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The long poem: sequence or consequence?

Our day, despite the ongoing proliferation of poets and books of poetry, manages magnificently to ignore them all. Such a response is probably worse than being resented or rejected. So I would call modern poetry America's samizdat did I not know how important underground poetry has been, not only to the Russian people, but -- usually negatively -- to their leaders. Apparently, in this country the situation was umpromising from the start. Thus a Massachusetts Puritan minister, Edward Taylor, buried in a vault of the Yale University Library in the shape of 400 pages of poetry -- written, it would seem, for no eyes but God's -- had to wait some 250 years to be born again. A Thoreau, a Melville, especially with Moby Dick, had the dubious pleasure of filling their shelves with most of their unsold books. Whitman printed, huckstered, and reviewed is own volume. And Dickinson had no one and nowhere to turn to but ever more inward, her poems the company she kept. Wondrously ironical is her popular, posthumous life. When we think how close we came to losing her work and Taylor's altogether, it is hard not to believe that many genuine poets have disappeared without leaving a trace.

Meantime, if possible, by very growth circumstances in the USA have worsened. Our bumbling, mindless officials, like much of their constituency taking corruption for granted, mainly respect money and power; railing at the failures of our educational system, they invariably lament our students' ignorance in the sciences and mathematics, but rarely their deficiencies on the human side. The vast mass of our people has been brain-washed, brain-damaged, by the incessant pollution of television; for, like most of our movies, it is crammed with sensationalism and violence, vacuity and moral-rotting advertising, and a plethora of outrageously overpaid sports.

Even our so-called intellectuals are chiefly occupied with politics, sociology, psychology, technology, newspapers, magazines, biography, and an occasional novel. Those who might have been critics in the past, now indifferent to, if not contemptuous of, the literary, have sealed themselves away in the impenetrable, yet noisy and oppressive cloud-cuckoo-land of theory. If the situation is so extreme why go on about poetry at all, let alone the long poem? My reply is simple: If they don't/won't/can't read short poems, give them long!

In 1983 M.L. Rosenthal and Sally M. Gall published The Modern Poetic Sequence, with the subtitle The Genius of Modern Poetry. Had our time's criticism and readers in general cared about poetry, the volume would have promptly taken its place beside other indispensable texts on modern poetry, like Kenner's The Pound Era and Langbaum's The Poetry of Experience; among the poets, Jarrell's, Schwartz's, and Berryman's books of essays; among the British, the volumes of Donald Davie (especially his two Pound books), Frank Kermode, and Denis Donoghue, and among the younger critics, the illuminating work of Jeffrey M. Perl, James Longenbach, and William Spiegelman.

R and G's dominant thesis is simple enough -- the poetic sequence is the principal genre of twentieth-century poetry, or "the decisive form toward which all the developments of modern poetry have tended." The volume constitutes the climax of Rosenthal's lifelong devotion to modern poetry, his profound belief that critical intelligence best finds its role by putting itself at the disposal of the practice of the age's major poets, their poems, not by losing itself -- and the poems as well -- in theory.

The book demonstrates the judiciousness of this position many times over. R and G, the first to do so, rightly single out the modern sequence in its distinctiveness for special praise. The array of sequences in English alone that they review, the most striking long poems of the age among them, amply confirms that right. They are quick also to remark the risk and the problems attendant on the sequence. Still, their singling out of it, by the very emphasis of their enthusiasm, would seem to slight other successful, if not so spectacular, examples of the modern long poem.

(Our book, they might well rejoin, is already almost 500 pages long. Thus late in their volume, looking briefly at H.D., Dylan Thomas, Laura Riding, Muriel Rukeyser, and Adrienne Rich, they say, "... the growth of the sequence has been fed by so many works of quality that a huge volume -- an encyclopedia -- would be needed to take proper note of them all." Imagine the problem if one opens the door to all manner of long poems! Just now, looking through a large collection of recent American poets on my shelves for additional long poems, I soon felt overwhelmed.)

Much as I appreciate R and G's choice and the excellence of their exploration of it through many examples, I would like here to try to redress the balance a little by tracing a parallel and sometimes divergent course, one that their volume is, on the whole, not concerned with: the historical, philosophical, and psychological sources of such a genre, and the consequent gains and losses in its practice. On the way I mean to consider only about half of R and G's book, the sections devoted to American sequences, and not all of those. By such procedure I hope to arrive at something like a prospectus for the long poem.

But how long is a long poem? For many, convinced by our present attitudes, anything over a hundred lines more than satisfies that term. In a letter to Eliot, Pound could say that in "The Waste Land" Eliot had written "the longest poem in the English langwidge. Don't try to bust all records by prolonging it three pages further." This of a work 433 lines, and from a poet who would produce a poem 800 pages long! But obviously he was complimenting Eliot by acknowledging "The Waste Land" 's great compression and economy, the world and worlds the poem suggests. Normally, I would think, a poem, to deserve the adjective long, ought to be book-size. But the span the poem conveys, the breadth of experience, no doubt weighs more heavily than its bulk.

Like R and G, while I was growing up literally, I accepted one of the principal axioms, if not ukases, of the age's critical ideology, put perhaps most succinctly by Poe, especially important for the key role he played in helping to make one of the most influential poetic movements, Symbolism, possible. The Modern Poetic Sequence early cites his axiom as a directive: What we term a long poem is, in fact, merely a succession of brief ones.... It is needless to demonstrate that a poem is such, only inasmuch as it intensely excites, by elevating, the soul; and all intense excitements are, through a psychal necessity, brief. For this reason, at least one half of the Paradise Lost is essentially prose -- a succession of poetical excitements interspersed, inevitably,with corresponding depressions -- the whole being deprived, through the extremities of its length, of the vastly important artistic element, totality, or unity, of effect. In short, a poem to be truly a poem should not exceed a half hour's reading. In any case, no unified long poem is possible.

The leading question here is whether intense excitement is the only end appropriate to poetry and the only measure of its success. Or whether an assortment of things cannot produce such excitement. And, finally, whether in fact a long poem cannot achieve unity of effect. However much or little we accept Poe's assessment of Paradise Lost, we might wonder what happens in such a view to Homer, Virgil, and Dante. Some day soon perhaps an inspired editor will favor us with versions of these three stripped of their depressions, their prose baggage. Or it that what some of our poets -- not to forget Joyce -- have been doing?

R and G, having accepted Poe's basic premise,late in their volume confidently assert,

If Wordsworth were writing in our century, there seems little doubt that "The

Prelude" would be compressed into one or more sequences whose separate

units were centered on those moments ["key moments of experience" or

Wordsworth's "spots of time"] and juxtapose without their narrative and

discursive links. That is, the finished work would be closer to the separate

units of which it was forged in the first place.

For a variety of reasons may those links not only be useful but necessary? And of themselves, of genuine poetic worth? How else but through such links (surely not by merely juxtaposing spots of time?) could Wordsworth have assayed to trace the growth of his mind? We have an earlier, somewhat similar instance of such linkage in Dante's "La Vita Nuova"; here the poet does not hesitate to accompany his poems with a prose commentary to help himself and us appreciate their worth a their place in his development. By the time of The Divine Comedy he was able to incorporate such matter into the poem itself.

I fully realized how much recent poets, following the example and, even more, the preachments of Pound and Williams, have come to take for granted as the ideal the bias of Imagism, a belief in "no ideas but in things," an assumption that the concrete image by its active, rich suggestiveness makes any comment and any connecting link superfluous. Spurning generalization and abstraction as dead experience, fossilized feeling, the poet should push his language as closely as he can to the ideogram (might it not be considered a congealed action?). And parataxis is the order of the day. Yet, whatever its dramatic immediacies and condensation, does it not put a heavy clog on a syntax capable of delicately nuanced, so precise and powerful suppleness?

Fortunately in their most ambitious work Pound and Williams too, for the urging of their gifts as poets, often exceeded such pronouncements. (Recall their strong injunction against adjectives; then look at their splendid "The Alchemist" and "By the Road to the Contagious Hospital" and see how enlivening, not to say verbal and dramatic, clustered adjectives can be.) Moreover, one might ask, how, if we endorse Poe's attitude, circumvent his animadversion about length? Can sequences really solve this problem by adapting the imagist technique -- by juxtaposing a series of short poems (not quite the same thing as short images)? Would that not prove jarring, soon boring and, by Poe's lights, psychally -- since excitement is necessarily brief -- intolerable?

Doubtless, writing in our time, Wordsworth would eliminate The Prelude's tedious, prosaic links as at best temporary scaffolding. And he would also, enjoying, among other things, the loose of modern confessional verse, exult in capitalizing on his never-mentioned affair in France, at least its choicer intimate details, and on the daughter it birthed. Similarly, Whitman, free though he seems to have been, and even secretive Dickinson would at last be liberated to regale us with the minute sexual particulars of their lives. Without such particulars can their poems be truly satisfying? But would they have been appreciably bettered? And what would many critics have to write about?

Commending Poe's insight, R and G rephrase it, in italics:

A poem depends for its life neither on continuous narration nor on developed

argument but on a progression of specific qualities and intensities of

emotionally and sensuously charged awareness.

