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The intractable "Poetry" problem.

Dramatic Monologues: A Contemporary Anthology, edited by Samuel Maio (Evansville, IN: University of Evansville Press, 2009)

Poetry anthologies serve two purposes: as textbooks for the student and as gateways for the amateur. Dana Gioia observed as much many years ago in his important essay "Can Poetry Matter?" There he noted that, in the early decades of the twentieth century, most Americans bought and read poetry anthologies rather than individual collections of poems--the latter being unaffordable or inaccessible to the casual reader. (1) Taking this datum seriously, when Gioia left his career in business to become a full-time writer, he collaborated in the creation of numerous anthologies, including several that have become standard texts in college literature courses; his influence is discernible in the production of many anthologies edited by other hands. Before one says anything else about a poetry anthology, then, one ought to consider how suitably it serves its intended audience.

Samuel Maio's new anthology serves its readers well, if unevenly, though not for the reasons one might assume on first reading its highly particular title. In brief, the amateur or student who wishes to get a generous survey of the most pleasurable and accessible of contemporary poetry would do well to turn to this book. It contains some of the best work of major living and recently deceased poets such as Richard Wilbur, Robert Mezey, Dick Allen, X. J. Kennedy, John Updike, Anthony Hecht, and W. D. Snodgrass. In greater abundance, it includes the work of distinguished poets one is unlikely to find represented in anthologies of contemporary poetry produced by larger presses than the University of Evansville's. Here I would include those mature poets associated with the New Formalism, such as Rachel Hadas, William Baer, David Mason, Frederick Turner, R. S. Gwynn, and Timothy Steele, but also a group of younger and less-established poets whose work often provides this anthology with its most surprising and powerful contents. Here I would mention in particular Len Krisak, whose translation from the Latin of Samuel Johnson's "Skye" gives us one of the most moving devotional lyrics of our age, and A. M. Duster, whose "Fugitive Son" is a brilliant and plangent meditation on fatherhood and the loss of a child in a miscarriage:
  Although I know my boy does not intend
  More pain, he asks about the nameless son
  We lost three months before he was conceived.
  I have no words to tell him how we grieved.

I would draw attention to Rhina P. Espaillat, whose many books during the past two decades have shown that an often harsh northeastern colloquial dialect can converge well with controlled and elegant verse forms, and also point to A. E. Stallings and Joseph S. Salemi, whose work stands out as among the most pleasurable in this anthology precisely because they have found new ways to harness the resources of classical material for the contemporary short poem. Readers of the modernist poets will recall the productive but often ponderous use of ancient literature and myth in Ezra Pound, Yeats, or Eliot; indeed, the retooling of fragments taken from the classics has been one of the few conventions shared and developed with great continuity by poets across the modernist and contemporary divide. Consider Stallings's dark meditations on sexual love in the context of pagan hell. Says Hades, as he welcomes his bride, Persephone:
  This is the greatest room;
  I had it specially made after great thought
  So you would feel at home.
  I had the ceiling
  Painted to recall some evening sky--
  But without the garish stars and lurid moon.
  What? That stark shape crouching in the corner?
  Sweet, that is to be our bed. Our bed.
  Ah! Your hand is trembling! I fear
  There is, as yet, too much pulse in it.

And finally, I would mention Joshua Mehigan, David Middleton, Felix Stefanile, and Richard Wakefield, whose work collectively ranges over the most intractable elements of modern American experience, from the plague of loneliness, the challenges of the family in an age of individualism, and the nature of American and Christian identity in the wake of mass immigration, to the wars of the "American Century" and the secularization of the '60s. These are all talented poets and a pleasure to read--and they are not the only such to be found in this collection.

If Maio has gathered together an impressive and interesting volume of poets and poems, it is worth asking why he should have done so under the rubric "dramatic monologues." Answering such a question leads us to consider the obscured, indeed marginal, position of poetry in modern American life and to reflection on the historical causes and possible remedies for that position.

