Tuesday, March 23, 2004

Mike Snider sent me a kind email in response to my last post, which among other things clarified something I'd been fumbling towards yesterday: that this discussion really centers around modernism and what one thinks of it. Here's what I emailed Mike in response:

"Post-rhetorical" is a weird phrase I came up with on the fly, and is probably a little confusing; what I meant by it was not the absence of all rhetorical techniques, but something like a refusal of capital-R Rhetoric, of grand statement even in folksy Frostian form. Far from seeing the post-rhetorical as a distinctive trait of new formalism, I'm thinking of it as something like a contemporary condition.

You also made me realize how much this debate really is about modernism and what one thinks of it. I love modernism and hence can't imagine living without it, nor can I read contemporary poetry without having modernism on the brain. I of course recognize that others might not share that opinion, and that indeed anti-modernism has a long and proud history; being at Stanford I can tell you that the ghost of Yvor Winters still lurks there unapologetically. It's just that I wonder if anti-modernism can really remain unmarked by modernism, or if one can really expect a reader of poetry to be free of modernism's spell; schoolkids these days tend to read haiku and Cummings and even Plath long before they get to Shakespeare's poetry.

I haven't read Steele's book, so I can't respond to his arguments; but the modernism that's important to me doesn't reject history. As to whether it was wrong about human nature, probably; but I'm not sure how much that matters: I imagine we will all turn out to have been wrong about human nature. A professor I know is fond of dismissing Virginia Woolf by saying that she didn't understand how the mind worked; that may be so, but I just don't see how that's relevant to whether her novels are good or worth reading. I don't think the truths that literature pursues are quite that simple.


I should also note Henry Gould's contribution to the discussion, where he notes--can it be?--that he largely agrees with me. In fact, I think we agree even more than Henry might think. My point about Lowell wasn't that Lowell showed how formal verse is "always an expression of high culture," but that in fact Lowell's work helped create that idea for us in a very particular way (compare that to Frost, whose adherence to meter seems consciously and even flamboyantly provincial and "low" in comparison to the free-verse stylings of transatlantic modernism). Henry's right that the future use of any form is completely unpredictable; what isn't unpredictable is the past use of that form, its history, which guarantees that if a form does "make a comeback," it will never be precisely the same as it was before.

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