VITAL SIGNSrnErato in the Throesrnby Ralph de Toledanornii The future of poetry is immense,rnbecause in poetry, wliere it isrnworthy of its high destinies, our race, asrntime goes on, will find an ever surer andrnsurer stay. . . . Our religion . . . has attachedrnits emotion to the fact, and nowrnthe fact is failing. Poetry attaches itsrnemotion to the idea; the idea is the fact.rnThe strongest part of our religion today isrnits unconscious poetrv.”rnSo wrote Matthew Arnold in 1880.rnBut would he say the same today?rnWould he still argue that the “fact” of religionrnis failing, when religion stubbornlyrnrefuses to disappear, from Russia to MainrnStreet? And would he see a “future” inrnpoetry, as a substitute for religion, at arntime when it is increasingly banishedrnfrom the life of the young, carried by poetsrnnobody reads—”laureate” thoughrnthey may be—and nothing but productsrnof racial ego and the vapidity of thernLibrary of Congress? The poets of ourrntime are perhaps as competent as thosernof Matthew Arnold’s time, but in a veryrnreal sense they are irrelevant.rnStruggle though she may, F>ato hasrnbecome a nonperson. Ezra Pound, in hisrnThe ABC of Reading, noted that musicrnloses its validity if it departs too far fromrnthe dance. And so poetry must maintainrnits connection with the other arts if it isrnto survive. But those other arts andrnletters, which once gave us a parallelrnunderstanding of three meters of life,rnare rapidly vanishing, and even thosernapproximations of verse which grew inrnTin Pan Alley have been replaced by thernilliterate abominations of rap. Whererntoday are the pomes pennyeach whichrnsought to bring refinement to seekingrnminds? Peter Minot once repeatedrnthat today’s newspaper is tomorrow’srngarbage-pail liner—but the newspaper,rnhowever fumblingly, at least reaches outrnto man’s immortal preoccupations.rnThe “little” magazines are still here,rnbut they are inverted witnesses. Wherernonce these magazines stirred their largerrncontemporaries long ago, the currentrncrop live in a small world supported fitfull-rnby the National Endowment for thernArts, and pursue ends and means of littlernconcern to all but a coterie that turns thernpages in search of its own product. Butrnrecall the high excitement over the publicationrnof the Imagist manifesto backrnwhen, and Amy Lowell and her cigars. Irnwas a boy, reading everything I couldrnfind in local public libraries now dedicatedrnto the latest expression of literary autoeroticismrn—and it was a good one onrnNew York City’s West llSth Street,rnsome five blocks from where wc li’cd.rnWe had good public libraries then, withrnlibrarians who knew more than how tornstamp your card or fine you for overduernbooks, and with six library cards in myrnfamily, the weekly Eriday evening visitrnnetted us 24 books to carry us throughrnthe week—and these included a samplingrnof poetry in three languages.rnThat was in the great 1920’s andrn1930’s, before it became an article ofrnfaith that only economics mattered.rnThe nonperson status of toda’s poetrnderives from his loss of function—rnsomething for which he and our culturalrncastration are to blame. The poem is anrnequation. No matter how rich the variables,rnit adds up to nothing if one factorrnis zero. Mark Van Doren may have beenrnpositing that point when he used to tellrnhis classes at Columbia that the measurernof a poet could be taken by the numberrnof lines that are quoted from his opera.rnHe had something else in mind—andrndumped heaviK- on students who challengedrnhis thesis—but truth sometimesrnsqueezes through the interstices ofrnthinking to show itself plain. That thernlines are quoted means that the linesrnhaye been read and have entered therngeneral consciousness. The equation isrncompleted and poetry exists.rnBut what will the critics of the future,rnwhen they make an assessment of ourrntime, be forced to focus on? What poetrnwriting after the 1920’s is the subject ofrnthe quoted lispings of prep school andrncollege students? The National Endowmentrnfor the Arts gives out a grant herernand a grant there, mostly to untenuredrn”poets” teaching freshmen—and only ifrnthe “poets” arc politically correct andrnhave the right connections. But who hasrnread their works, ecn if the- become poetsrnlaureate and read their doggerel atrnpresidential inaugurations? They arcrn”makers”—the Greek root of the wordrnpoetry—onl in the sense that they havernput words down on paper. But are theyrnthe “legislators” that Plato apperceived,rnwhen not even the legislators of ourrntime, having proided the cash for theirrngrants, share anv cognizance of theirrnwork? They have not been allowed tornmake a scratch, much less a mark, onrntime, though some ma ecntuallv makernthe ranks of poetasters.rnT.S. Eliot argued that poetry is a formrnof concealment—like the return ofrnOdysseus to Penelope, in which the discoveryrnof his identity is left to Euryclea, arnhumble serving woman. But his concealment,rnas I used to tell my fatherrnwhen he quoted the verses of VictorrnHugo to me in rebuttal of what he consideredrnthe obscurantism of my own adolescentrnproduct, is a form of revelation,rnand the argument goes more to thernmethodologv than to any apologia forrnthe vacuum in which poetry huddles today.rnIt is eas enough to recall that WallacernStevens’ Harmonium sold only 200rncopies in the ten years that followed itsrnappearance, or that the first books ofrnverse by T.S. Eliot and e.e. cummings—rnas well as those of others less celebratedrn—^were published only because friendsrnor the poets themselves financed publication.rnThat John Berryman was perhapsrnmore fortunate may be a functionrnof his determination, when we were undergraduatesrntogether, to be known evenrnif he was not heard—and at least onernbrilliant poet of our undergraduate yearsrnpublishes in Europe to great silence.rnThe fact is that the poems of Eliotrnand cummings were published, that arngreat critical mind like Ezra Pound’srncould work over The Waste Land andrnthen force the media and academic min-rn42/CHRONICLESrnrnrn