Our Steps amid a Ruined Colonnade: James Matthew Wilson on Contemporary Poetry and the Academy

While arguing amid the colonnades,
Tired in the noon-day by the badly taught,
Or resting, dubious, in the laurel shades  
I have impinged upon a firmer thought.   
– Yvor Winters

Poet-critics from David Lehman to William Logan have aired their complaints about the dangers literature faces in the contemporary English Department, and they have done so as if it were the premise against which their own heterodox careers react. They and others have spoken in defense of belles lettres against the tatters of high theory: particularly Derridian deconstruction; the political regimentation that reduces every poem or novel to a series of contradictory reflections of cultural assumptions about race or gender; the priggish disapproval of all literature that does not answer the Left’s simple, often psychologically desperate, need for affirmation as solace for its losses in the political realm; worst of all, perhaps, the amnesia of many professional scholars of literature regarding the basic terminology and history of genres that make education in literature possible in the first place. These are dire developments indeed. They have been with us for long enough now that some of these trends (deconstruction in particular) have faded into the background, while others, such as the hunting for “ideology” in every “text,” have become so conventional and ubiquitous that most professors can no longer imagine what “criticism” would be if it were not that. 

To offer an exemplary catalog of these curious developments: at a recent convention of the Modern Language Association, one scholar presented a paper on the Anglo-Irish novelist, Elizabeth Bowen, of which the main point seems to have been a defense of Bowen’s status as an only child. The scholar’s own ambition was to justify her own, identical status against those “purveyors of hate” who have dared observe that large families are usually the happiest families. Another scholar at the same session spoke of Bowen’s “late-modernist” novels, but, when questioned, could provide no account of what made Bowen’s novels, as novels, particularly modernist, much less “late.” Elsewhere in the echoing halls of the convention center, an angry young critic used the famous inaction and infertility exhibited in the pages of Samuel Beckett to complain about the Catholic Church’s past discouragement of “disparity of cult” marriages. Much like the Bowen scholar before him, he seemed interested in his author primarily as a means of striking a blow against birth. The Satyr’s secret that “never to be born is best for man” has finally crept through the corridors of academic discursive power. This should not surprise us since, as Roy Campbell observed, a culture of sterility had penetrated the Anglo-American intelligentsia back in the age of Bloomsbury. 

In the darkness beyond the MLA, appearing like blips on the radar in the myriad unread scholarly journals of our day, some researcher of Victorian literature writes about novels that feature women and property issues, because they believe firmly that contemporary women should own property. Another studies the relation of Irish nationalist drama to the architecture of maternity hospitals, in the belief that both manifest the same coercive ideology—the forcing of birth upon female bodies, and the birth of ideas upon the minds of young revolutionaries. And still another harnesses Latin American pulp fiction to complain about the forced sterilization of Puerto Rican women by the United States’ government; lest one confuse this with a defense of fertility, the author emphasizes that sterilization is a good thing, it just shouldn’t be forced. 

This sampling is selective, of course. It reflects only the most plaintive groaners in the academic waters. The harnessing of “texts” for entirely extra-textual ends; a suspicion of ideas, wherever they are manifest, as mere expressions of a sinister will to power; an individual but proliferating hatred of making and creation itself as a coercive and oppressive regime. The contemporary academy seems to have taken T.S. Eliot’s Sweeney at his word when he sang, “That’s all the facts when you come to brass tacks: / Birth, and copulation, and death.” Against the despotism of fact, their scholarship becomes an ineffectual back-tracking, wherein they seek to rescind the power of created, actual existence, as if they might somehow dwell in a realm of uncreated, pure possibility. Perversely, this hatred of the actual weight of the body and its life-perpetuating nature finds much of its inspiration in the work of Judith Butler, the author of Bodies that Matter (1993). Like their intellectual father, Descartes, these critics kick that pregnant dog, literature, in the guts to demonstrate that matter does not matter, even as, contrary to him, they do not believe in an intellectual soul, but merely in the “possibility” of the body’s absolute freedom from the conditions of its existence. 

Contemporary Marxist scholars react violently less against the human body and more abstractly against the persistence of political bodies. Following the writings of Jacques Rancière, Giorgio Agamben, and Slavoj Zizek, they insist that any stable, self-affirming and slowly developing political system disguises an oppressive regime under the appearance of discursive tolerance and the idea of a “loyal opposition.” Such a system is mere “meta-politics.” Politics per se entails the cataclysmic conflicts that determine whether and how these systems exist in the first place. The body politic, to be truly political, must therefore remain indeterminate, a politics of pure possibility. Hence the Victorian novel becomes the subject of study to show how our present regime of “post-liberal” state domination came into being through the insidious discourses of the earlier liberal society of the British Empire. George Eliot, poor woman, had the cheek to give birth to novels that supported the liberal worldview. 

While one can find much of interest in scholarship of this nature, it does not want for absurdity. It was one thing for Plato to criticize his imperfect world, because he believed in the real existence of an archetypal, ideal reality of which human society could become an expression. It is another for those wounded by and disaffected with their families, society and the Bush administration—for those, in fact, too wounded to believe in the reality of anything except physical matter subject to the amoral voluntarisms of power—to “critique” out of existence our few cultural achievements along with human nature and the human condition itself. The academy after Plato, as it were, has also expelled poetry and poets, because poetry means making, and academics will not settle for their own sterility. They would also un-make human experience and un-world the cosmos in which we live. They would, if only they could. Instead, they settle for disenchanting the literary and encouraging in their students an ignorance of literary and poetic form in favor of a paranoid sensitivity to the forms of political power. 

