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Responses to Frederick Turner The following is a synopsis of Frederick Turner's article " 'Mighty Poets in Their Misery Dead': A polemic on the Contemporary Poetic Scene," which appeared in the Fall, 1980 issue of The Missouri Review. Turner begins by offering an opinion: "that no truly great poetry has been written in English since the Second World War." Distinguishing between mimetic and poietic theories of poetry, Turner argues that "just as 'classical' mimetic theory acted as a brake on the poetry of the eighteenth century, so a new version, 'modern' mimesis, is doing the same thing to ours." He argues that since the war there has been no major narrative, philosophical or religious poetry; no poetry with invented human characters; no satirical, epic or truly learned poetry; no verse drama; no important allegorical, tragic or comic poetry, no popular poetry and no major poetic fantasy. All of these are traditional forms and there is no reason, he argues, why a great writer, "unembarrassed by a crippling theory of art," should not be able to take up these ancient forms and make them speak to his own age. Turner argues that this would be no criticism if great poetic innovation were taking place in response to the challenge of the new age. But this is not the case: "Anglo-Saxon poetry has systematically ignored the enormously exciting developments in thought and action that have gone on around it." The basic canons of postwar poetic taste, he argues, have imposed severe limitations on contemporary poetic productions. Instead of being open, innovative and revolutionary, as we claim, "contemporary poetic taste is one of the most rigid and mandarin in history, vying for that distinction with the taste of the Augustans in the eighteenth century. . . . We are locked into a vocabulary, audience, tone, stereotype of the poet, notion of form, and range of genres as narrow as or even narrower than those of Dr. Johnson's." "Our poets," Turner argues, "profess to be writing for everyone—poetry for the migrant worker, the taxi-driver, the schoolchild, the miner. . . . Actually the real audience for poetry is the self-doubting and sometimes self-despising middle class against which so much of it is ideologically aimed." Whereas the conventional Augustan tone was internally coherent—public, ironic, sometimes malicious, convinced of its sufficiency of judgment—, the conventional tone of our poetry is just as strictly defined. "To put it unkindly, it is a sort of tough coyness which we like to think of as irony; and a hushed, desperate attempt to sound tender," though there are other elements: the sense of belonging to a movement or not belonging; the sense, in confessional poetry, of shocking the reader with a terrible frankness; and above all our enlistment of the reader against an imagined status quo. The formal demands on our poetry are similarly as limited. The great meter of the Augustans was the most closed of all poetic forms: the heroic couplet; but the "open" forms of our poetry are even more constricting. They permit only one voice: the poet's own. All the masks are denied to the modern poet. The most restricting quality of our poetry, however, is the "image" of the poet in our time. "AU contemporary poets of note are out The Missouri Review · 272 of sympathy with the dominant movements and themes of middle-class culture." Furthermore all contemporary poets are required to be able to demonstrate some credentials of anti-intellectualism: contempt for technology and the sciences, ignorance of philosophy; at best, and especially in America, a complete oblivion to cultural and intellectual history, the fine arts and literature. The problem of mimesis emerges again in the poet's confrontation with the contemporary world view. In our age, the dictum "no ideas but in things" is a recipe for poetic impotence. "Our notion of what we reason about," argues Turner, "is Einsteinian but our notion of how we reason is Aristotelian." The "concrete" image is a translation into language of a "thing," but our world view today is dominated by the idea of pattern. Thus, our language, which still essentially views the world as made of things, is increasingly unable to render...


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