Contemporary Poetry Review

As Reviewed By: James Rother

Between Poetry and Prose: A Critical Ballet in Three Scenes  

Scene One: The Prose of Poetry

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The failure of the not infrequently blabby Ezra Pound to sharpen a remark made in one of the many admonishing letters sent to Poetry’s then editor, Harriet Monroe—“Poetry must be as well written as prose”—has surely proved a fateful one. Not specifying that it was only good prose he was talking about turned no more than a mildly controversial aside into a flashpoint somewhere between an adventitious casus belli and a call for the desanctification of Veronica’s napkin. At any rate, since its first dissemination in print this mantra has become one of the dominant rallying cries of American vers-librists eager to defend W C. Williams’s free-basing of Imagist eye candy against the controlled and Symboliste-backed dérèglements of an emigré from even deeper recesses of the American literary hinterland, T. S. Eliot.

One can speculate endlessly as to why so hooded a misunderstanding could have triggered such a resounding frisson within the modernist unconscious-about-to-become-conscious, but the how gives far greater pause. Mounting Georgian impatience with the slow removal of Victorian shackles and hesitancies might’ve had something to do with it, but then, so might’ve the concussion administered to English pastoralism by the later novels and verse of Thomas Hardy, the inside-out dandyism of George Moore, and the musique concrète infused into Irish Volkslieder by the newly im-Pounded Yeats. Sent winging as a directive which literary London had far greater reason to heed than subliterary Chicago (Pound being less stoppered a conduit for control-freakery exercised between Imagism’s dusk and Vorticism’s barely-struck noon than the volatile founder of BLAST, Wyndham Lewis), the half-life of “Poetry must be as well written as prose” would eventually prove as surprising to its source as it had once seemed obvious (and overdue) to its disseminating mouth. Even now, a century after its utterance, it remains to third- and fourth-generation Ezroids an article of faith (and one hardly to be questioned) that not only are the interests of poetry best served by the manners of exactitude first declared basic etiquette in the lapidary works of Flaubert and de Maupassant but—and here the screed’s warp is crosscut by a rather more draconian woof—poets are to view as self-evident none but such truths as are thrown boldly into relief by observances of that kind. But to properly declare themselves aligned with these prerequisites, vers-librists also had to hew to the ABC’s laid down by the arch-modernist Hammurabi who had given them the force of law, as well as follow, in no less devoted—or variably footed—a manner, the lead of his cohort from U. of Penn. days, William Carlos Williams.

Countless “informalist” poems strung together between 1915 and 1935 stemmed from misreadings of these ABC’s, with the result that a run of doggerel was unleashed the expired poetic license of which sprees of transgressive lineality à la E. E. Cummings and uncharged roaming à la just about anybody at all seemed hardly the lowest case. Which is not to say that all, or even most of the verse written by the torch-bearers of Objectivism and displayed like lawn flamingoes filched from front yards cultivated by that same W. C. Williams and his colleague, George Oppen, was second-rate. Or that the much later poetry, written by another Williams—C. K.—hung unceremoniously out to dry on clotheslines awash with limply prosaic hand-me-downs, amounts to a case of not just less parading as more, but of more denying it is more of the same. No less perceptive a discerner of other poets’ dirty laundry than W. H. Auden was able to see past the proletarian scuff marks (and his own formalist astigmatism) to the kernel of genuine Americanism in poems of an aboriginally Objectivist stamp, and he did not have to bite his tongue in acknowledging as one of the most treasurable love poems in the English language the sunset elegy of Williams’s declining years, “Asphodel, that Greeny Flower,” the most amazing among several heart-stopping triumphs brought together in the collection Journey to Love (1955). Auden left it to later generations to squabble over whether Imagism had indeed wrought the havoc wreaked upon American verse in the modernist half-century which the dour and dyspeptic Yvor Winters had insisted upon in Anatomy of Nonsense. Furthermore, he even allowed, in the Introduction to his anthology The Criterion Book of Modern American Verse (1956), that poets maturing in the United States during the age of Eisenhower could do worse than defy the Moses and Joshua of modernism in no longer dismissing Walt Whitman as an indifferent drummer who managed to be unconscionably tuneless as well. For a poet-critic who revered the relatively strait-laced Thomas Hardy this side of idolatry, it was not the fungibility of free verse (on which the jury was still out) that was in question but the insistence, brassily vocalized after World War II by legions of variable-foot doctors (interning with podiatrist-in-chief W. C. Williams), that only poets adhering strictly to the guidelines laid down by Olson, Creeley, and countless fellow Black Mountaineers were fit to display the seal of approval, “American,” on their verse, irrespective of how many New Critics, backed by this or that praetorian guard of prissy poets and spoiled-rotten publishing house editors, might scream bloody murder at such a meld of slumming and noblesse oblige.

