[The American Model, page 117]
Poetry and living:
an evaluation of the American poetic tradition
by Robert Gray
Before presenting my assessment of our interest, ‘The American Model’, I think I will have to define what I look for from poetry in general. I want to reveal the criteria by which I will try to measure, and which will enable me to comment on, American poetry. But this preamble is going to lead back, I assure you, to particular poets and particular poems.
What I am insisting about is the too-often disregarded truism that there can be no such thing as a value-free judgement of art (any more than there is any value-free observation in science, as science is now at pains to concede).
Hence the importance of the critic approaching poetry from a very conscious, divulged standpoint — one that must be adequate and defensible.
This standpoint, I have come to feel, can only be the humanist or ethical one, which is probably the oldest critical attitude: its least attractive form is Plato’s; at its very best, it is that of Shelley, in ‘A Defence of Poetry’. I will endeavour, in a small way, to make something of this tradition new.
Such an attitude does not, of course, exclude its supposed opposite, the formalist, or aesthetic, approach; rather, I believe it subsumes and completes that view-point. I want to make it plain that I am opposed to aestheticism only in so far as it is reductive and self-sufficient.
I take the position I do because it’s been impressed on me that it is only ethics that makes our human situation worth living — this is all that can make life more than ‘nasty, brutish and short’.
But it is important to understand that by ethics I will mean an
[The American Model, page 118]
inherent potential of the mind for empathy. I do not necessarily mean anything to do with religious or social or cultural taboo. The imperatives of these two kinds of motivation may well coincide at times, but a spontaneous ethics can exist independently of, and often in defiance of, taboo. By ethics I will not mean the merely negative, timorous, ‘place-keeping’ virtues.
Of course, I hardly need to acknowledge that the capacity in human beings for empathy can be devalued and over-ridden, or it can be physiologically sluggish, or even unattainable.
It seems to me that poetry, if it is to be taken in any way really seriously, if it is to have a very basic value in our lives, must be able to be associated with something as fundamental as ethics. It is a fairly common desire of artists that their work should have this sort of usefulness. James Wright, a contemporary American poet, has spoken of feeling that he ‘wanted to give to poetry… a human significance, rather than have it a mere game with words’. And the Polish poet Tadeusz Roszewicz has said: ‘I want [my poetry] to help… I want to give words that can be turned into practice.’
How does one properly relate ethics to poetry? Obviously it is done through content. But I think it must certainly be done without turning poetry into moralism; into the mere retailing of humanistic homilies — those things we know about, intellectually, already.
The philosopher Martin Heidegger, whom I do not wish to invoke but only want to acknowledge, has written that man’s function in the world, if he is to live authentically, should be one of ‘Care’; he has said that every person ought to be ‘the shepherd of being’.
I think this the most satisfying definition I have found for the adequate relationship of an artist to his subject-matter and his audience. While it is precise, it is not unnecessarily restrictive; it is only an attitude and not a formula. It does not imply that poetry must embody in Keats’ phrase, ‘a palpable design upon us’. It means poetry can have an ethical function and effect while having no didactic — no deliberately moral — intent.
So, both ethics and poetry are the same if they are recognized as not dogma, but as the products of responsiveness, of empathy.
In parenthesis here, I want to point out that mentioning the word empathy indicates the role of imagination. The imagination is an ability to create mental images. It is the conjuring-up, selection, rearrangement, and magnification of things already perceived. It might be said to be awareness by analogy; and therefore it gives insight. An
[The American Model, page 119]
[The American Model, page 120]
Photo of Hart Crane
[The American Model, page 121]
Poetry and living
aphorist would say, ‘The imagination is a griffin’, because the griffin is a beast that has never existed, and is made entirely of beasts that do. Edgar Allan Poe, a writer for whose work I have no great taste, but who, it must be allowed, possessed the faculty of imagination, dismissed as ‘the dogmatism of Coleridge’ the idea that ‘the fancy combines’ whereas ‘the imagination creates’. He says, ‘This was intended, and has been received, as a distinction’, but ‘it is one without a difference; without even a difference of degree. The fancy as nearly creates as the imagination; and neither creates in any [true] respect. All novel conceptions are merely unusual combinations. The mind of man can imagine nothing that has not really existed; and this point is susceptible of the most positive demonstration’.
