Dana Levin

The Heroics of Style, Part Three

This is the third of a three-part column that explores the relationship between pressure — psychological, societal and aesthetic — and the development of poetic style. Just as a diamond is coal’s response to the press of the earth, in its broadest terms a style is an aesthetic response to being an individual in the grip of the world.

Unique and indelible styles often arise out of great personal trial and sometimes at great cost: hence the ‘heroics’ of the title. By these lights, the author views style as a product of friction and resistance.

 An earlier draft of section one appears in “Poetry Debates and Manifestos: Essays by 31 Younger U.S. Poets” on the Academy of American Poets web-site: www.poets.org.

*

 

Why is my verse so barren of new pride,

So far from variation or quick change?

Why with the time do I not glance aside

To new found methods and compounds strange?

                              — Shakespeare, Sonnet 76                   

Part III: Make It New! Originality and the Younger Poet

 I. A history, an analysis

Why? What for? What is the point of all this style? This choreography of lingual feints and parries, gorgeous and energetic form without a drop of blood drawn?

Open many of the books published by younger poets since the late nineties and you will find much to delight the eye and tease the palate: like elaborately decorated cakes in a supermarket refrigerator, such books promise sensational tastes that in the end amount to light confections, dissolving at the tip of the tongue. What I can (and often do) admire about such poems—lingual beauty—doesn’t linger long after turning the page.

I’ve been wondering for a while how much of the poetry of my generation got into such a state of affairs. First and foremost, it seems to me, was a very real exasperation with the decadence of the Confessionalist movement, which has informed much contemporary poetry for the last fifty years. By ‘decadence,’ I mean the inevitable excesses that befall aesthetic movements in their waning days of influence, when their strengths and fresh approaches have become predictable, indulgent and stale. By the 1980’s, Lowell’s revolutionary decision to “tell what happened” had splintered into little camps of disclosure. What the poems of these camp — poems of identity-politics, poems of familial violation and abuse, even what Stephen Burt calls the ‘tiny epiphany poem’[1] — had stylistically in common was a narrative autobiographical approach where exposition of subject matter often took precedence over imaginative shaping of language and form.

In response to this prevailing aesthetic, some and then many poets became sick of the self overt on the page, tired of poems privileging direct expression (and emotional content) and yearned to foreground language — its music and typographic materiality, its malleability in service to intuition, chance, and verbal gaming (puns, etc.), the pleasure (and necessity, depending on one’s literary politics) of making it the subject of poetry. For some, and then many, the arrival of Language Poetry, with its interest in language-as-material and its decentralization of self-as-speaker, provided a necessary and energizing counter to Confessionalism’s by-then tired modes.

Yet this real hunger for corrective, as it plays out in the poetry written by today’s younger poets, is affected by two insidious anxieties. The first is the inevitable anxiety of being one of hundreds (maybe thousands?) of MFA graduates driving for a place, if not in the canon, then in Fence. The second anxiety, putting tremendous pressure on the first, is a product of the American tendency to fetishize the new.

Zealous inhabitants of the New World, we have always prized invention and ‘firstness.’ Even its more recent (20th Century) and troubling forms — celebrity and youth worship, the ‘new and improved’ lures of consumer advertising and media hype¾distract, entertain and outrage us. For artists, this cultural preoccupation with the new is complicated by the fact that American art in the 20th Century was defined in large part by its newness: by the ways it subverted precursors, whether that be Modernism’s turn away from 19th Century (Euro-centric) social-realist narratives and Romantic verse or Warholian provocations as to what could be termed ‘market’ and what could be termed ‘art.’ “…The 20th is the century in which experimentation became the central fetish of artistic production,” Joshua Clover writes in a 2002 review called The End of the Experiment. And now “it’s to the point where all contest-winning versifiers, but for a few stray formalists and identity politicians, fancy themselves experimental.”[2]

Which is perhaps to say: safe. In a milieu where aesthetic valuation is inconstant and suspect and modes of expression can be politicized, ‘experimentation’ can, paradoxically, seem the only tradition steady enough to embrace — both because it offers young poets a by now time-honored and culturally-approved position (since 1910 we’ve been a nation of avant-gardists) and the possibility of stumbling upon the authentically original. Yet, the drive to ‘make it new’ can propel many a young poet into “at best repeating the once new gestures of last century, and at worst a sort of labored idiosyncrasy.” (Clover)[3] In this respect, the label “experimental” can also offer young poets a forgiving brand for weaker work. After all, if we don’t ‘get it,’ if we don’t feel it, it can always be because we’re not hip to the latest ‘new.’

