Every kind of composition, even the most poetical, is nothing but a chain of propositions and reasonings; not always indeed the justest and most exact, but still plausible and specious, however disguised by the coloring of the imagination.
—David Hume, “Of the Standard of Taste”

“The poem must resist the intelligence/ Almost successfully”—these are among Wallace Stevens’s most famous lines. They are also his most problematic legacy. With what instruments may one calibrate the ultimate triumph of the intelligence over its opposite—call it unintelligibility, unreason? Will Stevens’s ideal poem elude, frustrate, confuse us only at the outset, or will it be hours, days, even years (if one is sufficiently intrigued and dedicated) before a cohesive thought emerges from the poem’s dim regions of association, like a miner from an airless shaft?

Since the rise of modernism, beginning with the Symbolists of the nineteenth century, a poem’s opacity has evolved into a virtue in itself, the mystery of the poem a guarantor of its authenticity. A contemporary Casaubon could amply fill his days poring over a century’s worth of poetry anthologies to provide A Key to All Opacities. A clarifying logic in poetry is not, for its detractors, the counterweight to imagination but its negation. For such skeptics (idealists?), the very word is devoid of poetry. A poem that does not leave behind the crippling yoke of reason in favor of the airy freedoms of sensory impression and supercharged emotion, they feel, is not just half a poem but no poem at all.

The poet and critic J. V. Cunningham points out in his essay “Logic and Lyric” that even school handbooks tend to define poetry as that literary form most concerned with emotion as opposed to reason. But why can’t it be concerned with both? Cunningham, quoting the passage from Hume I have copied above, wants to know why a poem’s chain of reasonings can’t be more than “merely plausible and specious,” both just and exact. Can a poem express its subject in terms of a syllogism and still be a poem? he slyly asks, knowing that he has Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress” up his sleeve as proof that it can. Even so, he writes, “the incautious romantic will deny the possibility [of logic in poetry], and with a repugnance of feeling that would preclude any further discussion. For logic and lyric are generally regarded as opposites, if not as contradictory terms.”

The abandonment of logic and reason in poetry, like the abandonment of traditional meter, is nothing new. The estimable critic and biographer Charles Molesworth singles out several poems in Paul Carroll’s anthology The Young American Poets (1968), which contain fanciful lines such as “Like lemon jello in a dream-/ child’s hand, here is my heart,// I don’t know what to do with it.” “What we have here,” Molesworth writes,

is an idiom of poetry that will, that must, appropriate anything it can find in its desperate attempt at self-definition. It is also a poetry that often relies on a thin and fragmented narrative structure in order to energize itself; and this bare-bones narration combines with bizarre, frequently razor-sharp imagery, with little or no weight or social definition, to produce lyrics that might be called surrealist parables… . [T]hese surrealist parables are in some measure the heirs of Confessional poetry. They differ from their predecessors in being more disjunctive in their structures.

Now here, forty years later, are a few examples, from an anthology published this January, Legitimate Dangers: American Poets of the New Century, edited by Michael Dumanis and Kate Marvin:

Some thought it was because of all the babies I suddenly seemed to be having. Others, that I should pay for the damages. Fact is, I wasn’t getting any older, so I bought a small aquarium, and skipped town. Took up with a toy store owner until he left me for a more beautiful robot. (from “The Babies”)

1. These are the vague demands you make on me
2. (that I) assemble
(to) recollect
(to) decode
() associate

3. that I admit, fraught with difficulty, reintegration
is no day at the beach in eggshell tints
“The inmates start to get brave and a little
when they hear that friendly voice—the matron.
(from “Sybil”)

1. Burned Christ to a crisp. 2. On the Betty Crocker burner. 3. Tied a body to the railroad tracks. It wore the clothes of a girl. 4. Later found naked and weeping in the fields. 5. It was a body of straw. 6. It wore a note that said: I am God. 7. Drove father’s golf cart into the pond. My final hole in one, said the note stuffed in the ninth hole. 8. Stole prize roses from Mother’s garden. Wore them on the head, as wreath, in secret, admiring the Romanesque profile in the bathroom mirror. (from “50 Years in the Career of an Aspiring Thug”)

This last poem, you’ll be gratified to know, runs on to number forty-nine.