Our critics then stress "an organic rather than a mechanical approach to structure...." Question as I will the organic, rather than arbitrary, approach to structure of most sequences, I have no quarrel with it as an ideal. Certainly I do not want to get into the endless debate of which should come first: the content or the form, the advantages and the risks of either emphasis. And not many would deny that successful poetry must consist of "intensities of emotionally and sensuously charged awareness." As Wordsworth, Eliot and numerous others have maintained, the life of the poem is its feeling, if not necessarily the momentarily ecstatic Poe required. But what do that feeling and those intensities derive from? Surely not from themselves alone? A flame, however pure, depends on fuel, however diverse.

We realize that Poe was expressing a basic Romantic tenet. Put off by the rigors of 18th-century verse and beleaguered by prose, the novel's increasing arrogation of materials in the past mainly poetry's, the 19th-century poets, so we tend to say, defiantly retreated to the lyric, the personal, the conditions of the suffering or occasionally joyous self. Driven to this state, its victims must then in self-justification, not only approve it as the one most to be desired, but proclaim the lyric the climax of human expression. Who in his right mind would bother to try to write a modern epic-long poem? Rather like attempting to recreate a a pterodactyl, a monstrous dodo bird that can barely leave the ground, let alone sing. Or so the prevailing opinion of 19th-century and modern poets has gone.

Yet though we, by our tastes, may remember the Romantic poets chiefly for their lyrics, the principal figures were hardly satisfied with the short flight. We have Wordsworth's ambitious plans for a long philosophical poem, meant to rival Milton, to be entitled "The Recluse, or Views on Man, Nature, and Society." As Wordsworth said, "I know not anything which will not come within the scope of my plan." It resulted in little more -- probably, given its sober, prosaic title and a not too promising fragment, called "The Excursion," fortunately -- than the several hundred page The Prelude, subtitled "Growth of a Poet's Mind" (both supplied by the poet's widow), supposedly only a preliminary to "The Recluse" and a demonstration that he had the mental wherewithal essential for that great work.

With a title like "The Recluse" or a poem "having for its principal subject the sensations and opinions of a poet living in retirement," one might well wonder what kind of long, not to say epic, poem Wordsworth hoped to write. The lack of a subject or a powerful, myth-reverberant, action-packed story (we know what immense trouble Milton already had seeking a likely subject), beyond the poet himself and his subjective state, does indeed support the view that the poet was in retreat: the world, other than his mind in its imaginative or creative power, and crumbled or at least wandered off. Hardly surprising that the great work never materialized. Nonetheless, The Prelude is of itself a splendid accomplishment, the one that Wordsworth was, given his gifts, times, and circumstances, meant to write.

The next generation was equally ambitious. Among other long poems Shelley wrote "Promentheus Unbound," subtitled "A Lyrical Drama," and "The Cenci, a Tragedy in Five Acts." (This turn to drama is importantly to my argument and I will return to it.) Aside from an early "Endymion" and works like "The Eve of St. Agnes," "Lamia" and the Odes, Keats yearned to produce an epic poem in the style of Homer and Dante; two fruits of that yearning were the fragment "Hyperion" and later the aborted "The Fall of Hyperion." As for Byron, beyond "Childe Harold's Pilgrimage," "Cain," "The Vision of Judgment" and various narrative poems, the rollicksome satirical epic, "Don Juan," wholly suited his temperament and talents, especially his fiercely witty skill as a metrician. The poem has the happy quality of seeming to be happening, to be being created as we read. And, like most sequences, open to further adventures.

The major Victorian poets were hardly less ambitious. Among other long works, Tennyson produced "In Memoriam" and, more pertinently, "Maud; a Monodrama" and the often impressive, underrated "Idylls of the King." But for me Browning is the crucial figure here. He -- and, I would say, properly -- tends to haunt The Modern Poetic Sequence. Early on R and G choose, interestingly enough, to discuss as a relevant precursor of modern practice, not any of the great dramatic monologues or "The Ring and the Book," but the lyrical "The Englishman in Italy," in the book's words "a model of lyrical structure."

Much later in the volume our critics acknowledge that

a lingering influence of Browning in modern poetry, American especially, has

been a preoccupation with voice: a poem anchored in a single dramatic voice,a

group of poems in which several or many voices interact. It may be argued that

Browning's voices, in his dramatic monologues but also in his

character-swarming "The Ring and the Book," with its attempt to pierce through the

masks of appearance to the ambiguities of reality, should be taken as effective

keys rather than as theatrical representation.

This is an argument R and G obviously do not accept or care to pursue. But rather than voice in Browning, I would stress character and its emergence through its unique voice. And for theatrical I would substitute dramatic, something most of the poets I have mentioned strove toward.

At length, the book recognises both Pound and Eliot as "sons of Browning." (Eliot, as late as 1953, in his "The Three Voices of Poetry," failing to mention his own very considerable debt to Browning, calls Pound "Browning's greatest disciple.") However, for our critics, reservations gainsay his primary importance; what did following Browning lead to? In the case of Edgar Lee Masters "into a sort of swamp." Might one not attribute this end to Masters rather than to Browning? But how and why then did Browning's "sons" escape him and reach the high ground? I will consider their success a little later.

At this juncture I would like to examine further our sense at least that increasingly poets have surrendered large parts of the human experience and taken refuge in the short poem. Many reasons easily obtain. Aside from the corrosive imperialism of prose, thought has developed and complicated in all directions (consider the sciences alone); who can pretend to master it in its myriad branches? Moreover, as R and G remark, for the rejections much of that thought produced and for a number of great, devastating wars, basic beliefs were not only challenged but, for many, forever smashed. Where find an outlook that could convincingly present a totality or unity of experience? Also, with the incessant siege of newspapers, television, cinema and the wrenching turmoil of our times, especially in big cities, imagine the poets able to find the time and peace of mind essential to such an outlook. Or, for that matter, readers interested in or capable of the large poetic work based on it.

How then write a long, continuous poem that, adequately mirroring this age, would at the same time discover a unity, a totality, in itself as in the age? It is true that painting and sculpture, as well as music, bolder than poetry, because free of the burden of meaning in words, had already embraced or at least acknowledged the modern condition: daring experimentation, wherever it might lead, prevailed. The fine arts by their sensuous appeal, though they also have to be read, enjoy an immediacy of presentation that poetry cannot expect to equal. Words, however hard one may press them upon things, are -- in a way that paints and notes are not -- at best intellectual and human artifacts. Outraged by the world at large and encouraged by psychoanalysis, painters and composers, turning in upon themselves, enshrined the life and resources of their media alone.

Even earlier, the French Symbolist poets and the English Aesthetes had already pursued a similar course. With Poe, appropriately enough, their model and hero, the Symbolists dumped or at least sidestepped the oppressive burden of materialism. Flouting realism, they eschewed narration, direct statement, politics, argument, and any didacticism-that is, other than that illustrated by their stance: wholesale rejection of the philistine bourgeoisie. Aspiring to the condition of music, as they and Walter Pater put it, they resisted denotation or anything like objective meaning in their pursuit of the subjectively connotative. Beyond their obvious influence on the major modern poets, they may have, in good part, been responsible for the art I described above. Or at least grown up side by side with it.

That art in turn-in some ways as mush as, if not more than, the Symbolist-strongly influenced Pound, Williams (as did a number of contemporary American painters), Stevens, and various other poets. It is a mark of our steadily growing isolation and specialization, this absorption in the medium (or its tools) for its own sake, rather than as a means to larger ends. Probably this loosening of the ties between art and the world has helped to produce the conclusion that all language is wholly self-reflexive. Fortunately poets like Pound and Williams, recognizing the dangers inherent in Symbolism, whatever its potent allure, went well beyond it.

Yet for many only the self, battered as it was on all sides, seemed to be left, an intermittent, porous self at that. How in a world always more ruthless, if not impossible, reach out to others or assume that one can speak honestly, knowingly about that world? What could the poor poet do -- many would say -- but, burrowing into the self, retreat to the lyric(as the artist to Abstract Expressionism)? But that retreat, for those who have resorted to it, has proved not too satisfactory. No art can live indefinitely on itself, without the nourishment of the world outside. No wonder numerous recent thinkers have declared the self a modern invention and aberration, to be recovered from.

Meantime, in America the New Critics, espousing-perhaps inevitably -- the notion of the poem as a thing in and unto itself, designated the lyric the supreme expression, what all poetry at its best is, or an endorsement of Poe's position. (Similarly Clement Greenberg hailed Abstract Expressionism as the ultimate aim of all art; even in the arts, it seems, for many of us the idea of progress is irresistible.) Their mode of criticism, bent on close analysis, as it grew out of the lyric, naturally served and championed it. Most of them, it should be noted, were poets, usually of the lyric. It should also be said, however, that in the main they valued the genre as it accommodated complexity.

Furthermore, one of them, Robert Penn Warren, even as he wrote short stories, novels, and several long poems, in a powerful essay made a cogent case of impure poetry. In his words, "...nothing that is available in human experience is to be legislated out of poetry." So poems happily

...mar themselves with cacophonies, jagged rhythms, ugly words and ugly

thoughts, colloquialism, cliches, sterile technical terms, head work and

argument, self-contradictions, cleverness, irony, realism-all things which

call us back to the world of prose and imperfection.

