Review: ‘The situation of poetry: contemporary poetry and its traditions’

by Robert Pinsky (Princeton UP)


John Bayley


It is certainly not easy, it is perhaps not discreet, not even to the point, for the critic of modern poetry to tell for us the good from the bad, the feeble ‘Me too’ from the strong ‘I thus.’ Himself an effective poet, Pinsky is full of the kind of sensitive and professional intelligence which a friendly artist might feel about fellow workers’ pictures or—to change the metaphor—an orchid-grower about the blooms in his hot-house which he palpates tenderly to show off their points and their subtle charms. There is something especially contemporary, too, about this open unfenced good nature, a social occasion in which everyone is lounging casually and happily in jeans, communicating in the same idiom, and all but merging into one another, though of course George has different problems from Harry and Louie is more outgoing than Jean.


So this book is about contemporary poetry in the most limiting sense: it will not make judgments because none can be made. What it does is to analyze the tones of voice in which we are being talked to—literally talked to—by such poets as Creeley, Ammons, O’Hara, Ginsberg, Cunningham, Strand. In and among them, as instances of work of similar sort out of which theirs has naturally developed, appear Wallace Stevens and Elizabeth Bishop, Lowell and Berryman, even Clare and Keats. And what particularly interests Pinsky, what he sees as the contemporary note, is being very precise, and yet at the same time apologizing for one’s precision, being dandified or rhetorical not naively or—as Leigh Hunt said about Keats—‘unmisgivingly,’ but in a humourous and deprecating, self-puncturing, ‘I know you know I know’ sort of way.


I am sure Pinsky is right that this is the local, the present note, and that this basic perception is what makes his book so sound and so illuminating. Also the risk it does not mind taking is that its comments may necessarily be as ephemeral as the poetry itself may be, as conversation is, or discussion in a class. For this sort of ‘present’ note is inevitably altered by the passage of time; its presentness may cease to appeal and become faded at the edges, as the poetry of Bly or of Stafford now seems. Or its appeal may survive and increase, in which case the note of intricate deprecation, befitting conversation among equals, will no longer be heard. It will become the note of art rather than of the contemporary, not the ‘I know you know’ but the man speaking to men.


And yet, as Pinsky demonstrates, we can learn a lot about the tones of the poet whom ‘eternity has changed into himself’ by listening to those of this immediate speaker, who is feigning hesitancy as a way of accentuating for our benefit the difficulty of what is being done. It is perhaps a peculiarly American technique, an aspect of a still developing American romanticism which has rejected the self, and the great statements of the self, its magnificent inventions and constructions, in favour of making the self appear only in its sense of the difficulty of being one. Not for nothing is ‘kidding on the level’ a concept as American as hot dogs. Whitman did it all the time, inventing a wonderful sly but open comedy of the self and its evasions, and the young poets of America are still loafing about in their misleadingly simplistic poems in the same way. As with Whitman, so with Stevens: the only subject is:


            the place of the human imagination in a world unlike

            itself. Similar as the material may be, it is approached

            so that it seems not to be an elaborate performance;

            the air of performance is dispelled by a technique . . .

            perfected by Allen Ginsberg, with his


            America I’m putting my queer shoulder to the wheel




            What thoughts I have of you tonight, Walt Whitman,

            for I walked down the sidestreets under the trees with

            a headache self-conscious looking at the full moon.


            This vigorous comedy of the self can be adapted so as

            to avoid making a big deal (as one of the poets in ques-

            tion might say) of the individual and his imagination.


The trouble is that avoiding the big deal becomes itself a rhetorical device, and in a merely talented poet a rapidly and wearisomely predictable one. Rhetoric, as Harold Bloom has forcefully demonstrated, is not mocked: it merely changes its appearance and its approach. Wallace Stevens disassociates himself from rhetoric by using it in a detached and quizzical manner, which makes self-consciousness more evident but also more soluble in community and confidence with the reader, with a general American tone of togetherness and awareness; So did Carlos Williams, and it is these two poets in particular who have bequeathed a generalized rhetorical tone to their young successors, the tone that Pinsky so well analyzes in this book.


