The Great Predicament of Poetry

Robert Frost wrote in The Atlantic in 1946: “Every poem is an epitome of the great predicament; a figure of the will braving alien entanglements.” This is as spirited a definition now as it was then. Of course entanglements vary, and each generation —indeed every poet of each generation—gets entangled with a different variety of alienation.

In recent years our younger poets, heeding Rilke’s admonition, “You must change your life,” have tried to alter their poetic gait by simplifying it—the immemorial process by which poetry tries to purge itself of the past, of corruption, of the stilted or the venal. Device, decoration, and artifice go by the board. Rhyme and meter were long since cast out. “After Einstein,” a poet of distinction once told me with Newtonian certainty, “such things are no longer possible.”

Other traditional elements of verse have been thrown off like encumbering garments as the more adventurous poets try to brave their ways through the jungle. 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!” The motives underlying this universal disarmament of the will are unclear. Why should poets attempt to brave alien entanglements without so much as a weapon or a stitch of clothing?

Many literary influences have urged poets into this enterprise of walking naked. The first, perhaps, was imagism, which has for several generations attracted poets to the intensity of the unadorned fact. “Say it,” William Carlos Williams urged in 1946, “no ideas but in things,” and launched himself into his epic poem “Paterson,” that immortal shopping list.

A second instigation to poetic streamlining was surrealism, with its amusing or desperate attempts to collect sequences of dissimilar objects so that poetry could occur in the spaces between them, without allowing writer or reader any insight into the ways in which the iceberg might—or might not—be connected to the apple tree. The third and most recent influence, I suspect, was the impact on our poetry of translations, especially from such Spanish poets as Lorca, Neruda, Vallejo, who take us into a country without borders, a landscape of intense selfawareness, a universe of solipsism.

Combine these literary influences with the social facts of postwar America, when most of our poets took up residence in the universities, where poetry is assembled in workshops, connected by a communications network of itinerant poetry readers who provide instant oral bulletins of poetic fashion. I notice in the work of a great many poets under fifty a dismaying distrust of the more complex resources of our language. Having hacked their arms and legs away, they fight upon their stumps. In the poems submitted to The Atlantic, an editor can read for hours without encountering a poem couched in any tense but the present or employing any mood but the indicative. What is this chill in the air that keeps our poets confined to the interior facing in, or even transcribing their dreams onto paper and calling them poems because they sound funny? If Frost’s definition may be tolerated, the cause may lie in a timidity of the will or else in entanglements from a new and even more alien source, as in Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

Some poets’ natures force them into a violent convulsion of the will, and thus into pressing violence upon their readers. KILLING FLOOR (Houghton Mifflin, $7.95/$3.95), by a poet who calls herself Ai, is the 1978 Lamont Poetry Selection of the Academy of American Poets. Ai knows more about violence than most. Her first book, Cruelty, was vivid and shocking. Her second extends her appalling vision of life further. Her poems speak almost invariably in the present tense, and in the voices of murderers, suicides, pimps and whores, drunks, conquistadores, rebels, bloodthirsty visionaries. They sound the notes of death and self-destruction:

You’re damned in the cradle,
in the grave, even in Heaven.
Dying doesn’t end anything.
Get up. Swing those machetes.

Ai’s poetry purges, like Kali the Destroyer. There is nothing ingratiating or “attractive” about it: she carries herself like a prophet, a priestess of blood. It is hard to know where such a line of work will take her, but she does not falter: her dedication seems complete. The reader can only wonder what it is she is dedicated to, unless he or she already shares the presumption that violence always tells the truth.

The first book by Gary Miranda, LISTENERS AT THE BREATHING PLACE (Princeton University Press, $7.50/ $2.95), evokes a far gentler world, a world of remembered childhood for the most part, but a childhood depicted as far from idyllic. There’s an affable humor in Miranda’s work too, as in “Ars Poetica”:

The real trick is to let the whole menagerie of undone acts leap toward you
so that your surprise is not an act—or,
if an act, an act of recognition you’ve
been saving expressly for strangers.

Such agreeable variations on the contemporary mode in poetry appear also in the title poem:

The air says what it means, regardless of what
we want it to say. It holds our breath.

Miranda’s talent is real; his Rilkean sense of interconnectedness helps him toward a book that has coherence of style and tone, even through a difficult long poem, “The Small Owl of Complaint.” He has the force of mind to penetrate beyond the easier habits of the contemporary mode (such as page upon page of present tense), and doubtless he will one day do so. Like that of many other good poets, his work is “immediate.” But sometimes too much may be sacrificed for immediacy.

The new work of Robert Hass, one of our foremost younger poets, shows what sacrifices immediacy requires. His second book, PRAISE (Ecco Press, $7.95), has an architectural grandeur that even his nearly flawless first volume, Field Guide, did not aim at. Poem after poem sets limits for itself as stern as gravity: white on white, block on block of stone, frames around pictures. The very motionlessness of the visual arts plays a part in Hass’s aesthetic (“It’s an advantage of paintings”), as do the minutiae of nature:

.... What I want happens not when the deer freezes in the shade
and looks at you and you hold very still
and meet her gaze but in the moment after
when she flicks her ears & starts to feed again.