The conventional account of the rise of the dramatic monologue as a poetic form may seem brief and discouraging. From the beginnings of Western civilization up into the eighteenth century, poetry was the medium of public storytelling, whether in the oral recitation of the epic or the performance of ancient tragedy and comedy, whether in the private reading of the medieval and early-modern romance and saint's legend or in the couplets of Restoration drama. Prose narratives, some called "novels," existed alongside these poetic forms; but in general, prose was the medium of philosophy and history rather than of invented and artistic narrative.

By the nineteenth century, that had changed. The bourgeois world afforded the ideal materials for elaborate but subtle plots and entangled and complex characters, and the prose of the novel provided an ideal medium for the bulky elaboration such materials demanded. If poetry were not to be rendered obsolete by the novel, it would have to be put to some new function besides the recitation of the "tale of the tribe." The literary tradition provided two ready-made responses to this problem. Poetry could restrict itself to the materials of inwardness and meditation increasingly identified with the lyric mode since the Renaissance. In composing his "lyrical ballads," William Wordsworth had suggested that lyric poetry might appropriate some elements of narrative while largely focusing on inward or "philosophical" meditation. But some writers conceived a notion of poetry as expressing a clear, individuated voice, caught up within dramatic circumstances that will not fully be narrated.

The majority of poets elected for the former course. Poetry's subject matter grew ever narrower and ever more inward in consequence, as poets struggled to practice their art as a major form in a mode that had been, historically, "third-string," behind epic and drama. Robert Browning and certain other poets, however, saw the dramatic-monologue short poem as a means of harnessing the strength of the modern prose novel for poetic effect. Such monologues allowed for the elaboration of character and the intimations of plot found more wholly in the novel while retaining the technical interest and halo of literary sophistication associated with verse. As long as one could hear a distinct dramatic voice, a compelling and eloquent subjectivity driving a poem's language, poetry could retain a certain minor relevance in modern literary culture.

If poetry had weathered the problem of social function and subject matter in the age of the novel, its authors created a related but more intractable problem for themselves when modernists began to violate the conventions of lyric inwardness and dramatic characterization alike. This new problem we might call the "Waste Land problem." Although Eliot's great poem contains several potent and gripping dramatic monologues, they are all disordered, and the reader faces a serious challenge in trying to discern who is speaking, where, and why--if indeed we are just in ascribing the words to imaginable characters at all, rather than to the machinations of a typewriter. Although not all modernist poets followed the same path as Eliot, their work increasingly rendered the character behind the voice of their poems more obscure by making it more disjointed.

Maio's anthology would seem to emerge in response to this obscuring of the poetic voice in modern lyric poetry. The very terms poetry and lyric are associated with an art form thought to be difficult and opaque; it is occasionally gestured toward in reverent but vulgar formulae (our athletes are "poetry in motion," while we occasionally express our most confused and whelming emotions in verse for therapeutic purposes) and deemed to be a fit study chiefly for one's smart second cousin off at Yale. Maio has seen, I would propose, that one chief obstacle to the casual literate reader's taking an interest in contemporary verse is the assumption that lyric poetry has become so elusive as to be indecipherable. If only the reader could be shown that some poets are writing verses that speak in as identifiable, clear, and compelling a voice as Browning once did.

Such an anthology would not need to include only latter-day acolytes of Browning, the Victorian sage. Maio gives us a definition of the dramatic monologue so expansive that our typical association with that term--Browning's poems--occupies only a respectable but minor place within it. A poem may be called dramatic, Maio writes, so long as it has "1) a clearly identifiable speaker or speakers; 2) some thread of story, scene, or situation, however directly or obliquely suggested; and 3) an intense, often personal evocation of emotion." When these elements work primarily to the end of conveying voice, character, and plot, they fulfill the conditions of what Browning called the "objective" poet. When these elements are so ordered that the interior thought and emotion of character seems the chief subject, they, predictably, constitute a "subjective" poem. Maio includes both subjective and objective modes as legitimately dramatic. Indeed, for Maio, "dramatic monologue" means what another writer might simply intend by a short or lyric poem in which the speaker's identity and voice is readily apparent. Thus, this anthology "is composed of sonnets, blank verse, and lyric modes of many types."

