In recent literary interpretation there is renewed interest in the political meaning, explicit or implicit, intentional or inadvertent, of all sorts of texts. One often now reads that some novel, play, poem, or essay is only apparently unrelated to political issues contemporary with either the text’s production or our current reading of it. This sort of interpretation, which is fast becoming conventional, sometimes slides too easily, I think, toward evaluation: on the one hand, insofar as a text is shown to veil its author’s self-interest (often understood as the interest of a class or gender) with claims to larger concerns, the critic nudges this title a little out of the canon of currently engaging texts; on the other, a text expressive of a progressive political position is retrieved from the neglect it suffered from critics who veiled their self-interest (that is, the interest of their class or gender) with misleading talk of aesthetic standards. Either way, self-interest is now thought of as the most authentic motive an interpreter can divulge in a text. This kind of political interpretation can be defended as a healthy reaction to what is remembered as a time, now more than twenty years gone, when extrinsic criteria were disavowed and literature was said to be valuable primarily as literature. But how far has this reaction gone beyond formalism on the one hand and ideological conformity on the other toward fresh, rich terms for evaluative criticism? Not far, I think. Without strong evaluative criticism it seems unlikely, as E. D. Hirsch has argued, that academic literary criticism can intervene in the institutions of literary instruction, or indeed in the production and reception of the poetry of our contemporaries, which is my own large interest (insofar as I have any).
It should be said too that the current trend toward political interpretation owes a good deal to our own narrow professional self-interest: as fewer institutional and economic resources have been directed toward the study of literature in the 1970s and 1980s, we can all remember fondly the importance that ideas, especially political ideas, seemed to hold in the 1960s. Some recent political interpretation seems to be motivated not just by a desire to maintain faith with the concerns of the 1960s, but as well by a need of scholars of humanities to generate terms that render the study of literature—or culture generally—obviously important. The political shifts of the late 1960s and early 1970s took money, jobs, and even a sense of consequence away from humanities departments. The recent move is to restore at least a sense of consequence to literary criticism. However worthy that objective, there is no reason to think that self-legitimation will lead to the development of evaluative standards appropriate to the study and enjoyment of poetry in American in 1987.
Certain general ideas come up repeatedly, in various guises, when contemporary poetry is discussed. One of these might be described as the question of what, if anything, is our social responsibility as poets.
That is, there are things writers owe the art of poetry—work, perhaps. And in a sense there are things writers owe themselves—emotional truthfulness, attention toward one’s own feelings. But what, if anything, can a poet be said to owe other people in general, considered as a community? For what is the poet answerable? This is a more immediate—though more limited—way of putting the question than such familiar terms as “political poetry.”
Another recurring topic is what might be called Poetry Gloom. I mean that sourness and kvetching that sometimes come into our feelings about our art: the mysterious disaffections, the querulous doubts, the dispirited mood in which we ask ourselves, has contemporary poetry gone downhill, does anyone at all read it, has poetry become a mere hobby, do only one’s friends do it well, and so forth. This matter often comes up in the form of questions about the “popularity” or “audience” of poetry.
Possibly the appetite for poetry really was greater in the good old days, in other societies. After the total disaster at Syracuse, when the Athenians, their great imperialist adventure failed, were being massacred, or branded as slaves with the image of a horse burned into the forehead, a few were saved for the sake of Euripides, whose work, it seems, was well thought of by the Syracusans. “Many of the captives who got safe back to Athens,” writes Plutarch,
Are said, after they reached home, to have gone and made their acknowledgments to Euripides, relating how some of them had been released from their slavery by teaching what they could remember of his poems and others, when straggling after the fight, had been relieved with meat and drink for repeating some of his lyrics.
Robert Pinsky teaches at the University of California, Berkeley. His most recent book of poems, History of My Heart, was awarded the William Carlos Williams Prize. His other books include Sadness and Happiness, An Explanation of America, and a volume of criticism, The Situation of Poetry. Mindwheel, his narrative entertainment for computer, has been issued by Brøderbund Software.
Pindar’s songs were composed for men at play, but his poetry was political in its impulse and in its function. The men in question were rich and powerful, and their games were a display of exclusive class attributes, vicariously shared by lesser mortals who responded with gratitude and loyalty (for example, Pythia 5.43-44). Victories were counted as princely benefactions (compare Olympia 5.3 and 15, 7.94, 8.87, Isthmia 6.69) and laid up as city treasure like the wealth deposited in the treasuries at Delphi (Pythia 6.5). Athletic victory was thus both a manifestation and an enhancement of aristocratic domination, which meant that the poet who praised those who boxed and raced in pan-Hellenic games necessarily praised the social structure that depended on them.