Actually, the “prose content” of modern poetry has inspired almost as much debate as the fat content of certain popular diet foods. At best, the metabolism of poetry can withstand only so much concentration of proteins in its intake, or conversely, their sudden depletion, without the risk of overshooting the Mallarmean azur entirely on the one hand, or collapsing rhythmlessly into sloppy seconds on the other. Throughout the history of verse, poets have been fascinated with testing how far the envelope of the Dylanesca’s “no direction home” could be pushed before the “dead letter” effect propelling language beyond the pale of re-enlivenment irreversibly set in. For years now, differences between verse lines noticeably distended syllabically and raw “prose poetry” (or, less respectably, poetic prose) have become progressively more difficult to spot. Meters once spotlighted by rhythms as distinguishable as drum tattoos have increasingly flipped into retreat mode before the onrushing tumbrel of fourteeners and other horrors of the sans-culotte prose lobby, offered either straight-up as a in shot glass or watered down into a litany-sans-ground parodying the “stiff burdoun” (or deep-chested descant) to the prick-song reported to have been sung by Chaucer’s Pardoner in The CanterburyTales.

Anyone who has researched the off-tempo march of poetic forms knows that vers libre is a cow that centuries other than the twentieth have viewed as eminently serviceable if not of the flat-out sacred variety. Most reliable literary handbooks offer accounts not unlike the following to remind students of its pertinacity:

Hebrew verse (like much Oriental poetry) is based on large rhythmical units and . . . our familiar Psalms and Song of Solomon are as definitely free verse as anything Carl Sandburg has written. Nor is the form new to European literature: France has practiced it for many years; Heinrich Heine used it in his The North Sea; W. E. Henley and Matthew Arnold practiced it in England; Walt Whitman shocked America with it before 1860. Stephen Crane employed it before Amy Lowell. . .

Text production of free verse has often threatened the more sensitive musical ear with indiscriminate swamping, as witness the eclipse of Paul Verlaine in the 1870’s at the hands of the cult that burgeoned around his drunken boat-mate, Arthur Rimbaud. And who, much more recently, has not marveled at the ascendancy of John Ashbery’s “willful poetics” over the “strong measures” advocacy of less fibrillative technicians like Howard Nemerov, Richard Wilbur, Mark Strand, and Gjertrud Schnackenberg? Finally, how to account for the fading-in-the-stretch (barring a brief period of reascendancy in the ‘80s which fizzled before the ‘90s were properly under way) of the entire post-war American neo-formalist movement from the early 1960’s on? Could readers at last have become fatigued with too much of a good thing registering as an auto-immune system become allergic to itself?     

The argument that the last half-century of American vers libre has helped keep the art form of poetry alive in ways no strong-measured stroking in tide-pools could have made possible remains one difficult to unseat. The formalist verse of those decades was not uncommonly beset by an arcaneness of subject matters that even the revivalist tent of its own shortsighted pitching could not long sustain. (One typically towering example of this tendentious sin: Edgar Bowers’s Collected Poems of 1999 in general and the relatively early “From William Tyndale to John Frith” in particular.) Absent the brief flutter or two of wobbly resuscitation, its hospital stay was a matter of one I.C.U. relapse after another, with little promise of a turn-around in vital-signs that any but the most credulous could foresee. The disappearance from the scene not long ago of Donald Justice, one of the last succulents still judged Hardy among the still-standing annuals and perennials of American formalism, no doubt puts the capstone on an elaborate tomb whose construction work may have endured numerous layoffs and work stoppages but has nonetheless advanced toward completion with relentless drive. Launched by a revival of neo-Audenian practice and kept tenuously afloat by aging oarsmen during the ‘70s and ‘80s less keen on exploration than on braving shallows and hugging shores, this Beowulfian flame-bucket has been listing badly ever since Donald M. Allen’s anthology, The New American Poetry proved the surprise undergraduate hit of 1960. Frederick Morgan’s Hudson Review and Hilton Kramer’s New Criterion can pretend until the cows come home that the trumpeting heard over those vales was taps and not reveille, but it was journals like Brad Morrow’s Conjunctions, with its unlikely blend of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E sound poets, third-generation Projectivists, and geriatric New York Schoolers to which credit was ultimately due for having whipped the post-Vietnam generation into a froth, and not any Tours to Jurassic Park undertaken in honor—or honour—of Andrew Marvell or Samuel Johnson. Whether one approved of it or not, the banner of vers libre flew high over Poetry’s city on the hill all from the ‘70s through the ’90s and beyond, even as trendy if less gold-plated ‘zines risked looking obsolete to confound the skeptical with a lot of faux experimentalism whose siren calls Parnassus would not for a moment countenance and the ancient trend-setter, recently luxuriant in its hundred-million-dollar digs, could never (until the tenure of Christian Wiman) quite face up to.

