March 18, 2010

American Poetry, just past the midterm. We're using Lehman's OXFORD BOOK OF AMERICAN POETRY, and it's okay for the most part--if you don't count the Merton gaff. It's kind of amazing who he has in here in that light: a march of postmodern trivia.

Bradstreet is always a joy. The Mother of American poetry indeed, who delivers a kind of humility we never really see again. On the one hand, I think that's the trouble with the feminist influence--it's tough for even believing women to embrace humility (in the face of injustice). And here I'm thinking of all the believing women poets whom I like. But on the other hand, men don't do so well with that either. And what excuse do we have? I think Bradstreet's "Before the Birth of One of Her Children" is a great, great poem. It's embodies that humility, but there's also just a tender affection for her spouse: Aquinas's deep friendship.

The funny thing about the Bradstreet entry is that Lehman has Berryman comment on her. Is that a little like Daffy Duck commenting on Chopin? Overstated a bit, perhaps, but the editor does that a lot. Later Yvor Winters comments on someone else, I forget whom. If Mary Karr is right about Lowell (Who reads him now?), how much more could we say the same thing about Winters, who certainly made up for any shortage of critical acclaim by striking up his own brass band. (Big boat there, of course, captain . . . arg.)

Taylor is harsh, ok, and Freneau brings Burroughs and Dillard, that peculiar and wonderful brand of American nature writing to mind. But after Bradstreet, not much goes on until Wally. The (fireside) poets, those of the three names: Bryant, Emerson, Longfellow, Whittier, Holmes, Poe, and Lowell always remind me of today's politically-charged poetical landscape. A heightened civil mediocrity, patrolled by the content police. Great poetry, but written in an accepted way, with an accepted POV, poetry that probably will not stand because of that fact. "The company of poets," as Boland puts it. Could you imagine Wordsworth saying that--at least speaking of the living in those terms?

(Which reminds me, I went to conference on Christianity & Literature this last weekend, and I wonder why people so take to Seamus Heaney. For a man bred near the bogs, there doesn't seem to be a lot of depth to him.)

But back to America, I liked Poe this time, at least in his "fairy" poems. He fits nicely there, into that whole fantasy wave. (Like Jerry Lewis, his value to the French is probably what most sets him apart.)

Whitman is the nine hundred pound gorilla that sits in every formalist's living room. I just picked up Dane's THE LONG AND SHORT OF IT, A PRACTICAL GUIDE OF EUROPEAN VERSIFICATION, something I want to read before doing Poetic Forms again. But Wally influence is (justly) ignored here--since it's the Euro. But a quote on the back got me. Seth Lerer, who I think has done some nice work for the Teaching Company, says" ". . . Students of literature, and of creative writing, need to understand that verbal expression is not the unmediated release of sensibility but the crafted and highly nuanced organization of that sensibility in forms." He can be right, if the student wants to go the old world way. But I always stress Whitman and the Americas, plural, because no one has had a greater influence in the Western Hemisphere than Wally: Mr. Release of Sensibility. Mr. Lerer, who comes across in his audios as something of a squish should be horrified that he is on the side of privileged colonialists here! (Strike out the Beats, all blue-collar usurpers of culture!)

As for myself, I love formal poetry, (though I am against it personally--no, no, I've got that wrong. I mean I'm against anything that would hurt me in any way personally. No. . . no, oh cue the clone.)

I've work with forms, mostly with the one most abused: the sonnet. And along with many others, I would argue that free verse is just harder to write. One never knows if he's done enough in a line, or too much. There are no markers.

I always tell my students that poems are like people. You have to take them one at a time. It doesn't matter what kind of poem the thing is; if it brings us joy on both the form and content level, we should rejoice.

In the class, we got Tuckerman and Very in there before Emmy. Tuckerman is beautiful, a deflated romantic, a dazzlingly good formalist, but there isn't much new to him, so he's generally given a second rung. And Very is fun, a real religious wack job, on the Calvinist el-train. (I bet he was Republican "in spirit.")

Dickinson is always a delight: "I taste a liquor never brewed" and "There's a certain slant of light!" are two of my favorites, though there are so many. She would've made a great Catholic. (Think how it would have irritated her family.)

Master, Sandburg, Robinson. Eh. Critics from Harvard always try to blow up Robinson, and he's okay; but the tube won't hold the air. He's just not that interesting.

And then to the moderns! HA! Frost, Stevens, Williams, Pound, Moore, Eliot. America: "flexibility," to quote Dana Carey. Great poets do so many things. Lesser poets do less. I think of Chesterton and H. G. Wells. They do what they set out to do, and that's a good. But Frost and James, they go on! Jeffers I like a lot too. He's fun. There's a real depth to him, a bass resonance. Akin to sacramentality, maybe more than all the modernist greats--except late Stevens. Which raises a question, "Is America too Puritan to have much depth in its poetry?"

We often do a quick classroom dip into Loy, H. D., though we didn't get there this semester. I won't do Stein, even though I probably should. (Outside of her Pound quote, I don't find her worth my time: "Ezra is the village explainer, which is okay, if you're a village.") Besides, she's just the first of many. We'll pick up all that stuff when we get to L-A-N-G-U-A-G-E poetry.

We ended the time before break with the Harlem Renaissance. Mr. Lerer, does the blues have form, or form enough?