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Style and Authenticity in Postmodern Poetry, University of Missouri Press, Columbia, p.33-44 (1986)

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from Style and Authenticity in Postmodern Poetry

by Jonathan Holden


The Contemporary Conversation Poem

The most personal type of contemporary poem—personal because in this type of poem we find the poet speaking in his or her own person directly to the reader—is the poem which appropriates, as a formal analogue, ordinary conversation, the "conversation poem." But this mode, popular as it is, is also the most difficult mode. 

As is true of all those kinds of poems which base their structure and rhetoric upon some nonliterary analogue—for example, upon religious/psychological confession, primitive song, or dream-vision—the conversation poem confronts the poet with two paradoxical demands. As with the confessional poem, the contradiction inherent in the conversation poem—a contradiction which ultimately determines the characteristics of the achieved conversation poem—centers on the authority of the speaking voice. The authority of the confessional voice finds its source in the authenticity of the speaker's testimony, a testimony which must satisfy two paradoxical requirements: it must provide sufficient journalistic detail so as to render a vivid historical sense of the speaker's past experiences; simultaneously, however, it must transcend the narrowly personal, so that the speaker's story acquires, like a saint's life, a mythic rather than a merely journalistic significance.

In the conversation poem, the problem of establishing the authority of the speaking voice is even more acute than in confessional. The speaker cannot lay claim to the ethical or moral authority of the confessional voice by virtue of testimony alone. Nor is the conversation poem a dramatic monologue. The reader must be willing to pay attention to a speaker about whom there is nothing inherently exotic or historically compelling. The speaker is not Bishop Blougram, the duke of Ferrara, or Jonathan Edwards. The speaker is no more than an ordinary man or woman speaking in his or her own person, sharing the same quotidian life as the reader. For the speaker to command our attention and respect, then, he or she must prove extraordinary by virtue of the very manner in which the poem is spoken. The conversation must be brilliant. The speaker must establish his or her own authority by means of art alone—a demand which points directly to the formal paradox inherent in the conversational analogue: how is one to produce a mimesis of conversation yet produce art, poems whose language resembles conversation yet is superior to it? For the conversation poem confronts us with a brutally clear criterion of critical judgment: if the poem on the page is not better than the best conversation, then it has no raison d'être. It becomes one more example of the fallacy of imitative form.

The conversation poem, then, recalls in many respects Wordsworth's conception of the poet as "a man speaking to men" and in “the language really used by men." But the contemporary conversation poem, which is postromantic, relies on a different conception of the poet. Whereas the Wordsworthian poet was endowed with "a greater knowledge of human nature, and a more comprehensive soul, than are supposed to be common among mankind" and with an "imagination" whose "colouring" he could "throw over ... ordinary things" so as to reveal them "in an unusual aspect/' the contemporary poet, bequeathed a poetic language in which Wordsworthian personifications are hackneyed and obsolete, must rely on totally different forms of invention in order to establish authority, an authority founded not on vision but on sensibility.

* * * *

Although the term “conversation" includes many types of discourse, and the "conversation" poem appears in such diverse guises as the "poem of instruction" invented by Gary Snyder in his "Things To Do" poems, and in "letter" poems best exemplified by Richard Hugo's letter poems in 31 Letters and 13 Dreams, we may distinguish two basic types of conversation poem, each with a characteristic kind of structure, diction, and prosody, suited to the type of conversation which is being imitated. The first type we might label "narrative." It is usually in free verse, and it comprises what might be labeled "the free-verse, narrative, conversation poem of voice," or what Stanley Plumly has accurately labeled "the prose lyric." The second type of conversation poem we might label "discursive," though the more fashionable term has come to be "meditative." In this type of poem, the conversation, instead of being anecdotal, tends to be digressive, abstract, and to include philosophical speculation; but its poetic decorum is apt to be significantly less formal than that of philosophical, late-modernist poems such as Richard Wilbur's vintage work, where conspicuous artifice renders unlikely any mimesis of conversation, and the absence of an "I" addressing the reader directly lends the poem a modernist impersonality, so that instead of being conversation directed to the reader by a person of similar background, the late-modernist metaphysical poem remains an elaborate art object synthesized by an elite specialist and handed down for study. Because meditative discourse assumes a greater degree of premeditation than narrative, however, the prosody of the meditative conversation poem admits a greater degree of formality than that of narrative conversation. Blank-verse cadences frequently crop up, and when they do, the meditative conversational mode invokes a style and tradition that leads back through Wallace Stevens to romantic conversation poems such as "Tintern Abbey." Each of the two main types of conversation poem seeks to establish the authority of the speaker's voice and sensibility in a different way. In the case of the narrative conversation poem, such authority, where it can be established, tends to be ethical authority, created by means of tone; in the case of the discursive conversation poem, the authority of the speaker tends to be aesthetic authority, established by the speaker's ability to manipulate analogies. 

A good example of the fully achieved, narrative, free-verse conversation poem of voice is Susan Ludvigson's "Little Women":

There in the playhouse

making pies of flour and water

and apples from the neighbor's yard,

we learned to handle anything—

husbands who stopped in

just long enough

to sample the cookies,

gardens that washed away

in the first spring storm,

and babies crying,

their mechanical wails

stuck in their throats

like dimes. Sometimes

we thought we'd try something

else—I'd be

a missionary in Africa,

and a ballet dancer,

and go to Mars.