But Winters, in proper schoolmaster fashion, felt obliged to make the supremacy of the lyric plain by grading the literary genres. The novel was hardly worth wasting time on. Drama was by its nature inferior; if there could be a good play, it would be "Macbeth." As for the epic, what a shame that such gifted poets should have spent themselves on such an impossible, primitive form. Out of this mire emerges one shining star: the lyric (Winters prefers to call it the short poem). And the two greatest short poems or the apex of it all-surely a rather surprising choice for an all-out, no-nonsense rationalist and moralist-are Valery's "Le Cimetiere Marin" and "Ebauche d'un Serpent."

Perversely and happily enough, most of the major poets of our time, like their great predecessors, were not convinced; refusing to settle for the brief lyric, they have attempted the major work, a long poem out to absorb as much of the world as possible. And this is where The Modern Poetic Sequence comes in: the solution to the problem of the long poem that these poets, instructed by their age, have found, Rosenthal and Gall propose, is the sequence or a gathering together of short lyrics.

The book starts appropriately with Whitman's "Song of Myself," the grandfather of the modern American sequence as Whitman is increasingly considered the godfather of American poets (especially by poets). And, in the way of firsts, the poem may well be the most successful sequence we have. Like Wordsworth with The Prelude, but much more boldly and unabashedly because later and American, Whitman at once in his title announces his subject, the primacy of the self, if with all the multitudes of people and happenings that compose it. For Wordsworth the exploration of his developing self was meant to be a preparation for a much larger poem. With Whitman, "Song of Myself" was the thing itself.

Critics have sought to establish "the plot" of "Song of Myself." Their schemes seem to me about as convincing as the attempts to order the sonnets of Shakespeare. I continue to think of both works as a marvelous, loose spinning together of often splendid, but sometimes not so impressive short poems. Both are held together, I would say, by the persuasiveness of their writers' overarching personalities and styles. R and G base the structure of "Song of Myself" on "a faith in the transforming power of intensity." Accordingly, they break the poem into seven parts, but very tentatively. However one responds to this grouping, their immersion in the poem, poem by poem, is entirely winning. They demonstrate that much of the poem's "vitality depends on the quick shifts, variety, and brilliant improvisations made possible by the sequence form."

Next they set out to show that the fascicles in which Dickinson arranged her poems -- booklets of form eleven to twenty-two poems and amounting to almost half of her work-were also "improvised" sequences. Since these poems were written over a lifetime and with virtually no publication, it is possible to conclude that she arranged them into the books or sections of the books they might become. But again, notwithstanding the attractive richness of R and G's analysis, I wonder whether what she did was so different from what most serious poets do in putting a book together. I have chiefly my own experience to go on. But aside from the throes of my first book, which I almost ruined by trying to rewrite its poems into a single scheme, I know what pains I am at to arrange each volume's poems so that their context will be most fruitful.

The range of sequences R and G now explore, American, British, Irish, Welsh, is most impressive. Conspicuously missing, however, among some of the older American poets one might think of, are Robinson (mentioned once in an aside on "Eros Tyrannus"), Frost (referred to once for his short poem "Design"), Jeffers (despite his long poems, unmentioned), Jarrell (alluded to briefly twice), Zukofsky, Warren, Rexroth, Duncan, Levertov, McGrath, Ignatow, Roethke, Dorn, Whitman, Carruth, Hecht, Hoffman, and Dickey (all unmentioned). I hardly would expect R and G to deal with such a lot; I offer it to suggest the extraordinary riches of our age.

As for slightly younger poets discussed, one might point out the absence, among others, of Merrill (especially the elegant, mercurial "The Book of Ephraim" and the immense "The Changing Light at Sandover" with its use of our age's myth, science, necessarily thought of as the truth), Howard (the latest full-fledged son of Browning, with several volumes of remarkable monologues-including one of Browning himself on his last day-and two-part inventions, which contain, among other memorable poems, "A Natural Death"; as Howard, echoing Eliot and Pound, says, "I wanted to recuperate for poetry some of the energy that has leaked into fiction, into theatre"), Finkel (with his medley of moods and voices, expressing cheek by jowl the vaudevillian and the apocalyptic, in four book-length, collage-like poems), Gregor (most of all for his sustainedly rhapsodic "The Poem of Heaven Within"), Ashbery (particularly, the Browningesque Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror; one might wonder what a second, revised edition of The Modern Poetic Sequence would make of the aptly titled Flow Chart), and Ammons (his grab bag, all-out, all-in long poems).

But the reasons for their being ignored seem clear. Aside from the fundamental matte of taste (R and G in a few lines indicate their doubts about Ammons and Ashbery for writing in the discursive style of the later Steven), however impressive these younger poets' long poems may be, they do not fit into R and G's scheme of things: some of them distant heirs if not sons of Browning, they have usually, on the long side, tended to write narrative poems, dramatic monologues, and loose-jointed rambles, not-however genuine, original, and daring-poetic sequences.

Even younger poets have also taken up the challenge, some with a vengeance: here too the list is legion. I can do little more than name a few of the more memorable: C.K. Williams (for "One of the Muses" and Flesh and Blood), Stephen Berg (for With Akhmatova at the Black Gates, "Homage to the Afterlife," etc.), Rita Dove (for "Thomas and Beulah"), Robert Pinsky (for Sadness and Happiness, "Essay on Psychiatrists," An Explanation of America), Marilyn Hacker (for "The Navigators" and other poems), Frederick Feirstein (for several book-length poems, including "Manhattan Carnival," "Family History," "City Life"), Gjertrud Schnackenberg (for "Imaginary Prisons,""Kremlin of Smoke," and other poems), Frederick Turner (for two poems, subtitled epics, "The New World" and "Genesis"). And, to name a few others, James McMichael, Laurence Lieberman, Herbert Morris, and Albert Goldbarth.

Most recently, through the Quarterly Review of Literature, a booklength poem, "Stranger Than Fiction," in voices, by Jeanne Murray Walker camy my way. I find it a fascinating work about a strange, yet charismatic reporter, inevitably drawn to odd people and circumstances that he promptly identifies with. The poem proceeds via his reports in a popular tabloid, his wife's diary, and his editor's business-like comments. This work should help to prove that the long poem is indeed thriving.

Like some of the above younglings, soon after I began writing poetry seriously, despite my uneasiness before Poe's pronouncement, I also felt impelled to attempt the long poem, one that would be equal to all my experience and yet everywhere (here I showed myself stills a child of my times and the world The Modern Poetic Sequence depicts) of lyric intensity. The short poem was for me a most engaging brief encounter, but I longed for the felicitous, if often arduous marriage a long poem makes possible, its steadily developing gifts of feeling and understanding. Imagine spending much of one's life, like a Lucretius or a Dante, in a world one created, correlative to the world at large (not, as with a Mallarme, corrival and finally supplanting). My models, after an intense apprenticeship to Mallarme, Hopkins, and Rilke, were increasingly Browning and Shakespeare. Particularly "King Lear," which has almost everywhere the intensity of the finest lyric but collects it all into an overwhelmingly epical sweep.

Of course, as Poe observed, such would-be concentration on intensity throughout a truly long poem is a preposterous project, impossible of execution. Shakespeare? Eliot and others have emphasised the danger, even ruinousness, emulation of him must lead to. And, after all, his was poetic drama, not poetry alone; beyond and through the poetry he had to attend to plot, action, characters. Good as his poems are, they cannot compare with his plays. And in my opinion, it was dramatic that made a large part of his plays' poetic intensity possible. It is driving toward the dramatic that makes for intensity, even as it helps save the poet and his poem from excessive self-absorption. So, since my attempts at poetic drama have never satisfied me, I have, with various modifications of it, taken to the extended dramatic monologue. Its drama derives chiefly from a particular, triggering moment in which the speaker is called upon to reveal, wittingly or not (usually, if a child of Browning, most wittingly with gusto), his or her true nature.

Though I have, as if to witness the correctness of Poe's position. several foundered ships to haunt me, I have persisted in my folly. And through a number of longish poems I have enjoyed a glimpse of what pleasure such total occupation with a truly long poem must be. Twice in book-length poems I have even had the illusion of being a guest, however briefly, at the great feast. The first, "Gunsight," initially a twenty-line poem, some twenty intermittent years in the making, is a dramatic monologue, but composed of a multilogue-that is, the many, basically important voices buried in the main character, released under intense stress; these voices not only mosaically supply the body of the poem, but produce its resolution.

The second, much later "Recoveries", perhaps benefiting from all the writing I had done and emulating its subject, a fresco, came much more speedily. Even so, before I let it go, I exhausted many a wall. This poem sought to extend the dramatic monologue in another way. Till now it has usually been artist or some personage who speaks. Here the art itself does the talking: a figure in a fresco, out of its long overview, tells its and its fresco's complex story to a restored working on it. These poems, whatever their incidental satisfactions, underscored for me the almost insuperable difficulty of making a comprehensive, continuous long poem in the great tradition.

