Back in 1993, Langdon Hammer published a book titled Hart Crane and Allen Tate : Janus-Faced Modernism. As I have absented myself from the groves of academe, and from my job as an underling in the beautiful Brown University Library, I can no longer zip down to the stacks & grab any book using fingertip osmosis. Like ol' Ez in his Pisan cage, here in Minneapolis I must rely on slippery Mnemosyne. Yet as I bethought myself of certain poetic problematics, cruxi & conundrumistai, this book quietly surfaced from the Henry Blunderworld.
Janus-faced... how? On one panel, there you have Hart Crane - the troubled gifted genius, the gay man in a land of homophobiopoetics, the impossible character, the Nietzschean-suicidal narcissist egomaniac, the artist, the graceful creator. On another panel, you have the Salieri (as opposed to the Mozart) component (in Nadezhda Mandelstam's incisive paradigm, with respect to Pushkin, Mandelstam, et al.). The craftspeople; the literary actuaries; the devotees, the acolytes, the Pharisees, the priests, the gatekeepers, the bouncers.... Allen Tate representing the highest order of compositional learning. He will mimic the Great Poets by sheer force of pedantry (that giant forehead!) and guile (he sounds like Crane at his most sane).
This is unfair; this is irresponsible. Allen Tate was a scholar of "the scholar's art" (though Wally Stevens, who coined the phrase, might consider Tate one of those academic "bought men").
Hey - everybody does the best they can.
It's just that Hammer's iron bonk or slice might illustrate a divide we ought to recognize. Not between raw & cooked or Beat & Formalist or real & conceptual or whatever latest epiphenom floats with the campus curds - but rather something to do with poetry's original communion with its audience, its historical moment.
I have a theory about poetry which is extremely simple : poetry is the summit or bloom of a particular culture's sign-system.
Signs are sacred - they are gestures, pointing everyone toward what encircles, embraces, uplifts, defines. Yet every culture is obsessed with its own mortality, its own weakness... and Time is the scythe reaping all our faulty sign-systems. The poet represents and enunciates these ambivalent poles, these magnetic valences.
This representation is a mode of theater. An enactment - unpredictable, evolving, adapting to particular circumstances. Ovid sending letters to Caesar from his remote (& final) exile on the Black Sea became a model for both Pushkin in the 19th century and Mandelstam in the 20th : a model corresponding to actual existential personal and political circumstances. Shakespeare (whoever he was) wrote popular plays in a renovated medieval genre in order to... huh? Speak truth to power? How with this rage shall Beauty hold a plea? (Sonnet 65). Maybe. The form adapted to the motive. & little Tuscan epileptic Alighieri... don't get me started.
& who am I, what am I doing, paddling here in my noxious blogorrhea?
I'd like to overturn the Leaning Towers of official literary certification, along with the squirming anthills of generic rebellion. I am bored with officialdom. I am done with Academic Poetics. I am fed up with Popular Poetics. The noise is killing me. Poetry is subtle, like the tender fur on a butterfly wing. If you manipulate wing, wing becomes useless - Butterfly goes back to her musty thread-womb.
The poet has to have all the skills & training & smarts & gifts... but nobody can teach these. Experience teaches them; the character of the poet brings them out of the ineffable treasure-house, and polishes, sharpens, aims.
The shaman swims through the fatal air. Raven writes in flame on the tyrant's wall... in water (on the port side of the Ark).