I remember standing on the sidewalk,

hands raised to the sky,

proclaiming I would not

be married, have children

live in a neighborhood '

like this. But always

we returned

to the little house

behind my real one,

put on the long dresses

with folds that wrapped us

like gifts,

the shiny high heels,

and the feathered hats.

Then we practiced

a dignified walk

around and around the block.

For this poem to work, the speaker must establish her ethos almost entirely through tone of voice. The poem stakes everything upon the complexity, the compassion, the moral authority of the speaking voice, which remembers a former innocence but neither sentimentalizes it nor rejects it—a voice which, at precisely those junctures in the poem where it could slip into bitterness or rage ("we learned to handle anything— ... proclaiming I would not / be married" and the faintly comical ending), hits instead a gently sardonic and profoundly stoical note of humor, lending the poem its uninsistent but nevertheless pronounced aesthetic distance its sense of the speaker's broad perspective, so that the poem judges without blaming and can manage, for all its sadness, not to refuse the world but to praise it.

The more closely we look at the poem's technique, the more we observe how its features are determined by the problems inherent in the conversational analogue. For example, the narrative conversation poem cannot indulge in flashy metaphors and similes, because to do so would not only interrupt the natural movement of narration but would also irreversibly ruin our trust in the ethos of the speaking voice. To see why, suppose that for "like dimes" we inserted some standard, contemporary, metaphorical formula such as "the adjective noun of noun": "their mechanical wails / stuck in their throats / like the bright slivers of dimes." By calling attention to itself as a piece of decoration, the metaphor would distract us from the story, from the voice, and call upon us to judge and approve the poet's ability to make a metaphor, her linguistic skill—an issue totally unrelated to the story at hand and which, once raised, would call into question the speaker's intentions: we would ask, is she trying to impress us, or is she concerned with her story? It is for precisely this reason that, in "Chapter and Verse," Stanley Plumly has argued that a rhetoric of "voice" and a "rhetoric of image" are, within the same poem, mutually exclusive tactics. But the incompatibility of decorative imagery with the narrative conversation poem leaves the poet with a seriously depleted assortment of means: it is free-verse prosody—the line break, the choice of line length, and the counterpointing of syntax against line—which brings into relief the drama of the story and the complex of emotions in the speaking voice as emotion is modified and enriched by the accumulation of context. This prosody is particularly effective in passages like "husbands who stopped in / just long enough / to sample the cookies," where the line breaks reproduce exactly the appropriately knowing tone of the voice: "just long enough," slight pause, then, with a tonal wink, "to sample the cookies." Another passage which could serve as a model of free-verse prosody in the service of "voice" would be:

hands raised to the sky,

proclaiming I would not

be married, have children,

live in a neighborhood

like this. But always

we returned

to the little house

behind my real one,

The line breaks, counterpointed against sentences, make the voice come down hard on "not" in the second line, and wearily on "always" in the fifth, whereupon the remaining three lines, by limply conforming to expected pauses, reinforce the sighing, slightly exhausted tone of resignation which ends the passage-a tone which, in the context of the poem's overall plot, acquires that subtlety of modulation, that highly civilized balance of irony, sadness, and humor, that is the peculiar forte of the free-verse poem of "voice," an effect which avoids extremes and risks preciocity but which can discriminate emotion, measure fine distinctions, and achieve an urbanity that accentual-syllabic prosody, with the slightly histrionic diction that goes with it, cannot.

Because the narrative conversational analogue limits to such an extreme degree the kind and the amount of literary artifice which the speaker can resort to without undermining the ethos of voice, poems in this mode constantly risk flatness, lapsing into prose. The opening three lines of the Ludvigson poem, for example, are dangerously flat, barely saved by the tonal tour de force of the fourth line and the passage that follows it. Not only do they lack rhythm, but they lack the alliteration, assonance, and rhyme which could bind them; they lack that density of sound which we do find at the end of the poem, where the rhythm and the touch rhymes are just pronounced enough to remind us that we are in the slightly intensified world of art. 

The difficulty of sustaining such a balance between a mimesis of conversation on the one hand and art on the other is increased by the fact that, in today's literary climate, free verse has so nearly replaced the blank verse of Wordsworth's and Coleridge's "conversation" poems as "the language really used by men” that even blank verse has acquired a slightly literary, artificial sound. Because the decasyllabic cadence has been the cadence of such a vast proportion of earlier English-language poetry, the romantic "conversation" poem In blank verse must have been rather easier to write than "Little Women," for the cadence itself supplied the poet with a reasonably natural, ready-made verse frame in a language that was recognizably poetry. Indeed, if we look at the early dramatic poems of Robert Frost, such as "A Servant to Servants," we see that even as recently as fifty years ago, prosodic artifice did not have to be as carefully camouflaged as it is today in the narrative, free-verse poem of voice, where the decasyllabic cadence—any ten syllables within a syntactic unit ("their mechanical wails / stuck in their throats")—seems smuggled back into the verses as if to reassure us, subliminally, that we are hearing a formal utterance, and where rhymes—full rhymes and touch rhymes—when they cluster as the long i sounds, the consonant d, and the sound and do in the passage, "I remember standing on the sidewalk, / hands raised to the sky, / proclaiming I would not / be married, have children," must not do so in a way that looks too contrived.

Free verse is, of course, not the only prosody available to the narrative conversation poem of voice; but it is worth noting that, to the degree that the narrative conversation poem admits prosodic formality and imagery, it trades off tone of voice for other types of rhetoric. Such a trade-off—perhaps even a desirable one—is evident if we compare the Ludvigson poem to William Stafford's "Traveling Through the Dark": 

Traveling through the dark I found a deer

dead on the edge of the Wilson River road.

