The New Criticism and postwar poetry

Although the New Criticism was an American phenomenon, it was part of a more general trend toward poetic formalism on both sides of the Atlantic. During the mid-1930s, volumes by William Empson, C. Day Lewis, Louis MacNeice, and W. H. Auden helped establish a period style in the work of younger English poets. The most influential of these poets was Auden, whose work was formal, casually ironic, and technically accomplished. Auden's poetry exerted an influence on an emerging generation of American poets, including John Berryman, Randall Jarrell, Delmore Schwartz, Karl Shapiro, Richard Wilbur, Richard Howard, and James Merrill. In 1939,

Auden emigrated to the United States; he became a United States citizen in 1946. Auden's presence in American literary life - as a teacher and lecturer in various colleges and universities, as an actively publishing poet, and as the editor of the prestigious Yale Series of Younger Poets - made the 1940s and early 1950s the "Age of Auden." John Ashbery, who wrote his senior thesis on Auden in 1949, claimed that when he began reading modern poetry, Auden was "the modern poet," just as Eliot had been the quintessential modern poet for the previous generation. Auden never became fully Americanized, however, and despite the importance of his influence on a generation of poets, anthologists and literary historians have generally not included him among the ranks of American poets.

In the years following World War II, many younger poets adopted the formal style popularized by Auden and the New Critics. Much of the poetry written during the late 1940s and 1950s - a period identified as the "Age of Conformity" (Irving Howe) and the "tranquillized Fifties" (Robert Lowell) - paid more attention to matters of technique and formal method than to novelty of idea or conception. Many poets preferred to remain within the relative safety offixed forms like the sonnet or rhymed quatrain; the social and political conservatism ofthe period was reflected in the poems themselves, which often avoided taking stylistic, thematic, or formal risks. The typical poetry of the period can be found in a number of anthologies that served to solidify the shared vision of an academic or mainstream style. Such collections as John Ciardi's Mid-Century American Poets (1950), Rolfe Humphries's New Poems by American Poets (1953), W H. Auden's Criterion Book of Modern American Verse (1956), and Donald Hall, Robert Pack, and Louis Simpson's New Poets of England and America (1957) introduced a new generation of formal poets, including Wilbur, Merrill, Howard Nemerov, Anthony Hecht, John Hollander, Donald Justice, and William Meredith.

This generation of postwar formalists were all born between 1920 and 1930, and they were well educated, well traveled, and cosmopolitan. Merrill, for example, was the son of a prominent financier, the principal founder of one of America's largest brokerage houses. As a group, these poets represent the core of the academic poetry establishment over the last several decades of the twentieth century, and they have been highly feted by that establishment. Merrill received the National Book Award, the Bollingen Prize, and the Pulitzer Prize. Justice and Nemerov both won the Pulitzer, and both Nemerov and Meredith served as Poetry Consultant to the Library of Congress. Wilbur was appointed the nation's Poet Laureate, succeeding Robert Penn Warren.

The typical poems produced by academic poets of the 1950s and 1960s reflect strongly the influence of the New Critics and of the more formal poets of the modernist generation, such as Frost, Yeats, and Stevens. They are formal, witty, and impersonal, seeking an elegance ofphrasing and often a relaxed or insouciant tone. A good example of such polished writing is Richard Wilbur's poem "A Simile for Her Smile":

Your smiling, or the hope, the thought of it, Makes in my mind such pause and abrupt ease As when the highway bridgegates fall, Balking the hasty traffic, which must sit On each side massed and staring, while Deliberately the drawbridge starts to rise:

Then horns are hushed, the oilsmoke rarefies,

Above the idling motors one can tell

The packet's smooth approach, the slip,

Slip of the silken river past the sides,

The ringing of clear bells, the dip

And slow cascading of the paddle wheel.

Wilbur displays a good deal of technique here, but he does so in a seemingly effortless manner. There is none of the tension between form and theme we find in Ransom's poetry, and the poem is easily appreciated both for its charming use of the extended simile and for its manipulation of form and sound. The end rhymes bring a sense of unity to the stanzas, which achieve an ideal balance between strict iambic pentameter and frequent but never jarring variation from it. Wilbur makes effective use of alliteration, especially in the second stanza, and he makes us feel the motion of the water in the "slip, / Slip of the silken river past the sides." The simile itself is inventive yet does not strain the powers of the imagination: the smile of the young woman to whom the poem is addressed is compared (somewhat unexpectedly) to the rising of a drawbridge which slowly allows the passage of a paddle-wheel boat. Finally, Wilbur indulges in both wordplay (in the title's play of similarity between "simile" and "smile"), and paradox ("abrupt ease").

Despite all the ways in which the poem is successful, however, we cannot consider it an important poem. It manages a nice conceit, but it also avoids any engagement with larger ideas or issues. No specificity is given about the relationship between the speaker and the woman he hopes will smile at him; no real emotion is expressed or portrayed, despite the attempt to capture the sense of a potentially emotional moment; and no larger social or philosophical statement is made. The use of the urban imagery of cars, highways, bridges, and oilsmoke is made to serve no purpose other than as an analogy for a moment of personal happiness; as a result, such imagery comes to seem almost gratuitous.

