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the death of the great american poet by Andrew Hart
January 13, 2010, 1:24 am
Filed under: essays, literature, poetry

What happened to this Great American Poet whose bloodline seems to have run dry after Wallace Stevens?  Some people will tell you that American poetry these days is written by academics for academia.  That it’s dark, depressing, and generally just impossible to relate to.  Poetry, they say, needs to return to lyricism, return to happiness, return to romanticism, return to anything to get away from what it’s turned into today.  Most of all, poetry needs a return to structure.

Structure is always what reconciles the human with humanity.  We use it to relate what can’t ever be related: that thing inside of us isn’t quite the same when we put it in everyone else’s terms.  A sonnet is a stricter imposition of structure on that thing.  Impose less and maybe rhyme a little bit, go in and out of iambic pentameter when it suits; invent forms like Eliot, invent orders like Moore.  But no matter what, the thing is still never the same in any common terms.

The past doesn’t care; it will always impose itself.  Its very words are icebergs.  Look into them long enough and somewhere from the cold deep a meaning surfaces to inform a reconception.  Emerson told us to look within, trust ourselves, and listen to the vibration of that iron string.  But what is “trust,” what is “iron,” what is “string” without the past speakers who decided that those sounds and letters would mean those things?  To have us look within, Emerson forced us to look outside.  And it could not have been different.

Words can only mean if they’ve meant before and will again.  In our indebtedness to the past for its words, we allow its manifold meanings free reign over our understanding.  Words mean all of their meanings, and try as we might we can never narrow them.  And so poetry is the art in which you always try to mean for yourself but never do.  Frost saw it: for him, a poem was an icecube on a stove; you could place it, but you never knew where it would end up.

High modernist poetry tried to get closer to the thing by avoiding structure.  Words for Eliot were fragments shored up against an ultimate ruin.  Moore imposed her own arbitrary rules.  Cummings created a grammar.  There was a collective feeling of accomplishment, the idea that we could look to a community of poets and academics to answer our own inner questions.

But the collective push modernism was not the answer to the problem of reconciling the thing inside with structure.  Apollonaire saw his century raise up like an airplane, like Christ.  The century flew like nothing natural, historical, religious, technological.   Apollonaire’s speaker ends up walking home in the bright morning from a prostitute’s bedroom, the sun above him a severed neck as he thinks of the fetishes and idols that line the bed he will soon crawl into to sleep away the morning.  Collective modernity can pull itself up and everything else with it, but the communal progress will crash down when the individual poet recognizes that the thing inside is always already unable to be spoken.

Since then, we’ve had confessional poetry, free verse, and even a return to formalism.  Where are we today?  Poetry is increasingly about the inner thing, and continues to shirk the easy relations to common humanity that satisfy us.  American Poets are not dead, they just alienate us with our constant cravings for structure.

But we live in a world of text, and too many feel its pull to declare the death of the Great American Poet just yet.

Recommended reading:

Guillame Apollonaire’s “Zone
T.S. Eliot, “The Waste Land

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