Whence derived the moxie to risk defying not only centuries of sang froid congealed into short lines, but also the dead march of Cultural Studies whose philistine phalanxes were willing to trample in the dust any art reluctant to prostrate itself before the People’s sovereign right to have its maw stuffed with as much politically correct pap as it could possibly hold?

Probably from the refusal of certain visionaries to write “30” to exercises in futility afflicted by the likelihood of turning off readers not having reached that age, while sending into tailspins of nostalgia numerous others having been around more years than a score and ten and with little more to look forward to than extended panting sessions on mortality’s ever-narrowing strand. Does anyone really doubt that before very long in this new millennium of ours American poetry, whether wholly vers libre-ed out or endlessly rebraided into retro-morphs of the Petrarchan sonnet, will seem to Generation Z as moribund as the dream of Michael Jackson’s to have himself refloated as Coke’s or Pepsi’s King of Pop? Perhaps Frank O’Hara’s City of Poets 2.0, or even 3.0 is finally upon us, having insinuated itself as the vampire matrix of choice in today’s heartland of the Resolutely Undead. In many ways this would be entirely fitting, since as a place of stopped time where zombies on decasyllabic drip continue to re-animate the image of cardiac arrest occurring in an infinite regress of monitors and life screens. Such a frenetic vision of limbo would at least preserve in formaldehyde what in livelier times had been relied upon to keep the blood flowing to each and every vesicle of the body impolitic—living speech.

But enough about the not quite dead. Less Anne Rice-ish but still lacking adequate wind-tunnel is the overdrawn but by no means exhausted downdraft of “nearly new” poetry which, with the help of such veteran Draculans as Ashbery and (C. K.) Williams, has successfully interposed itself between morbidities that have demonstrated themselves embraceable by both past and present and unfailingly reliable as cash cows. A proven pander to lapsed affairs, poetry’s answer to the talkies has flourished, one can only assume, as a result of the embarrassment many writers (and, needless to say, readers) have felt over the parlous state of contemporary verse, with its paint-ball skirmishes between Dead Poet Societies—late-Blooming Stevensians against gangs of motor-mouthed recyclists calling themselves “L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets.” The problem is not one of a decided tropism toward prose poetry, but with the not always reasonable facsimile of that Baudelairean anomaly which is proving positively ubiquitous in many print journals and on the internet. (This phase of the argument will be taken up in “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Prose Poem,” the present essay-triptych’s projected third panel, as well as in the conclusion to a second installment devoted to the enpurpling of prose that continues unabated in much current fictional, as well as non-fictional, writing.) 

          If it is true that in the course of slavishly retracing the figure-eights etched on bourgeois probity’s wafer-thin ice by épatineurs of la belle époque like Paul Verlaine and Tristan Corbière, 20th-Century modernists rendered more than just their own lines blurry by not credibly distinguishing a largely faltering poeticism from newly resurgent prose. The determination shown by these writers to extend the conversational range of verse beyond the pale to which the likes of Kipling and Hardy had often absent-mindedly consigned it should likewise not be cheated of the discredit it richly deserves. For these modernists, the Game seemed everywhere afoot and pursuable for stakes far greater than any imagined by insufficiently late Victorians who either were tardy in dumping their stock in Nineties aestheticism or with equal desperation grabbed up as much of it on margin as a plummeting market allowed. At issue was not what a poem could be empowered to say, but what, by fair means or foul, it could be enabled to move and shake. No doubt this explains why so much phantom dust was raised over poetic modernism’s vaunted letch for the vernacular and for as many unfiltered and near-to-obscene evils as could be made to flower, Aubrey Beardsley-like, on its pages. Hordes of critics uninterested in the modernist phenomenon on principle were of course quite exercised by this. They spared no effort in trilling the mordent that the sit-com laugh-tracking the over-stayed welcome of the 19th Century-avant-garde had slipped ignominiously into re-runs and the naiseries of the Continental Follies of 1848, despite deceptive repackaging, were merely déjà vu all over again. By their lights, having to endure the book-publishing Eliot of 1917 rehashing the otiose laments of the as yet barely known one of 1910 about having been slighted by mermaids whose only crime, so far as anyone could tell, lay in their refusal to serenade a wallflower inadequately disguised as a prophet whom even the ventriloquist responsible for his voice refused to be associated with, recalled rather too vividly, it was thought, indignities perpetrated on the burghers of France four decades earlier by an even more wretched clutch of pranksters led by those insufferable enfants terribles, Arthur Rimbaud and Jules Laforgue. Again, what cried out for something other than random voicing was a stand—principled if need be— against all such resurgences of nostalgie de la boue of the sort taken by M. Cuvillier-Fleury, the unflappable house critic of Journal des Débats, when a review copy of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary landed with an echoing thud on his desk in the fall of 1857. It’s enough to cite but one of the turbo-harrumphs directed by him at that book’s incorrigible human screw-ups: “Ce sont des mannequins ressemblants.” Flaubert’s own Bouvard and Pécuchet could hardly have put the matter more succinctly.

