In a Sunday article, the quotation "It is my feeling that 20th century human conditions demand a poetry of witness" was inadvertently attributed to the wrong poet. It is by Carolyn Forche'.
THE distinguished poet Howard Nemerov thinks "poetry in English is coming to an end."
Not so many years ago he was fond of saying that poetry, like Broadway, always seemed to be dying but always came back with fresh energy.
Now he is not so sure. He hesitated a long time before making his latest statement, lest it seem to be "one more variant of the common cry of middle-aged poets, 'I had talent once, where did it go?' "
But still he fears that "not poetry alone but a great deal to do with language in relation to mind is fast approaching an end where it will be transformed into something unrecognizably other."
Reed Whittemore is another prominent poet who worries about what he calls "machine words" and the effect on our language of computer talk, which uses words strictly as tools in the most literal and crude sense.
Since the death of Archibald MacLeish (not to mention Robert Lowell and John Berryman) no single white-thatched father figure leaps to mind as the theoretical dean of American poets, at least not the way Robert Frost once did, more or less personifying poetry for the general public. Robert Penn Warren and Nemerov are perhaps the closest we have to such a personage, but a quick survey made it clear that there is no American poet laureate today--and that it may well be impossible ever to have one again.
All this in the face of a tremendous national poetry boom. Poet-editor Peter Davison speaks of "a revolution of entitlement" to be trained as a poet, over the last 35 years, in which "we have developed an entire educational system of poet-think, of schools and graduate schools, and workshops, and conferences, and residencies, where bards link up like chains of algae, funded by state councils and federal grants and half-suspecting taxpayers."
He is right. There is something called Poets & Writers, a national service group for poets that boasts of having "registered" almost 5,000 poets. The American mania for organizing every form of existence into monthly meetings has seen to it that there are "approximately 30,000 poetry readings and workshops in this country every year, reaching 4 million people."
What is happening to poets, that they feel they have to be registered? One wonders if they have become so self-conscious, so absorbed with their specialness, that some of them seem to write about almost nothing else ("Do poets really suffer more/ than other people?" one effort begins).
There are people who resent the very assumption of the official title "poet" by those few, because they believe that poetry is magic, a bird of the forest that may choose to light on anyone's hand and is not to be possessed.
And looking beyond that, what is happening to poetry itself? In a culture where words are "processed," where acronyms become nouns and nouns become verbs, where the cliche', a prefabricated thought, is so commonly accepted that it is barely recognized, where even the slang has turned dull (for example, "airhead"), is poetry becoming a special, private and exclusive art like court tennis? Are we as a people losing our sensitivity to language--and with it our awareness of delicate shadings in thought?
Far from it, replies Hugh Kenner, who teaches English at Johns Hopkins University. Only a few months ago he reviewed the latest spate of books about words, a publishing fad that has so far produced at least two dozen volumes.
"I've never seen so much discussion of word meanings," he says. People are always seeing signs of the Last Days of English in our "hopefully" and "convince to" and other newfangled constructions, he adds, but in fact the situation is just the opposite.
Well, that's good news. But one suspects that he is talking about a voluble minority here, the rear guard that resists all change in the language, which is after all a living organism whose cells are constantly being born and dying and shifting about.
The issue goes beyond quibbles over words. Basically, it is a question of how much people read today. A poet can succeed in reaching an audience with references to the past only to the extent that the audience has the same set of references. Is our technology-obsessed education system letting us forget our heritage, the accumulated experience of western civilization? Davison speaks of "a world void of history." A colleague mourns, "People just don't know anything anymore."
For example, until a few years ago a poet could mention Sisyphus, or Cassandra, or even Zola's "J'Accuse," and most readers would pick up on it. But writers today hardly dare refer to anything older than World War II because nobody knows about it. One has met a graduate student of journalism who literally had never heard of Marcel Proust.
