One Kind of Everything: Poem and Person in Contemporary Americaby Dan Chiasson
One Kind of Everything elucidates the uses of autobiography and constructions of personhood in American poetry since World War II, with helpful reference to American literature in general since Emerson. Taking on one of the most crucial issues in American poetry of the last fifty years, celebrated poet Dan Chiasson explores what is lost or gained when/i>
One Kind of Everything elucidates the uses of autobiography and constructions of personhood in American poetry since World War II, with helpful reference to American literature in general since Emerson. Taking on one of the most crucial issues in American poetry of the last fifty years, celebrated poet Dan Chiasson explores what is lost or gained when real-life experiences are made part of the subject matter and source material for poetry. In five extended, scholarly essays—on Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Bishop, Frank Bidart, Frank O’Hara, and Louise Glück—Chiasson looks specifically to bridge the chasm between formal and experimental poetry in the United States. Regardless of form, Chiasson argues that recent American poetry is most thoughtful when it engages most forcefully with autobiographical material, either in an effort to embrace it or denounce it.
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Read an ExcerptOne Kind of Everything Poem and Person in Contemporary America
By DAN CHIASSON
The University of Chicago Press Copyright © 2007 The University of Chicago
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Chapter One Reading Objects: Robert Lowell
The work of Robert Lowell is marked by its pronounced use of autobiographical facts and by a profound, counterpointed skepticism about the poetic use of such facts. His career reads like an alternating conjuring, and subsequent repudiation, of the personal life. Lowell's temperament from the start was antipersonal, occasionally to an absurd extent: he is said to have written, during his freshman year at Harvard, an epic on the First Crusade. His early poems are apocalyptic renderings of local sites and tend toward dire and overheated prophecy. Lowell's early style came to seem to him rigid and shrill, a "goliath's armor of brazen metric," as he says of Milton. Lowell himself came to see those early poems as a displacement onto history of his own hysteria and turned, in the late fifties, to writing the muted and personal poems that would make up his book Life Studies. Life Studies and the poems it inspired-poems of the so-called confessional school-depict the shocks of family life in the American milieu, doing so in a more-or-less conversational idiom, an idiom meant to surprise by its informality, and employing a Freudian logic of repression and recovery. Lowell's first nakedly "factual" poems date from this period, where Lowell seems to want to transform as little as possible to realia while still making them available to representation.
Lowell's use of autobiographical facts sparked an immediate scandal; among his contemporaries it was felt that excessive factuality violated the decorum of lyric poetry, a standard that modernism, with its emphasis on poetic impersonality, had reinforced. Lowell's work seemed, compared with the poems of his immediate predecessors and indeed with his own early poems, "sensational." (There was a countervailing enthusiasm for the book, of course, on the part of readers who liked sensationalism.) Later in Lowell's career, his critics' indictment of his excessive facticity seems to have been partly internalized-indeed his sublimely remorseful last poem, "Epilogue," states the case against facticity most eloquently:
Those blessed structures, plot and rhyme, why are they no help to me now I want to make something imagined, not recalled? (Collected Poems)
The poem stages a problem-"my poetry doesn't adequately satisfy my desire 'to make' anymore, so anchored is it in the brute 'facts' of life"-which it won't fully resolve, so at the end of Lowell's career we are left with an indictment so severely persuasive that it seems irrefutable. You build an edifice, and then you tear it down-this was the formula for Yeats and Stevens, two of Lowell's masters. But somehow in those earlier poets the tearing down seemed more vigorous, more a flexing of imaginative muscle. "[The] absence of imagination / had itself to be imagined," writes Stevens (502), whose refusal to write down his own first-order experiences was sustained to the very end. Lowell's remorseful formula substitutes the "recalled" for the "imagined"-consigning poetry to the mere recording of "what happened."
Lowell's self-critique is primarily an aesthetic one, a matter of taste, and as such it conjures its own refutation. "I like my poetry recalled," someone might say-"I think that the imagination is overrated." ("I have always been / more interested in truth than in imagination" [James Schuyler, "A Few Days"]). But poetic style isn't merely an aesthetic matter, of course (by which I mean, aesthetics isn't merely an aesthetic matter). In the years since Lowell's death, a more substantial critique of Lowell's work has taken hold. This critique supposes that Lowell's autobiographical facticity reflects a narrow-and a now politically and philosophically discredited-model of the self. This newer critique is complex and far-reaching enough to merit a long study all its own, since it mirrors a general turn in the culture of poetry, what Stephen Burt has called the "epistemological turn." Poets don't conceive of "selves" as concatenations of facts, anymore, the argument goes, but rather epistemological or perceptual processes. Poets like A. R. Ammons or Jorie Graham explore the relation between cognition and its objects or between the body and the sense data that bombards it. The world's resistance to cognitive mastery is often figured, in poets like Ammons and Graham, as a superabundance, a turmoil too wild to be tamed: Stevens's "The Auroras of Autumn," with its serpentine and annihilating sky, is the ancestor of this kind of contemporary poem. For Ammons and Graham, in the time it takes to name existing phenomena, new phenomena are always taking shape; the mind is therefore always lagging behind experience.
