Theory to the People
A New Theory for American Poetry: Democracy, the Environment, and the Future of Imagination
By Angus Fletcher
Harvard Press, 2004
Angus Fletcher was recommended to me as "the only genius I have ever known personally" by one of my more discerning acquaintances. In his latest work, A New Theory for American Poetry, expectations of genius do not exactly disappoint, but might perhaps mislead. Mr. Fletcher, a professor of English at the graduate school of City University of New York, is a member of what might loosely be called a popularizing countermovement of literary critics, those stylistically opposed to both the minutiae of historically-influenced scholarly criticism and the abstruseness of the Deconstructionists’ Theory. His peers include the notorious Harold Bloom, John Hollander, Helen Vendler and several others. For better or for worse, their writing is of the variety that, for criticism, might be termed "readable." In this sense, Fletcher is very much one of them. Although A New Theory references a great variety of traditions and methods from hermeneutics to the philosophy of the Presocratics, Fletcher requires very little in terms of knowledge of poetry from his readers. He has shown an ease with broad scope and sweeping observations: in his most famous work, Allegory, he attempted to outline the mechanisms of the allegorical mode, inarguably a large-scale undertaking. In A New Theory, he shows the same addiction to generality, hardly tempered by the geographic limit of his aim.
As the title A New Theory for American Poetry (emphasis mine) suggests, Fletcher has set out to not only analyze the past and present of American poetry, but also to dictate or predict its future (it is not always clear which he is attempting to do; one imagines that if asked he'd merely rhapsodize about their common etymological roots). The book focuses on a trio of poets: John Clare, the nineteenth-century peasant poet, Walt Whitman, and John Ashbery, by means of whom he defines the "environment-poem," wherein the poem itself through an intensity of description and attention to the placement of the observer becomes a sort of surrounding for the reader. The reference to environment on the cover of the book has more to do with the sense of an environment as a living surrounding and the ways in which a poem can metaphorically fulfill this function for a reader than the highly political meaning the term has come to have when prefixed with the definite article. One of the central topics Mr. Fletcher expounds upon in order to bring his reader to an understanding of what he means by the environment-poem is the difference between the knowledge and the experience that may be gained from a poem. The process of "experiencing" the poem, he argues, is intertwined with the original uses of personification, which "bridges the material and spiritual worlds, sharing in both, announcing the ideal, but always embodying some kind of personhood." The personification that nearly inevitably occurs in descriptive poetry, then, might be viewed as a means of forcing the reading into a more direct interaction with and consequently experience of the poetic environment. As an analysis, this seems to me to be insufficient. Mr. Fletcher is locating all of the tension caused by the pathetic fallacy within the reader, rather than according a proper place, as John Ruskin did, to what personification reveals about the mental state of the narrator of the poem. Still, Mr. Fletcher uses this idea reasonably within his analyses of poetry. Indeed, most of his theories are better in their application than in their explanation, which is comparatively rare and quite refreshing. When he is tracing the progression of the environment-poem through Low Romanticism and descriptive poetry, he is also in top form: the play of his intelligence over the clearly vast knowledge he has at his command benefits tremendously from being focused on a single aim. He has isolated a particular tradition extant within American poetry, and he expounds upon it persuasively. However, when he attempts to talk about American poetry in general, poetry in general, or worst of all, art and society, he often borders on ridiculous. Despite the tag, relatively little of A New Theory is devoted to democracy, the environment, or the future of imagination, for which fact the reader will surely be grateful.