The “gutter Parnassians” (as poets prepped by Rimbaud were dubbed) made much of isotopic prose passing itself off as radiant poetic folderol. They feigned chagrin at any allusion to apocalypse because to mention it was not only showy but masochistically titillating past any level they could own up to without simultaneously acknowledging their kinship to the crassest of feuilletonistes. Because verbalizing on or about such debasements could engender real pain on when committed to print, they promoted to carnivale what earlier sideshow operators like Baudelaire had been content to market as loss-leader sadism or faux-Saturnalia for the perversion-deprived. It doesn’t take a Lacanian with the Imaginaire of a rocket scientist to see triumphalism gesticulating wildly in all such spasms of the maladroit. Rather, one wonders why the resident geniuses on either side of that cultural divide were so slow in calling a shot heard round the world. What Rimbaud and his cousins from their distant but still accessible remove from established poetic paradigms ended up sponsoring was not a revolution in poetic taste and manners but a mysterium more taken up with the investiture of a High Prosaics than with psychedelicizing a late-to-flower Romanticism adept at in turning on poets from Keats all the way to America’s own Hart Crane.   

Poets whose practices anticipated those of the Church of Latter Day Symbolistes (always excluding, of course, Mallarmé) were stayed from experiments with an ever-loosening poetic line because they feared—sensibly and with due cause for alarm—a precipitous descent into doggerel or a mongrel derivative every bit as mangy and unmanageable. In historicizing this, one is reminded of the casualties inflicted upon practitioners of the Tudor daredevil act known as the “fourteener” which, in the hayday of template tectonics presided over the two Georges, Gascoigne and Puttenham, dragged, even more haltingly than the Alexandrine, its slow length along. Who but their contemporary, Arthur Golding, master illusionist and tyer of Ovidian slipknots elidable into Shakespearean rope sculptures, could have imagined that such fleet footwear could be conjured from so pedestrian a kitbag of iambics? Lag, droop, waddle, and halt can, by dint of the appropriate magic, convert themselves into a ballet of perfections, but only when a master skilled in neutralizing torque that would otherwise herd outriding syllables into strings of front-loaded tongue-twisters is put in charge of them. For those who believe the flaccidities of the fourteener beyond anyone’s ability to keep its prosody safe from apoplexies of ritard, it’s hard to imagine, as does Pound in his perdurable ABC of Reading, an Ovid enthusiast giving this beast the ride of its life and revealing it a thoroughbred through and through. True, most Elizabethans who essayed its use never got past insertion of the bit, bestriding its unstraddlable girth as though they were seeing a mechanical bull eat up the last of its springs, but not Arthur Golding. Not only was he artful at counteracting the lag, droop, waddle, and halt the hendecasyllabic was notoriously heir to, but he left marble what nearly all translators of the Metamorphoses found, and were content to leave—quartz:

            Nor day, but middle bound of both             a man

                        may term of right.

            The house at sodaine seemed to shake,   and all

                        about it shine

            With burning lampes,         and glittering fires to

                        flash before their eyen.

            And likenesses      of ougly beastes with gastful

                        noyses yeld.

            Fore feare whereof       to smokie holes the sisters

                        were compeld

            To hide their heades,        one here and there

                        another for to shun

            The glistering light.   And while they thus in

                        corners blindly run,

            Upon their pretie limmes       a fine crispe

                        film there goes

            And slender finnes      instead of handes        their

                        shortened armes enclose.

            But how they lost their former shape        of

                        Certaintie to know

            The darknesse would not suffer them. . . .           

But, ah the woe that betided those for whom the castles reared on that peculiar prosiness over whose chasms Golding resyllablized Ovid’s course in advanced physics appeared construction projects best tackled from the top down. Why were English poets so long in accurately appraising that schematics of darkness (a full century was to elapse before the epic cup of ténèbres poured by Milton was given leave to run over—in blank verse) this prince of poets so splendidly made visible?



Modern revivers of the elastic poetic line have not been unaware of the hazards incurrable when producing verse that falls between the cracks—as the current solecism would have it—of sporadic gassiness and full-on flatulence:

            She used the neighbor’s roof as a reference point, liking its precarious


            a mobile performative at the nightline: what a woman thinks about

            before she conceives. See how they run, driven with carelessness,

            clouds cutting up over the rooftops like comedians, like blind mice

            dispensing with threes. As this was a theatrical positioning,

            I sat between them, trifocally, an intermediate vision

            held commonly at arm’s length: Take my hand, I can’t see.

