Tuesday, August 28, 2007
By which I mean Blake’s. But what follows is as histrionic as anything yowled by Friedberger frére et soeur. Something John Dolan said about Wordsworth made me think of something Allen Grossman said about Wordsworth and Blake.
Grossman’s bit comes from the Harvard Advocate interview I have previously mentioned. Since then I have found an extent version on the Buffalo Poetics Listserv, though it has formatting difficulties. Here’s the relevant bit from the interview: “The master from whom we can renew our motive to poetry is Blake. The effort to consider Wordsworth and to learn from him has failed.”
Grossman would seem to be pointing to the same consideration Dolan ends his study with, the continued hegemony of Wordsworthian poetics to this day. But Grossman has a different frame of reference. Not that he doesn’t recognize and respect the sociological aspects, but ultimately Grossman’s perspective stands on a high peak of metaphysical dramaturgy, as shown in the reference to Blake as a “master.” Still, there are some affinities between Grossman’s celestial and Dolan’s sublunary accounts.
The key to Grossman’s account would lie within the idea of a “motive to poetry” that needs to be renewed. Obviously, and as Grossman acknowledges in the interview, there are many motives to poetry, but he’s shooting for the stars. He’s intent on “important” poetry. He believes “poems are driven into existence by “problems,” and that important poems are driven by important problems, such as finding a “poetically adequate means of bringing to mind the catastrophe of history.”
Grossman’s assessment is that since the High Modernists the accomplishments of U.S. poetry, whose highest example is the work of Elizabeth Bishop, are unattached to important problems. He would have us contrast our situation with Europe, whose highest example is Célan.
The characteristic that holds back our poetry is “civility”: “Wordsworth’s civility isn’t inclusive enough to declare the full complexity of the poetic subject matter.” Civility here has a technical sense, referring to the requirement for recognizable artifacts, “poems of closure” that make themselves readily available to aesthetic apperception. The ambitions of poetry are limited in order that it produce graspable poems.
In contrast to the lessons of civility, Blake’s workshop offers an alternative doctrine: (1) representation is morally ambivalent. Art is not inherently healing. There is a violence to the letter; (2) poetry is important, poems are not. The great formal strategy behind the prophetic books is the avoidance of closure and the refusal to produce a graspable artifact; and (3) the motive of the poet should be cultural making in the largest sense. Imagination is the engine of such making.
All pretty heady stuff. Grossman’s not playing a harpsichord in a drawing room: he’s banging away on the big organ in the big cathedral. Such pomp couldn’t be further from the urbane wit of Dolan. But I think there is still some kind of relation.
Dolan calls Wordsworthian poetics “reactive,” by which he means “committed to rhetorical strategies to make the [grounding] event [of the poem] appear to have been real.” This reactivity is part of the underlying continuity from Milton through Wordsworth to the present age. It is a continuous commitment to a particular poetics of truth and a continuous suspicion of fiction. The poet promises not to be making something up. Even if the story is not an account of true events, it springs from deeper truths about human nature. Poetry must be authentic.
Now Dolan doesn’t talk about Blake, but it’s easy to see how, in contrast to Wordsworth’s reactivity, Blake offers creativity. Blake is not reacting to given reality; he’s trying to create a new one, the New Jerusalem. It also shows once again how difficult it is to include Wordsworth and Blake in the same account of Romanticism. About the only way to do it is to limit Blake to the Songs of Innocence and Experience. But then again, what else could Blake expect? If you refuse to produce graspable objects, you’re not going to get included in an undergraduate curriculum.
But how far does Blake get toward a new reality? He can thow us into his fiery furnaces (“The great representation of the workshop of the imagination was Blake’s account of the workshop of Los, which was a place of huge and murderous energies,” says Grossman), but is there a way out? Blake sets up a mythos to give his poetry shape and color, but if such a mythos is not to become yet another scripture, yet another iconography to be smelted (Grossman includes Blake in the tradition of Protestant iconoclasm), what is the reader to make of it?
Of course that is the way out. The reader is supposed to make something. Grossman claims that the current making closest to the Blakean tradition to be the Language Poets. At least if you count Susan Howe, in her Bibliography of the King’s Book, as LangPo. But Grossman acknowledges that her making leaves us with the same paradox: “iconoclasm doesn’t allow the very life it seeks to liberate…the breaking of images doesn’t release from the need for images.” The paradox could be too neat, but some of us do suffer from a sense of the chasm between our need for order (in representation as well as society) and the inadequacy of our given orders to teach us how, in Grossman’s words, “to live and not to die, in groups and not alone, and…to love one another.”
I told you the post would be histrionic.
This is a beautifully written post. I am wholly sympathetic to your desire to defend Wordsworth, but as someone who is also a reader of Blake, I am unconvinced that Blake needs to be diminished in Wordsworth’s defense.
First of all, some remarks on Grossman. Nothing is gained by making arbitrary judgements about vast areas of canonical literature. In my opinion, Elizabeth Bishop does treat subjects of intense seriousness, and is also not the highest product of American poetry. Paul Celan, who died in 1970, is unsuited to be the lone figure atop European poetry—he is neither still alive, nor the only European poet of significance during the period when he was.
Thus I am hesitant to argue against Grossman because even while he lives and breathes, he is a straw man.
Are we really to be thrown into the teeth of a re-fashioned version of the old debate between postmodernism (violence, disorder, artefactual disintegration, liberation) and conservatism (civility, order, clarity)? The young, rebellious Wordsworth was not averse to violence, at least insofar as he supported the French Revolution. Likewise, to deprive Blake’s mythos of its ordering scaffolding is actually to change the nature of the poems themselves. In a sense, Blake was much more of a systematizer than Wordsworth.