The approach I am speaking of has got nothing to do with merely retailing the ‘right’ beliefs. As Borges has written, ‘It is not possible for the poet to do that which he wants to’. He can only do that which he is. It shows, unmistakably, in the conviction of his work, in his originality, above all in his tone of voice, which is like an aroma about the poems. (As an instance: the falsity in Robert Frost’s character was apparent, to many, in the falsity of the tone of voice, long before Thompson published his revealing biography.)
I want to claim that ‘the quality of the emotion’ should be seen as a natural aesthetic category — in fact, it should be seen as the one by which we ultimately judge a work of art. Wittgenstein has said, ‘Ethics and aesthetics are one and the same’. Certainly what seems to us moving aesthetically is very often basically an ethical property. (A perfect example of this is almost all of Thomas Hardy’s poems.) What ethical and aesthetic experience have in common is that both depend upon discrimination, vulnerability, and self-transcendence. So perhaps I should regard myself as a complete aesthete. I am talking about ethics because to me they seem an essential component of aesthetics.
Humanity appears in poetry, then, without the poet having any design for its ‘use’ — it appears for its own sake. But at the same time, this whole Shelleyan attitude includes the belief that poetry can be efficacious in modifying life. It is fashionable to dispute the idea; however I know, from a moment’s retrospection, that one’s reading does have the greatest practical effect upon one. In the words of Hart Crane, ‘The poem becomes an active principle in the reader’s consciousness, henceforth’.
If poetry cannot be effective in this way, then neither can the novel, or philosophy, or religion, or speech — all of which are also only words.
[The American Model, page 122]
There is one other preliminary point I have to make. I do not want it to seem that I value only lyrical or purely emotive poetry. On the contrary, I am like Nietzsche in this: I value above all those poets who are capable of thought as well as sensuality. My belief is that poetry can be the most complete mode of apprehension, in which feelings and ideas matter equally and potentiate one another. Poetry can be, and should be, what Francis Ponge has spoken of — a rational language that will resonate also in the body. I think that by allowing any form of poetic licence we are patronizing poetry, and that the final licence or patronage, one that is still fashionable, is to disregard the poet’s ideas.
It seems to me that the definition I have supplied of ‘the kind of poetry I want’ is also an accurate, after-the-fact description of a whole body of work in American literature. This is the tradition of America’s greatest poet, Walt Whitman. The next most eminent poet, in descent from him, is William Carlos Williams; and after that, there is an almost unknown but, in my opinion, very considerable poet, Charles Reznikoff, who has been terribly neglected.
And there are living poets who have this same general approach: I think of Gary Snyder, at least in his earlier work (although one often wishes he would come out from behind that hairy chest); of the period in his work which finishes with Regarding Wave, after which his moralistic interests, vital though they are, overwhelm for the most part the sensuality and care put into his writing. I think of James Schuyler, who has transcended in every way the dilettantish New York school he is associated with, and who is still a very-much undervalued poet in America. I think of Elizabeth Bishop at her best, when she is writing out of a sensual responsiveness and not whimsy. I think of Louis Simpson, who happens to be our guest here, of his earlier poems like ‘The Tailor’s Wedding’, and of the whole of his remarkable latest book, Searching for the Ox. These poets seem to me some of the best justifications that America, with its rampaging ‘American way of life’, has to offer for itself.
I want to speak more of those older, accomplished masters, Whitman, Williams and Reznikoff.
To prove Whitman’s pre-eminent position in American poetry one only has to quote. It has been proven, particularly by Randall Jarrell, and I do not need to go over that again. Rather, I want to point to what I think the most interesting thing about Whitman’s approach; to what poets can learn, technically, most of all from him: the generative, vitalizing effect of content upon language. I want to invoke Whitman’s
example against a language-centred, ‘aspiring to the condition of
[The American Model, page 123]
Poetry and living
music’ type of poetry.
Whitman’s content, of course, was his belief that with the founding of America there was at last the opportunity for a society worthy of humanity; he saw the material largesse and expanse of the United States as providing a refuge for the oppressed in every country.