            The boundaries of the third term blurred, there is in some part

            a percentage of the other part. May as a fifth month or an auxiliary,

            each a dispensable conditioning, given the farmer’s wife,

            who, at this point, may be reaching out a hand to cover the distance,

            as if to carve out a bridge or a tree. 

Thus does Catherine Imbriglio’s “Triskelion” set forth in a rattletrap that crepitates toward felicity and grace with all the directional sense of a three-legged gopher in a hailstorm. But Imbroglio’s embroglio hardly represents the lowest perch to which such “working the crank” can sink. “Triskelion” at least trundles its measure along past the “theme and variations” seriatim of, say, a Norma Cole (in, for example, “Conjunctions”), or a Leslie Scalapino in a romp as dismally choreographed as “The Tango.” A  C. K. Williams can, but not always does, make good on the promise held out to the ear by those suspension bridges of breath (kept obsessively in trim throughout much of Whitman) which have been known to shimmy like wild thyme in the wind in grosser hands:

                        An erratic, complicated shape, like a tool for some obsolete task:

the hipbone and half the gnawed shank of a small, unrecognizable ani

            -mal on the pavement in front of the entrance to the museum;

grimy, black with fire-dust, soot, the blackness from our shoes, our ink,

            the grit that sifts out of our air. . . .

                                                                        (“Bone,” from Repair [1999]) 

It’s a long way back from here to Golding’s supple fourteeners, or for that matter anyone else’s from that period worth a representative quotation. But even a Gascoigne could tell a hawk from a handsaw when groping for sounds unlikely to turn even reciters unfortified by Hamlet’s advice to the players into fumbling marshmallow-mouths. A throw of yarrow stalks wasn’t necessary to predict when lines weighty with excess cushioning and folds of bazaar-damask (Gascoigne’s seldom failed to make the cut) were likely to totter and go plop with something less than Longinian sublimity. Nor did he need jousts with contemporaries to tip him to when samples of his work came a cropper and popped before they could properly fizz.  Augustans like Pope knew which sort of laughter was likely to meet practitioners of “the art of sinking in verse” when they failed to distinguish lines that did in the satirist from those intended to fell the satirized. Content to be helots indentured to the oligarchy of genres Virgil and Horace established, they never had to confront—as the modernists did repeatedly—the space of dismantlement where genre, hardly more than a spent force, had callowly dissolved into shadowplay. The Romantics had preceded the modernists in transforming the fact of enfance disparue into a Disney-like world in which visionary gleams exist only to be later noted as having lost their auras. Unfortunately, this deprived the visionary poet of anything meaningful to do beyond concocting Byzantiums from the remains of what all-inflating innocence leaves behind when childhood gleams give way to “whither-is-fled”’s. If there is one shortcoming to Augustan poetry that cannot be easily explained away, it is that the rather brief season spent by it in the sun came up lamentably short in providing for its post-“shock and awe” period. No major poet before Auden thought to point out that the singular glory of the age of Pope and Johnson, the heroic couplet, had died intestate, nor why the reputations of so few of its leading lights were dragged out of mothballs before the New Critics like W. K. Wimsatt, Jr. and Maynard Mack awakened doubters of those poets’ artistic worth from their slumber. Even so devoted a disembalmer as T. S. Eliot found the lengthy pastiche of The Rape of the Lock intended for The Waste Land a scrap not worth scrapping over when his friend and mentor Ezra Pound declared its quality too far beneath its model’s to be admissible as evidence of satire’s Vorticist use as reflecting pool wherein the modern corruption of elegance could be seen as the flip side of the early 18th Century’s elegant view of corruption.

To encapsulate the double helixes of the Augustan era as unromantically as the Romantics did, it was an age of prose. Following the purge of stylistic excess undertaken by the Royal Society in the 1660’s—in England, at any rate—the “prose of the realm” became a fortiori Thomas Sprat’s “So many things, so many words,” construing with lambent finesse “an idiom devoid of all adhering even secondarily to the ‘poetical.’” Late-flowering Augustans could go on as windily as they liked and with “cheek enow” even to haul Grub Street all the way to Hampton Court, but their harpings on Aeolian instruments betrayed as little of personal loss as that elegy by Milton which made untimely drowning a passkey to lyric immortality. In their eyes the problem was not an overabundance of prose, but in an almost universal decline in readership for well-crafted verse. Writers of taste in the time of Pope found little difficulty in swallowing that division of labor between poetry and prose which the gods themselves not only sanctioned, but with a fervor like unto Olympian insistence formally decreed. Poetry was poetry, and prose—candor being honesty’s default setting—was merely prose, though that qualifier could be translated from a vice to a virtue by any number of canny means. 