Because there is some good to be discovered in these academic fashions, I would like to address what is so terrible about them. But I only wish to do so as a kind of preface to what I consider the much graver purpose of this essay: the embarrassing failure of most contemporary poets to write something that can, taxonomically speaking, be called poetry. Most recent poetry resists, or simply embarrasses, any attempt to ascertain a definition of what poetry in fact is. Analogously, most recent literary criticism decries the “essentialism” of the “imperialist metaphysics of the West.” Both manifest that bogey which, in a sense, cannot not exist: “ontological violence.” That some poets should be so desperate for more antagonists in a world already quite antagonistic toward poetry that they would accuse English Departments of destroying literature is in itself remarkable, especially considering that the “liberating” loss of a compelling notion of what poetry is owes a great deal to the rejection of knowledge as “oppressive” in literature departments. 

That is, contemporary poets and contemporary critics are, in certain essential ways, up to the same thing. They are the vanguard of a race that discounts as oppressive the hypothesis that there should be any formal value or inherent meaning in a work or in the world, and they have the additional kinship of being, by some cruel fate, engaged in two of the few enterprises that should require, as a creed, a belief in just such value and meaning. Poets currently do not believe that their poems need to make any intelligible contribution to our understanding of reality, but merely insist that they float upon it, reality’s superfluous metaphors, like oil on water. Scholars, conversely, do not believe that a literary text can be anything more than an accidental expression of ideology; in consequence, literature qua literature has nothing (wise or valid) to say to its readers, but merely reveals historical conditions external to, yet inscribed unwillingly within, it. To put this another way, contemporary literary criticism generally acts as a crude psycho-analysis of a work’s author and its first readers, divulging their hateful complexes in order to condemn them. John Crowe Ransom’s complaint in “Criticism, Inc.” remains valid today, in surprisingly similar circumstances: 

English might almost as well announce that it does not regard itself as entirely autonomous, but as a branch of the department of history, with the option of declaring itself occasionally a branch of the department of ethics. It is true that the historical and the ethical studies will cluster round objects which for some reason are called artistic objects. But the thing itself the professors do not have to contemplate… 

Contemporary literary studies generally amount to a historical debunking and an ethical denunciation performed by those convicted of historicism (the belief that all knowledge is historically conditioned and not reflective of some actual Truth) and voluntarist amoralism (that is, the belief that ethical judgment can never be more than the expression of a historically conditioned drive for power). Ransom of course spoke on behalf of poets against the professors and, in the process created that once familiar creature, the poet-professor competent to exercise both functions. In our day, I would claim, certain poets and academics are up to roughly the same thing, but with an agenda opposite Ransom’s: the poet un-makes rather than makes, and the professor exposes discursive power rather than cultivates literary wisdom. And so, while I am frequently tempted to join the chorus of denunciation, belittling the critic at the side of the poet, I cannot. What is needed is someone to step, however briefly, outside this ruined colonnade that once constituted the large informal Academy of literary culture in order to register a formal tabulation of our loss. 


The Rise and Fall of Literary Criticism

In the first half of the last century, criticism inside and outside the academy flourished as a compound of evaluation and exegesis, exegesis and evaluation. One either explained what a work of literature meant in order to justify one’s judgment about its quality, or one made a judgment about a work as departure point for exploring what it meant. In the dialectic between these two acts, general theories of literature often emerged, though tenuously and almost always with an air of American pragmatism; and these theories almost invariably came grounded in larger critiques of culture and civilization in general. This was the case with T.S. Eliot, John Crowe Ransom, W.H. Auden, and Marianne Moore, all of whom tended to be particularly “practical” because their criticism pleonastically emerged from their own practice. It was no less the case with W.K. Wimsatt and Cleanth Brooks, who felt morally obliged in their critical work to understand what a poem actually does as a poem, even if they were chary about its connection with an actual poet. Because of this practical bent, much of the criticism during this period served brilliantly to illuminate the actual dimensions of the poems and books investigated. In its first decades, before the New Criticism became an institutionalized title, this same criticism developed and massively improved the ad hoc cultural critical tradition founded by Matthew Arnold and the other formidable Victorian sages. 

On the other hand, these same critics sometimes seem childish in their fumbling flights of abstraction, overly content to make judgments based on distinctions sometimes tenuous, sometimes too superficially comprehended, like that between romanticism and classicism, reason and emotion, science and poetry, use and beauty, prose and verse, form and content, knowledge and experience, myth and history, ethics and art, genius and talent. Ransom, frequently the most childish of them all, freely confessed this fault and blamed it on the failure of English departments to educate students at something other than philology and literary history. The only true literary critics, before the New Criticism, were “home-made critics. Naturally they are not too wise, these amateurs who furnish our reviews and critical studies. But when they distinguish themselves, the universities which they attended can hardly claim more than a trifling share of the honor.” In their pragmatic ambitions and fervor to correct the errors of civilization with the achievements of high culture, ethics and aesthetics, religion, poetry, and politics often got messily rolled into one. 