Pindar understood his political function and was proud of it—“I would consort with victors” (Olympia 1.115b).1 He believed in athletic contest as a model for all human life. He believed in the aristocratic system: “Inherited governance of cities lies properly with the nobility” (Pythia 10.71-72). He believed also that praise poetry could regulate as well as laud that system, and he believed finally that such poetry was itself incorruptible. Games, song, and princely rulers were all parts of a single brilliant order, and this truth had a linguistic reflection, for the bit that tames a horse, the meter of a poetic line, and the moderation of a ruler were all called by the same name—metron. “Measure (metron) inheres in everything” (Olympia 13.47 and throughout).
1. All translations are my own.
Anne Burnett is professor of classical languages and literature at the University of Chicago. Her most recent publications are Three Archaic Poets: Archilochus, Alcaeus, Sappho (1983) and The Art of Bacchylides (1985). A monograph on choral poetry, with focus on the Sicilian poet Stesichorus, is forthcoming.
To pose the question of evaluating political poetry is, of course, itself already a polemical move, since it insists on distinctions that command neither general critical consent nor methodological specificity. Repudiating the pertinence of such concerns to poetry has been, after all, the principal thrust of some of the most influential texts in modern literary theory. Indeed, considered historically, the struggle to separate aesthetic from both moral and political considerations can be seen as constituting the inaugural, grounding act of poetics as a distinct discipline. In such a view, the words of a poem, by their very nature, are radically divorced from their usage in the quotidian world of shared human activities, so that although a text may contain political themes among its material poetica, insofar as it succeeds as a work of art these must function purely as internal and autonomous elements in the structure of the piece, not as arguments seeking to participate in a wider discourse. Because the language of poetry is unique and self-sufficient, thematic considerations are strictly irrelevant, and the issue of evaluation is identical regardless of the ostensible subject matter of the poem. Political poetry, in other words, is a meaningless term: a work is either a poem or it is not, and any attempt to include political concerns in its creation or evaluation is simply to abandon the domain of art for what Mallarmé dismissed as the debased idiom of “les journaux.”1
Yet the very need to keep insisting on so categorical a distinction reveals that contamination is always possible, that the chasm may prove only a threshold habitually traversed by the words of any poem. And in fact, for every instance of a Mallarméan insistence upon the autonomy of the poem, there exists a counterpolemic stressing the link between word and world and, more pertinently still, between the language of verse and a search for values applicable to the communal experiences of both author and readers.2 But as I remarked earlier, the very heterogeneity of these arguments tends to deprive them of any methodological specificity, and all too often discussions of political poetry have done little more than catalog judgments about the ideological stance of a given work according to a critic’s fixed conception of which attitudes merit approval and which deserve censure. There is a crucial distinction between reading political poetry and reading poetry politically. In the latter case, the concern is less with the characteristics, let alone the evaluation, of political poetry per se than which judging how effectively the poem either champions or contests positions whose independent authority is always already guaranteed and which, in principle, are only to be illustrated, not questioned or modified, by literary texts.
1. Mallarmé’s formulation here is both categorical can powerful: “cette donnée exacte, quíl faut, si l’on fait de la literature, parler autrement que les journaux” (Stéphane Mallarmé, Correspondence, ed. Henri Mondor and Lloyd James Austin, 11 vols. [Paris, 1959-85], 3:67).
Michael André Bernstein, associate professor of English and comparative literature at the University of California, Berkeley, is the author of The Tale of the Tribe: Ezra Pound and the Modern Verse Epic (1980) and Prima della Rivoluzione (1984), a volume of verse. He is currently completing a book on the Abject Hero and a study, Talent and the Individual Tradition in Modern Poetry. His previous contributions to Critical Inquiry are “When the Carnival Turns Bitter: Preliminary Reflections upon the Abject Hero” (Winter 1983) and “image, Word, and Sign: The Visual Arts as Evidence in Ezra Pound’s Cantos” (Winter 1986).
