I’m still reading, at my slow pace, Hollis’s book The Waste Land: A Biography of a Poem, which gets mixed reviews (from me). Hollis spends at least half, if not more, of Part I discussing Ezra Pound and his poetry. And yes, Pound’s editing was essential to the development of The Waste Land, but Hollis’s discussion of Pound fails to elucidate his editorial process or, really, The Waste Land itself. Hollis seems to assume that discussing Pound and his poetry is enough, but it’s not. One could start the book on Page 219 (Part II of the book), where Hollis actually begins his “biography” of the poem, and the book wouldn’t horribly suffer. The first 218 pages are largely scene setting and, of that, the same could have possibly been accomplished with a third as many pages. We don’t need to know how much Eliot paid for rent, how many times the water swept over the estuaries of Bosham Channel, what Virginia thought of Vivien, or who attended this or that boozy dinner party.
But here’s what really struck me about the book (and I in no way dispute The Waste Land’s greatness), it reads less like a centenary celebration of the poem and more like an unwitting elegy to the era. When I read Pound’s poetry, especially his poetry, and the development of the modernist aesthetic, it all strikes me as tired and exhausted. We’ve lived in the fallout of the modernists all our lives. And sure, Pound wrote a handful of anthologizable poems, but so did any number of serviceable poets in the centuries prior to Pound. Pound was nothing exceptional in that respect. And yes, Pound was an original poet. His Cantos were original. His poetic ideas were original. But originality, as the 20th century has amply demonstrated, isn’t enough. By no stretch of the imagination are the Cantos a first rate poetic achievement. They’re the uneven product of a troubled visionary. There are moments of rigor and beauty, but also the banal masked by inaccessibility.
We’re almost a quarter of the way through the 21st century and modern poetry is still largely 20th century poetry—and it’s exhausted. One senses a public desperate for poets to move on, to let go of the 20th century and its facile conflation of “difficulty” with originality, depth and artistic worth. Think of Rupi Kauer’s poetry. Think of it as minimalist poetry—as if all the junk and excess of 20th century poetry had finally been jettisoned from the living room. And think of her incredible success! Consider how strange that Mary Oliver’s poetry, the most successful and widely read of the latter 20th century, still needs defending while John Ashbery’s poetry, with only a fraction of the readership, is already published in the Library of America. While he was still writing! The difference is that Oliver didn’t write the “difficult” poetry that is still consistently favored by poets, academics and critics. As the New Yorker puts it:
~ By any measure, Oliver is a distinguished and important poet. She published her first collection, “No Voyage and Other Poems,” in 1963, when she was twenty-eight; “American Primitive,” her fourth full-length book, won the Pulitzer Prize, in 1984, and “New and Selected Poems” won the National Book Award, in 1992. Still, perhaps because she writes about old-fashioned subjects—nature, beauty, and, worst of all, God—she has not been taken seriously by most poetry critics. None of her books has received a full-length review in the Times. In the Times’ capsule review of “Why I Wake Early” (2004), the nicest adjective the writer, Stephen Burt, could come up with for her work was “earnest.” What Mary Oliver’s Critics Don’t Understand
The difference is that the editors (and poets) who decide these things have a stake in exalting the aesthetics of the last hundred years (themselves being acolytes of modernism and its various offshoots—Acmeism, Imagism, Free verse, Futurism, Objectivism, Dada, Postmodernism, Surrealism). But one gets the feeling that they’re at war with 21st century readers. Readers read poets like Oliver and Kauer in the millions all while being subtly (and not so subtly) told that the great poets are the “difficult” poets—poets they have little interest in reading. There’s a clear disconnect. That’s okay if you’re an artist, have a canvass to sell, and can auction it off to the 1%. If success is defined as living off your creative work, then artists optionally don’t have to care whether the general public likes their work. They only have to appeal to a narrow coterie of critics, taste-makers and the auction house. Poets don’t have that luxury.
But really, getting back to The Waste Land: A Biography of a Poem— It’s the exhaustion. It’s how Pound and Eliot’s novel ideas, to me, sound spent and worn out. The last hundred years have run their innovations into the ground—along with being misunderstood. When poets lacked the talent to make their subject matter new, they turned from content to medium. “Make it new” meant hiding mediocrity behind a veneer of “difficulty”—the pointless obscurities, the superficial complexities in verse and language, the vapid “profundity” signaled by abstruse and obscure allusions. Joyce recognized the academic appeal of “difficulty” when he wrote that Finnegan’s Wake would “keep the critics busy for 300 years.” He perfectly understood his audience. Think of academia as a secret society and academics as the high Priests of inaccessible 20th century texts. Only through them, their books and their classes, can the keys to the obscure text be found. Is it any wonder they champion these texts? Do you want the keys to Pound’s Cantos? Then how about A Companion to the Cantos by Carroll F. Terrell, Pound’s Cantos Declassified by Philip Furia, A Guide to the Cantos of Ezra Pound, Revised Edition, by William Cookson, etc… Without their keys the Cantos are inaccessible to even the most sophisticated reader. They would have to speak multiple languages and simultaneously be familiar with extensive biographical trivia concerning Pound’s life and times. But it’s in the interest of a variety of editors, critics, and poets to give the impression that literature is great when and because it’s difficult. It’s their livelihood after all. But one wonders when the 20th century will end for poetry? Maybe we’ll know when it no longer feels necessary to write New Yorker articles defending a poet who was the most successful of her generation from critics championing poets who remain among the least successful of their generation.
Another timely, accurate, and relevant post for those few acolytes of true poetry in the world who need to hear that the 20th century is over, that it wasn’t the end-all and be-all of poetry, and that moving on does not mean clinging to the tired traditions of modernism! Yes, I said “traditions” as in “traditional verse.” “In a Station of the Metro” was published 0ne hundred and eleven years ago. The poetry that grew from Pound’s criticism and support is not new. Even then, it wasn’t new because, as many critics have pointed out, Pound merely stole his Imagist ideas from the Eastern texts he was studying at the time. Anyway, you covered that. Nice!
It always amuses me when traditional verse forms are referred to as “received forms”, as if, after over a century of largely inert free verse, free verse isn’t itself a “received form”.
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Amuses–and, eventually frustrates, and then angers. Imagine that thinking Walt Whitman’s “forms” are not “received.” It is tough.
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