(reprinted from Crosscurrents with permission)
Not for republication without expression permission
of Wade Newman
THE NEW POEM
It will not reveal its name
It will not have dreams you can count on…..
It will not attend our sorrow.
It will not console our children.
It will not be able to help us….
— Charles Wright
It is not easy to predict which contemporary poems will be considered great a hundred years from now. It is just as difficult to predict what the state of American poetry will be in even the next decade. Charles Wright's poem, excerpted above, published in the early '70s, was at the time an accurate prophecy of poetry's possible metamorphosis, in that it describes much of the verse published in the '70s and '80s, verse which neither celebrates our joys nor articulates how we may transcend our tragedies.
Instead, contemporary poetry has helped create a boundary dividing the American reading public from its poets. On one side of the line, the public, finding little in contemporary po-etry to be particularly interesting or accessible, has ignored the poets, literary magazines, and small presses that have proliferated over the last thirty years. On the other side, the poets, for the most part, have retreated from the public by writing verse that is either self-referential or based on the principle of art-for-art's-sake, while at the same time continually haranguing their potential readership for failing to buy their books or even recognize their existence.
That the regular readers of quality fiction have chosen the adventures, romances, and tragedies of novels over poetry suggests two very important elements contemporary verse has lacked: the arts of storytelling (i.e. ballads, epic, medium-length narratives, verse plays) and metrical craftsmanship, (without which the longer poetic forms can read as limply as the worst prose). If poetry is to share the literate public's attention with the novel, let alone draw an audience outside of academia, it must be as accessible, challenging, and pleasurable as the finest novels
It was in 1979, when Frederick Turner and Ronald Sharp revived the Kenyon Review, that many of the poets who now constitute what this reader calls the Expansive Movement first found a focal point. For five years the journal served as a literary garden for the poetry of Frederick Feirtein, Dick Allen, Judith Moffett, Emily Grosholz, and others. But the movement's first major exposition came in the autumn of 1981 when Feirstein's Manhattan Carnival, Turner's The Return, and Richard Moore's Empires were published. All are book-length poems, two of them narratives; all are written in meter.
What separates them from most other hooks of poetry published at the time is their departure from the standard collection of short lyric poems format, their qualitative integration of meter with content, and their reintroduction of plot and character. Such literary features do not by themselves assure status to a poem of any length. But it is surely easier to distinguish a major long poem from one that is only good or even poor than it is to judge the myriad of short lyric poems published in the last thirty years. At the same time, it is quite logical that poetry as a whole can best vie with prose fiction through its longer forms, and, hence, help both the shorter and the longer forms regain cultural importance.
In an essay in the spring 1983 Kenyon Review—an issue specifically
devoted to the long poem and a cornerstone in the Expansive movement's
development—Dick Allen explains:
We can expect to read the long poem differently than we do the lyric poem. For a poem of three to twenty pages, our reading should be akin to the reading of a complex short story; for a longer poem, we can expect to engage in a reading experience not dissimilar to that of reading a novella or novel, an experience which we may extend for several days, treating each new section of the poem as we would another new chapter in a novel. When we finish, we can expect to be able to turn back to particu-larly important and rewarding sections and episodes. But the sense of the whole should overwhelm the parts, put weaker parts into proper perspective.
The literary establishment has, in some ways, opened its doors to such ideas, as demonstrated by the treatment it has given Turner's scientific study (with Ernst Poppel) on meter, the brain, and time, entitled "The Neural lyre." Poetry not only accepted the essay but also awarded its authors the Levin-son Prize—an award usually reserved for verse—for the best work published in the magazine in 1983. The study explains how the meter in poetry stimulates the reader's habitually divided ''artistic'' right brain and "rational'' left brain to unite their energies in order for the whole brain to be, as Aristotle once prescribed, both delighted and instructed. Turner writes:
By means of metrical variation, the musical and pictorial powers of the right brain are enlisted by meter to co-operate with the linguistic powers of the left: and by auditory driving effects, the lower levels of the nervous system are stimulated in such a way as to reinforce the cognitive functions of the poem, to improve the memory, and to promote physiological and social harmony. Metered poetry may play an important part in developing our subtle understanding of time, and may thus act as a technique to concentrate and reinforce our uniquely human tendency to make sense of the world in terms of values like truth, beauty, and goodness.