Wordsworth would have described “reacting to reality” as a loss of vision—at least that’s how the Wordsworth of the “Ode” would likely have responded. Meanwhile, Blake would have described his visionary flights as the only true reality. Creating a new society (the “new Jerusalem") is not the same as creating a new reality.
I read excerpts from Blake’s prophetic works as an undergraduate; I would say that they are ignored roughly in proportion to the neglect into which The Prelude has fallen.
Here you are talking about a need for order, and then a need for images, and I must admit to being bewildered at having these needs imposed (first not by you at all, but by Grossman). Assuming that I do love order, why would William Wordsworth, born 1770, be able to win it from the tangled circumstances of my life in 2007? No matter how much I admire Wordsworth, an act of translation and new creation is still incumbent on me. An image is also not identical with order, at all: Van Gogh and Basquiat were also producers of images.
There is a tension between Wordsworth’s conservatism, both ideological and poetic, and Blake’s utopian, prophetic experiments. That said, there are also tensions within Wordsworth that make him great, and the point of comparing him to Blake ought to be to bring them into relief, rather than, as Grossman has done, simplifying them down to caricature.
Thank you for your kind words, but I’m afraid the beauty in my post masks some poor interpretations. That is, given your response I’m afraid I’m misrepresenting Grossman. At least I would ask to hold off on any judgments of him until you see if I’ve presented him correctly.
I try to remember than any one way of looking at poetry is partial, no matter how grand its gestures. I was trying to say something like that in my response to Ray’s comment. Poetry is bigger than any individual account of it, bigger than all accounts of it put together. There are serious thoughts in Bishop’s poetry, much of which is very important to me. I worry, though, that I make it look as if Grossman is making a distinction between open & closed forms, something he specifically denies towards the end of the interview. The word “order” is not his, & my peroration at the end could be a distortion of the original.
Joseph: I’d say it’s the poetics of the sublime versus the poetics of the beautiful—a conflict which goes back long before that between postmodernism and conservatism.
What Grossman seems to miss is how ridiculous Blake’s prophetic books come off today—the same bathetic quality as Zarathustra. What endures of Blake’s are his *Songs*, which I’d connect to a tradition stretching forward to Dickinson to Celan to Fanny Howe.
(It’s also odd to argue that something as gorgeously produced as one of Blake’s books could somehow not be an object.)
In the end, this all feels like some smartypants sublimation of an argument in favor of exciting poetry. Which is fine, because the avants and post-avants are quite right that most of the lyric poetry being produced is boring as fuck.
The problem I have with this division of English-language poets into streams of Blakean versus Wordsworthian poetics is that most poets I can think of fit neither. Let me make a little list of the first few poets that come to mind. This is also probably the best way to see if I understood your argument correctly. I’ll try to speak entirely in terms of Blake and Wordsworth. These snap judgements are, of course, extremely subjective.
E. E. Cummings - I can’t see anything very Blakean or Wordsworthian about his work. Sure, he paid careful attention to the visual look of his texts, which could be called Blakean, and he rhapsodied the feelings of childhoow, which is redolent of Wordsorth, but he can’t be called an inheritor of either by any stretch.
Wallace Stevens - Can’t see it. At all. I mean… he can be hard to make sense of sometimes, which is a bit Blakean, but that shouldn’t be enough.
Lyn Hejinian - Admittedly I only really know My Life, which I can’t place squarely in either tradition. She’s usually numbered among the language poets, but My Life is very much a Wordsworthian project, though her poetics are far removed from him. I can’t detect anything Blakean in her either.
Gertrude Stein - Tender Buttons plays with the poetics of incomprehensibility, but there’s nothing prophetic about them.
Allen Ginsberg - Hmm… I might have to concede that one. Ginsberg certainly played up the prophet image, both in personal life and his poetry. Blakean.
Ezra Pound - Well… he was certainly a nut… but mere insanity shouldn’t be enough to make one a Blakean.
T. S. Eliot - An interesting one to consider. His politics and biography proclaim him Wordsworth’s heir in the 20th Century, but his poetics of fragments and occluded meaning are very Blakean.
Sylvia Plath - She’s certainly fiery, which is Blakean. I’ll concede her too.
I just realized that these are all American poets. Now that I’m thinking of British poets, I can immediately see some connections.
Philip Larkin - Very Wordsworthian. It’s perhaps my personal connection only.
Walter de la Mare - Wordsworthian.
Hugh McDiarmid - Blake. Less insane, certainly, but with a strong visionary element.
Harold Pinter - His early, brilliant poetry is Blakean.
Linton Kwesi Johnson - Fights for a better society. Does that make him Blakean? Can’t really see it in his poetics.
Carol Ann Duffy - I can see some Blake in her, though admittedly I don’t know her poetry all that well.
Louis MacNeice - Some of his stuff is Blakean, but mostly he gives off a Wordsworthian vibe.
Okay, now that I’ve gone through a list, I can sort of see it. But it seems incredibly reductive to me. In fact, if one would to examine closely the corpus of any poet one would find plenty of stereotypically Blakean and Wordsworthian instances. I’d wager that the same would happen with Wordsworth and Blake.
I would very much agree that the distinction is reductive. For me it works as a heuristic, helping me see certain aspects of poetry. & I do try to remember that poetry is bigger & stranger than any explanation of it.