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Fictions of Form in American Poetry

Fictions of Form in American Poetry

by Stephen Cushman

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In the 1830s Alexis de Tocqueville prophesied that American writers would slight, even despise, form--that they would favor the sensational over rational order. He suggested that this attitude was linked to a distinct concept of democracy in America. Exposing the inaccuracies of such claims when applied to poetry, Stephen Cushman maintains that American poets tend to


In the 1830s Alexis de Tocqueville prophesied that American writers would slight, even despise, form--that they would favor the sensational over rational order. He suggested that this attitude was linked to a distinct concept of democracy in America. Exposing the inaccuracies of such claims when applied to poetry, Stephen Cushman maintains that American poets tend to overvalue the formal aspects of their art and in turn overestimate the relationship between those formal aspects and various ideas of America. In this book Cushman examines poems and prose statements in which poets as diverse as Emily Dickinson and Ezra Pound describe their own poetic forms, and he investigates links and analogies between poets' notions of form and their notions of "Americanness."The book begins with a brief discussion of Whitman, who said, "The United States themselves are essentially the greatest poem." Cushman takes this to mean that American poetry has succeeded in making fictions about itself which persuade its readers that its uniqueness transcends merely geographical boundaries. He explores the truth of this statement by considering the Americanness of Emily Dickinson, Ezra Pound, Elizabeth Bishop, and A. R. Ammons. He concludes that the uniqueness of American poetry lies not so much in its forms as in its formalism and in the various attitudes that formalism reveals.

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From the Publisher

"Cushman's position is that major American poets have probably overvalued the formal and perhaps fallaciously have believed that the formal aspects of their poetry reflect deep-seated views of Americanness. The book is vital, new, offering the changing poetic view of America from 1855 to the present."--Choice

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Princeton University Press
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Princeton Legacy Library Series
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6.41(w) x 9.57(h) x 0.91(d)

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Fictions of Form in American Poetry

By Stephen Cushman


Copyright © 1993 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-06963-0



Surveying the "Literary Characteristics of Democratic Times," Tocqueville claims that "the inhabitants of the United States have, then, at present, properly speaking, no literature." In his reflections, published in the second part of Democracy in America (1840), he continues his inventory of the new nation's scant literary holdings, ignoring, among others, Irving, Cooper, and Bryant, whose reputations were well established by the time of his arrival in May 1831, and declaring unequivocally, "The only authors whom I acknowledge as American are the journalists" (2:56). But Tocqueville also prophesies that this situation will change, that America will generate a literature with a character "peculiarly its own," adding that it is not "impossible to trace this character beforehand." Among his many shrewd and useful insights appears this description of the style and form of American literature to come:

Taken as a whole, literature in democratic ages can never present, as it does in the periods of aristocracy, an aspect of order, regularity, science, and art; its form, on the contrary, will ordinarily be slighted, sometimes despised. Style will frequently be fantastic, incorrect, overburdened, and loose, almost always vehement and bold. Authors will aim at rapidity of execution more than at perfection of detail. Small productions will be more common than bulky books; there will be more wit than erudition, more imagination than profundity; and literary performances will bear marks of an untutored and rude vigor of thought, frequently of great variety and singular fecundity. The object of authors will be to astonish rather than to please, and to stir the passions more than to charm the taste. (2:59)

Although at least one of Tocqueville's foretellings is mistaken, since Melville's Moby-Dick and Pound's Cantos suggest that American fiction and poetry value large productions and "bulky books" as much as, if not more than, small ones, Tocqueville prophesies here with uncanny accuracy. As one thinks over the history of American poetry since this passage was written and considers the examples of Whitman's 1855 Leaves of Grass, Dickinson's poems, Moore's poems, Eliot's Waste Land, Cummings's poems, Pound's Cantos, Crane's The Bridge, Williams's Paterson, Roethke's The Lost Son, Olson's Maximus Poems, Ginsberg's Howl, Lowell's Life Studies, Tolson's Harlem Gallery, Berryman's Dream Songs, and Ammons's Sphere, the chain of adjectives "fantastic, incorrect, overburdened, and loose, almost always vehement and bold" repeats itself like an unavoidable refrain. Even Frost, Stevens, and Bishop, whose work may not seem immediately implicated by this refrain, must be included among poets who seek "to astonish rather than to please, and to stir the passions more than to charm the taste."

