To College Students Considering a Course in American Poetry
I dwell in Possibility —
Those who attend or are about to attend college may be surprised to discover the confluence and influence of great poetry written in English at the beginning of the last century. Whether you agree or disagree with the often dark themes, the diversity, scope, gravitas, and splendor of the poems are incontestable. Many phrases and images from that period are still well-known. Contrast what now appears a century later. American poetry in particular is meaningless to the American public. The words recited by poets at recent inaugurations are such simplistic pangs that the average American may wonder why and how our celebrated poets have become so deaf and narrow-minded. What recourse is there for an American college student with an interest in the heightened language of our poetry?
Compare these selections from the opening poem of The Bridge, Hart Crane’s 1930 paean to the nation and its promise and commerce, as viewed from Brooklyn:
How many dawns, chill from his rippling rest
The seagull’s wings shall dip and pivot him,
Shedding white rings of tumult, building high
Over the chained bay waters Liberty —
Some pages of figures to be filed away;
— Till elevators drop us from our day . . .
I think of cinemas, panoramic sleights
With multitudes bent toward some flashing scene
Never disclosed, but hastened to again,
Foretold to other eyes on the same screen;
to these opening words of the poem “Pilgrimage (Vicksburg, Mississippi)” by Natasha Trethewey, celebrated by the New York Times when she was nominated in June as America’s newest poet laureate:
Here, the Mississippi carved
its mud-dark path, a graveyard
for skeletons of sunken riverboats.
Here, the river changed its course,
turning away from the city
as one turns, forgetting, from the past —
the abandoned bluffs, land sloping up
above the river’s bend — where now
the Yazoo fills the Mississippi’s empty bed.
Though on the surface Trethewey is certainly more accessible than Crane, one wonders how quickly students will find her language one-dimensional and uninteresting when compared to Crane’s more sweeping and also more demanding poetry. The poetry establishment in the United States does itself and the nation a great disservice when it condescends to accept and praise less literate verse. Perhaps the establishment assumes that students are not up to more arduous readings and require such simplification.
Epic poems such as the Iliad and the Odyssey are still contiguous with Western culture and its historical concerns: love, contest, failure, return. But even the farthest reaching of our contemporary university poets do not venture anywhere near such issues on such a scale. Trethewey, after she was chosen by the Chief Librarian of the Library of Congress, was lauded in various poetry forums for her race, her ancestry, her gender, and the regional depth of her poetry. I am not suggesting that the Southern black experience is not an important subject matter, but it appears that a poet’s biographical data is now more determinative of artistic recognition than the poems she creates. Would these poems survive on their own, if published anonymously?
Ensconced at their universities, contemporary poets confer awards and accolades on each other and praise their students’ immature poems like teachers in grade school who commend whatever scribbles are produced daily by the little children in their classrooms. Of course, encouragement is important, as apparently is the constant flow of tuition and fees into college writing programs where poets who add nothing to our national artistic output can conceal themselves and their shortcomings.
Everywhere else in our drunken, expansive, violent, and mad world new language flirts with new ideas. Americans are inundated with expressions and thoughts. Language is alive but the best that these narcissistic poets can give us is obtuse or dull.
I urge you, before you register for a class, to wander through a library or bookstore or browse online, searching for something memorable that has been written in the last decade. We live in a period of strife—to say the least—and surely some contemporary American poet has observed something memorable in his contemporary verse.
The sad truth, easily deduced by perusing the anthologies published annually that proclaim the latest and greatest American poets and poems, is that most poets (and their critics) ignore both the poor quality and great quantity of their verse. Howling, self-immolation, obtuse utterances tossed across the page or screen, and little chirpings are unbecoming a species that asserts its superiority in language and thought. Our contemporary American poets are delusional and dishonest, self-important and impotent. Worse, they do not know it or will not admit it.
If you are about to enroll in a course in American poetry or creative writing I urge you instead to read voraciously on your own and find those professors who will give you credit for this private activity. Reading is lonely and demanding but wondrous expressions permeate our past that, upon discovery, are still capable of making a new reader pause in awe of what was expressed. Read chronologically from the beginning of the written word. Even before there was a United States, words in certain combinations—like sounds in certain musical combinations and visual images in certain paintings and sculptures—highlighted and defined mankind’s achievements and failures.
One or two truly great American poets may come only once or twice in each century but today there is no greatness and, as importantly, none of the many second-best or third-best poets (or poems) that often surround such seers. We have Southern folklorists (Trethewey, Nikky Finney); individual abnormality celebrated as the norm (perhaps because simple poets substitute shock for awe); accumulations of words that grope for meaning; and repetitive award ceremonies.
If you embark on this journey of discovery do not get waylaid by discussions of Walt Whitman’s, Emily Dickinson’s, or others’ personal propensities. Their words—distilled—are more important than their lives. Study the poetry first, and then if interested the poets’ lives.
Here, for example, is Anne Bradstreet in the colony of Massachusetts in the mid-seventeenth century writing to her husband “Before the Birth of One of Her Children”:
All things within this fading world hath end,
Adversity doth still our joys attend;
No ties so strong, no friends so dear and sweet,
But with death’s parting blow is sure to meet.
The sentence past is most irrevocable,
A common thing, yet oh, inevitable.
How soon, my Dear, death may my steps attend,
How soon’t may be thy lot to lose thy friend,
We both are ignorant, yet love bids me
These farewell lines to recommend to thee,
That when that knot’s untied that made us one,
I may seem thine, who in effect am none.
Here is Elinor Wylie at the beginning of the twentieth century:
Avoid the reeking herd,
Shun the polluted flock,
Live like that stoic bird,
The eagle of the rock.
The huddled warmth of crowds
Begets and fosters hate;
He keeps above the clouds
His cliff inviolate.
Compare either of these passages to the celebrated syntactical scattered confusion emanating from Jorie Graham in Cambridge, the Boylston Professor of Rhetoric and Oratory in Harvard’s Department of English and American Literature and Language. According to the Poetry Foundation, publisher of Poetry magazine, Graham is “perhaps the most celebrated poet of the American post-war generation.” Google her “poems” and then ask yourself why poetry is now so unappealing.
And you need not be a student of American literature or language to benefit from this journey of discovery. As John Coleman observed this month in the Harvard Business Review: “deep, broad reading habits are often a defining characteristic of our greatest leaders and can catalyze insight, innovation, empathy, and personal effectiveness.”
Famously the English poet Percy Bysshe Shelley suggested in 1821 that poets are “the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” Just try to imagine the state of this country and this continent if we left self-governance to the mundane university poets. This nation deserves and expects more of its leaders and its poets. Students of the next generation, I urge you to read farther and wider than the self-absorbed, self-laudatory, and easily self-satisfied peers of contemporary American poetry.
Eugene Schlanger, the Wall Street Poet, is the author of September 11 Wall Street Sonnets (Paris: Éditions Underbahn, 2006). He also practices law on Wall Street.
Posted: August 27, 2012 in Essays.
Did you see this one?
Strong Essays on Burke
Francis Canavan, S.J.
Volume 9, Number 2 (Winter 1969)