A rhetoric of diffidence goes with an apparent preoccupation with the relation of words to things, consciousness to its object:


            Stevens in ‘Sunday morning’ imagines a kind of harmony

            or rapprochement between the conceptions created by

            the human mind and the particulars of the world, and he

            makes a poetic style which makes such a divine partner-

            ship credible, by the way it mingles the senses and the

            sense of the mind. Ammons in ‘Motion’ presents the

            division as absolute and so, implicitly, more problematical

            for the poet, since the parts of his medium which most

            ‘trap’ reality are least like it, and vice versa.


Well yes, that is a shrewd point: the words look least like the thing when they are aiming at it with the most difficult intentness. But the danger is that this merely becomes a new mannerism, like the sixteenth- or eighteenth-century versions of mannerism in art and poetry, and a mannerism rhetorically tied to the pose of modesty, of not knowing quite what you mean, or of having the greatest trouble in saying it. Pinsky quotes a poem of Robert Creeley which begins ‘Could write of fucking’—and observes admiringly that ‘if the poem is not slack, it narrowly avoids slackness through the nervous pressure’ of this particular version of the rhetorical pose of groping (it might be called the new epanorthosis or the ‘What-I-mean-is, man’). And the fact is that extreme self-consciousness about the relation between words and what the poem is ‘about’ is a pose that soon palls; it becomes boring when treated by the poet as the whole object of the exercise. As Pinsky demonstrates, with a tolerance that seems to me rather alarming, Russell Edson’s poem ‘A performance at Hog Theatre,’ where the hogs decide to give up acting hogs and just be hogs, is a variant—and a pretty slight one I should say—on Steven’s admirable ‘Snow man.’ Ditto with Ammons’s poem ‘Motion’ in relation to the master theme of Stevens that emerges in ‘Sunday morning.’


Pinsky has included Lowell and Berryman in his theory of the contemporary, but I think misleadingly. In fact it may be here that judgments and distinctions can be made, even some sort of standard asserted. It is quite true that there is a clowning element in the Henry figure of Berryman’s Dream songs, but this is the antic disposition of Hamlet or the Fool in Lear, and for a really good poet who can handle it—as Berryman can—it is a hallowed device, as moving as it is timeless. It is a long way from the contemporary use of persona to suggest that no ‘big deal’ is involved, and that ‘the poem supplies a way to have one’s self-dramatization and yet to judge it,’ as Pinsky observes. Surely we feel nothing of the sort when we become involved in the real drama of the Dream songs, though we certainly do with Pinsky’s other example, Ted Hughes’s artfully detached and low-pressure Crow.


The fact is that for Lowell and Berryman their situation was a very big deal indeed—‘costing not less than everything’—as it was for the lesser but still formidable talent of Sylvia Plath. Pinsky’s detailed analysis of the way Dream songs work is enormously intelligent, but he ignores the highly important fact that no-one could successfully follow or make ‘variants’ on that zany style, because it is most strong and unique where it seems most parodyable. The art of the life study—to whose stature as represented by Lowell and Berryman contemporary poetry obviously fails to measure up—is emphatically not to say ‘I’m just like you guys and I’ve no big deal to offer.’ It says I am myself alone, I am uniquely me. When Lowell writes in a poem ‘Everyone’s tired of my turmoil’ or ‘My mind’s not right’ or


                                                I often sigh still

            for the dark downward and vegetating kingdom

            of the fish and reptile ...


his words have acquired by the mysterious laws of poetic dominance, which no critic can evaluate or foresee, the same authority and uniqueness which Yeats possesses when he tells us—‘Suddenly I saw the cold and rook-delighting heaven’ or


            Once out of nature I shall never take

            My bodily form from any natural thing . . .


Such words have become themselves—however apparently contingent to the poet—and no possible other thing. And it is this absoluteness which may be feared, even perhaps unconsciously resented, by younger American poets, who find it easier as well as more feasible to develop the territory of Stevens and Carlos Williams, the territory in which dogs and cats and hogs and snowmen feel equally at home. Genius has given Lowell and Berryman the splendid self-justifying selfhood of aristocrats, and that isolates them from what Pinsky prefers and perhaps rightly considers the true contemporary note in American poetry, the note that is most traditional when most undifferentiated.