It is usually best to roll them into the canyon:

that road is narrow; to swerve might make more dead.

By glow of the tail-light I stumbled back of the car

and stood by the heap, a doe, a recent killing;

she had stiffened already, almost cold.

I dragged her off; she was large in the belly.

My fingers touching her side brought me the reason—

her side was warm; her fawn lay there waiting,

alive, still, never to be born.

Beside that mountain road I hesitated.

The car aimed ahead its lowered parking lights;

Under the hood purred the steady engine.

I stood in the glare of the warm exhaust turning red;

around our group I could hear the wilderness listen.

I thought hard for us all—my only swerving—

then pushed her over the edge into the river.

In this poem some of the possibilities of voice have been sacrificed for the sake of formal beauty: the prosody is patterned, the lines are in four-stress accentuals and lightly dabbed with touch rhymes. The artifice, like the poem's conscious construction around the word "swerve," is unobtrusive yet constitutes a definite presence in our experience of the poem. The rules of the pattern leave Stafford enough flexibility to sound conversational, yet the poem manages, while sounding conversational, to remind us of poetry, one reason being that the accentual prosody as deployed here by Stafford contains so many buried echoes of traditional prosody. For example, the opening line consists of exactly ten syllables. Behind the strong-stress rhythm, we hear iambic pentameter. Most poems, in their very opening lines, declare their prosodic intentions in order to set up the reader's expectations so as to playoff these expectations later in the poem, for special effects. When we run into other decasyllabic lines later in the poem—lines 7, 10, 14—and hit passages that have iambic phrasing, we begin to hear that the entire poem is playing two different prosodies in counterpoint, yet never obviously enough to seem artificial. Indeed, the best free verse does this, too—it is filled with echoes and resonances of traditional prosodies. Because of its ability to counterpoint and modulate between prosodies, to distill echoes, free verse, in the hands of a practitioner with a good ear, for example John Ashbery, is the ultimate prosodic instrument, infinitely more interesting and capable of musical complexity, infinitely more flexible than anyone patterned prosody, but only so long as it is playing off of a traditional prosody. When it loses touch altogether with the tradition, it becomes no longer music but mere noise: prose.

* * * * *

The discursive, "meditative" conversation poem presents the poet with the same contradictory demands that the narrative conversation poem does; but because the requirement for an appearance of spontaneity is less than in the narrative mode, the contradictions inherent in the conversational mode are, in some respects, easier to negotiate than in narration. To observe how this is true, let us consider an example of the discursive conversation poem at its best, Jorie Graham's "For Hope":

For Hope

to continue and be


different, it must

be as free

as not, mechanical

yet random,

a staggering


Because we think,


the bluish spot a bird

has just left,

where something's missing


must be. And seen

in this light

the boy now running

past my open

window, holding a small

model airplane

high over himself,

is a glorious

machine. He's raging

behind it,

squinting up into


trying to feed it

into the air,

into that other


where it can ride

on accident.

Meanwhile the late

September day,

tired of returns,

is leaning

in climbing vines

over the stone,

is leaning in dust

over the leaves,

dragging our crop in.

The harvest

is the visible world,

this boy

arms high above

his head

running in sunlight,

trying to turn desire

and an invented wind

into an engine,

one that will pick up

this pasteup

of paper and toothpicks

and carry it way

past the natural. For hope

to continue

and be gradually changed

it must catch


on the draughts

of the impossible.


who are the wise men

bringing their gifts to?

Otherwise who is the man

with his vast

catch of fish

staring out at

from his photograph,

or Apollo

in the painting by Antonio


with his hands on Daphne,

holding her up

into the light, his prize,

the only one

he ever wanted, as she


and is gradually


We notice, first of all, that the relationship between speaker and reader in this poem is more casual than in the narrative poem. We are made explicitly aware of the time which the speaker takes out from talking directly to us in order to ruminate. It is as if the speaker were situated by her typewriter, by an open window, ruminating on "Hope," occasionally glancing out the Window at the boy with the model airplane, then turning back to us to make an unhurried, somewhat studied comment. Because the decorum of this type of conversation admits of some premeditation—can be what William Stafford would call "considered speech"—the rhetoric of this discursive conversation poem, while it must remain offhanded enough to resemble conversation, can include more explicit artifice than the decorum of narrative allows. But the pressure upon the speaking voice to claim our attention is correspondingly more extreme. Whereas in the narrative conversation poem the admittedly ordinary persona of the speaker has an occasion for speech—a story that needs telling, that impels the speaker to action—the dramatic occasion behind the discursive conversation poem is minimal. It might be something which the speaker had read, or merely some vague, philosophical disquietude which he or she had wished to explore, to clarify. The charm of the speaking voice no longer derives from situation at all, but must be created entirely by the speaker—in the movement of her mind, its drift to invent, to play with analogies. Indeed, it would seem to be an almost self-evident principle: the less urgency in the "occasion" behind a given poem, the more the poem will, in order to establish a raison d'être, have to substitute its own capacity to conspicuously display artifice-either prosodic artifice or, in the case of the conversation poem, whose decorum discourages conspicuous musicality, development of arresting analogies. In fact, a comparison between the Ludvigson poem and the Graham poem suggests a second principle which is, perhaps, also self-evident: the less implicit metaphoric significance can be located in the occasion of a poem, the more a poem will tend to feature an explicit display of analogy-making. Except for "like dimes," "Little Women" contains no explicit analogies; but the entire playhouse world as regarded by the speaker is an implicit metaphor for her complex attitude toward the fact of having been born and raised a female. The main incident behind "For Hope," on the other hand—a boy with his plane outside the window-has only as much significance as the poet can make of it. Hence the entire poem consists of pure extrapolation, is built on analogies: the boy's hope that the glider will fly parallels the desire of the poet's eye to possess the departed blue spot of the bluebird which, in turn, parallels the speaker's wish that her own words, like the plane, catch on inspiration, "on the draughts / of the impossible" and so be carried "past the natural." It is almost inevitable that the achieved discursive conversation poem be self-reflexive, to acknowledge, as it must, the self-created occasion by which it brought itself to birth—brilliant conversation created for its own sake, flying under its own power, like all achieved art, on "draughts of the impossible," on pure, daring suspension of disbelief. At its best, the "meditative" conversation poem stays aloft this way, like Frost's "Birches" or, in its more urbane decorum, like so many of the later poems of Stevens—the mind formulating its serious, playful constructions, flying itself with theorems, telling us over and over again that without this play, without words to stay the light "leaning in dust," our loss would be absolute. 

