Magazine: Sewanee Review, Winter, 1995


The word neither diffident nor ostentatious, An easy commerce of the old and the new, The common word exact without vulgarity, The formal word precise but not pedantic . . .
--T. S. Eliot, "Little Gidding"

The notions about poetry and the separation of styles that follow are prompted not by the reading of a poem, but by having listened to a piece of music on the radio in my car. The music I was hearing was a Schubert symphony, but I wasn't sure which one, for I had tuned in during the middle of the performance. Once the final movement began, however, I was soon able to identify it. I could do so because of an association of ideas that had nothing whatever to do with the music itself, yet that effectively ruined it for me as music.

To wit, several decades ago some enterprising composer of advertising jingles had lifted a few bars from the fourth movement of Schubert's Symphony No. 1 for a Campbell soup commercial:

Mm-mm good, mm-mm good,
That's what Campbell's soups are,
Mm-mm good!
The memory of the soup commercial, alas, completely destroyed the function of the phrase in the symphony by trivializing the emotional statement that was being made by the music. It was as if someone were to introduce a Goody's Headache Powder label into the background of Reynolds's painting of Mrs. Siddons as the Tragic Muse.

Another such damaging private association involves Beethoven's Missa Solemnis. During the 1930s, probably in the fall of 1936, the radio comedian Eddie Cantor had a musical routine in which he sang a number having to do with "When I'm the President, Oh, when I'm the President . . ." There would be no more this-or-that "when I'm the President." At which point the chorus began chanting the refrain "We want Cantor! We want Cantor!" Unfortunately the notes to the refrain are exactly the same as those of a major phrase in the Missa Solemnis. Again and again Beethoven uses all his artistry to send the phrase sounding forth profoundly and decisively, but each time the effect upon me is ruinous, for what I hear is "We want Cantor!" Because I absorbed a silly number by a radio comedian sixty years ago, I am unable to enjoy one of the greatest of choral works.

In both instances what is involved is incongruity. The association that the music evokes is at opposite poles of feeling from the emotional and intellectual development taking place in the composition as a whole. The soup commercial and the Eddie Cantor bit are drawn from everyday life, unmediated and insignificant, unshaped toward meaning. The musical compositions, by contrast, are aesthetic statements: the sounds have been shaped, intensified, made into a whole, so that they develop an emotional pattern that is no longer random but purposive and meaningful. To achieve that, a process of exclusion has been necessary. The composers have left out a great deal of irrelevant and inappropriate sound and emotion; they have molded those that are used specifically to their purpose. In order, therefore, for the listener to receive what the musical compositions offer, there must be a shared agreement on what kinds of sounds and emotions are to be used and what kinds aren't involved. Just as when we go to the theater to see a play, we don't expect to get a strip tease or a wrestling match---or a soup commercial.

The same kind of problem exists in poetry, only more so. James Joyce has some fun with it in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Stephen Dedalus, that very earnest and dedicated young man, is engaged in writing a poem. Earlier he was in attendance at a lecture on physics in which the instructor recited several lines from The Mikado concerning a billiard shark whose punishment is made to fit that crime through playing "On a cloth untrue / With a twisted cue / And elliptical billiard balls."

"--He means a ball having the form of the ellipsoid of the principal axes of which I spoke a moment ago," the lecturer explained. To which another student, Moynihan, whispered in Stephen's ear as follows: "--What price ellipsoidal balls! Chase me, ladies, I'm in the cavalry!"

Stephen was much amused. But on the occasion in which he awakes from sleep in the very early hours, there is no bawdiness in his thoughts. Instead "a spirit filled him, pure as the purest water, sweet as dew, moving as music." In the best romantic fashion he is inspired to write a poem to the one he loves. Caught up in "an enchantment of the heart" he produces, with much emotive ardor, two stanzas of a villanelle. Whereupon the following occurs: "Smoke went up from the whole earth, from the vapoury oceans, smoke of her praise. The earth was like a swinging smoking swaying censer, a ball of incense, an ellipsoidal ball. The rhythm died out at once; the cry of his heart was broken. His lips began to murmur the first verses over and over, then went on stumbling through half verses, stammering and baffled; then stopped. The heart's cry was broken."

