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Poems and Persons

AN UNCOMPROMISING CRAFTSMAN and moralist, Yeats can sound just like an angel as he judges like a priest. Among twentieth-century English-language poets, he was one of the best verbal musicians and one of the most likely to sneer—at “the sort now growing up/ All out of shape from toe to top,” and at “the commonest ear.” The latter condescension is from Yeats’s cultural complaints in “The Fisherman,” published months before Ireland’s Easter Rebellion would try to establish a nation whose culture Yeats thought was not as well-formed as it should have been. His concern was independence—not just sovereignty, but also cultural autonomy from the British who would govern his country for another half-decade. Yeats wanted a robust sense of Irish identity, which he couldn’t find in the culture he saw,

The witty man and his joke  

Aimed at the commonest ear,  

The clever man who cries  

The catch cries of the clown,  

The beating down of the wise  

And great Art beaten down.

These posers fear and loathe the virtues they pretend to possess, so Yeats “in scorn of this audience” imagines someone with no pose, a “wise and simple man,” the fisherman:

And the down turn of his wrist

When the flies drop in the stream—

A man who does not exist,  

A man who is but a dream;  

And cried, “Before I am old  

I shall have written him one  

Poem maybe as cold  

And passionate as the dawn.”

Passionate as the dawn? The dawn could have passion if it were a spirit, one that animates the poem’s end in a kind of synaesthetic epiphany, with “cold” suggesting the gold of the dawn and of the gong-like sound of the last rhyme, “one” and “dawn.” After the fisherman disappears with his flies, the spirit comes forth, “cold/ and passionate” as the man is “wise and simple,” as if the man dropped into a dream to resurface as the spirit of a nation.

The weirdest part of this is that Yeats really believed it. “I believe,” he wrote, “in the practice and philosophy of what we have agreed to call magic, in what I must call the evocation of spirits.” Mind and memory were not irredeemably personal: universal, rarely conscious “great mind and great memory can be evoked by symbols,” and, for Ireland, should be evoked by artistic symbols, since “neither religion nor politics can of itself create minds with enough receptivity to become wise, or just and generous enough to make a nation.” Modesty this is not; but Yeats’s immodesty of ambition didn’t obviously lead to pride in accomplishments. He does not say he wrote the poem that he promised the fisherman. Perhaps only the fisherman could know, with the only ear wise and receptive enough to hear whether Yeat’s “Fisherman” is the poem Yeats promised him. Our common ears can only suppose.

Oren Izenberg’s book helps to explain this discrepancy between Yeats’s superhuman achievements and his godlike ambitions. Yeats thought that symbols could make a national identity because he saw no viable alternative, as Izenberg shows. “A parcel of mongrels,” in Shaw’s phrase, Yeats’s Irish had no distinctive appearance or religion or living language or anything sufficient by Yeats’s standards for a national identity. History would not suffice, so Yeats appealed to an identity that never really existed, an imagined one—a fisherman. (I am borrowing freely from Izenberg’s reading of the poem.) Yeats wanted the identity that he imagined to transform his readers, but did not often see them become part of the great mind. This frustration led Yeats to the depths of a bizarre spiritual eugenics he thought could purify the race, but, faithful to symbols, he imagined ways for his poems’ felt effects to hint at the transformations he hoped for, as in “The Fisherman.”

Being Numerous takes up the long and quixotic history of poets with ambitions as outsized as Yeats’s—“the powerful disjunction between the kinds of claims that some poets make for poetry—that it might remake consciousness, purify the soul, foment revolution, found an alternative social order—and any reasonable practical account of what can and does happen in an encounter between a reader and a poem.” This is a real problem for people who try to make sense of poems. I have never known a poem to purify my soul, yet I cannot learn about poetry by dismissing poets’ aims for their work. Izenberg offers an explanatory middle way between patronizing dismissal and credulous endorsement: he picks out a number of poets whose outsize ambitions are for a capacious category he calls “Poetry,” not for poems.

“Poetry” would refer to any manifestation of the imagination—an odd usage, for which Izenberg cites Shelley’s “A Defense of Poetry,” the zenith of literary immodesty, from which we learn that “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world” and that Poetry encompasses philosophy, true science, history, and sovereignty, among other things such as poems. The poets whom Izenberg describes try to show through their poems what it means to be a person, as Poetry reveals.

Izenberg’s poets are Yeats, George Oppen, Frank O’Hara, and a big group of self-styled experimentalists called “Language Poets.” They are all English-language poets who responded to different historical and theoretical crises that Izenberg takes to concern personhood. Yeats’s “great Art” would grant an identity to a nation that needed it. Oppen’s concern was not to build a nation but to salvage faith in the person, after World War II, the Shoah, and the Bomb. Oppen, an American, is known as much for his silence as for his poems, a silence that lasted from 1934 until 1959, in which he published no poems. Rather than a quarter of a century of writer’s block, Oppen considered his silence “poetic exploration,” even a precondition for his best work. “Because I am not silent,” he wrote, “the poems are bad.” This may seem like an inflated claim for wordless poems, but Izenberg reads it as a claim for Poetry. “Words” were for Oppen “the stuff of ‘myth’—shared systems of understanding that are not knowledge- or truth-bearing but as arbitrary and amoral as luck.” Only silent poetry had a chance to allay Oppen’s doubts, such as his doubt that there are other minds. Allaying this required what Oppen called “curiosity,” a kind of complex inexpressible commitment to care about the things you will perceive, an attitude Izenberg beautifully shows Oppen evoking in a silent part of one of his post-silence poems, “Psalm,” whose non-verbal dash is more emphatic than the verbal revelation it leads to:

In the small beauty of the forest

The wild deer bedding down—

That they are there!