Now, I should emphasize that the usual dismissal of the New Critics on account of their “religious” obsession with metaphor and paradox, or because their apparent formalism closed off literature to the deeper exigencies that explain why we read it and why some of us write it is naive. As their Arnoldian pedigree suggests, few authors have ever so persistently insisted on the importance of poetry as a mode of discovery and critique in religious, political, and other cultural discourses as did Ransom, Tate, Brooks, and especially Yvor Winters. Far from erring on the side of isolating or eviscerating the aesthetic, these practical critics only failed in articulating the profound and convincing relations between the aesthetic, cultural, political, and religious spheres of thought and activity with a nuance and sophistication that could remain permanently enlightening. It is hard not to blush at some of John Crowe Ransom’s efforts to take on John Dewey, name-dropping Kant and Hegel in his defense of art as something more than a chemical or natural “reaction.” All men of good will root for him, as they would root for Winters’s attempt at Thomistic criticism if they ever read it, but they must acknowledge such arguments are neither as cogent nor informed as they ought to be. On the other hand, Francesca Aran Murphy’s study, Christ the Form of Beauty (1995), draws Tate, Ransom, and Caroline Gordon into dialogue with the theological aesthetics of Jacques Maritain, William Lynch, and Hans Urs von Balthasar; in doing so, she demonstrates how important the New Critics become when we move beyond the contemporary English department and look at modern theology. 

Nevertheless, one can see why professional scholars in the last few decades, once they got a loose grip on certain minority trends in Continental philosophy (fingers clutching the dry splinters of jargon), felt their intellectual moment had arrived. Confident in the rectitude and genius of postmodern semiotics and the efficacious explanatory power of the latest “hermeneutics of suspicion,” most influentially expressed by Michel Foucault, the professor could shed his pragmatic, hokey subservience to the great work of literature and hierophantic poet, and claim a certain autonomy—an autonomy that has been sometimes unfairly browbeaten as “Theory.” Moreover, the form of a poem must appear minute—literally—when one judges it in proportion to the forms of civilization and human experience, and so Continental literary theory seemed to debunk the figurative grandeur of literature. As such, literary theory promised to wrest the importance and prestige of art from the author and put it in the hands of the scholar. Unfortunately for the scholar, grandeur is not fungible; the head-scratchers of the western world, who had at least stared confused at poetry, cast their glance on academic literary criticism only once a year, as The New York Times published the most absurd paper titles from the annual Modern Language Association convention. 

As I indicated above, the age of “Theory” has passed, and has left us not junior American Derridas mouthing “Quoi?” with pursed lips in the halls of academe. What it has left us is a sense of the scholarly-critical enterprise entirely committed to different ever-subtler variations on “reflection theory,” where the scholar’s chief aim is to prove how the historical ideology of a period informs a text, or how the text reinforces the ideology of its age. This does not make such scholar-critics bad teachers of literature in comparison with those of the past. Rather, it quite literally makes them professors of a different, incommensurable discipline from that of the poet-critics of the past (the break between earlier philological scholars and the New Critics was not nearly so great). It also almost ineluctably binds them to a set of political principles as the ransom for freeing them of any sense of obligation to a certain body of literature or canon of aesthetic standards. I say “almost ineluctably” because the fate of scholars like Frank Lentrecchia and Terry Eagleton has been to be branded “reactionaries” by their colleagues for their attempt to find a way out of such a bind. 

In general, academic scholar-critics are trained to hunt out ideologies and classify them according to certain gender or racial nomenclatures. To their graduate students, they may speak of the indeterminacy and historical contingency of these and all ideologies; for such trained academic specialists, the chief task of literary study is to show how the instability of cultural forms goes all the way down to the foundations of human experience, and therefore might as well be manipulated (by whom?) in favor of selected liberal truisms. Astonishingly, this voluntarist pursuit of one liberal platitude or another is now most frequently couched in a critique of liberalism itself (Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill get martyred for ideals they helped formulate; they are wooden Christs to the contemporary academy’s decadent Ciaphases). Meanwhile, to their undergraduates, such professors recuperate this nihilistic news of “cultural relativism” in a form of neo-liberal diversity and civil rights discourse intended to impart a spirit of non-judgmental tolerance. In sum, identity politics never looks so superannuated as it does in the graduate seminar, and never looks of such vital importance as it does in the undergraduate lecture hall. 

The first practitioners of critical theory were really just trying to introduce Continental philosophy into an institution formed on principles of literary evaluation and exegesis. However awful much of it was, it nonetheless marked an honest attempt to flesh out literary criticism with philosophical method. These have gone into the dark, in part because the philosophy itself was just too hard, and in part because, once one had penetrated its long and whimsical periods, it brought one to an intellectual dead end (that dead end was soon labeled jouissance and enjoyed a rather sterile and un-joyful resurrection). What remains of the English Department left in their dainty French footprints is an institution fanatically closed to new philosophical thinking and equally fanatically committed to rehashing ideology critique after ideology critique with ever more crude refinement of vocabulary, until the same points made thirty years ago appear again, but disfigured, almost unrecognizable, in hyper-nuanced teratological manifestation. 

It is worth pausing here to say that this need not have happened. Had the frequent efforts of early-twentieth-century critics to ground their ideas in realist metaphysical systems been performed with more rigor, an alternative and altogether happier path might have opened up. Had R.S. Crane and the Chicago School been less hog-tied to Aristotle’s Poetics and more open to developing aesthetic theories and criticism within an Aristotelian tradition, their influence would have been much greater than it was. Had New Critics like Allen Tate and W.K. Wimsatt been better able to harness, correct, and expand upon the Thomist philosophies of art and beauty Jacques Maritain outlined in Art et Scholastique and Creative Intuition in Art and Poetry, their already deeply metaphysical sense of aesthetic form might have flourished. Indeed, the New Criticism might have forged a rich and compelling meeting of Thomistic judgment and poetic contemplation even though the neo-Thomism that informed it fell out of fashion in the ‘sixties. Then again, perhaps it is too much to hope that anything rich or good or intelligent could have survived the upheavals of the ‘sixties, when American Pragmatism, Marxist historical necessity, and a drug-addled populism joined forces to injure a few persistent evils and utterly destroy a great many (until then) perennial goods. 