If we supply a missing connection in the master text of English Renaissance poetic theory, we can bring the dilemma posed by political poetry into sharp relief. Sidney’s Defence of Poesie seeks to confirm the supremacy of the poet’s power over human minds by invoking the celebrated three-way distinction between poetry, philosophy, and history in the Poetics. According to Sidney, the proper question to ask of poetry is not “whether it were better to have a particular act truly or falsely set down” but “whether it be better to have it set down as it should be, … for your own use and learning.” On this criterion, the philosopher shows himself too devoted to “knowledge” that “standeth upon the abstract and general,” to the “precept,” to “what should be.” The historian attends too much to “the particular truth of things and not to the general reason of things,” to the “example,” to “what is.” Only the poet “coupleth the general notion with the particular example” in “the speaking picture of poesy,” thus synthesizing through his “imaginative and judging power” the best that the philosophical and historical domains can offer. “Aristotle himself,” concludes Sidney, “plainly determineth this question, saying that poetry … is more philosophical and more studiously serious than history … because poesy dealeth with … the universal consideration, and the history with … the particular.” Yet in mounting his Defence of Poesie, Sidney fails to give due force to a related and equally important distinction drawn from the Poetics. Aristotle ranks poetry below philosophy—and, by implication, history as well—at the crucial juncture where ontology and epistemology meet. He exclusively credits philosophical universals with rational “necessity.” Poetic universals are recognized as having imaginative “likelihood,” but no more than this.1 Under this second three-way distinction, the domain proper to poetry turns out to be neither the realm of historical fact nor that of philosophical truth but some half-region of the truthlike, the verisimilar, disjoint from the plane of knowledge.
Milton coped with the questions intrinsic to political poetry during the decade from 1642 to 1652 when he rose to prominence as a pamphleteer on public issued and concurrently pioneered the writing of political sonnets in English. This essay examines the responses he made, in part in his prose but mainly in the composition of seven sonnets. Political poems in a root sense, these sonnets concern themselves with human agency channeled into the functions of the state, with power manifested through governance. After exploratory and uneven beginnings, the group as a whole goes a fair way toward vindicating the enterprise of political poetry and offering one set of criteria for a good political poem.
1. The core distinctions are drawn by Aristotle in chap. 9, secs. 2-4, of the Poetics; also see chap. 1, sec. 1 of the Topics on the distinction between demonstration, based on reasoning from true knowledge, and dialectic, based on reasoning from what is generally accepted as probable. The quotations in this paragraph are from Sidney: A Defence of Poetry, ed. J. A. Van Dorsten (Oxford, 1966), pp. 35, 32, 33, 35.
Janel Mueller is professor of English and humanities at the University of Chicago. She has published mainly on poetry and prose of the earlier English Renaissance, culminating in her book The Native Tongue and the Word: Developments in English Prose Style, 1380-1580. An interest in Milton, however, has drawn her more recently to work in the later part of this period. She is writing a book on nature, culture, and gender in Milton’s major poems.
One might say that Clare is almost by virtue of that label alone a political poet. “Peasant poet” is a contradiction in terms from the perspective of English literary history, or of the longer history of the literary pastoral. The phrase must refer to two different social locations, and as such makes social place an explicit, problematic concern for the middle-class readers of that poet’s work. To Clare’s publisher and patrons in the 1820s, as to his editors in the 1980s, the language, the forms, the sentiments, and even the punctuation of his poetry are further markers of class difference for an audience invited to read him as a peasant poet. In recent collections concerned to recover the politics of English poetry these signs of difference are highly valued.2 They seem to mark Clare’s work as what Fredric Jameson terms “strong” political art, that is, “authentic cultural creation … dependent for its existence on authentic collective life, on the vitality of the ‘organic’ social group.”3
At the time his poems were published class difference in English rural life was a political issue sufficiently charged to make publisher and patrons wish to minimize (though not obliterate) its marks in Clare’s poetry. On the one hand, a clearly understood hierarchy was the form of social stability that rural scenes staged for their urban middle-class audiences. Evidence of class difference confirmed the survival of this hierarchy and the reader’s position in it. Clare’s poetry of place affirmed a system of social as well as geographical differences felt as a traditional—and essential—aspect of English national identity. On the other hand, however, the countryside was precisely where the erosion of the hierarchical relations of deference and responsibility was particularly noticeable, and disturbing, in the years after 1815. Sporadic outbreaks of protest against low wages and unemployment in 1816, 1822, and 1830 realized dramatically for the middle and upper classes what one might call a rural version of the process Marx was later to term alienation: the known and familiar inhabitants of the rural scene—laborers, village artisans—were suddenly made strange to their middle- and upper-class neighbors, so much so that many observers were convinced that they must be strangers, intruders from another pace (and another class).4 The elements of difference, or strangeness, in Clare’s poetry—the marks of his identity as rural laborer—thus also risked awaking specific anxieties among his early readers. Clare’s editor and publisher, John Taylor, punctuated, regularized meter, and replaced some (though not all) of Clare’s unfamiliar local vocabulary. Nonetheless, his two most important early patrons, the evangelical aristocrat Lord Radstock and the middle-class Mrs. Emmerson, objected to some lines as “radical slang” and others as “vulgar.” The language of class risked rejection as politically (and sexually) subversive. Especially in an already politicized rural scene, the peasant poet could not be a neutral figure.