The language of the lecture, "ellipsoidal balls," and Moynihan's crude sexual joke have through association torpedoed the high-minded young poet's trancelike creative ecstasy. Or rather that part of the young poet's imagination which is high-minded has been torpedoed by that part which is dirty-minded, for both planes of reference exist within the poet's consciousness. Unfortunately the high-minded approach to true love that the young Stephen Dedalus thinks is appropriate to the. writing of poetry can't stand up to the test of adequately telling his love which is to say, of embodying and communicating his emotional response. It leaves out too much of what he knows; it requires that he compartmentalize his experience too rigidly. The result, when eventually he does complete the villanelle, is a mediocre poem.

What causes Stephen's difficulty is the separation of styles, whether in literature or in music, into higher and lower levels. With the language conventions go ways of thinking and feeling. Either level of style can permit its user to include certain kinds of experience but force him to exclude others. If the experience in question can be adequately chronicled within the limits of either style, well and good; but if it can't, then the artistic outcome will either be inadequate, or else, if the other style is introduced, incongruous.

In such a separation the lower style can almost always be counted upon to undercut the higher. The lower is more basic, in the sense that it is based on an emotional experience that is directed and physical--love, hate, sex, appetite, sensory gratification and disgust, sensuous experience in general. The higher style is more complex, involving the intellect, with the emotions and appetites held in suspension in order to achieve their greater elaboration and discrimination--i.e., to communicate civilized experience.

In classical literature there was a distinct and accepted separation of higher and lower literary styles. Aristotle cites it in the Poetics: "Poetry now diverged in two directions, according to the individual character of the writers. The graver spirits imitated noble actions, and the actions of good men. The more trivial imitated the actions of meaner persons, at first composing satires, as the former did hymns to the gods and the praises of famous men." For works of serious--i.e., higher--intent, "the perfection of style is to be clear without being mean." In other words the language of serious literary composition, dealing as it did with "noble actions," was designed to elevate daily life "above the commonplace and mean" (vide Marvell on Charles I at the scaffold: "He nothing common did or mean/Upon that memorable scene . . . ").

What the separation of styles involves, and the implications for the portrayal of human experience, can best be understood by reading Erich Auerbach's great work Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature (1953). Auerbach successively examines passages drawn from representative works of literature beginning with Homer and the Old Testament and coming up through Virginia Woolf and Marcel Proust, in terms of the capacity of the literary styles being employed to image subjects seriously and realistically.

Unlike classical Greek and Latin literature, Auerbach points out, biblical literature did not encompass a stylistic division into higher and lower. Similarly the literature of late antiquity and the early Christian Middle Ages, which derived from that of the Bible and biblical reference, contained no such separation. It differed from modem literature, in which likewise there is no such stylistic separation, in being "figural," as Auerbach calls it. That is, it assumed that "an occurrence on earth signifies not only itself but at the same time another, which it predicts or confirms, without prejudice to its concrete reality here and now." The "another" is that of the divine plan, which is timeless.

With the Renaissance that "figural" dimension disappeared. The humanistic rediscovery of classical literature resulted, in the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, in the adoption of the ancient literature's rigorous division into higher and lower styles and forms. The most striking example would be French neoclassical drama, with its highly restrictive conventions of diction and of the unities. But even before that, Shakespeare's plays, as Auerbach demonstrates, restrict the capacity for tragic dignity and meaning, and the diction that goes with them, to kings, princes, nobility, and the like. Shakespeare never treats middle and lower class characters tragically: "His conception of the tragic and sublime is altogether aristocratic."

