|Guy Davenport [New Directions]|
from "E. E. Cummings?" in Guy Davenport's The Geography of the Imagination: Forty Essays:
That the poet speaks for people who cannot speak, that he makes sentences for people to say, is as outmoded a concept in pedagogy as whacking the behind for laziness and insolence. The poet, poor fellow, has become a Personality, and the only authority for his raving is that he stands in his shoes. That pair of shoes over there: in them stands a man who for lack of Personality might be famous as the poet.
One can think of statements that seem to explain so wry a misunderstanding of the poet as an issuer of personal pronunciamentos. Behavioral psychology, squirted into the ears of students from Head Start through the Ph.D., can account for no action not grounded in self-advancement; it follows that the poet as a voice for other people is suspect. He must be expressing himself, don't you see? Poor Whitman. He wrote a corpus of poems for an entire nation, to give them a tongue to unstop their inarticulateness. He wrote in their dialect, incorporating the nerve of their rhetoric and the rhythms of the Bible from which their literacy came. He wrote two elegies for Lincoln, one for grownups ("When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd") and one for school children ("O Captain! My Captain!"). He tried to understand the voiceless American and to speak for him, and as much as any poet has ever succeeded, he did. Yet he has been idiotically deposed from the fulcrum he so carefully selected. He wrote not a single personal poem and yet every word is taught to students as the self-expression of an elate disc jockey who made his scene with a poetry book, Way Back Yonder (but still pertinent, as he used symbols and sometimes undercut with irony).
Thus the editors of Time have no trouble doing an article on the most significant American poet. Marianne Moore? Louis Zukofsky? Ezra Pound? Robert Kelly? Ronald Johnson? Robert Duncan? Naw. Robert Lowell. Mr. Lowell has, indeed, worked hard at being a poet. He has been severe in his output, and knows, with Brahms, that writing is all too easy. What's hard is to throw most of what you've written in the trash-basket. He has been smart and modern in metric and diction. And he has been bleak, agonized, and serious, terribly serious. He seems to have always had a headache. He is respected at Bennington. Mr. Pound (as Time does not seem to know) has read from his poems at Spoleto. And Time has singled him out as the significant poet.
And he is, if we define poetry as essentially self-expression. And if Mr. Lowell's response to the world were as eloquent as, say, Stan Laurel's or François Villon's or Mahalia Jackson's — that is, if there were some juice or even some mud between the toes — the report from his inwards might instruct us in grief and support us when we're doleful. One need not diminish Mr. Lowell's excellence to say what's out of joint in Time's report on current American poetry; but since they set him up as representative, it is necessary to say with some firmness that he is not. He is a thoughtful, serious, melancholy academic poet; if he is representative of anything beyond himself, it is of a broody school of professor-poets whose quiet, meticulous verse is perhaps the lineal and long-winded descendant of the cross-stitch sampler.
Poets, Time says, are moony-minded, seeing camels and bunny rabbits in clouds. (Shiver and snuggle up, dear reader, Time is going to walk right up to a poet, give him an Ed Sullivan hug, and get him to express himself about his self-expression.) Shelly, by golly, saw a cloud as a cloud, but never mind. "Poets," Mr. Lowell says, "are a more accepted part of society." Mr. Lowell is a Harvard professor, and would no doubt, if he taught physiology, explain to his students that the tongue is an admirable and useful organ, and that society is almost reconciled to its being part of the body. When Ezra Pound ("the father of modern poetry," says Time) became a more accepted part of society, after thirteen years in the pokey where society put him in a moment of rejection, he was detained momentarily by reporters asking the usual silly questions. "Ovid had it a lot worse," he said, and while they were looking at each other's notepads to see how to spell Ovid, he clapped his hat on his head, and walked off to take a ship to Italy.