True innovation, of course, is impossible without experimentation — those usually intuitive operations that counter or skew prevailing methods of making. Yet the earmarks of today’s ‘experimental’ styles — fragmented narrative, random jumps in space/time, multiple voices and points-of-view, disrupted syntax and abrupt shifts in diction, to name a few — are century-old gifts. These methods often seem now to be appropriated as much for how they seem new (after 50 years of plainer style narratives) as for how they might aid poetic composition — assuaging authorial anxiety at the expense of accessing what makes a poem “say the little thing it says,//Below the prerogative jumble.” [4]

One of the more articulate diagnoses of this problem comes from the avantiste hand of Ann Lauterbach. In her own examination of ‘make it new,’ she writes:

We have been in thrall to the new, even as it has worn itself through with recyclings, a kind of deja new, which has exhausted our attention and made us all victims of fashion…we have ignored the other two words, make and it, as if they were of no significance. But it is precisely in the ordeal of the making and in the powerful ambiguity of the ‘it’ that we need to refocus attention.[5]

For today’s emerging poets, Pound’s famous call has become a kind of whip, with stylistic ‘originality’ becoming the test of a poet’s mettle. Yet, ultimately, ‘new’ and ‘experimental’ tell us little about the quality and character of an emerging writer’s work and the context in which it is made. The terms are too capacious, and, at this point in American culture, come with such a ready set of associations and valuations as to fog whatever clear apprehension might be had of a poet’s weaknesses and strengths.

 

II. Origins

The new is never fully known: we’re always in the act of getting to know it. For each single reader, to encounter truly individual and memorable poetic achievement is a personal and private experience; it doesn’t translate into a list of firm qualities that one can file under a general category called ‘new.’ Perhaps the only common response to this encounter would be along the lines of  “how uncanny!” — made even stranger by a later “how inevitable.”

Such encounters can happen when reading the work of any writer unfamiliar to us, even those long dead. So now a question: What did Pound mean when he called us to “make it new”?

 

1)   In letters of gold on T’ang’s bathtub:

                             As the sun makes it new

                             Day by day make it new

                             Yet again make it new

 

2)   It is said in the K’ang proclamation:

          He is risen, renewing the people.

 

3)   The Odes say:

          Although Chou was an ancient kingdom/

          the celestial destiny/came again

          down on it new.

This is from Pound’s 1928 translation of Ta Hsio, The Great Digest (or Great Learning), a central Confucian text dating from the fifth to second century BC. It is crucial to remember: engagement with the past is inextricably linked to Pound’s conception of “make it new”: we can see this in the subjects he discusses in the 1934 essay collection of the same name (medieval troubadours, Elizabethan classicists, translators of Greek, 19th Century French Poets); we can certainly see it in his poems, from early lyrics to late Cantos; and we see it here, in Pound’s interest in the letters on T’ang’s bathtub.

