Sparring with the Sun
By Jan Schreiber
Jan Schreiber is a new name for me, though he has been publishing poetry and criticism for some time. I came across this volume of poetry criticism and decided to give it a read. I found it to be highly engaging and insightful.
It is a collection of essays, some of which have appeared previously in publications like Contemporary Poetry Review. The book covers quite a lot of ground offering valuable insights along the way.
Sparring is divided into three sections: Part 1 is ‘Six Poets of the Late Twentieth Century’. Part 2 is ‘The Aspirants’. And Part 3 is ‘The Sorting-Out Process’.
In Part 1 Schreiber discusses six late modern poets all of whom chose to incorporate into their poetry, to various degrees, formal aspects from the poetic tradition. The poets discussed include Elizabeth Bishop, Anthony Hecht, Richard Wilbur, Robert Lowell, Howard Nemerov, and W. D. Snodgrass. While each of the analyses is helpful, the overall impression given in Part 1 is that formal elements from the English language tradition continued to exert a pull on poets even when modernism in the form of a doctrinaire, free verse, approach was at its strongest. And the overall results are uniformly efficacious. If you want an introduction to how some poets in late modernism remained rooted in the traditional elements of English verse, Part 1 is the best I have read.
Part 2 is sub-divided into two parts. The first part of Part 2 is called ‘Lost and Found’. Here Schreiber discusses a few poets who have been neglected and that Schreiber feels are worth taking a second look at. I learned, for example, about the poet Samuel Menashe, who I had not heard of before. Menashe is a kind of minimalist, and I normally dislike how minimalism has effected poetry, particularly Haiku and Tanka. But I was intrigued by the few poems Schreiber quoted and went to Amazon and ordered Menashe’s collection from The Poetry Foundation ‘Neglected Masters’ series. What a treat! Really wonderful poems; sharp, articulate, resonant, well-crafted.
So Part 2 of Schreiber’s work has already panned out for me, introducing me to a poet previously unknown to me that I am finding rewarding to read. Perhaps you will find some new poet in this section as well.
The second section of Part 2 is ‘Modernism’s Last Gasp?’ It is an exploration of the direction that modernism, by which Schreiber means free verse, and, I think, the more avant-garde wing of free verse, is headed. Schreiber analyzes five recent modern verse publications. These five were approved of by no less a source than the New Yorker. Schreiber’s analyses are balanced; he finds both things to admire and things to critique. But the overall tone of Schreiber’s reviews is that modernism has become tedious and sloppy. There is, in addition, a tendency to solipsism, to opaque imagery that no amount of focus will allow for the unpacking of its meaning. It’s not that the poems are difficult. Schreiber notes, “There is nothing wrong with having to work at elucidating a poem, as long as the reward justifies the effort. We learned much as a culture from the effort to understand the poems of Dickinson in the nineteenth century or Stevens in the twentieth, but it is disappointing to apply oneself diligently to a text only to come up with chaff.” (Page 134)
Schreiber’s overall view of late modernism is one that resonates with me. I have been particularly struck by the increase in what I refer to as slovenly lineation. I am sensitive to this because, with my focus on syllabics, it is my view that a syllabic poem requires clear lineation if it is to communicate its form to the hearer of the poem. Late modernism runs counter to this kind of discipline; radical enjambment is common and the complete disjunction of grammatical phrasing and line break is pervasive. Schreiber does not raise this specific point about lineation; but his observations about a growing laxness fit well with my personal take on late modernism.
Schreiber points out that form gives the poet a tool of focus, “The epigram, the quatrain, the sonnet have the virtue of forcing writers to be inventive in cooking the fat out of their lines.” (Page 135) One of the attractions of writing poems within formal parameters is that the form functions as a kind of lens; the poet is not relying solely on personal whim. The form functions as a means to winnow the vast stream of images and associations that run through the mind, a means that lies beyond personal taste.
But is Schreiber right that we are witnessing the ‘late days of modernism’? His view is that some late modern poems have become ‘. . . quaint, old-fashioned, and surprisingly uninspiring, except for a few loners that stand out like mica in dust …’ (Page 143). Here he's talking about a specific poet, but I believe the remark can be generalized. I sympathize with Schreiber’s view that the avant-garde experimentalism feels like it has run its course. In looking at experiments from the 70’s and 80’s they seem, now, amazingly dated; like some fashion accessory or an 8-track. And late modern poets who continue in this vein look, well, kind of sad.
But it is difficult to see how this will pan-out. I am not so sure this is the ‘last days’, or even the ‘late days’, of modernism. What I see developing, in contrast, is a both/and approach. I am thinking here of poets like Dana Gioia who composes excellent poetry in both formal, metrical, and in free verse. My good friend, Sandy Eastoak, is another poet who is equally efficacious with free verse and formal verse. This is a trend which I see very gradually emerging.
From this perspective we are not witnessing the last days of modernism so much as the absorption of modernism into the overall layout of English language poetry. For a century free verse and formal verse have been seen as in opposition. And free verse poets thought of themselves in that way; that is to say free verse poets thought of themselves as overthrowing the strictures of an outdated heritage. And traditional poets obliged this perspective, only reversing the value judgments.
