Twentieth centuy poems seemed to me often very traditional, even where they dropped smeter and rhyme. At the same time, much of modernist poetry in the USA seemed to me to follow the Puritan tradition of the 17 century. To test both hunches, I have talken some effort to annalyze poems in a paperback anthology quantitatively and qualitatively. The first two texts here will be about this.
Another text (coming up) will deal with the African American traditon in poetry to base style and rhythm on b lues and jazz instead of classical meter.
(First version July 2000, rev. 2009a)
The break with conventional verse and its arrangements into stanzaic forms seems to make each modernist poem unique. Apparently, a world and two world wars lie between the sonnets of William Ellery Leonard (1906) and the Leaflets (1969) by Adrienne Rich. But if we take Emily Dickinson as a starting point for Rich or try to match Walt Whitman’s free verse after the Civil War with Pound or Ginsberg the matter begins to be more complicated at first sight.
Looking even more closely, we find Dickinson or Whitman adhering to basically one pattern of verse or stanza adapting them to many subjects and moods while the modernists often create a unique, mainly irregular verse or stanza form for each new poem. Its unique shape seems to individualize each poem completely, the recognition of the poet relies more on diction, syntax and themes than on verse or stanza shapes. Again, there are exceptions. Robert Creeley comes to mind, Berryman, perhaps xx and others.
Criticism, especially after 1945, has taken a parallel direction. It has increasingly focussed on the understanding and elucidation of the individual poem, thus enriching our understanding of its subtleties. At the same rate its has cut us off from the conventions poetry is written in. In other words, it almost sounds contradictory to speak of modernist poetic types or genres of poetry. The general genre discussion hardly ever focuses on poetry (Fowler, Hernadi, ), except for the epic or long poem, and the numerous essays duplicating a single poem with an interpretation (Poetry Explication, MLA) hardly ever raise questions of generic conventions. On the other hand, nobody who has ever read through an anthology of modern verse or the collected poems of a modernist writer will escape the impression that there are certain underlying patterns that repeat themselves, even from one poet to another.
Take such titles from an anthology as “The Black Cottage”, “The House”, “American Farm”, or “Evening without Angels”, “Evening”, “By Night” etc.: they seem to point at certain conventional subjects for poetry (substitute a season, a plant or an animal for more poetic titles that you would expect to find in an anthology of the nineteenth or twentieth century) that occur more often than others. Or take titles that obviously allude to other verses or poems such as “ ‘Out, Out’, “The Spider and the Ghost of the Fly”, “Oh Pioneers”, or “And did the Animals?” Other titles in the same anthology (Carruth 1970) frankly announce the poem as a conventional type: “Love Songs”, “Lament”, “Alba”, “Sonnets at Christmas” or they borrow from the other arts as in “Preludes”, “Chaplinesque”, “Epilogue” and “Biography of Southern Rain”.
Titles, of course, have conventions of their own, and as frames they raise our expectations and color our reading of the poem to follow (Karrer 1991, Genette 1989). In order to find out whether there are such underlying patterns in modernist poetry, I sampled some 180 pages from The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry (Ellmann/O'Clair 1972, 684-864) to create a preliminary classification of types. These pages contain poems by poets as different as R. P. Warren, S. Beckett, W. H. Auden, R. Wright, Charles Olson, E. Bishop and Josephine Miles, and I came up with a handful traditional categories (which I had brought to the texts from other readings) such as parable, love song, elegy, ode, meditation, portrait, sermon, landscape, and role poem which seemed to account for a majority of poems. Some were dubious, some raised serious problems for me, and some could not be classified in any of those terms. But on the other hand, I had some support from the poets themselves through their titles. I classified “On a Portrait of a Deaf Man” (709) as portrait, “Ballad of the Three Coins” as a parable (716), “Waterfalls” (719) as landscape, “In Memory of W. B. Yeats” as elegy (741), “The Young Girl” (763) as a role poem (Theodore Roethke makes her the speaker), “A Newly Discovered ‘Homeric’ Hymn” (811) as ode etc.
