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The Anthology of Contemporary American Poetry
Helen Vendler, ed.
London & New York: I.B. Tauris, 2003.
£14.95, 448 pages, ISBN 1-86064-837-1.

Joanny Moulin
Université d'Aix-Marseille I

 

This is in fact a reprint of and anthology first published in 1986 by the English publishers Faber & Faber. Even the 1985 introduction has been left unchanged, but the book remains interesting by its silences and the statements it insists on making once again, whether implicitly or explicitly. The adjective contemporary here refers to the second half of the twentieth century, rather conventionally envisioned as falling into two halves, on both sides of World War II, which correspond to the modernist and the post-modernist periods, the latter being considered as a continuation of, and hardly at all a rupture from the first. This is a selection from the works of thirty-five poets, beginning with Wallace Stevens who is thought to have come into his own only after 1955. The anthology is American indeed, be it only by the dedication with which Helen Vendler strives to demonstrate the American idiosyncrasy of the poetry she has chosen to represent in these pages. She must be complimented for having included brief biographies, "thinking especially of foreign readers." This amounts to declaring the conviction that a poem is best understood with at least some background knowledge of who its author is, a good poem being always, for Helen Vendler, more or less a "lyric" poem. But this must not be seriously understood as anything like an effort to palliate this specific lack of foreigners, which is bound to bar them access to "the intimate linguistic charm of poetry" which "stops at the frontiers of its original language, " whereas non-American readers can only enjoy the "intellectual and moral command" of the poems collected here.

This would be an unfair simplification, for this anthology includes poems by Charles Simic, who was born in Yugoslavia and only educated in the United States of America. It is merely that Helen Vendler is a critic with a romantic sensibility of sorts, who believes in the genius locii or sense of place, and in what Grace Paley once called writing with an accent: poetry, for her, is primarily a matter of ear before it is one of eye; or else if poetry looks, what counts is its second look at the same thing. Music and rhythm, although she will not harp on this now too well-known rapprochement, is essential to her favourite experience of poetry, and she hears the American language of the twentieth-century as having assimilated the syncopation of jazz, so that what counts most is the "unjustified margin of poetry," that is to say its "perpetual self-halting." That is what distinguishes poetry from the transparent spool of modern prose, that vanishes as soon as it has jettisoned the short-lived information it is meant to merely convey. And in this sense she would seem to implicitly agree with Williams that there is something essentially un-American in poetry itself, which is "at odds with the optimistic American dream of an ever-unrolling frontier." Yet she is softly advocating the idea that "our second-generation modernists," that is to say the post-modernist poets represented in this volume, are at once involved in a "less embattled relationship with Europe" and more self-confidently American than the modernists, who were "Americans who had Europeanized themselves with a vengeance." Part of the works of the American poets of the second half of the century amounts to replications of the modernists, whether "in homage" or "in quarrel," but they are also characterised by a salvaging reliance on influences from other parts of the world than Europe, or European cultures other than those of "England and France." In a sense, these more recent poets may have succeeded where the modernists had failed, in "forming a gestalt of what we inherit."

Characteristically, whereas "Pound is all nominal phrases; Lowell is all syntax." Remarkably, however, one eminently American development of post-modern poetry has most probably been the unprecedented development of women poets, because they have succeeded in "printing a new sign" in "the zodiac of poetry" but they did so without any role models, discounting at least two notable predecessors, Dickinson and Moore. Yet, in spite of her conceding that this generation of poets is stigmatised by what she calls "the absence of the transcendent" and the radical replacement of metaphysics by physical science, Helen Vendler keeps an unwavering faith in something like "the zodiac of poetry," some transcendental pantheon of stars where only the happy few "are elevated" to "canonical status" by "authority of style." Poetry, for her, has still very much the societal function of what T.E. Hulme once called "spilt religion." Wordsworth retains much relevance in her eye, as for instance when he declares that "poetry is the history and science of feeling." Her staunch belief, derived from Williams again, that a good poem is an illusionistic "machine made out of words" and that "if it is properly constructed it cannot fail to perform its function, which is so to control its reader, by its selective and stylized processional means, that the reader ‘cannot chose but hear’," is still redolent of new criticism with a structuralist colouring, which proudly belongs to the spiritual inheritance of the romantic ideology. Difficulty or obscurity remains a token of poetic genius, and she will insist with Stevens that "it isn't necessary that you understand [my] poetry or any poetry. It is only necessary that the writer understand it."

All this is very well, but it leaves out of the picture a whole movement, that has gathered enough surface and impetus to be considered a tradition, of poets who are not essentially interested in "understanding" their poetry. A foreigner trusting to Helen Vendler's anthology for a general survey of contemporary American poetry would be left in total ignorance of "Language" poets or what is sometimes called innovative poetry. One might vainly peruse the list of authors and the index looking for the names of poets such as, for instance, Antin, Bernstein, Howe, or even so-called Black-Mountain poets like Creeley, Duncan or Olson. Naturally, this selection claims to be representative of nothing else than the personal taste of its editor, but the definite article in its title makes this silencing sound like a slightly embarrassing erasure. In her own vocabulary, some poets were left out because their poems seemed "thin." For Helen Vendler sees modern America as essentially a "Freudian" and a "post-Marxist" world characterized by "the absence of the transcendent," yet which is still definitely oriented towards a rather positivist sense-making quest romance in which poetry is understood to play a leading part. "The aim of poetry," she writes, "is to saturate every terrain, every city, every village, so that every American child might find a native landscape invested with language. This was, after all, the normal condition of the European child." The new American poetry as she sees it is aiming to equal the lurid accuracy of perception and style which is that of a snapshot or photograph. After wondering whether the cinema might not have made a more adequate image of the condition to which the modern form of veteran poetry should aspire, one is left in the end with one more stubborn revisiting of Aristotelian mimesis and Horatian ut pictura poesis.

 


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