That America has continued to sink steadily towards the lowest level of industrialized subsistence, for so many of its people, might make us think that Whitman’s ideal was naive from the start, given the dubious principles of his country’s founding. But Whitman’s work was really exhortation rather than prophecy — it was a purely personal dream that seized with the greatest hope and urgency on outward circumstances, as seeming to hold out some opportunity or promise.
Whitman’s content was everything to his work — it transformed him from a bad versifier into an extraordinary poet. He actually professed scorn for beauty alone (which he called ‘unregenerate poetry’) and considered poetry rather as a variety of knowledge; it is the wisdom which is derived from being sensually aware. ‘We realize the soul only by you, you faithful solids and fluids’, he wrote; and, ‘To glance with an eye confounds the learning of all times.’ As Robert Louis Stevenson said, Whitman was a poet because he realized the poet is one who convinces like Nature, and not like books; that an idea is only ever truly given conviction through the physicality which is poetry.
Though Whitman put such stress upon the content of his work, I have found no poetry, from America, that is more symphonic, more orchestral, than his. He has the true effect of music, without any indulgence in games of syllable and rhyme; without a trace of that which is merely mellifluous. He was able to reproduce the ‘rhetoric’ of music, because he straight-forwardly felt his subject as demanding that sort of grandeur. And his content supports him completely. (Pasternak has said that music, in language, can only be there because of the meaning.) Whitman adopts the stance and gestures of music; he does not try to imitate details and niceties — he assumes music’s emotional force.
Has anyone begun their poems better than Whitman? Think of the various music of his opening lines: ‘Out of the rolling ocean the crowd came a drop gently to me’; ‘Rise O days from your fathomless deeps’; ‘I sing the body electric’; ‘O take my hand Walt Whitman! / Such gliding wonders, such sights and sounds!’; ‘I saw in Louisianna a live-oak growing / All alone stood it and the moss hung down from the branches’; ‘As Adam early in the morning’.
[The American Model, page 124]
Along with Shelley, Whitman has achieved the most sublime moments in our language’s non-dramatic poetry. He has moments almost comparable to those in Shelley’s ‘Ode to the West Wind’, or in the opening of‘The Triumph of Life’, or the beginning of ‘Julian and Maddalo’, or at the end of ‘Adonais’ — those moments when the soul seems to break loose and rise up and rhapsodize. In Whitman, these occur mostly in ‘Song of Myself and ‘The Sleepers’.
I want to point also to the peculiarly ‘visceral’ quality of Whitman’s use of language. This marvellous usage arose, as I say, from the fact that he allowed words to be forced on him by his subject-matter rather than choosing them, or setting out to construct a poem from words. It is not what he thinks about his feelings, it is rather what outside things feel like within him — as directly experienced with his body. Hence, so often, the unusual verbs and epithets: ‘Look in my face while I snuff the sidle of evening’; ‘I effuse my flesh in eddies, and drift it in lacy jags’; ‘Flaunt of the sunshine I need not your bask — lie over!’; and, of a sunrise, ‘Something I cannot see puts up libidinous prongs, / Seas of bright juice suffuse heaven’.
I have always been amazed by this bluff familiarity with language; this unabashed taking hold of it and improvising, like the carpenter he had been, to his need. He treats words with great virility, a bit like Picasso with a brushload of paint, but he is never simply playing, or ‘experimenting’; he is never decorative, self-indulgent, or facile: his great vision is always there, even in the ‘smallest leaves’ of himself, as he justly says. He rifles language with his eye unwaveringly on things, those ‘primal words’, as he calls them; always he has a mimetic purpose.
In some rough lecture notes, published as An American Primer, Whitman speaks of his attitude to language: ‘Why are … words so mighty? — Because facts … are.’ And he says, ‘A perfect user of words uses things’, and, ‘The art of the use of words would be a stain, a smutch, but for the stamina of things’.
