Tuesday, June 10, 2003

Catherine jumps into the "social poet" debate by quoting Richard Hugo's distinction between poets who are "Krebs" ("In Hemingway's story, the protagonist, Krebs, by birth and circumstance is an insider. As a result of his experiences in a war and his own sensitivity, he feels alienated and outside") and "Snopes" ("In Faulkner's story, the protagonist, Snopes, a little boy, by birth and circumstance is an outsider who wants desperately to be in"). Here's Hugo's list:

Krebs: William Carlos Williams, Ezra Pound, Richard Wilbur, e.e. cummings, Wallace Stevens, Allen Ginsberg.
Snopes: T.S. Eliot, Theodore Roethke, Robert Lowell, William Stafford, Louise Bogan, James Wright, Galway Kinnell, A.R. Ammons.

Does this strike anyone else as precisely backward? Even if we accept Hugo's claim that he's judging "Not from birth and circumstance, but by virtue of how they feel about themselves and their relation with the world, as revealed in their poems," it's hard for me not to see Lowell, for example, as perfectly exemplifying the insider-turned-outsider dynamic as precisely in his poetic as he does in his life. It's just as hard for me to see even the early poetry of Williams or Pound as "insider" or as taking alienation from some "inside" as a primary theme.

I realize that part of my negative reaction is an effect Hugo carefully calculates, by neatly inverting the usual understanding of avant-garde and mainstream poetry. His Krebses are poets who would usually be called modernist or avant-garde, yet they are depicted as (alienated) "insiders"; while his Snopeses are what we might now think of as more "mainstream" writers, but with a maverick or independent sensibility that marks them, for Hugo, as fundamentally (despairing) "oustiders."

Really this seems to be less an analysis of style or biography than an instinct about personality: Krebses are confident and relatively secure in their position of dissent, whereas Snopeses are self-doubting and insecure in their positions, unable to identify with any particular group--which, paradoxically, makes them perfectly suited for canonization.

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