The Future of Poetry
The arts generally have had to recognize Modernism–how should poetry escape? And yet what is Modernism? It is undefined. Henry James stopped before a certain piece of sculpture to apostrophize “beautiful modern spirit”; but he did not attempt a definition where a more incompetent man would surely have done it.
In poetry the Imagists, in our time and place, made a valiant effort to formulate their program. Their modernist manifestoes were exciting, their practice was crude, as was becoming to pioneers, and instructive in more ways than they had intended. They announced at least two notable principles.
In the first place, they declared for honesty of theme and accuracy of expression. Though a poem were but a single minor image, tactile, visual, auditory, or even gustatory, provided it was honest and accurate, they preferred it to the grand performance of the Cosmos-throned-by-Love order, where the whole nature of things was presented in orderly and elegant exposition, if here the conception or the diction came second-handed out of the schools. They spurned as their art-material the stilted platitudes, the sentimental clichés, the taught relics of the other generations. They conceived the first duty of the Moderns as being to disembarrass poetry of its terrible incubus of piety, in the full classical sense of that term, and they rendered the service.
Their second principle followed. Emphasizing the newness of the matter, and the spontaneity of the Word, which was sacrosanct with all its edge and pungence just as it came forth, they were obliged to make their meters more elastic to accommodate their novelties. As a matter of fact, they practically gave up meters altogether; pretending that it was their intention to realize a subtler music for ears that experienced revulsion against the stupid monotone of the school meters; but apparently unable to adapt their new meanings and phrases to any formal requirements whatever. Their free verse was no form at all, yet it made history.
Against the second of these principles there has come a sweeping reaction. And it does not seem too hazardous to claim that poetry, as one of the formal arts, has for its specific problem to play a dual role with words: to conduct a logical sequence with their meanings on the one hand, and to realize an objective pattern with their sounds on the other. Now between the meanings of words and their sounds there is ordinarily no discoverable relation except one of accident; and it is therefore miraculous, to the mystic, when words which make sense can also make a uniform objective structure of accents and rhymes. It is a miracle of harmony, of the adaptation of the free inner life to the outward necessity of things.
But we moderns are impatient and destructive. We forget entirely the enormous technical difficulty of the poetic art, and we examine the meanings of poems with a more and more microscopic analysis; we examine them in fact just as strictly as we examine the meanings of a prose which was composed without any handicap of metrical distractions; and we do not obtain so readily as our fathers the ecstasy which is the total effect of poetry, the sense of miracle before the union of inner meaning and objective form. Our souls are not, in fact, in the enjoyment of full good health. For no art and no religion is possible until we make allowances, until we manage to keep quiet the enfant terrible of logic that plays havoc with the other faculties.
For, take the fact of poetic license as an illustration. Till now poets were privileged to insert a certain proportion of nonsense–very far in excess of one-half of one per cent–into their otherwise sober documents. Thence their archaisms, their inversions, their illegal accents, for their audience appreciated the difficulties under which they labored; or else wanted the main experience of poetry, and were willing to disregard the invidious details. But now that attitude and that privilege are gone.
And how can poetry stand up against its new conditions? Its position is perfectly precarious. When critics are waiting to pounce upon poetic style on exactly the same grounds as if it were prose, the poets tremble. They know they cannot at once, waiving all immunities, realize the standards of style and at the same time meet the requirements of their meter. They prepare to turn themselves, in grievous numbers, to the composition of pure prose, if they would escape rebuke. And sometimes they are their own severest critics; their own documents, on second reading, have been known to induce in poets a fatal paralysis of the writing digit. For their consecutive verses, wherein they laboriously round of the stanza, are as a string of beads, all of a size, a monstrosity of construction; and the individual lines, as they come to their inevitable climactic rhyme, fall into foolish platitudes, and are puerile.