But some poems seemed to misname what they were doing: “in Praise of Limestone” hardly seemed hymn, “The Phoenix” promised a parable but turned out to be an ode, “Far Rockaway” turned out to be a landscape all right, but a novelist in the poem was meditating. Thus, the differences between the types became dubious. Is an eclogue (773) simply a role poem for two in dialogue? If a topographical poem contained a meditation by someone, could a meditative poem not contain descriptive parts? Was a portrait not simply a landscape of a person? Indeed, the crossovers and borderline cases turned out to be more interesting than a poem calling a meditation a meditation.
I decided to test my hunches against a larger body of poems, all by Americans, ignore all references to verse forms such as sonnet, villanelle, or epigram, and to start with my initial categories from parable to role poem. The Voice That Is Great within Us. American Poetry of the Twentieth Century, edited by Hayden Carruth from 1970 had little to distinguish itself from other anthologies of that time except that it contained 594 poems by 137 poets, that it came from a mass publisher as a Bantam Book, and that it went through several reprints in the seventies. Of course, it was on the conservative side in its selection. Carruth dedicated the anthology to Ezra Pound with whom he had corresponded during Pound’s internment after his fascist radio broadcasts from Italy. Pound had advised Carruth on how to get by with antisemitic statements: “You can also put difficult items (i.e. those you cd/ get jailed for) in the interrogative. Are we to believe that the foul Javitts was moved by order from kikes in s. america? Or merely followed their commie line?” (Torrey 1984, 231). Congressman Javits had demanded for an investigation when Pound’s friends got him the Bollingen Prize in 1949. But Carruth did include many Jewish writers, and his selection at that time reflected the dominant tradition, beginning with Frost and Sandburg, moving through Pound and Eliot to the Confessionals, Beats and Projectivists (cp. Malkoff 1973). Women, Blacks and minorities were underrepresented (no Native Americans, Chicanas or Asian Americans), and certain poets would no longer be in a more recent selection. Nobody in Carruth's anthology seems to follow a "commie line." At any rate, my findings are tentative and need further checking against other modernist anthologies: British, liberal, or radical (Nelson 1989). A final reservation, before I begin: the poets are arranged chronologically, and a more sophisticated statistical analysis could dig for tendencies in generic development, but I have not done so. (A table for such an analysis is included at the end, but maybe the sample is too small).
Of course, my intuitive categories for types of poetry have been defined over and over again, and to discover something new about their interrelations, I had to start from definitions. The Princeton Encyclopedia (Preminger et al. 1965) has more details, but for my purposes Abrams (1981) will serve:
Parable: a short narrative presented so as to stress the tacit but detailed analogy between its component parts and a thesis or lesson that the narrator is trying to bring home to us. (6), a type of allegory.
Love song: the speaker may simply express his state of mind in an ordered form or he may gallantly elaborate a compliment to his lady, or he may deploy an argument to persuade his mistress (99), a type of lyric.
Elegy: a formal and sustained lament (and usually consolation) for the death of a particular person (47), also a dirge (less formal).
Ode: written to eulogize something, either a person, the arts, a time of day, or abstract concepts (124), the Pindaric tradition.
Dramatic monologue or role poem: a single person, who is not the poet himself utters the entire poem in a specific situation at a critical moment (45); a type of persona (131). Modernists use the Browning variety.
Neither landscape, nor portrait nor meditation appear in Abrams as entries, but he notes how poems entitled elegy or ode often shift into meditation (on graveyards or abstractions), and he points out how the pastoral has been expanded in modern ways: any work which contrasts simple and complicated life or which envisions withdrawal from ordinary life to a place apart, close to the elemental rhythms of nature, where a man achieves a new perspective on life in the complex social world (128). In other words, we lack a term for modernist poems, including city and country alike. “Urban pastorals” will hardly do, topographical or descriptive poem would be more general, and since neoclassicism we have such poems descriptive of a place for country and city alike. Description is too general, it is a discourse type, occuring in many genres, both prose and verse. Following Gertrude Stein, I shall call them here (rural or urban) landscapes. And I will reserve the term description for a part of a poem, especially of the meditation kind, of which it has been a traditional component.
