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Inadequate memory and the adequate imagination.

CONEESSIONAL POETS ARE GETTING A BUM rap. Billy Collins, appointed poet laureate in the summer of 2001, deplored that "autobiographical expression [had come] to occupy a central place. in poetry." In his essay "My Grandfather's Tackle Box: The Limits of Memory-Driven Poetry," he quoted Auden's comment--"Who the hell cares about Anne Sexton's grandmother" -- and suggested that "confession" and "autobiography" had become synonymous. More surprisingly, he said that there was "hardly an egotistical bump in the road" in the 1,365 years between Augustine's Confessions and Rousseau's. "Milton never wrote a poem about his mother ... or any other relative," he asserted. Apparently he forgot the poem about the little niece "On the Death of a Fair Infant Dying of a Cough" and probably he was so overwhelmed by the centrifugal force of the poetry that he overlooked the centripetal impulse behind the 'sonnets "How Soon Hath Time..." and "When I Consider..." Milton aside, of course in the period between the fourth century and the eighteenth there is a rich confessional literature which is not to be confused with the so-called "confessional" poetry that arose in the 1950s. From the beginnings of belief in a transcendent god to our very day, ranging from Bernard of Cluny's twelfth-century, 3,000-hexameter. De contemptu mundi to Teresa of Avila's Life (1562-65) and Interior Castle (1577) and John Bunyan's Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners (1666) and including the work of the Puritans and of such different American poets as Anne Bradstreet and Thomas Merton, true confession has aimed at spiritual self-transformation. Over the same period, autobiographical expression has occupied a central place in poetic expression. After Augustine's came Boethius's poetic-prosaic De consolatione philosophiae (525), in which he protested the charges that landed him in prison. A powerful complaint, detailing his life and injuries, was Abelard's Historia calamitatum written not long before his death in 1142. Francois Villon's Lais (1456). and his Grand Testament (1461) are dynamic, personal poems with a note of tragic urgency, still serving as sources for the facts of his life. Of the grand sixteenth-century English poets' autobiographies none is more elegant than Edmund Spenser's famous sonnet sequence Amoretti and his Epithalamion (1595), the latter still the finest wedding poem in English. Populations swelled; literature developed; the list of autobiographers lengthened. Russian. literature began with autobiography: Byzantine Vladimir Monomaith's personal Instruction of 1117 and the highly original, confessional, vernacular Autobiography of 1672 by Archpriest Avvakum, a native of Nizhny Novgorod. The more lives there were, the more stories there were to tell.

Imagination is recombinant memory. We can point backwards to who we are through what we've done, events organized by time and place, but who can say what [figures will appear in the future?
Looking back in my mind. I can see
The white sun like a tin plate
Over the wooden turning of the weeds;
The street jerking--a wet swing--
To end by the wall the children sang.
Its stars beckon through the frost like cottages
(Homes of the Bear, the Hunter--of that
 absent star,
The dark where the flushed child struggles into
Till, leaning a lifetime to the comforter,
I float above the small limbs like their dream:

I, I, the future that mends everything.
 --Randall Jarrell,
 from "The Elementary Scene"

The reversible timelessness of the imagination distinguishes it from the irreversible chronometry of memory and bends it toward the creation of art. The fatal flaw in a "confessional" poem' is the supposition that the narrative sequence of the art is the same as the timed ordering of personal events. Such confusion never, fazed the old Romantics, who, like Byron, simply invented a literary double to act out the role of "self" and left it to the commentators to decide how autobiographical a poem was Modern "confessional" poets worked over their literal memories, turning their torments into captivatingly outrageous unbelievabilities:
Is an art, like everything else.
I do it exceptionally well.
 --Sylvia Plath, from "Lady Lazarus"

The life has replaced the poem; the poem has been reduced to' the life. Or, we may say that the poem has become an advertisement for the life.