I would have liked to learn more from Izenberg about the specifics of Oppen’s conflicts than Izenberg describes. What did Oppen want from “the most intimate forms of relationship,” and why for him did World War II rob them of “comfort and hope”? What did Oppen want out of love, or happiness, and how could he get it from metaphysics of mind?

The Yeats chapter has the same vagueness: what for Yeats could constitute national identity, and how could Poetry constitute it through poems? By training our ears? Izenberg sometimes loses sight of poems for Poetry, which includes the poets’ whole imaginations, much of which have nothing clearly useful to tell us about their poems. He frames poets’ concerns abstractly enough to explain their responses in the abstract, as Poetry, which can obscure the importance of poems as well as their textures. This is especially unfortunate because Izenberg’s greatest critical strength is his curiosity—the care and the sensitivity with which he approaches the poems he reads.

His abstract readings work best when applied to the Language Poets, whose work is full of abstract ideas, the specifics of whose presentation do not merit close attention. Language poetry arose in response to two events, in Izenberg’s account: “the American government’s involvement in the Vietnam War and the American university’s enthusiastic reception of continental literary theory.” Language Poets opposed the former by means of the latter, opposed American militarism and commercialism by stripping the language of its culture-vitiating effects. Since those were the most conventional uses of language, Language Poets produced a mass of poems largely without coherence or closure or beauty.

Language poems, on Izenberg’s reading, are “experiments or examples” of Language Poetry, meant to show the pure potential of language and to establish a kind of unconstrained communal freedom. One might be suspicious of such a conceptual link between incomplete sentences and utopia, as Izenberg is, but he also supplies their Poetry with a principle that best explains their beliefs even if it does not quite justify them. The principle is Chomsky’s universal grammar, “the unique capacity to produce language altogether,” which evinces “the existence of something fundamentally human on which the very possibility of social life can be predicated,” even if it is not clear how exercising it in new ways could effect “the reconstitution of ‘society’” for which the Poets hoped.  

Izenberg’s distaste for Language poems helps him brilliantly to describe the frustrations of reading them, with what he calls their “an-aesthetic” (a largely accurate generalization about the school but one that ignores the truly beautiful poetry of some of its members, such as Lyn Hejinian, who undermines readerly expectations to great aesthetic ends). The Language Poets’ an-aesthetic defies aesthetic conventions in the interest of their Poetry, and on Izenberg’s view so do the other poets he describes, a “tradition … [a] kind of poet … whose drive to secure the universality of personhood will often seem to deprive poems … of everything that we hold most dear about them.” Modern poets either belong to this tradition or don’t—“a poetic taxonomy” that Izenberg claims can largely replace the conventional taxonomies he attacks in the start of his introduction, “a nearly unanimous literary-historical consensus that would divide [contemporary] poetry into two warring camps—post-Romantic and postmodern; symbolist and constructivist; traditionalist and avant-garde.”

Izenberg does not keep this promise. He fails to show a tradition of anti-aesthetics; he shows only the Language Poets. His poets do not clearly claim to “secure the universality of personhood,” unless Oppen’s curiosity and Yeats’s imagined Irishry somehow imply abstract and species-wide criteria for being a person. And by “person” Izenberg seems not to mean person but subject worthy of moral regard, roughly. As far as I understand it, this personhood could apply to a horse but not to Hitler, and so is not what we mean by “person.”

Izenberg’s book is riddled with academic argot like the following:

The properly dialectical reading that would allay such anxieties, Adorno goes on to explain, will resist taking the poem for the wrong sort of thing—“objects with which to demonstrate sociological theses”—only if it respects the objecthood of poems in the right sense: only if, that is, “the social element in [poems] is shown to reveal something essential about the basis of their quality.” “Material,” as Adorno puts it in Aesthetic Theory, “is always historical.”

Uh-huh. Izenberg’s book is serious and careful and smart, but it puzzles me how someone so sensitive to nuance in language could seem so often indifferent to his readers’ experience of his own prose. Izenberg’s book regularly obscures its own worthwhile criticism and intellectual history.

What reason can poems give us to believe the ideas that they endorse? How and why can aesthetic reflection give us reason to believe the ideas that we reflect on? How can we tell revelation from rhetoric, “Great Art” from “the catch cries of the clown”? Academic English tends to outsource its answers to philosophers who tend to write the way Izenberg writes about Adorno. Izenberg urges critics to draw also on the methods and theories of a clearer kind of philosophy, the kind practiced in most English-speaking departments, whose members tend to find inspiration in mathematics and the sciences. They can build rigorous and legible theories, but they are not trained or often inclined to notice literary nuance. Critics tend toward the opposite. Perhaps the disciplines could complement each other to build better theories of literature, an ambition for which Izenberg’s example is an argument not just in his failures but in his achievements, which are numerous.

Adam Plunkett’s essays and reviews have appeared in n+1, Bookforum, The Los Angeles Review of Books, and elsewhere.