In the case of portrait, the gap in the critical glossary stems from a narrowing to prose. Abrams defines “Character” as a short and usually witty sketch in prose of a distinctive type of person (20). What are we to do with the numerous poems entitled “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley,” “Mr. Whittier” or “Phineas Within and Without” (84, 315, 693) setting out to do the same thing in verse? How do we call the early experiments in prose and verse by Gertrude Stein? The reference to the sketch tradition is useful (another gap in the glossary): traditionally we distinguish sketches of places (landscapes, architecture etc.) and sketches for portraits. Washington Irving, Fanny Fern or Hawthorne practiced both and the analogy to painting was never very far. But sketching simply seems a cultural variant of description. I shall abstract here from verse forms and call poems such as “In A Station of the Metro” (83) or “Mr. Whittier” (315) a landscape or a portrait.
The category I had most problem with was meditation. My conception came from Martz (1962), and initially I had tried to distinguish contemplation of an object from a more abstract form of cogitation. But most meditative poems would simply mix concrete and abstract words very freely (in a metaphysical way), and the difference seemed to lie somewhere else. Anne Bradstreet and Edward Taylor had still followed the devotional three steps, moving from “composition of place” through “examination of points” to “colloquy with God” (Parini 1993, 13). I found that tradition very much intact in modernism, though heavily disguised. I could distinguish poems focusing on one singular object (a thing, a plant, an animal, a landscape) and then moving to abstract questions from those drawing on very different images for their thoughts where the images did not cohere to compose a single place. In other words, where perception had been fragmentarized, sensibility dissociated, and the subject began to dissolve. I decided to use the term “Speculation” for the fragmentarized type and to use meditation for the more contemplative type.
Let me illustrate what I mean. “The Clouds” by William Carlos Williams begins with the lines: “Filling the mind / upon the rim of the overarching sky, the / horses of / the dawn charge from south to north ... “ (62), then elaborates the metaphor of horses to lead to a series of points and open questions. This kind of poetic meditation clearly condenses and changes the three parts of the Puritan devotional practice: the example expands, doctrine and application collapse into one and become questionable. Indeed, the modernist standard form, as I will try to show, is a poetic description of something leading to a series of questions (“Where a re the god minds of past days, the unshorn?” 63). The answer is left to the poetic congregation.
Speculation proceeds from thought to image, not from image to thought. Here is a simple example from Frost, called “Nothing Gold Can Stay:”
Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay. (16)
The poem begins with two opposing abstractions, Nature and Nothing, the first seven lines simply analogous examples for the last line which repeats the title. Nature, Eden, and dawn seem to fit as points, the dissociation has not progressed very far, but the metaphysical conceit lies in the traditional opposition between "green" and "golden" and their multiple meanings. This is hardly a modernist poem, its “So” harks back to the Puritan primer (In Adam’s fall / We sinned all) and the examination of points, but it prepares for poems like “Our Youth” by John Ashbery which opens: “Of bricks ... Who built it? Like some crazy balloon / When love leans on us / Its nights ... The velvety pavement sticks to our feet. “ (594). The abstract theme and the recurrent pronouns seem to promise some coherence, but no seasons, life cycles or myth of Eden turn up to embed the single images, the poem ends by reflecting on itself, rather its reading: “We escape / Down the cloud ladder, but the problem has not been solved.” (595) The poem mirrors our reading (and the writing): we are all older when we reach the end of it. I call this speculation: the setting up of images as multiple mirrors, reflecting each other into infinity and teasing us into (endless) thought. (This continues, in more familiar terms, the older metaphysical tradition brought back to life by T. S. Eliot in the 20th century, but it lacks the dogmatic belief systems of the 17th century.) Frost and Ashbery may have a common theme, and their mirroring images speculate about abstractions. Both are clearly distinguishable from the procedure of contemplating clouds in Williams. But they also are related: “the cloud ladder” may just be shorthand for what Williams tries to do: to use the clouds for transcendence. Thus, speculation and meditation go back to Puritanism, the Metaphysical school of Donne and the Transcendentalists. Their tenuous relation to each other would make an interesting history of poetic perception, not necessarily one of dissociation of sensibility, but an increase in semiotic abstraction.