In “Prolegemena,” published in 1912 in London’s Poetry Review, Pound states:

My pawing over the ancients and semi-ancients has been one long struggle to find out what has been done, once and for all, better than it ever can be done again, and to find out what remains for us to do, and plenty does remain, for if we still feel the same emotions as those which launched a thousand ships, it is quite certain that we come on these feelings differently, through different nuances, by different intellectual gradations.[6]

There is a suggestion here that contemporary innovation (different nuances, different intellectual gradations) is rooted in the past (pawing over the ancients). Indeed, in 1933’s “Prefatio Aut Cemicium Tumulus,” Pound writes:

As for experiment: the claim is that without constant experiment literature dies. Experiment is ONE of the elements necessary to its life. Experiment aims at writing that will have a relation to the present analogous to the relation which past masterwork had to the life of its time.[7]

What Pound seems to be getting at is renewal of the poetic art through attentiveness to the gifts of time. He means to teach us that the foundation for great literary achievement has two layers: the history of the art, as evidenced in literature of the past; and the personal, aesthetic and cultural moment of the writer’s present. Whether one embraces, rejects, questions, skews, pokes fun at, or indicts, it is the individual poet’s response to this double foundation that shapes style and makes art.

On Not Reading: A Scold

Obviously, the first layer entails broad and deep reading. If we teach undergraduates, we have all shared anecdotes of the slip-shod reading habits of our students, but such habits are rife in the MFA world as well. As I’ve been thinking about the issues in this essay and discussing them with various younger poets, I’ve heard many stories along these lines: fellow students who only read the work of their teachers; students who wouldn’t touch anything before 1900 (or 1980); students who only read work confirming their own aesthetic inclinations; reading “for class,” which usually meant acquiring surface familiarity without real interrogation. I was especially impressed by the story of a craft class at one of our more prestigious MFA programs: the professor advised a student to go back to Robert Lowell, and the student looked up and said “Who’s Robert Lowell?”

Ezra Pound had a lot to say about the place of reading in the poet’s life. In Guide to Kulchur he insisted that before attempting anything new, a writer needed to read not only in one’s own literary tradition but also in the traditions of other cultures, so that one “might acquire some balance in not mistaking recurrence for innovation.”[8]  On the need for intelligent literary comparison as a means of thoughtful evaluation of new work, he resorted to that favorite of the Modernists, the scientific example: “You can’t judge any chemical’s action merely by putting it with more of itself. To know it, you have got to know its limits, both what it is and what it is not.”[9]  He also said, in a letter to Marianne Moore: “The idea of civilization includes an occasional exchange of knowledge.” [10] and, in ABC of Reading: “You would think that anyone wanting to know about poetry would do one of two things or both. I.E., LOOK AT it or listen to it. He might even think about it?”[11] And, as a final word on reading, here is Pound on the works he would include in his ideal literature textbook:

YOU WILL NEVER KNOW either why I chose them, or why they were worth choosing, or why you approve or disapprove of my choice, until you go to the TEXTS, the originals.

And the quicker you go to the texts the less need there will be for your listening to me or to any other long-winded critic.[12]

 

III: Time Present

As much as Pound preached the word of literature past, he was adamant about the need for poets to engage life in the present. To continue with the earlier passage from 1912’s “Prolegemena:”

Each age has its own abounding gifts, yet only some ages transmute them into matter of duration. No good poetry is ever written in a manner twenty years old, for to write in such a manner shows conclusively that the writer thinks from books, convention and cliché, and not from life, yet a man feeling the divorce of life and his art may naturally try to resurrect a forgotten mode if he find in that mode some leaven, or if he think he see in it some element lacking in contemporary art which might unite that art again to its sustenance, life.

To me, engaging art’s “sustenance, life” is inextricably bound to the feeling in art’s feeling/form dynamic. But a milieu that prizes experiment and ‘newness,’ is a milieu focused on form. At its most myopic, it prizes exaggeration of pose and surface over the drama of feelings or wisdom unearthed. Indeed, our contemporary fixation on form often seems a defense against feeling, especially when we listen to the prevailing tone of our “new poetries:”

Rained milk and blood during the courtship

Rained fish and no flesh

Left unplundered by birds went bad

Rained tiny biting mouths

High on the hill rained feedback let it

Rained a stone from the sun which is itself

Stone lording noon

Over us rained clearest at the tail of sleep

Into a gaudy birdbath rained[13]

