BOOK VS. TALK
The story of 20th-century American poetry. Oh joy! What more can be said? Perhaps something new can be extrapolated from something very old : say, the battle between text and oral performance.
In the first decade of that famous late-lamentable century, change was in the air. Mallarmé and Flaubert, in their respective modes, had introduced a fascination with textual effects. Revolutions in physics and psychology (not to mention good old socio-political revolutions) brought pressure to bear on the ways and means of mimesis : hence, “stream-of-consciousness”; thus, imagism, futurism, Vorticism, Dada, and so on.
Manipulations of poem-as-text went hand-in-hand with the spread of vers libre. Ironically, experimental writing licensed new freedoms in recitation : the new possibilities on the page sanctioned a more informal approach to performance. It was suddenly recognized that traditional meter (as with Yeats and Frost, for example) was only one possible technique among others.
After that, well... what more could there be? Once free verse is split off from metrical verse, and the main focus of attention shifts to the page... then, paradoxically, technical options become more simplified and limited. It becomes a question of algorithms rather than metrical choices.
The decades sleepwalked along... the jazzy 20s, the social 30s, the military 40s, the techno-streamlined 50s... the century in poetry assumed its familiar hour-glass (or, in Yeatsian terms, gyroscopic) outline. Eliot’s neo-classical historicism, and the spreading influence of New Critical pedagogy, supported an arch, mandarin style – the glassy bubble of which soon burst with the onset of anti-academic rebels of various stripes (out of NY, SF, and Kansas, mostly), bringing along their epic pretensions, their global imitations (haiku, surrealism, primitive chants, translations from Spanish et al.), their wacky lifestyles, and so on. Attendance at collegiate Writing Programs became the norm for would-be poets, complete professional beehives were installed, a new relaxed free verse style became the norm in the latter decades. Impatience with same, mixed with the impact of continental-Yale literary theory, brought along the Language Poets, who furthered the emphasis on poem-as-text by simultaneously severing the connection between text and speech and language and meaning. This was fun for a while, and (in the 80s and 90s) brought a lot of elliptical non-sequiturs into academic normal style.
One area of poetics which went under-understood, during this epic century-long battle between Book and Talk, was the umbilical relation between poetic measure (whether strictly metrical or more loosely musical) and spoken language. It was not so much free verse which reduced the importance of metrics : it was the fixation on the written text, the page. Poets as distinct and Eliot and W.C. Williams recognized that no poetry – whether metrical or free – could afford to rid itself of measure, rhythm. But the substance of such is not on the page, but in recitation. Aristotle may have had a slightly different definition, but in our contemporary idiom, prose fiction is described as “poetic” when its syntax and imagery become rhythmic. A poem is in some sense or other an incantation.
Some implications of all this for contemporary practice are not without irony. For instance, those we label today as the more traditionalist poets amongst us – those who write verse grounded either in antique forms & metrical patterns or (if they happen to produce free verse) in ordinary sequential logic and syntax – may be more aligned, stylistically, with oral performance. Hence, they may be less constrained by the limitations of script-based “experiment”, which was in such vogue at the very beginning and the very end of the last century. If you are producing verse for recitation (as opposed to the subset now known as “visual poetry”), there is only so much you can do with moving words around on a page : the options are quite limited. And if so, the situation entails further consequences. The shifting vocational “positions” among so-called traditionalists, mainstreamers, “School of Quiet(ud)ists”, rebels, experimentalists, “post-avants”, and so on – yoked as they are to 20th-century phenomena and fast-fading polemics – show a steady decline from even the minimal quotient of meaning with which they began.
Aristotle famously defined poetry as the representation of character-in-action. We can extrapolate a definition of lyric poetry as the representation of a speech act. Prose fiction and drama surround speech acts with different subsidiary and ornamental elements of presentation – spectacle, story, explanatory asides, etc. The lyric poem, on the other hand, is the art of the speech act in its most direct and naked form. Prose shades into poetry where discourse becomes incantation. And where there is incantation, there the presence of an actor : of the one-who-chants. The aesthetic effect of such personal presence – as distinct from the impersonality, the object-quality of the text, the book, the "writing" – has, perhaps, its philosophical corollaries. I have written elsewhere about how some of the greatest works of prose fiction seek to simulate or adumbrate the experience of personal presence, of “nowness” (Proust’s epiphanies; Joyce’s acrobatics; the various techniques of flashbacks & framing tales) – the presence, the immediacy, which recitation or incantation offers in a less diluted form.
American poets, I suppose, will continue to cluster in groups of various kinds. But I would guess that these groupings in future will have more to do with feelings of kinship stemming from political, class, ethnic, religious, or other kinds of social allegiance, than with a sense of kinship based on chosen literary styles or theories of poetry. Because the stylistic and theoretical allegiances which evolved in the 20th-century – based, so emphatically, on text rather than performance – are already irrelevant to contemporary practice. The new/old poetics must take the measure, not of text, but of incantation.