Take the lovely poem by MacLeish that begins:
And here face down beneath the sun
And here upon earth's noonward height
To feel the always coming on
The always rising of the night
. . . and continues for 32 more lines to describe the silent rush of night's shadow across the face of the planet, from Kermanshah to Baghdad to Palmyra and Crete and Spain and out across the ocean: just that. It is simple description, yet it is moving beyond words, and one thing that makes it so moving is its title, which you come back to after reading it: "You, Andrew Marvell."
Now, anyone who has read a word of Andrew Marvell has read "To His Coy Mistress," that great passionate appeal to live life now . . . "But at my back I always hear/ Time's winged chariot hurrying near/ And yonder all before us lie/ Deserts of vast eternity . . ."
The trouble is, anyone who has not read Marvell will gape at the MacLeish title and say, "Huh?" And there are with us today legions of people who have not read Marvell, or heard of him.
Davison, who as poetry editor of the Atlantic Monthly sees vast amounts of new work, worries that in trying to shake off the past, young poets have rid themselves of too many of the very things that make the magic happen.
"Device, decoration and artifice go by the board," he writes. "Rhyme and meter were long since cast out . . . Off with the balladlike elements of narrative, chorus and refrain. Down with the incantatory inflammations of resonance and intonation. Leave singing to the rock singers. Most confusingly and most recently, many of the younger American poets have even thrown away their canteens, discarding the very structure of grammar and syntax that gave poetry its skeleton if it wished to utter anything more complex than the outcry, 'O Rose!' "
This sounds like the Cult of the Ineffable that results from the increasing dependence on visual comprehension that mainlines impressions straight in through the eyes to the brain, bypassing the analytical process of transmuting image into words. The "Oh Wow!" Syndrome.
Whittemore, who teaches at the University of Maryland and sees perhaps even younger poets, fears that poetry is becoming specialized, losing its universal appeal as the ultimate human utterance.
"It's found poetry," he observes, "or very close to that. Immediacy is what you get with found poetry; you free up your mind. But they forget they've also got to be craftsmen. The poet's role is no longer central, and the young see it as a rather narrow specialty, shunted aside from the mainstream."
Furthermore, he says, the fad for "personal," that is, introspective and sometimes confessional poetry, has led to a reliance on images so private as to be incomprehensible to the rest of us. He cites Pulitzer Prize winner John Ashbery, whose work with its "dazzling orchestrations of language" makes syntactical sense, he says, but no real sense in the last analysis. "That's kind of old-fashioned now," he adds, "but it really bugs me." He doesn't like Joyce's "Finnegans Wake," which crosses the frontier of music, either.
(Ashbery responds in his poem "The One Thing That Can Save America":
. . . I know that I braid too much my own
Snapped-off perceptions of things as they come to me.
They are private and always will be.
Where then are the private turns of event
Destined to boom later like golden chimes
Released over a city from a highest tower? . . .)
Says Whittemore: "There are still lots of honest, energetic poets floating about, and their social role is sometimes the heroic one of trying to preserve verbal sensitivity in a culture turned over to computers and other deadeners of human expression. All power to them. But like everyone else in modern America, poets have been pushed into new forms of specialization of thought and speech, and some of the forms have been deadly. The deadliest have been the forms dedicated to the exclusion of sense--let us call it prose sense or even common sense--from the province of poetry."
Today the only poets grappling with the world at large, he says, seem to be women and blacks. But almost nobody, he adds, is doing long narrative poems, which he sees as a sign that the prehistoric role of the poet as storyteller and hence a central figure in the community (when everyone sat around the fire, so to speak) has eroded disastrously.
Of course, it is a long time since poets were central figures. In the 19th century, every important thing that happened to the British Empire was commemorated officially by the poet laureate or a prominent colleague, from Tennyson's "The Charge of the Light Brigade" to Kipling's "Recessional," which warned the nation against hubris in the midst of its glory days. John Kennedy's gesture in having Robert Frost recite at his inaugural was a charming reminder of this custom, but generally we now expect our TV philosophers, not our poets, to explain the world to us.