In any case, the union of philosophy and English Departments came in the form of Theory, and Theory remade those Departments so that they only seemed to be performing their proper function if they were tearing down the screens of received ideas of what was true, good, or beautiful in order to expose the usually white, mad imperialist wizard-monkey operating his ideology-machine just behind. This does not necessarily mean English Departments are bad things; they are capable of producing interesting and wide-ranging research on the forces that shape our culture. It does however mean that, first, the underlying principles of such culture critique are other than those of traditional literary education and should be understood as such. Second, the explicit politicization of modern literary-cultural research makes difficult if not impossible the nuanced discussion of any aesthetic question independent either of its immanent political implications or a very limited set of ideological principles. If ideology means simply “a system of often irreconcilable beliefs that purport to explain reality when in fact it screens the reason from a clear vision of it” (and I can accept no other definition), then ideology critique, whatever its merits, has become the greatest ideology of them all. 

Before turning at last to contemporary poetry, let me suggest that the corrective to the deficiencies of the contemporary academy is not a turning back to the institutionalized modes of the New Criticism. Plot summaries of A Chaste Maid in Cheapside, followed by glowing recommendations of its structure, or catalogues of the appearance of anapestic substitutions in late-Victorian verse, constitute an element in good literary criticism. They do not exhaust it. Rather, we need to look back to how the best New Critics developed their practice within the tradition of cultural criticism that sprang up in the nineteenth century. This fast and loose, omnivorous tradition believed criticism (contrary to Samuel Johnson’s definition) could apply itself to any facet of human life—that it could in fact help find and evaluate the connecting veins that spread through the tissue of our culture. I have mentioned Arnold, but consider also the shelf of books that constitutes the complete work of G.K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc. Think of Ruskin and Carlyle, of course, but peruse also the English works of Hannah Arendt, the literary remains of T.E. Hulme, and all the prose of W.H. Auden. Here one finds a genre of writing of inestimable importance that gains in value because it knows no institutional boundaries; the only boundary is the breadth of the human reason. 

These redoubtable figures are the ancestors of the greatest New Critics. What Eliot and Tate wished to do was refine that critical reason so that it recognized poetry as poetry rather than something else, and so escaped the error of confusing it with a political pamphlet or a whiff of opium. They refined literary criticism within cultural criticism; they did not seek to amputate it as one sometimes suspects the conservative decriers of the modern academy would have liked. To the extent that one suspects William Logan of meeting up with William Bennett in admonishing literature professors to keep their heads down and stick with teaching the greatness of Shakespeare, he is off base. Incidentally, Logan’s tendency to the biting negative review is most important for reminding us not that literary criticism should criticize, that is, should berate. Many writers today think that the return of the barb to review columns would save poetry (admittedly, it would help), but in truth, what Logan’s negative reviews demonstrate is how bad literature can prove an occasion for great, instructive criticism. The New Critics understood this. Indeed, Milton got off badly in the writings of Eliot and Ransom in part because these poet-critics wished to show that no literary great was beyond reproach. Those truly deserving of reproach as certainly have something to teach us, if only by the incompetence of their writing or the blindness of the worldview they express. 

I am calling then for a criticism far broader and richer in interest than that which now predominates. The return of evaluative criticism and positive arguments about the contents of the canon—by all means! But there is nothing wrong, and a great deal right, with my colleagues’ frequent interest in abominable works of literature; we can learn a great deal from the clumsiness of lesser artists. Those of us who have an interest in the totality of human experience and wish to come to a rational understanding of it will naturally find much for study in bad works of art—and that includes, but is scarcely limited to, what can be learned about the great from what is absent in the bad. The error so many of my colleagues make is their dismissal of the identity of an art work as art. They call it just one more ideology to be swept aside on the way to the next exciting dissertation on gender transgression (e.g. cross-dressing in the works of Willa Cather)! 

And so, what we need is neither the perpetuation of the ideologically stunted scholarship of many contemporary academics nor a cozy book club for the appreciation of how “classic works” warm our hearts. Literary criticism should be a robust venture that appreciates and explores the distinct attributes of the aesthetic and the poetic, while extending that conversation into the larger one of our culture. Eliot recommended just this when discussing the virtues and limitations of Johnson’s Lives of the Poets. He observes, 

Criticism of poetry moves between two extremes. On the one hand the critic may busy himself so much with the implications of a poem, or of one poet’s work—implications moral, social, religious, or other—that the poetry becomes hardly more than a text for discourse. Such is the tendency of the moralising critics of the nineteenth century, to which Landor makes a notable exception. Or if you stick too closely to the ‘poetry’ and adopt no attitude towards what the poet has to say, you will tend to evacuate it of all significance. And furthermore there is a philosophic borderline, which you must not transgress too far or too often, if you wish to preserve your standing as a critic, and are not prepared to present yourself as a philosopher, metaphysician, sociologist, or psychologist instead. Johnson, in these respects, is a type of critical integrity. Within his limitations, he is one of the great critics; and he is a great critic partly because he keeps within his limitations . . . For Johnson poetry was still poetry, and not another thing.  

The distinction of evaluative criticism exists within a larger unity of human inquiry. The evaluative critic performs a distinguished service by examining a work of art as just that; but his queries should awaken us to the whole field of human experience. The most famous New Critics admirably practiced just this. The academy rarely allows for it now. Its professors mostly rush past poetry altogether in order to shred to tatters the more easily “sociologized” blocks of prose novels. Poems and novels become incidental bodies of evidence of be dissected that some blue vein or proud stilled heart of ideology might be extracted for our—our what?—our assurance that there is no truth these professors have not killed. 