The eighteenth and nineteenth centuries saw a breaking down of the separation of styles. The romantics rebelled against the neoclassical convention by deliberately mixing le sublime with le grotesque, but Auerbach insists that when such mixture occurs in romantic writings, it is only with severe limitations. "Mixing of styles, which had been enthusiastically taken up under the influence of Shakespeare," he writes, "appears almost exclusively in subjects from history or the realms of poetic fantasy; when applied to the present, it remains within the narrowest, unpolitical sphere, or, as idyl or irony, aims exclusively at the personal. The combination of a forceful realism with a tragic conception of the problems of the age simply does not appear." It is the later and postromantics, Auerbach declares, who opened the way for modern realism.

It will be recalled that when Wordsworth, in the preface to the second edition of the Lyrical Ballads, declared that his poems were written in the language of humble and rustic life, Coleridge demurred. Wordsworth's contention was that "such a language, arising out of repeated experience and regular feelings, is a more permanent, and a far more philosophical language, than that which is normally substituted for it by Poets, who think that they are conferring honour upon themselves and their art, in proportion as they separate themselves from the sympathies of men." To which Coleridge responded that "were there excluded from Mr. Wordsworth's poetic compositions all, that a literal adherence to the theory of his preference would exclude, two-thirds at least of the marked beauties of his poetry must be erased."

What Wordsworth did do was to prune from the language of poetry the elaborate devices--personification, circumlocution, tortured inversion of word order, public (as opposed to personal) iteration, emphasis upon singsong meter, mythological ornamentation, excessive abstraction, addiction to the rhymed couplet--that stultified eighteenth-century poetry in the hands of all but its best practitioners. But his own "egotistical sublime," however simpler and more personal, was still very much a high style:

Thou, whose exterior semblance doth belie
Thy soul's immensity;
Thou best Philosopher, who yet dost keep
Thy heritage, thou Eye among the blind,
That, deaf and silent, read'st the eternal deep,
Haunted forever by the eternal mind--
Mighty Prophet! Seer blest!
--"Ode: Intimations of Immortality"

It is when Wordsworth does indeed approach the language of "humble and rustic life" in his poetry that he becomes ridiculous:

"Now, little Edward, say why so;
My little Edward, tell me why."--
"I cannot tell, I do not know."--
"Why, this is strange," said I . . .
--"Anecdote for Fathers"

The advantage of the separation of styles is that the high style can permit intensification and greater discrimination. If there is general agreement about what is and is not relevant to the understanding of an experience, then both poet and audience are freed of the need to decide on what should be included or excluded. The disadvantage is that the agreement may leave out, as irrelevant, too much that is in fact to the point; for it is always easier to think in prescribed patterns, and the pressure for social and cultural conformity can be intense.

Neither Aristotle nor Erich Auerbach deals with low comedy--with farce, buffoonery, slapstick humor. These critics concern themselves with what they--or more properly, their English translators---call "serious" literature. It should be noted, however, that the adjective serious, when placed in front of the noun literature, can result in a kind of sleight-of-word trick. Serious is made to mean both "important" and "not funny." The trick works only if we accept something like the classical separation of styles: the language of Greek tragedy--of Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides--is lofty, purified of all that is "commonplace and mean." The language of comedy--of Aristophanes--is no such thing, based as it is on a view of man as worse than he is. Characters in Greek comedy might well come equipped with the equivalent of ellipsoidal balls; characters in Greek tragedy would never be described in terms of their genitalia, for to do so, to think in such terms and to use the appropriate language for so thinking, would be base, not ennobling. A mixed style, by contrast, theoretically enforces no such division, whether of language usage or of thought.

That the neoclassical high style in poetry didn't work is obvious, for the reason that it left out too much. The result has been a steady retreat from its overly restrictive tenets, culminating, in the early 1900s, with the almost total abandonment of the concept. When the Genteel Tradition went under, so also did the notion that only certain higher forms of experience, together with an elevated language convention appropriate to that experience, belong in poems.