Interestingly, it was a woman, Washington's Chris Llewellyn, who has written one of the most striking of those narrative rarities, the moving "Fragments From the Fire," about the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Fire.
. . . It was Saturday.
Mrs. Yaller testified: "Some froze at
machines. Others were packed in the cloakroom
filled with smoke. I heard them yelling
in Yiddish or Italian, crying out
the names of their children . . . "
. . . It was approaching April.
"I could see them falling,"
said Lena Goldman. "I was sweeping out
front of my cafe. At first we thought
it was bolts of cloth--till they opened
with legs! I still see the day
it rained children . . ."
"It is my feeling," Llewellyn says, "that 20th century human conditions demand a poetry of witness. In East Germany, South Africa, Guatemala, Cuba, Taiwan, South Korea, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, the Soviet Union, Poland, Iran, Uruguay, El Salvador and Chile, poets who do present the real world and speak out on behalf of those who have been silenced are not permitted to perform . . ."
Shortly after she read the poem at the Renwick Gallery last year, the Smithsonian Institution discontinued the readings there, meanwhile fervently denying accusations that it was upset by the poem's angry stand against industrial greed.
Maxine Kumin, another Pulitzer Prize winner, who was the 25th poetry consultant of the Library of Congress--but only its fifth woman consultant--points out that many of the women poets in America, from Denise Levertov on, are producing more public poetry, which in these times tends to mean political poetry about subjects from Vietnam to the nuclear freeze.
Even more dramatically, black poets like the rumbustiously talented Ishmael Reed write with such ringing anger about the world they see as to make their art something utterly incomparable with the polite musings of middle-class white capital-P Poets. Reed:
. . . Did you have a nice trip, Massa?
I borrowed your cotton money
To pay for my ticket & to get
Me started in this place called
It's cold up here but least
Nobody is collaring hobbling gagging
Handcuffing yoking chaining & thumbscrewing
You like you is they hobby horse . . .
Nemerov, who lectures at Washington University in St. Louis and sees a lot of student writing, agrees that "too much stuff is either unconsciously or deliberately incomprehensible. It's all right for my students, who think that if they write something they don't understand themselves, it must be pretty deep. But when you see grown men and women doing it . . . On the other hand there's an awful lot of very sensitive, intelligent poetry."
He wishes that people would "do more with language," and he regularly has his students bring in interesting bits of language for show and tell. "Students are trained, not educated. All these dreary, correct sentences. They never take a chance with a sentence."
Which brings us to the computer. Is this the basic problem with computer language? Its correctness? Its insistence that each separate combination of letters must have one specific assigned meaning, just as each separate combination of numbers must have one sum?
Nonsense, explodes Kenner. "I'm tired of hearing the computer blamed for things. Poetry isn't dead. Nemerov is just depressed. We've got a great supply of middle-aged poets, and middle-aged talent, which depends on staying power, can be a fine example for the young poets."
As for references to the past, he thinks many poets deliberately avoid them for fear of falling into nostalgia, "the easiest kind of fake poetic emotion."
Though he doesn't see the work of many young poets, he is by no means ready to attend the funeral of American poetry. "Public opinion is what people think other people are thinking," he says, and maybe he's right at that.
Maybe the best thing that ever happened to our poetry is that it has come upon the hard times that Nemerov and Whittemore see. Maybe we are groping toward a new esthetic, a modest, personal poetry influenced by rock lyrics and homely images from everyday life, and maybe the proliferation of poets, the mediocre and downright bad along with the good, is some sort of natural surge, the sheer fecundity of the earth in a new season, from which will emerge the great voices of the '80s.
And with luck, a handful or even only one of them will have enough vigor, skill and anger to get into trouble with the authorities.
That's all a poet asks: that people care.