Monday, January 4, 2016

Something I Read #16 -- David Perkins

This comes from David Perkins's A History of Modern Poetry: From the 1890s to the High Modernist Mode (1976; pgs 128-130; it is the first of a two volume history), closing off his discussion of Edward Arlington Robinson. The ideas he raises are both historical and theoretical in nature.

These long narratives go on mostly for between eighty and a hundred pages and make up abut two-thirds of Robinson's total output. They appear to have been admired mainly on principle and to have been more praised than read. Neither can one challenge this consensus of inattention. It is impossible to read them with more than languid interest. To ask why this is so, however, is to raise fundamental. questions about the limitations and the evolution of poetry in the modern world. Robinson, to be sure, was not a storyteller of Chaucerian genius. But since the Romantic period no poet has scored a major success in narrative poems of this length, though a good many have tried. One thinks of Browning's The Ring and the Book, Arnold's Sohrab and Rustum, the tales of Morris, and Yeats's Wanderings of Oisin. The short short story of a few hundred lines, such as Frost's "The Witch of Coos," or a series of linked lyrics making up a story, such as Meredith's Modern Love, seem to exhaust the possibilities open to poetry on this line. Why? Answers can only be speculative, and while we are speculating, we should keep in mind that the question of the long narrative poem overlaps the question of the long poem generally. Here again there have been few successes that cannot be reduced to the general form of a long poem made up out of linked short ones: for example, In Memoriam, The House of Life, The Waste Land, Four Quartets, The Bridge, Paterson. The few exceptions that spring to mind – the longer epistles of Auden or Ginsberg's Kaddish – are especially revealing: they succeed precisely because they avoid the more condensed uses of language that have been the norm of poetry for the last fifty years.

Two large, historical facts explain the present state of affairs. In the eighteenth century there was a rapid disappearance of the kind of thinking that judges a poem by expectations derived from the genre to which it belongs. For practical purposes – guiding the procedures of the writer and the expectations of the reader – the traditional genres of epic and mock-epic, epistle and satire vanished, leaving the poetic scene to the lyric or to the indefinite and amorphous genre of the descriptive-meditative poem, such as Thomson's Seasons or Cowper's Task. The disappearance of definite genres for the long poem meant that every long poem had to be a more or less original and ad hoc invention and, once developed, it could not be adopted by another poet without the stigma (in the modern world) of being an imitator. Thus, there can be no second Don Juan simply because there is the first, no second Four Quartets because there is the first. The poet must not only invent an original form, he must do it, as W.J. Bate has argued, in a milieu where the possibility of new invention may seem to the poet all but exhausted.

A much more important fact is that since the eighteenth century poetry has existed in competition with imaginative prose, and that prose has increasingly devoured the possibilities open to verse. Though this applies especially to prose fiction, one should not forget the essay and the descriptive vignette. Why prose has been able to do this so triumphantly is a question that can ultimately be answered only by referring to the intrinsic potentialities of the medium; for many purposes prose is a more flexible instrument. Whatever the explanation, the process has become a vicious circle or spiral. As prose has taken over steadily more, poetry has increasingly come to mean the lyric – the short, intense utterance. This shift of expectation was complete by the middle of the nineteenth century, and one result was that the reading of poetry was relegated to rare, particular moods. But as this time poetry still retained a "popular" or at least an easily accessible idiom. A further step was taken with the development of the Modernist idiom in the 1920s. This made poetry more difficult and therefore intellectually more challenging and thus created a different audience for it. But this audience was more specialized and limited than ever before, and it was an audience for exceptionally condensed uses of language. Readers capable of reading the current, serious prose fiction often could not read the poetry that corresponded to it, so, to some extent, a different audience developed for the two arts. Moreover, the audience for poetry – which includes poets themselves – was looking for condensed and heightened uses of language that absolutely prohibited the long poem, for the simple practical reason that attention cannot be kept at such a pitch for so long. The audience for long poems no longer exists; and, to return to Robinson, there is particularly no audience for an attempt to write novels in verse. The reader of fiction is put off because it is poetry; the reader of poetry, because it lacks the intensity he seeks. And because these pressures of expectation are felt most of all by poets themselves as they write, their intentions are divided and they fail to accomplish either. It is extremely doubtful that, had Robinson been writing prose, he would have allowed himself the fatal excesses of the plots themselves.

The passage may be thought to be weaked by Perkins's not maintaining throughout his discerning between genre literature and aesthetic literature, to which he points directly in the moment about Don Juan and Four Quartets, and which is the true center of the argument. When Perkins reaches "the audience for long poems no longer exists," what he is saying is that the historical genres of long-form verse no longer exist (thus, no readers of those genres). Though, that may be intentional, as that recognition opens the door to a discussion that leads this short excursion into long explorations.

1 comment:

  1. I have spent the past four years composing 124,000 lines of blank verse in an epic narrative poem that describes the development of philosophy in ancient Greece through the presentation of 25 Greek and 1 Roman philosopher, from Thales to Lucretius.

    Since it is so new, and hardly anyone has heard of it, much less read, and none have yet read the entire thing in depth enough to critique it, I have no idea if it works as a narrative or not.

    However, I had a great time writing it, experiencing the life of each philosopher as I composed the tale.

    I call it the Hermead for Hermes.