2. Both A Book of English Pastoral Verse, ed. John Barrell and John Bull (new York, 1975) and The Faber Book of Political Verse, ed. Tom Paulin (London, 1986) restore Clare’s original orthography and lack of punctuation to support the label “peasant poet.”
3. Fredric Jameson, “Reification and Utopia in Mass Culture,” Social Text 1 (Winter 1979): 140.
Elizabeth Helsinger is associate professor of English and general studies at the University of Chicago and a coeditor of Critical Inquiry. Her Ruskin and the Art of the Beholder was published in 1982. The present essay is part of a book in progress on representations of the rural scene in Victorian England.
In World War II, however, that lonely masculine authority of experience—the bitter authority derived from direct exposure to violence, injury, and mechanized terror—was rapidly dispersing among generally populations. Graves, notes, with some discomfort, that the Second World War soldier “cannot even feel that his rendezvous with death is more certain than that of his Aunt Fanny, the firewatcher.”5 American culture was, obviously, characterized by far greater disjunctions between male and female “experience” of war than the British blitz society Graves describes, and the modern tradition of soldier poetry, with its ironic emphasis on unmendable gaps between the soldier author and the civilian reader, retained its strong influence. Still, public discussions of war and literature in the United States dwell frequently on the new conjunctions between civilians and soldiers, front and home front, and men and women, focusing on their shared morale or effort as well as on their common deprivation and vulnerability.
In a war newly perceived as “total,” [Marianne] Moore’s work could exemplify the power of a representative civilian voice. It could also represent modernism provisionally embracing realist and didactic functions, coming round to correcting earlier trends toward self-referentiality. Thus Richard Eberhart, arguing in his introduction to a well-known anthology of war poetry that “the spectator, the contemplator, the opposer of war have their hours with the enemy no less than uniformed combatants,” praises Moore for abandoning the “complacencies of the peignoir” to write “In Distrust of Merits.”6 His phrasing links Moore with another civilian war poet, Wallace Stevens; by dressing Moore in Stevens’ Peignoir in order to show her doffing it, he represents her as a formerly feminine object of desire who has emerged from the coquetries of her sex into a new, superior, gender-free authority Now, Eberhart argues, “the bloodshed of which she writes has caused her to break through the decorative surface of her verse” to a “different kind of utterance.” For Eberhart, the poem’s value lies in its violation of Moore’s usual mannered aestheticism. She “breaks through” a feminine surface, as if puncturing skin, but the result is not a wound but a mouth: a “different kind of utterance,” in which “the meaning has dictated the sincerity.”7 Oscar Williams, in the preface to a comparable anthology, also reads the poem as a model of transparent earnestness, offering it as a solution to the problem of Edna St. Vincent Millay, the “bad” woman war poet who is excoriated in these discussions as often as Moore is extolled. Describing one of Millay’s war poems as “a sentimental piece of verse written by an American civilian, designed to be read by … people themselves out of danger because they are protected by a wall of living young flesh, much of which will be mangled,” Williams contrasts Moore’s “In Distrust of Merits”:
But with true poets the poetry is in the pity …
I ask the reader to study closely a war poem peculiarly fitted to illustrate my present thesis. It is also written by a woman, a civilian. “In Distrust of Merits,” by Marianne Moore, is the direct communication of honest feeling by one ready to search her own hear to discover the causes of war and accept her full share of responsibility for its effects.8
5. Graves, “The Poets of World War II,” p. 310.
6. Richard Eberhart, “Preface: Attitudes to War,” in War and the Poet: An Anthology of Poetry Expressing Man’s Attitudes to War from Ancient Times to the Present, ed. Eberhart and Selden Rodman (New York, 1945), pp. xv, xiii.