 All that notwithstanding, the Romantics of Wordsworth’s generation were virtually unanimous in indicting the prosody of the period before their own as hamstrung by a temperament, a sensibility—yea, a ruling passion—that exalted “verse” above genuine poetry, the most noumenal of dingen-an-sich short of the divinity himself. Verse was inferior because next to poetic marble, it could be no more than a plaster cast—never the real thing. And that further, it was constrained by metrics and scansion (both abysmally scanting the free flight of the poet’s lyric impulse) led poets no less than readers to exalt a factitious lark-in-couplets over a full-throated songbird singing its heart out at the gates of heaven. The heroic couplet itself, for all it Horatian sonority and deference to ars longa over vita brevis, was no more than a twin-prop masking business-class accommodations with social-climbing dissimulation and the complicity of cup-bearers on loan from Central Casting. The Augustans’ view of themselves as fiddling second-stringers honoring the Heifetzes and Hubermans of Rome’s golden age with less pricey but still respectable wit of a silver one was reduced in the Romantic mind to an idée fixe centering on bells and whistles of an orchestra that long ago had ceased to play. Slice and dice it as one might, Wordsworth’s “Preface to Lyrical Ballads” remains, despite Coleridgean reservations, utterly unambiguous on the point of the previous century’s poets’ rank inability to rise to grasp and retain hold of “the vision thing.” For surely that, even the shakiest fan of Auguries of Innocence would affirm, was what real poetry was all about.

Yet, to be fair, it was not unusual for visionaries in those times to suffer abuse at the hands of sentimentalists masquerading as verse-prophets snootily thumbing their noses at anyone drawing distinctions between bonkers Blakes nattering about Zoas and batty Chattertons blathering in pseudo-Spenserese of things as little tied to this earth as the Great Chain of Unbeing Boehme and Swedenborg heard clanking among the celestial spheres. Such littering of the ramp to the Sublime sat poorly with readers weaned on verse jubilations of a Kit Smart turning the Lamb of God on a backyard spit to feed the multitude with mutton of Albion sure to stick to its ribs. Though the 18th- Century-loathing Wordsworth thought Chatterton worth a couplet—

            I thought of Chatterton, the marvelous boy,

The sleepless soul that perished in his pride 

—it was one as close to boilerplate as any toast made by Falstaff when John Barleycorn was a more intimate companion than “officious grief.” Like Peter Pans passing in the night and oblivious to the impact each would someday have on the Tintern Abbey destined someday to be reconstituted in Buena Park, California, such poetic soul-mates exemplify electable affinities far more than differences that might have undergirded the war of nerves then being waged by Lancastrian poets zonked on the Triumphs of Life against the York pretenders, their outcast cousins-in-verse, themselves knee-deep in Gray’s Elegy and awash in night thoughts better left to the young at heart.

 By the time Queen Victoria died, though, romanticism in England was casting its nets far wider than Matthew Arnold’s untidy shores, gathering in sea-waifs from the existentially non-conformist Gérard de Nerval and Friedrich Hölderlin to contrarian monsters like Poe, Hoffmann, and the ever-irredentistical Baudelaire. Likewise, in France a new breath lay on the deep whose frissons were tearing through the haunts of l’homme moyen sensuel as unstoppably as farts in an organ loft, though countermeasures were already deep in rehearsal to foil any attack on national morale. Seldom quick to react to assaults made on pudeur by mere poets, the custodians of French mores were far likelier to turn savage over affronts waged from full margin to full margin, flinging their wad of outrage at authors whose tantrums kept them to a low metaphor count when passing sentence on deviations from la gloire. French Romantic poets, however else they managed to make accommodating private posture to public scrutiny a martial art, never forswore allegiance to that prosy extrapolativeness which had long served them admirably in times of need. In this, however, they wore their Rousseauvianism on their sleeve, shrewdly hoarding its solidarity with humanity’s baser orders in small and large dollops and always under separate cover of speech dutifully labeled “of common men.” What the “aristos” spoke was held incurably arch, affected, and at heart (the only receptacle that really counted), snide—not to mention patronizing—down to its perfumed ruffles and expensive gaiters. The French Revolution, if not having quite successfully dealt aristo-culture the desired coup de grace, still left it disfigured beyond recognition, having scarred it in such a manner as to forever certify the fragility of sure things beyond all promise of 1848, 1917, 1933, or even, in its own miniature-railroading way, 1968. 

