Am in early stages of putting together a review of some recent poetry books. In the process have gone back to T.S. Eliot's theory of the "dissociation of sensibility" (sketched out in his essay on the metaphysical poets). Which led me back to a great & remarkable (& out-of-print) book by Harold Fisch, Jerusalem & Albion : the Hebraic factor in 17th-cent. literature (NY : Schocken, 1964).
At this point can't really say much about it. He starts by investigating (& pretty much taking apart) Eliot's seminal notion : but it leads him into an exploration of some dimensions of poetry in English which seem to me to be very weighty & central & still important (... they are to me, anyway). It has to do with the interface between poetry and worldview, poetry and science/philosophy/theology : the effects of larger (vast) changes in Western intellectual/cultural history on the character & place of poetry.
These topics & fields have been gone over SO many times, it seems impossible to find much new to say. & I'm hesitating here to supply yet another resume which will come across as a rehash. But the fact is I'm finding (or re-finding) something which seems of great import... just beginning to come to grips with it.
The question of "poetry's place" in America seems to be a perennial & recurrent preoccupation. Most recently the 20th-cent. debates over art & kitsch, poetry & kitsch, have re-surfaced (see Don Share's recent blog post of Daniel Tiffany work-in-progress, or the latest issue of New Yorker, & Louis Menand's piece on Dwight Macdonald - a key figure in this debate). This gets at the question of the relation between poetry's role or place, on the one hand, and the question of style, diction, mode of address, on the other (high/low, Modernist/Pop, serious/lightweight, etc.).
I guess for me - thinking about my own efforts in testifyin'-versifyin' - this question of poetry's and the poet's role or status hinges on poetry's capabilities - and limitations - to represent Truth, or the Real. Over the centuries, Western culture has wavered back and forth on this issue : from Plato's scepticism about poetry and its representations, and the Biblical prohibitions on pagan idolatry, to the present day. Fisch focuses on what still seems like a very pivotal moment in that history : when the Medieval-Scholastic unity of Faith and Reason, and the Renaissance unity of Aesthetics and Ethics, began to crumble. Under the pressures of Protestant iconoclasm, Baconian scientism, and Machiavellian (worldly) cynicism, the old zeitgeist was swept away. Bacon, on behalf of an emerging scientific pragmatism, was the most programmatic theorist for imposing an intellectual separation between faith and science, and between "mere" language and experimental knowledge. This dual attack on the status of language, and on the relevance of religion, had the deepest consequences for the future : it basically shaped what we think of as the "modern" (detached, observational, sceptical, Stoic) intellectual perspective and stance, which is so familiar to us (and which in turn, perhaps, is drawing to an end).
The various manifestations of Baconian philosophical scepticism, about language, rhetoric, and poetry, created a framework - represented a portent - of cultural developments far into the future : it filtered into the abstract-analytical style of Restoration (discursive, didactic) poetry; it was the force against which the metaphysical idealism of the Romantic movement rebelled; it lurked within the Victorian sense of fatalism & discouragement with regard to the intellectual relevance of poetry. And the "spirit of science" was there at the birth of Modernism ; both spurring a desire for greater relevance, realism and "exactitude," and inspiring a new turn (or reaction) toward abstraction, psychological inwardness, and aesthetic autonomy.
What Fisch examines are some of the counter-currents to this inexorable roll-out of the Modern age. But where Eliot leaned toward a sort of pure Medievalism of the mind, with its rejection of any Puritan taint (ie., Milton & his offspring, the Romantics), Fisch explores the "middle way" writings (prose & poetry) which opposed the splitting-apart of faith & reason, language & knowledge : which aimed, instead, for their synthesis (Jeremy Taylor, Sir Thomas Browne, Milton, Marvell are some of the more familiar names). In so doing, Fisch reminds us of the fundamentally poetic character of the Bible (his "Hebraic" dimension). And what is Biblical poetry, in Fisch's terms? He focuses mainly on the Psalms : & what the Psalms do is represent Truth and Reality as, at root, a metaphysical drama - the plot of an encounter between human and divine, the iteration of a foundational I-Thou actuality. We are sketching out the ground of a mode of synthesis or integration of the psychological, the cultural, the historical, the intellectual, the religious, the scientific, the philosophical, the cosmological... & the aesthetic : a kind of architecture of reality grounded neither in Renaissance humanist confidence nor in counter-Renaissance unease, but rather in something more ancient, simple, and personal. This is the ratio, or logos of the I-Thou relation - dramatic, ongoing, & insusceptible to "objectification" - between the human soul or identity and its creative source/origin, the concept of humankind as Imago Dei.
I've written elsewhere about the humilitas-sublimitas (humble sublime) mode of Western literature, analyzed by Erich Auerbach, M.H. Abrams, R.P. Blackmur & others : a thread running back to the Biblical-comedic mode of Yahweh's tumultuous intervention in human affairs. It seems to me that this mode is one place to start if one wants to reconfigure a direction for poetry, a "place" for poetry in the larger intellectual life of contemporary culture. Another is the Petersburg-Acmeist notion (out of Gumilev, originally) of a "chaste" vision underpinning poetry, or supplying its vital spirit. Because the notion of "Word made flesh" which grounds both these modes has ramifications for all those other forms of thought & culture mentioned above (ie. their potential for integration or synthesis).
Maybe I'm ascending into clouds of the vaguest theological hoo-doo here. But I think not. I think the vivid, emotionally-integrated, intellectually-holistic discourse of poetry dramatizes that which is substantially dramatic in itself ; ie. the whole truth, the real, the conscious, the loved, the (I-Thou) relational. This power in poetry was challenged by the analytical scepticism of the modern world, which divided Man from Nature, Man from God, Thought from Feeling, Heart from Mind, and finally, Poetry from Prose - all on behalf of a chilly, sceptical, no-nonsense, pragmatic utilitarianism, which, in our post-Holocaust, post-Hiroshima world, has begun to seem neither pragmatic nor useful, in the long run.
(An aside : let me just say I am aware that many readers will have qualms about what may seem to be my extreme & romantic religiosity. But what do you expect : I'm a poet and graduate of Blake School, in Hopkins, Minnesota...)
Here's a pertinent passage (of many) from Jerusalem & Albion :
"Bacon makes Physics not a technique but a religion, and Induction becomes for him not so much a useful mechanism for the discovery of certain limited axioms, but rather a mystic path, an ultimate revelation and a millennial hope. And let it be said that this part of Bacon's philosophy, this pseudo-religious faith in the possibilities of the scientific method has worked even more powerfully (howbeit surreptitiously) in the history of modern science and modern civilization, than his immensely influential stress upon a mechanical Physics, and indeed to this day when the mechanical account of natural law has proved its inadequacy, Bacon's Faustian dream of magical power over the world continues to possess us and drive us on. It is in that sense that Bacon is, as Whitehead has well said, the architect of the modern mind." (p.86)
Postmodernism, some will claim, has moved beyond that "modern mind". But that's a debate tangential to my topic here : the question of the intellectual & social status of poetry today. What Fisch clarifies somewhat for me is that the roots of poetry's dilemma - its "low self-esteem" (see Auden's famous remark about his sense of being intellectually out-classed in the company of scientists), its "unserious" aura, its schizoid zigzag between aloof High Modern disdain and kitschy Low Postmodern obliviousness - does lie indeed in something near to Eliot's "dissociation of sensibility" : a symptom Fisch has diagnosed with a more acute precision. And what I am trying to suggest is that there are some firm grounds for some kind of restoration of the balance...