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A New Theory for American Poetry: Democracy,…
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A New Theory for American Poetry: Democracy, the Environment, and the…

by Angus Fletcher

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Angus Fletcher’s previous contributions to the study of poetics have provided us with, among other valuable insights, a comprehensive account of allegory as a primary mode in literature and an intensive meditation on the shape of thinking in poetry. With his latest offering, he presents a formal description of American poetry as American, that is, not descendant from English Romanticism but self-created. He defines a new poetic genre that is independent and self-governing. In this sensitive and comprehensive study, Fletcher draws upon contemporary ecology and the complexity sciences to illustrate and compare his sense of American poetic form, its origins and mechanisms, to natural phenomena. Focusing on description, metonymy, and metalepsis, Fletcher’s key poet are Ashbery, Whitman, and Clare.

Of the three aspects of this theory, Democracy, the Environment, and the Future of Imagination, the second is most fully explored. Fletcher praises what he calls the “environment-poem” for its distinctly American resistance to the Platonic forms. With the same unassuming style that–surprisingly, refreshingly–characterizes his other very learned writings, Fletcher faces the difficult task of defining a new genre and makes its features clear: Environment-poems are not about the things that make up environments; they are environments. Poets of this genre are not like cartographers representing an environment as a place, so much as like choreographers representing movements in space. The actions of singular heroes are less important than “the aggregate relations of all participants” (123). Art is “commonly and wisely thought to depend less on factual reference to things in the world, and more upon our imaginative relationship with those things and references” (176), and environment-poems seek emergent rules governing these relationships, even as they appear chaotic. In the complexity sciences, as in environment-poetics, because emergent laws are abstractions of relationships rather than of objects, the study of one system can lead to an appreciation of other systems that share similar dynamics, even though they may be about very different things. Hence, observes Fletcher, the pattern of the poem can also be a pattern of the poet’s interiority. The author “emerges . . . through a crisscross motion within the mental space correlated to some physical space the poem describes. For the outer world in its letter gives the coordinates of the inner world with its thoughts” (120). While Harold Bloom contends that Whitman’s goal is to project his own selfhood, “tallied” or counted as a finally transcendent reality, Fletcher sees Whitman exploring a pattern of environmental interaction. The self has power only as an agent within the larger ensemble, a coherence the poetic form must mirror through an intentionality “clearly in the work, not in the maker alone” (206).

The environment-poem idea recalls age-old theories concerned to argue that art is necessarily holistic, irreducible, or organic. Such aesthetics derive ultimately from Presocratic philosophy, where the world can only be understood as living form whose categories are founded, as an environmentalist might say, upon a Gaian theory of mind. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts because the relationship adds something more, something lost when the system is broken down and analyzed while static. What distinguishes Fletcher’s new theory is its tempered rejection of the quasi-religious Platonic form existing prior to or external to the poem, controlling from without. Fletcher shows how the environment-poem creates its own form; it arises from the interactivity of the parts. This “order out of chaos” idea–also age-old–has gained new purchase recently in the sciences, where it is referred to as “self-organization” and studied by non-linear dynamics researchers, who also reject classical reduction. Fletcher’s graceful analogies between poetics and physics are helpful and sensible, and they spring from an appreciation of art as a natural phenomenon.

Fletcher’s Ashbery, Whitman and Clare are not much like avatars of theory as it has developed during the last several decades. These three poets present no recognizable ideological “positions” or allegorical machinery. They continuously seek out figures of thought deriving directly from what the poems say about themselves. As Ashbery writes in “The System,” living without “prior concepts” is to live “in that labyrinth that seems to be directing your steps but in reality it is you who are creating its pattern” (qutd. in New Theory 200). The mention, in environment-poems, of self-organization, emergent laws, patterns and so forth, is not merely ironic, for the environment-poem does not, like the Romantic poem, refer to a Platonic Idea. Elaborating on Ashbery’s remarks in his Norton Lectures, Fletcher observes that Clare’s descriptions follow the arbitrary sequence of a walk through the countryside. He is a poet, like Ashbery, who “obeys a law of a continuously shifting center–not abandoning the idea of center per se as with some deconstructionists, but rather allowing a general denial of privilege to permit a paramount role to perception itself” (59). In these verses quoted from John Clare,

The elm tress heavy foliage meets the eye

Propt in dark masses on the evening sky.

