In memory of Leslie Scalapino and David Bromige
Poetry as Crisis
When in 1917 Ezra Pound cast a retrospective eye over the previous century, he thought of it "as a rather blurry, messy sort of a period, a rather sentimentalistic, mannerish sort of period" ("Retrospect" 11). His hopes for poetry in the twentieth century were, famously, for work "harder and saner . . . 'nearer the bone'" (12). The new poetry would be "austere, direct, free from emotional slither," a characterization that led to imagism and objectivism and much else in modernist verse. At the time he was writing these words, Pound was launching his own armada against the residual forces of Tennysonian rhetoric and impressionism through a series of masks and personae, translations and imitations that would culminate in The Cantos. Casting our own retrospective view on Pound's remarks, we might wonder what he would have made of certain current formulations:
Conceptual writing obstinately makes no claims on originality. On the contrary, it employs intentionally self and ego effacing tactics using uncreativity, unoriginality, illegibility, appropriation, plagiarism, fraud, theft, and falsification as its precepts[.](Kenneth Goldsmith, "Conceptual Poetics")
[T]he best poetry is really not what was said but what was almost said without thinking or feeling. It seems everyday conversation revolves precisely [End Page 597] around ephemeral things like that. Call it gossip of the mind, or an interambient kind of talking that never actually takes place.
What is under consideration: the poem as investigation, the poem as action—the poem embodying points along a fragmentary axis that factor in, layer in, and cross fields of meaning, elaborating and multiplying the means of sense making.(Myung Mi Kim, "Anacrusis")
Poetry as nutritionless, poetry as ambient noise, poetry as investigation—these remarks hardly sound "harder and saner," nor do they hint at the sort of cultural renewal underlying Pound's concerns. Where Pound's poetics—and that of many of his contemporaries—was centripetal in its search for the "unwobbling pivot" or "still point" of focused intensities, poetry of the current millennium could be seen as centrifugal in its dispersion and distraction.
If poets of the new twentieth century looked back at the limits of Victorianism and "emotional slither," they nevertheless looked back on something that looked like poetry. Stéphane Mallarmé had deserted the alexandrine in Un coup de dés, while Pound broke the "pentameter['s] . . . heave" (Cantos 538), paving the way for H.D.'s chiseled lyrics, William Carlos Williams's triadic foot, Langston Hughes's use of blues and black vernacular, Marianne Moore's syllabics, T. S. Eliot's and Wallace Stevens's looser iambics, and Gertrude Stein's repetitions. In the troublesome eugenic rhetoric of the time, Pound's revolution of the word required a verbal "hygiene" ("Serious Artist" 45), while W. B. Yeats spoke of "purify[ing] poetry of all that is not poetry" (Introduction ix). This scorched-earth approach to poetic language runs counter, as Marjorie Perloff notes, to a good deal of poetic imperfection in Pound's work—its desultory and meandering progress, its didacticism, its citationality, its "grotesque fragment[ation]," as Yeats said of The Cantos (Dance viii). As with every manifesto, the devil is not in the details but in its performative rhetoric.
It is this quality of performativity that characterizes much of the New American Poetry of mid-century America. The work of Allen Ginsberg, Denise Levertov, Robert Duncan, Frank O'Hara, [End Page 598] and Charles Olson is less concerned with purifying the dialect of the tribe than with giving voice to affective and cognitive states for which language seems endlessly inadequate. Despite the vatic mode of Ginsberg's "Howl" or Duncan's "Up Rising," there is a deeper skepticism about speech's ability to constitute identity. "As soon as / I speak, I / speaks. It // wants to / be free but / impassive lies // in the direction / of its / words," Robert Creeley writes in a poem that crystallizes the Wittgensteinian conundrum of his generation (294). The question for poets of the postwar generation was not whether by loosening the line the genre of poetry could be refreshed, but whether it could give voice to a world...