Turner's understanding of twentieth century science, par-ticularly recent discoveries in genetics, physics, and cybernetics, is representative of the entire Expansive movement. By fusing the sciences and poetry, the Expansive poets are not only healing a cultural wound that dates back to the Romantics, but also giving voice to discoveries and ideas which, in themselves, are celebrations of our humanness.
Like architects who relate function and design to construct new buildings, musical composers who re-explore tonality, and artists who go against the abstract grain and paint repre-sentationally, each of these poets is creating a body of work that links the original tools of his craft with the raw materi-als of theme and content that our present age has amply supplied.
Feirstein's Manhattan Carnival takes place during T. S. Eliot's
cruel month of April when Spring fever perceth the lonesome, estranged,
and divorced to the roote. Mark Stern, the recently divorced, childless
hero of the poem, has been existing in such a state for twelve months.
But unlike Eliot's personae, Stern's drained spirit does not diminish him
to looking for "fear in a handful of dust." Instead, he leaves his depressing
apartment to travel through his city, which turns out to be as lively and
high-spirited as the heroic couplets that comprise the poem.
I need the windows of the Tourist Boards
On Fifth--their beaches, lower Alps, and fjords —
The students playing clarinet duets,
The mime in top silk hat and epaulettes,
The Hari Krishnas spreading incense, joy,
Their flowing peach robes, shoes of corduroy,
The blind man singing hymns, St. Thomas Church,
The scaffolding where whistling workmen perch,
The haughty English manager of Cook’s,
St. Patrick's nave, Rizzoli's picture books,
Tiffany's clock, the pools of Steuben glass,
The pocket park with cobblestones for grass.
Against all the odds of modernism — with its nihilism, nar-cissism, and masochism — Stern heroically and comically takes on the task of finding his ex-wife Marlene in order to remarry her. But to find his human grail, he must jog for miles, save a cabbie from his burning car, buy balloons for a child against his mother's wishes, and plunge into Manhat-tan's carnival.
Psychologically, Stern must reconnect his own life with the life, virtues,
and beauty of New York City, to which the poem is a testament. When Mark
Stern tells himself he must rediscover his city, he is actually telling
himself to rediscover its humanity. In reaching out to his human neighbors
caged in their urban zoo, he expands his own understanding of the manacles
that confine and define us all.
At the Central Park Zoo-Stern is lost in "an uproarious crowd" that is getting its kicks by feeding ice cream to the gorilla. They laugh because the ape "nonchalantly licks" the cone like a person. But
Above the ape house our native bird
The pigeon sits, too shocked to say a word.
The tiger weathervane turns frantically.
The wrens explode in an apostrophe.
The squirrels, suicidal, pace the cage.
Stern realizes that we are at one another's mercy, and that unless we recognize our responsibility to one another we will live out our lives in cages.
Stern cannot free the actual animals from their cages, but he can free
himself and his ex-wife from their emotional barriers. Later he cries to
Marlene that "they ought to stick the public in that cage" where children
had beaten a deer with sticks. He tells her, "It isn't hurt. It's terrified
of us.” In the same passage he compares Marlene and. himself, afraid of
each other as they are, to the ''timorous" deer, and parallels the psychological
beatings of their childhoods, in which those fears originated, with the
physical abuse suffered by the animal.
Where Eliot's characters in "The Wasteland"—as well as Stern's antithesis, Prufrock himself—are reduced to shadows, Stern, amid a street full of dancing people, finally realizes:
The crowd ignores . . . The News
Of murders, bombings, chaos, doomsday, time.
We're innocent, let's dance. The only crime
Is coyness, lady. Let the sun collapse
And night come, we must shoot our craps
Once more, must challenge Death to play.
The jukebox blinks. The song is Yesterday.
A traffic helicopter overhead
Reports that you're refusing to be led
Even in celebration, reports the crowd
Is laughing at us arguing out loud
That you should lead, that I think in clichés,
That somehow love remains when love decays,
Reports a man is falling to one knee
And shouting, 'Marlene, please re-marry me!'
