“The future of poetry is immense, because in poetry, where it is worthy of its high destinies, our race, as time goes on, will find an ever surer and surer stay. . . . Our religion . . . has attached its emotion to the fact, and now the fact is failing. Poetry attaches its emotion to the idea; the idea is the fact. The strongest part of our religion today is its unconscious poetry.”
So wrote Matthew Arnold in 1880. But would he say the same today? Would he still argue that the “fact” of religion is failing, when religion stubbornly refuses to disappear, from Russia to Main Street? And would he see a “future” in poetry, as a substitute for religion, at a time when it is increasingly banished from the life of the young, carried by poets nobody reads—”laureate” though they may be—and nothing but products of racial ego and the vapidity of the Library of Congress? The poets of our time are perhaps as competent as those of Matthew Arnold’s time, but in a very real sense they are irrelevant.
Struggle though she may, Erato has become a nonperson. Ezra Pound, in his The ABC of Reading, noted that music loses its validity if it departs too far from the dance. And so poetry must maintain its connection with the other arts if it is to survive. But those other arts and letters, which once gave us a parallel understanding of three meters of life, are rapidly vanishing, and even those approximations of verse which grew in Tin Pan Alley have been replaced by the illiterate abominations of rap. Where today are the pomes pennyeach which sought to bring refinement to seeking minds? Peter Minot once repeated that today’s newspaper is tomorrow’s garbage-pail liner—but the newspaper, however fumblingly, at least reaches out to man’s immortal preoccupations.
The “little” magazines are still here, but they are inverted witnesses. Where once these magazines stirred their larger contemporaries long ago, the current crop live in a small world supported fitfully by the National Endowment for the Arts, and pursue ends and means of little concern to all but a coterie that turns the pages in search of its own product. But recall the high excitement over the publication of the Imagist manifesto back when, and Amy Lowell and her cigars. I was a boy, reading everything I could find in local public libraries now dedicated to the latest expression of literary autoeroticism—and it was a good one on New York City’s West 115th Street, some five blocks from where we lived. We had good public libraries then, with librarians who knew more than how to stamp your card or fine you for overdue books, and with six library cards in my family, the weekly Friday evening visit netted us 24 books to carry us through the week—and these included a sampling of poetry in three languages.
That was in the great 1920’s and 1930’s, before it became an article of faith that only economics mattered. The nonperson status of today’s poet derives from his loss of function— something for which he and our cultural castration are to blame. The poem is an equation. No matter how rich the variables, it adds up to nothing if one factor is zero. Mark Van Doren may have been positing that point when he used to tell his classes at Columbia that the measure of a poet could be taken by the number of lines that are quoted from his opera. He had something else in mind—and dumped heavily on students who challenged his thesis—but truth sometimes squeezes through the interstices of thinking to show itself plain. That the lines are quoted means that the lines have been read and have entered the general consciousness. The equation is completed and poetry exists.
But what will the critics of the future, when they make an assessment of our time, be forced to focus on? What poet writing after the 1920’s is the subject of the quoted lispings of prep school and college students? The National Endowment for the Arts gives out a grant here and a grant there, mostly to untenured “poets” teaching freshmen—and only if the “poets” arc politically correct and have the right connections. But who has read their works, even if they become poets laureate and read their doggerel at presidential inaugurations? They are “makers”—the Greek root of the word poetry—only in the sense that they have put words down on paper. But are they the “legislators” that Plato apperceived, when not even the legislators of our time, having provided the cash for their grants, share any cognizance of their work? They have not been allowed to make a scratch, much less a mark, on time, though some may eventually make the ranks of poetasters.
T.S. Eliot argued that poetry is a form of concealment—like the return of Odysseus to Penelope, in which the discovery of his identity is left to Euryclea, a humble serving woman. But his concealment, as I used to tell my father when he quoted the verses of Victor Hugo to me in rebuttal of what he considered the obscurantism of my own adolescent product, is a form of revelation, and the argument goes more to the methodology than to any apologia for the vacuum in which poetry huddles today. It is easy enough to recall that Wallace Stevens’ Harmonium sold only 200 copies in the ten years that followed its appearance, or that the first books of verse by T.S. Eliot and e.e. cummings—as well as those of others less celebrated—were published only because friends or the poets themselves financed publication. That John Berryman was perhaps more fortunate may be a function of his determination, when we were undergraduates together, to be known even if he was not heard—and at least one brilliant poet of our undergraduate years publishes in Europe to great silence.