4. The Abstract Image

Two related strands of poetic diction have been handed down to contemporary American poetry from a tradition which we might label roughly "surrealist." The first of these strands, predominantly Spanish in origin and one which we might label "archetypal," has been brilliantly analyzed and criticized by Paul Breslin in his essay "Nihilistic Decorum in Contemporary Poetry," where he states: 

... a narrow and dull decorum has spread over most, though not all, poetry in America. Its characteristics include a studied plainness of vocabulary and syntax, a reliance on hackneyed "archetypal" symbols, and an eclectic, sentimental primitivism.

Breslin goes on to say:

... predictable in a poetry of archetype, is the codification of language into a generic vocabulary. In describing the same object, one may choose from a range of nouns extending from the most general ("stone") to the most specific ("topaz"); one can be still more specific by adding modifiers ("this four-carat smokey topaz"). Both ends of the spectrum have their uses, but if one cleaves always to the generic, the result is a stylization of imagery, analogous to highly stylized forms of art.

In The Situation of Poetry, Robert Pinsky describes this type of archetypal diction in the following terms:

One of the most contemporary strains in contemporary poetry is often interior, submerged, free-playing, elusive, more fresh than earnest, more eager to surprise than to tell. The "surrealist" diction associated with such writing sometimes suggests ... a particular reality, hermetically primitive, based on a new poetic diction:

"breath," "snow," "future," "blood," "silence," "eats," "water" and most of all "light" doing the wildly unexpected.

It is this strand which has been associated with the "deep image" (the "generic image" would be a more accurate label) and which, as both Breslin and Pinsky demonstrate, has been worked to the point of exhaustion. 

The other strand of contemporary poetic diction, one deriving mainly from the French surrealist tradition, has not received the attention which the archetypal strand has, perhaps because, until quite recently, it has not been so widely adopted. This strand utilizes a highly abstract diction in propositions which, instead of presenting generic images, make abstract philosophical generalizations, statements which, despite their absolute level of generalization, exhibit a peculiar epistemological invulnerability. The poetry of John Ashbery is the chief witness for this strand of surrealist diction, for example, "A Tone Poem":

It is no longer night. But there is a sameness

Of intention, all the same, in the ways

We address it, rude

Color of what an amazing world,

As it goes flat, or rubs off, and this

Is a marvel, we think, and are careful not to go past it.

But it is the same thing we are all seeing,

Our world. Go after it,

Go get it boy, says the man holding the stick.

Eat, says the hunger, and we plunge blindly in again,

Into the chamber behind the thought.

We can hear it, even think it, but can't get disentangled

from our brains.

Here, I am holding the winning ticket. Over here.

But it is all the same color again, as though the climate

Dyed everything the same color. It's more practical,

Yet the landscape, those billboards, age as rapidly as before.

Typical of the kind of abstract generalizations which characterize this second strand of surrealist diction are passages like "We address it, rude / Color of what an amazing world, / As it goes flat, or rubs off." This type of proposition which combines an extreme level of abstraction (Color, world, "it") with such concrete expressions as "rubs off," has received comparatively little critical discussion. The most thorough (though rather unsystematic) analysis of it is by Gene Frumkin, m his essay The Reason of Surrealism" in Chelsea (l979). Much of Frumkin's discussion adduces as its prime witness for the reason of surrealism" a Robert Bly translation of Pablo Neruda's "Sonata and Destructions," a poem which exhibits both strands of the surrealist diction that I have distinguished.

Sonata and Destructions

After so many things, after so many hazy miles,

not sure which kingdom it is, not knowing the terrain,

traveling with pitiful hopes,

and lying companions, and suspicious dreams,

I love the firmness that still survives in my eyes,

I hear my heart beating as if I were riding a horse,

I bite the sleeping fire and the ruined salt,

and at night, when the darkness is thick, and morning


I imagine I am the one keeping watch on the far shore

of the encampments, the traveler armed with his sterile


caught between growing shadows

and shivering Wings, and my arm made of stone protects me.

There's a confused altar among the sciences of tears

and in my twilight meditations with no perfume,

and in my deserted sleeping rooms where the moon lives

and the spiders that belong to me, and the destructions I am

fond of,

I love my own lost self, my faulty stuff,

my silver wound, and my eternal loss.