As he admitted, Whitman certainly contains ‘contraries’: his language, which can be so sensitive, can become absolutely absurd; his athletic empathy can seem a buffoonish egotism. But also, in an altogether good way, his swift, ethereal elevations can become sunk like some vast bearded-oak into the earth. Then, from being reminded of the luminosity of Shelley, one is suddenly confronted with something like the earthiness of the ‘primitive’ painter Henri Rousseau: there is that same massive naivety, that awkwardness, so endearing and convincing,
[The American Model, page 125]
Poetry and living
that extraordinary frontal, block-like, outrageous confidence — which works!
Apart from his well-known masterpieces, there are many excellent poems of Whitman’s that most readers don’t seem to come across. I would like to recommend amongst these, ‘So Long!’, ‘To the Man-of-War Bird’, and particularly ‘Faces’.
‘Faces’ contains much of what Whitman basically has to say, combined with his characteristic tenderness, his expressionist language, his amazingly acute observation. I’ll read a few lines:
Sauntering the pavement or riding the country by-road, lo, such faces!
Faces of friendship, precision, caution, suavity, ideality.
The spiritual-prescient face, the always welcome common benevolent face,
The face of the singing of music, …
I see them and complain not, and am content with all.
Do you suppose I could be content with all if I thought them their own finale?
This now is too lamentable a face for a man,
Some abject louse asking leave to be, cringing for it.
Some milk-nosed maggot blessing what lets it wrig to its hole.
This face is a dog’s snout sniffing for garbage.
Snakes nest in that mouth, I hear the sibilant threat.
This face is a haze more chill than the arctic sea,
Its sleepy and wabbling icebergs crunch as they go.
This is a face of bitter herbs …
This face is bitten by vermin and worms,
And this is some murderer’s knife with a half-pull’d scabbard.
This face owes to the sexton his dismalest fee.
An unceasing death-bell tolls there.
[The American Model, page 126]
Features of my equals would you trick me with your creas’d and cadaverous march?
Well, you cannot trick me.
I see your rounded never-erased flow,
I see ’neath the rims of your haggard and mean disguises.
Of the word I have spoken I except not one — red, white, black, are all deific,
In each house is the ovum, it comes forth after a thousand years.
Spots or cracks at the windows do not disturb me,
Tall and sufficient stand behind and make signs to me,
I read the promise and patiently wait.
This is a full-grown lily’s face,
She speaks to the limber-hipp’d man near the garden pickets,
Come here she blushingly cries, Come nigh to me limber-hipp’d man,
Stand at my side till I lean as high as I can upon you,
Fill me with albescent honey, bend down to me,
Rub to me with your chafing beard, rub to my breast and shoulders.
Behold a woman!
She looks out from her quaker cap, her face is clearer and more beautiful than the sky.
She sits in an armchair under the shaded porch of the farmhouse,
The sun just shines on her old white head.
Her ample gown is of cream-hued linen,
Her grandsons raised the flax, and her grand-daughters spin it with the distaff and the wheel.
The melodious character of the earth,
The finish beyond which philosophy cannot go and does not wish to go,
The justified mother of men.
[The American Model, page 127]
Poetry and living
This belief of Whitman’s in reincarnation is something I can’t share. It seems to me such a doctrine justifies, and amounts to, nothing. Since we die and don’t remember — since the chain of memories, which is the personality, is broken — then we are really dying, and that is that.
But Whitman’s belief simply clothes his already-existing nature, and it is only this that matters, his generosity of spirit. One learns humanity from him, which is really all he knows and has to teach, and as we read him, this seems to us more beautiful and deep than the purely literary effects of other poets.
My theme in speaking of William Carlos Williams will be that poetry is conveyed, fundamentally, in a tone of voice, and that it can be based on the tone of voice alone.
Williams was always interested in discovering the essential of ‘the poem’, and what he found was that writing could lack all the conventional qualities of poetry and yet convince us that it is such by rendering, directly, a personal, emotive tone.
Williams’ triumph as an artist was to be ible to get down, with absolute concision, a voice that seems so fresh and accurate. He was able to hear the natural shapes in his own everyday speech — he had the most acute ear of any modern poet; an ear for the voice’s unforced regularities, and for its variety.
Everyone who loves Williams’ work says they are attracted by the voice. It is full of humanity; unpretentious, tentative, gentle, it creates a relationship with it; it convinces us that it’s completely honest; it is direct, earthy, masculine. (It can also be, at times, affectedly over-vehement.)
