Toward a New Lyricism (The Irish Have a Word for It)
Pure lyricism is not dead. Except in America. The Irish still have
a word for it. This past spring in San Francisco there was a Festival
of Irish Writers at Golden Gate University (with an introductory
day at Stanford) in which twenty-two poets and novelists from Ireland
north and south raised their voices to an enthralled audience who
hadn't heard anything like it in this country in many a year. It
was also a great stroke for peace at last in Ireland, as writers
from both sides joined minds and voices.
Modern poetry has suffered from a
kind of exhausted or "defeated" romanticism. We heard it in the
1920s in T.S. Eliot's Waste Land (especially in "The Love
Song of J. Alfred Prufrock"), in Ezra Pound's Cantos
that couldn't possibly be sung, and in the increasing stoicism,
if not cynicism, of many who came of age during the war or returned
from it with radically changed perspectives. It was also a period
credited with America's "loss of innocence," which affected all
American art and writing.
Politically, it all started with the
disillusionment of intellectuals with the Communist dream in the
1930s (as tellingly articulated in Arthur Koestler's The God
that Failed). In the postwar years, this led to increasing resistance
to commitment of any kind, in literature as well as in politics.
And it was a part of a growing alienation of artists and writers
from mainstream society and government in general.
This eventually led to the romantic
rebellion of Beat writers. And today we have the electronic revolution
that favors pragmatic, technocratic, materialist consciousness at
the expense of the subjective. In poetry we have the still greater
estrangement of new generations of rappers and slammers who are
much more alienated from society than the Beats ever were, though
with less commitment, politically or otherwise.
It would seem that lyricism in poetry
around the world has suffered least when modern city culture least
impinged upon it. The further we get from nature, the less lyrical
our poetry becomes. The postmodern world seems to destroy lyricism
in life and especially in poetry. The great lyric period of English
Romanticism grew out of a nineteenth-century culture that was largely
rural, if not pastoral. But with the early twentieth century, the
absolute staccato of machines began to drum upon people's consciousness,
destroying the old pastoral lyricism, so that the great Irish dreamer,
William Butler Yeats, could cry "The woods of Arcady are dead /And
over is their antique joy. . . ."
In our time great lyric poets are
few and far away. Perhaps the last great lyric voice was that of
Welsh poet Dylan Thomas, and Edna St.Vincent Millay the finest of
American lyric voices. Today there is much fine nature poetry by
some living on the fringes of nature like Mary Oliver. And we have
had great urban poets like Kenneth Rexroth, whose nature poetry
and love poetry have a lyric sublimity equal to the greatest.
On the other hand, we have poets living very close to nature like
Gary Snyder, whose lyricism is grounded in stoic Buddhism.
Yet Irish poetry has somehow managed
to stay close to its lyric roots, maybe because its culture as a
whole has remained closer to the soil.
Thus it was that the Irish invaded
San Francisco this past spring and turned on an audience used to
nonlyrical poetry that doesn't sing. (With one or two exceptions,
local poets were notable for their absence at this festival, and
it was also obvious that this was an all-white affair.) The program
was called "Finnegans Awake," and it was as if Yeats and Maud Gonne,
J.M. Synge, Sean O'Casey, and James Joyce were all still very much
with us. The rich voices of the women poets at the festival were
the most lyrical of all, almost as if they were all varied tones
of an archetypal Irish woman's voice, embodied--at least for me--by
James Joyce's Molly Bloom. There still may be swans on the Liffey.
But still the least lyric poets at this festival were those who
had grown furthest from their roots.
We read poetry for its beauty, for
its muted music, for its promise of liberation, its promise of transcendence,
for its "lyric escape." There is a need for lyricism in daily life,
but we get very little of it in poetry today. The age does not demand
it. Other drugs, like Ecstasy, are used for turn-ons. But perhaps
some new lyricism will arise to fill what some have called the spiritual
emptiness of our world. Nature abhors a vacuum. We still need the
lyric escape. It is still the bird singing that makes us happy.
