A Picturesque, Unprofitable Craftrnby Mark Royden Winchellrn”Poetry is the DeviVs wine.”rn— St. AugustinernThe Fox and Irnby Charles Edward EatonrnCranhury: Cornwall Books;rn120 pp., $18.95rnRebel Angels: 25 Poets of thernNew Formahsmrnedited by Mark jarman andrnDavid MasonrnBrownsville: Stor}>line Press;rn259 pp., $25.00rnI n his prophetic poem “The Silence ofrnthe Poets,” Dana Gioia imagines arntime in the not too distant future whenrnpoetr}’ will be a completely lost art. “Arnfew observers voiced their mild regret /rnabout another picturesque, unprofitablerncraft / that progress had irrevocablyrndoomed.” It will not be possible, however,rnto judge what we have lost. Out ofrnpure nostalgia, a few old men might visitrnthe abandoned libraries to run theirrnhands across the spines of the neglectedrnbooks; “but no one ever comes to read /rnor would know how.” Like most visionsrnof the future, the situation Gioia describesrnis an extrapolation based on presentrntrends. If poetr}- once seemed centralrnto civilization, it has now gone the way ofrnopera and ballet, becoming the propertyrnof an insular subculture. Paradoxically,rnwe live in a time when more poetry is beingrnwritten and less of it read than in anyrnprevious era.rnMark Royden Winchell, who teachesrnEnglish at Clemson University, is thernauthor, most recently, of Gleanth Brooksrnand the Rise of Modern Criticismrn(University Press of Virginia).rnPart of the blame may lie with “advances”rnin entertainment technology.rnToday, Papa is likely to celebrate thernchildren’s hour not by reading Longfellowrnbut by dropping a Disney tape intornthe VGR. Movies, television, and popularrnmusic now serve the function that poetryrnonce served in society. Perhaps forrnthat reason, so few contemporary poetsrneven try to reach the mass audience enjoyedrnby Longfellow or Tennyson in thern19th century. But literary modernism itselfrnmay also have deliberately limitedrnthe audience for poetr)’ even before popularrnentertainment began posing seriousrncompetition.rnBy design, high modernist poetry isrndifficult and elliptical. In purifying therndialect of the tribe, modernist poetsrnabandoned a public language for a privaternvision. Although a poem must alwaysrnbe more than its paraphrasablernprose content, there is a sense in which itrnmust be understood at a prose level if it isrnto be appreciated at any level. Unlike instrumentalrnmusic, poetry is composed ofrnwords as well as sounds. It is no accidentrnthat the last truly great American poet tornbe widely read was Robert Frost. Not onlyrndid Frost’s verse retain a surface accessibilityrnshunned by the high modernists,rnit adhered to a conventional prosody thatrnmade individual lines and phrasesrnsupremely memorable. According to hisrnmost famous critical aphorism, writingrnfree verse is “like playing tennis without arnnet”rnThe publication of two recent volumesrnof poetry provides an occasion forrnpondering both the Frost legacy and thernfuture of verse in America. The first isrnCharles Edward Eaton’s 13th collectionrnof poems. The Fox and I. Eaton studiedrnwith Frost at Harvard from 1938 to 1940,rnand the two remained friends for the restrnof Frost’s life. Eaton credits Frost withrnhelping to launch his career, and his earliestrnpoems seem to have been influencedrnby Frost’s work. As his career progressed,rnhowever, Eaton began to soundrnless like Frost and more like WallacernStevens. His later poems, particularlyrnthose in The Fox and I, are highly fusedrnimaginative constructs, far removedrnfrom what Stevens called the “quotidian.”rnIn the decades when American poetryrnwas moving toward more open formsrnand more personal subject matter,rnCharles Edward Eaton maintained a loyaltyrnto traditional forms and impersonalrnthemes. Such steadfastness (some wouldrnsay stagnation) is not characteristic ofrnEaton’s generation of poets. Robert Lowellrn(who was a year younger than Eaton)rnbegan his career writing formal versernDECEMBER 1997/29rnrnrn