Outside the academy the sort of criticism I and Eliot describe is more common, but less sophisticated (in part because its practitioners are given little space in print to spread out their thinking properly, and in part because they respect too tenaciously their limitations as critics and ignore too easily their responsibilities as intellectual beings). We live in a perverse age of dull philistines and crusaders of resentment, and this does not admit of easy solution. Because the philosophical foundations that recognize beauty as a transcendental property of being, alongside goodness and truth, have become unmoored, the critic who believes in these things and makes judgments according to them, must also perform the task of explaining and justifying their re-foundation. In this sense, we must move against, or rather beyond, Eliot’s praise of Johnson. The literary critic must also be, at least, a metaphysician, but not just any metaphysics will do. The long theological-metaphysical tradition that begins with the ancient Greeks and careens smoothly on through history until the modern philosophers shipwrecked it, must be restored authoritatively. Only in that tradition, where beauty is an attribute of being, can literary criticism flourish. And only, to repeat, if critics have the intelligence and education to argue persuasively within that tradition, can their practices have any claim on those few living souls outfitted for the extended contemplation of truth. 

In the chapters that follow, I shall attack much of contemporary poetry from within that tradition, to suggest how contemporary poetry could be better than it is. I hope also that, in the performance of such a critique, the value of realist metaphysics and the theological presuppositions from which it is inextricable may become apparent. As such, I shall attempt to exemplify the conception of unified inquiry that I find otherwise wanting in both academic and non-academic literary discourses. If the hunters of ideology have taught us anything, it is that Aristotle was correct when he claimed that inquiry into the nature of even so ethereal and minute a thing as a poem or word must be grounded in reasoning that extends back to the first principles of being. To write of contemporary poetry, or of any matter, will summon statements also that ask what it means to be a thing. To judge what kind of poetry is good will lead inevitably to questions of how a human person—not just as a reader of poetry, but as a person—can and ought to live in the world. Poesis, the science of making, leads eventually to genesis, the science of creation itself. We need not begin with such a big bang, but only with that most whimpering of phenomena, the modern poetry reading.   


The Half-Empty Auditorium

Those who love literature, or have a vested interest at any rate in making sure great works of literature are taught at universities or that radical politics are not, could only find the conquest of the English Department by “post-liberal” liberal ideologues distressing. But the complaints on this score too often drown out others that seem of far greater moment. For a literature professor such as myself, the spectacle of some of my colleagues is frustrating and sad. But there are worse scandals. Too often I have sat in a large, third- or quarter-filled auditorium and listened to a renowned poet decry the decline of English Departments, only to look about me and see nodding “fellow poets,” and the recently published Cornfield State University or SUNY Milltown Press books of those poets, as far greater threats than any bizarrely and narrowly trained academic. If literature is to persist as an interest of honest men and women in the decades or centuries to come, it must be good enough to withstand the assault of any, and every, English Department. That poetry should be primarily read in the classroom is a bad thing, whether or not the professor teaching it does so badly or in the interest of forwarding bad ideas. That poets should cultivate productive and intelligent conventions of their craft; that they should understand the traditions in which they write, and use them well; that their poems should be quite simply good—these are far more essential matters than whether some comfy tenured maverick should “out” a woman novelist of the nineteenth century, or whether some brash complacent assistant professor should denounce Ezra Pound’s politics for the one-millionth time. 

I have almost no reason to believe that poetry can long exist outside the academy, however, because I believe the vast majority of publishing poets have abandoned or betrayed everything that makes poetry a valid and valuable literary genre. They do so not by entering the academy, but through a far more basic lack of competence in writing. The academy should help sustain poets and poetry, and to complain about it as the essential cause of literary decline ignores the essential passivity and benignity of academic enterprise by attending only to the incompetent malcontents who currently occupy many of its offices. I read a generous handful of new books of poems and new issues of poetry journals every year. The few journals to which I subscribe and re-subscribe include an impressive number of great poems in their pages alongside many bad ones; the books I buy, as opposed to those I thumb through in stores or many of those I receive to review, offer extraordinary riches. Indeed, if I were careful, that is to say, more selective, in my reading, I might almost think contemporary poetry was flush with imaginative vitality and formal accomplishment. Some of Geoffrey Hill’s recent work, most of Dick Davis’s, the lyrics I have seen of Leslie Monsour, Bill Coyle, Joshua Mehigan, William Connelly, A.E. Stallings, Peggy O’Brien, or Len Krisak, the translations of Rhina P. Espaillat, the fractured narratives of Brad Leithauser, Ned Balbo, and William Logan, these are all remarkable achievements. The collected editions of Helen Pinkerton, John Hollander, Donald Justice, Anthony Hecht, Derek Mahon, Derek Walcott, and Richard Wilbur suggest no less that some few titans still walk among us and have perfected and extended their medium over a lifetime. 

