ONE MORE LOOK AT ALABAMA

“Stars fell on Alabama”   –Old song

As promised, here’s the Final Part 5 report on the Alabama ‘What Is Poetry?‘ conference which took place 25 years ago in October.  

What happened at that October 1984  conference, exactly? 

The old guard– Ignatow, Simpson, Levertov, Stern, and Vendler–won the battle, but lost the war.

The Language Poetry team, led by Charles Bernstein and Marjorie Perloff,  scored almost no rhetorical points, and were even humiliated several times in the final group panel discussion.

Charles Bernstein was asked to “name names” of “policemen-poets” running “official verse culture” and could only sheepishly come up with one: T.S. Eliot.  Denise Levertov, with political guns blazing, said Bernstein’s concern for “official verse culture” was parochial and small-minded.  Unable to specify what made her outsider position important or unique, Marjorie Perloff was painted into a corner by Louis Simpson.  At one point Vendler said, to applause, “If you look at the statistics of dissertations done and M.A. theses done all across the face of America today, you will find that overwhelmingly they are done in twentieth-century studies, and the past is in danger of being forgotten altogether by the English departments.”

However, just sharing the stage with the status quo helped Bernstein and Perloff.   In a major capitulation to the barbarians, Helen Vendler conceded a huge point to Bernstein, explicitly agreeing with him that poetry makes language “opaque” and “problematic.” 

Well.

Poetry does not make language “problematic.” 

Poetry does the reverse; poetry overcomes the “problematic” aspect of language—this is why it is poetry! 

But don’t tell that to Vendler or Bernstein, champions of Art’s for Art’s Sake and Language Poetry, respectively.  

Art for Art’s Sake and Language Poetry would seem to be miles apart, but they’re not, actually.  

Both schools are more concerned with “How poetry tells us” than “What poetry tells us.” 

Vendler’s modernism really has little trouble fitting into Bernstein’s post-modernism.  

Erudition for its own sake will suffer from pedantry. 

But even worse than the old-fashioned pedantry—which once characterized the absent-minded English professor of old–is the erudition which attaches itself to a program, to a theoretical framework.  Free and open inquiry may thrive in a pedantic morass, but it never thrives when ideology stacks the deck.  Ideology turns erudition into a monster.

No one can accuse Vendler of being ideological—and this is precisely why her surrender to Bernstein is so harmful.  She did not surrender to his ideology, per se.  She generously and unconsciously abetted post-modernism because she found it intellectually pleasing to find how easily her modernism fit into Bernstein’s post-modernism.

Modernism decided to make poetry “problematic” or “difficult” (T.S. Eliot first ascribed the term “difficult” to modern poetry) in response to all sorts of issues, which, looking back, seem manufactured in light of a certain pessimism bearing down on the age, a heady manifesto-ism in general, and Eliot’s intuitive push towards the erudite and learned.  It was natural for this journey down “Problematic Lane” to lead from the opaque coyness of Wallace Stevens to the utter madness of LANGUAGE poetry.  

Bernstein’s intellectual legacy traces through Stanley Cavell, who was Bernstein’s mentor at Harvard, to J.L. Austin, a member of British Intelligence, who was Cavell’s Harvard professor.

Austin was a Moral Philosopher at Oxford who specialized in language, coining the term “speech acts” to describe speech as action–as opposed to speech as a mere passive agent of description.  Already we can see that—for this school of analytic philosophy—there is no speech which is not opaque and problematic—all speech is shot through with motive and desire, not just poetry.  Vendler, therefore, by conceding that poetry’s role was to “problematize language” was coming over to Bernstein’s turf and surrendering to him without a fight.

‘French theory’ did not only come from France.  It came from Oxford and Cambridge universities.  It came from Bloomsbury. (See G.E. Moore and the Cambridge Apostles.)  Modernism and post-modernism have the same parent and are the same age.  Helen Vendler and Charles Bernstein are puppies of the same litter.

THE DAY THE MUSIC DIED

Joan Shelley Rubin, author of Songs of Ourselves: The Uses of Poetry in America, said the 1920s belonged as much to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow as it did to Thomas Stearns Eliot—and this is true.

The anti-Victorian, Imagism revolution of Bloomsbury, which gradually changed poetry from an art of song to an art of image through the ‘trickle-down’ effort of its elites, gained the overwhelming momentum of  great numbers when its ‘trickle-down’ effort became  normalized and taught in the academy–both in English departments and Creative Writing Workshops–during the second half of the 20th century.

Are there any prominent musicians who bother to set contemporary poetry to music?

The image in poetry became associated with art, while the music of poetry became associated with vulgarity.

Two brief examples, from last century, will suffice:

First: these lines from J.V. Cunningham, the anti-modernist poet, who is largely forgotten:

How time reverses
The proud in heart!
I now make verses
Who aimed at art.

Second:  Bloomsbury author Aldous Huxley’s infamous slam against Poe’s verse as “vulgar.”  The prim Englishman’s distaste for musical Poe was quoted approvingly in Brooks & Penn Warren’s well-placed textbook, Understanding Poetry (first edition, 1938) which also solidified the reputations of Imagist classics, ‘At A Station In the Metro’ (Pound) and ‘The Red Wheel Barrow’ (Williams) in its unalloyed praise for these two works.