In any number of recent anthologies focused on younger poets, in our literary magazines and first books, we encounter this affectless speaker, whose monotone is perhaps most closely associated with the robotic or traumatized. The poems in which it speaks often display a wide and invigorated vocabulary and keen attention to sound and pacing; they also display a distrust of tonal heat. And once the heat goes from poems, what do they have left? The de-spirited mind and its words. It’s as if fear of expressive feeling has led to a zombification of American poetry: across college campuses and urban squares, our younger poets lurch numbly forward:

 

To cut an animal tongue, to turn the body

to gold. Figure burst whole from fruit,

then bent back in. Your skin is fresh,

the bruise is just a moment and fine. The man,

his hand sink into the sea. A woman on another,

a knife at her eye. There are stories. To swell

(a mother), to retract into figurative sleep.

Embed a word in a single rib & live

eighty years longer than the rest. Tie cloth

around the eyes. A body covered in blue

will be safe, the eyes turn up on cue.[14]

Of course, that which elicits such constant defense is a thing deeply felt—we’re not compelled to guard ourselves against that which we do not feel. What, then, has provoked this flight-response in young poets, that they would suppress a poem’s vocal energies, its passion, its heart? We could attribute it to the American admiration of ‘cool,’ particularly its contemporary techno aspect; to belief in a simplistic axiom, that emotional equals confessional, and that, therefore, expressive emotion in poems is a sure sign of aesthetic naivete; or we could heed Lauterbach, quoting Lyotard: “ ‘Hidden in the cynicism of innovation is certainly the despair that nothing further will happen.’”[15]

Nothing further will happen. Here is the fear, the doubt, we want style to keep at bay: fear and doubt of poetry’s significance to culture; fear and doubt of one’s ability to make resonant art; fear and doubt that one’s art (or anything else) can affect change; fear and doubt of language itself as a medium for evocative and/or truthful communication. Add to this the precarious nature of our climate, the damage being done to the environment, terroristic fundamentalism, constant economic worry, and real lack of faith in leaders of any stripe, and we see our fear and doubt are deep and real indeed.

Many powerful poems have arisen out of the fear and doubt of our current age, but I submit that the poets who wrote them took their presence in our current age seriously, without self-satisfaction, or apathy; and that whatever forms of expression they stumbled on and crafted to create such poems arose not out of extreme attention to style only (which has a bit of a ‘fiddling while Rome burns’ quality to it), but extreme attention to their aesthetic, intellectual, psychological, physical and cultural moment in this world. In short, they were paying attention to life.

The sources of life in poems are eternal and seemingly endless: body, soul, love, death, justice, despair, pleasure, surprise, passion, vengeance, complaint, even art itself. In Sonnet 76, whose first four lines opened this essay, Shakespeare asserts that the reason he neglects “newfound methods and…compounds strange” is because his subject is old as time:

O, know, sweet love, I always write for you,

And you and love are still my argument.

So all my best is dressing all words new,

Spending again what is already spent:

          For as the sun is daily new and old,

          So is my love still telling what is told.

 

The sun image on which Shakespeare ends this poem refers us happily back to the letters on Tang’s bathtub, and to the concluding thoughts of this essay.

IV: Continuum

T’ang’s “letters” are, of course, Chinese ideograms. At their most basic, they translate as “new day day new;” as a set of images, they revolve around the ideogram for the sun, rising.

In this respect, it’s instructive to pose Pound’s exclamatory command, MAKE IT NEW (in Canto 53), against his actual and more stately Confucius translation:

                             As the sun makes it new

                             Day by day make it new

                             Yet again make it new

The first has all the energy of dawn: the moment when the sun first appears on the lip of the horizon, when night’s silence is broken by bird-song and what had been hidden in darkness literally comes to light. Metaphorically, it is the moment of creative discovery, the a ha! moment of illumination and break-through. In this moment the world, whether actual or imaginative, is indeed made new.