The process of the retreat from the high style can be demonstrated by a passage in the Divine Comedy. The poet Dante, writing before the advent of the neoclassical separation of styles, could make use of words, and the attitude accompanying such words, that in an era of pronounced stylistic separation would be thought much too vulgar for inclusion in a work having to do with God's design for human life after death. Thus in canto 21 of the Inferno, Dante and Virgil visit a ditch of boiling pitch, into which a cadre of devils is engaged in dipping persons who were during their lifetimes guilty of the sale of church offices. The head devil details a squad of devils to escort the two visitors down the line to where there is a bridge over the ditch. At that point the Italian text reads as follows: "ma prima avea ciascun la lingua stretta / coi denti, verso lot duca, per cenno; / ed egli avea del cul fatto trombetta." Charles S. Singleton in his translation (1970) renders the lines: "but first each pressed his tongue between his lips at their leader for a symbol, and he had made a trumpet of his arse." In other words the devils signify their assent by a kind of Bronx cheer or obscene hiss, and the leader neatly returns the compliment by breaking wind. Unafraid of mixing the higher style with the lower, Dante is in no way hesitant to use the vulgar word cul in a religious poem.

This was all very well for the poetic diction of the early Quattrocento, but later, when it came to be translated into English, there were difficulties. Once the doctrine of stylistic separation came into force in the late seventeenth century, thereafter for English or American audiences it would not do to render the last line of the canto literally. The eighteenth century's way of handling such things was by paraphrase, typically with a classical or mythological reference. In 1802, when for popular use the high Augustan style had not still yet been importantly undercut by the Lyrical Ballads, the Rev. Henry Boyd, A.M., making use of classical mythology, rendered "ed egli avea del cul fatto trombetto" as "and loud AEOLIAN fifes their fury 'suage." A little later, in 1814, another divine, the Rev. H. F. Cary, A.M., opted for inverted word order and left the choice of instruments to the individual reader: "which he with sound obscene triumphant gave."

Came the romantics, however, and elaborate figures of speech were no longer in fashion. Longfellow, in 1867, was less inventive and more direct: "and he had made a trumpet of his rump." This was both a reasonably specific and, if not elegant, a socially respectable way of rendering Dante's line for a Victorian audience. It sufficed for the balance of the century and beyond. In 1891 Charles Eliot Norton repeated Longfellow's version verbatim. The Temple Classics translation of 1900 changed the word order: "and he of his rump had made a trumpet"; while Melville B. Anderson, translating for the Oxford World Classics in 1921, preferred it the earlier way, but with a pertly archaic adverb: "whereat he made a trumpet of his rump."

Realism and naturalism were making their inroads upon the literary imagination, however, and as early as 1894 Arthur John Butler, translating for Macmillan, had proved rather more daring: "and he had made a trumpet of his rear." Unlike "rump," when employed in anatomical description "rear" was definitely slang and so inappropriate for polite usage in mixed company. As late as 1939 Butler's innovation was echoed, word for word, by John D. Sinclair for the Oxford University Press.

Yet the poetry of modernism, with its greater reliance upon the vernacular, was steadily taking over, even in translations from the Italian. So Jefferson Butler Fletcher, translating for Macmillan in 1931, became considerably more graphic: he rendered the line as "had made a bugle of his own backside." The high style was clearly imperilled, for "backside" was truly naughty. Still no actual vulgarity had been used.

With World War II, however, came a general broadening of literary as well as vernacular parlance, and after that the high style was no longer allowed to inhibit the direct representation of anatomical reality in western literature. Indeed the use of four-letter words in poems had become quite respectable. So in 1948 Thomas G. Bergin faced up to the implications of the newly won opportunity for candor for the Croft Classics and rendered the line as "emitting from his arse a bugle blast." Yet Dorothy Sayers, also in 1948, could not bring herself to such terminology'. in her version the line went "he promptly made a bugle of his breech." The poet John Ciardi, for New American Library in 1954, was matter-of-fact about it: "and he had made a trumpet of his ass"--not even "arse," which at least had the virtue of seeming a bit archaic.