The future of poetry is immense? One is not so sure in these days, since it has felt the fatal irritant of Modernism. Too much is demanded by the critic, attempted by the poet. For just as long as poetry means accommodation between the inner thought and the objective pattern to which the poet has committed himself, it will be impossible to conduct that thought as freely as though there were no other end in view; and on the basis of thought alone, between poetry and prose as two rival exhibitions of free cerebration, the palm must invariably go to prose. And if the critics will insist on drawing the comparison, they will have to follow Mr. Mencken and seek profit for their souls from the real excitement of prose, while they reduce poetry to the role of a harmless inducer of sleep; and the poets will have to content themselves with an office that is useful but, as measured by their expectations, ignominious.
The intelligent poet of today is very painfully perched in a position which he cannot indefinitely occupy: vulgarly, he is straddling the fence, and cannot with safety land on either side. He can at will perfect a poetry in either of two directions. He can develop sense and style, in the manner of distinguished modern prose, in which event he may be sure that the result will not fall into any objective form. Or he can work it out as a metrical and formal exercise, but he will be disappointed in its content. The New Year’s prospect fairly chills his daunting breast.
John Crowe Ransom. From The Fugitive.Volume III, Number 1. February 1924.
One Escape from the Dilemma
If free verse has so quickly lost its prestige, then there must be a reason. But I do not think, with J. C. R., that the reason is due to a tardy but irresistible suspicion that after all poetry is committed on principle to a performance involving a “dual role” for words; a performance whose artistic worth depends on the poet’s ingenuity in getting the reader to believe that it was really accident, not deliberation, that achieved his apparent inevitability of meaning within the nearly uncompromising fetters of a self-imposed metrical system. If this were so, poetry would in no wise differ from prose except in the antic capacity of diverting us with a spectacle of virtuosity, of difficulty ingeniously overcome. Accordingly, the content of poetry would be identical with that of prose; and the assumption implied here that poetry, like prose, is exclusively concerned with the rational exposition, rather than with the pure presentation, of intuitions or ideas, ignores the actuality of a radical difference between a vocabulary of exposition and an idiom flexible enough to accommodate a presentation of the entire fantasy of sensation. In short, J. C. R. and Mr. Wordsworth do not see an allowable difference in diction between poetry and prose; so in routing free verse the former has only to find it wanting the indispensable metrical scheme. However, I assent entirely to his conclusion: free verse has failed; but this does not mean that a few writers who have written what we name free verse are negligible.
For free verse could be only a general term denoting the work of any person who happened to discover an idiom so peculiarly his own that the devices of sound, both measure and rime, were irrelevant to it as a structural whole of image und forthright assertion; and this was Sandburg’s case–as it is, in a different way, Marianne Moore’s. But poetry as the art having to do with stanzas and kindred paraphernalia is in a fairly healthy state, for a literature of that description is at this moment being put forth; and in support of it it is instructive to surprise the shifty Remy de Gourmont in a mild dogma: Il n’y a pas de poesie sans rythme, ni de rythme sans nombre. But this should beget no unrest in the bosom of him who deeply suspects any present authority of fixed forms; it is no stricture at all upon poetry, it only tells something about a hoary variety of it. Nor could it be an indictment of a kind of writing which is found exploiting a new set of apparatus altogether, writing neither fettered nor wholly free.
So the chorus isn’t easily divided into a simple antiphony. There’s no sounding forth of two distinct voices–an Old, in the pitch of the traditional centuries to the tune of the immediate past, and a New which is known as free verse. For the older song has assumed a variation–as I believe, a development, and is in a very real sense more traditional than any other mode practised by poets at the present time. Repetition, we seem to be saying, isn’t tradition; but I shouldn’t be interpreted as making great claims of achievement for this newest tendency, which is yet old enough to date its birth with the first edition of Les Flours du Mal: I only mean that it is vital, drawing from a vein that still runs vigorously, not enslaved to the polite decorum of doing again what has been done better, because more freshly, before.