But with the emergence of poets like Gioia and Eastoak, and others who write with equal facility in the two modes, this kind of ideologically based opposition is beginning, I think, to be perceived as contrived. If my observation is correct, than what I suspect will happen in the near future is that poets will see both formal and free approaches as options rather than as oppositions, with more and more poets writing now and then in one or the other of the modes. In a way it is like what is happening in the world of cooking where chefs have become skilled in more than one approach to cuisine; say Japanese and French. Such a chef may cook one way and then the other, or may even mix the two cuisines in a single meal. Similarly, a poet like Gioia will present both free verse and metrical verse in a single volume of his poetry without feeling that they should be separated or that they clash.
Part 3 of Sparring deals with the ins and outs of poetic criticism. There is a lengthy discussion of Yvor Winters and his influence on 20th century American poetry. I was unaware, for example, of how many of his students had gone on to significant positions or how widely Wineters’s views have been dispersed. Schreiber’s presentation is sympathetic, knowledgeable, and at the same time revelatory of some shortcomings. Altogether a highly informative chapter.
In the penultimate chapter Schreiber discusses ‘The Functions of Poetry’. I think it is the most open ended of the chapters. It deals with the pervasive sense among poets of the loss of their place and their audience in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. In an insightful analysis Schreiber points out that, from a certain perspective, poetry has not lost its audience, “If poetry serves and fulfills all these functions – social, psychological, and spiritual – then why is it so widely ignored and even disdained? One might answer that it isn’t. In various forms – popular song including folk and rap, limericks and other light verse, rallying cries of street demonstrations, naïve compositions for birthdays and other special occasions – rhythmic language thrives.” (Page 189)
Precisely. It isn’t that modern poetry has lost its audience; it’s that the audience for poetry has, for the most part, abandoned most free verse presentations. Popular song is the audience for modern poetry; it is where modern poetry can be found.
Regarding avant-garde poetry, Schreiber notes, “Yet very few people read the latter sort of poetry. Why? For one thing, ‘art’ or ‘high’ poetry is still recovering from a serious deformation foisted upon it early in the twentieth century, when it was deprived of the very qualities – rhythm and rhyme – that made it adhere to memory, and at the same time required by the aesthetics of the age to be incomprehensible to all but a small coterie.” (Page 189)
If this seems harsh, consider how a poem like Frost’s ‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening’ has become a cultural artifact. I can’t think of any modern free verse poem that has become so well-known and so well loved. Or consider how the Villanelle by Dylan Thomas, ‘Do Not Go Gentle’ has become one of the most widely quoted, read, and understood of modern poems. Both of these poems are formal, highly structured.
Yet, once again, I find myself wanting to step back from this kind of conclusion. For one thing, I can think of free verse poetry that is widely appreciated, though it is not modern. I am thinking of the King James Bible’s version of the Psalms. There was recently a Science Fiction Series, part of the Stargate franchise, called ‘Stargate Universe’. In an early episode one of the main characters, facing a crisis on the spaceship, goes to his room, closes the door, sits on his bed, and begins to recite from memory, ‘The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want . . .’ What I found attractive is that it felt completely believable.
Normally we do not think of the Psalms as free verse poetry. That’s because we have, unfortunately, absorbed the narrative that fee verse represents a break with tradition, that fee verse is iconoclastic in its stance towards the traditional heritage of English Language prosody. But if we connect free verse with the Psalms, that narrative starts to feel like bad story telling. Instead of free verse being a break with the past, free verse can be seen as something that was always present in English poetic culture. The difference during the modern period was that it emerged into the foreground and, in addition, at times became deliberately obscure and enormously self-involved. So, in the end, I am not able to completely agree with Schreiber’s views. Even so, the thoughtful presentation and the knowledgeable analyses are rewarding to read. Schreiber’s style is lucid and pleasing to the ear. It is also avoids being strident, a great virtue in a field, poetic criticism, where stridency is often encountered.
From the perspective of syllabics, Schreiber does not comment on its usage except noting in passing that J. V. Cunningham adopted syllabics during one part of his career. It is understandable that Schreiber does not deal with the emergence of syllabics such as Haiku and Cinquain; such an approach is still marginal and has not exerted a big impact. In comparison to metrical and free verse, syllabics remain a fringe concern.
For the syllabic poet, however, I think that Schreiber’s analyses and overview offer useful material. For example, Schreiber is able to articulate why so much of late modern free verse is incomprehensible. For the poet coming to syllabics from free verse, this kind of information can help by assisting those newly interested in syllabics to understand why a free verse approach to lineation needs to be abandoned in composing articulate syllabic verse.
My favorite section of Sparring was Part 2 because it led to some new discoveries. But all three sections have depth and are worthy of study and engagement. Take a look at it; I think you will enjoy Schreiber’s take on where poetry stands as a new century continues to unfold.
Sparring with the Sun:
Poets and the Ways We Think about Poetry in the Late Days of Modernism
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