In certain early work, Williams began to step-down part of the line, occasionally, through the poem, to record more precisely the inflexions of his voice — perhaps he was influenced by Mayakovsky whom he had met in New York. Later in his career, he regularized this into three stepped-down parts to every line. Each portion in this three-part line is irrregular in length, and broken for the sake of intonation alone, as with all his verse, but now he is able to indicate an exact degree of emphasis and pause, because each of the part-lines is a ‘foot’, equal to all the others. To make it equal, its time must be filled in the reader’s mind with either a forcefulness or silence as the sense requires. This new measure accurately makes us read according to Williams’ state of mind, which is meditative, gentle, intense. It gives an inflexion to the reader’s own voice that is full of Williams’ humanity. The poet’s exact tone, and hence his feeling, is put in our chests: we enter into, and experience
[The American Model, page 128]
directly, that underlying motive, the poet’s nature.
Williams’ other great originality was to be able to accept what was really there, in his world, and to be able to use it. He made poetry out of things never before thought fit: dry weeds; commonplace, transitory gestures; the American suburbs; dish mops; street excavations; vacant lots; wallpaper patterns; broken glass; cinders; ordinary listless kids; concrete ditches; wire fences. He probably got the courage to do this from the paintings and objects made by the Dada artists who had come to live in New York. His originality was that he used this freedom with a humane spirit.
And Williams also made his poetry about real women, over and over — old or young, ugly or beautiful; every sort of woman fascinated him. A pediatrician, as he was, might have been expected to leave the surgery after a long day and turn to some rarified French aestheticist poetry, the way Wallace Stevens did on leaving his insurance office. But it seems Williams’ fascination with the real, and with real women in particular, never tired. ‘The female principle of the world’ was always his ‘recourse’, both personally and for his underlying ideology.
Williams’ poetry shows there is no trivial subject-matter if it can provoke a genuine responsiveness. Responsiveness is something indivisible — the ability to feel can’t be diminished in any one direction without being diminished in itself. I have noticed that people’s attitude to things is the same as their attitude to other people. Williams, speaking so often about ordinary objects, is speaking in a concentrated way of every relationship.
Williams has always been my master. Every attitude I put forward here today I learned from his work — although these things, I think, remained mostly intuitive and unformulated with him.
Before leaving Williams, I want to point out how unfortunate he has been in the followers associated with his name. His true followers are not people like Creeley and Olson, with their reduced perceptions, but the poets who have been influenced by his attitude to experience — individualistic, fresh observers of life, who render perceptions with, as Galway Kinnell has said, ‘only an ear’ to discipline and guide them, and with no ludicrous theoretical restrictions.
Who writes more in the spirit of Williams’ best work — James Schuyler, the Frank O’Hara of Lunch Poems, Robert Lowell in Life Studies and For the Union Dead, the later Roethke, or someone like Robert Creeley? This last writer has said that the poem fails if it leaves the reader’s attention outside the structure of itself. Creeley is surely
[The American Model, page 129]
Poetry and living
one of the most boring and self-regarding of all critically-boosted poets. His career reminds me of that of the mythical bird which flew around in decreasing circles and disappeared into its own orifice — at present only the tip of Creeley’s tail-feathers are still circling in view. Or is it Charles Olson? Olson, who muddled Pound’s and Williams’ aesthetics together, in a scissors-and-paste job of quasi-mystical overstatement, and delivered it all as though he were a baseball coach desperate to get away for a drink. ‘Projective Verse’, with its exhortations about ego and cosmos and breathing deeply at the Olivetti keyboard, amounts to a method for dividing endless talkativeness into broken-up lines. Everything of any value in Olson’s theorizing was said and practised by D. H. Lawrence long before. The Maximus Poems᾿ is, or are, simply a Poundian ‘long poem’, without anything approaching even the scattered beauty of the Cantos. As well as being derivative, Olson is pompous, obscure, contradictory, and bullying.
Robert Duncan’s style, of course, has absolutely nothing in common with Williams’ lack of affectation.