The damp grapes burned, and their funereal water

is still flickering, is still with us,

and the sterile inheritance, and the treacherous home.

Who performed a ceremony of ashes?

Who loved the lost thing, who sheltered the last thing of all?

The father's bone, the dead ship's timber,

and his own end, his flight,

his melancholy power, his god that had bad luck?

I lie in wait, then, for what is not alive and what is


and the extraordinary testimony I bring forward,

With brutal efficiency and written down in the ashes

is the form of oblivion that I prefer, 

the name I give to the earth, the value of my dreams,

the endless abundance which I distribute

with my wintry eyes, every day this world goes on.

The "archetypal" strand of diction is evident in such images as the "sleeping fire," "darkness," "wings," and "stone." The second strand may be seen in such sentences as "Who loved the lost thing, who sheltered the last thing of all?" and "the extraordinary testimony I bring forward, /. . . is the form of oblivion that I prefer, / the name I give to the earth, the value of my dreams, / the endless abundance which I distribute / with my wintry eyes." Frumkin does not distinguish between these two strands of poetic diction when he says of the poem, "'Sonata and Destructions' blends its elements within a subterranean superstructure so effectively that its abstractions become particular, its specifics general, its extremes natural and its final evocation powerful." But the strand of surrealist diction which converts "specifics" to the "general" is, of course, the archetypal one; and the strand which manages to make "abstractions ... particular" is the Ashberian one. The abstract nouns such as "things," "terrain," and "firmness" have, in the context of Neruda's poem, an oddly particular quality. So pronounced is this quality that, as we drift in the poem's spell, we forget that, except for a vague, dank, interior, crepuscular atmosphere, there is no clear "scene" that we can envision. The propositions themselves suffice as a kind of imagery. Even though the passage above is extremely abstract, we take it almost as description. Intimately related to this "descriptive" quality exhibited by the poem's abstract propositions is what Frumkin calls their lack of "distilled information." As he puts it, the poem "harbors . . .  surprising turns of speech . . . , some of which might be paraphrased easily enough while others could be approached exegetically only with trepidation, if at all." Frumkin then goes on to remark, correctly I think:

The main problem Surrealism has had in the literary community is that the typical poem in this vein-or the poem which is an alloy of surrealism and something else-is not altogether susceptible to those exegetical standards we have, to whatever extent, grown familiar with in the pre-postmodern era. The Anglo-American critical vocabularies are based, after all, on the necessity, even the priority, of overt conceptual ordering.

But this exegetical difficulty, which Frumkin sees as part of the surrealist tradition, is really not a characteristic of the "archetypal" strand—dreams can, after all, be interpreted—but rather of the second, what I have been calling "Ashberian, strand. When we encounter a sentence like Ashbery's "We plunge blindly in again, / Into the chamber behind the thought," or, in the Neruda poem, "There's a confused altar among the sciences of tears," even though each of these propositions advances. a sweeping generality, we have no strong mc1inatIon to test its truth or falsity or to translate it into some other terms. We feel that these propositions embody a kind of figurative truth that is its own testimony. This semantic opacity is perhaps best suggested by Philip Wheelwright's term “Assertorial Lightness,” defined in Wheelwright's words as quoted by Frumkin: "The reluctance of a poetic statement to be meant with. full logical and epistemological rigor, together with its claim of being yet somehow meaningful."

To get a better .idea of how this kind of proposition operates, let us examine some m detail. Take, for example the opening of the second stanza of Ashbery's "A Tone Poem": "But it is the same thing we are all seeing, / Our world. Go after it, / Go get it boy, says the man holding the stick. / Eat, says the hunger, and we plunge blindly in again, / Into the chamber behind the thought." What gives this type of discourse, despite the apparently daring breadth of its generations (“It is the same thing we are all seeing"), its oddly unimpeachable epistemological quality 'is a peculiar mixture of the abstract and the concrete. In the first two lines "the same thing we are all seeing," "Our world," and "it" (of "Go after it") have an almost endless range of reference. In fact, the "it" of "Go after it" need not refer to "Our world"; it can refer to anything. In context, however, the existence of "Our world" as a possible antecedent invites the reader to take "it" more seriously than if "it" were merely the end of the idiom "Go after it." "It,” then, assumes a certain epistemological value while retaining the .widest range of reference possible. Its abstractness is absolute. Paradoxically, however, the expression "Go after it" has strongly concrete overtones: we imagine a man throwing a stick to a dog. These concrete overtones, reinforced by the context of the passage, are what make us suspend possible disbelief in the generalization. We are not inclined to test it or the previous proposition, "it is the same thing we are all seeing, / Our world." Instead, the concrete overtones of "Go after it" induce us to take the entire passage as an image rather than a statement; and an image, after all, purports to do no more than simply present an experience and let that experience speak for itself.