The lighter ash but half obstructs the view,

Leaving grey openings where the light looks through…,

the subject-object / active-passive dichotomies break down. Continuing further along these conceptual lines, Fletcher argues that Whitman collapses substance and process together: “in any environment substance is known and functions only as (and in) process” (173). The distinct features of the environment-poem, simultaneity, reciprocity and interaction, are achieved in part by approximating the lost grammatical technique of the middle voice, intermingling object and subject, active and passive verbs. The middle voice, which was found in ancient Greek, does not exist in English where “the subject [is] author of his actions” not an “intransitive participant” (168). Akin to the reflexive, the middle voice always suggests that the agent is interior to the process in question, naming a subject who acts through, upon or for the self. Whitman hence prefers the middle-voicing “verbs of connection” such as “suppose,” “believe,” “know,” “wish,” “see,” “hear,” and “comprehend.” As with Whitman’s other basic poetic and stylistic devices, such grammatical preferences are strong enough to assimilate all other lesser rhetorical effects, so that the poetry in general shares the atmosphere of cohering intransitivity. Environmental interaction is centrally expressed in the grammar and rhythm of Whitman?s phrase, to which this devotes a whole chapter. “Without predication, the phrase expresses a thought, with the effect of the thought always being a fragment or part of a larger union” (106), as in these lines from “A Broadway Pageant,”

My sail-ships threading the archipelagoes,

My stars and stripes fluttering in the wind,

Commerce opening, the sleep of ages having done its work,

races reborn, refresh’d

Lives, works, resum’d.

If the environment-poem creates the effect of the parts’ relation to a greater whole, this naturally leads to discussion of another aspect of Fletcher’s New Theory: Democracy.

Jacksonian Democracy, so beloved of Whitman, bestows a voice on every man not just landowners. Fletcher believes that the “strong message of this poetry ? [is that] a good society must become a self-organizing system, without too much top-down control” (12). He notes that “Whitman wants to make of politics a natural phenomenon, as opposed to a law-driven social conventionality” (99), and Whitman’s forms reflect the “new grammar of status relations” (101). By assimilating all his clausal constructions to the central individuating power of the phrase (strictly he cannot get rid of all hypotactic predications), Whitman attenuates the force of superordinate and subordinate hierarchies arising from grammar itself. This grammatical pressure of the phrase tends to democratize poetic language and rhetorical effect. As the author notes, the connections between Whitman and Proust, who share phrasal fascinations, are extremely suggestive in relation to crossings between prose and verse technique.

Pointedly, Fletcher remarks that the numerous critics who see “lists” in Whitman’s frequent use of the phrase, suppose that the phrasal units serve predetermined conceptual purposes, organizing description into classifying and cataloguing arrays. According to Fletcher, the phrasal units suggest wave-like motion and adjacency, not logical classifications of people, places, and things. The phrase suggests a fluid complex ensemble. The parts (of the Union or of a poem) result in a whole that is naturally emergent rather than artificially predetermined. Expanding further on the poetics of democracy, Fletcher informs us that a wave is a coherent surge of energy traveling through individuals without displacing them. The wave-form is essential to sustainable healthy democracies for “States,” like poems, “live only when they are always changing shape” (105).