Denise Levertov’s frank appropriation of Williams is, I feel, too narcissistic. What in Williams is all discovery and personal authenticity, and has a primitive strength — rather like that in Cezanne, who said of himself he was ‘the primitive of a new art’ — has become in Levertov something smooth, facile, polished, the corners all rounded off. She has made it as shiny as a housewife’s Laminex table-top. And the narcissism isn’t just a matter of style; it is a prominent part of the voice, or content, of her work. In her poetry opposition to the Vietnam war was in danger of becoming a demonstration of personal purity — or so it seems to me.
I will leave Williams by reading a piece that I have chosen because it is deep in his book-length poem Paterson and therefore is less likely to be found by most readers. Paterson needs to be excerpted, I think, and this is one of many excellent passages that stand by themselves:
There is a woman in our town
walks rapidly, flat bellied
in worn slacks upon the street
where I saw her.
nor tall, nor old nor young
face would attract no
[The American Model, page 130]
adolescent. Grey eyes looked
straight before her.
was gathered simply behind the
ears under a shapeless hat.
hips were narrow, her
thin and straight. She stopped
me in my tracks — until I saw
disappear in the crowd.
An inconspicous decoration
made of sombre cloth, meant
I think to be a flower, was
pinned flat to her
breast — any woman might have
done the same to
say she was a woman and warn
us of her mood. Otherwise
she was dressed in male attire,
as much as to say to hell
with you. Her
feet were small.
And she was gone!
if ever I see you again
as I have sought you
daily without success
[The American Model, page 131]
Poetry and living
I’ll speak to you, alas
too late! ask,
What are you doing on the
streets of Paterson? a
Are you married? Have you any
children? And, most important,
your NAME! which
of course she may not
give me —
though I cannot conceive it
in such a lonely and
have you read anything that I have written?
It is all for you
Once the third place in my pantheon would have gone, perhaps, to Hart Crane; now his constant reliance on ‘euphemistic’ language, for poetry, has come to seem to me poeticism. But while his mannered, elliptical language no longer attracts me, I still love certain of his early poems, particularly ‘Legende’ and ‘My Grandmother’s Love Letters’, and such less tortuous later ones as ‘To Brooklyn Bridge’, ‘The River’, and ‘Voyages I’.
Now I agree with something that Whitman has written: ‘The art of art, the glory of expression… is simplicity. Nothing is better than simplicity… to speak in literature with the perfect rectitude and insouciance of the movements of animals, and the unimpeachableness of the sentiment of trees in the woods and grass by the roadside, is the flawless triumph of art… The great poets are to be known by the absence in them of tricks’.
These words seem to me to apply best to the poet whom I will place as Whitman’s heir above Hart Crane or Ginsberg — a poet who died in 1976, at the age of eighty-two, after a career of as much obscurity as it is possible to imagine for a writer of talent in America in modern times. Charles Reznikoff’s neglect is almost painful to consider: he was the
[The American Model, page 132]
author of twenty-five books of poetry, prose and drama, and yet until the last decade of his life he had to print all his own work in small, private editions.
Whether Reznikoff makes anyone else’s pantheon I don’t know; I hear that he has been very highly praised and claimed as an ‘enormously’ important recent influence on himself by Allen Ginsberg.
Reznikoff disdained all attention-getting clamour. The quietness, severity and purity of his style make him the very opposite of a crowdpleasing, flashy prestidigitator like the roaring, rollicking Dylan Thomas.
Reznikoff is a poet of the most classical refinement — his directness reminds me a little of Cavafy’s work. Reznikoff read Pound’s prescriptions for the Imagist poem when they were first published in Poetry Chicago in 1915, found them perfectly suited to his own temperament and ideals, and remained faithful to them.
His style is most of all like the Old Testament or the Greek Anthology: the same dignity and austere eloquence, the same objective presence of natural things.
What makes these plain poems beautiful is an eloquence of spirit; their strong, bare statements of human sympathy elevate them and make them very moving and resonant. He has an extraordinary power to invoke the humanity of the reader.