A simpler example of this type of abstract proposition, of a generalization which functions like an image—the "abstract image," it might be termed—is the passage directly below the one we have been analyzing: "and we plunge blindly in again, / Into the chamber behind the thought." Here again we find a proposition that invokes simultaneously two kinds of epistemological convention. The concrete overtones of "plunge blindly in" give the sentence the logic of an image—of physical description intended to speak for itself—yet the abstract quality of "the chamber behind the thought," enhanced by the definite articles, together with the "we," which emphasizes the range of the proposition, gives it the quality of a generalization. It may be objected that this type of proposition is confused, that it combines the abstract and the concrete in precisely the way that Pound warns against when he counsels writers to avoid expressions such as "dim lands of peace." There is, however, a difference, I think, between "we plunge blindly in again, / Into the chamber behind the thought" and "dim lands of peace." Whereas in the former, the element of concreteness is borne by the predicate, the staleness which Pound sees in "dim lands of peace" derives from the staleness of its syntactical formula-adjective noun of noun-whose concreteness is borne primarily by "dim" and whose abstract noun has, in context, a sentimental usage. How such formulas as "dim lands of peace" exhaust themselves is beautifully summarized by Northrop Frye in his Anatomy of Criticism:

In all ages of poetry the fusion of the concrete and the abstract . . . has been a central feature of poetic imagery in every genre, and the kenning has had a long line of descent. In the fifteenth century we have "aureate diction," the use of abstract terms in poetry, then thought of as "colors" of rhetoric. When such words were new and the ideas represented by them exciting, aureate diction must have sounded far less dull and bumbling than it generally does to us, and have had much more of the sense of intellectual precision that we feel in such phrases as Eliot's "piaculative pence" or Auden's "cerebrotonic Cato." The seventeenth century gave us the conceit or intellectuaIized image of "metaphysical" poetry, typically Baroque in its ability to express an exuberant sense of design combined with a witty and paradoxical sense of the stress and tension underlying the design. The eighteenth century showed its respect for the categorizing power of abstract thought in its poetic diction, in which fish appear as the finny tribe. In the low mimetic period a growing prejudice against convention made poets less aware of the conventional phrases they used, but the technical problems of poetical imagery did not thereby disappear, nor did conventional figures of speech.

Two of these connected with the matter under discussion, the fusion of the concrete with the abstract, may be noted. An abstract noun in the possessive case "followed by an adjective and a concrete noun ... is a nineteenth century favorite.... In the twentieth century it was succeeded in favor by another phrase of the "adjective noun of noun" type, in which the first noun is usually concrete and the second abstract. Thus: "the pale dawn of longing," "the broken collar-bone of silence," ... on examining a volume of twentieth-century lyrics I find, counting all the variants, thirty-eight phrases of this type in the first five poems.

* * * * *

Although it is surely the poetry of John Ashbery that, more than any other work, has normalized the abstract image in the current literary milieu, whereas Ashbery's mature work consists of poems built almost entirely of abstract propositions, in the works of some of our younger contemporary poets we see the tactic of the abstract image deployed in more conventional contexts. Take, for example, the following poem by Jorie Graham:


Halfway through Illinois on the radio

they are giving away jackpots.

I can hear them squeal as they win.

Luck in this landscape lies flat

as if to enter the ground and add to it as well.

You can see its traces, milkweed caught in the fences,

the sheen on the new grass

that could be sunshine or white paint.

But the brushstroke is visible,

We wouldn't believe anything we saw without it—

the brown, the green, the rectangle, the overpass.

I believe now that sorrow

is our presence in this by default.

In a little while I hope there will be shadows,

the houses and these trees trying to bury half of themselves.

This could be your lucky day,

the day the roof is put on the house,

and the willows once again resemble trees,

and the bridge falls in, making the river once again

sufficiently hard to cross.

Here in line four the word "light"—the word we would expect—has been replaced by the more abstract "luck," which is then elaborated by the concrete-sounding predicate “lies flat." "You can see its traces, milkweed caught in the fences, / the sheen on the new grass / that could be sunshine or white paint" identifies "luck" with a peculiar quality of light; but the full force of "luck" suggests more. It suggests the overall quality of the landscape—what it is the fate or "luck" of the landscape to be. "Luck in this landscape lies flat / as if to enter the ground and add to it as well" suggests the blandness, the lack of aspiration, the implacable prima facie aspect of this place, seen from the monotony of an interstate highway halfway through Illinois." It is the "luck" of this place to be absorbed in its own banality, to lie "flat" in every sense of that word; moreover, in the context of the AM radio quiz show the passage suggests that the surrounding human culture is as oppressively "flat" as the land: The speaker's almost claustrophobic discomfort with her situation is expressed precisely in the understated line—a beautiful, realistic deployment of the abstract image technique-"I believe now that sorrow / is our presence in this by default." The pronoun "this" has all the ambiguity of an Ashbery pronoun: its range of reference is nearly endless, referring at once to the speaker’s position in Illinois, in a car, in a culture which gabbles about meaningless jackpots, as well as to "this" world, "this" moment of total alienation from the surrounding landscape outside the numbing monotony of the car, to the absolute "this" that is simply the given. The term "our presence" carries both an abstract and a concrete meaning. The abstract sense of "our presence" suggests "our" being in the "present" moment: our existence. The concrete visual sense of the phrase suggests our physical "presence" in "this" spatial setting. Thus we may observe that, in spite of the sentence's degree of abstraction, despite its apparent explicitness and its rather dry, flat tone, it functions both as an image and as an abstract proposition. It fuses idea—an explicit criticism of the banal world of jackpots and flatness—with emotion: "Sorrow ... by default" is a strictly modulated metaphor for the speaker's discomfort—a feeling implicit and complex enough to resist easy paraphrase. We notice, also, that the abstract image permits a kind of emotional complexity—an urbanity—which the deep image does not, that the abstract image is not, as the deep is, limited to what Breslin has called a "psychological pastoral":

The determination to speak from the unconscious carries with it a set of pieties and avoidances, designed to purify the poet from the distractions and contaminations of the superficial and merely conscious... The result is the latest permutation of the pastoral ideal, which has always praised the simple, calm, and spontaneous life, away from the vain complexities of cities and courts and has often had a didactic purpose. Ours is a psychological pastoral. Just as Europe in the fourteenth century, according to Huizinga, turned to the pastoral idyll out of weariness with the complex and unrealistic demands of the chivalric ethos, American poetry has turned to an idealized and simple version of the psyche out of weariness with many things.