This so-called epistemological turn is related, also, to a linguistic turn, exemplified by poets of the Language school. The tendency of language toward unruliness, and the subsequent institutional need to affix meaning to otherwise errant, subversive signifiers, provides Language poets with their theoretical frame. Language poets have located the crisis point for lyric, then, in the corruptions of denotative language itself and have written intentionally unreadable poems to resist those corruptions. Both Language poets and "epistemological" poets employ factual data, in Ammons's case to show the limits of cognitive mastery, in the Language poets' case to show the fallibility of denotative language; but significant autobiographical fact, the sort of fact Lowell so often employs, is anathema to these poets for whom the notion of linguistic determinacy is itself naive.
The suspicion of facticity dovetails with larger, more naggingly ad hominem, suspicions of Lowell. His friend Elizabeth Bishop expressed this rather brutal point cordially, in a famous letter to Lowell: "I must confess ... that I am green with envy of your kind of assurance. I feel that I could write in as much detail about my uncle Artie, say-but what would be the significance? Nothing at all.... Whereas all you have to do is put down the names! And the fact that it seems significant, illustrative, American, etc., gives you, I think, the confidence you display about tackling any idea or theme, seriously, in both writing and conversation" (One Art 351). Lowell's "assurance" comes from the steadying effect of his impeccable "Americanness," which provides, for his otherwise uneventful details, an "illustrative" quality, a quality of speaking beyond the confines of any one self. This very assurance has come to seem more and more like appropriation, though, as the meaning of the signifier "American" has itself shifted and slipped, growing ever more indeterminate as the signified, the American citizenry, has evolved. Mark Strand, writing in the 1990s, expresses the going view of Lowell's "assurance": "Lowell would like to bury his past, but needs it for the mythologizing of himself. As a consequence, the mythic portentousness of some of his poems is full of self-mocking irony.... The confessional poet's need to document his life with facts gives his poetry a chatty quality.... His insecurity and consequent mania for naming keep him from being a truly subjective poet. He names in order to possess, and possessing, in turn, is part of what helps him to account for himself" (Strand 112). For Strand and for many others, the heart of the problem seems to be Lowell's "need to document his life with facts," an urge Strand connects with the desire to "possess." In this account Lowell becomes a little like the "hermit heiress" in his poem "Skunk Hour" who "buys up all the eyesores facing her shore / and lets them fall." Lowell's acquisitiveness is of course a condition of immense privilege, since (to extend the conceit) only the very rich can make possession the minimal requirement of selfhood. Lowell seemingly keeps even our attention by these means, buying it with the inflated capital of his significant facts. Strand thinks Lowell's need for external corroboration, his taste for bric-a-brac "keeps him from being a truly subjective poet," meaning a poet alert to the subtleties of consciousness as it weighs and assesses the perceptual world. A reader even superficially acquainted with Strand's own work will know immediately what at least one "truly subjective" poetry might sound like-namely, like Strand's own poetry, with its sly way of seeing realia at a slant.
Robert Lowell cannot be read satisfyingly without an interest, on his reader's part, in autobiography-an interest, that is, in the way the self is constituted in the social world, by means of autobiographical fact: the names and dates that plot us on the various grids that constitute familial, social, and political life. (If you think that such data have no place in lyric poetry, you won't enjoy reading Lowell.) These are as much a fundamental part of his subjectivity as Strand's still lifes and impressionistic seascapes. It is probably too late in reading culture to dismiss poets entirely for their subject matter; we no longer have taboo subjects, only more or less easily retrievable ones. Lowell chose one of the least retrievable, most dismissible ones: his own family. He deserves credit for his boldness alone. But Lowell's primary interest isn't in autobiography per se but, rather, in two problems related to autobiography. The first is, how might autobiographical fact-which normally has meaning only in social discourse-be successfully integrated back into imaginative and emotional life and the forms of art that proceed from them? The second, nearly inverse problem, is how might the private self-the self most intelligible in lyric poetry-be integrated into the social and, particularly, the political world? "I'm tired. Everyone's tired of my turmoil," Lowell laments at the end of "Eye and Tooth." That "everyone" means not only Lowell's intimate circle but, allegorically, the "everyone" that constitutes the nation. How might poets, "turmoil"-ridden necessarily, also be citizens? How might citizens, as citizens, also be poets?
Lowell's critics have long worried about the problem of how such an inveterately private poet could claim for himself a public role. I will not seek an answer to that question here but, rather, show how Lowell makes poems out of posing that question to himself. I am especially interested here in how Lowell makes autobiography (to quote Stevens) "a little hard to see"-often literally hard to see: as I will show, Lowell's frequent tropes of compromised sight-boarded windows, scratched corneas, lost glasses-are ways of talking about his own vexed desire to extend himself into the common world and (conversely) to integrate the common world into the imagination. Lowell is always "reading" his autobiography and, often (as I will show), is literally reading it, inscribed on book jackets, in his own earlier poems, on tombstones and memorial statues. His "significance" is not a fixed or settled fact but a fact that requires constant, vigorous recognition.