Collins holds Wordsworth responsible for the change, but "the preoccupation... with personal experience in poetry today," as Collins phrases it, doesn't date from the 1798 publication of Lyrical Ballads. (Even if it did, it wouldn't be Wordsworth's fault.) The difference between 1798 and 2001 is commercialism, the cultural force that persuaded Collins to join the likes of Tony Hoagland and Lawrence Raab in providing readers with instantly accessible poems--what one eminent poet has called "lounge poetry." The memory-driven poem which Collins repudiates, assuming it linked to a "less mediated form of personal revelation, often with wiggy psychiatric effects," is an artifact of the market-driven, consumer society. As a catastrophe elicits an outpouring of apocalyptic verse, so the reification of culture in the last hundred years, the photographic manipulation of visual facts, and the wars of the twentieth century, of which the longest was the World War: 1914-45, have encouraged sensationalism. To emphasize the deviant, the dying, the ghoulish, the violent is to draw an audience. In the solitude of their homogenized worlds, people with little faith are on the lookout for everyone else's secrets. The "confessional" poet entertains with one kind of "truth"; the middle-brow popularizer temporarily satisfies with another.

It's tempting to be hooked on popular success. From its illusory pinnacle one can purge everything that doesn't "make it." To put down a bad poem isn't difficult, but for an older poet--particularly a poet appointed by the Librarian of Congress as poet laureate--to make a dartboard selection of "Raspberries," a relatively unknown poet's work, as an "expression of ambivalent nostalgia" seems mean-spirited, even irrelevant. The critical challenge in this ad-mad age is to delimit a poetry that merits attention and respect. What the Russian Formalists a hundred years ago called ostranenie --"making strange" or "distancing" within an individual work, whereby a poem is liberated from dependence on its author's personal limitations--may liberate one poet's work from personal dependence by framing it in its contemporary culture. Although he calls The Prelude "the verse equivalent to Rousseau's Confessions," Collins does want to distinguish Wordsworth from today's epigones. In Wordsworth's work, he says, "It is imposs ible to view the past ... without also seeing the present and in it the mirror image of the self" Today's "confessionalists," he says, are playing in "a country-garden day school of nostalgia."
In life, as in art, the facts are difficult:
Poems are hard to read
Pictures are hard to see
Music is hard to see
And people are hard to love

But whether from brute need
Or divine energy
At last mind eye and ear
And the great sloth heart will move
 --William Meredith, "A Major Work"

Impartial judgment takes in everything it can. Starting with one poem, the evaluating mind sweeps out in circles widely, by its awareness of the many trying to establish the worth of the one. How unfortunate--how reductive--that the vibrant, unifying metaphor from the Gospel of John "In my father's house are many mansions" has devolved into the divisive "Contemporary poetry is a house of many rooms" in which, according to Collins, "the inhabitants of one room show little interest in what is going on in the others." Factions in PoBiz, Collins indicates, like their commercial counterparts, feed separate interest groups and aim at target audiences. As running shoes are sold to the waiting, would-be race winner so poetry like Collins's is written for the pre-selected reader. Belittling cynicism and extravagant praise protect and preserve the lineup. If we were to do things differently and better we would seek fairness. To judge equanimously, however, means to judge deferentially, to repudiate the prevailing minds et. Again, that's not easy to do, but the less we impose ourselves the better off even our friends are.

By showing what's good poetry we free ourselves of domination by what's bad. The impulse behind bad poetry may be just as honest as that behind good. If the poetry is part of building an audience in the continuing democratization of intellectual life, self-expression by children, old people, someone who loves poetry or someone who thinks poetry arcane and inaccessible, it's not subject to censure. For the last 200 years poetry has been promoted by cooperation, not produced by competition. Today's sorts of competition--publication awards and poetry slams--don't create fresh work: the award-winning books all resemble each other, and the slams are fun-filled popularity games never to be confused with the public, political contests of intra-urban decima recitations in Central America or griot chanting in Africa. Even when we take into account the huge, inarticulate longing for poetry in America today and when we allow for variations in talent and intentions, what we finally require is a judgment that holds for al l observers. We want a judgment that is adequate for all our poetry, just as we want a poetry adequate to our experience.

You can rub words against words until you're blue in the face, getting neither light nor heat. In the end it is imperative to take on what is out there. There is no poetry on museum walls, only trophies. The single recourse is to plunge struggling into the totality of whatever life this is we live in--not play safe by framing bits of local color, or settling like lint into deep dark psycho-emotional pockets. This is not a matter of program, programs are an issue of time and place, but of attitude.