It's Time for a Populist Laureate
It was a dubious pleasure to read that Stanley Kunitz, the much-loved
95-year-old poet of Provincetown and Greenwich Village, is the new
U.S. poet laureate starting this November, succeeding the not-so-loved
Robert Pinsky. A pleasure, that is, to see this "poet's poet" get
the big-daddy laurel, for no nicer fellow could be found anywhere.
A little illustration of his gentility
will make the point. This is the second time around for Kunitz.
Back when the post was still called "poetry consultant to the Library
of Congress," Kunitz was it from 1974 to 1976. During his reign
he invited me to record my poetry for the Library of Congress.
But I, full of righteous anger and
alienation, published a rude reply to Kunitz's genteel invitation,
saying I would not "participate in any way (whether it is at the
Library or in the National Endowment of the Arts) with a government
that conducted such a disgusting war in Vietnam and financed among
other duplicities the overthrow of the Allende regime in Chile."
To which Kunitz very courteously replied that the poetry program
was not financed by the government but was privately funded. (I
never did record for him.)
He has a new Collected Poems
to go with his new laureateship, and he certainly deserves it by
old Ivy League standards. Aye, but thar's the rub. The center of
gravity in the world of poetry long ago left the hallowed precincts
of the East Coast establishment, even though news of this evidently
never reached the hairy ears of the Librarian of Congress, who annually
appoints the laureate. Anyone who's read poetry issued by the big
Eastern publishers during Kunitz's long career and compared it with
poetry published in the West can see the raw difference.
Of course, there were exceptions,
but generally poetry in the West has been raunchier, wilder, and
woollier, less domesticated and more experimental in form and content.
The divide at the Great Divide began shortly after World War II,
when the whole continent was tilting westward, demographically speaking.
And it was obvious by the late 1950s that something profound and
radical was happening, even though Mr. Jones, the librarian back
East, didn't know it.
Pablo Neruda said in 1959 that he
loved our "wide-open poetry." And he wasn't talking about poetry
in the New Yorker or journals like the Hudson Review
or Partisan Review (which San Francisco poet and critic Kenneth
Rexroth referred to as the Vaticide Review). Rexroth also
referred to Eastern academies as "munching and belching societies."
In fact, he maintained that we had all fled West to escape the dead
hand of the East Coast literary world, even though the best of us
were published by that New York avant-garde maverick, New Directions.
This huge continental drift, this
literary red shift, seemed so crucial to our literary existence
in the West, until the very recent electronic globalization of our
consciousness. Just as regional accents are being wiped out by air
travel and television, the Internet may eventually wipe out regionalism
in literature and every other kind of provincialism. In a symbolic
sense, geography will no longer exist. For better or worse, and
perhaps for much worse, our literary intercourse will be literally
"up in the air," our literary cafes and kaffeeklatsches replaced
by chat rooms, with communications satellites for waiters.
So it's now also irrelevant whether
the U.S. poet laureate comes from the East or the West. Now the
choice of the laureate can be a pure choice between the traditional
"have a nice day" poets and committed activist poets such as June
Jordan, who's been presenting a "poets of the people" series at
San Francisco's Intersection for the Arts. We have hardly had a
major bard since Walt Whitman, who aspired to speak for the people
en masse, except perhaps Carl Sandburg and certain agitprop Marxists.
Nor will we find such populist poetry in Stanley Kunitz's books,
any more than we found it in his predecessor, Pinsky.
"Who will speak for the simple and
dumb?" asked Eugene Ruggles in an early poem. Perhaps some time
soon a great young voice of the people will emerge. And perhaps
some new U.S. laureate will seize the day "to burst the petty bonds
of art" (as Whitman put it) and become an activist poetic voice
in the nation's capital, a true conscience of the people, an uncompromised
and uncompromising critic of life in these States--to rock the ship
of state when it really needs rocking. Which is now.