His intention is not to make a pedantic or semantic point--"What you call lyric, I should call dramatic monologue." Rather, it constitutes a form of charity. This is nothing other than an anthology of contemporary poetry that sets as its aesthetic standard just what the amateur reader would be likely to set were one to bother with poetry: clear character, compelling subject matter, and, not least, competent formal versification (and, thus, the absolute exclusion of free verse). Consequently, some of the best of what are typically called lyric poets of our age appear in these pages, whereas some of the best-known practitioners of the dramatic monologue, Richard Howard and Ai (who won the National Book Award in 1999), do not.

Maio's principles of selection are clear and coherent enough, but they are unevenly executed. The selections from James Dickey, for instance, ring of the deliberately stiff and contorted diction of midcentury American "academic" formalism. This formalism, with its origins in the poetry and criticism of Allen Tate, John Crowe Ransom, and Robert Penn Warren, had many virtues, but a clear dramatic voice was seldom one of them. For example, in Tate's great Aeneas monologues, it is clear that Aeneas is a transhistorical representation of the West rather than the fellow who settled Rome; the monologues thus derive from Eliot's "Gerontion" more than from Browning's murderous duke. Dickey might have best been left out altogether.

Sometimes Maio seems to ignore his loose definition of the dramatic. For instance, the poems included from Anthony Hecht fit quite closely the definition of an "objective" dramatic monologue, but these particular poems are far from Hecht's best. Perhaps Maio chose them only because they more closely approximate drama than does, say, the truncated and devastating narrative of Hecht's "More Light! More Light!" Something similar might be said of the selections from Charles Martin and Gwynn, which follow Browning well enough but do not seem these poets' best poems.

Perhaps inevitably, Maio has to be quite free in his definition of formal verse. As I noted, he excludes writers whose work constitutes mere lineated prose and cannot rightly be said to be verse (which means, after all, measured--not simply cadenced or intense--speech). But the poems of Jim Barnes included here, full as they are of narrative qualities, are at best loosely formal. One could say the same of several other poets in the anthology, and their inclusion may have unintended consequences. Maio believes, as I do, that verse matters: Meter and rhyme are not inhibitions to clear and compelling expression but integral to it. Metrical feet are not stiff boundaries to be approximated and violated but a flexible and adaptable medium that, when well modulated, should be audible to the reader, should help give the spoken rhythm its distinctive form, and need not be violated. I wonder if the amateur reader would find the inconsistent capacities for the craft of verse qua verse evident in this anthology a cause of confusion rather than compulsion. Such a hypothetical reader would do well to begin perusing this title with t\he exact blank verse of Catharine Savage Brosman and David Middleton, or the intricate, colloquial, and precise rhymed stanzas of A. M. Juster and Timothy Steele.

Will renaming the short poem as a "dramatic monologue" result in a growth of the minuscule audience that presently exists for contemporary poetry? Probably not, but Maio's effort is sound nonetheless. Our literary culture needs to be reminded that some poets still know how to write, still know how to compose verse, and still know how to evoke a compelling character and join lyric meditation with the pleasures of plot. Like Dr. Johnson in Krisak's skillful translation, Maio has responded to the historical determinism and pessimism, so tempting to the literate in an illiterate age, with a confession of faith in the freedom and grace of providence and the poetic voice:
  No, God the King--our greatest king--commands
  In everything that stirs each part
  Of man with storm. No human chart
  Alone can tame those seas; the will
  Of God shall have them surge when He demands.
  And as He calms them by
  His loving hands,
  The tempest of the soul lies still.

(1.) Dana Gioia, Can Poetry Matter?: Essay on Poetry and American Culture (Saint Paul, MN: Graywolf Press. 1992), 15.

James Matthew Wilson is an assistant professor in the Department of Humanities and Augustinian Traditions at Villanova University and contributes reviews, poems, and essays to the Intercollegiate Review, Contemporary Poetry Review, and Pleiades, among many other publications.
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Title Annotation:'Dramatic Monologues: A Contemporary Anthology'
Author:Wilson, James Matthew
Publication:Modern Age
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jun 22, 2011
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