7. Ibid., p. xiii.
8. Oscar Williams, ed., The War Poets: An Anthology of the War Poetry of the Twentieth Century (New York, 1945), p. 6.
Susan Schweik is assistant professor of English at the University of California, Berkeley. She is at work on a book manuscript entitled A Word No Man Can Say for Us: American Women Poets and the Second World War.
The era from the late fifties to the early seventies was marked in Africa and the Caribbean by a rush of newly articulated anticolonial sentiment that was associated with the burgeoning of both international back consciousness and more localized nationalist movements. Between 1957 and 1973 the vast majority of African and the larger Caribbean colonies won their independence; the same period witnessed the Cuban and Algerian revolutions, the latter phase of the Kenyan “Mau Mau” revolt, the Katanga crisis in the Cong, the Trinidadian Black Power uprising and, equally important for the atmosphere of militant defiance, the civil rights movement in the United States, the student revolts of 1968, and the humbling of the United States during the Vietnam War. This period was distinguished, among Caribbean and African intellectuals, by a pervasive mood of optimistic outrage. Frequently graduates of British or French universities, they were the first generation from their regions self-assured and numerous enough to call collectively for a renunciation of Western standards as the political revolts found their cultural counterparts in insurrections against the bequeathed values of the colonial powers.
In the context of such challenges to an increasingly discredited European colonialism, a series of dissenting intellectual chose to utilize a European text as a strategy for (in George Lamming’s words) getting “out from under this ancient mausoleum of [Western] historic achievement.”1 They seized upon The Tempest as a way of amplifying their class for decolonization within the bounds of the dominant cultures. But at the same time these Caribbeans and Africans adopted the play as a founding text in an oppositional lineage which issued from a geopolitically and historically specific set of cultural ambitions. They perceived that the play could contribute to their self-definition during a period of great flux. So, through repeated, reinforcing, transgressive appropriations of The Tempest, a once silenced group generated its own tradition of “error” which in turn served as one component of the grander counterhegemonic nationalist and black internationalist endeavors of the period. Because that era of Caribbean and African history was marked by such extensive, open contestation of cultural values, the destiny of The Tempest at that time throws into uncommonly stark relief the status of value as an unstable social process rather than a static and, in literary terms, merely textual attribute.
Rob Nixon is a Ph.D. candidate in English at Columbia University. He is working on the topics of exile and Third World-metropolitan relations in the writing of V. S. and Shiva Naipaul. His previous contribution to Critical Inquiry (with Anne McClintock) is “No Names Apart: The Separation of Word and History in Derrida’s ‘Le Dernier Mot du Racisme’ ” (Autumn 1986).
My education in political poetry begins with William Blake’s remark about John Milton in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell: “The reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels & God, and at liberty when of Devils & Hell, is because he was a true Poet and of the Devil’s party without knowing it.”1 The statement is usually taken as a charming misreading of Milton or as some sort of hyperbole. We find it lumped with other readings which supposedly view Satan as the hero of Paradise Lost, such as Percy Bysshe Shelley’s in A Defence of Poetry, although neither Blake nor Shelley says anything of the kind.2
I consider Blake’s statement simply accurate. I think it the best single thing anybody has ever said about Paradise Lost. If not clear as a bell, then at least as compressed as diamonds. The insouciant opening gesture takes for granted what to Blake (and to me) is obvious” that the poetry qua poetry is better, more exciting, more energetic in the sections dominated by Stan, worse, duller, less poetic in the sections dominated by God. As a lover of poetry Blake has evidently struck a perplexity. Why (he asks himself) does Milton’s Satan excite me and this God bore me even though he plainly intends me to adore God and scorn Satan? The answer could have been that Milton “wrote in fetters” where constrained by theology and the danger of lapsing into inadvertent sacrilege, but “at liberty” otherwise. Other critics have claimed that it is impossible to make God talk successfully in a poem, but the Book of Job is enough to refute that position. Why did Milton choose to make God talk at all? Dante cleverly avoided that difficulty.