The second, with its clause “day by day” and its repetitions, expresses rhythmic extension and return: “As the sun makes it new/Day by day make it new/Yet again make it new.” What I like about this version, what we seem to forget in focusing on its more adamant brother, is that dawn, whether actual or imaginative, is part of a continuum: a dramatic point in an “eternal and irrepressible”[16] course from darkness to light, from silence to speech, and back. Here too we can infer the labor of making: the repetitive, sometimes tedious, rhythm of looking over a poem twenty times in a sitting, of saying a line over and over again in your head, until the moment of dawn, of break-through, arrives.

Both the command to break through and the command to continue daily are integral to Pound’s sense of making it new. We can see this in references that pepper the Cantos, where T’ang’s ideograms are interpreted variously as to “go forth by day” (Canto 110) or to see by the sun’s light “new fronds” and determine “what ax for clearing?” (Canto 97). These variations also include injunctions to “cut underbrush,/pile the logs/keep it growing” (Canto 53) and “to build light” (Canto 94).[17] Piling, cutting, going forth and building light: are these not the essential components for making resonant art?

Pound might also have us add this, from Confucius: “Finding the precise word for the inarticulate heart’s tone means not lying to oneself.” [18] Ultimately, there is no template: each younger poet, each poet of any age, must discover, in each developing poem, how he or she will make it new. But such making can come with a common set of experiences, that we can consider under the heading of “not lying to oneself:” the patience to let poems percolate, sometimes for years; to refrain from book-making, from sending poems out for publication too soon; to take more than the self-delight of invention—or workshop approval—into stylistic consideration; to confront the unfashionability of one’s work and still forge its authentic course; to place oneself alongside and against one’s literary peers and forebears, which means reading to find out who you are and who your are not.

And as for originality: the word comes from the Latin ‘originus,’ from ‘oriri,’ to rise. We can certainly link this to our sun image, to the idea of dawn and ‘building light;’ but we can also link it to the idea of foundation, starting-point: for ‘to rise’ suggests a base from which and against which something ‘rises.’ However hard some of us might try to shake it, as poets and as people we are bound to the literary past and the personal present, with its private and public experiences. Wherever innovation may take us, whatever closed regions it may open, what Pound reminds us is this: to be original is not to be sourceless.

 


[1] “New Poets on the Block,” Boston Review, April/May 2003. Burt defines the weaker examples of contemporary style as being as “deadeningly replicable as the tiny epiphany poem that preceded (them), being exactly the opposite of that poem: the tiny epiphany poem didn’t have to sound good as long as it finished the right kind of mini-story; the comic or ‘challenging’ poems of the present generation, at their worst, need not finish, make or decide anything at all.”

 

[2] Village Voice Literary Supplement, Fall 2002.

 

[3] ibid.

[4] Wallace Stevens, “Someone Puts a Pineapple Together,” Stevens, Collected Poetry and Prose

[5] American Women Poets in the Twenty-first Century, Rankine and Spahr, Eds., pg. 366.

[6] Ezra Pound’s Poetry and Prose: Contributions to Periodicals, Vol. 1, 1902-1914, Garland Publishing, pg. 62.

[7] Ezra Pound: Selected Prose, 1909-1965, pg. 398

[8] Naikan Tao, “Ezra Pound’s Comparative Poetics”, CLC Web: Contemporary Literature and Culture: A WWWeb Journal, Purdue University Press.

[9] Ezra Pound, ABC of Reading, pg. 60.

[10] Archives, Rosenbach Museum, Philadelphia, PA

[11] ABC of Reading,  pg. 30

[12] Ibid, pgs. 45-46

[13] Christine Hume, “Miraculous Panoptic Precipitations,” The Iowa Anthology of New American Poetries, pg. 90

 

[14] Malinda Markham, “Compendium Notes,” ibid,  pg. 139

[15] American Women Poets in the Twenty-first Century, Rankine and Spahr, Eds., pg. 366.

[16] Ezra Pound, ABC of Reading, pg. 13.

 

[17] Hong Sun, “Pound’s Quest for Confucian Ideals,” in Ezra Pound and China, edited by  Zhaoming Qian, University of Michigan Press.

[18] Ta Hsio VI, I, qtd in The Poetry of Ezra Pound, Hugh Kenner.