It is worth noting that the co-editor Michael Dumanis “fell in love” with poetry partly as a result of reading Carroll’s compilation, and even a cursory glance shows these anthologies’ shared affinity for surrealist burlesque. This lends the new anthology a nostalgic and retrospective feel. Yet the introduction by the poet Mark Doty, titled “Group Portrait with a Yak,” lays out these poets’ claim for newness:

Once when Dean Young was trying to defend some poems to a group of interrogators who weren’t enchanted by the work at hand, he said a simple but wonderful thing: “Well, the poet’s trying to write a poem that never existed before.”

I don’t remember the poems in question, and I suspect that Dean himself didn’t like them all that much, even though he was their eloquent advocate. He was trying to defend, in terms of openness, a certain form of postmodern lyricism to readers who didn’t want to go there… .

Here is a huge trove of work by young poets trying to write a poetry that hasn’t already been inscribed.

And here, if you will bear with me a bit longer, are two more examples of this kind of poem that has never before been written:

hello hello night again don’t worry about it this is
your cave man speaking grasshoppers whose life
is as dizzy as their death green lagoon water even
drowned that will never be my color thinking of
you I have to pawn all my words a whole stream of
bathing beauties in their sleds as the day goes by
(from “The Automatic Crystal”)
Ingredients: One kilo black radishes; three white hens; one head of garlic; four kilos honey; one mirror; two calf’s livers; one brick; two clothespins; one whalebone corset; two false moustaches; two hats of your choice. (from “A Recipe: How to Produce Erotic Dreams”)

Forgive me for this impertinent stunt: These poems are not from Legitimate Dangers but from a book of surrealist love poems recently edited by Mary Ann Caws. The poets are Aimé Césaire and Remedios Varo, both born in 1913. If there is a difference between the two sets of examples it is that the Surrealist poems are better. There is nothing new about this purportedly new poetry. The sad fact is, it wasn’t all that great the first time around, but at least then it had a certain amount of energy and subversive humor. Now it just seems like watery gruel served up by a stern and superior matron.

At a couple of points in his introduction, Doty praises the “openess” and “inclusiveness” of the volume, but this inclusiveness is as deceptive as the poems’ newfangledness. Here is Molesworth’s take on the underlying uniformity of this kind of latter-day cocktail of Surrealism and Confessionalism (again, this is from thirty years ago!):

Many of the traits exhibited in common by surrealist parables and confessional poetry are, of course, endemic to most American contemporary poetry … . The use of a toneless first-person speaker; a relatively dense but discontinuous imagery; a constant, one might almost say willed, preoccupation with alienation and emotional dislocation; an interior life rendered in terms of bizarre figures or ironic parables: these traits can often be traced, in part, to a writer-audience nexus that is extremely threadbare, and they imply, despite their pluralistic attitudes, a fairly limited but homogeneous audience of readers who generally accept psychological maladjustment and social impotence as the given… .

So the poems are “inclusive” to everyone except the general reader, who is not, as Molesworth rightly suggests, the target for poems of this stripe. These poems’ main concern is to produce enough linguistic and emotional shocks to jar initiates into sympathetic vibration. One does not walk away from these poems with a clearer understanding of human experience, merely a reinforced sense that experience is fragmentary and assaultive. One is offered the striptease of poems that are both forthright and coy. Like-minded readers can feel that they are transgressing boundaries together with the poet, but such boundaries in the end are boring. They’ve been transgressed so often and in such similar fashion that the gateway through to the secret garden of so-called cutting-edge art is now a superhighway that anyone with a graduate degree in poetry can navigate at high speed.