Two of Tocqueville's assertions, one explicit and one implicit, bear particular importance for this study. The explicit assertion about literature in democratic ages is that "its form, on the contrary, will ordinarily be slighted, sometimes despised." In context, this statement means that in their efforts to astonish and to stir the passions, American writers will not bother themselves with formal strictures observed in "periods of aristocracy" that value "an aspect of order, regularity, science, and art" or the confining rigors of traditional craft and technique. Although this statement is truer of some poets in the list above than of others, Tocqueville's formulation that American writers will slight and even despise form is problematic. Certainly, American poets, the object of this discussion, have shown a collective tendency to slight, and in extreme cases despise, inherited poetic forms, but the gist of Tocqueville's statement is that, therefore, American poets slight or undervalue the formal aspects of their art in general, and this is not true. If anything, American poets overvalue the formal aspects of their art, investing those aspects with tremendous significance. This overvaluation, which persists throughout the period between Tocqueville's Democracy in America and the present, generating so many vehement and bold poems, as well as vehement and bold explanations of those poems, is one of my main concerns.

A second main concern involves the implicit assertion of Tocqueville's description, the assertion that a necessary link exists between slighted form or fantastic style and democracy in America, or, more accurately, the idea of democracy in America. In Tocqueville's thinking, the slighting or despising of traditional literary form stands as a synecdoche for the promotion of rapid execution over perfection and wit over erudition, as well as for "an untutored and rude vigor of thought" that frequently demonstrates its "great variety and singular fecundity." In turn, these literary characteristics stand as synecdoches for the general characteristics—social, economic, political, psychological—of democratic times. Tocqueville's implicit linking of literary form to democracy anticipates Whitman's by at least fifteen years, but by the time Whitman announces in his 1855 preface that "the United States themselves are essentially the greatest poem," the merging of literary form with national myth has become explicit.

Here arise two further considerations for a study of American poetry from Emerson and Whitman to the present. The first involves the generic nature of verse itself, not just American verse of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In the idiom of modern linguistics, Antony Easthope formulates this generic definition: "So, in several ways, one of which is entirely specific to it, poetry contains repetitions in the signifier which thus work to foreground the signifier. This feature can stand as a definition of poetry." Although I would argue that this is a definition of verse, not of poetry, which necessarily involves not just form but also figure or trope, it is useful nonetheless. The features of poetic form—the nature of lineation, the presence or absence of meter and rhyme, the cooperations of sound and sense, syntactic and rhetorical patterns, fixed forms—can never be subordinated to some more significant aspect of the poem because there is no more significant aspect of the poem as a piece of verse. Verse distinguishes itself by exhibiting its schematic repetitions.

The second consideration has to do specifically with American poetry of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Since American poets tend to overvalue the formal aspects of their art, it follows that they also tend to overestimate the synecdochic relationship between those formal aspects and various ideas of America. It is one thing to trace in the style of a writer an implied set of notions of, and attitudes toward, America, but it is quite another to evaluate critically the polemical statements of Whitman, Pound, Williams, or Ginsberg, statements that use notions of America as explicit justifications for various aesthetic ideologies. For example, when Roethke, equally adept at metrical and nonmetrical forms, explains in his essay "Some Remarks on Rhythm" (1960) that "there are areas of experience in modern life that simply cannot be rendered by either the formal lyric or straight prose," he implies a procedure for reading. Instead of proceeding from the technical aspects of style to an implied notion of American experience, the reader encounters first a notion of that experience from which, Roethke argues, a certain appropriate style, with certain formal aspects, ought to follow.