Reports that you are crying 'Yes No Yes,'
Reports that I'm unzippering your dress
And leading you to bed, that you're without
Your diaphragm, 'Let's have it now!' I shout,
That you shout back, we're coupling like rhyme,
Reports that we're oblivious to time.
I'm coming--do you hear that baby crying
Across the garden where the wash is drying?”
Frederick Turner's The Return is written in accentual verse based on a six-stress line with a variable number of syllables per line. As Mark Stern overcomes fashionable alienation, so the Everyman hero of Turner's extended narrative will come to proclaim the victory of love and courage over the horrors of postwar Vietnam and the despair of post-Vietnam America.
The hero, a journalist, and Blanche Yin, his photographer-soon-to-be-lover,
begin their journey by pursuing a dangerous undercover assignment in Laos.
This backfires and they are forced, like two fugitives in a Hitchcock thriller,
to flee across one Southeast Asia border after another.
…at the bridgeThough the adventure leads them farther and farther from security, hero and heroine are neither sucked into a Conradian darkness of their uncivilized selves, nor transformed into anti-West expatriates. On one hand, they are able to condemn themselves for having maintained "the exquisite detachment / of the damned" while journalistically exploiting the horrors of the Vietnam War, as in the following passage:
there's an unexpected surprise: three of the pontoons
have broken away, dangling downstream; the river
is high and brown, making noises all over its face;
in places it's brimmed up to the bank, angry;
small sods of earth are torn off, dissolved as we watch;
and a series of waves make their way downriver.
No way over. So we start up, drive north again,
looking for another place to cross. The air smells
like almonds, there is a great blackness in the north
whose heart we aim at, as if it were a dragon
to be by us destroyed....
I can remember being on the crew that covered
the massacre at Long Phuoc. The GIs had left us
with a perfect shooting schedule: first a distant pan
along violet mountains, across bamboos and clouds
for the appreciators in New York and California
of Oriental Art; next, a swift series of vignettes,
the elder with his sparse white beard, flies walking
on his glazed eyes and a leg shredded and splayed:
the mother with the smashed forehead holding the dead child;
the pretty young corpse of a girl, no apparent wound;
the hooches burning still, bright red flames against
the khaki undergrowth; smoke towering in the sky;
and last, the long zoom down the trench where every
attitude of death was composed like a Rodin or a Michaelangelo
But on the other hand, as lovers, they come to nurture a sense of their own humanity that gives them the will to survive From self-survival they are able to conceive of the survival of their heritage--its ideals as well as its material manifestations.
They eventually escape from the Indochinese subcontinent and find their
way back to America where, like Feirstein's remarried couple, they strive
to create their own order out of chaos. Their journey began with a self-involved
attempt to get a sensational story. In the end they return with their own
story that has come to symbolize their country's regeneration. The final
lyric stanzas serve as an epithalamium crowning the entire narrative:
Blanche in her blossomy calicoIV
leans to turn on the radio:
a Coffee Cantata by Johann Bach.
Morning coffee in the kitchen,
where the sunlight strikes
through the blue air
upon white clapboard, window glass. The glare
is dazzling, lights up the green spikes
of indoor plants: impatiens, pink
begonias, and phloxes by the sink.
Upon the kitchen table a brown hand
a golden band)
blazes with brown light, naked, and behind
a grapefruit haled and pink is set
beside the steamy coffeepot:
the one warmed by the sun, the other hot.
It's Fischer-Dieskau on the radio
with a hoarse flute,
on harpsichord, a coarse brown bass below.
Amber strings repeat and mute
the striding tenor. These things are
the glory of the bourgeois-secular.
Each moment the next moment generates.
The senses, uncompleted, seek new states:
the potent coffee-chemistry,
the music, and the leaves unfurled.
Quotidian dawn of the sunlit world!
Through dramatic action and plot, Feirstein and Turner question and confront the world we have inherited in ways both accessible and suspenseful. But where the endings of Manhattan Carnival and The Return lead to cultural renewals, Richard Moore's Empires focuses on the tragic exits of four historical figures who epitomize the narcissism and nihilism that Mark Stern and Turner's heroic couple battle against.