The fact is that the poems of Eliot and cummings were published, that a great critical mind like Ezra Pound’s could work over The Waste Land and then force the media and academic ministries of culture to take note. However few copies were sold of these germinal works, they were reviewed and discussed, making their impact on literary discourse and the literary consciousness of their time. No writer after that could ignore Eliot or Stevens or Conrad Aiken—or even Floyd Dell’s hijinks in issuing a satirical manifesto. They were injected into the bloodstream of contemporary literature, were part of the cultural Zeitgeist. Publication at the time of the equivalent of Jimmy Carter’s maunderings would have been treated with the same scorn as a new volume of inspirational verses by Edgar Guest—pulp poetry and little more, with the publicity value of a painter who held the brush between his toes.
A publisher who took himself more seriously than a literary bookie published verse, as a professional imperative. Serious magazines published verse, and as late as the 1950’s and 1960’s, it could be read in publications such as Commentary or Modern Age, and even National Review found room for more than light verse. The literary supplements did not consider reviews of poetry a waste of space or journalistic condescension. Once upon a time, too, poetry was read and memorized in grammar and secondary schools—and poets were not looked upon as creators of an esoteric graffiti. Now, one by one the “intellectual” magazines are eliminating verse from their fare, or using it as filler. Book publishers—many of them competing against breakfast cereals as units of corporate conglomerates—grunt that “poetry doesn’t sell” or is irrelevant in an age which moves from technology to technology’ and computer to computer. So the writing of verse, even when it sees print, becomes a response to an itch, or an obscure passion like Nero Wolfe’s cultivation of orchids. Booksellers respond by relegating verse to a shelf south of the greeting cards. And the National Endowment for the Arts, when it is not too busy rewarding homophilic and urinary photography, operates as a WPA for unemployed writers.
In the years that followed the 1912 renascence, America not only began evolving a new and important voice, but seized the initiative from the British. There were pitifully few other poetic voices in the world—Garcia Lorca, Antonio Machado, and Miguel de Unamuno in Spain, Rilke in Germany, and perhaps Osip Mandelstam in Russia. The British hesitatingly gave us Wystan Auden, and the French some interesting voices from the post-World War II Montmartre. The death of Theodore Roethke, however, was a requiem, for what other serious voices had been heard? Erica Jong? There were of course others—Roethke was not alone—but they were unknown to the literary world of getting and spending. The receivership of the poetic impulse by academic minnesingers and a bored critical fraternity meant paralysis of the poetic larynx.
It is not necessary to flaunt Shelley’s overblown dictum that “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world” in order to fear for the human psyche. At best, poetry has given us an explication de texte of man’s inner nature and the regurgitations of his soul. But the “immense” future foreseen by Matthew Arnold and its role as an adjunct to religion are no more—perhaps because religion has increasingly become an adjunct to a social dialectic. It has gone, and the going has been a symptom of the politicization of art and of a “humanist” Weltanschauung. Instead we have seen the triumph of Macaulay’s view of poetry as the trauma of unsound minds, and the imposition of the ego on the id.
Poetry is a dissident yet ordering impulse. But at a time when “dissidence” has grown establishmentarian, poetry seems irrelevant, or at best an anguished effluent, Matthew Arnold notwithstanding. Or can it be that poetry flourishes and is an accepted part of the culture only during the vigor and expansion of a nation or a society—Elizabethan England and turn-of-the-century America, for example, or a Spain which gave us Cervantes and then flatted like a vox humana. If this is the answer, then the prognosis of poetry is indeed gloomy. The surrogate of progress, of growth, is tradition—and the Western world’s traditions have for long been exiled to an intellectual Gulag Archipelago or done away with in political and academic shredders. Harvard, Princeton, Columbia—and Oxford and Cambridge, too—once shook with life, as they now scratch for fleas. The poet is the spiritual product of a surging materialism, not of a society which sees its economic libido as criminal.
The poet will, of course, continue to sing—much as beshawled old women once prayed in Russian churches—but his voice will echo in a cistern like that of John the Baptist. The poet has been rejected by our civilization, because that civilization is no longer at ease with itself and spends its time rubbing camphor on a rheumy chest, while it contemplates its navel. A society in twilight seems to seek darkness, not the poet’s scolding or his Jeremiads. As the poet’s song becomes a mutter, what emerges from his throat is the lonely and ignored keening of Cassandra. Poor poetry. Poor Matthew Arnold.
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