James Scully, from "Culture War"

The first step in actualizing the attitude is to reconstruct the past not as a chronological sequence but as a series of expanding waves: as the rings enlarge, the imagination dominates until its adequacy generates the imagery. From a set of fond pictures of a past, or lost, time we are encircled by a new, demanding, but plausible consciousness:

In the kitchen, the apples mound in a white bowl, duchess apples on an oak table beside the window, where tomatoes from a garden shine in the sun. How necessary their forms are, as if their color could spill and wash down the cottage panes like something extruded, a recollection of joy, or joy itself. Let us eat thin slices, with garlic pressed upon them, and sweet vinegar. In time, I'll wake to morning snow on roofs and lawns, and when ice-out comes, to the cold pond. But why should I remember ripeness gone, or so helplessly dazzle, memories spread across a table like stamps from foreign countries, colorful and strange?

I have attended promenade concerts where thousands of people join in when an anthem strikes up, listeners who sing and cheer, and I know that during a solar eclipse millions of people in our hemisphere stand on street corners and hold sheets of blank paper, on which to read the shadow as it passes over them. So in our towns let us stand on porches or before fast-food counters, let us assemble at the designated hour, and call out the lines of a poet who lives among us, raising our voices with such a rush of air that clouds draw their shadows over the mountain with the semblance of serenity and great change.

Jay Meek, from "Haystack"

From the point of view of adequacy, it makes no difference whether we have before us a prose poem or rhymed verse. Any example is sufficient demonstration of the principles for judging any other. Subject, theme, form, diction, specifics vary as the creative patterns take shape,. but time and again we find that the prevailing, harmonizing principles express the aptness of part to whole and of whole to context:
And now, in the pause that follows, I remember
 walking with you
And your other comrade, Walt Whitman, beside
 the Jersey shore
While he talked of news of these states and the
 foiled revolutionaries
Out of an earlier time; and we run to keep up
 with his stride.
Himself with his beard full of butterflies, you
 with the moon on your forehead!
Midnight ramblers and railers! By the cradle,
 endlessly rocking,
Of a fouled contaminant sea you both saw
 clean and young ...
Father of the dream, you said he was; father of
I see you now in the Shades, old Double Walt,
 dear outlaws.
 Thomas McGrath, from
 "Revolutionary Frescoes--the Ascension"

"Damn it," McGrath once quipped to a table of aestheticians, "we don't need poems that are beautiful, we need poems that are useful, and if you can't write one that's useful, then steal one!"

How one restores vitality--hence, credibility--to the rag doll of a language left by the ads is the poet's job of work. Once upon a time, Pindar made a living by writing poems to celebrate athletic victors. Today manufacturers, promoters, ad men, photographers, reporters all make a living by wrapping the victors in shoes, shirts, socks, trousers, jackets, sport cars, cereals, vitamins, real estate, cruises, video games, lawn chairs, juices--items both ordinary and quasi-exotic through which, by laying out a credit card number, a consumer can identify with the sport hero. And the heroes of the once-Olympic games, enriched by posing for the ads, remain identified with the merchandise they sell. They themselves become merchandise, bought and sold by the owners and the ad-men, and the games that once represented achievement become the foci of marketing strategies and capital investment. Most of the competitors are professionals, not amateurs. The selling of the games has replaced sportsmanship just as the marketi ng of poetry has replaced poetry, and verbal collages, as novelties, substitute for poetic innovation.

The TV that interposes a virtual reality between a viewer and the world as it is makes getting to the terms behind everyday life very difficult. To imitate the casual, superficial inconsistencies of daily life in a poem, as in a sitcom, isn't difficult, but to deal with the structure and underlying assumptions of the commercial life requires making it a game in order to expose its social pretensions, its hypocritical manipulation of customers, and its gross distortions of language. For years, no aspect of life was untouched by poetry--Celia Thaxter and John Greenleaf Whittier considered it normal to correspond almost daily in verse. Now, no minute in our public life is ad-free. Our real experiences remain hidden, often mysterious to our inarticulate selves, who keep supposing there must be some way to find an adequate correlation among our strange, metaphysical moments. The poet who by an act of imagination discovers an apt gesture to embody the dramatic ambiguities that envelop us creates the release we're l ooking for:
And here is Victoria's Secret, which fondly
That the young women depicted in various
Of complaisant negligence somehow or other
More than we see of them: we're intended to
That this isn't simply a matter of sheer lingerie,
But rather the baring of something long hidden
Behind an outmoded conception of rectitude:
Liberation appears to us, not entirely nude,
In the form of a fullbreasted nymph,
 impeccably slim
Airbrushed at each conjunction of torso and
Who looks up from the page with large and
 curious eyes
That never close: and in their depths lie frozen
The wordless dreams shared by all
Even the hats that wait in the dark to be
 --Charles Martin, from "Victoria's Secret"

