Monday, July 30, 2007

Why Is American Poetry Culturally Deprived?

Looking for something else, I stumbled on an extremely cranky essay by Kenneth Rexroth ("Why Is American Poetry Culturally Deprived?" from World Outside the Window: The Selected Essays of Kenneth Rexroth). Among other nasty bits there's this:
From the death of Longfellow to the day Allen Ginsberg took off his clothes, the American poet was not an important factor in American life. He was not a factor at all. For this reason, the kind of young man who wished to participate in the decisions of his community went into business, engineering, or the professions. The boy who knew he could not or was afraid to participate wrote verse.
One has to wonder whether he included himself in that last, somewhat emasculating hissy fit. In a way the essay is almost Gioiaesque, although of course it predated "Can Poetry Matter?" by almost thirty years.

I actually agree with Rexroth's larger point, that American poetry is often giddily free of historical seasoning and intellectual complexity. He makes some hilarious (and wildly contestable) observations about Stevens and Williams--poets he otherwise admires:
What is valuable about the poetry of Wallace Stevens is that it really does reorganize the human sensibility afresh in each poem in terms of quite simple elements of experience. This experience is never more profound than that accessible to the kind of man Wallace Stevens in fact was--a wealthy cultivated executive of a big insurance company.

So with William Carlos Williams, who for contemporary taste is the best of the generation of Classic Modernists. As a handler of general ideas, Williams is pathetic. As either aesthetic or epistemology, his favorite phrase, "No ideas but in things," is infantile....

To products of environments as troubled as those which produced Rilke, Mayakovsky, Paul Eluard, or Dylan Thomas, even the most tormented American poet must seem singularly content, but so it is.

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