But too many times—too many saddening times—have I sat in some cool and shabbily furnished auditorium, with its burnt orange curtain and wood-paneled podium, only to witness a ragtag bohemian army, the assembled mass of a generation of well-published would-be poets who simply do not know what they are doing, crowded by their well-disposed sycophants incapable of much more than regurgitating the carrion of their masters. In their quest to be original, inventive, “experimental,” and above all, published, they have repeated and repeated the mistakes of their slightly elder elders and their unstudied classmates in myriad MFA workshops. By “mistakes” of course I mean “present poetic conventions.” Do I ask them to cease being conventional in order to become great poets? Not at all. All poetry is written within conventions, even when it is explicitly against them. I ask rather that they ask themselves why it is they write what they write. I have noticed that very few poets enjoy sitting and reading other poets’ work. This is not because “most of the poetry in any age is bad,” but because most poetry written and published today is produced within a body of conventions that guide poets in banal, opaque, even nonsensical directions—directions that no one save another poet looking for something to steal would willingly follow. It is the hack work of the incompetent yet ambitious. When someone (in this instance Wayne Koestenbaum in Fence 17) publishes disjunctive declarative sentences followed by an extract from Theodor W. Adorno as if it were poetry, one understands that certain conventions are in place. They are simply bad conventions that manifest a theory of poetry entirely conformed to the practices of a modern consumer society, even as they pretend to move against them: 

I might benefit from supplemental testosterone.
My arm is missing a wedge.
My girlfriend had a much-touted abortion.
I’m not emotionally expressive.
Adorno: “He who offers for sale
something unique that no one wants to buy
represents, even against his will,
freedom from exchange.”

The reasonably intelligent reader would be unlikely to spend much time puzzling out the connection between the first lines and the quoted passage from Adorno. One is not meant to do so, because poetry of this nature is constructed according to conventions that have nothing to do with poetry. This poem was intended to appear in a journal, to be glanced at by other young “poets” of certain ambition, and to reaffirm for them that poetry consists of little more than a series of ill-configured disjunctive sentences. Such a practice derives historically from the surrealists but, as we shall explore in a later chapter, has no connection with surrealism besides the historical. Such a practice is usually justified implicitly—though in the present instance, it is explicitly justified—according to a Western Marxist conception of art as resisting the reifying logic of modern capitalism. By refusing to be absorbed in the marketplace, art in its very uselessness and apparent ugliness, enacts an isolated liberation from the “exchange” relationships that dominate market societies. Sadly, this poem and the thousands like it published annually, attempt no such liberation; rather they serve as counters of cultural capital with no more intrinsic value than a dollar bill. This very “valuelessness” makes them available for ever-quicker consumption, as poet after poet skims journal after journal in the impossible hope of keeping ahead of the market and, through imitation, getting another, similar poem published. Such a literary culture neither resists modern market culture, nor merely subsists within it. Because of the absolute marginality of contemporary poetry to that culture, it perversely exaggerates the inherent instability of the marketplace. The old Marxist saw that, in capitalism, “all that is solid melts into air” seems an understatement here. Contemporary poetry of this sort was never solid to begin with; it was never meant to subsist and is already superannuated on the moment of its appearance. No one but the poet’s classmates, students, and imitators would shuffle into an auditorium to listen to such a poem. And even they would consider it a burden, for all talk of pleasure, interest, appreciation or, in Adorno’s terminology, “shock” is beside the point here. The poem exists solely to be accepted by a publisher and to go unread in the backlog of one bloodless journal or another. A poetry reading would merely slow down the rate of consumption, and one’s time is better spent either mailing out one’s own poems—or, perhaps, doing something meaningful. 

If hyper-capitalism drives the small cosmos of contemporary poetry in its ambit, this need not be so. An abundance of polemical essays in the last two decades have explored the importance, fate, and material of poetry in hopes of saving it from its practitioners. Dana Gioia’s “Can Poetry Matter?” is perhaps the most concisely perceptive and is certainly the most well known. William Logan’s prose, especially in his newest volume, The Undiscovered Country, offers a copious supply of sharp (if not always as sharply worded as one would like) insights on the nature and failure of recent poetry. I hesitate therefore to suggest that the small readership of poetry criticism needs mine. At the risk of appearing to claim an authority I only doubtfully possess, I would nonetheless like to catalog a handful of the losses from which poetry currently suffers. Because I so much enjoy reading poetry, perhaps my account will indicate what at least one enthusiastic reader looks for when he opens a book and what, to his disconsolation, he so seldom discovers. On a more pedantic level, I offer these notes in hopes of suggesting a definition of what poetry, real poetry, is. My effort shall prove useful if it does no more than bring us closer to a clarification of how the word “poetry” may justly be used.


Form as Panacea for Content

Poets such as John Matthias and Robert Archambeau have justly charged contemporary poets with falling into two unsatisfactory camps. As Archambeau recently expressed it in a self-deprecatory little essay, “we’re still swamped with the poem of the semi-confessional backyard epiphany . . . poems that focus on the exquisite sensitivity of the speaker, caught in a meditative moment in an ordinary American life.” On the far side of the backyard fence one finds “linguistically hazy, indeterminate, pseudo-sophisticated nonsense verse that has emerged from the wreckage of language poetry . . . Poems about nothing, doing nothing that hasn’t been done before. This emperor has no clothes, and we’re all too cowed by Charles Bernstein-quoting associate professors to say so!” Indeed. For these two worthies, the passage out of this suburban poetry of the ex-hippie in his garden or the unformed and fragmented adolescent seems to be a close development of what one might call the “impersonal historical poetics” of Ezra Pound. By this I would indicate those who take the modernist (Eliotic) call for “impersonality” as one for a poetry that rejects the lyric mode in favor of a collage of learned lines drawn from the public and arcane materials of our history. They tend to eschew much of the emotional appeal in Pound’s Pisan Cantos, where the high modernist’s method boils down to a refracted but no less personal or heart-rending variation on the traditional lyric (a lyric fugue or frog, as Pound might have put it). Likewise, they are suspicious of the transcendental, spatial vision of history Pound advocates in the Cantos, as for that matter they are suspicious of Eliot’s advocacy of the permanent and universal, which in fact guided his understanding of the “impersonal.” 

