Three books on American poetry

Critical Quarterly 27, 4 (December 1985), pp 88-90


A. Robert Lee (ed.), Nineteenth-Century American Poetry (Barnes & Noble)

R. W. Butterfield, Modern American Poetry (Barnes & Noble)

Alan Williamson, Introspection and Contemporary Poetry (Harvard University Press)



The first two of these volumes belong to the ‘Critical Studies’ series of symposia on American literature. The general aim seems to be an admixture of summa¬tion and stimulus; here the contributors, many of whom teach at the Univer¬sities of Essex and Kent, have opted chiefly for the latter. Their critical judgements have the air of intervening in a discourse of received opinion.

The hard-pressed undergraduate need not be too anxious, however. Each editor offers a brief opening perspective on the period and the poetry about to be reinterpreted. Of the two introductions it is Butterfield’s which says more in less space. In essence, he tells us, the history of modern American poetry may be explained as a triadic tension: that between ‘America’, ‘the poem’ and ‘the self’. If he is tentative about referring each of these to a particular formative figure, it is because he wants to encourage the student to discover how subtly the elements have ‘conjoined’ over the years. He strongly hints, though, at Whitman, Poe and Dickinson respectively.

Lee, while less comprehensive, is more encouraging about tracing origins and lines. Excluding Butterfield’s middle term, poetry per se, he takes as his matrix a binary opposition between ‘public’ and ‘private’, ‘American identity’ and ‘singular identity’ — thus enabling him to speak of a continuity between Whitman and Olson and between Dickinson and Plath. But again, the reader is warned: American literary inheritance is, we must never forget, a ‘complex fate’.

Lee’s volume thus offers two varying readings of Whitman: one (by Eric Mottram) as ‘public’ prophet and another (by Mark Kinkead-Weekes) as ‘private’ lyricist. Within one essay on Dickinson, Jim Philip attends both to the New England and Puritan context and to the personal courage implicit in the power of the verse. Of the remaining contributions, Robert von Hallberg’s account of Poe invites attention, precisely because it might be expected to evade the editor’s paradigm; yet here again, if ‘American identity’ and ‘singular identity’ are briefly overshadowed by a theory of pure poetry, this in itself is soon explained as Poe’s own challenge to English cultural hegemony.

The main link between the two ‘Critical Studies’ volumes is provided by Graham Clarke. Concluding Nineteenth-Century American Poetry, he demonstrates how Whitman and others, parallel to East Coast landscape painting and in keeping with Emerson’s philosophy of Transcendentalism, worked towards an ‘ideal realism’: that is, a formal achievement whereby the self was able to ‘read’ America as God’s ‘text’, as ‘a literal prospect which signified an implicit mythical dimension’. To regain ‘this “true” meaning, this original image’, it was necessary to ‘establish an aesthetic freed from entrapping conventions and traditions which stood between the eye and its divine object’. Then, in the middle of Modern American Poetry, Clarke tells us that Olson’s ‘insistence on origins’, his search for ‘the original moment of naming’ (the spoken act, taken to precede the word as written form) is a way of reasserting and revivifying the initial Emersonian impulse. This, it seems, is how to make sense also of Williams, and even Crane (as demonstrated by Jim Philip and Jeremy Reed). But it proves an uncongenial context for Wallace Stevens: we find Richard Gray referring him back almost apologetically to English Romanticism rather than American Transcendentalism.

English Romanticism is just where Alan Williamson unreservedly begins. Indeed, in the introduction to Introspection and Contemporary Poetry, a study of the American scene of the past twenty-five years, he quotes an English Romantic — ‘we receive but what we give, / And in our life alone does Nature live’ — to such effect that it makes one wonder why Lee and Butterfield did not go to more pains to explain where exactly the Emersonian self and nature depart from the Coleridgean. There is a danger that even the diligent student might come away from their volumes thinking that the main difference is America itself, where self and nature evidently come in bigger sizes.

Leaving the peculiar advantages of his country aside, then, Williamson, Professor of English at the University of California, attends rather to the way certain of its recent poets have related to the Romantic faith. He devotes much of his time to work which, though attributed to a tradition by Lee, is virtually neglected by Butterfield: the ‘confessional’ poetry of Lowell and Plath. True, Gabriel Pearson does discuss the former in Modern American Poetry but, con¬fining himself to For Lizzie and Harriet, deems Lowell guilty of exhibitionism; Plath is not mentioned once throughout the whole volume. Williamson himself, however, is by no means interested in straightforward self-expression. ‘Confessionalism’, he assures us, is only valid where it involves a ‘reflexive mode’, a constant turning round upon the self, an insistence on its responsibility to common humanity and the world. Lowell’s The Dolphin and Plath’s Ariel would seem to fulfil this requirement.

But the poet central to Williamson’s argument — that the best poetry of the last twenty-five years is about ‘the sense of being or having a self, a knowable personal identity’– is not ‘confessional’ at all. Ashbery is one of those who have reacted against the rhetorical excesses of his introspective predecessors, but he is not finally to be identified with the impersonal surrealism of his peers, Merwin and Strand. Admitting that our experience of the world is arbitrary and largely superficial, and that the self cannot be disengaged from that experience for purposes of diagnosis, he yet indicates (to Williamson at least) that meaning may exist in the very capacity of the self to embrace its chaos.

Thus we are brought back to Romanticism: if not Coleridge’s then Keats’s certainly. ‘Negative capability’ is not, one suspects, what Butterfield would have wanted any contributor of his to find in Ashbery. But Williamson makes a good case, and his book (difficult going as it sometimes is) may be recommended as an extension of, and a partial corrective to, both these usefully provocative ‘Critical Studies’ volumes.


Laurence Coupe