When Reznikoff s poems fail, they have become too sober, too flat; we feel a lack of the energy that Williams has; excitements of technique would save them, but he won’t allow this, he will have only his propriety and precision. Even when Reznikoff is bad, you still respect him, but the lack of technical range, and the unvarying tone of voice, means he cannot escape becoming a bore at times. Such a criticism doesn’t in any way discount the surprisingly large number of really first-rate poems he wrote.
Reznikoff has some of the most horrifying, violent poems ever written: these are in the books Testimony and Holocaust; documentary ‘found’ poems created by selecting and paraphrasing court records. In Testimony he collected details from cases in the United States between 1885 and 1910, all of them about experiences of cruelty and callousness. For Holocaust, he drew on the documentation of the Nuremberg and Eichmann trials, and this book, concentrated and absolutely without comment, like the other, becomes almost unbearable to read. However, the brutality is no perversion of the author’s; it was all there, objectively recorded. His purpose in both these books is to create a revulsion.
[The American Model, page 133]
Poetry and living
Such works, in my opinion, hardly belong to creative literature: so overwhelming is the factual content that one feels it is all but impossible to make a literary judgement on them. They are as much sociology or history as vers libre. Reznikoff’s reputation as a poet, I feel, must rest more on the work in The Complete Poems published in two volumes by Black Sparrow.
Many of these more personal poems of Reznikoff’s, and I think the best among them, come from Whitman’s example, through Edgar Lee Masters. Those brilliant vignettes of people in Whitman’s catalogues were used by Masters as the model for The Spoon River Anthology. And this approach was taken up and better realized by Reznikoff.
His personal poems convey urban alienation, loneliness, ennui, sympathy with the poor and suffering, and a great pleasure in visual sensuality.
Reznikoff’s method of allowing physical details to evoke emotions, his unpretentiousness, his compassion, his factuality, his skilfully compressed narratives, his pervasive but unindulged melancholy, all remind me of the short stories of Anton Chekhov, which are to me, not so much stories as the greatest of poems. Chekhov, I must admit, is my favourite writer of any genre and any time, and so someone else’s work that has a resemblance to his has the greatest claim upon me. Here is a Reznikoff poem that might remind you of Chekhov:
Leaving the beach on a Sunday in a streetcar
a family of three — mother, son and daughter:
the mother, well on in the thirties, blond hair, worried face;
the son, twelve years of age or so, seated opposite,
and the daughter, about eight or nine, beside her.
The boy was blond, too; a good-looking little fellow
with dreamy eyes. The little girl was quite plain;
mouth pulled down at the corners,
sharp angry eyes behind eyeglasses.
No sooner were they seated than the boy, speaking gently, said,
“Today was one of the most wonderful days I ever had.”
The girl said shrilly, “I wish we could live in one of those houses”—
looking at the bungalows along the shore —
“then we could go to the beach every day.”
The mother did not answer either.
The beach they were coming from was crowded with poor people;
[The American Model, page 134]
and the family was dressed cheaply but was neat and spotless,
even after the day’s outing.
I wondered idly where the father was: at work? dead? divorced?
After a while the mother said, weighing her words,
“You know Mister… ”
I did not hear the name: it was spoken so softly.
She was talking to the boy.
“He goes fishing every Wednesday.
I think I can get him to take you along.”
The boy did not answer for a minute or two
and then said, in his gentle voice,
“I should like it very much.”
“Can I go too?” asked the little girl shrilly,
but no one answered her.
Mother and son had eyes only for each other.
She took out her handkerchief and wiped his face.
He complained of something in his eye —
certainly not enough to make him blink —
and she raised the upper lid
and lowered the lower lid to look for it.
The little girl stood up to look out of the window
and the boy said to his mother, “She stepped on my toes
and did not even say, Excuse me, please.”
The mother turned to the little girl and said sharply,
“Why didn’t you say, Excuse me?
You should have said, Excuse me, brother.”
The little girl said nothing,
face turned toward the window,
the corners of her mouth far down and her eyes,
bright and dry, looking sharply through her glasses.
And now a few remarks about some poets who don’t satisfy this sort of taste.
I have finally come to believe that Ezra Pound’s work, to use a word of his own, was ‘botched’ — all down the line. He pretentiously overdid the aesthetic when he was young, and tediously over-insisted on the moral when he was older.