Why then am I not altogether convinced by R and G's thesis of the sequence as the solution? Precisely because it leans too heavily, too exclusively on the limited form of the lyrical or the subjective. One might ask whether intensity of itself is an inevitable good. About this matter R and G seem fairly certain. Thus in their chapter on Pound, remarking the "sheer eccentric crankiness" of stretches of the Cantos, they can say, "... we should remember that such crankiness is a genuine basis for an affect -- as are bloodthirstiness and any sort of vileness-quite as much as are sweetness and light." The worst then should not disturb us so long as their passion bases an affect? (See Yeats's"...the worst/Are full of passionate intensity.") Except as this condition relates to a created character and not its creator, I am pretty sure R and G would reject it.

Beyond that, human existence is, I feel, not adequately represented by a series of peak lyric intensities alone. Narrative, thought, argument, discourse, comment and commentary, memory, introspection, characters, and all the rest have their legitimate-in their own way potentially intense -- place in poetry. Without them poetry, and so we, are diminished. Especially in a time hostile as ours, when one's basic impulse is to withdraw, we need poems that prosper in and through others, the world out there. Certainly, whatever the diverse ingredients of a poem, a genuine works requires a concentration, memorably verbalized, of experience deeply lived through. But there are, I believe, other ways of realizing such a concentration--our times notwithstanding--than the modern sequence.

Moreover, even some of its principal practitioners violated its supposed limits when they felt they needed to. So, for example, both Pound and Williams, to break through the somewhat arbitrary boundaries and to include more of a world, introduced large hunks of prose in their major poems. Even documents, historical and otherwise--proper materials for poetry if we take Marianne Moore's word for it--found their-- to Pound, indispensable--way into the Cantos. Whether the context succeeds in digesting that prose, so lifting it to the poetic, or whether the prose constitutes one of the intractables R and G recognize is a question I'll not try to answer here.

Where does that leave me? I am not hung up on doubts about the authenticity or availability of narration because of the quarrel with causality as a reliable model of reality (and our feeling that life does not consist of beginnings, middles, and ends). But straight story-telling has rarely interested me. No more than a mix of poetry and prose. And much as I delight in the passion of Lucretius for the science of his day, his beloved atoms, I cannot undertake a kindred poem for our times: the immense knowledge needed is far beyond me. Moreover, a map of the cosmos like the one Dante enjoyed is hardly available. But the human condition is mine as much as anyone else's. It is this, the living in and through others as fully as possible in poems, that I find especially appealing. How else expand, if not escape, the too familiar confines of the self?

Browning was inevitably the poet I turned to for help, as did, in varying degrees, Hardly, Yeats and Frost, Pound and Eliot, and my contemporaries Lowell, Jarell, and Berryman, as well as a flock of younger poets. For Browning was our one great predecessor out to reclaim large territories overrun by the novel and prose. He sought to deal with people on their own terms and in terms of their worlds, to enter them with an intimacy, depth, and passion surpassing the reach of most novels. On the other hand (despite Eliot's charge that he did not think at his fingertips like the Metaphysicals; instead he thought with his head), Browning did not shy away from speculation and the fiercely conflicting thought of his time. On the contrary. Much as he was occupied by that thought, he naturally shared it, when the appropriate dramatic occasion arose, with many of his characters.

But how have the offspring, especially the sons, of Browning managed to escape the swamp he led Masters to and, at the same time, put him and his poetry to triumphant, practical use? According to R and G, for Eliot and Pound "The solution . . . required subordinating |voice' to tonal dynamics." This solution, I would say, chiefly occurred after they wrote their early poems. Without the example of Browning, Eliot, I suspect, would/could not have written "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," Portrait of a Lady," and even "Gerontion" --all variations of the dramatic monologue; but now, in tune with their lonely, desolate speakers and times, dissonant, broken, interiorized. To some extent, in their saltancies and fragmentariness, these poems do anticipate Eliot's later, larger work.

Pound, in turn, in patent apprenticeship to Browning, wrote several dramatic monologues: "La Fraisne" which, since it is the mutterings of a mad, old man, breaks down aptly enough at the end into pregnant fragments or ellipses, a device also borrowed from Browning and used by Pound throughout his writing career. (In some ways this very young poem might be thought of as fairly prophetic, anticipating as it does the old, supposedly mad Pound in his last Cantos and beyond.) "Cino" and "Na Audiart" are both uttered by troubadors. In seeking out historical, artistic figures, especially brimming with brio and egotistic audacity, ones that would permanently occupy him and recurrently crop us as personae, Pound once more reminds us of Browning.

These poems, with Eliot's, might, more accurately, be called lyric or interior monologues. For they are spoken in the main by lost, mad men to no one but the speaker's troubled self or the air, rather in soliloquy fashion. Such poems, as by their very alienated nature they must, lack a particular focusing, if not justifying, moment as well as the possibility of revealing simultaneously two characters, the speaker and the silent listener (and, in a few lucky instances--see "My Last Dutchess" --also the person discusses). In an case, for seeking to reproduce the patterns of their characters' chaotic minds, the "sons" are deliberately less sequential and orderly than their father.

The abiding question here is how much of the chaotic one can let in without becoming chaotic in turn. One critic has praised Ashbery for his accurate reproduction of the mind's chaos. We might think that every mind is supplied with chaos enough not to need help or models. Until our time poetry was expected to stimulate the reverse. Or are chaos and boredom our chief realities, all that the writers of the past had not fully explored? Also, since these states consume so much of our time, do they not deserve ample representation? But is it enough comfort for a reader to be permitted to witness the turmoils, inadequacies, failures of the writer? As it is triumph enough for the poet to get his chaos said in a poem?

Obviously writers and readers vary greatly in their notion of what chaos is and how much is enough. For some of us, no doubt, such poets. connoisseurs of chaos, should be lauded for following the lead of pioneers like Stevens and Pound by seeking to extend the boundaries of order and to wrest new territories from the wilderness. Or are they set rather on an illusory pursuit of always greater realism? This with little sense of what they are losing?

I do agree with R and G that the risk of chaos is not only well worth taking but, if the poet is to attempt the composing of a large work, necessary and inevitable. However, after the risk has been taken, the poem produced ought, I assume R and G would concur, to undergo evaluation as a work of art. It is our business still, as readers and critics, to try to judge what world has been made out of the chaos.

Once we reach "The Waste Land," imitation of the age's disjointedness comes into its splendid own. R and G quote Conrad Aiken's review of the poem in partial agreement:

...the poem must be taken ... as a brilliant and kaleidoscopic confusion; as a

series of sharp, discrete, slightly related perceptions and feelings,

dramatically and lyrically presented, and violently juxtaposed (for effect of

dissonance) so as to give us an impression of an intensely modern, intensely

literary consciousness which perceives itself to be not a unit but a chance

correlation or conglomerate of mutually discolorative fragments....

... "The Waste Land" is a series of separate poems or passages, not perhaps

written at one time or with one aim, to which a spurious but happy sequence

has been given. This spurious sequence has a value--it created the necessary

superficial unity....Could one not wholly rely for one's unity--as Mr. Eliot

has largely relied--simply on the dim unity of "personality" ...?

...the poem succeeds--as it brilliantly does-by virtue of its incoherence, not

of its plan....Its incoherence is a virtue because its donnee is incoherence.

Its rich, vivid, crowded use of implication is a virtue, as implication is always a

virtue--it shimmers, it suggests, it gives the desired

strangeness....We "accept" the poem as we would accept a powerful, melancholy


I quote so much, first, because, on the whole, this quotation brilliantly and accurately characterizes the poem and, second, because it elicits a complicated and attractive response from R and G. If anything, even as I recognize the magnifecence of many passage of the poem, I find Aiken too generous. The poem, we know, does consist of a group of separate poems, written at different times, that Eliot sought to combine in a single work. We know what major surgery Pound performed on it. Whether the pieces assembled walked off like a man is the question. In a way that I cannot, Aiken is happy to applaud the poem and its incoherence as a virtue and to admire it as "a powerful, melancholy tone-poem," a designation R and G ought--and to some troubled degree do--by their own lights approve.

What then disturbs them? They insist the Aiken's notion of an only |spurios sequence' and merely |chance correlation' is as far off the mark as if he had applied the terms to "Tintern Abbey.'" I wish I could be so sure. They do say Aiken "argues the point beautifully....But he does limit poetry to something short of the greatest expectations of it." Doesn't their all-out stress on the lyrical also limit it? A little earlier they remark, "The tentative and improvisational aspect of art does not mean that the order and ingredients of a great work in its final form are simply accidental, however much serendipity has been involved." I agree, but that final form is what matters. Tentative and improvisatory an art work may well be to begin with; what if it ends that way?

I would suggest that once a poet is sworn in, once his work becomes resonantly part of the audience's disposition, for that audience's investment of time and mind an appearance of order--the order of that which has happened, repeated by frequent readings--emerges. After the first reservations, Eliot was fortunate to have critics trained in the very materials and attitudes he developed through his criticism and earlier poetry. Thus several handily supplied the missing plot or map I continue to have difficulty matching with the poem itself.

Reaching the hub of their argument in "|Voice' and The Waste Land," R and G conclude: Any lyrical informed work of some length and substance is fundamentally a chaos of intimate notations bound in a tangle of small effects. At the same time, however, it is magnetized into structure by its points of highest intensity and by its ordering in time: the literal succession of its tonalities.

