John Latta on Louise Bogan on Shifting Poetic Style, Or: My Poetic Lineage (II)

Latta is always worth reading, but the post that begins with this pair of paragraphs puts a whole run of literary history into high relief:
Odd to think that Stephen Crane’d be a mere four years older than Robert Frost. That spare pre-imagist verse—Crane call’d himself an “impressionist”—of Black Riders publish’d at age twenty-four. Louise Bogan—in a little book call’d Achievement in Ameican Poetry (1951), something I demob’d out of the cellar paperbacks yesterday, looking for Robbe-Grillet—Bogan calls Crane’s talent “natural and instinctive,” pointing to a combo of “initial awkwardness” and “early brilliance,” and hints that he “hardly developed.” (Which’d be about all one’d claim for any writer dead at twenty-eight.) I try to think of Crane, say, post-Pound, or amidst the The Masses cohort, or among the “proletarian” ’thirties writers, or writing about WWII. It’s good to try to jump off the tracks of the thundering locomotive that is the innate historical (time) provincialism of the century, and the country, something “enormously and increasingly unavoidable” as one (oneself) participates (too) in the unending quotidian documentation of everything, so caught up in the vamping processional of now that one begins to assume a kind of pedigree regarding all one’s doings, one that scorns anything prior. So: it’s of some interest to note how Bogan, in a chapter call’d “Poetry at the Half-Century, 1939-1950,” rehearses the same marks of anxiety that apparently persist another half-century later. Her complaint: after the “richness and variety” of work that “exploded into being after 1912,” the epigones, the latecomers, “though generally far more informed and better equipped than their elders, found themselves functioning in a period of absorption, rather than in one of energetic projection.” She notes “a diminution of creative vitality,” “a stiffening of method,” “a drying out of emotion,” “a growth of self-consciousness,” “a return of skepticism and relative timidity,” a “tendency toward expertness and control,” and “a complete exhaustion of experimentalism.” The last, Bogan notes, “follows a natural sequence,” and proceeds to quote Eliot regarding the limits to any “extreme awareness and concern for language,” it being “something which must ultimately break down, owing to an increasing strain against which the human mind and nerves will rebel.” (A funny thing for a writer to say, even a nervous Nellie like the Possum.)
It is not fashionable to admit, but I came up as a poet during the heyday of the Confessional poets of mid-20th century & their academic fellow-travelers. But in there too were the Beats, especially Ginsberg & Kerouac. When I was writing my first poems, I had the elder Modernists in my mind, Eliot especially, but also Auden, along with Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton & John Berryman, Theodore Roethke (I went to college in the Northwest), and then, after a class in Romanticism, I spent a lot of time on William Blake as a kind of founding father. Ronald Johnson taught me how to read William Carlos Williams, deeply liberating. (Johnson was fantastically important to me for a few months in the mid-1970s when he had a short-term teaching gig at the UW, but I don't pretend to have more than a superficial sense of what he was doing in how own work.) ll through this period of my late teens & early twenties the soundtrack was the Beatles, the Stones, & Bob Dylan. I listened closely enough to eventually feel the need to dig out some of their source material -- not such an easy thing in in the 1970s & 1980s. There was a period in there when I read quite a few of the Eastern European poets then being translated, those translated voices in turn becoming the basis of a generic workshop tone that one still hears in a lot of poetry. And I certainly participated in that. (And then there was a long & disastrous love-affair with James Wright, from which I am still not fully recovered.) I still pull out Milosz & Herbert & still find in them models of imagination worthy of imitation. But there is a sense in which they don't count because I read them in translation. I've read less poetry in the last decade that previously -- I think this is the normal arc of a poet's life -- but the poet I return to repeatedly is Hayden Carruth, in whom I find a deep formality coupled with a moral vision of the world, neither of which is fashionable these days. Carruth's roots in jazz & blues gives his work a groove I hear going back through all the poetries I love, right back to the Childe Ballads & their American descendants & beyond. As for experimental poetries, I know what they look like, I think & I know (I think) that they seek to put language under stress in certain ways. And that reference is less important than play. But experimentalism has never appealed to me as a way of composing poems, seeming too premeditated & formalist, in the sense of formulaic. Philosophically, I have an empirical streak & a strong Pragmatist orientation. I agree with Dewey that next to the miracle human communication, the miracle of transubstantiation fades into triviality. I've recently been reading Jack Spicer, who is sometimes claimed by the experimentalists, but what I hear is a groove -- something I do not hear, for all their intellectual playfulness -- in poets like Charles Bernstein or Ron Silliman. Both smart guys but I can't dance to them.

Author: jd

Joseph Duemer is Professor of Literature Emeritus at Clarkson University in northern New York state. His most recent book of poems is Magical Thinking from Ohio State University Press. Since the mid-1990s he has spent a good deal of time in Vietnam, mostly Hanoi. He lives with his wife Carole & five terriers (four Jack Russells & one Patterdale) on the stony bank of the Raquette River in South Colton.

1 thought on “John Latta on Louise Bogan on Shifting Poetic Style, Or: My Poetic Lineage (II)”

  1. ONE FINCH

    Not to bear with indignity
    the melodrama the profound
    stupidity at the bird feeder
    that local school of thinking

    hardly our shoes on
    but the greater mourning
    dove perches sidewise
    in her contortions of hunger

    as a general handbook
    lesser mortals follow to aspire
    narrowly as sparrows

    still paying for that flush
    of pride on the finch
    how many costumes later.

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