Or Now That Poetry Is Dead, I Think I’ll Just Sit Here and Drink

A new battle of the books is in progress. This time, the lines are not being drawn between modern and ancient but between the present and the recent past, and the antagonists are not Homer against Milton or Aristotle vs. Bacon, but such younger poets as Dana Gioia and Fred Turner against an academic poetry establishment that has rejected form and narrative in favor of private communication in a flat, unbeautiful language that runs the gamut from insipid to unintelligible. Too simply put, the battle is over rhyme and reason.

The beginning of any war narrative should include an estimate of comparative strengths. At first glance, it looks bad for the rebels. The modern/postmodern establishment has virtually all the resources. It controls the granting agencies—public and private, the major literary prizes, creative writing programs, journals, and professorships. However, the “new formalists”—a dreadful term I shall use just this once—have a number of valuable assets. Since their work is generally accessible, it has the potential for attracting a large audience. What is more important at this stage of our cultural history, the rebellious posture has a peculiar charm for modernist intellectuals, who have a hard time realizing that they are themselves the “them,” the Establishment, the powers that be.

The war has heated up in recent months, with both sides scoring major victories. The rebels not only succeeded in putting out a manifesto issue of Crosscurrents but also released a volume of essays, Expansive Poetry: Essays on the New Narrative and the New Formalism. They were given a probably unintentional assist from Joseph Epstein, whose essay in Commentary “Who Killed Poetry?” forcefully makes the commonsense argument that Americans have given up on poetry and for good reasons. The essay was reprinted in Associated Writing Programs Chronicle, with rejoinders from a number of poets. Some of the answers were prudent; most were hysterical and irresponsible and as badly written as the writers’ verse. Such consistency is, I suppose, a mark of their sincerity.

Mr. Epstein’s most serious charge is simply that poetry is now an academic question. Not so long ago, poets were insurance executives and physicians and bankers; now they are all, uniformly, professors on the make. The only poet to endorse (with suitable reservations) this criticism was Dana Gioia, himself a business executive. As Mr. Gioia points out in his rejoinder, the weakest part of Mr. Epstein’s case is his lack of familiarity with the few good poets writing in English today, on both sides of the Atlantic. But these are, unfortunately, the exceptions that prove the rule, since apart from elder statesmen like Richard Wilbur and X.J. Kennedy, few of the traditional poets have received any attention from the official organs of the literary establishment. A few have received grants, but for the most part the traditionalists do not wear medals, hold distinguished chairs at great universities, or find themselves interviewed on National Public Radio.

The academic reaction to Epstein’s article betrayed the bad conscience or at least the unease of the modernist royalty. It also served to close ranks and draw back into the fold a writer who might have been a major defector, Donald Hall. After a lifetime of writing volumes of the usual stuff, leavened now and then with poetry, Mr. Hall had reached the point in his career (i.e., retirement from teaching) when he could afford to take risks. In recent years he has been complaining against the lack of ambition displayed by contemporary poets and censuring the writing programs for teaching young poets how to manufacture “McPoems.” Not content with calling for the abolition of the MFA in creative writing, Hall ridicules the trade newsletters that give advice on prizes and jobs: “For jobs and grants go to the eminent people. As we all know, eminence is arithmetical: it derives from the number of units published times the prestige of the places of publication. People hiring or granting do not judge quality—it’s so subjective!—but anyone can multiply units by the prestige index and come off with the product.”

Coming from an insider, Hall’s criticisms are far more withering than anything in Epstein’s article. However, to atone for such conspicuous disloyalty, Mr. Hall has sung his palinode in the September Harper’s. As it turns out, there is no problem with American verse. Poetry sells better than ever, he argues, and young “men” get misty-eyed and hysterical at poetry readings. Epstein’s arguments are only “blurbtalk”—which apparently means that the editor of The American Scholar knows how to write better prose than Mr. Hall’s.

Setting out to illustrate the cliché that “figures don’t lie but liars figure,” Mr. Hall insists that while in the 1950’s trade publishers used to release a thousand copies of a poetry book, they now routinely publish four to five thousand. He’s exaggerating at both ends. In the 40’s and 50’s there were still alive poets who could actually make money off poetry. Frost, Jeffers, and Eliot not only sold well, but they were public figures whose opinions on art, politics, and social questions made their influence felt far beyond the narrow confines of literature classes. And what Mr. Hall is not telling about those 4-5,000 press runs (more often 1,500-2,000) is that the biggest buyers are libraries. What is more chilling to contemplate is the size of the poetry establishment itself. There’s hardly a community college in Nebraska that cannot boast of its poet-in-residence. There are, quite literally, thousands in the business, with countless little magazines publishing their stuff, and a reasonably well-established figure is still lucky if he sells five thousand books.