Let me start out with the hypothesis that there are certain underlying conventional types of poems, such as parable, ode, elegy, portrait, landscape, dramatic monologue, or meditation, and that modernist poets largely work within these conventions and try to modify them. I will study these modifications, rather than the types.
A rudimentary statistics of the types (see the tables in the annex) reveals very little. Meditation and parable dominate modernist poetry as represented in the anthology. Role poems flourished in early modernism, but decline after 1945. The Confessional and Beat poets break with Eliot’s principle of the impersonal, that is the persona or mask poem. The love song seems a menaced species, and the other categories hold their middle ground. The division of the anthology into two equal parts (poets born between 1875 and 1913 and 1913 to 1943) reveals little in terms of genre trends. It is more interesting to concentrate on eccentric examples for each type to see how poets try to get away from yet another meditation on a haystack or yet another dramatic monologue of Eurydice.
??Portrait and landscape combine in narratives, such as novels, short stories or parables. They can also occur as non-narrative elements in more elaborate forms in poetry, so let me use them to define these elaborate forms.??
Parables are narrative by definition. Familiar in the USA from the Bible and since Puritan practice of allegorizing everything in the language of Canaan, that is, reading, writing, and thinking through analogies and typologies (Lowance 1980).
Ode and elegy also may contain short narratives, but basically they are a different speech act, expressing a direct valuation of the object represented. Praise and lament, or their opposites, dispraise and exultation have played their poetic field from the Puritan funeral elegy to George Starbuck’s “Of Late” (667). Some call an ode an ode (431), more often we find the type-marker “To” in the title: To my Infant Daughter, To Aunt Rose, To a Child Trapped etc. (226, 575, 633). Marianne Moore in “To a Steamroller” echoes Keats by addressing her ode to a thing. More often, poets disguise their odes by dropping the “To” “Chicago” by Sandburg, “Russia” by Williams or “Roots and Branches” by Robert Duncan use that device. Ginsberg hides his “to” between metaphors: “Death to Van Gogh’s Ear” (576) is an ode against money. Again, we have re-titling to evoke another frame. Cunningham calls his ode to Anger “Envoi,” Duncan hides an ode to Night under the same title (327, 467). "Homage", "Salutation", "First Praise", or "Patriotic Poem" are other variations, the last one an ode against George Washington (712). The political ode also appears under the guise of an inscription as “Prospective Immigrants Please Note” (642). Thomas Merton disguises his address to women in prison as “There has to Be a Jail for Ladies” (421), a title that promises a meditation or a speculation. Some poems delay the address, the appellative speech act (580), but most open and sustain the ode from the first line on. The traditional uses of the ode – praise of women, places, nations, leaders – are all represented in the anthology, except for the praise of God: Ginsberg’s dispraise of money inverts the model. The ode to the dead (431, 575) deliberately maintains the boundary to the elegy which is about as frequent as the ode in the collection.