The aspect of Pound they emulate is the wide swipe of his paw in search of subject matter, and the refractory construction of the poem itself that allows us to get history without narrative; after all, if one wanted to tell a story, novels would do fine. What they are after are emblematic patterns, archetypes, spatial forms for contemplation that nonetheless remain immanent to history. In his essay, “Roads Less Traveled: Two Paths Out of Modernism in Post-War American Poetry,” Archambeau has described Matthias’s poetry as the enactment of “postmodern intertextuality.” By this term he appropriately highlights the “inclusion” of history and archival materials in Matthias’s work, while acknowledging that it foregoes the search for an absolute, whole or organic culture against which a chaotic modernity can be measured. 

Matthias’ A Gathering of Ways (1991), for instance, offers three poems reminiscent in style and method of Pound’s Malatesta or Jefferson/Mussolini cantos, with their fragmented and leaping historical accounts. Matthias, in representing the histories of East Anglia, the Midwest, and the France and Spain of the route to Santiago de Compostela, moves temporally back and forth, from the pre-historical geology of the places to their early-modern and contemporary conditions. This movement within history demarcates the horizon of the poems, so that the grand transhistorical or absolute vision Pound sought is refused, is put beyond use, even as it (admittedly) sometimes creeps back in the form of an ethical judgment. It would do no good to quote the poems, for their effect derives primarily from the leaping between proper nouns—between toponym and toponym, between historical figure and historical figure. One comes away with a sense of the vastness of the historical stage, as well as a sense that one will never learn what was the meaning of the play acted upon it. 

Without rejecting this solution, I would nonetheless like to get back of it. Consider the dichotomy Archambeau has constructed. One side of the unfortunate fence cordons off poets categorized according to subject-matter, poets who expatiate upon the gentle numinocity of things or their lurid bankruptcy, all of which returns to one persistent subject—the subject, the Cartesian “I” (or the Lutheran “I”, which comes to the same thing). On the other side are those corralled primarily by the “form” in which they write. And this form of course is disjunctive, highly fragmented—it portends to be broken like a mirror or television screen, though we might suspect it is broken like the back of a dead horse. What does it mean that, nearly a century after the supposed convergence of form and content in the aesthetic of modernism, we can still effectively group poetry (and other arts for that matter) according to those who write about something (subject-centered) and those who write in a certain way (form-centered)? 

Well one lesson may be that modernism per se had to fail because form and content cannot ever fully converge for the obvious reason that they are not the same thing. The more important lesson however is that since poetry fell from its position as the highest and most central of the arts (if Timothy Steele is correct, long before that), poets have repeatedly embarked on the fool’s errand of compensating for deficiencies of subject-matter by repairing to formal “experimentation.” As Pound’s early poem “Revolt” exemplifies, most poets at sometime or other become aware that what they are writing about is old hat (or old “dreams” in Pound’s case)—it is merely iterating the conventional subject-matter of a given time and therefore, while pretending to speak about some matter of reality, perhaps even the heart and light of Being, it has nevertheless produced nothing but a pseudo-statement. If the only suitable subjects for a poem are accounts of a woman’s beauty or a man’s deed in battle, as Dante once claimed, then the subjects themselves become embalmed in conventions, become conventions themselves, and it may seem that the only terrain on which the individual poem can strike out in order to become this poem rather than an imitation of some non-existent general ideal poetry, is that of experimentation with formal conventions. 

Wordsworth felt that the Augustans had cut poetry off from the most intimate subject-terrain of the heart, and so changed the subject matter of poetry radically under the guise of formal innovation. The “real language” spoken by men that he purported to write really provided him occasion to justify a little poem about a leech gatherer or a woman singing as she reaps in a field. We should not be fooled by the preface to The Lyrical Ballads, which Coleridge coerced him into writing, that Wordsworth was nearly as concerned with diction (as a formal attribute) as he was with subject. Indeed, the Miltonic element in The Prelude and the new titles he stuck on his poems late in his career (“The Leech-Gatherer” becomes “Resolution and Independence”) should suggest that he embraced the notion of poetic language as an August enterprise, so long as he could apply it to the intimacies of the countryside and the heart. Similarly, “The Solitary Reaper” evidently deploys the stock language of eighteenth-century travel writing without irony, because it was the experience of hearing a beautiful woman sing as she reaps a Scottish field that mattered most to Wordsworth. If conventional language could replicate that experience, he would retain the language. We have taken Wordsworth at his word and too often ignored his practice, although both Coleridge and T.S. Eliot have warned us against it. 

Pound was among the first to err thus. In the years before World War I, he saw that the Wordsworthian convention had hardened into Georgian pastoral conventions; it had so calcified, in fact, that poetry now could worthily take for subject a much more contracted range of matter than it could before Wordsworth’s day. Students and the poorly read seem to assume Dryden and Pope could write nothing but the sententious or the satirical. Indeed, their range was immense and their work is appalling—to the extent that it appalls—for its self-satisfied humanistic rationalism rather than for its narrow neo-Classical matter. Can any intelligent person read The Rape of the Lock and contend that any poet in our day could construct such a well-wrought work? Similarly, Dryden’s Religio Laici exemplifies a mastery of discursive verse sorely wanted in our age; problems in the poem arise only when one tries to resolve the contradictions in his epistemology, ecclesiology, and soteriology—none of which need detain us here. Their strength, following their interest, was not in the lyric mode, though lines such as the following suggest lyric genius was not entirely lost in their long and elegant age: 

Thou treacherous, base deserter of my flame,
False to my passion, fatal to my fame,
Through what mistaken magic dost thou prove
So true to lewdness, so untrue to love? 

