- 17 Poetry:1900 to the 1940s
The year's work in poetry is as ample as one could hope for—indeed, too ample and diverse for quick characterization. Not surprisingly, the trends discussed in these pages last year persist: ecological, gender-based, and historical approaches abound. There is also a self-conscious recovery of the practices and insights of structuralism, usually in company with contextual approaches. Most of this work speaks exclusively to scholars, and if one were to judge by the energy, depth, and breadth of our discussions, one would have to presume that poetry could not be healthier. Behind these approaches is the assumption that poetry acts in public for a much larger public than the academy, yet this assumption is itself the subject of some important work. A line of inquiry seems to be arising questioning the value and place of poetry in contemporary life. Do people still read modernist poetry? Should they read poetry? and What should poetry do? These questions are explicitly addressed in Stephen Burt's "'September 1, 1939' Revisited: Or, Poetry, Politics and the Idea of the Public." Burt uses as the occasion of his essay the post-September 11 popularity of Auden's poem, which seemed to serve as public consolation in the immediate aftermath of the attacks on the World Trade Center. In the context of much current criticism that emphasizes the political and social dimensions of literature and uses those dimensions to shift the canon, Burt's essay challenges us to decide whether this view of poetry is adequate or perhaps politically dangerous. Burt relies on Habermas's definition of the political public sphere in order to suggest that poetry does not always engage directly in politics, and indeed should not be required to. While I worry that Burt's broader definition of poetic involvement is quietist, it is a position that must be engaged, particularly in light of a recent NEA report that the very public to which we refer is shrinking. Americans are reading imaginative literature much less than [End Page 393] ever before, and that drop is connected with declining involvement in public life. No wonder that Meg Schoerke in "'A Diminished Thing': Frost's Place in Contemporary Poetry" laments that Frost is not read as much as he once was, either in the academy or out. No wonder that Mark W. Van Wienen produced an anthology of poetry and verse from the First World War that includes polemics from all sides of the political spectrum, inviting us to look at an energetic, popular literature long ignored by critics who prefer to look at the more complex, aesthetically rich artifacts of high modernism. No wonder that Eileen Gregory's "H.D.'s Heterodoxy: The Lyric as a Site of Resistance" tries to invest the work of this high modernist with the same political energy that Van Wienen finds in broadside polemics of the same period. No matter which position each of us takes, the implications are huge not only for our profession but for America's public life. I suspect that the concern shown in this year's work will expand in years to come, especially as we digest the NEA report.
Van Wienen's Rendezvous with Death: American Poems of the Great War (Illinois, 2002) gives us the raw material on which he based Partisans and Poets. He juxtaposes the work of poets already in the canon with the work of polemicists, writers for newspapers, and a wide range of poets, many of whom wrote in an accessible and traditional style that the modernists were self-consciously opposing. In his introduction, he explains that his anthology not only gives the complex backdrop against which the modernists were working to define a "high" poetry, it also gives us an entire countercanon, one based on intense involvement with the world and attempting to engage a specific audience. This is not an anthology of warrior poets alone; Van Wienen gives us poetry of the home front, which was a kind of battleground of ideas where poetry was used to argue what America's relationship to the European war was and should be. The volume's...