! Tyger!” is the most anthologized poem in the language, and for good reason. Is there a more powerful lyric in English extant? We all know it, but it’s a good exercise to read it again:

Tyger ! Tyger !
Tyger! Tyger! burning bright
In the forests of the night
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?
In what distant deeps or skies
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand dare sieze thy fire?
And what shoulder, & what art,
Could twist the sinews of thy heart?
And why thy heart began to beat,
What dread hand? & what dread feet?
What the hammer? what the chain?
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil? what dread grasp
Dare its deadly terrors grasp?
When the stars threw down their spears
And water'd heaven with their tears,
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lamb make thee?
Tyger! Tyger! burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?

Like Dante, Blake is also not hard to understand, with the exception of his longer allegorical works (which require an excursion into post-Swedenborgian mysticism and private symbolism). So when I speak of Blake, I have in mind his short lyrics, the most popular of which are found in Songs of Innocence and Experience.

I’ve already mentioned my second model, Dante. Take Blake’s lyrical power, add Dante’s directness and everyman appeal, and I submit you have a poetry that might attract a larger audience than current fare.

I have written a few poems like this and given a number to Tryst’s editor for her choosing, as an example of where I think we ought to go, not where I necessarily will go as a poet, as I suffer from peculiar limitations (like every poet) that might make this bad advice for my particular talents.

Again, I think the overarching error of current poets is a persistent tendency to indulge themselves in extended imagery, detail, and word play before ever getting to the point, if there is one. As I have said of MFA programs, presently estimated to turn out some 20,000 “professional poets” a year, their tragicomedy is teaching students how to say something before they have something worth saying. As is said of the dead atheist, “All dressed up and nowhere to go.” Form is an extension of substance, not an extension of itself, or poetry must necessarily become bankrupt, as much of it already has—at least for those whom Harold Bloom calls “the common readers.”

To elaborate, one might call me an advocate of a more epigrammatic poetry, a poetry of compressed power utilizing all the accumulated weapons of formalism and symbolism, employing Chinese lucidity and Dantean accessibility, a poetry strong enough to muscle aside, perhaps, for a moment, the information overload that constantly attends those who might otherwise be tempted to actually sample contemporary poetry.
I should praise our most popular living poet, Billy Collins, for his accessibility and everyman appeal. In a recent article by Bill Marvel in the Dallas Morning News, April 30 2004, Collins said:

"I was brought up on the Mount Rushmore of modern giants…. I committed those sins of obscurity myself. I bought the connection between difficulty and value that was involved in these very difficult poets. It took to my 30s to get rid of this."

Further, he remarks:

“I think of the poems as very intimate communication, a whispered confidence between two people. I don't write for the podium, I write for the page."

I think it is Collins’ intimate voice that makes him so popular, as our culture is starved for intimacy, and certainly his voice is to be preferred over “the sins of obscurity.” Yet his work lacks lyrical power, opinionation, and quotability, qualities necessary to my proposed category, which, for lack of a better term, I have dubbed “Power Lyrics.” Perhaps such a poetry could be an antidote to the acronym I coined some years ago, PEMLODs (“Personal Emotive Monologues with Lots of (concrete) Details”), a term similar to one I’ve encountered elsewhere, “The Iowa Workshop Poem.”

This doesn’t mean power lyrics have to rhyme. Their chief measure of success should be quotability, as only phrases that actually enter the language enjoy the highest poetic immortality, as in:

“I should have been a pair of ragged claws
Scuttling across the floors of silent seas.”

“Home is the place, that when you go there,
They have to take you in.”

“When forty winters shall besiege thy brow.”

“Did he that made the Lamb make thee?”

“Petals on a wet, black, bough.”

“a locomotive spouting violets.”

“Pitched past pitch of grief.”

“A violet by a mossy stone.”

“And what rough beast….
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

These fragments have I shored against our ruins.


Copyright © 2004 CE Chaffin