Elegies mourn the dead in different guises, indeed the elegy seems far more experimental than the ode. First, modern elegiacs are afraid of sentimentality. They try to be colloquial, even disrespectful (51, 172), or they keep busy instructing the undertaker (52, 237), perhaps recalling the pastoral elegy and its instructions to Nature. Other hark back to the funeral sermon: “For the Word is made Flesh” (263). Shifting the time frame a little from the moment of burial we get the crossover to the epitaph, the inscription on the gravestone (150, 241) or a quiet moment at the grave, as in “At Melville’s Tomb.” The emptiness the dead have left can also be transferred to other sites: the empty house, the empty courtyard, the question “where did you go?” (40, 182, 176). This extends into the “ubi sunt” formula extended to flowers and animals (30, 176). Like the ode, this lament also covers things: “An Elegy for USN Dirigible” (229) or “Elegy for the Monastery Barn” (420), perhaps closest to the classical models, personifying things and nature. Returning to people, a shift backward in time takes us to memories of the last moments with the dead: “My Last Afternoon with Uncle Devereux” (447, cp. 670), or, more radically, an anticipation of imminent catastrophe as in “After dark” (645) or “One Thousand Fearful Words for Fidel Castro” (476), a pre-mortem exhortation. A borderline case is Gwendolyn Brook’s “Beverly Hills, Chicago” (439) where the aging neighborhood seems condemned to early death-in-life. We also find the usual genre crossing of modernists, especially elegies as portraits or epitaphs of dead writers: an elegy is a kind of affiliation. Alan Tate chose “Mr. Pope” for a wreath (223), Kaufman catalogues Dylan Thomas, Billie Holiday and others (587), and, in a particular doublecrossing, Yvor Winters cast Hart Crane as Orpheus descending, a role poem, parable, and elegy at the same time (227).
Dramatic monologues provide a fictional frame for the speaker. He or she can say anything they like, the can tell a parable, lament or praise, describe a place or portrait another person (287, 656, 165, 212). Or, they can meditate and speculate, as Maximus does in Olson’s poem (310). In other words, dramatic monologues can frame any other type, even a love song. By choosing a fictional or even mythic speaker, the poet establishes a typological relation between then and now, the equivalent to Puritan typology or to the modernist mythic method of Joyce and Eliot, all forms of analogic thinking (Foucault 19xx). This extreme flexibility of the dramatic monologue endeared it to Eliot, Pound and H. D. Especially Pound developed the technique further by using translation to speak through another poet’s mouth (78, 90), and he gradually fragmentarizes the monologue into a multilingual polylogue. Pound, more than Eliot, mixes voices. Other poets followed more hesitantly. They impersonated Dante (266), Cassandra (203), Donne (326), Baudelaire (365) or Bessie Smith (441). The choice and impersonation of a dead poet echoes the homage paid by odes or elegies. The dramatic monologue records speech in writing and some monologues try to create the impression of the spoken word on the page, sometimes as travesty (208, 672). Men speak as women (609), adults as children (402), a sober poet as a drunken fisherman (442), hinting at Christ, a hangman sings a love song (584) etc. Other effects come from having a tree (719) or a bear to speak the poem (605). What we get is variation of voices, instead of Pound's mixing of voices.
In this light, the classic letter - convention seems closely related, especially when impersonating another character: “A Letter from the Pygmies” signed Theodore (437) or a “Letter from a Black Soldier” (625), or, as soliloquy, “Maximus to himself” (310). Other forms of writing that occur are the diary (630) and the protocol (398), all free verse. If you write in the verse and diction of another poet, you get pastiche, as in “The Metaphysical Amorist” (326). The possibilities seem limited unless you cross them with other types. Robert Hayden has Nat Turner preach in the ballad meter (358), and John Ashbery embeds a letter in “Thoughts of a Young Girl” (592). Postmodernism begins here, blurring genre.
The love song seems to have disappeared, or, is simply underrepresented in this anthology. Only a few poets sing about their love to someone else.
Meditation and speculation are not only very frequent in American poetry since Anne Bradstreet, they also allow a wider range of expressions than narrative or song. Their main line seems to run from Puritanism through Transcendentalism to Realism and Modernism (Waggoner?). In the Carruth anthology they outnumber any other type of poem by far: I counted 152 meditations and 87 speculations, together forty percent of all poems. They deserve a close look (see also Karrer. "Meditation").