"With reference to quality," says the dictionary; "adequate implies capacity for meeting a modest standard and sometimes for barely meeting it." But that's enough. That's a standard. Calling for a standard of judgment doesn't require discarding the accomplishments of years. Much of the lightest verse of Rochester or Buckingham has as sharp a wit as one of E. C. Bentley's clerihews:
I am not Mahomet.
Far from it.
That is the mistake
All of you seem to make.

The coherence of wit is an excellent measure of adequacy. In very oversimplified terms, adequate poetry at least communicates the power of its author's imaginative experience (with some phenomenological accuracy) and a belief in ultimate human freedom (the absence of prevailing repression).

It doesn't matter what we start with as long as we start with the first subject chance offers, as Montaigne put it. The interlacings do matter--how we weave a form sturdy and deep enough to bear our full consciousness. Song or plaint, our voice is borne on artifice of which the compelling beauty is its range and elegance of correspondences. Collins says that the Romantics taught us to look for and to believe in the poet behind the words. His students, he says, felt betrayed when he suggested that in Sharon Olds's book The Father the correspondence was false because the father still lived, or that Philip Levine was not a working-class Michigan kid but the son of a rich California orthodontist. Who, in fact, was betrayed? If Olds's book isn't so much about her father as about her reconstructed experience of him and if Levine's poems aren't so much about the working dass as about his attitude toward it, why did Collins want to tempt his students to believe that two successful poets were hypocrites? Are Olds and Levine liars? Every writer is a liar: as Tyutchev wrote, 'A thought put into words is a lie." The point is what kind of a liar?
Position is where you
put it, where it is,
did you, for example, that

large tank there, silvered,
with the white church along-
side, lift

all that, to what
purpose? How
heavy the slow

world is with
everything put
in place. Some

man walks by, a
car beside him on
the dropped

road, a leaf of
yellow color is
going to

fall. It
all drops into
place. My

face is heavy
with the sight. I can
feel my eye breaking.
 --Robert Creeley, "The Window"

Shout, prance, thump a tub--our personal noise announces feelings but doesn't explain them. Indeed, we can't know what we feel until the imagination has devised a vehicle for projecting emotions independently. Then what beforehand seemed chance afterwards appears inevitable. And the poem itself is grasped as a compressed, compacted means for making emotions intelligible.

As the future comes into the present--or, to quote Whitehead, as the past perishes and the future becomes--we move into the formal time of rhythm, metaphor, and structure, which redefine the poet's original position. Like a playwright exploiting, a peopled stage, the poet exploiting words under pressure moves back and forth among the gestures of language until time itself is consumed in the acts of the adequate imagination:
But the thick of things is not beside the point.
The gray felt daylong dusk of winter skies,
The golden, noontide braveries of midsummer,
Odors of harvest apples, the cursive lines
Of one known hand, pressed clover leaves
The India paper leaves of Second Kings,
A voice, the expectation of a voice,
Quavers of light and semibreves of joy
Confirm the only magic of the world
Here where we fall transposingly in love.
 --Anthony Hecht, from
 "A Love for Four Voices"

Only the faint in heart and weak in intellect require literally to touch a poet's suffering as if it were a religious relic. Beautiful, useful poetry that gets to the base of human experience, like Shakespeare's, may come from impassioned love; beautiful, useful poetry that profoundly moves us, like Leopardi's, may come from deep anguish. Through the poetry we reach some understanding of our own love, our own anguish, for the poetry is all we can ever really know.

Most recently author of The Urbane Stampede and Other Poems and The Moon and Other Failures, F. D. REEVE lives in Vermont, where he is a trustee of the Pettee Memorial Library and a member of the. Board of Directors of The Marlboro Review.
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Author:Reeve, F.D.
Publication:The American Poetry Review
Article Type:Critical Essay
Geographic Code:4E
Date:May 1, 2003
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