[lit-ideas] The movement of poetry and knowing how to write

  • From: "Lawrence Helm" <lawrencehelm@xxxxxxxxxxxx>
  • To: <lit-ideas@xxxxxxxxxxxxx>
  • Date: Fri, 13 Oct 2006 08:43:13 -0700

Mike wrote: This all started with Lawrence saying he didn't like Berryman's
poetry nearly as much as he used to after reading Berryman's biography.
That's absurd, I said.  Berryman's life should have absolutely nothing to do
with whether you like his poetry or not.  A poem is NOT the poet."


Lawrence responds -- again -- When I suspected that you misunderstood me,
Mike, I wrote (10-10 @ 1013PM): However, I didn't mean to imply that my
opinion of Berryman's poetry was affected by my poor opinion of him, if
that's what you were thinking.  What I meant to convey was that Berryman
gave up his life, in a manner of speaking, for his poetry and when I first
read it I thought it was marvelous -- in other words I tended to think it
was (arguably) worthwhile to give up a life for such a body of great poetry.
When I reread it years later it didn't have the same effect on me.  When I
first read it I thought Berryman would go down as a major poet.  Now I think
perhaps not; which, if I am right in my current opinion of him, means he
gave up his life for something of minor value, so to speak.  So that's one
thing I thought."


Didn't you read that, Mike?  Since you repeat your mistaken assumption to
Eric, after I corrected your misunderstanding, I am tempted to be a little
hard on you; however I won't.  I'll assume that my note wasn't posted to
your inbox.  I have missed a number of notes in that way. 


I read my first biography of Berryman in February of 1992 (The Life of John
Berryman by John Haffenden); so I already knew about Berryman's life and
couldn't have been having a revelation about it in October of 2005.   My
change in opinion about his poetry was based upon rereading Dream Songs. 


Actually, I think you, Mike (if I understand Eric) are more caught up in
formula than I am and if this is the current "in way to write and read,"
more caught up than is consistent with independent thinking.  At one time
Newton caused Poets to think the world was orderly and so we had Alexander
Pope et al and their Classicism. The world is something that can be
controlled.  "Racine, Moliere, Congreve and Swift ask us to be interested in
what they have made;" so in that day, if you wrote poetry, that's the sort
of thing you strove after.  And if you, Mike, were writing in Pope's day you
would be arguing that Pope's way was the proper way to right.  But then
there was a Romantic reaction.  The Classicists asked you to be interested
in what they had made but "Chateaubriand, Musset, Byron and Wordsworth ask
us to be interested in" them.  [I am quoting from Edmund Wilson's Axel's
Castle, by the way].   


In 1859 Darwin wrote Origin of Species and after that Poets decided they
were biologically determined and "Naturalism" guided their writing.  This
was more evident on the continent, and Zola, but Wilson finds examples of it
in Victorian poetry as well.  Then there was a reaction against Naturalism.
Surely people are not as biologically determined as the Naturalists
described and so there was what Wilson calls Symbolism.  In America the
Symbolists were "Poe, Hawthorne, Melville, Whitman and even Emerson."  The
reaction against the symbolists produced the writers Wilson concentrates on
in Axel's Castle: "Yeats, Valery, T. S. Eliot, Marcel Proust, James Joyce,
and Gertrude Stein."  


If you went to school when I did you were confronted with T.S. Eliot and
Ezra Pound and their school of poetry -- influenced by the "New Criticism."
This was important to American critics because the baton was being passed
from Europe, primarily Britain, to America.  Yes Eliot and Pound lived in
Europe but they were American.  The generation after theirs included
Berryman, Lowell, Delmore Schwartz, Theodore Roethke, Randall Jarrell, and a
number of other thoroughly American poets and we can note their similar
styles.  If you wrote back then, that is how you wrote.  Berryman's Dream
Songs was considered a success because he tied his short poems together and
claimed a coherence which most critics were willing to grant him.  You
couldn't be a major poem unless you wrote a long poem.  Also his voice, the
ungrammatical Henry and his humorous Mr. Bones caught everyone's fancy.
Sylvia Plath was another voice that stood out: feminine rage.  I was
impressed by it, and the feminists claimed it -- although biographers show
that Sylvia was no feminist.


Axel's Castle was written in 1931; so what were the American movements after
that?  Eric and some others will know that better than I, but I recall
Lowell's Life Studies as supposedly inaugurating the "Confessional School"
of poetry.  Lowell apologists deny that he was primarily a Confessional poet
but he did write some Confessional poetry and that was seen as the
predominant point of view taken for a long while.  You wrote about your
life, your lover, your pain, etc.  Sylvia Plath was near the beginning of
it, perhaps, and Anne Sexton came out of a mental institution writing it.


Meanwhile William Carlos Williams was marching to his own drummer, and it is
here that we move toward the style Mike prefers, as Eric mentions.  Williams
didn't fit in with Eliot and Pound.  He had the idea that poetry ought to
sound like the speech of the common man (something the New Critics were
appalled at).   I read a biography of Williams too -- as well as most of his
poetry -- pretty poor stuff in my opinion because I have a prejudice against
poetry that sounds like prose.  If it doesn't rise above prose then it isn't
poetry.  It seems to me that criticism, at least the criticism I have read,
is also making that pronouncement; which bodes ill for WC Williams poetic


Now as to Mike's particular prejudices, I first encountered them in
philosophy.   Great advances have been made in Hermeneutics.   Heidegger is
given some credit for the beginning.  I was most interested in Collingwood,
but it is most recognized in Gadamer.  I am familiar with how Gadamer has
influenced theology.  Anthony C. Thistelton wrote The Two Horizons and later
New Horizons in Hermeneutics.   One of the Gadamerian discoveries was that
you must take the reader into consideration in regard to a Text (Text here
means any text or speech.  It includes poetry.)  But Gadamer never went as
far as Mike does.  Gadamer said that one needs to consider the prejudices
(preconceptions) of the reader of the text if one's goal is 'understanding.'
One cannot insist that the text be self-authenticating.  The reader
approaches the text with a set of prejudices and grapples toward
understanding.  His understanding can be said to be a combination of what
the writer intended and the prejudices that he brought to the text.
[Collingwood took this up in regard to the writing of History: The Idea of


Nothing I read in Hermeneutics suggested that anyone would take this
Hermeneutical movement to the reductio ad absurdum that Mike seems to be
suggesting, i.e., that the reader's prejudices take precedence over the
writers intentions.






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