Let me begin with a standard example, taken from Wallace Stevens, a poem called “In the Carolinas” (32):
It begins with a classical composition of place, including lilacs, butterflies, and children (first stanza), then opens a question: “Timeless mother, /How is it that your aspic nipples / For once vent honey?” to conclude in the third stanza with the answer: “The pine-tree sweetens my body / The white iris beautifies me.” Obviously, the traditional examination of points is couched in a question and the colloquy with God shifts to one with Mother Nature, her holy answer in italics. I shall label the tree-part structure of the modern, more secular meditation: Description, Question, Answer and I shall define the standard modern form as DQA. Almost half of my examples from the anthology follow this standard form. The poet describes a place, a part of nature, a memory from the past, something he or she read or heard, then raises a question, only to conclude with an answer. The traditional objects of meditation have not disappeared: we find meditations on the cross, the skull, the graveyard, or on a bird, a tree, a place, or a childhood memory. But these traditional meditations often come in a disguise. Brother Antoninus turns his meditation into a narrative, “The Making of the Cross” (351), allegorizing and analogizing the process from tree to crucifixion. Owen Dodson meditates on Charlie Parker’s music in “Yardbird’s Skull” (387), which he holds to his ear (the skull becomes an earphone), and he omits the question marks in part two, and the exclamation marks in the final three answering lines. It still is DQA. In “Five for the Grace of Man” (312) Winfield Townley Scott embeds a graveyard meditation in a series and postpones the question and the answer to part five, but circumscribes his question already after the description of the graveyard: “I peer into the house of this completion / To know my meaning ...” (313). William Carlos Williams announces his meditation with “The Sparrow” (71), describes his activities, asks the question (“What was the use / of that?”), and answers it: “it is the poem / of his existence / that triumphed / finally.” Robert Francis meditates on “Juniper” (234) as “less than tree,” asks a question about the wind, blowing trees down, and concludes with an affirmation: ”It will be here long after I have gone ... “ Allen Tate composes his place, “The Mediterranean,” raises the questions “What prophecy ... could landless Wanderers fulfil by the ancient sea?” and “What country shall we conquer?” only to answer himself with “Westward, westward.” He echoes the question in the Latin motto of the poem. The childhood memory by R. P. Warren carries the title “Debate: Question, Quarry, Dream” (277). Indeed, different voices mix in this poem, but it is hardly the dialogue we expect from a medieval or Puritan debate poem. Repetitive questions introduce descriptions of a childhood scene, leading back to present time, a resolution, and an answer in “the appalling logic of joy.”
These are some, by no means all of the variations of the standard form. Poets disguise the question or the answer (Warren, Dodson, Scott, Stevens) serialize elements of it (Warren, Scott), shift the object slightly (Francis, Dodson), or narrativize the landscape (Antoninus). This last poem also reduces the meditative structure to DA, it omits the question. Indeed, the questions, examining the point(s) in the description, and the answer, whether from God or the poet, come under pressure in modernism. Many poems prefer to circumscribe the processes of question and answer, instead of dramatizing them. Questions or answers become: “ I wondered” (206), “The soul cries” (284), “the wit that cries out of me” (214), “A shape in the mind rose up” (287), “the darker / Voice rising” (400) etc. The subject - object relation begins to crumble at the subject pole. Question and answer not only become more psychological processes, they also become largely involuntary or unconscious. The colloquy with God still leads to an occasional vision, still imbued with religious meaning (“Here is my faith, my vision, my burning bush” 235), but more often the epiphany leads to sudden insight or emotional reaction to more mundane things: “Well let us debate the issue.” (278) The free verse often includes free punctuation, allowing to omit question and exclamation marks or change them into full stops. Syntactically, “Who in this splendid universe ... can make moral sense” (194) remains a question although the sentence ends with a full stop, and a poem without any punctuation still may retain a question or two. D(Q)A becomes something like the modernist standard form.
Often poets re-title their meditations as ode (210), prayer (231), biography (342), pastoral (324), or debate (277), but they still retain at least two of the three parts and the traditional topics of the meditation. Only one poem in the collection is called a meditation. But “Meditation on Statistical Method” (328) has an odd topic and an even odder structure: it opens with the answer and then follows up with the description in narrative form. A(D).
