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American Literary History 17.4 (2005) 856-868

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Fluent Worlds

A New Theory for American Poetry: Democracy, the Environment, and the Future of Imagination. By Angus Fletcher. Harvard University Press, 2004.

Now, near "the end of the long twilight of Romanticism" (225), as Angus Fletcher puts it in the penultimate chapter of his boldly entitled A New Theory for American Poetry: Democracy, the Environment, and the Future of Imagination (2004), we in the US are developing a kind of poetry that calls for and can be illuminated by (I suppose his "twilight" to be auroral) a new poetics. I hope that I will be forgiven for offering a brutally brief yet recklessly augmented account of Fletcher's polymath and recondite book. I hope that I will also be forgiven for presenting his terms in an order that is not his.

The American poetry in question has precursors in the work of John Clare and Walt Whitman and manifests itself most vividly just now in the work of John Ashbery. Elements of it figure in the work of Marianne Moore, Wallace Stevens, and A. R. Ammons, among others. Fletcher, who elsewhere has a flair for terminology, calls the "genre" to which these poets have contributed "the environment-poem," (9) and his study of the environment poem's features benefits from recent developments in science, especially in the areas of ecology and complexity theory. The latter, sometimes known in one or another of its phases as chaos theory, the study of nonlinear dynamics, or the theory of complex dynamics, has been construed by writers including John H. Holland in Hidden Order: How Adaptation Builds Complexity (1995) and Emergence: From Chaos to Order (1998). Among Holland's predecessors unmentioned by Fletcher are the Nobel Prize–winning physicist Ilya Prigogine and the historian of science Isabelle Stengers, who together wrote Order out of Chaos: Man's New Dialogue with Nature (1984). N. Katherine Hayles, author of Chaos Bound: Orderly Disorder in Contemporary Literature and Science (1990) and editor of Chaos and Order: Complex Dynamics in Literature and Science (1991), whose thinking overlaps with Fletcher's but concentrates on fiction rather than poetry, appears in an endnote.

We can begin to understand the environment poem in contradistinction to the High Romantic nature poem as set down by William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. (The magisterial exposition of this latter kind of poem is M. H. Abrams's Natural Supernaturalism: [End Page 856] Tradition and Revolution in Romantic Literature [1971], which does not come up in A New Theory for American Poetry.) While both modes involve description (a key, difficult term for Fletcher) of one kind or another, and while both assert ways of looking at the relationship between the natural microcosm and the natural macrocosm, the High Romantic poem posits a hierarchical view of things, such that the aim of the poet's sensibility is finally a transcendence of the natural order. The environment poem, in contrast, underwrites a democratic view, and its author focuses on extension and immanence. Whereas High Romanticism tends to operate on the vertical axis, environment poetry works horizontally. Indeed, it is the ever-receding horizon that draws "the environment-poet" (227) on, rather than the theoretically attainable (if ineffable) peak. To put it another way, the environment poem cares chiefly for the factual, countable, material world, the world of things, whereas the High Romantic poem seeks the supernal, the realm of ideas. The distinction is not between the ordinary and the extraordinary—Wordsworth and Coleridge were notorious advocates of "common life" as well as of romantic chasms—but between the empirical and the ideal. In this respect, Fletcher's distinction elaborates on (though he does not cite) T. E. Hulme's contrast between the Romantic (with its penchant for jumping off into "the circumambient gas" [Hulme 769]) and the Classical (with its fondness for the mundane, the "hard," the "dry" object), which Hulme and his post-Edwardian cohorts sought to resuscitate. (When Hulme and Ezra Pound noted cavalierly that the "thing" the Imagist poet should present could be indifferently "objective or subjective," they unintentionally undermined...


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