Q & A: American Poetry

Q & A American Poetry: James Cummins

We are fanatics descended from fanatics. The "gentility" of the English that my Anglophile colleagues historically have revered seems only a mask to me hiding, more recently, the arrogance of the Redcoat armies, and millennia previous to that, the fierce warriors, Saxons and Celts and whoever, that Caesar said were the greatest fighters he'd ever seen. I imagine some Italian foot soldier from sunny Capri squinting into a gloomy forest through the never-ending mist, saying, "So who are the blue guys? Holy Romulus! Aaarrgghh!" Many hundreds of years later, William Bradford and his compatriots, third-rate philosophers and first-rate entrepreneurs as they were, dropped onto our shores on a day when, near as I can tell, the Almighty was dutifully eating His prunes. The legacy of these "Chosen People," and their descendants, is one that loathes, thus fetishizes, the body; that hates, fears, and thus destroys, the natural world; and that has no counterbalance to the tremendous abstract power of its greed. This has all been said before, and better.

I value "my" literary tradition because it stands against this terrible legacy. American literature is radical literature: all our great writers declare for the "heart" over the "head" (meaning, of course, heart and head together). By itself, the Head can acquire;the Heart cannot. The Heart can only give and receive, and no good entrepreneur will settle for that. I believe you become a writer because you can't settle for less. There is no payment possible that would keep Hawthorne from writing The Scarlet Letter.What could be given Melville that he would stop needing to write Billy Budd?Our greastest poets, Whitman and Dickinson, teach us the terrifying grandeur of containing multitudes, the compassion, generosity, and endurance required.

I feel very much the terrible loneliness that is the price of throwing off the religion of the Fathers, as Emerson urged; the constant reinvention of Self is a terrible liberty. Our literature seeks this, often at great cost; and also the transcendence of this. American literature is not for the coupon-clipper, the bet-hedger; though the majority of writers in any age are coupon-clippers and bet-hedgers. One of the biggest coupons is what is often mistaken for the transcendent quest itself: the glorification of Self. Many of our poets sell themselves, and us, this simulacrum. They are Heads, acquiring. But the quest, of course, is for inner knowledge; nothing acquired outside will suffice.

We're desperate crazies, we American writers, full of our lonely American night. The networks and anxiety of the coasts produce a kind of hum in which it is possible to live daily as a poet with an illusion of meaningfulness; but that white noise grows faint in the vast interstellar spaces between the Hudson and, you know, the Promised Land. We look down on the idea of "regional poetry" because we have some sense that regional poets aren't "players," as if the literary "game" of the coasts legitimizes and enhances. The truth is, of course, that nopoets are players. We exist in each others' eyes, and nowhere else. This is a hard truth to handle, so we don't handle it. The New York Timeswill review anybook before reviewing a book of poetry: cookbooks, cartoon books, the newest or first work of a fifteenth-rate fiction writer. Anything but a book of poems. Why? Oh, who knows, who knows. You might argue that the Times Book Reviewis no longer a serious literary journal, and hasn't been for some time; but it still occupies a central place in the literary culture—everybody at least looks at it. I think one reason is that, as a group, poets are coupon-clippers; we think profundity and intellectual prowess are the same thing. Poetry is about emotion, feeling, sentiment, and the brain's journeying darkly through that glass; poetry reflects a mental landscape that reveals character. "Intellectual prowess," when made to be the end a poem seeks, instead of one of its many useful means, reveals timidity of character, middlebrowness, one's cache of coupons. No serious writer wants to waste time perusing somebody else's shopping list.

On the other hand, some poets are serious writers, and take seriously the long tradition(s) they are heir to. So, why can'tGeorge Steiner review a book of poems sometime, if he's so damn concerned about the end of culture? Justin Kaplan? Elaine Showalter? Roger Shattuck? Joseph Epstein? Elaine Pagels? I mention just a few writers I love and read avidly. I know what they would say to this—well, on the record, anyway. They would say they're not "qualified." The age of specialization strikes again. Oh, baloney. We're all qualified, and not qualified, to read each other, respond to each other; "culture" ends when people turn a deaf ear to each other. In fact, the poet-critic, the "specialist," is exactly whom we don't need reviewing poetry out there. Poets are excluded from the intellectual community in this country, and more of the blame than is deserved is placed on them alone. I would wager that poets and people who read poetry form a tremendous core reading group that devours books by the above-named authors and many others; these readers buy these books, teach these books, give these books as gifts, write about these books. So we should spend ourtime reading all the latest, most profound work on Walt Whitman—yet nobody from the other side takes a look at, say, David Wagoner's Walt Whitman Bathing,with its title poem that is truly beautiful, felt, and profound? The deficit is this: American poets support other writers; very few other writers support American poets. That's not self-pity; that's a fact.

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