Other poets serialize and thus fragmentarize or deconstruct the composition of place (space) or past (time). Already Anne Bradstreet or Edward Taylor had collected their meditations in stanzaic or serial form. But now modern poets repeat the description of the object as in “Twenty four ways of Looking at a Black Bird.” ? Thus in “Green Light” by Kenneth Fearing (236), “Stumpfoot on 42nd Street” (521), or “To My Son Parker, Asleep in the Next Room” (539). Here the object pole of the relation crumbles under the scrutiny of the subject. Poets experiment with focalization just like the modernist novel and dissolve description into perception (D)QA.
The contemplative mood of the old meditation often gives way to a narrative discourse: the poet approaches his or her object, handles it, transforms it while meditating. Whitman and Frost set examples as in “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking” or “Mowing” (4): the mowing leads to the question (What was it the scythe whispered?) to the answer: “The fact is the sweetest dream that labor knows.” Thus we have poems in the collection on “Mending Wall” (the neighbor here has the answer), “After I had Worked All Day” (187), “Moss-Gathering” (284), “Hardweed Path Going” (552), “Swimming by Night” (582). Not all examples are rural. “Train Ride” (206), “Driving to Town Late to Mail a Letter” (558), “Sailing from the United States” (583), and “I Walk in the Old Street” (251), all neatly illustrate the changing relation between focalizer and object: urban perception moves, accelerates, and changes meditative praxis. Instant "epiphanies" melt the DQA structure into one. This reduction would become a major form of modernist meditation.
Finding new object may modernize the meditation: the junkyard replaces the graveyard in poems like “Cars once Steel, and Green, now Old” (249) and “Auto Wreck” (371). Other commodities serve as meditative objects in “Green Light” (236), “The Geraniums” (192), “The Wine Menagerie” (213) etc. The classical ruins become a derelict ballroom (393). The Bible, the Puritan starting point for meditations, occurs once as Hebrew poetry (187), but more generally modern texts serve as basis for meditation: the popular song (251), the American language (366), obituaries in the newspaper (497), or, not surprisingly, another poet’s poems: Ronald Johnson re-titles his meditations on selected passages from Leaves of Grass as “Letters to Walt Whitman” (700).
This in turn allows a poet to meditate or write a parody on somebody else’s meditation. There are at least two examples of meditations on meditations in the anthology. Lorine Niederecker sends the reader to stand in north woods among birch for best work (244), clearly an allusion to Robert Frost, and Theodore Roethke has a delightful parody on T. S. Eliot’s classical meditation on “The Hippopotamus” and the True Church (132). Roethke’s “The Hippo” (297) opens with a question, adds description, and a worldly answer “Some time I think I’ll live that way.”
But even in the meditation leading to visions, descriptions show the least signs of being an exhausted component. The most common way of keeping them alive is by omitting either the question or the answer part, establishing the two-part meditation. When the Puritan colloquy with God turns to "interior monologue" or free indirect thought the questions and their inlaid answers stick out as awkward rhetorical devices. One way to avoid this effect is to cut out the question and to disguise the answer. Let me turn to DA, by far the more frequent type of shortened meditation.
“Hospital” provides its model in a miniature : “HOSPITAL / Inside or out, the key is pain.” (370). Title and first line contain everything to be unfolded in the poem: the composition of place (D), the examination of points (inside or outside the hospital, that is the question) and the answer in pain (A). Karl Shapiro expands his meditation on pain over 36 lines or 6 rhymed stanzas, opens with description (This is the Oxford of all sickness), follows with ironic questions in the last three stanzas (What church is this?) to provide the answer in the last lines of the poem. The miniature offers a more modernist solution: you omit the question, embed the points of examination in the description, and link description and answer through metaphor. The line“the key is pain” belongs partly to the description (the door divides the inside/out worlds of the hospital), partly is the answer (the key opens the door and unites those suffering inside and outside the hospital, pain is the key to the poem). In other words, the abstract answer comes as an induction, an inference from the description, the abstract term may appear at the end or hide in puns and metaphors.
