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'MIGHTY POETS IN THEIR MISERY DEAD': A POLEMIC ON THE CONTEMPORARY POETIC SCENE I Frederick Turner EDITOR'S NOTE: The polemic that follows by Frederick Turner is just that—a polemic. It will likely spark among our readers, as it did among our staff, great controversy, anger or applause, and much discussion. The Missouri Review offers this essay in an attempt to bring into print one side of a continuing dialogue concerning modem poetry, and invites its readers to submit essays in response to the opinion presented here. I ONE OF THE peculiarities of our present literary age is that future times will find it remarkably difficult to say of us that "history proved us wrong." The reason for this is that we take so few real stands on the literary quality of contemporary works. We tolerate almost any point of view, mindful of those many episodes in past literary history when strong stands were taken and duly reversed by posterity. If there is one crime greater than being wrong, it is surely that of being incapable of any opinion. Here, then, is an opinion: that no truly great poetry has been written in English since the Second World War.* There has been much good poetry, and enormous quantities of competent poetry: but no Dantes, no Chaucers, no Shakespeares, no Miltons; not even the equivalent of a Wordsworth or an Eliot. The immediate reply to such a charge would be that of course there is major poetry, but we cannot recognize it as such yet. But we are in no position today to distrust our own judgment, and we are in positive need of judgment. In literary matters confidence constitutes a large proportion of rightness; we can indeed be confident and wrong, but there is no way of being unconfident and right. Rightly or wrongly, I am going to suggest that there are only two chief theories of literary art, and that all other theories can be reduced to one or the other, or contain elements of both. These two theories are the mimetic theory and the poietic theory. The former has had much the best of it, for its basic tenets can be easily mapped onto closed philosophic systems, and it provides images of the artist (with his palette, smock, and easel, as it were, set up before a splendid landscape, building, or personage) that are easily assimilated by non-artists and not unflattering to the artist, for it apparently provides him with something objectively valid to do. *1 omit from this discussion any consideration of James Merrill's Divine Comedies, which fulfills many of the conditions of "great poetry." T h e M is s o u r i R e v ie w ■ 77 A mimetic theory essentially presents the artist as imitating, demon­ strating, representing, or counterfeiting—what is so imitated, etc., is not immediately at issue. A work of art, according to this theory, can be praised for its truth, its accuracy, the keenness of its observation, its insight into the human psyche or condition. A poietic theory, on the other hand, presents the artist as involved in a new creative event, the spontaneous generation of a new part of the world. The artwork cannot be praised for its truth or accuracy, is indeed not so much praised as accepted as a piece of reality. To my first heresy, of dividing all theories of literary art into two, I am adding a second, which is that only the poietic theory gives a fully adequate account of art, and a third, that it makes a real difference, not only in the type of art that is produced in a given period and tradition, but even in its quality, whether a poietic or a mimetic theory is generally accepted at the time. Artists can be liberated or confined by theory; an "artist" who is not conscious enough of what he is doing to have a theory about it, cannot be called an artist; an artist who deliberately adopts no theory is simply adopting a more sophisticated theory, with its own very abstract assumptions about the nature of theory, intention, and art. It is easy to describe the...


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