Like so many other critics from Dryden to Cleanth Brooks, Fletcher has the unfortunate trick of asserting the obvious contentiously, and what is more dangerous, stating the truly controversial as though it were self-evident. There are too many instances of the former to list, but some particularly egregious examples include when Fletcher reveals to the reader with a flourish that "while common sense might suggest there is something unpoetic about descriptions," in actuality there is a way to reconcile the descriptive tendency with poeticism, or when he writes that "with Jackson, American politics changed from the end of the Federalist period in one major direction that surely no historian would ever think to identify as such" and then proceeds to talk about the downward shift of power in much the same way as my high school American History text book. Of the latter sort of error, that of treating the controversial as a commonplace, or worse still, failing to address it entirely, the most pernicious and destructive example is the basic and never-addressed assumption that underlies the very title of the book: that there is a such an thing as an American poetry sufficiently distinctive and unified to be treated singly. Alan Tate, as early as 1920, lamented what he perceived to be an unfortunate lack of national coherence; Charles Simic, in a recent article in the New York Review of Books, chose to celebrate rather than mourn the same phenomenon. If one stops to contemplate the history of American poetry, even taking into account only those poets who are generally considered canonical, one realizes that "American Poetry" as a movement is at best a dubious proposition. The Expatriates alone complicate matters too greatly.
When writing of the "environment-poem" Mr. Fletcher makes a compelling case for the existence of one particular strain in American poetry, not necessarily unique to America - it descended, he argues, from Clare and his Low Romantic naturalistic contemporaries in England - but perhaps a bit more apparent in much of the past two centuries’ American poetry than in that of our British counterparts. Robinson Jeffers, Robert Frost, and the Black Mountain Poets come to mind, among others. Mr. Fletcher argues that this tradition took hold so effectively here because of the necessity of confronting the immensity of a landscape in which humans initially at least figured very little. It seems banal to say that descriptive poetry flourished because there was so much to describe, yet many of Mr. Fletcher’s predecessors and contemporaries seem not to have noticed this, instead focusing on Whitman and his followers as reacting in one way or another to High Romanticism. Mr. Fletcher is adept at pointing out the differences between the High and Low Romantic ways of writing about one’s surroundings. In an observation that will strike anyone who has read the Memorials of a Tour in Scotland as exceptionally just, he writes "Wordsworth in particular always writes about his impressions as if he thought nature were posing for him." He also offers some interesting observations as regards Whitman. Although even his pages on Whitman are not entirely secure against the sort laughable lines that infect so many otherwise sound passages of A New Theory (the contention that "the phrase is an inherently democratizing unit" comes to mind) his study of Whitman’s use of parataxis and his identification of Whitman’s tendency to end by drifting off with the creation of a poetic atmosphere that has "edges, but no ends" are two examples of fine and valuable critical thought. There are certainly many others within the chapters where he closely examines the writing of Clare, Whitman, and Ashbery, and this makes the juxtaposition with his less focused chapters sharp and unfortunate, both for the reader and for Mr. Fletcher. He identifies himself early on as a follower of Northrop Frye, to whom he alludes continually, when he refers to "theory as I try to practice it, imitating the sciences." One senses that this mentality is his excuse for bringing in complexity theory and other vaguely scientific observations where they have no place. The result of these forays into science and psuedo-science is invariably nonsense. Indeed, Mr. Fletcher, in keeping with what seems to be one of the more disturbing trends of recent criticism, writes to an audience whom he presumes has a greater knowledge of numerology than of numbers (as Johnson used the term) and of Post Structuralism than of poetics. At one point Mr. Fletcher laboriously charts the repetition pattern of the sestina, complete with a diagram that occupies nearly two pages. It sounds awfully high-handed to say so, but one cannot suppress the feeling that if that level of explanation is necessary for the reader Mr. Fletcher has in mind, perhaps that reader’s time would be better spend reading poetry. The great weakness of A New Theory lies in the amount of extra-literary topics that Mr. Fletcher tries to intertwine, often unsuccessfully, with his analyses of literature. One of the things that makes Allegory so much more successful as a work of criticism is the theme’s focusing power; after all, a facile ability to rapidly transition from one topic to another may make one an excellent conversationalist, but it is a much more difficult thing to pull off as a literary critic. If Mr. Fletcher is truly trying to follow in the tradition of Northrop Frye, he and his colleagues would do well to remember that although Frye conceded that "criticism has a great variety of neighbors" he was always firm in maintaining that "the critic must enter into relations with them in a way that guarantees his own independence."
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