For me this statement has a fairly mystical air: how do the points of highest intensity magnetize the chaos into structure? And is the literal succession intrinsic or arbitrary? We know how much Pound, excising freely, shuffled the parts of "The Waste Land." In an earlier volume of criticism, Rosenthal himself deliberated on the cost to the poem of Pound's deletions, mused on how much more the poem might be had Eliot dared to enjoy the freedom of expression a later Lowell and Ginsberg would exploit

Analyzing "The Burial of the Dead," R and G says its" ...succession of minute evocations does not reveal a subject matter or dominant speaker but rather a matrix of varied feeling." And then, " has no |voice' yet deploys voices freely, suggesting a wide range of sensitive consciousness." Here they seem to me happily on target. The broken world of Prufrock, now expanded to encompass the whole earth (the waste land), utters itself, not through a lone speaker, but in a cacophony of voices, usually caught in climactically dramatic moments, Or, in a sense, a tangling of free-floating scraps from many dramatic monologues.

Taking issue with Eliot's emphasis on voice in his criticism, R and G ask, "...what if one uses words as artistic materials to create the poem's dynamics, as one manipulates the materials of others arts?" Again I maintain that words are basically different from paints and sounds in that the former come bearing meanings; they are not (except for certain theorists and extreme practitioners) things in themselves. R and G object, rightly I think, to Eliot's uneasy designation of Tiresias as "the most important personage in the poem, uniting all the rest." That designation suggests that Eliot was groping for some figure, force, voice that would help to unify the poem.

For our critics, Eliot's work after "The Waste Land" is generally downhill, because of his struggle in later poems with "intractable elements endemic to the poetic sequence." And in their judicious awareness they admit, as they will with Pound, that

in terms of the pressures that are at work in lyrical structure, these elements

have to do with the fact that the sequence is intrinsically a response to more

than the sensibility can readily handle....At its most extreme, the sequence

copes with a sense of utter chaos.

"The Waste Land" could be written only once. Thereafter, according to R and G, Eliot gave up or lost his capacity for the full poetic sequence. Here they do acknowledge the expensive loss of drama and voices:

...the sense of fragmentation, often connected with a dramatic bit abruptly

introduced and dropped, lessened. These changes largely from his

eschewal of numerous diverse quasi-dramatic voices.... Voice had been his

chief laissez-passer into the realm of pure lyrical dynamics. But now, lacking

the dramatic compression that highly charged closeups or conversational

moments had encouraged his tonal centers tended to expand over a

substantial number of lines, with fewer sudden transitions.

This new positive stress on voice and drama does, I must confess, puzzle me. So, considering "The Hollow Men," they seem to regret that it "...offered no dramatic characters of any sort and no clearly individual human voices." But accepting the fact that these hollow men are clones of one another, entirely personless, or, as our critics say, "an expressionistic chorus line," how expect individual voices or dramatic characters? Rather, taking the fragmentation of "The Waste Land" or the aim of the sequence the whole distance, "The Hollow Men" might well be judged the distillation, if not the perfection, of the genre. And that it precisely what our critics decide:

Perhaps the difference from "The Waste Land" should be put in more relative

terms, however. We can certainly say that the gradual working-through of

"The Hollow Men" represents a triumph of lyrical over dramatic emphasis in

deployment of tonalities.

Or "It should be clear--to simplify the issue--that "The Hollow Men is a lyrical distillation of "The Waste Land.'"

We see, as R and G long ago warned us, what complications a thesis (or theory), even a resilient one, can lead to. Thus insisting on the lyrical sequence as the likeliest genre for moderns they have some trouble accepting a meditative sequence (with lyrical moments and overstones) like "Four Quartets" for "the deliberate slack discursiveness that appears regularly" in it. They maintain, even as they admit that earlier "long poems faced similar problems and solved them brilliantly," that the modern circumstance, we have come to need immediacy of

presentation above all, and are soon impatient with exposition, explanation, or

moralizing that drains away a work's presentative energy and mobility of alertness

and feeing.

They do not bother to explain the uniqueness of our need. Is it produced by the hectics of our times, so that many of us seem to have no greater mind-span than a sound-bite? And is it, like our impatience, merely an undeniable fact of life or rather a desirable, a good to be encouraged? What R and G says we are impatient of and why, would seem to suggest that they consider our unique need the latter. As for impatience itself, it may well be true that sophisticated modern readers turn away from moralizing, etc. But do not the multiple shifts, abrupt saltancies, and frequently obscure or private allusions in most modern sequences by their excessive demands bewilder the great majority of modern readers, even serious ones, and leave them totally impatient? However, one might more generously read R and G's statement to mean, not that they object to all exposition, explanation, or moralizing in themselves, but only to those instances clumsy and intrusive enough to drain away precious intensity.

Our critics grapple with the problems they see in "Four Quartets" compared with "The Waste Land": the "discursive and rhetorical tendencies" now released, the new leisurely thoughtfulness that often takes over. Aptly enough for my main argument, Eliot saw the later "Quartets" as "being much simpler and easier to understand than |The Waste Land' and |Ash Wednesday'...." because of his playwriting, this even though the subject matter may be more difficult. Both Yeats and Eliot, like Browning and James, tries their hand at plays; and whatever their success, I suggest it reasonable to assume that such work did help to sharpen, if not shape, the poetry of the first three and the novels of the fourth. Gradually, however, despite their reservations, as they work through the "Quartets," our critics reconcile themselves to its difficulties, and conclude that the work has been carried "further toward complete triumph than the blight of didactism might have been expected to allow."

At this point one might ask whether, beyond the reservations R and G raise, the "Four Quartets" is indeed a sequence or rather four separate poems, variations on a form. As Eliot, reported,

... lines and fragments ... were discarded in the course of the production of

"Murder in the Cathedral." |Can't get them over the stage,' said the producer,

... However these fragments stayed in my mind, and gradually I saw a poem

shaping itself round them. In the end it came out as "Burnt Norton."

These fragments, acting as the poem's core, in its shaping moved away from drama to the condition (or at least to the suggested imitation) of music. As we have seen with "The Waste Land," in his Puritan-thrifty way Eliot was used to hoarding short poems and scraps of poems in the hope that he might eventually weave them into one crazy-quilt.

In turn, "Burnt Norton" became the model--but only five years later--for the next Quartet and then for the others. Based as each poem is, somewhat mechanically, on one of the four seasons, the four elements, and four places, they also share, in musical fashion, certain recurrent motifs or themes, In them one might say that Eliot endeavored to go forward by going back, not only to his own past but to earlier formal models. Such appropriations, adapted to present conditions might also be regarded as importantly experimental.

Turning to pound and his prodigious Cantos, "the true testing-ground for a theory of the sequence," R and G rightly say,

Pound ... carried the implications of Imagism farther than any other poet.

Unless we read the "Cantos" as successions of tonal centers or affects--

"images" writ large and complex--they are a chaos.

The composition of the Cantos, a mammoth mosaic made up of tiny tiles, minute building blocks meant by accretion to erect a mighty cathedral, is truly marvelous to contemplate. Our critics decide "Pound had not failed to write a poem with dramatic elements.... Rather, he had purified his sense of structure beyond dependency on them." We must look away from " a search for what some dramatic character... might be saying to something more nakedly present: what the poem before us is creating."

They quote what Pound had written to Joyce in 1917: with an ambition like Wordsworth's Pound said, "I have begun an endless poem, of no known category. Phanopoeia or something or other, all about everything." (Unlike Wordsworth, he went on to write it.) Pound began the Cantos under the spell of Browning. But, R and G suggest, reading the first chapters of Joyce's Ulysses, Pound may have found "a way of breaking out of Browning's spell." For "The ur-cantos are dragged down by Browning's stylistic devices, especially the monologue technique."

Through the short sequences, "Homage to Sextus Propertius" (the "collaboration" with Propertius "created a liberating interplay of ancient and modern sensibility, more dynamically open than any single |point of view' would account for." Doesn't something like this happen in those dramatic monologues in which the presence--through the unheard response--of the invisible listener is felt? But if is interplay one wants, why, beyond a work like "The Ring and the Book," not drama itself?) and "Hugh Selwyn Mauberly," "the first of the original sequences... that changed modern poetry," Pound developed the style-to-be of the Cantos.

Early on our critics regret that Pound failed to jettison "some of the pages he evidently thought necessary for didactive purposes." (Too bad he didn't use his vehement red pencil on himself! Or get Eliot to retaliate.) Indeed, as with Eliot's "Quartets" and even Williams's Paterson, the Cantos do contain considerable didacticism. For Pound, impassioned pedagogue that he was, poetry was not entertainment alone, nor exclusively a succession of "center of intensity" --though that certainly, but a satisfaction of the ancient formula of delight and wisdom, one to be realized through the other. He was old-fashioned enough to have the greatest designs on us (as he went along, more and more truth, however shaggy its shape, became beauty)--namely, to guide and change our lives, to teach us what we need to know to lead the good life. Dante was not a favorite of his for nothing. And on occasion the didacticism should work even for the most dyed-in-the-wool modern: see the Kung Cantos.