Hass seems to be abnormally aware of the blank walls in the blind alley of poetic fashion. “All the new thinking is about loss,” he disarmingly remarks; then goes on to say, “In this it resembles all the old thinking.” A marvelous beginning. In the third line, however, he fumbles his possession by a refusal to use transitive verbs or activate his finding: “The idea, for example, that each particular erases the luminous clarity of a general idea.” Hass’s poetic intelligence is so acute that he keeps, like Hamlet, cerebrating himself into the static condition, which turns out to be all that his verbs will allow him. His poems too seldom break out of the straight subject-predicate construction. They keep getting stuck in the is-ness of situations. It is not surprising that he concentrates upon pictures, paintings, sculptures, motionless images, even in his very finest poems, such as “Heroic Simile,” one of the most remarkable single poems of recent years. In a terrible struggle against the condition of permanence, Hass engages in a wrestling match with the actual—abandoning his resources of grammar and syntax—and is disarmed by a more powerful adversary:

The given, as in given up
or given out, as in testimony.

He praises what is given him; but I would praise him more if he would use his powers of artifice to give more back.

Geoffrey Hill, born in 1932, is the eldest, by a decade, of the poets discussed here. He is also English, which may account for the prevalence in his most recent book, TENEBRAE (Houghton Mifflin, $7.95/$4.50), of some of the appurtenances of verse which have been abandoned, or never adopted, by his American coevals. Hill is not troubled by imagism or surrealism. Formal structures lend him a rhetorical force that free verse has to find for itself:

The tributaries of the Sheaf and Don
bulge their dull spate, cramming the poor bridges.

Hill’s earlier Mercian Hymns confronted the State, an institution of his island; now, in Tenebrae, he confronts

the Church. The heart of the book, perhaps, beats in two gorgeously written sonnet sequences, “Lachrimae,” and “An Apology for the Revival of Christian Architecture in England.” in an agony of denunciation he finds the churches empty of souls, empty of meaning, fated to corruption:

the stony hunger of the dispossessed
locked into Eden by their own demand.
I founder in desire for things unfound.
I stay amid the things that will not stay.

The Spanish poetry that speaks to Hill is the grandeur of Lope de Vega and the Counter-Reformation rather than the agonies of the Spanish Republic. His complexities of syntax, rhyme, metaphor, grammar, logical sequence, display all the manners that seem to have been lacking in our poetry; yet Hill takes some getting used to before the reader notices how subversive and pessimistic his poems are.

That they take the forms of traditional poetry is deeply purposeful, like entering a church in order to strip it of its treasures, of all hope. Yet if these are poems of an empty and despairing Christian faith, they carry a certain conviction in their very structure. Credo quia impossibile: I believe in poetry because it is impossible, I believe because I must, am destined to play the role of helpless communicant. With all his Old World resources, Hill, like American poets, faces the Great Predicament. And when it comes to the crunch, Hill, like Hass, traffics in tautologies: this is that, as that is actually this. The strain on language makes them both discover similarity, similes disguised; both end helplessly by declaring, it is, it is, it IS, and Hill approaches the conclusion of his title poem with just such an insistence:

this is the chorus of obscene consent,
this is a single voice of purest praise.

Geoffrey Hill is noted for being difficult of access. Tess Gallagher, a young American now on a Guggenheim fellowship, is as challenging in her own way. Her beautifully designed second book, UNDER STARS (Graywolf Press, Box 142, Port Townsend, Washington, $7.00/$4.00), shows her braving the most difficult of entanglements: unlike almost all other poets of her generation I have read, she faces up, in every line of her work, to the full engagement with language. She does not get stuck in tautologies, like Hass, frozen in space, or like Hill, locked in death struggles with Church and State. Her poems evince a syntactic regeneration, a new involvement with the processes and passage of time.

Gallagher’s work requires enough liveliness in the reader to follow her through facet after facet of grammatical inclination, to listen to her language with alertness for the rhythms and interaction of her syntactical groupings. It is tempting to take poetry like this and quote it until the blood runs. Here is one characteristic passage, from a poem called “Second Language.” (Gallagher’s titles, like Hass’s, are little short of miraculous.)

The words come back.
You are with yourself again
as that child who gave up the spoon,
the bed, the horse to its colors
and uses. There is yet no hint
they would answer to anything else
and your tongue does not multiply the wrong,
the stammer calling them back
and back.
You have started the one word
again, again as though it had to be made
a letter at a time
until it mends itself into saying.

Rejoice in the nuances of that punctuation, the prepositions which alter the motion of the language as softly yet abruptly as billiard cushions, the shifts between one tense and another, and the uses of the present tense to engorge the past, the past tenses to illuminate the present, the present tense (as in the last line) to forecast the future.

The apparent simplicity of Gallagher’s way of speaking turns out to be difficult to follow because she is dodging through the most intricate of alien entanglements, the movements of the human mind itself. Who has decreed to our younger poets that the present is more immediate than the past and future, or even separate from them? Praise is due to the poet who manages to make them coexist in a single figure of the mind’s action. Gallagher, to her very great credit, has undertaken one of the most daunting of poetic adventures: utilizing all the resources of language to explore the nuances of feeling, the nature of the passage of time, and, most intricately and reflexively, the nature of language itself, through which we know most of those other things.

Every poet has a vision—of violence, of transcendence, of the shadow in the picture, of decaying churches. Gallagher’s vision lives in three or four dimensions, through the operation of human utterance in space and time. Poetry is most sublimely, for her, the subject of the poem.