Next came the Lady Chatterley's Lover decision, the Beat bards, Viet Nam, and the New Left--with the result that what had once been an occasion for bowdlerization and evasion then became an opportunity for the flouting of anatomical proprieties. Elizabeth Jennings, translating canto 21 for the BBC's Third Programme in 1966, determined to go beyond Dante's crude but still somewhat euphemistic figure of speech for what had happened by the ditch of boiling pitch: "Barbiger made a bugle of a fart," she wrote.

And so on. Mark Musa, for the Indiana University Press in 1971, waxed archly graphic: "and he blew back with his bugle of an ass-hole." C. H. Sisson, for Carcanet New Press in 1980, elevated the choice of musical instruments but did not flinch from the coarseness: "and he sounded a trumpet call from his arse-hole." And Nicholas Kilmer, for Branden Publishing Company in 1985, decided upon something more vivid and dramatic than merely the passive breaking of wind; "ed egli avea del cul fatto trombetta" now became "who, with his asshole, bugled, 'Charge!'" No doubt about it: the neoclassical high style was stone-cold dead.

When the stylistic separation into higher and lower becomes so rigid or exclusive that it prevents writers from dealing with experience as it normally presents itself to them, literary language becomes a barrier to expression. Eighteenth-century English poetry--but not narrative prose--was frequently so encumbered. The circumlocutions that certain lesser poets of the age employed to poeticize what were considered to be too-prosaic objects are always good for a laugh, as when Lord Hervey of Ickworth asks,

Would any feather'd maiden of the wood,
Or scaly female of the peopled flood,
When lust and hunger call'd, its force resist?
--"Epistle to Mr. Fox, from Hampden Court"
The poet thinks that by using elaborate language to describe otherwise mundane objects like birds and fish, he is poeticizing his experience, when in fact the resulting incongruity between diction and meaning becomes humorous.

The eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were a heyday for such writing, for poetry was still thought of in terms of a higher art with an elevated language convention, both more respectable and more "literary" than prose, while the experience customarily being chronicled had become mainly that of an urban population whose concerns were those of everyday middle-class life. Often enough, in works such as Dyer's The Fleece and Grainger's The Sugar-Cane, the long poem was employed for purposes of descriptive documentation that in actuality only the prose novel, with its capacity for cataloging the details of everyday social and commercial experience, could comfortably handle. Moreover the widespread expansion of literacy that accompanied the rapid enlargement of the middle class was engendering ambitious would-be poets who now possessed both the leisure to write and the money to publish their poetic effusions.

One of my favorite collections of poetry, The Stuffed Owl: An Anthology of Bad Verse, edited by D. B. Wyndham Lewis and Charles Lee (1962), offers page after page of excerpts from such poetry. Here, for example, are lines from Grainger's The Sugar-Cane (1759):