[The American Model, page 135]
Poetry and living
Pound, to whom many are grateful for modernist standards, was really only the codifier of, and tub-thumper about, other men’s insights. He could not maintain Imagist standards in his own writing — his practice falls beneath them in its affected language and its failure to present sufficient particulars, throughout his career.
The real originator of the modern technique for poetry was the very minor poet but major novelist Ford Maddox Ford — he taught Pound everything, or tried to teach him, even to the extent of rolling about on the floor in front of him over Pound’s literariness.
Imagism is really literary Impressionism or painterliness, and the Japanoiserie of the nineties, made ‘dry and hard’, in T. E. Hulme’s prescription. Hulme wanted the poem to be the presentation of precise visual images rather than of misty ones, as already presented by Arthur Symons and Oscar Wilde. (But if you look at a poem like Wilde’s ‘Symphony in Yellow’, you will see a perfect piece of Imagism, except that it’s not in free verse.)
To return to Pound: I believe that politically he can be understood as a bombastic personality who grew intractible, and furious, in his ideas when he was opposed or ignored. At the end of his life Pound was his own best critic: his work is spoiled by ‘the stupid, suburban prejudice of anti-Semitism’; it is incoherent, because of his rage to be proved right, his wild accumulation of book-facts; and Williams is the better poet because of his staying with particulars and with humanity.
Wallace Stevens warned himself, in one of his aphorisms: ‘As soon as the imagination ceases to adhere to what is real, it loses vitality’. Stevens needed to constantly warn himself in this way. One of the best of such pieces of advice he quoted at the head of the poem ‘Evening Without Angels’; it reads: ‘The great interests of man: air and light, the joy of having a body, the voluptuousness of looking’. Yet, despite his constant self-admonitions, how one misses in Stevens the very things that he keeps on talking about. If one compares his poetry with that of D. H. Lawrence, one sees at once its great lack of physicality. They have similar philosophies in some respects: both wrote about the need that we be anti-Platonist, this-worldly, sensuous; but only Lawrence convinces me that he really knew what this meant.
As a conclusion, I want to mention those writers we have heard a great deal of in Australia, the so-called New York school: O’Hara, Ashberry, Berrigan, and so on. You will have guessed that I see them as litterateurs. In their work is the re-emergence, out of France, of the tradition of Poe, who believed that ‘poetry should have nothing in view
[The American Model, page 136]
but itself. This self-referential attitude has become the program of one whole stream of modernism, which has had its most fertile ground in French culture. It is a program ultimately refuted by a vital language. And, in the meantime, ‘the self-regard of the talented is a repellant thing’.
I see these poets, like their French predecessors, as destructive of that ancient virtue of poetry, the fitting of words to things, so as to preserve, illuminate, and give access to, the world. One can sum up the New York school by saying their writing on the wall says merely ‘The Writing on the Wall’.
Writers of this point-of-view often dismiss referential poets as being ‘journalists’ — but according to the definition of journalism by the great German polemicist and man of letters Karl Kraus, the disparagement might better be used in the opposite direction; Kraus said that a journalist is ‘a person without any ideas, but with an ability to express them.’
I think it is essential that we in Australia should continually assess, by highly-critical standards, the poetry of the over-bearing United States — instead of automatically reproducing here each American fashion. We have at present in Australia, amongst many younger writers in particular, an atmosphere of shallow fashion-following: they think their work will have conferred on it some intrinsic value if it is identified with the latest American technique. I have wanted to say that an innovative technique is only of value if it arises while trying to express a worthwhile content (which I have sought to define very broadly ). This should be the critical standard in Australia. Those who simply reproduce overseas gimmickry, or come up with their own, are helping to destroy, here, the prestige of poetry. From being something of great significance in people’s lives, because of its responsiveness to life, they are reducing poetry to being, at most, just another lightweight, marginal diversion.
I would emphasize more now that poetry is the technique of poetry, and is not what is said, except for when it is. My own work has become more dense. Poetry that is resonant, in a plain style, can be readily found in translated Chinese poetry, which has become a genre of the English-language poem, and has to be accommodated by us, in its success… ‘Parnassus has many mansions’.
— R.G., Sydney, 2016.