Could poetry change radically today?  And, if it did, would the public even notice?    The answer to both quesitons is, ‘no,’ and the reason the first answer is ‘no,’ is because the second answer is ‘no.’

How did poetry change so radically in the early part of the 20th century?

First, it did have a public, but not a particularly large or enthusiastic one, and secondly, poetry was understood by the public to have a certain definite identity: it looked like work by Longfellow and Tennyson.

An art whose practioners are disunited, who have no common expertise, will not be seen as an art at all.  Poetry had a common expertise: the ability to compose memorable music with mere words, like Longfellow and Tennsyon.

“Verse is not easy,” Cunningham wrote.    But the skill of verse is no longer a part of poetry; poetry no longer has a specific “skill.”

The Imagists never got beyond a very minor, little magazine existence, but they believed what they were offering would be very popular, like a portable camera; now you can just point and shoot!  Anyone can appreciate images–and put them into simple poems–like haiku.  Poetry for democracy!  Poetry that was selfless and natural!  It will be a phenomenon!  But the public didn’t buy it–they still wanted their Tennyson and their Longfellow with their gadgets and their telephones and their cars.  Imagism, like Futurism, Cubism and 12-Tone Music, failed to inspire anyone except the core of elites who were pushing them.  Imagism was a flop.

Or, was it?

People ‘on the street’ today define poetry as vaguely expressive, and the public’s perception of something, we have learned, should not be underestimated.  ‘Vaguely’ is the chief term here.  No longer does the public think of poetry as Longfellow.  They think of it as vaguely expressive.

100 years ago the American public had a more sharply defined view of poetry.  It was like what those fellows, Mr. Alfred Lord Tennyson and Mr. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, wrote.  That was what poetry was.

The zen joke of ‘The Red Wheel Barrow’ and ‘The women come and go/talking of Michelangelo’ resonated once, but these jokes are no longer funny.  But Longfellow is gone, too.

Image truly belongs to other arts: painting, photography, and film;  further, these arts do not need to look to poetry at all as they wrestle with the image.

Song belongs to songwriters, and songwriters, the good ones, are poets, but they are known to the world as songwriters; poetry’s identity carries on in the sister art of songwriting, and unlike the filmmakers, photographers and painters, songwriters do consult poetry, not contemporary poetry, but old poetry, the art, for inspiration.

Since poetry has given up song for image as its current identity, poetry manifests no contemporary attachment with any other art.  No glory belongs to poetry, or is even reflected back on poetry.  Poetry is in the dark.

Poetry, with no public identity, is stuck: it has nowhere to go.

History affords countless examples of  technical changes which have improved music’s expressive qualities as a whole even as music, the art, remains, in its simplicity, recongizable to everyone.   When the piano replaced the harpsichord, all composers took notice, not just some.

The modernist revolution changed poetry so that everyone took notice,  but unfortunately in a way that made poetry no longer recognizable to everyone.  Nor is it easy to say if expressive qualities have increased–certainly not in the public’s perception.  As far as prose and how it perhaps opens things up, the problem poetry has, is that in prose, one would naturally think poetry could express itself with greater variety, but fiction owns prose, and poetry is expected to do something different than fiction; poetry as art has been developed in different ways than prose.   Yes, poetry should be as good as good prose, and all that, but how does poetry keep from disappearing into it?  And so poetry–sans the music that separates it from prose, as the art which the public knows as poetry–has been at sea for 100 years.

T.S. Eliot, an honorary Bloomsbury member, and the most respected critic of the 20th century, recommended minor poetry 300 years old as superior to major poetry composed  250, 200, 150, 100, and 50 years before his day.  This, in some ways, was counter to the whole modernist revolution.  John Donne?  Andrew Marvell?  Henry King, Bishop of Chichester?  What was Eliot thinking?  Eliot was thinking this: If my friends and I are to effect this modernist revolution of ours, we must not seem like mere brick-throwers; we need erudition, scholarship, appreciation of certain aspects of the past, and if we are to become professors and editors of modernist verse, it will be well to be able to make the past our clay, for revolutions must feed off the past; no revolution lives in the present day; Eliot knew he and Pound were not Bach, the master, at the keyboard, re-inventing music itself; he knew they were merely sullying a grand tradition with a little sleight-of-hand: Goodbye, Milton, Shelley, Poe, Shakespeare, Keats.  Hello, Kyd, King, Corbiere.  Eliot knew that when a revolution happens, the past will not disappear; a certain respect for the past must not only be feigned, but enthusiastically pursued, for every manifesto needs food; actual ‘new’ material (Waste Lands, cantos, wheel barrow haiku,) will run out in a week, so the past has to be transformed.  Every revolution needs a professor; Mary Ann and Ginger alone will not do.

The image is free-standing and pre-verbal; it is not necessary for image to fit, or be coherent–it simply is. Why should such a thing be the essence of poetry?  Ask that Bloomsbury elite.  After a snort and a sigh and a sip of their very expensive wine, they will tell you.