Of composts shall the Muse disdain to sing?
Nor soil her heavenly plumes? The sacred Muse
Nought sordid deems, but what is base; nought fair,
Unless true Virtue stamp it with her seal.
Then, planter, wouldst thou double thine estate,
Never, ah! never, be asham'd to tread
Thy dung-heaps.
The sacred Muse belongs to the poetic high style; composts and dung-heaps do not, and neither does the kind of sensibility that would consciously set out to make them acceptable to the high style, instead of the other way around. But the latter is what the poet was intent on doing, just as in these lines from "The Temple of Nature" by Erasmus Darwin, grandfather of Charles:
So still the Tadpole cleaves the watery vale,
With balanc'd fins and undulating tail;
New lungs and limbs proclaim his second birth,
Breathe the dry air, and bound upon the earth.
Allied to fish, the Lizard cleaves the flood,
With one-cell'd heart, and dark frigescent blood;
Half-reasoning Beavers long-unbreathing dart
Through Eirie's waves with perforated heart;
With gills and lungs respiring Lampreys steer,
Kiss the rude rocks, and suck till they adhere.
And consider the poet who aspires to the elevated diction and lofty outlook of the high style but who lacks a firm grasp upon the connotative propensities of the language that he or she makes bold to use, as in these lines by "A Housemaid Poet" engaged in pondering the mysteries of the hidden dark side of the moon:
O Moon, when I gaze on thy beautiful face,
Careering along through the boundaries of space,
The thought has often come into my mind
If I ever shall see thy glorious behind.
Included in The Stuffed Owl is an assortment of lines from the works of Dr. Thomas Holley Chivers of Georgia, friend and benefactor of Poe, but not the following, which I think by all odds his finest. The poem, "To Allegra Florence in Heaven," describes the poet's grief at the death of a child. The tenth stanza reads:
As an egg, when broken, never
Can be mended, but must ever
Be the same crushed egg forever--
So shall this dark heart of mine!
Which, though broken, is still breaking,
And shall never more cease aching
For the sleep which has no waking--
For the sleep which now is thine!
The chicken eggshell, alas, is all too fragile a simile for carrying out the motif of the poet's heart fractured by a child's death, and the poet's insistence upon elaborating the image as a metaphysical conceit only intensifies the incongruity. (I am reminded of a poem I wrote as an eleven-year-old to celebrate the National Recovery Act and its famous Blue Eagle emblem, during Franklin D. Roosevelt's first term, and which concluded with a salute to the NRA's administrator, General Hugh S. Johnson, as follows: "He is the eagle's nest!" The NRA, by the way, was ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 1935 in a famous test case, Schechter Poultry Corp. vs. U.s.)

In the nineteenth-century United States, the high style not only served a literary purpose but played a political and social role. The ideals of the new nation were those of democratic egalitarianism: there was to be no inherited privilege, no aristocracy. Yet belles-lettres were perforce the traditional fruits of leisure, classical education, and contemplation, which customarily had gone hand in hand with wealth and hereditary status. It seemed important, therefore, to demonstrate that everyday American experience, though middle-class and without the usual artistic condiments, was worthy of being employed for purposes of artistic creativity. Such demonstrations often tended to take the form of an earnest effort to elevate that experience above the dross and meanness of everyday life, both in language and in subject matter.

As might be expected, nature and the natural world were considerably more amenable for such purposes than what went on in cities, towns, barnyards, factories, kitchens, railroad stations, theaters, and so on. With the compelling example of the English romantic poets for models, the American bards, male and female alike, did their best to adapt the language conventions and philosophical attitudes of Wordsworth, Keats, Shelley, etc., to the rocks, rills, woods, and templed hills of the still mostly undeveloped continent. Whatever might have been the case with English poets, for the Americans the result was definitely a poetic high style that was notably distanced from their everyday discourse.

Thus Sarah Hall of Philadelphia describes a river's downslope progression to union with successive larger bodies of water, and closes with an echo of "Tintern Abbey".'

But silent through the glade retired and wild,
Between the shaded banks on either hand,
Till circling yonder mead--he yields his name,
Nor proudly, Susquehanna! boast thy gain,
For thence not far, thou too, like him shalt give
Thy congregated waters, title--all
To swell the nobler name of CHESAPEAKE!
And is not such a scene as this the spell
That lulls the restless passions into peace?
Yes. Cold must be the sordid heart, unmoved
By Nature's bounties.' but they cannot fill
That ardent craving in the mind of man
For social intercourse--the healthful play--
The moral gem--the light of intellect--
Communion sweet with those we love!
--"Sketch of a Landscape"

Meanwhile Mrs. Frances Sargent Osgood, the same who for a time figured Poe's last years, chastises an unnamed female artist who, spoiled by having been too long in city pent, takes insufficient inspiration from the "choral harmony" of nature:

Go, mar the canvass with distorted face
Of dog or cat, or worse, profanely mock,
With gaudy beads, the pure light-painted flower!
Go, trim your cap, embroider your visite,
Crochet a purse, do any petty thing!
But in the name of truth, religion, beauty,
Let Nature's marvellous mystery alone . . .
--"A Sermon"

Despite the example of Walt Whitman--or was it because of it?-American poetry was a long time in getting out from under the notion that in order for everyday experience to be made into the stuff of art, it was necessary to elevate and to sanitize it. Thus James Russell Lowell, visiting in France, wonders whether the rude, democratic, irreverent American self-made man "Who, meeting Caesar's self, would slap his back,/Call him 'Old Horse,' and challenge to a drink," will ever rise to the spiritual faith and awe inherent in the medieval cathedral at Chartres:

Shall he divine no strength unmade of votes,
Inward, impregnable, found soon as sought,
Not cognizable of sense, o'er sense supreme?
Else were he desolate as noon before.
--"The Cathedral"

Mayhap he will, and mayhap he won't; but in either case he would not be likely to think about it in those terms or words.

When T. S. Eliot published "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" in 1914, the first three lines announced that henceforth poetry in English would not be restricted to the high style, whether in language or in the way that the style made the poet think:

Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is stretched out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table.
The lesson took a while to sink in, for the genteel tradition into which were subsumed what remained of the literary attitudes of the romantics and the Victorians toward poems and poetry was not to be set aside overnight. Still, all things considered, the changeover was made remarkably quickly and with few casualties. But the price paid was the restriction, and eventually the almost total loss, of the general audience that had bought the great romantic and Victorian poets in the tens and even hundreds of thousands of copies.

The high style was predicated upon a shared body of knowledge and a set of agreed-upon public and community values. What was happening was that as the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries came and went, the body of knowledge became so much larger and complex that less and less of it could stay shared by the poets and their audience. To maintain the audience, the Victorians in particular had to restrict what they could safely write poems about to so great an extent that in the hands of lesser practitioners the verse turned into little more than abstract platitudes, while the major figures were hard put to it to keep what they were saying within the limits of what could be safely grasped.

A poet such as Browning, for instance, clearly had to execute contortions in order to stay in touch, while Tennyson, whose talent was essentially for exquisite verbal embroidery, ran out of material and took to repeating himself. In the United States, the two major poets of the last half of the century had no general audience to speak of during their lifetimes: Whitman remained a fringe figure with a reputation for pornography, while Emily Dickinson kept her poems unpublished and pristine on fascicles in her room in the family manse.

Clearly this artificiality had to end if poetry was to survive as an important art form, and so Eliot, Pound, and Co. ended it. The result was, however, that in order to deal with the twentieth century the poetry grew far more complex and the language more difficult to comprehend, whereupon the audience receded notably, to the point at which nowadays poets are read principally by other poets.

Whether poetry will ever be able to get back in touch with a more general audience is moot. Certainly any accommodation it is ever able to reach with a general audience will have to be one that allows it to deal with the most important aspects of human experience, as by the later nineteenth century it could no longer.

Yet I wonder sometimes whether some kind of renewed stylistic separation may not prove to be the way that poetry will recover its lost readership. For, if there could be some kind of overall agreement reached about what is important and relevant, so that the poet needn't reinvent the wheel, as it were, with each new poem, but instead could concentrate upon intensifying and distinguishing what is essential, there might again be possible a more widespread enjoyment of the unique wisdom that only "the best possible words in their best possible order" can provide. If so, however, I certainly can't conceive of what such an agreement might include and exclude. What is no doubt needed is the advent onto the literary scene of someone who can do for us what Wordsworth, and Eliot, did in their time--which is to say, to show us the way.



Louis D. Rubin, Jr., won the Spears award in 1993 for his essay "Versions of the Kingfish." Mr. Rubin's latest honor comes from Hollins College, which has established a fund in his name to strengthen the programs in English and creative writing.

Source: Sewanee Review, Winter95, Vol. 103 Issue 1, p155, 6p.