Three Reading Acts: "Father's Bedroom," "Blizzard in Cambridge," and "For the Union Dead"
"Emotion" in Lowell, writes Alan Williamson, is often "held at a distance by ... the relentless, documentary accumulation of facts: place names, brand-names, dates, bits of history, and objects, objects, objects, each one handled with the meticulousness of an Agassiz" (Williamson, Monsters 55). Williamson is regarding an aspect of Lowell that depends on what might be called a modernist evasion of subjectivity by means of what Marianne Moore names (in "An Octopus") "relentless accuracy" and defines as "capacity for fact." The cultural mood that could prompt Yvor Winters, tired of poetic license, to call for a "Poet's Handbook to Science" is often Lowell's mood; and yet Lowell's facts are not scientific but historical and (as a subset of the historical) personal. His poems are filled with "bric-a-brac": old photographs, odd volumes of old books, beer cans, oil portraits, and at least one pair of gigantic upholstered dice are the details that spring immediately to mind. These facts and factlike objects bear themselves differently from Moore's or Pound's facts, asking precisely how much emotion might be shown to inhere in mere things.
I want now to consider a poem that would seem easily dismissible, based on the various cases against Lowell I have sketched above. "Father's Bedroom" is a poem that even those sympathetic to Lowell describe as "interesting only if one is already interested in Lowell" (Sontag and Graham 17). It is a simple, nearly a slight, poem, but it provides an arresting example of what mere facts can convey in Lowell's hands. The poem's only ambition is, it seems, to inventory the contents of Lowell's father's bedroom after his death. Such a poem would only be possible, of course, in the larger context of elegiac recollection and recovery Life Studies provides, but that context, pungently rendered elsewhere in the book, is here kept offstage. The poem opens with a low-key inventory:
In my Father's bedroom: blue threads as thin as pen-writing on the bedspread, blue dots on the curtains, a blue kimono, Chinese sandals with blue plush straps. (Collected Poems 177)
When we read a catalog like this one, we think immediately of Whitman. Indeed one could say about this poem that it shows how much American poetry had conceded in one hundred years. Whitman's lists seek, by judicious selection of exempla, to traverse otherwise untraversable territories: bringing together, and so calling into consciousness, phenomena ordinarily too widely dispersed to be seen as cognate. The act of yoking together such widely dispersed exempla contributes to Whitman's effect of extravagance, the sense of a consciousness neither borne on nor bound by one set of eyes and ears. Whitman can see inside the bedrooms and kitchens of anyone he pleases, gymnastically leaping from site to site, reporting their contents with great precision and gusto. The very notion of catalog, with its expansiveness, its minimal subordination and syntax, implies abundance, volume, both a world of fact too various to be conceptualized and a concept too evasive to be immediately evident. But Lowell's sad list implies just the opposite, as though the whole world amounted to only these few nearby objects, each one itself worn "from hard usage." Lowell, withdrawing his imagination from every corner of the earth but one, finds even that one to be devoid of the remarkable. It is as though the poem itself were lit not by the lamp of poetic inspiration but by the doily-shaded bed lamp it describes.
But "Father's Bedroom" is as philosophically ambitious as any poem in Lowell, precisely because it narrows its vision so radically. The details of Lowell's father's bedroom would be evident, presumably, to anyone, so that the act of reading comes to seem like a means of providing corroboration, as though Lowell has said "come over here and see something." In limiting himself to what anyone might observe, Lowell consigns everyone to his observations; there is nothing arguable in the scene, no leap of association, no insight that could plausibly provoke resistance or skepticism. Poems that depend on visual detail (Bishop's poem "The Fish" comes to mind) tend toward descriptive ingenuity, as though poetry had a different, a deeper, set of eyes than ours. When Bishop describes the eyeball of "The Fish" as being "packed / with tarnished tinfoil / seen through the lenses / of old scratched isinglass" we sense the radical singularity, the ingenuity, of her perceptual powers, an ingenuity demanded and inspired by the wild, surprising beauty of a fish's eyeball. We can endorse such a description-indeed we do so, immediately and happily-but to call it "true" or "false," "accurate" or "inaccurate" would be beside the point. In Lowell's poem, however, description is given an absurdly narrow set of parameters within which to work: metaphorical figuration is almost entirely absent and, where present ("blue threads as thin / as pen-writing on the bedspread"), it seems off-hand, almost perfunctory, only a step or two removed from literal description. The poem's self-imposed stylistic gauntness is most striking in the repetition, against all possible aesthetic counsel, of the word "blue." If poetry has any obligations whatsoever, one wants to say, mustn't they include the duty to spot the differences above or below the common "blueness" of four blue things? And yet if there were a fifth blue thing in the "Father's Bedroom," it would also be called "blue" and so on and so on, ad infinitum. To name each blue thing in the room separately, calling each of them by the same bland name, seems virtually to abandon entirely poetry's powers of imaginative discernment.
Excerpted from One Kind of Everything by DAN CHIASSON Copyright © 2007 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author
Dan Chiasson is visiting assistant professor of English at Wellesley College. He is the author of two books of poetry, Natural History and The Afterlife of Objects, the latter published by the University of Chicago Press.
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