Wordsworth did well to recuperate the interior monologue and the intensity of the meditative lyric. But Wordsworth’s successors, we know, clamped onto his conventions of the poem as expression of pastoral landscape and sincere, often warmly affirmative, emotion—and they ran it into the ground. When young Pound came to poetry he believed fully in the emotional power of poetry. He believed in it at least as strongly as Wordsworth or Keats. He could not immediately see any way to escape the general round of fit subjects for poetry the romantics had canonized because only those subjects seemed to guarantee the poetic emotive power he craved. His response was to fasten on a still narrower range of emotions—those pertaining to “world weariness” and a barbed elitism—and then to “renew” poetry by propagating a new form of free verse distinct from any other seen before. With some help from T.E. Hulme, in other words, Pound invented a poetry that broke with formal conventions in response to dissatisfaction with prevailing conventions of subject matter. 

I see this as a catastrophic error. Not because I hate free verse, though I do not like it much. Rather, to correct a poet’s failing of subject with a panacea of form reminds one more of the compensatory role alcohol plays in the lives of unhappy, failed men, than of a serious innovation in the history of poetry. Instead of confronting and solving a problem, Pound evaded it. The gulf is immense between his Personae, those early works where he fiddled with free verse in otherwise quite conventional late-Victorian lyrics, and The Cantos, where he remade the subject matter of poetry and ostensibly made the poet the historian of the modern age, as Homer had been for his. Such a great gulf is it that Pound rightly rejected the early work. And yet The Cantos does not really return freedom and variety to the subject matter of poetry—not to the extent Pound had hoped—because it too bespeaks an answer of formal innovation to a problem of content. The fragmentary mode of composition there deployed allows for many kinds of disjecta membra to be represented on the page—whether it be late-medieval correspondence, Chinese characters, or moments from early American history. But the form itself is so imposing that it folds the different matter together into a kind of gravy, so that what was, before the poem was written, an impressive indeed commanding range of materials, has all undergone boiling down to a reduction sauce of monotony. The real subject of the poem, then, might merely be that persistent lyric “I” recording the experience of a broken history and his failed attempt to put its fragments into order: 

Tho’ my errors and wrecks lie about me.
And I am not a demigod,
I cannot make it cohere. (Canto CXVI)

Pity those who mistake Pound for a deity. His mistake, again, was to correct subject-matter deficiencies with formal innovation. In his case, the form itself so filtered the matter that he did not really make poetry much more capacious or varied than it had been before the death of Swinburne. Pound did not have the artistic ability to write a poetry that embraced such a wide range of materials without rendering it a pile of monotonous lyric fragments. But he could have failed in a number of other ways, because any poet who corrects subject-matter insufficiencies with mere formal tricks will fall into some kind of error or another. This may suggest the limitation I see in Matthias and Archambeau’s work—even as I profess to include them as among the better poets writing in our day. I am frequently astounded with the range of materials Matthias draws on, but I have noticed that in many of his poems he is overly concerned with breaking them into Canto-like units, whereas in his best poems he has allowed the subject-matter to predominate, or rather, to determine the form. See for example the breathy nostalgic lines of “Swell” or the paternal incantatory magic of his “Variations on the Song of Songs,” both of which appear in a recent chapbook and the first of which in his New Selected Poems (2004). I might also mention his “A Note on Barber’s Adagio”, which is quite prosaic in every formal respect, allowing the power of its material to glower forth. Thus Matthias’s work is certainly nowhere so limited by formal procedure as Pound’s Cantos, but I would suggest that where he transcends those limitations he also affirms them as limitations, that is, deficiencies. Beyond this, I must also protest the immanence of his historical vision, which I discussed above. His poetry is impersonal because it remains in the realm of historical things and events with remarkable austere consistency. For the typical “postmodern” theorist, this would seem a virtue, taking for granted the “prison house of language” in which we are all trapped. But for one aware that a fragment always signifies the reality of a whole, that the relative always implies the absolute, the loss of “modernist” longing for (an unachieved) totality so evident in Pound’s poetry, strikes me as a loss for Matthias’s poetry as well. The constant moving back and forth along a historical timeline in which one is trapped but in which one can play no meaningful part proves a vertiginous experience indeed. 

But to return to the more general point that lingers behind my historical digression. Failures in the conventions of poetic content cannot be fully compensated for by ingenuity with form. Nor for that matter can formal inadequacies be fully healed by turning to interesting subjects. Between the two, however, the latter is more excusable. Everyone at one time or another has said a poem, a novel, a film, or a painting had an interesting subject that merited one’s attention, even if its formal execution were egregious. Contrary to Pound’s claim in an early essay, it is not inappropriate that women meandering through an art gallery should happen upon a portrait and naively ponder, “I wonder what this person should have been like to know?” A portrait should always make one wonder just that; but if it is a good portrait it should shock us into asking all kinds of other questions as well, including, “How does such a thing of beauty exist here before me?” At that moment, one has worthily entered into the individual union of form and content that we call the aesthetic, but that is a destination, and one frequently follows many ostensibly trivial paths on the way to it.


Part II: “Our Steps amid a Ruined Colonnade” continues with reflections on how “poetry” relates to “verse,” and how the quest after the essence of “poetry” has achieved nothing so much as a loss of grammar and discursive intelligence in poetry.


About James Matthew Wilson

James Matthew Wilson is Assistant Professor in the Department of Humanities and Augustinian Traditions at Villanova University. His poems, essays, and reviews appear regularly in a wide range of books and journals, including, most recently, The Dark Horse, Pleiades, and Modern Age.
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