Ultimately, the question is not over whether William Carlos Williams sold more books than Thom Gunn, but it is the whole project of modernism in poetry that is at issue. Modernist poets self-consciously set out to make themselves obscure and unappetizing. More seriously, they saw themselves as a sort of alienated priestly cast, guerrillas whose job it was to throw their bombs from outside the city walls. While this assumed importance lent the project an air of seriousness (Mr. Epstein speaks of poetry as “an exalted thing”), the net effect has been to whittle poetry’s general audience down to the thousands of people who are paid (usually by taxpayers) to practice or study it.

One hundred years ago poets were great public figures, more like rock stars than writers. Lord Tennyson was mobbed on the street by fans hoping to tear off a piece of his coat. In The Place of Poetry Christopher Clausen points out that 19th-century poets could get rich. Byron was paid something like $50,000 for a single canto of Childe Harold. But with the divergence of mass culture and high culture, a poet is “faced with the choice of being either trivial . . . or so outside the main concerns of his age as to seem irrelevant to all but a small minority of readers.” Quite correctly, Clausen points out that “the serious poet’s isolation and impotence are at least partly his own doing,” since pop poets and songwriters can get rich if they are willing to address the concerns of ordinary men and women.

Since most poets are in no position to “sell out” (what talent would they sell and to whom?), they have given up all hope of attracting an audience. Tennyson wrote for a broad middle-class audience; Eliot wrote for the college-educated intelligentsia; Ashbery writes for his peers, which in his case means the people who hand out grants and medals. As George Garrett remarked to Madison Smartt Bell in his Chronicles (June 1988) interview, grants, prizes, etc. have made it “worthwhile now for the first time in the 20th century to be a careerist in poetry.” Since there is, nonetheless, a shortage of emoluments, “there is a temptation to belong to a group which has some power and prestige.” The general effect is of “a small trough with a lot of pigs trying to get up there.”

What Mr. Garrett has sketched are the familiar outlines of small .group politics, the profile of every conspiracy or faction that seeks to advance the interest of its members. To some extent, poets in advanced societies have always formed circles and looked for powerful allies. Vergil and Horace had their Maecenas, Pope and Swift their Bolingbroke. Indeed, the poetry of faction has an ancient and honorable tradition. Such diverse writers as William Wordsworth and Samuel Johnson both played the part of Tory pamphleteer on occasion, and near the very beginning of lyric poetry we find Alcaeus of Mytilene writing his best work in defense of a conspiracy that tried more than once to seize power. His one line that has survived into modern consciousness in the watered-down Horation tag, “nunc est bibendum,” was the beginning of a poem celebrating the death of a political enemy: “We’ve got to get drunk, now that Myrsilus is dead.”

But ancient poets of faction all conspired, in principle, for the good of their country. Even Plato’s dramatist uncle Critias, leader of the Thirty Tyrants, seemed to have believed that his brand of aristocratic fascism was the best form of government. To some extent this concern for the commonwealth continued to characterize political poets down to the end of the 18th century. A more ominous development was the aesthetic cliquishness and disdain for the broader community that developed among the Romantics. How many poets since have adopted the aloofness of Byron’s Childe Harold: “I have not loved the world, nor it me . . . ” or Shelley’s Prometheus, a creature in rebellion against all the laws of man and God? And since the Romantics Britain, Europe, and the United States have all witnessed wave after wave of little movements carrying the banners of progress or reaction: Parnassians, Wagnerians, the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood. Decadents, Imagists, Surrealists, Objectivists, Confessionalists . . . so many. In the earlier stages, the writers at least claimed to be bent on revolutionizing society, and the Pre-Raphaelites left behind, in addition to their verse, some rather pretty pictures, a scattering of soft communist political tracts, handsomely printed books, and the Morris Chair. What is the legacy—in politics or furniture—of Robert Lowell and Allen Ginsberg?

Today’s grant-grubbing conspirators are a far cry from Alcaeus, although their tactics are not all that different from those of Gritias, who seized power and distributed the wealth of the state among his loyal followers. But there is a higher type than the poetry of faction, one that is far rarer in our century than ever before. If factional poetry unites a set of comrades in a conspiracy against either the nation or against other factions, there is also a poetry of community that celebrates the interconnectedness of the commonwealth. Most primitive song is of this type, but civilized societies have known it, too. However we choose to interpret the Aeneid, Vergil’s masterpiece was clearly meant to convey to the Roman people some sense of their tradition and history. When the ancestor of the Romans visits the underworld to gain knowledge of his future, he is introduced to a procession of the heroes who will make Rome great. Shakespeare in his Histories, while he was no match for Vergil as a poet, was clearly about the same business, as was Tennyson in his Idylls. In this century, one thinks first of Kipling, whose children’s book Puck of Pook’s Hill is an exact parallel with the Aeneid; of Eliot’s Quartets; and—strange to say—of Hart Crane, whose greatest literary undertaking (The Bridge) brings together Pocahontas, Whitman, Melville, and Columbus into the American equivalent of Aeneas’ visit to the underworld.

