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Towards a Fresh Perspective on Contemporary American Poetry Richard Rand

1. How to present contemporary American poetry to Francophone readers--poetry, furthermore, in translation? Po&sie will do so in two parts, in two panels to be published across two successive issues. Appearing in the first panel are poets renowned in France, poets who found their voices in the 1940's and 1950's--John Ashbery, Allen Ginsburg, and Charles Olson among them. Appearing in the second panel are lesser-known poets whose work has emerged in the past twenty years. Here we meet the inevitable problem of finding writers who could be said to represent contemporary American poetry (as much for Anglophone readers as for anyone else). Supposing that 10,000 American poets have published books in the past twenty years--this figure is just a guess--how not to drown in this ocean while trying to scan its horizon? 2. Arbitrarily, we begin by setting an artificial limit: the poets of the second panel, few in number, should be born in 1960 or after, old enough to comprise a generation, but young enough to present a discovery. What do we gain by setting such a limit? At best we've reduced the pool from 10000 poets to 4000 or so.... Let us therefore proceed to inquire of our neighbors, read journals, browse bookstores, visit libraries and surf the internet. In so doing, we may manage, if lucky, to shrink our pool to one or two hundred poets.... And 1

thereby showing exactly what, we may fairly ask? We show that such an exercise, even when done with due diligence and impartial good faith, can only yield a random, capricious, and arbitrary selection--a meaningful selection being the work of many (and unavailable) decades. At best we can offer the reader a few interesting, perhaps exceptional, poems.... (Little but these? These are much!).... But if such a choice is to be truly interesting, it also needs to be justified--it has to follow a guiding sense, a broader scope, a profile such that the reader will recognize the literary logic of the choice. Or at least the illogic of the choice--the logic illuminating the illogic of the actual choosing. 3. What logic could actually govern this (perhaps illogical) choice? One that springs from the poetry itself--a logic not always formulated? There is, for example, a canon of American poetry to which our poets, however unwittingly, have always referred: this canon has been studied and confirmed, exhaustively so, by such eminent critics as Harold Bloom and Helen Vendler. What do these readers tell us? 4. They tell us, sensibly enough, that the canon starts with poets of the nineteenth century--Whitman and Dickinson in particular--whose work is an emanation (an aftermath or response) to Ralph Waldo Emerson's writings in prose and verse, famously so in the instance of Walt Whitman, taken as the fons et origens of all subsequent American poetry (such, in particular, is the argument of Harold Bloom, spelled out, with singular persistence, in his forty or fifty book-length studies of American literature). But what, according to this genealogy, does the work of "Emerson" mean? 5. Emerson, in the shorthand of American critical rhetoric, means the thing that Emerson himself designated as "transcendentalism"; American letters--contemporary American poetry in particular--can certainly be read as a transcendentalist project. To be more precise, let us begin by oversimplifying the thing. 6. Emerson's thought is through and through an affirmation of the "organic", of a certain "organicism" received, in part, from the later prose writings of Coleridge (in particular, The Statesman's Manual, 1816). "Organicism" here means: no rupture between body and

soul, no rupture between past, present and future, no rupture between warring parties, no rupture, finally, between life and death. Excluded, and rigorously so, from this perspective are all the conceptual tendencies that have come to be known as the "dialectic of the negative", or the work of the "plastic" in its various senses, including those of explosion and (unpredictable) re-formation. 7. Granted, then, that most American literature (contemporary poetry included) is rightly viewed as an instance of Emersonian organicism, should we not grant, as well, that such organicism can only be affirmed by also rejecting, or severely delimiting, a literature of the "inorganic"--expelling it, so to speak, through a range of negative evaluations, designating it, for example, as "European" (a derogation that Whitman in particular prefers)? American literature indeed makes allowances--famous allowances, if often reluctantly--for this supplemental inorganicism: hence that the writings of Hawthorne, Poe and Melville are granted a place (or space), strictly marginal, in the ongoing transcendentalist scheme of things. 8. How do we discern the contours of this marginal supplement? American poets and critics have been clear on one point from the very start, laying down a strong distinction between poetry (organic in essence) and prose (essentially inorganic). In American literature, indeed, the very distinction between prose and poetry is founded upon the value of the organic: thus Poe and Melville, taken as authors of an inorganic persuasion, are read for their prose, not their poetry--a most revealing omission, since this poetry certainly rivals, and, in the case of Melville, absolutely exceeds, in its force and scope, the poetry of the Emersonian line. Melville's poetry has yet to be discovered, has yet to be read (a few devotees excepted)--just as his prose had yet to be read before the centenary of his birth in 1919. We will cite just one stunning instance of Melville's superior, and utterly unacknowledged, force in relation to Whitman: in 1865, Whitman, for whom America's organic unity as a nation is an article of unshakeable faith, publishes a book of poems (Drum-Taps) recounting his experiences of the Civil War, a book in which the Civil War itself--marking the irreversible ruin of the American social contract-is never explicitly discussed: in Drum-Taps we read about a war of some kind, complete 3

with soldiers marching, fighting, and dying, and with flags flying and bugles and drums a-playing, but with never a word about slavery, secession, fratricidal hatred, or the ruin of the nation as founded by Jefferson, Washington, Ben Franklin, and their fellow founding fathers. By contrast, Herman Melville's Battle-Pieces (1866) discusses nothing but the Civil War, taken as the death of the nation ("The founders dream shall flee"). 9. Though few Americans, and very few American poets, have ever bothered to read Melville's poetry, we can assert, with all due confidence, that it stands alone (perhaps with Poe's and Longfellow's at its side), as America's truly major poetry, while the poetry of the Emersonian line--including, in the twentieth century, the work of such immortals as Pound, Eliot, Williams, Frost, Crane, Stevens, Moore and Bishop--comprises a minor canon. For all its (well-recognized) splendor, the minor canon does not begin to approach the force and scope of Melville's prophetic power, his philosophical, rhetorical and historical vision. 10. We would suggest, in sum, that America's minor poets--contemporary or otherwise, some of whom we are fortunate to publish in the forthcoming issues of Po&sie--be read from the perspective of the major. Fortunately for the francophone reader, some superb translations of Melville's poems (some of the Battle-Pieces among them) have been published by Pierre Leyris and Serge Fauchereau (and in bi-lingual editions, by the way). When read conjointly with those translations, the inevitable arbitrariness of our selection can be taken for what it has to be--a matter of admittedly minor import. Richard Rand