Such an argument is a fiction, or rather a series of fictions: a fiction about modern life (parts of it are inaccessible to certain literary forms), a fiction about literary forms (certain forms can do things other forms cannot), and a fiction about the relationship between them (the poet ought to find the right form for modern life). To call these assumptions "fictions" is not to judge their truth value, not to call them wrong or false. Instead, it is to suggest that American poetry defines and distinguishes itself not only by the unique ways in which it foregrounds signifiers but also by the unique ways in which it promotes the significance of its own formation. Statements such as Roethke's operate alongside a poem, establishing a figurative discourse that relates to the poem as a patient's associations in therapy about a dream relate to the dream itself: although not strictly part of the original, they often develop or extend the original, appearing to analyze or explain but instead compounding precisely that which needs to be analyzed or explained.

The fictions of form in American poetry arise, then, from both the heightened significance American poets attach to form as it organizes a given poem or poems and the figurative significance they attach to form as it relates to the world outside the poem, the world or worlds they think of as America. In their discussion of contemporary American poetic schools and techniques, Harold Bloom and David Bromwich treat these fictions harshly: "Am[erican] poetry since the end of World War II is an epitome of this reverse Emersonianism: no other poets in Western history have so self-deceivingly organized themselves along the supposed lines of formal divisions." Not at all shy about judging the truth value of "the supposed lines of formal divisions," which have been so important to American poets not just since World War II but since Emerson, Bloom and Bromwich recall Tocqueville in a significant way. Quoting Emerson's injunction "Ask the fact for the form" ("Poetry and Imagination") to claim that recent American poets have reversed it "to beg the form for the fact," they conclude with the question "For what, finally, can poetic form mean to an Am[erican]?"

Posed as a rhetorical question, this query corners the reader, demanding an answer such as "nothing" or "not much." These are certainly the answers Tocqueville would expect, having described American writers who will slight or despise the obstacles form places between them and the bold expression of their rude, untutored vigor. But whereas Tocqueville describes, wrongly as it turns out, the secondary importance he believes Americans will attach to form, Bloom and Bromwich prescribe that Americans ought not to attach to it the primary importance that many do. According to them, the American poet overvalues form as a defense against the recognition of this essential truth: "Every American] poet who aspires to strength knows that he starts in the eveningland, realizes he is a latecomer, fears to be only a secondary man." The implication, then, is that only a secondary poet considers form primary. Support for this belief could come from Emerson's statement that "it is not metres, but a metre-making argument that makes a poem," a statement that many have read as a justification for organicism, but one that could also mean that poetic form of any kind should not matter compared with "a thought so passionate and alive."

This is an attractive position. It rests on a long tradition of distinguishing between mere versifiers and true poets, a tradition including Emerson's statement in "The Poet" (1844) that "we do not speak now of men of poetical talents, or of industry and skill in metre, but of the true poet" (W 3:8–9). In the specific context of Emerson's thought, or a Bloomian account of Emerson's thought, this position gathers the added power of Romantic rhetoric, which pits the loftiness of individual sublimity against the smallness of social conventions, including the literary conventions of poetic form. The culmination of this thinking comes in the magisterial dismissal, "neither closed nor open forms could be anything but an evasion." But this formulation is inadequate for at least two reasons. First, although it strives to correct the overvaluation of poetic form, it does so by undervaluing poetic form. This is true of many discussions of poetry and individual poems, discussions that mistakenly assume that what a poem "says" can be extracted from its formal husk. Bloom's own work, so often admirable and incisive, is especially guilty, as his tracking of figurative patterns leads from the prose of Emerson or Freud to the verse of Whitman or Stevens as though these were interchangeable kinds of discourse.

Second, if it is true that neither closed nor open forms could be anything but an evasion, then of all people Bloom, the master classifier of evasions, should realize how significant poetic forms are. He should realize that the more American poets concentrate on form, in both theory and practice, the more meaning accrues to whatever it is they are evading by means of form. For him the explanation is simple: formal preoccupations mask anxiousness about poetic strength and originality. No doubt, to a large extent this is true. But any poet emerging now in any country necessarily emerges in Bloom's belated eveningland; and yet, according to Bloom and Bromwich, no other poets in Western history have been so preoccupied with formal issues. If this last statement is true, then there must be some connection between the Americanness of these poets and their preoccupations.