A good example of this psychological pastoral—how it holds forth a simplified, schematic version of the world-would be Robert Bly's "Surprised by Evening":

There is an unknown dust that is near us,

Waves breaking on shores just over the hill,

Trees full of birds that we have never seen

Nets drawn down with dark fish. '

The evening arrives; we look up and it is there,

It has come through the nets of the stars,

Through the tissues of the grass,

Walking quiet over the asylums of the waters.

The day shall never end, we think:

We have hair that seems born for the daylight;

But, at last, the quiet waters of the night will rise,

And our skin shall see far off, as it does under water.

In its generic vocabulary, which features "dust," "shores," "hill," "trees," "birds," "fish," "stars," "grass," and so on, we see a relatively extreme example of the kind of codification of language which Breslin and Pinsky have so well defined. We notice also that, like virtually all of that poetry which relies heavily on archetypal diction, this poem holds forth an essentially romantic vision: that underneath the phenomenal world associated with light and day and land, underneath the visible garment of Nature ("hill," "grass"), there resides a deeper reality associated with "darkness" and "water." Indeed, in the codified diction of archetypal poetry, the words "darkness" and "the dark" have become conventional metaphors for an invisible reality that cannot be seen by the eye but can only be apprehended by the imagination or through the lens of dream.

The poetic of the abstract image, on the other hand, .tends to be compatible with a realist view of things, to admit and even to celebrate complexity, paradox. Jorie Graham's "Jackpot," although its ending yields to the longing for a culture less dependent upon technology, does not, like the Bly poem, content itself with an easy denial of the efficacy of things as they are. Rather, it deploys the tactic of the abstract image in order to arrive at and to clarify a difficult accommodation to the given: "I believe now that sorrow / is our presence in this by default." Indeed, in some recent poems the conspicuous deployment of the abstract image would seem to constitute an explicit denial of the dualism we seen in archetypal poetry like Bly's. As Ashbery's "A Tone Poem" rather pointedly puts it: "It is no longer night. But there is a sameness / Of intention, all the same, in the ways / We address it." And later: "But it is the same thing we are all seeing, / Our world.... We can hear it, even think it, but can't get disentangled from our brains." Similarly, in the passage "We plunge blindly in again, / Into the chamber behind the thought," Ashbery is describing the attempt to apprehend some possible reality behind the appearances of things; but unlike the Bly poem, here the penetration of mind and language into the color of the world yields only the discovery that "it is all the same color again." Another poem—one formulated explicitly to deny, by means of the abstract image, the soft romanticism of archetypes—is Robert Hass's "Transparent Garments": 

Because it is neither easy nor difficult, 

because the outer dark is not passport 

nor is the inner dark, the horror 

held in memory as talisman. Not to go in 

stupidly holding out dark as some 

wrong promise of fidelity, but to go in 

as one can, empty or worshipping. 

White, as a proposition. Not leprous 

by easy association or painfully radiant. 

Or maybe that, yes, maybe painfully. 

To go into that. As: I am walking the city 

and there is the whiteness of the houses, 

little cubes of it bleaching in the sunlight,

luminous with attritions of light, the failure

of matter in the steadiness of light,

a purification, not burning away,

nothing so violent, something clearer

that stings and stings and is then

past pain or this slow levitation of joy.

And to emerge, where the juniper

is simply juniper and there is the smell

of new shingle, a power saw outside

and inside a woman in the bath,

a scent of lemon and a drift of song,

a heartfelt imitation of Bessie Smith.

The given, as in given up

or given out, as in testimony.

Like the Ashbery poem, Hass's poem describes a movement of the mind as the mind goes "in" to the world. As the mind begins this journey, it is apt to be encumbered with dualist, romantic superstitions, to be "holding out dark" as "promise of fidelity," as that invisible reality (either inner or "outer") which one might worship either as "passport" to some deeper truth or With too much awe, with "horror." What the mind may discover, however, is that, as Ashbery puts it, "It is all the same color" (in Hass's poem, "White"), that the world is "clearer," that "juniper / is simply juniper," that the world is "The given." The title, "Transparent Garments," like so much of the phrasing in the mode of the abstract image, has an almost unlimited metaphorical range of reference. In context, it seems to allude heavily to the idea of the phenomenal world as a "garment" (the metaphor harks back immediately to its ultimate development in Carlyle's Sartor Resartus) cloaking an invisible noumenal world. It also seems also to allude to the body and to matter which, “purified" "in the steadiness of light," becomes something "clearer." "To emerge" is thus to discover that, for all intents and purposes, the difference between inner and outer, between what is under the garment and the garment itself, is insignificant. Hence, as Hass's poem expresses it, the garment of the physical world is, for all practical purposes ("It's more practical," says Ashbery), transparent, concealing no "unknown dust," no "waves breaking on shores just over the hill," no "quiet waters of the night.”