          Though it was May 1968, and not May 1848 that most starkly revealed the changes wrought upon European culture by that upheaval 180 years earlier whose effects, though visibly earth-shattering at the time, proved considerably less durable than the aristocratic hauteurs its street-rabble had labored to consign to history’s dustbin. (The next decades would show that even a scion of the tradiitional left like François Mitterand could carry himself with the disdain of a Duc d’Orleans when downwind of le riff-raff.) Yet, the resurgent imperium of Louis-Napoleon III also made cause with a new bourgeoisification of French culture by which, with the help of figures as Jacques Offenbach, the heroic values of les Parnassiens verse were corroded through deflationary dandyisms such as the noble soul-in-extremis (tempered always with deflationary irony and rendered in récit-like forms like the prose poem, for which the extended cuffnotes filling out Baudelaire’s Mon coeur mis à nu soon became the template) and the guttersnipe sublimities of a 16-year-old revisionary hot on seasoning (none too recreationally) in hell. Richard Terdiman’s Discourse/Counter-Discourse (1984) documents the tremors initiated and endured in this period with admirable if occasionally pedantic brio, though his account notably ignores the steady shifting of borders between the poetic and prosaic in the age of Balzac and Lamartine. His book shows that what stamps itself as “poetic” (say, in a passage of prose by Stendhal) meets what leaps out as prosaic in a passage of verse (by, say, Alfred de Musset) at a “constructivist” vanishing point where conveyor meets up with belt to make the product line being turned out indistinguishable from the design-model being moved along by “suits” whose fashion sense extends no further than the executive suite.

Prose, however one slices and dices it, remains intractably grounded in the sentence, and any attempt to transport it from there to a halfway house run by the cut-up methodists of verse tips the balance between poetic and prosaic inclinations over, if only by a micron or two, away from one toward the other. Safaris need not be launched into the Schwarmenveldt of the prose poem to find examples of sentential grounding being tugged every which way, either to make a point seem more pointedly pointless or less so, springing up all over the lot. It hardly matters whether such point-making via pointlessness is carried on in the spirit of an Ann Lauterbach, or in the garrulously conscriptive manner of a Wallace Stevens, or in the volcanically rumbling tones for which Dylan Thomas was famous. Being altarwise by the latter’s owl light proves finally no more rewarding or illuminating than communing with Stevens’s owls in the sarcophagus, or Lauterbach’s Cagey nightbirds, no matter how much midnight oil one burns lucubrating on such whos-without-portfolio.   

William Empson was doubtless correct when, in reviewing the writings of R. P. Blackmur in an essay published in 1955, he seized upon the lack of identifiable content which that least foolable of American critics had noted in Stevens’s poetry. However, what he and Blackmur both failed to credit was Stevens’s innate tendency to treat the iterability of the poem as of a piece with the dictational ephemerality of the simple office memo. While it might be possible to attribute this to the many years spent by Stevens writing surety bonds for the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company where he was employed from 1916 until the time of his death in 1955, the innateness of that tendency was as deeply rooted in symbolist practice as it was in hieratic business’s monkeydom. Essentially a prose poet who, having served his apprenticeship to gaudy wordplay and Commedia del arte in Harmonium (1923), found in putting together collections like Parts of a World (1942) and The Auroras of Autumn (1950) a walking cure for his blues which, if not productive of much green, was serviceable enough as therapeutic andante to permit a high order of dabbling by what this Pierrot felt born to do, which was to post on notice boards of his own mind’s eye exquisite meditations on themes distinctly Valéryan, laid out in ever more blankly booming (and boomingly blank) verse. Of endlessly increasing decreasing relevance was the fact that the space in which those anecdotes, disquisitions, postcards from volcanoes were displayed was already thick with exotic travel posters, exhibition catalogues touting Gromaire and Matisse, lore relating to beasts, both real and imaginary, of which Jorge Luis Borges might’ve been a contributor, and other species of who knows what yellowing curiosities. That every now and then Stevens would smooth an edge or two of these ageing antimacassars so that their post-its in verse wouldn’t seem quite so sere or posthumous is of consequence only to those who believe the jury deliberating his ultimate place in American letters is still out.