The reason of this variation goes back to the first disillusionments of the age. Take the poor 19th Century in England: a community of faith, of aspiration (to be good even if a bit dishonest), of smuggery. What needed the poet but to re-state the self-evident amenities memorably, those categorical revelations common to all minds, immune to the blighting tentacle of scepticism? And so a Mr. Harold Nicholson tells us how Tennyson’s worst poems were then his best, that his messiahship undid him. We will credit no prophets. An individualistic intellectualism is the mood of our age. There is no common-to-all-truth; poetry has no longer back of it, ready for use momently, a harmonious firmament of stage-properties and sentiments which it was the pious office of the poets to set up at the dictation of a mysterious afflatus–Heaven, Hell, Duty, Olympus, Immortality, as the providential array of “themes”: the Modern poet of this generation has had no experience of these things, he has seen nothing even vaguely resembling them. He is grown so astute that he will be happy only in the obscure by-ways of his own perceptive processes; a priori utterance never escapes him. Claude Monet said: “The chief character in a group portrait is the light.” So the Modern poet might tell you that his only possible themes are the manifold projections and tangents of his own perception. It is the age of the Sophist.
But what does chaos look like? Just now it is next to impossible to pick a tendency as the type of the whole period. But, as J. C. R. says, It is pretty certain that the meticulous critic will not let a stanza, wherein the rimes appear to get into line too easily and for the mere sake of the drill, live very long unless the emotional content of it comes through sharply differentiated with an almost unique distinction; this is why Elinor Wylie gets a higher niche than, say, Sara Teasdale. There is no place now for expansive rhetorical music, music of fine sound wedded with a familiar sense. Thus the Moderns, impressed with what Mr. Santayana calls “curious and neglected forms of direct intuition,” are driven, for consistency’s sake, to modifications of the standard forms of diction.
They are intellectualists. The external world is a permanent possibility of sign-posts upon which the poet may hang his attitudes, his sensibility. Not the world, but consciousness; hence, his difficult abstractness. This brings him to a sort of Decadence (E. E. Cummings is the most popularly accessible; Hart Crane, the severest)–to a breaking up of a poetic idiom which, through the course of English Poetry, has been rooted in the vitality of spontaneous expression–spoken language, however elaborate and ornate it may have occasionally appeared to be. It is no longer speech; the poet’s vocabulary is prodigious, it embraces the entire range of consciousness. French Decadence, from Baudelaire, prospers here with an eager fecundity. Baudelaire’s Theory of Correspondences–that an idea out of one class of experience may be dressed up in the vocabulary of another–is at once the backbone of Modern poetic diction and the character which distinguishes it from both the English Tradition and free verse (an escape from the dilemma of J. C. R.). We think of this as Decadence, but in a wider sense, if it may be repeated here, it is Elizabethan. It is not direct continuity from the immediate past of English poetry. It is development out of the whole of it under French direction; and it is no more startling than the progress from Wyatt to John Donne.
Thus, none of the “radical” poets is a writer of vers libre; the term vers libere, perhaps, is better. All, on occasion, use stanza, rime, etc., but with utter casualness. Their stanza, or any metrical scheme, is a pattern erected only to be broken down for an increased illusion of freedom; rime, a device for artificial emphasis or dramatic suspense in the progress of an idea, I suspect this to be the actual function of rime in all poetry, although hardening conventions have given it, in various schemes, the rank of an inviolable mechanism. The mechanism isn’t, was never, a fixed objective mould waiting for the poet to fall into it, except as it preceded him in time as a convention likely as not very soon to become a sounding brass, a paralyzing incubus. In this condition it would neatly illustrate decadence spelt with a little d: the isolation of one effect of an art through an unintelligent excess that eventually disintegrates the whole. This is the true decadence that of our Woodberrys, whose lazy vision and vicarious sentiment in 1910 were but Ill-disguised in the pretentious frumpery of chaste meters.
Poetry, the oracle, is gone. Our time cleaves to no racial myth, its myth is the apotheosis of machinery. Perhaps Oswald Spengler is right: a man is a fool to be an artist or a poet in this age. But at least our poet is aware of his own age, barren for any art though it may be, for he can’t write like Homer or Milton now; from the data of his experience he infers only a distracting complexity.
Allen Tate. From The Fugitive. Volume III. Number 2. April 1924.