These are, indeed, the main devices of the inductive DA meditation. The transition between description and answer becomes a simple “so, for, maybe, as if” or the last lines draw on metaphors and similes, strengthened by earlier description: “a cruel wind blows” (264) and “the light / Was loud and everywhere, like bells.” (425), both ending summer poems with no questions raised. Light and wind come from the descriptive part and achieve symbolic status at the end, providing a key to reread the beginning. If the examination of points tends toward the question mark, the colloquy with God has a tendency to finish with an exclamation mark. Few poems of the DA type tend to break out into emotion and exclamation at the end (193). But more frequently, the meditation ends on understatement, whether abstract or metaphorical: “In my end is my beginning.” (146) or “And the message of the yew tree is blackness – blackness and silence.” (675). Indeed, there is no meditation in the anthology that ends with an exclamation mark.
The DQ type of meditation, the agnostic sibling to the inductive DA type, is far less frequent. I still have not found convincing examples for it in Carruth. I might have to go to another anthology for examples. (The next version of this essay could offer more substantial thoughts on poems in this line.)
The speculation type, mixing memory and desire with a few fragmentary images will need more space than I have here. It might need some semiotic buttressing of the sign-symbol relation, which would lead to a re-formulation of some of the simple observations made on meditation. I will do this in another essay.
This study has looked at 594 US poems from the twentieth century to generalize about some modernist conventions. I have identified eight traditional types of poetry which account more or less (allowing crossovers) for more than 500 of them. The types I reconstructed are: elegy, ode, parable, dramatic monologue, landscape, portrait, meditation, and love song (as a zero class). These traditional types serve as scripts or frames to be rewritten in a new and modified way. The most frequent rewriting conventions of modernist poets I have found are the following:
Re-titling one type in terms of another.
Embedding one type into another.
Hybridizing two types in an ambivalent way.
Substituting traditional objects with new (graveyard - junkyard)
Narrativizing meditation, portrait and landscape
Fragmentarizing voice, object or subject
Reduction of traditional structures (DQA) to minimal pairs (DA, DQ)
There are other minor types modeled on speech acts from everyday life, but they are occasional innovations not taken up by other writers. Modernist writers tend to innovate, mirror or disguise types rather than to affirm it. Some subvert by parody or pastiche.
The techniques to deconstruct such types lead into two very different traditions. One is the nonsense poem, a minor constant since the nineteenth century. The other leads to speculation, an allusive type of meditation that starts from abstract thoughts, not images.
I do not claim, that modernists are the first to rewrite scripts in a novel way – Romantics have crossed ode and meditation, for instance, but maybe modernists have preferred the techniques outlined above, and some may have prepared the more radical deconstruction of the postmodernist. Only further analysis will show, Carruth has excluded both Gertrude Stein and George Oppen from his anthology.
Which brings us back to cultural politics. Not only of anthologies and their attempts to create, define or affirm a tradition such as modernism. Also the politics of the types and their crossings in the twentieth century. To retain rhymed verse and stanza forms will place an author within or rather outside the modernist field Bourdieu 19xx). Neither Rod McKuen nor Edgar Guest belong to it, and that is the cultural work of little magazines and literary critics (Biggs 1990, 2). But the question of the politics of writing in the meditative or parabolic mode itself raises ideological questions about the public and private functions of poets (van Hallberg 19xx), their stands on political issues (Nelson 1992) and their proximity or distance from popular verse (Radway 1982). Indeed, the not so secret foil of modernist poetry seems to be the modern record industry and the kind of pop songs it produces, taking away a large segment of the audience from poetry. The relation between films and modernist novels would be analogous. This may serve as one explanation why the love - song, in general the lyric - is so conspicuously absent from modernist poetry. The guitar has replaced the lyre.
Modernist poetry is neither elitist, nor type-bound, it takes all sorts of political positions from fascism to Marxism. It appeals to different audiences within the USA and outside. The increasing education of these audiences has led to more innovation, more inference and less reliance on title or standard voice. How typical or innovative a poem reads depends also on the dialogues among poets in the twenties or thirties and their conquest of academic positions afterwards. These factors often modify general political positions to the right or the left.
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