The second half of Blake’s sentence not only solves the Paradise Lost problem but proposes a radical view of all poetry which might be summarized as follows: All art depends on opposition between God and the devil, reason and energy. The true poet (the good poet) is necessarily the partisan of energy, rebellion, and desire, and is opposed to passivity, obedience, and the authority of reason, laws, and institutions. To be a poet requires energy; energetic subjects make the best material for poems; the truer (better) the poetry, the more it will embody the truths of Desire. But the poet need not think so. He can be of the devil’s party without knowing it.
1. William Blake, “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell,” Complete Poems, ed. Alicia Ostriker (New York, 1977), p. 182.
2. Let one instance serve: Marjorie Hope Nicolson wonders whether the members of the “‘Satanic School’ of Milton criticism” (Blake, Shelley, Byron) have read past books 1 and 2 of Paradise Lost (John Milton: A Reader’s Guide to His Poetry [New York, 1963], p. 186).
Alicia Ostriker, professor of English as Rutgers University, is the author of Stealing the Language: The Emergence of Women’s Poetry in America. Her most recent book of poetry is Imaginary Lover.
On the winter morning of 16 June 1976, fifteen thousand black children marched on Orlando Stadium in Soweto, carrying slogans dashed on the backs of exercise books. The children were stopped by armed police who opened fire, and thirteen-year-old Hector Peterson became the first of hundreds of schoolchildren to be shot down by police in the months that followed. If, a decade later, the meaning of Soweto’s “year of fire” is still contested,1 it began in this way with a symbolic display of contempt for the unpalatable values of Bantu education, a public rejection of the “culture of malnutrition” with which blacks had been fed.2 The local provocation for the Orlando march was a ruling that black children be taught arithmetic and social studies in Afrikaans—the language of the white cabinet minister, soldier, and pass official, prison guard, and policeman. But the Soweto march sprang from deeper grievances than instruction in Afrikaans, and the calamitous year that passed not only gave rise to a rekindling of black political resistance but visibly illuminated the cultural aspects of coercion and revolt.
The children’s defacement of exercise books and the breaking of school ranks presaged a nationwide rebellion of uncommon proportion. The revolt spread across the country from community to community, in strikes, boycotts, and street barricades. It represented in part the climax of a long struggle between the British and Afrikaans interlopers for control over an unwilling black populace and was at the same time a flagrant sign of the contestation of culture, an open declaration by blacks that cultural value, far from shimmering out of reach in the transcendent beyond, would now be fought for with barricades of tires, empty classrooms, and precocious organization.
1. At least three general analyses of the Soweto uprising have emerged: deeper African National Congress involvement in the community; strains on the educational system, unemployment and recession, with greater industrial militancy stemming from the strikes in the early seventies; and the emergence of Black Consciousness ideology. See Tom Lodge, Black Politics in South Africa Since 1945 (Johannesburg, 1983), pp. 321-62.
2. See M. K. Malefane, “ ‘The Sun Will Rise’: Review of the Allahpoets at the Market Theatre, Johannesburg,” Staffrider (June/July 1980); reprinted in Soweto Poetry, ed. Michael Chapman, South African Literature Studies, no. 2 (Johannesburg, 1982), p. 91. Soweto Poetry will hereafter be cited as SP.
Anne McClintock is a Ph.D. candidate in English at Columbia University. She is the author of a monograph on Simone de Beauvoir and is working on a dissertation on race and gender in British imperial culture. Her previous contribution to Critical Inquiry (with Rob Nixon), “No Names Apart: The Separation of Word and History in Derrida’s ‘Le Dernier Mot du Racisme,’ ” appeared in the Autumn 1986 issue.
What is the significance of that loose collective enterprise, sprung up in the aftermath of the sixties, known as L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Writing? To answer this question I will be taking, initially, a somewhat oblique route. And I shall assume an agreement on several important social and political matters: first, that the United States, following the Second World War, assumed definitive leadership of a capitalist empire; second, that its position of leadership generated a network of internal social contradictions which persist to this day (the collision of imperialist demands with the isolationist and revolutionary nationalism of American ideology); third, that this postwar period has been characterized, at the international level, by an extended cold war shadowed by the threat of a global catastrophe, whether deliberate or accidental. Whatever one’s political allegiances, these truths, surely, we hold as self-evident.