Both the Hass poem and the Ashbery poem reject the romanticism associated with the deep image in favor of the urbane realism of abstraction; yet the tactic of the abstract image is motivated by many of the same factors which once made the archetypal mode so appealing—by the desire of postmodern poets to flee the limits of confessional, the limits of the poem as personal testimony, and yet to construct a poetry that treats of the self. As both Donald Hall and Paul Breslin have pointed out, one of the chief attractions of the archetypal mode has been its inherent capacity to convincingly assert generalities. Writing in 1971, Hall praised the "movement" which Breslin later finds "hackneyed" as a way out of the limits of confessional:

The movement which seems to me new is subjective but not autobiographical. It reveals through images not particular pain but general subjective life. This universal subjective corresponds to the old objective life of shared experiences and knowledge. 

Breslin, writing from the vantage point of greater hindsight, remarks, "It [the 'decorum' of 'archetypal' poetry] has to do with a reaction against confessional poetry, and with a new desire for universality and aesthetic distance." The abstract image, which manages to generalize the observations of the single self ("I believe now that sorrow / is our [my italics] presence in this by default") without risking the tests which most generalizations invite, enables a poet to speak personally, out of his own life, yet to preserve that sense of generality which serious literature demands. It is also, I think, a more rhetorically convincing method of asserting generality and achieving aesthetic distance than is the rather cosmetic tactic of converting the “I” of a poem to “you” and thereby insisting adventitiously upon the general relevance of reported experience that may be particular and personal to the point of triviality.

The appeal of the abstract image is, however, more than rhetorical. If we reexamine the Ashbery and the Hass poems we, notice that neither poem is dependent, as is the dramatic lyric, upon the rendering of a conventional "scene" with a protagonist. In this latter type of conventionally descriptive poetry, for example in Robert Frost's "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening," the burden of the "action," as in a realistic short story, is borne by the protagonist (who is often the poet himself), and much of the poem's energy is dependent upon the poem’s dramatic situation being sufficient to keep the protagonist moving, changing, reflecting. Indeed, one reason why it is comparatively easy to write poems which describe physical action—chopping wood, playing baseball, hiking—is that the brunt of the physical exertion, borne mainly by verbs, can be translated directly and naturally into the poem's medium, its language. But even if the resulting poem is vivid and bristling with energy, its text—the written record of a particular experience—competes implicitly with the experience itself. One might say that the actual occasion behind the poem "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" threatens to make the poem about it secondary. A poem like Ashbery's "A Tone Poem," on the other hand, assumes value primarily as a thing-in-itself precisely because it is not set in one-to-one correspondence with a particular experience as referent. Thus the ,action in the poem, instead of taking place in the mind of an imagined persona responding to a particular situation, may take place almost entirely within the language of the poem. Indeed, .one might say that the protagonist of the poem is its propositions.

A related feature of the, abstract image—one which may make it increasingly attractive to poets—is that abstract statement permits a far wider range of subject matter than we generally find In a poem dependent entirely upon occasion. The emotional range, the subject matter of poems based upon a particular occasion—on a dramatic situation or incident—is necessarily limited, because such poems tend to seek their own justification in their occasion and therefore to seek moments of emotional or visionary intensity stemming from a particular event. As a result, the type of event they treat is apt to fall into the category of the unusual.

In a poetry that allows full play to abstract statement, however, a poem can generate itself out of its own language. Like philosophical discourse, it can find its raison d'être through the formulation of something like an argument. When a poem is not based upon any particular occasion—upon the relatively infrequent events in a person's life that are intense—instead of being restricted to a narrative or testimonial character, it can adopt a discursive, "meditative" character; and when we encounter such poems, we can see that it is this type of discourse, with its fusion of the abstract and the concrete, that the genre of verse has traditionally seemed most adapted to framing, that our lingering modernist biases, expressed in the cliché "Show, don't tell," point directly to a dead end: poetry as mere description.

But one of the most attractive aspects of poetry has always been its capacity for pithy, epigrammatical generalization. Even in a fairly descriptive, image-rich poetry—for example, the poetry of Robert Frost—the finest moments are apt to exhibit a high degree of abstraction and explicit generality. Indeed, it may be that the language of poetry is ultimately distinguishable from the language of prose not by its imagery or its rhythm but rather by this epigrammatical quality—its ability to survive in the valley of its saying, to climb hand over hand, phrase after phrase, from one ear-catching rung of distilled experience to the next, as William Matthews, displaying the abstract image to its maximum advantage and beauty, does at the conclusion of "Long":

. . . If the dead complained

they would say we summon them poorly,

dull music and thin wine, nor love

enough for the many we make,

much less for the melted dead

in their boxes. Above them

we talk big, since the place is vast

and bland if we tire of looking closely,

washed bland by light from what light

lets us see, our study,

the scripture of matter,

our long narcosis of parting.

--- - --- -- - - --- -- - -- - ---- - - --- - -- - -

 This was the title of the essay delivered by Breslin at MLA, which was later, in a version with a milder tone, published in The American Scholar as "How to Read the New Contemporary Poem." The quotations here are from the original essay, which was more sharply polemical in tone than the final published version, and, in my opinion, slightly better.

 In his recent book The Transparent Lyric (Princeton University Press 1984), David Walker finds frequent examples of this kind of poem, which he labels "the transparent lyric," in the poems of William Carlos Williams and Wallace Stevens. In Walker's formulation, the protagonist of these poems becomes "the reader."

 For example: "I craved strong sweets, but those / Seemed strong when I was young; / The petal of the rose / It was that stung."