One might well ask, Why poetry, particularly long poems, and how take them seriously, if they shirk the ethical, not to say meaning and, yes, moral considerations? Indeed, Eliot, putting these latter first, in "East Coker," commenting in the inadequacy of words and poetical fashions, can conclude "The poetry does not matter." Not beside the life and the spirit, the larger matters a poetry like Eliot's struggles to comprehend and express. And in the "Quartets" virtually succeeds. In "The Waste Land," one might say, Eliot set out to show us in a kaleidoscope of dramatic moments the world as it is, its present terrible condition. In the "Four Quartets," he pushed on beyond that to suggest amid that world underlying, persistent truths.

Pursuing this conclusion from my viewpoint, I must admit to a flagrant contradictariness in my idea of the poetic. One side of me--the omnivorous romantic?--heartily applauds the all-inclusive poem or Wordsworth's "I know not anything which will not come within the scope of my plan" and Pound's "I have begun an endless poem ... all about everything": a world-work like that of a Rabelais, the Elizabethan playwrights (we tend to say exaggeratedly that at their best they developed a style that could digest everything; actually we relish the lumps in the stew for their individual pungent tastes), a Melville (Moby Dick), a Joyce (Ulysses and, yes, Finnegans Wake), a Pound (with 800 pages he had better absorb a lot!). I long to produce a gallimaufry poem, a grab-bag that needs everything-the ruins, the filth, the garbage, the cast-off bag-people, and whatever else makes up our citied world, itself a helter-skelter human product.

But another side of me-the would-be discriminating classicist and formalist?--insists the poem, even as it is inclusive, must somehow also be, like "King Lear," unified, whole. Or the miraculous fusing of the two sides that results in each and every thing's having its own voice, being itself, a full-fledged, wholly realized individual, with its own origins and past; and yet, in the democracy of a great poem, a voice in the giant chorus, each word -- singing itself, its own triumphant hosannah--doing so with and through all the others.

No doubt this is a foolish dream. As Pound finally said of the Cantos, having hoped that somewhere late in the journey somehow the wholeness would emerge or at least the poem would reach dry land,"It does not cohere." And so with Lowell and Berryman, the former with his Histories, which R and G do not treat, for they regard it as "the incoherent welter of the various groupings of sonnets" that Lowell published. But they do present Life Studies under "The Confessional Mode" as his "most striking book and most successful sequence." Here, they say, "The chaos of the psychic situation becomes the ground of a reoriented art in which the beset self is the testing-ground and embodiment of all human possibilities." Life Studies is a sequence and unified book, if it is, through its network of personal relationships. And so to a much lesser degree is Lowell's last Day by Day.

As for Berryman, though R and G do not mention his fairly unique "Homage to Mistress Bradstreet," arguably his best long poem, and modernly experimental at that (with the abrupt shifts and leans they are after), they do consider his 77 Dream songs. For this volume "gives the impression of a semblance of structure, as opposed to the uncontrolled proliferation -- 385 poems-of the book." But though they value individual poems, they deny even 77 Dream Songs the status of a successful sequence. Yet both Lowell and Berryman maintained that their respective volumes, Histories and the Dream Songs, constitute single poems. In fact, I would say it was chiefly their personal skins, sensibilities, and distinctive styles, their personal signatures which provided a sense of continuity. Brilliantly and persuasively our critics explore passages as well as entire Cantos. Focusing on a key section of one of the "Pisan Cantos," they acknowledge the "surface difficulty" of such writing. "Nevertheless, the dynamics of individual passages...can be grasped fairly quickly once the allusions and foreign expressions have been deciphered..." So too in an admirably balanced way they say:

In general, it is necessary to take each volume of cantos seriously, as a

separate sequence with its own aesthetic...and to realize that the "Cantos"

as a whole have many interconnections without themselves making a

self-contained sequence. Although Pound's original conception in a sense allowed

for adjustments (and he became a master at improvising connections...), life

and history carried him far beyond what "care and craft" could provide for.

In a concluding section on the Cantos and their problems, they remark Pound's "associative profligacy" and his "overloading" that brings with it "increasing reliance on the arbitrary, ultimately personal sensibility of the poet, no longer at the necessary remove from the poem's surface." And, finally, the work's excessive length.

Even as I agree, I would put these problems somewhat differently in three categories; a tendency to solipsism, the poem as a king of diary, and frequent congestion (what they call overloading). I supply an example of the first out of personal experience. Many years ago my wife and I visited D.D. Paige in Rapallo;; he was there primarily to edit a volume of Pound's letters. At one point Paige showed me a description he had written of a goat-skinning in the village. He was so truck by the ancient, ritualistic flavor of the act that he felt called on to preserve it in words. Years later, as I was reading in the Cantos, a phrase in medias res leaped out at me with a familiar twang. and then I recognized it; it was from Paige's account! He had obviously sent Pound a copy, and he so assimilated the account that he felt free to use it as a public fact. Increasingly he seems to have believed that whatever happened to him was ultimately significant, not only to him, but to the whole world. This is a trap all of us, especially artists with their intense self-absorption, are liable to.

As for the second category, the diary, I would suggest that it is one of the most popular forms of American literature, the book of now, the omnipresent present, appropriate and inevitably appealing to an improvisatory, rough-and-ready people, always on the wing. Emerson and Thoreau are clearly at their best in their journals. The works they patched together out of them are as lacking, some of them, in continuity and completion as most modern poetic sequences, Whitman's and Dickinson's poems also comprise a kind of journal of their inner and outer lives. And so, too much of Lowell and Berryman. In fact, such journal-keeping, primed by private admissions, became so popular among recent poets that Rosenthal grouped them together under the now-accepted name "the professional poets." Similarly, the Cantos follows and is a response to the particulars of Pound's life.

More than most poems, it is a work in progress, a catch-as-catch-can form (like Paterson), finished (like Paterson) by the poet's death alone.

Such a form, whatever its benefits in immediacy and the improvisatory, by its very openness can scarcely hope to realize wholeness. (Of course, with our two critics I am deeply grateful to Pound, Eliot and Williams, as I am to Stevens and Crane, for the incidental marvels of eloquence and insight they had the daring and the gift to achieve in and through their long poems.)

Congestion, my third category, frequently clogs the Cantos. For his impatience, his passion to get it all said at once, now and again Pound crammed a section with cheek-by-jowl bits and pieces of allusions from earlier, often far-off Cantos as well as from countless other, often obscure sources. Then for its jostling gists and piths the poem becomes such cramped reading it amounts to translating and connecting phrases from five or six languages at once. Babel was never better. Like the most remote, ancient text, the Cantos requires, even for the well-informed reader, footnotes so numerous they threaten to drive the poem off the page. And we know how costly such a condition can be.

Near the start of their volume, discussing "The Englishman in Italy," R and G commend it for its "sudden leap...a triumph of virtuosity, one that gave every sort of clue later poets." So that moment in the poem as well as passages from Browning's "Sordello" that Pound reprinted

...anticipate the sharper breaks of tonality in the "Cantos." The narrative

context that Browning provides is sloughed off in Pound's writing, which

operates by juxtaposition without the inhibition of surface continuity.

At times that uninhibited juxtaposition does indeed work, but elsewhere it produces very real problems: the surface is so broken (R and G, we saw, acknowledge the "surface difficulty") one does not know what level of the poem is jutting forth and therefore where to take hold.

Perhaps some day soon a sympathetic, erudite critic will provide us with a carefully selected Cantos, two or three hundred pages of it, consisting of the lovely lyrical nature passages (in these Pound is at his unequalled best) as well as whole, splendidly realized Cantos, plus prime samples of Pound's political and historical repossessions. Since the poem is not finished, such a selecting should not violate it too much.

William Carlos William's Paterson follows close on the heels of the Cantos. Certainly the poem was inspired in good part by Pound's lifework. Like it, the poem was supposed to be composed out of minute particulars or "radiant gists." In William's words,

The first idea centering upon the poem, "Paterson," came alive early: to find

an image large enough to embody the whole knowable world about me. The

longer I lived in my place, among the details of my life, I realized that these

isolated observations and experiences needed pulling together to gain

'profundity'....Not to talk in vague categories but to write

the particularly to discover the universal.

It is the pulling together of myriad particulars and discovering the universal in them that is the problem. In his good American pragmatism Williams was much like Pound. Both had a profound respect for science its practical methods and orderliness, but an equally profound distrust of generalization and abstraction. Stevens, in titling the first section of "Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction""It MUst Be Abstract," would seem to be taking exception to his fellow poets. Yet in that section he does say that it must be "An abstraction blooded, as a man by thought." Things, the plain sense of them, no matter what our need for supreme fictions and the ramifyings of the imagination, must not be lost sight of. But, like Pound and Stevens, Williams is not content to produce isolated particulars alone. Somehow the universal be discovered in them. Does this ambition not smack of the moral and, yes the didactic?

Paterson, as R and G say, cannot compare in intellectual of transcendent moments with the best of the Cantos. But then, though it was the harvest of Williams's later years, how or why should it compete with a life-long occupation? And whatever it may lack, Paterson compensates for in qualities Williams had spent his whole career cultivating, even though his success with these qualities was usually realized in short poems, not exactly a training for the long stretch. So Paterson had perforce to be a patchwork, an extremely uneven one at that. Still it is fairly unique among modern sequences for those very qualities: a sharpness of detail, a homeliness, an honesty, a soaking of the poet's self, through his temperament and role as doctor, in his community, its often desperate, speechless poor.