Postwar American poetry is deployed within that general arena, and to the degree that it is “political” at all, it reflects and responds to that set of overriding circumstances.1 In my view the period ought to be seen as falling into two phases. The first phase stretches from about 1946 (when Robert Lowell’s Lord Wear’s Castle appeared) to 1973 (when Lowell capped his career with the publication of History). This period is dominated by a conflict between various lines of traditional poetry, on one hand, and the countering urgencies of the “New American Poetry” on the other. In the diversity of this last group Donald Allen argued for a unifying “characteristic”: “a total rejection of all those qualities typical of academic verse.”2
Of course, this representation of the conflict between “tradition” and “innovation” obscures nearly as much as it clarifies. The New American poets were, in general, must moe inclined to experimentalism than were writers like Richard Wilbur, Anthony Hecht, Louis Simpson, or Donald Justice. But Allen’s declaration can easily conceal the academic and literary characteristics of the innovators. Robert Duncan and Charles Olson, for example, key figures in the New American Poetry, can hardly not be called “literary” or even “academic” poets. If they opened certain new areas in the field of poetic style, no less could and has been said of Lowell, even in his early work. And if Frank O’Hara seems the antithesis of academic work, John Ashbery is, in his own way, its epitome. Yet both appear in Allen’s New American Poetry anthology. Moreover, who can say, between O’Hara and Ashbery, which is the more innovative of the two—so different are their styles of experimentation?
1. Black and feminist writing in the United States often confines the focus of the political engagement to a more restricted national theater. Nevertheless, even in these cases engagement is necessarily carried out within the global framework I have sketched above.
2. The New American Poetry: 1945-1960, ed. Donald M. Allen (New York, 1960), p. xi.
See also: Lee Bartlett, What Is Language Poetry?
Jerome J. McGann is Commonwealth Professor of English, University of Virginia. His most recent critical work, Buildings of Loss: The Knowledge of Imaginative Texts, will appear in 1987. “Some Forms of Critics Discourse” (March 1985) and “The Religious Poetry of Christina Rosetti” (September 1983) are among his previous contributions to Critical Inquiry.
In Latin America Cardenal is generally regarded as an enduring poet. He brought a recognizably Latin American material into his poetry, and he introduced to Spanish-language poetry in general such poetic techniques as textual collage, free verse lines shaped in Poundian fashion, and, especially, a diction that is concrete and detailed, textured with proper names and the names of things in preference to the accepted poetic language, which was more abstract, general, and vaguely symbolic. But what is notable in Spanish-language poetry is not only Cardenal’s “craft,” in the sense given this word by Seamus Heaney to mean manipulation of poetic resources; there is also this poet’s “technique,” which in Heaney’s sense means a “definition of his stance toward life.”2 Cardenal’s characteristic poetic stance has been admired because he addresses the political and social pressures that shape—and often distort, damage, or destroy—life and feeling. This is apparent even in the earliest poems Cardenal has chosen to preserve. “Raleigh,” for example, is a dramatic meditation from 19493 in which the treasure-hunting explorer marvels at the expanse and wealth of the American continents and out of sheer pleasure recounts some of the triumphs and hardships of his travels. Although his alertness and wonder make him sympathetic, this Raleigh’s vision of the New World as a limitless source of wealth is forerunner to the economic exploitation of the land and people.
One might ask, What are the political and social circumstances which, rather than distorting and damaging life and feeling, nurture and preserve them? Perhaps one might answer that, paradoxically, destructive conditions of life have many times proven insufficiently powerful to prevent the creation of poetry. And some poetry has even arisen in reaction to the destructive: such conditions produce resistance, which, if it cannot heal the spirit, can lend it strength. One might answer further that it is not Cardenal’s or any artist’s responsibility to establish what circumstance will form a fruitful matrix for art, but only to work as honestly and as hard as political, social, and artistic circumstances will permit.
2. Seamus Heaney, Preoccupations: Selected Prose, 1969-1978 (New York, 1980), p. 47.
3. The date is from Joaquín Martin Sosa, “Breve guía (para uso) de lectores,” preface to Poesía de uso, p. 9.
Reginald Gibbons is the editor of TriQuarterly magazine and teaches at Northwestern University. His most recent books are his third volume of poems, Saints, one of the winning books in the National Poetry Series (1986), and two edited collections of essays—The Writer in Our World (1986) and, with Gerald Graff, Criticism in the University(1985). He is at work on a critical study of modern and contemporary poetry, as well as new poems and fiction. His previous contributions to Critical Inquiry, “Poetic Form and the Translator,” appeared in the June 1985 issue.