In the 1960s, poets such as James Merrill began adopting formalist, post-New Critical techniques in more obviously autobiographical poems. Merrill's "The Broken Home" (1967), an autobiographical account of his parents and their divorce, is written in the form of seven consecutive sonnets. While "The Broken Home" relates details about Merrill's life, it is not a "confessional" poem in the way that we will see in the work of Robert Lowell or Sylvia Plath. Instead, it remains distanced from the rawness of personal experience both by its formal structure and by its somewhat detached, ironic tone. Merrill's "wit" can be compared to Ransom's: like Ransom, Merrill uses packed phrasing to evoke a complexity offeeling and awareness, and he makes frequent use of puns and wordplay, especially in his manipulation of familiar clichés. We see Merrill's technique at work in the second sonnet:

My father, who had flown in World War I, Might have continued to invest his life In cloud banks well above Wall Street and wife, But the race was run below, and the point was to win.

Too late now, I make out in his blue gaze (Through the smoked glass of being thirty-six) The soul eclipsed by twin black pupils, sex And business; time was money in those days.

Each thirteenth year he married. When he died There were already several chilled wives In sable orbit - rings, cars, permanent waves, We'd felt him warming up for the green bride.

He could afford it. He was "in his prime" At three score ten. But money was not time.

If, as Don Adams suggests, the speaker's central quest is "to rediscover who his parents really were and are," this sonnet begins that task by examining the life of his father.3 The sonnet turns on the cliche "time is money," an expression associated both with the father and with the era in which he made his fortune. By the final couplet, the clicheé is turned around as the father's death ironically suggests that "money was not time": despite all the money he has made and the fact that he still claims to be "in his prime" at the age of seventy, he cannot buy back the years he wasted in the pursuit of money and a succession of ever younger wives. The other crucial phrase in the sonnet is "too late now," suggesting that the son has failed until now to recognize his father's failures. In these lines, however, he makes up for lost time by offering a crushing denunciation of his father's life and values.

The form ofthe poem contributes to Merrill's theme ofan emotional and spiritual emptiness in his father's life: each quatrain contains one full rhyme and one rhyme in which the vowel has been changed (one/win, sex/six, wives/waves). The use of these slant rhymes suggests that the apparent solidity of the father's life fails to disguise a hollowness or lack of integrity at its center.

The most obvious stylistic tendency of the poem is Merrill's use of puns. The pun on "cloud banks" turns the father's apparently solid profession of brokering and investment banking into an insubstantial and transitory object. Merrill also puns on "sable" (denoting both the dark color of the outer space where the satellite wives orbit and the fur coats he has given them) and "rings" (the orbits of the wives around the father as well as their wedding bands). The "chilled wives" evoke "chilled" cocktails, suggesting the father's superficial and decadent life.

Merrill's language is packed not only with such wordplay, but also with metaphors, clusters of imagery, and mythic structures. The father, for example, is introduced as having "flown in World War I," and the discourse of flight and air is continued in "cloud banks," "eclipsed," and "orbit." Through the sequencing of these metaphors, the apparently heroic fact of the father's having been a pilot in the war is ironized: now he is no longer the war hero, but a stationary figure around whom the various ex-wives orbit.

Like Ransom, Merrill creates further ironies by playing with the tension between a highly compressed poetic idiom ("The soul eclipsed by twin black pupils") and a more relaxed, colloquial diction and phrasing ("the point was to win," "he could afford it"). Like Ransom, too, Merrill places heavy demands on the reader's intelligence and sensitivity to language. Such poetry appeals to the pleasures ofthe intellect; at times, however, its ironic cleverness can come to seem strained and almost arch. Merrill's preoccupation with style at times prevents the poem from making a direct emotional connection with the reader.

The poems that made the greatest impact on the development of American poetry during the 1950s and 1960s were not those written in the formal style of Merrill and Wilbur. By the late 1950s, American poetry was already undergoing what James Breslin has referred to as a "radical transformation of poetic theory and practice."4 The poetry of New Critical formalism, a style that had "rigified into orthodoxy" and begun to feel "limited, excluding [and] impoverished," was rejected by many poets who participated in a sweeping "antiformalist revolt."5 The dramatic change in postwar American poetry was the result of a feeling of deep dissatisfaction with inherited models of language and form. Robert Lowell, for example, remarked that while poets had become extremely proficient at writing in set forms, such writing no longer seemed relevant to the conditions of contemporary life:

[T]he writing seems divorced from culture somehow. It's become too much something specialized that can't handle much experience. It's become a craft, purely a craft, and there must be some breakthrough back into life.6

Robert Creeley put this same critique of formalist poetry in even stronger terms:

Poems were equivalent to cars insofar as many could occur of a similar pattern - although each was, of course, "singular." But it was this assumption of a mold, of a means that could be gained beyond the literal fact of the writing here and now, that had authority. It is the more ironic to think of it, remembering the incredible pressure of feeling in those years, of all that did want "to be said," of so much confusion and pain wanting statement in its own terms.7

What Lowell and Creeley both experienced was the sense of a cultural crisis, a moment when poetry needed once again to become "disruptive -critical of its culture, of its immediate past, of itself."8 The desire to enact some "breakthrough back into life," as Lowell put it, to critique its own conventions as well as aspects of American culture and society as a whole, was the central motivating force of American poetry in the decades after World War II.