Moral human being that he is, he is deeply concerned with the "divorce" he sees pervading their lives. And he would do whatever he can to help them heal their condition by finding a language (poetry) that would enable them to be at one with themselves, the others, and world. His great struggle to create that language, even as he urge it, must occasionally result in sputter and incoherence. But as he says in The Autobiography of William Carlos Williams, ironically enough echoing his archrival (at least in Williams's mind), Eliot, "Forget writing, it's a trivial affair." However, by such a statement he means writing as usually carried on. A little later he says,

...under that language to which we have been listening all our lives a new, a

more profound language, underlying all the dialectics [any abitrary, closed, so

false system] offers itself. It is what they call poetry. This is the final phase. For

It is that, we realize, which beyond all they [his patients, but also all of its] have

been saying is what they have been trying to say.... We begin to see that the

underlying meaning of all they want to tell us and have always failed to

communicate is the poem, the poem which their lives are being lived to realize....

It is actually there, in the life before us, every minute that we are listening, a

rarest element -- not in our imaginations but there, there in fact.

And "after a lifetime of careful listening" as a doctor, a man, and a poet, he realizes that rarest element most tellingly -- rather more so than in Paterson -- in his old age, tree part and a coda, poignant love poem "Asphodel, That Greeny Flower." Originally intended by Williams to compose Paterson V, it was, he soon realized, a separate poem. A meditative lyric, in some ways it resembles Wordsworth's much shorter "Tintern Abbey": the latter previews The Prelude; the former gives the essence of Paterson. And as Wordsworth's poem may be read as a kind of letter to the person closest to him, his sister Dorothy, so the Williams achieves a similarly well-focused purpose through its conversational, intimate tone: a love letter addressed, after a lifetime of marriage, with all its richly admitted difficulties and obstacles, to his wife. This in order to resolve at the last any iota of divorce that may still linger on between them. Each poet, summarizing his great losses, at the same time celebrates and thanks the one who has stayed by him through thick and thin.

The resonance of William's and his wife's lifetime, the floral essence of it (Williams had a great affection for the pastoral), swells through the poem as it asserts itself by way of the recurrent, easily intertwining themes of flowers, aging, dying, books (particularly, the Iliad), the sea --

The sea! The sea!


when I think of the sea

there comes to mind

the Iliad

and Helen's public fault

that bred it.

Were it not for that

there would have been

no poem but the world

if we had remembered,

those crimson petals

spilled among the stones,

would have called it simply


It is not surprising that Williams, his mind filled with the long poem, should think of its great original as well as the use and the place of the poem. (One summer, when my wife and I lived in New Haven, we visited Bill and Flossie, vacationing in a cabin by the sea. Bill, I learned, had been trying Homer out by chanting him against the breakers. He had, as I remember, also given Whitman his chance.) A little later, returning to Homer, Williams says,

All women are not Helen,

I know that.

but have Helen in their hearts.

My sweet,

you have it also, therefore

I love you

and could not love you otherwise.

This love is not his wife alone, but "of nature, people, animals, a love engendering/gentleness and goodness...." Modern, emancipated poet that Williams is, he is still old-fashioned enough not to be able, even here, to do much more than indirectly glance at his attraction to other women. Thus, immediately after the above lines he says,

Imagine you saw

a field made up of women

all silver white,

What should you do

but love them?

Book II, even as it begins with thoughts of "approaching death," inevitably turns to the atom bomb: "...the bob/also/is a flower/ dedicated/howbeit/to our destruction." But though love "can so wreck our lives,"

There is no power

so great as love

which is a sea,

which is a garden --

as enduring

as the verses

of that blind old man

destined to live forever.

Few men, however, believe this, but rather in the bomb, and therefore they "shall die by/the bomb." It is here, near the end of Book I, that he utters the famous words, remindful of his earlier prose statement above: "Look at/what passes for the new./You will not find it there but in/despised poems./It is difficult/to get the news from poems/yet men die miserably every day/for lack/of what is found there."

I have quoted as much as I have to suggest something of the texture of the poem and, for all its fluidity and freedom of movement, how whole it is. At last in his old age he has broken through to the rarest element, the secret language of poetry itself. Its expression is so ready and assured he seems able to go anywhere, to include every thing, and to make it altogether relevant. This poem, in fact, may be one of the very few moderately long ones that close to R and G's ideal, and to my own as well.

It must be amply clear by now that the modern poetic sequence by its very openness, its tendency to helter skelter, does not altogether convince me. In fact, as I read the major examples of it, virtually all seem flawed, if not failed. But I recognize too well that the imperfect is an inherent part of the human condition, as is an aspiring to do more than we can. Where, among the greatest works of the past, do we find perfection? Even Homer nods. At his death Virgil regarded the Aeneid as unfinished. Chaucer's Canterbury Tales is incomplete. And the work many consider the ultimate human expression, "King Lear," comes to us in two variant texts, with the true "Lear" problematic. If there were a perfect poem, it would be, I suppose, "The Divine Comedy." But then there are the heavy doctrinal cantos of the "Purgatorio" to get through. What an exertion of good will!

Nonetheless, despite the accomplishments the sequence has made possible, I cannot resist challenging its exclusive pertinence to us. Apparently we continue to feel a deep romantic enthusiasm for the improvisational, feel it nearer to reality -- more spontaneous, so fresher -- than the finished, not to mention the polished. These latter, are they not contrived, intellectualized, so a betrayal of the initial impulse? Finding such a romantic attitude fairly questionable, I wonder whether it is so much the failure of the poets, their inadequate genius (though that too), as it is in the nature of the genre to fail, we wanting it to do so.

The sequence is, in short, a perfect mirroring of our present state. Nothing in our world supports the possibility of an acceptable whole view. Only fragments remain. So, embracing the tentative, the local, the immediate, build what you can out of the rubble. My question is whether this is not too easy an acceptance, even an endorsement, of our times, a deterministic kind of criticism: this is all we can do and so it should be what we want to do. And the devil take the rest, including the no longer available achievements of the past. Does such an attitude not seriously limit us and our poetry? Much as it may be the critic's basic business to recognize and to celebrate the genuinely new, the work that realizes the unique quality of its age, does it not also behoove him to remind his readers of the hard-won, precious, yet easily lost accomplishments of the past, those still useable, so that the human condition not diminish?

Already in his early essay, "Tradition and the Individual Talent," Eliot could say that, though we laud a poet for traits peculiar to him,

...if we approach a poet without this prejudice we shall often find that not

only the best, but the most individual parts of his work may be those in which

the dead poets, his ancestors, assert their immortality most vigorously.

And then the famous "Someone said: "The dead writers are remote from us because we know so much more than they did.' Precisely, and they are that which we know."

Indeed, no one appreciated more or recommended more fervently the pertinence of past great accomplishment than Pound and Eliot. But it should be said that in their determination to make it new they often ended, in imitation of the time, by celebrating the broken. Yet they most earnestly sought a basis for their longer works, Eliot striving to find it in religion; Pound, in history and art (also Confucius, the pagan gods, social theory, etc.); and Stevens, in the very process of struggling to produce such a basis. The burden on the modern poet, seeking to do major work, is, one must admit, enormous, if not impossible.

Hart Crane's "The Bridge" resounding exhibits all the above problems. Of course, he was the youngest of the group, little more than thirty when "The Bridge" was published. And as R and G point out, the poem is full of dazzling moments. But his headlong intoxication with words often led him to favor sound over sense, and into a highfalutin reminiscent, I would suggest, of his dearly loved Elizabethans, especially Marlowe (though R and G propose Milton); so his kind of rant, like theirs, loads many a stanza. Yet at times miraculously whole passages, like a number of his shorter poems, finding the necessary sustaining music, achieve a magnificence, a noble, yet somehow modern utterance, almost unheard of in modern poetry.

R and G are of the opinion that "The Bridge," broken and sprawling as it is, would have been immeasurably better had Crane been able to absorb into it much of the more successful "Voyages." Certainly the sea, with Crane's powerful responsiveness to it, his richly ambiguous feelings for it, is a much more telling, dynamic image than that human, industrial, temporary artifact, the bridge (even the Brooklyn Bridge!), no matter how metaphorically read. Crane's love for the sea, as well as for another individual, provides a unity of tone and feeling absent from "The Bridge." But a fusion of the two poems would have required a larger grasp and base than Crane enjoyed. "Voyages'" brevity, compared with "The Bridges'" length and would-be inclusiveness, helps to make the sense of unity the former attains possible.

Having found their model for the sequence, or at least the closest approximation to it, in Eliot and Pound, and then Williams, R and G have problems including Stevens. So, to some degree, as has been customary in our time, they take sides, with the former poets as against Stevens and his advocates, prominent among them academics. And primarily the very quality in Steven's work that the latter admire, his thoughtfulness, his speculatively nuanced poetic nature, is what troubles R and G. Accordingly, they cast him in a lesser role with Auden under the rubric of "The Meditative Mode." By now the reader should easily understand what that designation means to R and G. As they put it,

Even the finest of Stevens's sequences, "The Auroras of Autumn," calls its

designation as a sequence into doubt because so often it is not presentative

but ratiocinative in character.

