Politics and Form in Postmodern Poetry: O'Hara, Bishop, Ashbery, and Merrill
Mutlu Konuk Blasing.
Cambridge University Press, 1995
[The subjects discussed in this review are linked only by dream and premonitionand Providencebut here on the cutting edge of the information superhighway (to mix metaphors/clichès) I want to focus on some very local literary phenomena.]
On Tuesday April 23rd of this year, the 76-year-old poet and translator Edwin Honig, born in Brooklyn in 1919, was knighted by the Spanish Ambassador to the U.S. on behalf of the King of Spain, in a special ceremony in Providence, Rhode Island. Spain was recognizing Honig's signal contributions in bringing Spanish poetry and literature into the English-speaking world: his influential monographs on Lorca and Calderon, his translations of poetry and plays (Honig's version of Calderon's "Life is a Dream" is currently having a successful stage run in NY).
But Honig was already a knight; he was knighted almost ten years ago by the Portuguese government, for his masterly translations of Fernando Pessoa, Portugal's greatest modern poet. His translations, in collaboration with Susan Brown, are available in an Ecco Press edition which is presently in publication limbo, unavailable but not exactly out of print. This is only one example of Honig's continuing difficulties over the years with publishers. His own half-century's achievement in poetry has long been consigned to obscurity. Honig's work in English, Portuguese and Spanish poetry represents an unrecognized "other," an unexplored dimension in 20th century writing, a looming presence, part of the shadow of the multi-lingual 21st century American future.
Mutlu Konuk Blasing is a Professor of English at Brown University in Providence; with her husband Randy Blasing she has published translations of Turkish poet Nazim Hikmet. She has also published two critical studies of great acumen and ambition, the combined thrust of which is to build a new critical framework for examining modern American poetry. In the first work (American Poetry: A Rhetoric of its Forms) she applies the four "master tropes" of traditional rhetoric (as defined by Kenneth Burke)allegory, irony, analogy, and synecdocheto three 19th and 20th century poets each. On the face of it this sounds like a very dry exercise. But by linking each trope with a way of seeing the world, of comprehending realityand by showing how this dominant form is manifested in each poet's overall approachshe suddenly brings to light new affinities. Poe, Eliot and Plath are linked by allegoryan essentially reductive approach, in which a pre-existing, fateful reality is represented by ciphers, dead symbols which can never revive or re-connect with their origin. The poetry is suffused with a tragic formalism. Emerson, Stevens, and Bishop are analogical or metaphorical poetsthe poem is linked by analogy to the reality it represents; forging not identity but a fruitful similarity, a kind of mediated unity or proportion. The master trope of Whitman, Pound and O'Hara is synecdochethe identity of the part with the whole. The image is not a metaphor for what it represents: it is identical with it; the microcosm of the poem is "isomorphic" with the larger cosmosleading to a kind of epic or holistic all-encompassing poetry. Dickinson, Crane, and Ashbery are ironic poetsthe poem is a system of binding opposites which forefronts its own processes and calls into question the claims of "realistic" representation.
In Politics and Form in Postmodern Poetry, Blasing carries this perspective further and enters into a polemic with what she sees as a kind of tunnel vision crippling contemporary American poetry and criticism: what she terms a late modernism masquerading as postmodernism. This is a Poundian strain of modernism which interprets poetic form politically, and sets up the binary oppositions of avant-garde / conservative; Beat / Academic; free forms / closed forms, etc. Blasing's own definition of postmodernism argues for a clear break between modern and post-; the postmoderns (similar to the "ironic" poets of her first book) question or deny the direct link between word and thing, between rhetoric and reality, poem and world; they see this link as problematic, and foreground rhetorical maneuvers as such, rather than assuming that some rhetorics (Olson's "process", for example) are inherently political or progressive. On these lines Blasing critiques both the Language Poets and the New Formalists for blurring the distinction between form and politics; and she focuses on four poets (Ashbery, O'Hara, Bishop and Merrill) as exemplars of true postmodernismpoets who explore the real limits and possibilities of the art in the aftermath of modernism and "belief" as such.
Blasing draws a new circumference for 20th century American poetry with powerful strokes; this review has no space to reveal her sparkling rhetorical close readings of these various poets. Her approach will provide essential reading tools for both poets and critics to come. Nevertheless, her ironic, deconstructive perspective on the relations between text and reality (generally in the line of De Man and the Yale School) displays a curious dryness. Concomitant with deconstructive philosophy, there is no ground available for synthesis; the descent from the age of faith, through Romanticism's human-centered unities, through Modernism's heroic artifice, down to postmodernism's dis-united non-identity and othernessthis historical development is viewed as ineluctible, a withering into reality (or un-reality). What such a poetics cannot develop is a theory of synthetic imagination. Alice Notley's call for a dream-realism (in an essay in Disembodied Poetics titled "Epic and Women Writers"), though less formidably argued, perhaps holds out more promise for the future.
Susan Brown, Edwin Honig's collaborator in translating Pessoa, is refining an unpublished dissertation on the many-sided Portuguese poet; the dissertation was written several years ago, but displays certain conjunctions with Blasing's work. What she finds in Pessoa's famed heteronymsthe three individual poets under whose masks Pessoa created three complete and separate poetic oeuvres (four, counting the work of "Pessoa" himself)is a dominance of two different master tropesirony and analogyin the two major heteronyms (Caeiro and Campos). Brown argues that Walt Whitman was the true instigator of Pessoa's project; as the central figure of Romantic unity, Whitman represented a lost or faulty dream-ego projected on the cosmos. Pessoa created in his four separate authors a counter-Whitman: anchored in the analogical master shepherd-poet Caeiro, he built a dream-cosmos which is both unified and all-encompassingand yet still "only" a dream (thus drawing the demarcation between modernism and romanticism).If Brown is correct, Pessoa represents a conjunction, a unification, of the rhetorical tropesmany authors in oneby which Blasing divides and conquers American poetry : a conjunction instigated by an American poet (Whitman).
Blasing, a Providence critic, has re-written the literary history of American poetry. Honig, a Providence poet, represents the unread poetic history of our American / Moorish / Hispanic amalgam, the new America of the next century; and Brown, a Providence translator, in an unpublished dissertation, has discovered the transatlantic connection. Perhaps these are only fragments in Alice Notley's dream of a future poetics; but they are as real as Providence, as real as an old man from Brooklyn's double knighthood.
Copyright © 1996
Electronic Poetry Review