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Old 01-04-2002, 08:09 AM
Anthony Lombardy Anthony Lombardy is offline
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David, Since I knew of you already as a collaborator with my old teacher from the seventies, John Nims, whom I remember with great affection and respect, I've enjoyed your comments and getting to know your poetry better, and it is no surprise that both are full of interest.

My question concerns your role as a champion of the idea that contemporary poetry should be breaking out of its little lyrical box and trying to reclaim some of the ground lost to other literary forms in the last century. I couldn't agree more with this general idea, but it seems to me that the type of poetry most often mentioned in this context, narrative poetry, is not something that many lyric poets are very disposed or well equipped to write, while there are other possibilities for poetry, which we often associate with the genres of satire and elegy, and which may fit the talents of a wider range of lyric poets, but which we don't support very well in our journals or our criticism.

What's lost sight of, perhaps, is that lyric poetry is a very rarefied genre, which, while highly valued, has never occupied too much public space. In the great wealth of ancient literature there is almost no Greek lyric poetry after the deaths of Pindar and Bacchylides in the 5th century. With the exception of the great odes of Horace, a little Statius, and some choral odes in Seneca's plays, the Romans had virtually no lyric poetry. Yet undoubtedly in the intellectual life of each culture, poets had a far larger place than in our own. These poets were not often writing intense personal reflections on their own inner lives, but they were writing about the culture around them: its mores, its history, its religion, its metaphysics. I think you're right when you say that contemporary poetry is puritanical in its solemnity; it's also highly restrictive and even anti-intellectual in its range of topics. Many journals actually say upfront that religion and politics are off limits!

Some people will counter that my notion of "lyric" is tied to mere formal characteristics, but the connection between form and subject is not fanciful or merely conventional. Today, the occasional treatment of public issues in lyric modes, like the sonnet, signifies to me the pressure felt by thinking poets to write about important topics in a form that is conventionally lyric and personal.

What I'm asking, I guess, is whether or not an even more radical advocacy of an expanded poetry, not limited to the lyric or to narrative, might resonate with our contemporaries. I apologize in advance if my question simply betrays my ignorance of your own already stated views. I do, of course, know that you, Dana Gioia, and others have written well on this general topic, and my recollection may well be faulty in thinking that the dominant emphasis has been on narrative as the neglected genre, but, in any event, I would certainly be interested in your thoughts.


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Old 01-04-2002, 11:44 AM
David Mason David Mason is offline
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What a pleasure to write to someone who knew and loved John Nims. He was a great man, a superb poet, an even better translator, and one of the wittiest fellows I've ever known. I believe that a New and Selected Poems of JF Nims will be published soon by Louisiana State University Press. I'm going to do a new edition of Western Wind for 2004, and I'll take any advice you care to offer about that book.

I can only agree with you that narrative has been overemphasized in this important conversation. I came to it as a fiction writer when young, and it has been a major preoccupation of mine, but that preoccupation is also limiting, as you say.

Satires, Meditations and other types of poems are needed, and if you don't know the great Selected Poems by RS Gwynn I hope you'll run right out and get it. Gwynn is the best satirical poet of my generation--at least to my knowledge. When I think of models of breadth in terms of genre, I think of Auden. It doesn't seem to me that anyone else in the 20th Century came close to him in terms of the range of his work. Auden was actually weak in narrative and dramatic poems, because he didn't have the empathetic sense necessary to pull them off (though I think his allegorical characterizations are pretty remarkable).

The inability of contemporary editors to accept a poetry of ideas is actually something that is noticed by non-formalist poets like John Haines as well. Haines's new collection of poems from the University of Washington Press is notable for its public voice. I think, too, of a poet whose politcs I hate, but whose verbal range I find simply astonishing, the late Thomas McGrath in his Letter to an Imaginary Friend.

I would also say that if you look around for what Gavin Ewart called "wit-verse" because he disliked the term light verse you will find much poetry of ideas. Wendy Cope now has three bestselling collections out from Faber--lyric to be sure, but enlivened by great humor and lots of ideas. And the poetry of Tom Disch is another trove to seek out.

To get back to those limited and limiting editors, I'd say that what we've got is a powerful cultural romanticism that values emotion over mind, and we can only try to make inroads by writing un-put-downable poems in as many genres as we can.

This is a hasty response. Perhaps I'll think of more to say later.

Cheers,
Dave
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Old 01-04-2002, 02:31 PM
Anthony Lombardy Anthony Lombardy is offline
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Thanks for your thoughtful reply. I echo everything good you have to say about John Nims. He was a lovely man. I am also a fellow admirer of R.S. Gwynn's poetry, and even had the good luck to meet Sam at a reading in Washington some years ago.
You are surely right that the romantic valuing of emotion over reason is a large part of the explanation, as well as the Romantic suspicion and distrust of techne or artifice. I think there is another problem that is more directly associated with modernism, and that is connected with Allen Tate's great admiration for Longinus, who, Tate believed, made a unique contribution to criticism by asserting that the effect and object of poetry was something other than persuasion, that its object was ekstasis, the transport which is achieved by elevation of style. As Tate and many moderns would have it, persuasion was the dirty work of rhetoric, while poetry had loftier, or, at least , independent ends. This contrast between the rhetorical and the poetic starts, maybe, with Arnold, and it reaches quite a crescendo in Yeats, who defined rhetoric as "the will trying to do the work of the imagination."
Although I think that Tate, for all his many virtues as a critic, deeply misunderstood Longinus and ancient rhetorical theory, his point of view is very close to being a modern orthodoxy. In short, I fear the prejudice against the kinds of poetry we are talking about is as deeply rooted in our modernism as in our romanticism. You may be right that the only way to overcome this prejudice is to write poems of such merit that they are undeniably objects of interest in their own right, but I'm afraid that editors who are unwittingly influenced both by romantic and modernist aesthetic notions are likely to apprehend those very merits as signs of a vitiating rhetorical element, one which they may privately admire in a rejection letter, but which they rarely publish. Of course, the prominence of people like you and this forum itself are hopeful signs. Thank you again for your contributions to these discussions!
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Old 01-04-2002, 09:48 PM
David Mason David Mason is offline
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While no scholar of classical rhetoric, what I remember most of Longinus is his defense of craft over spontaneity, his suggestion that some elements of art could be learned, not just inspired. I've plowed through a lot of Tate's prose, but have forgotten the argument you cite, though I'm quite willing to believe it. I rather think that the best ekstasis comes with a good dose of techne, if you know what I mean, and I'll bet at least two romantics, Goethe and Keats, felt very much the same way. I have the sense that the great poets working outside the lyric have been those who could give visionary breadth to their creations precisely because they had strong art. Artifice without much drive, whether from passion or the intellect, is a rather moribund affair, and one can find it in any of the poetic camps now bandied about. But this domination of the irrational in poetic discourse is indeed a problem--just as much a problem as the absolute domination of the rational would be.

I'm rambling, of course. I meant to say that Anthony Hecht and Seamus Heaney have both recently written eclogues, and that I hope you are familiar with the great, Swiftian recent poems of Derek Mahon. They can be found in his Collected Poems, published last year and available from Amazon. I'd type some in here, but one of my brighter students has borrowed the book. I have some of Mahon's earlier poems by heart, but these recent works are fierce in their intellect--and about as bleak as anything I've run across in quite a while.
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Old 01-05-2002, 08:26 AM
Anthony Lombardy Anthony Lombardy is offline
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It's good rambling! And I appreciate the lead on the Derek Mahon poems, which I'll certainly pursue. Thanks again.
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