When I was 18 and began to study poetry for the first time, it was obvious to me the Romantic poets were far and away the best models for me in English, as I was not a student of languages then, and contemporary poets were prosaic enough to make a study of them no study of poetry at all.
Had I traveled back 2,000 years to study Homer or Sappho, I should no doubt have become a Greek scholar, but I wished to travel back a hundred years or so and be a poet like Shelley or Byron.
I was informed by my literature professors that poets who wrote in the 19th century were “old-fashioned” and no models for me at all. Poets who were born in the 19th century, however, were modern—to follow them was the only way to succeed.
This seemed absurd to me. I wanted Keats for a model. Keats was…you know…good. Keats was a poet.
The models my professors enforced on me seemed ridiculous. T.S. Eliot was a banker—with 1920s slicked-back hair and big ears. Allen Ginsberg was some guy with a beard and a bald spot. Ezra Pound looked like a Satanist with his pointy beard.
But Keats as a model was out.
I had to pick “moderns.”
Guy with bald spot.
The beautiful was out-of-bounds. It was “old-fashioned.”
I had to marry the hag, not the lady.
This was my fate if I decided to pursue poetry.
Beauty had nothing to do with it, my professors told me.
Poetry was now the property of science and pragmatic religion. Protestant revolt and scientific specialization had supplanted the old poetry of beauty—poetry had to specialize, too—everything was breaking into specialized tasks—poetry was no longer about pleasing in a universal manner. Poetry was now a tiny part of the branching into particulars which modernity was speedily carrying out.
My literature professors were not scientists themselves, but they somberly informed me science had grown up, and it no longer cared for poetry.
The art of poetry, in order not to fall into “amateurism,” had to leave science to the scientists and pursue its own path.
“Poetry now cannot attend science into its technical labyrinth,” as poet and English professor John Crowe Ransom put it in 1938.
Poetry had to grow up, too.
Business and religion and science were grappling with pragmatic matters of new complexity that required a coolness and flinty disposition—the poetic was no longer a help in these areas, but actually a hindrance.
We did not discuss business, religion, or science; literature professors, with a vague sociological authority, assured me these subjects had turned into technical, unfriendly pursuits for the poet; poetry as it had existed was no longer required by the scientist or the businessman or the priest—poetry must survive by turning into a labyrinth of its own.
Poetry had to be “difficult,” as T.S. Eliot (b. 1888) put it.
Instead of being inspired by the Romantic poets directly, I had to study “moderns” like Allen Ginsberg.
William Blake had inspired Ginsberg, but I couldn’t be inspired by someone as “old-fashioned” as Blake.
I had to go to Allen Ginsberg.
I had to write like the “moderns.”
I had to listen to Ransom (b. 1888) to tell me what was “modern” and what was not—and how poetry existed as “modern.”
Only years later did I realize that “modern” wasn’t modern. Only later did I realize that poetry and learning are not beholden to any idea of “modern” in the first place.
“Modern” wasn’t modern. “Modern” was merely a code word for a clique of power brokers who had discovered a sophistry—“modernism”—to validate themselves.
It was a trick.
A trick of coteries and word-play.
A trick as old as the hills.