There is a slipshod quality to a lot of contemporary poetry, much of it run off of the same sausage grinder and in great quantity. This is perhaps not surprising, given that it’s fairly easy to produce. How could it not be? More difficult would be to achieve a balance between thought and emotion, such that every word, every sound and rhythm, is responsible for maintaining this mysterious union.

The best that can be said of the unrealist poets is that they have learned to manipulate a certain tone or music; they have mastered the comic timing that one associates with the non sequitur; they have pushed the elements of metaphor to, and even past, the breaking point; they are fluent in a coterie language of their fellows, who also claim the mantle of the avant-garde. The worst that can be said of them is that their poems’ emotional overstatements and distrust of reason foster a deadening of perception, until the ability to discern the finer degrees of thought and emotion is lost. If a poet’s project is to strip away thought and argument, to what is emotion accountable, against what touchstone may it be tested? There is a dangerously sentimental underpinning to much unrealist verse, in the sense of counterfeiting emotion and experience. Without reason in poems, we are at the mercy of those who cry out the loudest. We are on the heath where all distinctions blur and vanish in the storm.

Charles Molesworth’s vision of contemporary poetry as an amalgam of the Confessional and the Surreal has proven highly perceptive and prescient. His book The Fierce Embrace: A Study of Contemporary American Poetry (University of Missouri Press, 1979) considers the work of many of the last century’s finest poets. As he reminds us, one of the poets that helped to push Confessionalism toward Surrealism was Robert Lowell: “I lean heavily to the rational,” Lowell wrote in the “Afterthought” to the 1970 edition of Notebook,

but am devoted to unrealism. An unrealist must not say, “The man entered a house,” but, “The man entered a police whistle,” or, “Seasick with marital happiness, the wife plunges her eyes in her husband swimming like vagueness on the grass.”

Sound familiar? One suspects that Lowell had his tongue at least partly in his cheek here. The new poetry pales in comparison to its Confessional and Surrealist predecessors in that it is both sillier and more earnest. The signature of so-called postmodern verse seems to be that it’s winking with one eye, while mascara streams from the other: the result is a series of grimaces that desperately mean to communicate something inscrutable to exactly no one. “The true unreal is about something, and eats from the abundance of reality,” writes Lowell. This “something” that the unreal is about remains elusive. Today the feeding frenzy of unreality continues unabated, with reality even scarcer on the ground.

Not all of the writing in Legitimate Dangers follows the unrealist program. Of the eighty-five young poets included, a number are extremely fine and will move the art form forward in the years to come. Even so, there are literally hundreds of examples like the ones I’ve quoted. Here is one that goes against the grain by Greg Williamson, a highly gifted younger poet. In “Junkyard,” he imagines the young drivers of the dented cars he finds strewn about:

Despite the somberness of smashed front ends,
Cracked windshields and a bullet-riddled door,
How dated and naive those children seem,
Behind the wheel or taken for a ride,
Now that ivy has climbed in the back seats
And water stagnates in the pickup beds
Where, once, in parking lots or country roads
Our discontinued parents ground their gears.

Many immediate and lingering pleasures inhere in this passage. Much could be said about these lines, but one phrase that strikes me as both fierce and original is “our discontinued parents.” Williams poignantly discards them onto the scrap heap of memory with a word, even as “ground their gears” lends their frustrated activity a sexual overtone.

I agree with Dean Young: I, too, would like to read a poem that hasn’t been written before, one that isn’t merely a rehash of worn-out conventions. It’s striking how little has changed in the better part of a century. Artists who still insist that novelty is the sine qua non of “genius” don’t seem to realize how tired, how predictable, “genius” has become.

Go to the top of the document.

  1. Legitimate Dangers: American Poets of the New Century, edited by Michael Dumanis and Kate Marvin, with an introduction by Mark Doty; Sarabande Books, 491 pages, $24. Go back to the text.
  2. Surrealist Love Poems, edited by Mary Ann Caws; University of Chicago Press, 120 pages, $15. Go back to the text.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 24 Number 8, on page 24
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