In terms of its impact on American poetry as a whole, Lowell's 1959 volume Life Studies represented such a breakthrough. Not only did Life Studies contain a number of striking and memorable poems - including "Skunk Hour," "Waking in the Blue," "Memories ofWest Street and Lepke," "Man and Wife," "During Fever," and "My Last Afternoon with Uncle Devereux Winslow" - but it marked a dramatic departure from a style of poetry that had already earned Lowell significant literary success. Lowell's 1946 volume Lord Weary's Castle had won him the Pulitzer Prize, a Guggenheim fellowship, an award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and the prestigious post of Consultant in Poetry at the Library of Congress. The most powerful poems in Lord Weary's Castle, such as "The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket," are written in a densely rhetorical and almost Miltonic style. In this wartime elegy for his cousin Warren Winslow, who died at sea when his navy ship sank, Lowell writes in what can be described as a high literary mode:

Whenever winds are moving and their breath Heaves at the roped-in bulwarks of this pier, The terns and sea-gulls tremble at your death In these home waters. Sailor, can you hear The Pequod's sea wings, beating landward, fall Headlong and break on our Atlantic wall

Off'Sconset, where the yawing S-boats splash The bellbuoy, with ballooning spinnakers, As the entangled, screeching mainsheet clears the blocks: off Madaket, where lubbers lash The heavy surf and throw their long lead squids For blue-fish?

The rhyming pentameter lines - broken by frequent enjambment and caesura - and the highly pressurized energy of the language create an undeniable effect. That effect might be described as dizzying: we need to read the poem several times before we can get past the sounds of the language (propelled by alliteration and the onomatopoetic descriptions of splashing boats and screeching sails) and the syntactic complexity. The poem's literary modes are traditional: personification (the winds's breath), metaphor (the ship's sails as wings), and the pathetic fallacy (the gulls and terns mourn the sailor's death). We might contrast this passage with lines from Life Studies such as those at the beginning of "Memories of West Street and Lepke":

Only teaching on Tuesdays, book-worming in pajamas fresh from the washer each morning, I hog a whole house on Boston's "hardly passionate Marlborough Street"

Here, the line-lengths are uneven and there is no longer a discernable impulse toward iambic pentameter. The language is more casual and even colloquial: the speaker is not reading but "book-worming," and he "hogs" a whole house. The initial gesture of the poem is a deflationary one: beginning with the word "only," Lowell then tantalizes the reader with the alliteration of "teaching on Tuesdays" and the somewhat intriguing image of "book-worming" before offering the thoroughly flat second line (its verbal flatness emphasized by the addition of an extra foot). Even the visual appearance of the poem is more relaxed and prose-like: for example, Lowell no longer capitalizes the words on the left-hand margin.

The energy Lowell creates in "The Quaker Graveyard" comes largely from his use of active verbs: "heaves," "tremble," "hear," "fall," "break," "splash," "clears," "lash," and "throw." The opening stanza of "Memories of West Street and Lepke," in contrast, has only two active verbs in eleven lines, and both of these actions can be read ironically: the poet "hogs" a whole house on Marlborough Street, and his daughter "rises" ("like the sun") in her "flame-flamingo infants' wear." The two most energetic verbs in the stanza - "book-worming" and "scavenging" - are presented in a more passive tense (the present progressive), a tendency that continues throughout the rest of the poem: "telling off the state and president," "waiting sentence," "strolling," "wearing chocolate double-breasted suits," "piling towels on a rack," "dawdling off," "hanging like an oasis." In a poem that is at least in part about Lowell's "lost connections" with his past, the mood of dissipation created by the passive verb tenses conveys his own sense of uselessness and ineffectually. The poetry of "A Quaker Graveyard" may be more inspired, more obviously "poetic," but it is the poetry of "Memories of West Street and Lepke" that comes closer to capturing the feeling of "real life" in the postwar era as Lowell and others perceived it.

Was this article helpful?

0 0
Helping Your Child Learn To Read

Helping Your Child Learn To Read

When parents help their children learn to read, they help open the door to a new world. As a parent, you can begin an endless learning chain: You read to your children, they develop a love of stories and poems, they want to read on their own, they practice reading, and finally they read for their own information or pleasure. They become readers, and their world is forever expanded and enriched.

Get My Free Ebook

Post a comment