Ethics and Politics in Modern American Poetry

December 17, 2009

The modern academy’s Department of English has fractured the voice of modern American poetry: one voice for poems, another for discussion. T.?S. Eliot could moan about not being Prince Hamlet, claim that Shakespeare’s Hamlet was an artistic failure, and then (as Faber editor) choose which bards to publish next. No more: the professorial pen has slit poetry’s body at the throat, and the Cartesian halves – the cerebral globe of poetics, and the fleshy corpus of poems – now speak in different voices.

With New Criticism’s demise (actually, retirement), poetics occupy several encampments, inkdoms and inklings, many of them seeming to have missed a party: postmodern, poststructuralist, postmarxist, postfeminist. All reject Ezra Pound’s warning to “go in fear of abstraction”, but share few other premises save the need for poems to fit the essayist’s thesis. As for the poems, they huddle at the gates of schools (aesthetic, ideological or tenure-granting) and follow Pound’s proposal to speak the “language of the tribe” – the select, and friendly fellows, at least.

Yet the two body parts, critics and poets, find few chances to re-couple, or even flirt: they can share a joke at the departmental photocopier, but their languages have diverged. With some frustration, then, each seeks the elusive “general reader”.

Thus we find John Wrighton’s thoughtful and copiously researched volume entitled Ethics and Politics in Modern American Poetry; actually, it “explores the intersection between poetics and ethics in certain strands of twentieth-century poetry”. “Certain strands” means the traditional “experimental” school: Charles Olson, Gary Snyder, Allen Ginsberg, Jerome Rothenberg, and the contemporary “language” (spelt with Ozymandian subtlety, L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E) poet, Bruce Andrews. On your school roster, find: “Objectivist-Beat Poet-Ethnopoetic-Language Consortium”. Yet many other poets are absent. No High Moderns (Eliot & Co.); no radical-but-rhyming Late Moderns (W.?H. Auden, Robert Penn Warren, James Merrill, Robert Lowell, Thom Gunn); no women poets; no black poets. A thin broth.

Wrighton tests “experimental” poetry’s “poetics and ethics” against a template: the humane but obscure formulations of philosopher Emmanuel Levinas regarding the “ethical concern for others as a social responsibility”. Terrific: make “experimental” poems show their social responsibility to the reader. After they subvert the dominant discourse, hegemonic narrative, governmental Panopticon, Amerika, etc., shouldn’t they be, well, successful: memorable, meaningful, moving?

In this regard, some poetry readers will find Wrighton’s book limited. He claims that a “specifically ethical imperative informs [Olson’s] poetic practice”. Ethical? Olson says: “An American/ is a complex of occasions,/ themselves a geometry/ of spatial nature”. Wrighton explains, “typographical arrangements (within the page-space as an energy field) enable a unique performative dialogics in the intersubjectivity of reading and writing”. Here, obscure poem meets obscure prose: a re-coupling at last.

The chapters on Snyder and Ginsberg make the most compelling narrative, in part because the poems are vivid and engaging. But Rothenberg, despite his work on the primitive and sacred, sounds like a lovesick teen: “With touch./ Oh./ I touch./ Your hands./ That/ Touch/ My face”.

After such sentimentality, Eliot might ask, what forgiveness? By contrast, Wrighton’s severe thinking and research support the naive position that avant-garde “open forms” mean freedom and possibility. If that’s what he’s saying: “The poem, conventionally perceived as a unique entity of copyright, is redefined as the composite of a plurality of engagements, performed in multi-foliate versions across distances of reception.”

Wrighton’s thesis, the lisping “poethical trajectory”, cannot account for Gunn dropping acid, then composing strict syllabic verse. One can sympathise with Ginsberg’s complaint: “Poetry is what poets write… I am sick of preconceived literature and only interested in writing, the actual process and technique, wherever it leads.”

Ethics and Politics in Modern American Poetry

By John Wrighton
Routledge, 236pp, £70.00
ISBN 9780415801225
Published 21 July 2009

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