For them, Stevens's sequences lack the passion of Yeats, the concreteness of Williams and Pound and even Eliot at his best, the intensity and ferocity of Plath or Berryman. Instead, Stevens is given to "aestheticism" and "a sometimes maddening verbosity." It is regrettable that most of us feel obliged -- to define ourselves by the exclusiveness of our choices? -- to champion one style and taste against another, to pit this poet against that, instead of being grateful for as much variety as possible. I suspect, in fact, that these poets are rather more kin than we care to recognize.

But since "The Auroras of Autumn" "comes closest in its dynamics to a true sequence," though it shares "a certain formal consistency that militates against the wide shifts of tone and texture natural to the sequence," R and G choose to discuss it rather than the better known (almost three times as long) "Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction." For the latter, like other Stevens long poems, is guilty of "excruciating tedium." Whatever repetitiousnesses there may be in Stevens (and I agree that there are many(1)), I am surprised by R and G's impatience. Rosenthal has generally been remarkable for his openness, his availability to distinction in poetry. Here notions of a genre (or theory?) seem more important than poems. R and G do admit, as they look at the first section of "Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction," that "Read sympathetically (the one demand any poem is absolutely entitled to), these lines have their force and quality."

I find a certain irony here. For "Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction" is precisely Steven's exploration, among other things, of what is needed -- namely, a supreme fiction, to make life one again and whole long poems truly possible. That, like most of us, he is not in possession of such a fiction, his title makes clear: all he can offer at this point are a few notes toward it. But searching for it or this very poem may mark the beginning of that fiction.

R and G briefly discuss "Notes" 's first section, mainly to reveal its inadequacy. For though they find in the whole poem "occasional moments of piercing feeling that create more emphatic tonal centers," and in the first section "the pressure of irrevocable loss makes itself felt," how faintly it does so "compared with the lines concluding Milton's epic and how far from the spirit of "Some natural tears they dropped.' ..." (Earlier we may recall, Paradise Lost was not exactly a model for the sequence.) So, though they applaud the tenth poem of "Notes" 's final section which opens with "Fat girl, terrestrial, my summer, my night" and proves the poem to be a "love poem to things of the earth after all," they find this last a contradiction of the opening poem's "advice to abjure anthropomorphic sentiments." They conclude: despite many admirable stylistic features, and despite

the case that can be made for the affective dimensions of intellectualized

poetry that at times does reveal a driven quality, such poetry retains a special,

academic flavor for the most part and suffers real damage from its discursive

orientation, at least insofar as its possibilities as a lyrical sequence are


The crux of the matter lies in their "insofar." Intellectualized poetry may not wholly succeed or suffice -- not, that is, until a Lucretius or a Dante or a Donne appears. But from my point of view no more may the lyrical sequence. It is not likely to do too well in straining to exceed the limits of its nature by replacing other modes of expression. We seem generally to have lost, if not rejected, a sense of differing styles for different modes of conduct and expression. To urge it by reminding people of its efficacy in the past is to call down upon oneself the charge of elitism or old-fogyism. Blue jeans or their equivalent can and should readily serve all occasions (except for those in which there is more enterprise in going naked!); those occasions that it cannot serve are, by that fact, not worth having.

So, as we discard the diverse modes of expression out of a narrowing version of the democratic, we insist all rhetoric must be abandoned (a long time ago now we were told that its neck must be broken). Poetry, I would suggest, without some rhetoric (or ordering) is impossible -- that is, unless one is willing to settle for raw, spewed-out, amorphous stuff. Some of us emphatically are so willing since we believe it natural, spontaneous, therefore far truer than shaped (or contrived) art: the natural man is always to be preferred over the cultivated one. These advocates fail to see that such writing usually does little more than repeat itself, a casualty of the writer's habits. So too the language must be colloquial. Wordsworth, howsoever much he gainsaid them in his practice, helped to encourage the notions both of "a spontaneous overflow" and of the superiority of the language spoken by the common man.

It might be relevant here to quote Emerson's clarion call to the American writer for its all-out embrace of the democratic:

I ask for the great, the remote, the romantic; what is doing in Italy, or

Arabia; what is Greek art, or Provencal minstrelsy; I embrace the common, I

explore and sit at the feet of the familiar, the low.... What would we really

know the meaning of? The meal in the firkin; the milk in the pan; ballad in

the street ... the form and the gait of the body -- ...

So far so good: we moderns are altogether with him. But then he goes on to lose most of us (in this latter sentiment he is as backward-looking as Wordsworth or maybe even Stevens):

Show me the ultimate reason of these matters; show me the sublime presence

of the highest spiritual cause lurking, as always it does lurk, in these suburbs

and extremities of nature; let me see every bristling with the polarity

that ranges it instantly on an eternal law; and the shop, the plough, and the

ledger referred to the like cause by which light undulates and poets sing -- and

the world lies no longer a dull miscellany and lumber-room, but has form and

order; there is no trifle, there is no puzzle, but one design unites and animates

the farthest pinnacle and the lowest trench.

Stevens was a poet of the earth; as he said "the great poems of heaven and hell have been written and the great poem of the earth remains to be written." And a good number of his poems fulfill Emerson's prescription by indeed exploring the familiar and low. So too he was modern enough to kick up his own heels in a variety of jazzy jigs. But R and G find him too formal, discursive, academic. He does, it is true, following Emerson's lead, cast occasional, sidelong, wistful looks at heaven, as he clings to earlier forms of thought and expression. For he longs to recover some part of the old acceptance of the lofty, the noble, yes, even the sublime (antiquated terms!) as legitimate aims for a great poet. He may celebrate little more than their absence, but he achieves some of their resonance in remarking their very unavailability. (And there are those "Supreme Fictions" he is always after.) So, in "Sunday Morning," as he sings the praises of the earth, he also enjoys old, lost glories and the exercise of an elegant, literary (if not bookish) style which he, like Pound, could rarely altogether shed:

There is not any haunt of poetry,

Nor any old chimera of the grave,

Neither the golden underground, nor isle

Melodious, where spirits gat them home,

Nor visionary south, nor cloudy palm

Remote on heaven's hill....

The poetry that matters, as far as I can see, strives to achieve the condition either of music or of the dramatic, and at its best somehow miraculously fuses both. The former condition was most successfully arrived at by Poe and the French Symbolists, especially Mallarme, Verlaine, and Valery, and in modern English by substantial parts of Yeats, Stevens, and, despite R and G's accusation of intellection in the "Four Quartets," portions of Eliot. Fortunately he also absorbed some of the lessons of French poets representing the latter condition: Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Laforgue, and Corbiere. Much of Browning, Hardy, Pound and Williams belongs here, the latter two out of the thinking behind Imagism, a partial but important counterweight to Symbolism.

Of course, any genuine poet possesses varying amounts of both, and in the greatest work one underscores and becomes the other, as in "A Midsummer Night's Dream" and "King Lear," though the former tilts heavenward for all its delicious, ballasting earthiness; the latter, with all its sky-assaulting, plunges earthward. In "A Midsummer Night's Dream," Shakespeare puts the matter plainly: one must learn to couple Titania, magic, imagination pure, with Bottom, literalness or ground sense. Yeats, abetted by Pound, achieved his greatest work when he obliged his imagination and all his lyric gifts to dive into the mire of the daily world. So too with Eliot in "The Waste Land," where the mire mainly prevails; in the "Four Quartets" the heavenly persists amid the mire. As Yeats's Crazy Jane, the fiercest sister of Lear's fool, says, appropriately to the Bishop:

"Far and foul are near of kin,

And fair needs foul,...

Love has pitched his mansion in

The place off excrement;

For nothing can be sole or whole

That has not been rent."


(1.) Occasions of Stevens' repetitiousness or frequent qualifying, particularly in his long poems, come readily to hand. I use the beginning of Poem II to illustrate:

It is white,

As by a custom or according to

An ancestral theme or as a consequence

Of an infinite course. The flowers against the wall

Are white, a little dried, a kind of mark

Reminding, trying to remind, of a white

That was different, something else, last year

Or before, not the white of an aging afternoon,

Whether fresher or duller, whether of winter cloud

Or of winter sky, from horizon to horizon.

Five "or" 's in so short a passage! And the piled-up qualifying do try one's patience. As does his occasional evasiveness and vagueness, especially daunting in a long poem. While writing "Notes" Stevens could say very positively, "By supreme fiction, of course, I mean poetry." Yet a little later he could write in a letter:

I ought to say that I have not defined a supreme fiction. A man as familiar

with my things as you are will be justified in thinking that I mean poetry. I

don't want to say that I don't mean poetry; I don't know what I mean. The

next thing for me to do will be to try to be a little more precise about this

enigma. I hold off from even attempting that because, as soon as I start to

rationalize, I lose the poetry of the idea. In principle there appear to becertain

characteristics of a supreme fiction and the NOTES is confined to a statement of

a few of those characteristics. As I see the subject, it could occupy a school of

rabbis for the next few generations. In trying to create something as validas

the idea of God has been, and for that matter remains, the first necessity

seems to be breadth. It is true that the thing would never amount to much

until there is no breadth or, rather, until it has come to a point.

We can see how hard it is to come to a point! Especially if it be God or, even more,

His modern equivalent one hopes/wants to arrive at.
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Author:Weiss, Ted
Publication:The American Poetry Review
Date:Jul 1, 1993
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