However, the clearest examples of such poetry are to be found in the tradition of Greek choral lyric poetry and in the great literary forms that developed out of it, Attic tragedy and comedy. Only a handful of tragedies survive—31, as a matter of fact—all written in a period of less than seventy-five years by three citizens of a city-state roughly the size of metropolitan Rockford, Illinois, Columbia, South Carolina, or Boulder, Colorado. To match the record of such a town (to call Athens a city in the modern context sounds amusing), we could call up the record of two hundred years of Anglo-American civilization, in vain. (To match the literary record of a jerkwater little island like Keos, we should have to point to the center of American literary civilization, Mississippi, which gave us William Faulkner, Walker Percy, Eudora Welty, and Shelby Foote.)

The career of the first of the great Athenian dramatists is instructive. Born to a noble family, he was 15 when the tyrant Hippias was driven out. As he grew to manhood, he witnessed the dramatic restructuring of political life initiated by Cleisthenes. He was 3 5 when he took part in the heroic defense of his city against the Persians on the plain of Marathon, and 45 when his people abandoned their city and took their chances on the naval battle that took place off the island of Salamis. Aeschylus was probably at Salamis, which he described in his earliest surviving play. We know he was at Marathon (where his brother died: the Persians chopped his hand off as he tried to keep a boat from getting away) because that is the only event recorded in his epitaph. Of his efforts in the creation of tragedy, his many victories at the Greater Dionysia, his enormous popularity with the Athenian people, who after his death passed an extraordinary measure authorizing repeat performances of his plays—not a word.

Citizen, soldier, poet, dramatist, Aeschylus wrote the plays—words, music, dances—staged them, acted in them’, all for an audience of fellow citizens, most of whom had never read a book. They were performed at a religious festival in honor of the god Dionysus and expressed—as no art form has done since—the corporate concerns of the community. While it is hard to believe that Vergil took his tales of gods and goddesses any more literally than we do, there is no doubt that the Athenians—whose superstitious nature St. Paul remarked upon—were deeply religious pagans. There was nothing metaphorical or mythical about the religious dimensions of the Oresteia or the Oedipus, and the response of Athena’s people to enlightened skepticism or liberal theology was swift and effective: expulsion or death.

Sophocles’ Oedipus goes to the heart of the matter. Echoing the fashionable opinions of the Sophists, the king and queen question not only the accuracy of the oracles but even the gods themselves. In distress the chorus wonders, if aristocratic mockers like Oedipus and Jocasta could get away with challenging the gods, then why should they dance? Their question is sung and danced as part of a play that is part of the festival of Dionysus. Is there in fact any point to ritual, including the rituals that nourish literature, in a society that has lost its faith? Is it any accident that the most powerful writers of this faithless century have mostly been Christian believers—Eliot, Faulkner, Peguy, Ionesco, and Solzhenitsyn—to name only a few?

The main difficulty I have with nearly every lament over the fallen state of American letters is that it rarely goes far enough. I wonder if civilization really did march so steadily forward in the 20th century and only stumbled to its knees some time about 1968. Or is it just possible that the century of trench warfare, incendiary bombing, nuclear weapons, and genocide was something less than the Renaissance it has been made out to be? The still untold history of modernism is of the religious reactionaries who were so disgusted by the growing barbarism and decadence of fin-de-siecle Europe and America that they created new and wonderful pieces of art as so many weapons against progress. In the end, the weapons proved too complicated for their less-educated successors to handle—rather like hand-held missiles in the hands of our all-volunteer army. After six decades of modernism, we are left with the choice between the well-subsidized vandalism of the arts-and-letters establishment and some attempt to reclaim, and not for the first time in the history of our barbarian nation, our cultural inheritance. Going back a single generation, even if it, were possible, would not be worth the effort.

The communal and religious spirit of the classics may represent an impossible ideal for anyone but a sentimental reactionary or a crazed Marxist, but Greek literature is there—if you can find someone to teach it to your children—as a perpetual reminder of what flawed humanity can achieve when we are bound together by ties of blood and ritual. It is also the very opposite of what most literary movements hope to achieve. Rather than dividing a people into artists and philistines, intellectuals and rednecks, great poetry bound an ancient community together in an art that could please high and low alike. Addressed to the most particular concerns of the city—a large number of Aristophanes’ jokes are opaque even to scholars—these plays have become the most universal items in our cultural inheritance.

If it is this inheritance that the practitioners of formal and narrative verse are setting out to reclaim, they deserve every encouragement. The worst thing they could do is to form yet one more movement or clique, complete with slogans and heroes. Some, at least, of the polemics coming out of the formalists suggest just that, and it is not a good sign that many of them seem oblivious of all the good poetry—including narrative and formal verse—being written outside their circle. Still, the revival of real poetry comes like a leg of lamb after 40 days of fasting, and there is no point in quarreling, at this point, over the quality of the turnips being put around the roast.