Louis Menand has described the extent to which Piercean and Jamesian pragmatism shaped United States legal practices through Oliver Wendell Holmes, and consequently, American ideology. Deepening the connection between environment-poetry and pragmatism (which derives from a Presocratic rather than Platonic vision), Fletcher convincingly argues for the need to define a new genre that fits America’s longstanding “problem with the Platonic forms” (131). Without seeking a metaphysically predetermined and omniscient governing Idea, the Presocratics always saw the importance of holism: e pluribus unum. In the environment-poem, individual parts retain their stubborn differences, their distinctness, even as they form a coherent unity. The emergent “one” represents the “many,” not by identical correspondence, but by coherence. Referring to the work of Donald Davidson, Fletcher explains that with a Platonic correspondence theory of truth, an object is represented when it is reconstructed according to a fully described blueprint, an exact replica or archetype, in a linear step-by-step fashion that disallows alternative paths. In contrast, the coherence theory of truth, like Whitman’s verse, admits of contradiction and alternatives: it must have contradiction if it is to be complete. What Fletcher intends by the “Future of Imagination,” the third aspect named in the subtitle, is an emphasis upon the metaphysical need for imaginative life. His concern translates, as Emerson would have said, into questions of “higher laws,” but for purposes of Fletcher’s poetic discussion the imaginative is to be understood as a value not simply and forever defined by the High Romantics. They had their sublime interests, whereas this diurnal poetic of Clare, Whitman and Ashbery claims a very different, but equally powerful interest in what Clare called “this lower earth.” Without being explicit, Fletcher makes a pointed political statement, but his concern with and appreciation of the environment does not translate, as one might assume, into suggestions for environmental policy. He is after something much more fundamental. Having discovered in the environment-poem a peculiarly American method of self-organization, which would by analogy lead to stable government and varied creativity, he cannot be but alarmed by its imminent disappearance. As “In God We Trust” takes the place of e pluribus unum on US currency, we come to see ourselves as being governed by a predetermined law, living in a society in which we are imposing or imposed, rather than interacting and participating in the creation of emergent laws. If this is the direction of American politics, we will succumb to less imaginative thinking. Insofar as a study of poetic form can make a political statement, this one does. By exploring, in a general way, the question of governance and the origins of order, New Theory describes how self-organizing democracies–and poems–work best. Good “readers” with keen attention to and participation in one’s own immediate environment, helps create a unified entity.

A New Theory for American Poetry: Democracy, the Environment, and the Future of Imagination is a wonderfully nuanced examination of the nature of poetics and the poetics of nature. The discussion gives a prime position to John Ashbery, whose environmental aspect is presented in a wide variety of ways, not least as a poetic of meditation and diagnostic awareness. This critical approach allows, for example, a clear picture of what ?flow? means in a long poem like Flow Chart or what the waves are doing in a poem like A Wave. As usual with his method of analysis, Fletcher presents his argument as if it were a leisurely conversation among an amazingly wide array of critics, artists, and scientists including Hesiod and Aristotle, John Holland and John Hollander, Goethe and Godel, John Burroughs, Roman Jakobson, Charles Darwin, Emerson, and Vico. Exclusions are as significant as inclusions. Fletcher’s theory of poetry, like Whitman’s, “does not mean anything like what scholars have been calling ‘theory’ ever since about 1965,” and many politically correct poets of recent vintage have not been considered here. Skillfully considerate of grammar, syntax, and style, Fletcher provides a much-needed reintroduction of poetics into scholarship. There are few literary theorists with Fletcher’s extensive and exceptional erudition, fewer still who make use of it with such grace. ( )
  tori_alexander | Feb 24, 2010 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0674019881, Paperback)

Amid gloomy forecasts of the decline of the humanities and the death of poetry, Angus Fletcher, a wise and dedicated literary voice, sounds a note of powerful, tempered optimism. He lays out a fresh approach to American poetry at large, the first in several decades, expounding a defense of the art that will resonate well into the new century.

Breaking with the tired habit of treating American poets as the happy or rebellious children of European romanticism, Fletcher uncovers a distinct lineage for American poetry. His point of departure is the fascinating English writer, John Clare; he then centers on the radically American vision expressed by Emerson and Walt Whitman. With Whitman this book insists that "the whole theory and nature of poetry" needs inspiration from science if it is to achieve a truly democratic vista. Drawing variously on Complexity Theory and on fundamentals of art and grammar, Fletcher argues that our finest poetry is nature-based, environmentally shaped, and descriptive in aim, enabling poets like John Ashbery and other contemporaries to discover a mysterious pragmatism.

Intense, resonant, and deeply literary, this account of an American poetics shows how today's consumerist and conformist culture subverts the imagination of a free people. While centering on American vision, the argument extends our horizon, striking a blow against all economically sanctioned attacks upon the finer, stronger human capacities. Poetry, the author maintains, is central to any coherent vision of life.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 14:05:32 -0400)

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