Three of the figures speak from their final hours: the elderly, heirless,
but still robust Aaron Burr alone in his room; Jay Gould propped up on
his deathbed before his pitiful family; and Archimedes calmly meditating
in his study while the Romans are overrunning Syracuse. Cleopatra, whose
section is entitled "In Rome," recounts her own glamorous history while
anticipating Caesar's impending assassination. Sporting hindsight and foresight,
each speaker sums up his or her life while casting shadows on the future.
Written in blank verse, the poem reads naturally while still maintaining a metrical regularity. Moore has varied his pen-tameter to fit each character. From the wizened, unrhymed couplets of Archimedes, to the gossipy, almost breathless voice of Cleopatra, to the ponderous sound of Burr's lines, to the softer, more lyrical voice of Gould, the poem unfolds as the work of a poet who has, in Eliot's phrase, "surrendered" his own personality to that of his creations.
Aaron Burr, probably the originator of the American political party
machine, "overthrew elections" in the early years of our democracy by cutting
"loopholes" and "pulling plugs" in the system. Like some of our own twentieth
century politicians, he was a "master of technicalities" and was able to
escape reprisal for every injury he inflicted and evade every debt he owed.
Likewise, Jay Gould monopolized our country's railroads, claiming that no matter how many laws we multiply and controls we enact, "Goulds will rise and master any system, / until all systems crumble into ruin." When his railroad workers, who were paid nothing, squeezed and starved and maimed" fought back, he defended his violent countermeasures:
Why would I marvel, therefore, that they'd riot?In the next section, Moore shows how Archimedes’ mathematical and technical discoveries, which provided the blueprints for such Greek monstrosities as catapults and grappling hooks, were to our forebears what weapons research centers and Einstein's discoveries have become to us. Of all the speakers in the book, Archimedes alone perceives how power begins in the mind, and how it can be used for creation or destruction. Gould can rationalize that he only plundered "smart men greedy as I" and Burr can pretend that all "principles bring on Hypocrisies." It takes an Archimedes to belatedly conceive, as the Roman legions are besieging his door, that
Why would I feel a pang, crushing their riots?
What, would I show kindness and yield a place
for purer Goulds more ruthless than myself
to crush me? Always in our histories
when there's a certain way of doing things,
one man arises to epitomize it….
Every monstrosity shall reach perfection.
He spoils his symmetry who reaches out
to finger distant corners of the earth.
The Greeks, having extended their empire beyond its economically and politically sustainable limits, succumb to Rome's military might. But as Moore (through Cleopatra) points out, Rome, by following the same imperialistic policies, has prepared its own ruin.
Their plain incompetence amazes me.The four testimonies are masterfully devised to attempt to make us believe in the reliability of each of the speaker’s perception of truth. Moore hopes that we, their jurors, will read between each character's lines to make an objective assessment of their lives and times while gaining insight into our own personal and global histories.
Caesar's in need of my astronomers
to give Romans a proper calendar,
requires my coiners to improve his mints,
my clerks and financiers to organize
his treasury. These conquerors are helpless.
And now whatever strength they might have had
is crushed under the burdens of their conquests.
Whether a new period in American poetry had begun in 1981 with the publication
of these three ambitious volumes would, at the time, have been an impossible
guess by any critic. Yet one need only refer to Turner's two epics, The
New World (1985) and Genesis (1988) —or his "Ballad of the Good
Cowboy" in the Reaper (1987), or Feirstein's "Family History" in
The Quarterly Review of Literature (1986), or Dick Allen's nearly
completed collection of 200 Space Sonnets, or Charles Martin's Passages
From Friday (1983), or any number of other book-length poems or extended
narratives--to realize that a movement confronting the literary fashions
of the last thirty years has been slowly evolving. It remains to be seen
if any of the Expansive Poets will be considered great one hundred years
from now. However, they have currently distinguished themselves by at least
striving to create poems that have the narrative capability and capacity
to reach not just other poets, but also all readers of literature.
Wade Newman (January 1989)
Crosscurrents, Vol. 8, No. 2