Essay: The Problem of Originality

David Gewanter

Essay: The Problem of Originality
by David Gewanter

Q: What is American about American Poetry?

 Some years ago Donald Hall coined a memorable term for school-based, formulaic American poetry: the McPoem. I thought about it recently as I pulled off US 1 to grab breakfast at McDonalds. Has our poetry joined the mass-culture melting pot? The menu on the billboard reads: “Egg McMuffin, Breakfast Fajitas, French Fries, Hash Brown.” Typical American gruel to be sure, but showing the mix of cultures we like to call “American.” “Egg McMuffin” cooks over a British dish; “fajitas” are smuggled from Latin America; “french fries” fake being French; and “hash brown” seems to use a fancy French word-order, subject then adjective, as in the very American term, “Attorney General.”

American poetry draws fuel from American language — our slang, advertising jingles, jazz and sports talk — and it draws as well from American sensibilities: our impatience with tradition and hierarchies, our impulsive chattiness and naive idealism, the feverish pace of our inventions and cast-offs. What’s most “American” in American poetry? It might be the problem of originality, understood as two obsessions: that our poetry sound original, and that our poets display their origins.

The first obsession is formal — or more recently, anti-formal: the common understanding of a new, innovative American poem is that it seem independent of the poetries that precede it. The present result is a mountain of free-verse poems, whose authors enjoy the quasi-political belief that their verse is authentic, original, and free from convention. An American poet might delight to hear “how unlike” his or her poem is compared to others, not sensing that this term (from Elizabeth Bishop) sees one’s distinctiveness only by comparison with others. The common elements of free-verse American poems — predictably irregular line lengths and stanzas, rhymes and alliteration strung everywhere but the line’s last syllable, repeated cadences and phrases to gain emotional ballast — testify to the repressive limits of contemporary free-verse freedoms, and to the role of free verse as a potentially constrictive American tradition.

Against this, not surprisingly, stands a phalanx of resolutely formal poets, whose zeal for repeating older forms works as strongly to predetermine the effects of their poems as do the anti-conventional swerves of the free-versers. But this is not to depict our poetry era as a chef’s duel between the “cooked and the raw.” For every manner and form of poetry — storytelling customs from Vietnam, Italian sonnets, gansta rap, net-speak — can claim a place of importance and attention. T.S. Eliot once proposed that each new poem altered the “ideal order” of all the works before it; we might amend that to say that any motif, custom, or form of past poetry may be exploited now without comment or apology. Is this a minimalist era? or in love with the epic? Confessional? or multi-cultural? No mode can claim the day. Notwithstanding such a democracy of available forms, however, our preference for free verse — look at any issue of the American Poetry Review — does seem to dominate. Perhaps our McPoems have given us the McPoetics we deserve.

There’s another sense of democratic access in poetry as well: more Americans are writing poems than ever. More people, more poems, more voices. The tumble of High Modernism and “impersonal art” has spawned a world of poets, and a world of styles. With one exception: while HiMod poems offered a panoply of voices, contemporary verse links style and cadence to a particular voice, the voice in turn linked to a speaker, a speaker whose “personal situation” is announced, detailed, and cemented as the poem’s meaning. The secret of the poem, by this view, lies in compositional origins — that is, in the poet’s life (or less often, in a dramatic speaker whose personal circumstances must also be ferreted out). This second “problem of originality” in American poetry tends to cast poems as a form of gossip, so that APR would become People in verse.

Does the poem show the person? We are convinced that it does so — either through direct revelation or through some displacement that psychology can explain. So accustomed are we to look at poems for personal innards, that even our best writers and readers wind up leading the way. Charles Bernstein, known for his arguments against “self-centered” poetics, seems most personal when denying the personal: “It’s a mistake, I think, to posit the self as the primary organizing feature of writing.” And Robert Hass, a brilliant poetry reader and writer, is pressed to introduce a poem of Arthur Sze by making him the initial subject of interest: “Arthur Sze was born in New York City and lives in Santa Fe, N.M. His first book, The Willow Wind — when it appeared in 1970 — was one of the first books of poems ever published by an Asian American.” Hass does provide an adroit precis of Sze’s poem — it is “dazzled and haunted by patterns that can’t quite yield their meaning” — but he still must offer readers what they want first: the three blind mice of biography: Race, Class, and Gender.

In happy cases, a poetics and a compelling sensibility together create really original work: Ginsberg, Moore, O’Hara, R. Lowell, Dove, and Bidart come to mind. Here the poetics rarely seem an issue separate from the music, the subject not a map of the author, but of the poem’s statement. The fusion of poetics and sensibility is rare, though, even in our best poets: later W.C. Williams seems “not quite” like Williams, early Robert Frost is “not yet” like Frost. And in the hand of imitators, a poetic sensibility soon declines into a kind of style or verbal tic (cf. the “schools” of Ashbery, Olson, the Naropites, and so on). Even so, the path for a young poet lies precisely in imitating such master poets, in reading them with a lover’s despair. This now happens in the very place Donald Hall decried: the poetry-workshop, the Hamburger U. of McPoetry. Many workshop instructors, however, find that while poetry-writing has become more popular, few students will on their own read and pick apart difficult poems. As if we would learn piano without reading music or practicing songs.

It’s difficult to predict what will make tomorrow’s American poetry most American, but it may lurk in some combination of “conventional” training and a raw, concentrated response to the knots of American experience. We’re the greedy and forgetful inheritors, our dance is not Williams’s europhilic “Kermess” but the square dance, whose commands are stolen from all over — “dos-y- do” is Mexican for “two by two”; “honor your corner” is British courtly; and “allemain left”. . . German? or French? It’s ours now. As Virgil Thompson proposed, “The way to write American music is simple. All you have to do is be an American and then write any music you wish. There is precedent and model here for all the kinds. And any Americanism worth bothering about is everybody’s property anyway.”

Smartish Pace
Smartish Pace