One last interesting aspect of the discussion by Bloom and Bromwich is that it marks an end point of the literary historical narrative that begins with Tocqueville. Between the 1830s, when the latter predicts American writers will be indifferent to form, and the 1970s, when the former find American poets organizing themselves along the lines of formal divisions, at least one aspect of American poetry changes dramatically. Especially remarkable is the language various commentators have used to describe the engines and motives behind this change. In it the idioms of psychopathology abound. Predictably, Bloom and Bromwich speak of "a welter of wholly shared anxieties that unite the feuding camps." But they are not alone in adopting this tone. In The Continuity of American Poetry (1961), Roy Harvey Pearce describes the history of American poetry as the history of "the American poet's compulsion (or obligation) again and again to justify his existence as poet." As a result of this compulsiveness, he concludes, "American poetry is characteristically tendentious, over-committed, programmatic, self-conscious, often—even in its moments of grandeur—provincial and jejune." In Lucifer in Harness (1973), Edwin Fussell sketches "a literary situation dominated by deprivation and therefore by excessive national self-consciousness and resentment, manageable only by desperate remedies born of frustration and tension." Discussing experimentalism in American poetry, John Hollander notes that "an obsession with form has been widespread in American poetry" and argues that "the sine qua non of originality has led to an almost obsessive concern, in American poetry in particular, with metrical format." Finally, Daniel Hoffman details in rather grisly terms "the fratricidal intensity" that characterizes quarrels among various American poetic schools and groups.

Anxiety, compulsion, self-consciousness, desperation, frustration, tension, obsession, fratricidal intensity: these terms probe the dark side of the American will toward poetic independence, a will that Emerson's address "The American Scholar" (1837) first voices so aggressively in public: "Our day of dependence, our long apprenticeship to the learning of other lands, draws to a close" (W 1:81). The synchronization of Emerson's exhortations and Tocqueville's unflattering survey is no coincidence. Although the history of American poetry includes the earlier accomplishments of, among others, Bradstreet, Taylor, Freneau, Wheatley, Bryant, and Poe, each of whom manifests a certain self-consciousness about the role of a poet in the New World, American poetic self-consciousness becomes acute with Emerson's reaction to the same void Tocqueville observes. This acuteness not only makes the language of psychopathology appropriate to the critical discussions mentioned above; it also saturates the reexamination of poetic form that Emerson initiates.

In his remarks about the fratricidal intensity of contemporary disagreements, Hoffman goes on to comment that such intensity "reflects a peculiarly American situation." This statement belongs to the large body of commentary by writers who attempt to define the Americanness of American poetry. For example, having acknowledged only journalists as American authors, Tocqueville classifies other writers as "aliens" who "amuse the mind, but ... do not act upon the manners of the people" (2:56). Also written from a foreigner's perspective, Auden's essay "American Poetry" (1955) calls the diversity of such poets as Longfellow and Whitman "an American phenomenon" and proceeds with a statement that anticipates Pearce's quoted above: "To some degree every American poet feels that the whole responsibility for contemporary poetry has fallen upon his shoulders, that he is a literary aristocracy of one." But it is in a longer passage that Auden approaches American fictions of poetic form:

Just as in their political thinking Americans are apt to identify the undemocratic with monarchy, so, in their aesthetics, they are apt to identify the falsely conventional with rhyme and meter. The prose of Emerson and Thoreau is superior to their verse, because verse in its formal nature protests against protesting; it demands that to some degree we accept things as they are, not for any rational or moral reason, but simply because they happen to be that way; it implies an element of frivolity in the creation.

Like Tocqueville, Auden recognizes the analogy between American political thinking and aesthetics, but he differs by criticizing implicitly the reductive, humorless aspect of the analogy, especially its failure to recognize and enjoy a frivolity that is the opposite of acute self-consciousness, anxiety, compulsion, obsessiveness, and the rest.


Excerpted from Fictions of Form in American Poetry by Stephen Cushman. Copyright © 1993 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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