EP&M Online Essay

Expansive Movement Takes A Licking, Keeps On Ticking?


Arthur Mortensen

An elderly couple the Webmaster knew twenty years ago would greet a guest in their apartment's sunken living room before the first taste of an appetizer, and long before the first drink, with the question:  what's new?   The two prided themselves on catching up with the absolute latest trend in any art which, even by then, had become a bad joke (carefully excised from a grantmaker's annual report).  Whether performance art in throwing cows out of helicopters, the latest Soho craze of attempted public suicides, the politically correct excision of meaning from poetry, sculptures made from excrement, a new architecture of shattered forms ("deconstructed" to the afficionado), theater with improvised scripts or no words at all, only grunts, on and on.  Every week they found something new.   The writer's response was generally off-putting -- haven't seen a thing.   But, even that didn't surprise or shock them.  Nothing, it has been said, falls so far below expectations as a movement in the arts.   What about a movement that started in 1975, when Jerry Ford was the accidental President, Jimmy Carter was unknown, Star Wars was still George Lucas's dream project, and the current President was an ambitious 17-year-old with his eyes on Harvard?

As with every movement, the Expansive poets had their pitch and their founding myths.   The pitch was that the founders and their friends intended nothing less than a renovation of poetry's place in literature, a reconstruction that would bring back into critical and reader consideration such tacitly banned aspects as storytelling, form, and classical prosody.   The founding mythology was familiar, and included a late night meeting in a tavern, in this case Minetta's in Greenwich Village.   The fare fell somewhat short of Body and Blood, but this was not to be a religious affair.   Indeed, if anything, its objectives went directly against what Joseph Epstein called High Church in poetry, the Modernist movement that stretched from Eliot to the then current malaise that dominated mostly university-subsidized poets. All very nice, but what's happened since?

Its founders, the Three Musketeers as it were, have by themselves produced forty to fifty books, a big shelf, especially for poets since 1945.  Frederick Feirstein, Frederick Turner, and Dick Allen are still intensely active.   Feirstein has several new books of poetry circulating among publishers, has recently finished a novel, and has been working regularly with actors in getting several his new plays mounted.   Turner has added to his huge oeuvre  new books, including Prayers of Dallas, a play done in Dallas a year or so ago, and the remarkable Natural Religion, a serious essay on the genetic roots of belief.   Allen has an epic circulating among editors, his biggest piece since 1968's Anon, and a new book from Sarabande that joins a now long list of his volumes of verse.   Poets who've worked with them, or found their lead one to follow, have produced hundreds of volumes of poetry in the last thirty years, a sizable shelf indeed.  True, the general readership, such as exists nowadays, hasn't seen many of these.  (However, for the despairing, think Kindle, Barnes & Noble Reader, Sony Reader, Apple Tablet -- there's a means to get out there.)  Their relative isolation is as it has been for most poets for most of human history.  Their work, which this writer considers the most modern and engaging work of the past fifty years, will be picked up over the next fifty years as that of the contemporary canon of poetry was since 1945.  A comparative note:  Milton's contract for Paradise Lost, which the writer has a fair copy of, was for 500 copies to be sold over ten years.  JS Bach was almost unknown until Felix Mendelsohn found some old manuscripts and was flabbergasted enough to arrange for their performance.  For the fine arts, history builds vast audiences, but rarely within most artist's lifetimes.

As to contemporary significance, the largest this movement has provided lies less in its frequent use of classic prosody and form than in its revival of storytelling in American poetry, whether in a book as long as Frederick Turner's Genesis , a dramatic monologue in Columbus's voice by Daniel Fernandez, a sequence by Frederick Feirstein or Dick Allen, or a sonnet by Suzanne Noguere or Wade Newman.  They have helped enormously in making that kind of work critically acceptable again.   And, say what you will about critics, they bring new work to light.  

What the Expansive Movement has represented in the context of other contemporary poetry is not so difficult to see.   The late Richard Moore pointed out that narrative and classic prosody hadn't disappeared after the rise of Modernism.  Lots of writers still worked with those tools and in that territory.   He was one of the best examples.  The late Theodore Weiss was another.  So were Elizabeth Bishop and Louise Bogan.  What the Expansive Movement did was to bring critical and creative light on what Modernism and its bastard child post-Modernism chose to ignore or revile.  Given the Expansive light, a writer with a sensibility for drama and narrative got a chance to say no to the various shibboleths of critical theory.   Feirstein, Turner, and Allen, by work and by critical essay, said yes, you can create character outside of yourself; yes, you can create coherent story lines that are recognizably modern; yes, you can enjoy the fabulous, continuously evolving tool set called prosody without oppressing some minority; yes, context in time creates new and important variations of old stories; and yes, it's okay to be a storyteller who employs verse instead of prose.   This writer needed to hear that.  It sure wasn't available in journals in 1975, when the movement began in earnest. 

As all movements in the arts, the Expansive Movement, over thirty-five years, has broken apart into various streams, most of whose practitioners deny all association with the Expansive poets.  This is not even interesting.  What is marvelous can be found in the work of neo-formalists, new classicists,  storytelling poets, and dramatists working in verse, work which appears in thousands of journals and in hundreds of books every year.  Thirty-five years ago, you would have found little of this unless the author had been dead for fifty or more years, or, like Richard Moore, been published in tiny runs by an obscure publisher.   In this light, the snotty remarks about the Expansive poets and their movement being old hat are exactly what you'd expect to hear from heirs more intent on their own contributions than in upholding those of the previous generation.  This is all to the good.  The movement has accomplished its objectives.  Its founders and first generation of disciples can stick to what ultimately matters, putting more good stuff in print.


                                                                                    Arthur Mortensen