One thing at any rate is certain: Stevens stands as the absolute antipodes of W. C. Williams, the Objectivist heretic willing to take the whole of European literature off the books where American writing is concerned, and with an insouciance that makes even Walt Whitman’s appear mealy-mouthed. A local variety of what even by Saturday Review standards is a hothouse bloom, the Stevensian stemwinder emerged from out the nowhere whence emerged the Emersonian essay, the Longfellow pop-up epic, whether of Finnish or Acadian provenance, and the James Russell Lowell panegyric on nobody-in-particular. Until certain influential critics took up its cudgels (mostly after the patent holder’s death), it seemed bound for the same terminal as his predecessors’ versions of the form, despite the musicality of some of its broadband. Left behind by this giant of a man in fee were a handful of genuinely unique lyrics composed late in life; a number of others, mostly of conventional length, as well as some justly celebrated anthology pieces like “Sunday Morning” and “Esthétique du Mal” running somewhat longer; many more of what could be called “character pieces,” with lines or even passages of enormous astuteness dotting their wordscapes; and still others—many others—of the stemwinder variety alluded to earlier (“Auroras to Autumn,” “Transport to Summer,” and “Notes toward a Supreme Fiction” being the three most notable ) which were to give Randall Jarrell and critics like him the hives and conniptions. All in all, the Stevensian correspondent breeze still   had a quarter-century or more in its Oz-bellows to run after the poet’s death, mostly in boutiques frequented by Ashbery imitators, but that approach to things, never much lauded by any but those determined to be rid of whatever Marjorie Perloff was buying, was pretty much vieux chapeau by the late ‘80s and ‘90s. The replacement for it tended to be what Alan Williamson, himself a poet, called the “poetry of the sentence,” a mode achieving boldest relief in the verse of C. K. Williams, already been cited in defense of the poetic line which extends to both the “hyper-long” and the longingly hyper. One interesting use for this device may be seen in “The Nail,” a poem that clears a space for itself by not letting the merely supernumerary determine its line-length, though the invoking of tutelary spirits in whose name naming since Adam has proceeded is high on its agenda of time-fillers:

            Some dictator or other had gone into exile, and now reports were coming

                        about his regime,

            the usual crimes, torture, false imprisonment, cruelty and corruption,

                        but then a detail:

            that the way his henchmen had disposed of enemies was by hammering

                        nails into their skulls,

            Horror, then, what mind does after horror, after that first feeling that

                        you’ll never catch your breath,

            mind imagines—how not to be annihilated by it?—the preliminary tap,

                        feels it in the tendon of the hand,

            feels the way you do with your nail when you’re fixing something, making

                        something, shelves, a bed;

the first light tap to set the slant. And then the slightly harder tap, to                          embed the tip a little more . . . 

Lines like these might seem sentential, but the fact that they do so only perfunctorily render that impression at best marginally valid. The oblique angularity of Williams’s syntax makes stunning bank shots off nodes of understatement, while leaving other, more salient lumps and masses to clutter thought the way a video game’s tactilities infuse leisure with addictive feedback. Finding himself ushered by this poem into a confidence he neither desires nor feels comfortable with, the reader quickly learns that the trick behind Williams’s approach to billiards is to leave the table of green fields so encumbered with blocked lines of vision that the next shot has to be made with not a single pocket open. What establishes “The Nail” as verse rather than prose manqué is the rhythmic verve with which it accomplishes the snookering of its own possibilities, artificially compounded as that process might seem.

Of course, such hustler-like tactics occur at the opposite end of the spectrum from where the circular viciousness dogging the poetic impasses of a Paul Célan like a dark familiar. Given the habit of that poet to double the strands of genetic material binding each of his poems with intertwined helixes of dissociation, even his reductions of the tragic to German-language Escher sketches of loss have little of the game-player’s preoccupation with losing about them.

But there and there precisely appears the cursor on either side of which the occasioning of paraphrasable texts finds its poetic prompt. Poetry can traffic in elaborate detail but it cannot imbibe the sum total of its specificities neat. Should it even try to do so, one should not be surprised at the sudden coming into play of a comic mutantcy the issuance of which being something in the nature of a fishhead atop a human torso with the entire ensemble articulating some such visual pun as “Salmon Rushdie.” Unsure whether, as a hybrid, it is prosifed verse or versified prose, all this chimera can do is ask over and over, “Which way is it to the Caucus Race?”

    To conclude this phase of the tour of the roundabouts, let’s just say that C. K. Williams’s poetry, for all its gutsy transcendence of easy moral stances (the stock in trade of a Philip Levine or Robert Pinsky) inhabits a recognizably human planet, and Célan’s, for all the miraculous stents applied to what stops the heart of the heart of the poet’s own inner country, does not. Which is not at all to suggest that Williams is a more “together” poet than Célan. While respectful of the talent that brought Love Poems and Poems about Love into the world, to even imply such a thing would be to put Houdini and eternal recurrence on the same plane. Some comparisons kill through their own outlandishness, their inadvertence resulting in a double murder. As with an algebraic equation in which both sides equal zero, the splaying of unknowns across a crevass of noughts confronts nothingness with itself in a recognition scene that is both blinding and self-cancelling. Imagine the Medusa catching her own glance in a mirror and simultaneously watching everything turn to stone but her own reflection.    


Next month: Mr. Rother returns with Part II of his essay, "Between Poetry and Prose." 


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