“The bookful blockhead . . . [w]ith his own tongue
still edifies his ears, / And always listening to himself appears.”
Behind Stephen Berg’s Singular Voices, a new anthology of contemporary native poets writing about their own work, is the voice-theory of poetry, which holds that a poet is valuable not for his perception, his language, his formal skill or inventive intelligence, but the uniqueness of whatever “voice” is heard on the page. From this assumption follows Berg’s claim that, since his book includes “living American poets whose work exemplifies strong new styles,” their voices must therefore be indubitably singular.
To test this claim, I compiled the following sequence of opening sentences from the prose essays, using just less than two-thirds of the book’s 30 “Singular Voices“:
Up in my eyrie-room atop the Chapel of the Madonna of Monserrato, perched on a cliff higher than the hawks above Lake Como, listening to the sweet bells of Bellagio’s San Giacomo, I begin to cast into air and mind for an explanation of “Awakening,” a poem written years ago in homage to the great Japanese Rinzai Zen master Hakuin. Sometimes I think communication is all we have—a voice like a silver wire extending through the dark or one chunk of flesh pressing against another chunk of flesh. I write prose poems when I long for intimacy. I want it from my friends, and I want it in poetry. The life in detail, the small moment, the texture of a thing—that, it has seemed to me, is where the poetry is. Poems begin when something in the present—event or object, word overheard—calls power to itself by association with something alive in the mind’s recesses, some connection potent but unavailable to consciousness. The ideas that make a poem present themselves as images. My insights on what I perceive to be the themes of this poem are already expressed: the poem embodies them. Something you are writing, after it is done, or begins to feel close to done, you can lean over and breathe on it and try to bring its main moves, its trajectory, into the center of your attention. Usually my poems are very difficult for me to write. Poets often admit, with something like a parental sense of surprise, pride, pleasure, that once a poem is finished it becomes someone else’s, becomes something else. Like many other writers of this century, my obsession has been with the lost and neglected forces of the world, what is dark and hidden, and unseen, although I’m not sure if my own passion is the result of political or psychological or religious impulses, or a particular combination of the three. There are aspects of the writer-reader relationship which sometimes drive a poet into apology and denial. Only a few months ago a graduate student at a Midwestern university sent me an elaborate commentary on an early poem of mine, requesting my seal of approval for his interpretation. This poem, “Recollection Long Ago: Sad Music,” is literally a recollection. I find that many poems have a germ in a recollection, but this is as literal, even in detail, as recollection permits after some three score years have done their work. It is true that there was a brief period, three or four years perhaps, when I thought of myself as a Southern writer. Then, as young men in our twenties, we were quite besotted with poetry, writing it constantly, continually theorizing about it, and translating each other’s work. “Elegy for N.N.” was written in 1962 but for a long time it remained in manuscript, as I hesitated whether to publish it at all. Most of my life-as-a-poet I have avoided writing poems about paintings, pieces of sculpture, sonatas, or other people’s choreography out of a Calvinistic sort of purism, thinking always that to give in to the impulse to embellish another’s art diminishes rather than enhances it. “Klimt” began on a day in Areata, after a long rain, the sun suddenly blazing every wet thing.
As these 19 opening sentences go, so proceed whole essays, collectively realizing a certain uniformity of solemn, if not pompous, tone and diction (and even of subject, as Europe in some form appears in half of them). What we hear are cultivated Anglo- American voices quite familiar to us—indeed, the voices of teachers addressing students. It follows that most of these poets have been or are (or expect to be) professors of poetry at America’s colleges. The spectacle reminds me of Harold Rosenberg’s image of “the herd of independent minds.”
Such uniformity is realized primarily by Berg’s nearly total exclusion of poets who deviate from current classroom manners, not only in their poetry and prose. In his 30-person regiment, the only exceptions to this pervasive voice are Etheridge Knight (who remains the sole nonwhite contributor), Hayden Carruth (who contributes an arch dialogue), Carolyn Forche and Robert Haas (who both write as though they are addressing friends, rather than students). Indeed, to my senses, the principal unintended theme of Singular Voices is precisely the general inability of so many prominent American poets to realize a unique voice, let alone to think about transcending current fashion, not just in the writing about poetry but in writing of poetry itself; and it is precisely this artistic failure that, to me, dramatizes the continuing stasis, if not decadence, of the American poetry scene.
The truths lost on these professor-poets are that success in academia requires acceptability, whereas success in art requires individuality that risks unacceptability, and then that success in the former does not guarantee success in the latter. This second truth accounts for why so many professor-poets nowadays are embittered about the lack of commensurate success for their poetry. Isn’t this bitterness another sign of decadence?
Given Stephen Berg’s evident ease in marshaling uniformity, it is not surprising that he neglects other parts of his editorial task. In the bio notes, he writes that Galway Kinnell “now runs the Columbia University Graduate Writing Program,” whereas Kinnell actually teaches at NYU. Elsewhere the reader finds a Robert Penn Warren sentence that suffers from a missing word: “The scene is an evening picnic of college in a distant woodland.” In the preface, Berg claims, “These poems and essays are also a substantial introduction to what is happening in American poetry today.” Now a careful editor, especially of such a narrow-minded book, would have removed that sort of disingenuous claim that was initially made, one suspects, to impress commercial publishers (and their sales managers). Reprinted here, a puff so false becomes outrageous and, need I say, infuriating.
[Singular Voices, by Stephen Berg (New York: Avon Books) $9.95]