This is the opening of the first chapter in Dialects of the Tribe: Postmodern American Poets and Poetry:
CHAPTER ONE, THE ACADEMIC POETS
Syntax — word order in a sentence — and diction are related, they depend upon one another, but they are not the same thing. Syntax is concerned with the form of the sentence; diction has to do with its tone and style — a "manner of speaking." "Poetic" diction is a manner of speaking designed specifically for writing in the genre of poetry. For instance, in ordinary middle-class speech one might say, "A thought of grief came to me alone." In this sentence the syntax is "normal": the subject comes first, then the predicate. But in Wordsworth's "Ode: Intimations of Immortality..." the syntax is reversed: "To me alone there came a thought of grief." The two sentences say exactly the same thing, but its tone has been "elevated" through syntactical inversion.
Poetic diction has nothing to do with mode — prose or verse. Walt Whitman wrote in prose mode, but his diction was the same elevated poetic diction that William Wordsworth used in verse mode. Opening Whitman's poems at random, one may find examples everywhere: Section 4 of "The Return of the Heroes," for instance, opens with this line: "When late I sang sad was my voice." This passage in normal syntax would be written, "My voice was sad when I sang late[ly]"; or, in middle-class diction, "My voice was sad when I sang recently," or even, "When I recently sang my voice was sad." Much more interesting was the idiosyncratic poetic diction of Emily Dickinson, as in the poem that begins, "Of Course — I prayed — / And did God Care? / He cared as much as on the Air / A Bird had stamped her foot —".
In every era there are always two sorts of poetic diction: that to be found in what David Perkins in the second volume of his A History of Modern Poetry called a "period style," as we have here been discussing in terms of the nineteenth century Romantic style, and any number of "idiosyncratic styles" invented by individual poets. Such writers we call "stylists." The 19th-century poet Gerard Manley Hopkins sounded little like his contemporaries; here is the opening of "Hurrahing in Harvest": "Summer ends now; now, barbarous in beauty, the stooks arise / Around; up above, what wind-walks! what lovely behaviours / Of silk-sack clouds! has wilder, wilful-wavier / Meal-drift moulded ever and melted across skies?" Clearly, this is "poetic diction," but in Hopkins' case it has less to do with rearrangements of syntax than with effects on the sonic level of language and with vocabulary.
The English-language Neoclassical period of the eighteenth century also had both its period style and its idiosyncratic styles. Alexander Pope exemplifies (we are told) the best of the period style, as in lines 259-60 of the "Essay on Man": "What if the foot, ordain'd the dust to tread, / Or hand, to toil, aspir'd to be the head?" To flesh this passage out in ordinary prose is to illustrate the difference between ordinary and elevated language: "What if the foot, ordained to tread the dust; or the hand, ordained to toil, aspired to be the head?" Poetic diction is generally intended to intensify the aural experience; perhaps, however, in the hands of most poets what poetic diction actually does is to mask inanity.
Samuel Johnson's contemporary Christopher Smart sometimes wrote in the poetic diction of the Neoclassical period style, as in Section VII of "Hymn to the Supreme Being": "Yet hold, presumption, nor too fondly climb, / And thou too hold, O horrible despair!" Considerably before Whitman he also wrote poems in the prose mode; however, in those poems Smart's poetic diction turned away from the period style and became idiosyncratic, as in "Of the Sun and the Moon": "For the Sun's at work to make me a garment & the Moon is at work for my wife. / For the Wedding Garments of all men are prepared in the Sun against the day of acceptation. / For the Wedding Garments of all women are prepared in the Moon against the day of their purification." Here, the syntax is normal, but the form of his sentences is based upon the schema anaphora (the repetition of an initial word or phrase), and the sensory level of the passage is unusual and arresting.
Another poet of that period who wrote in both prose and verse mode, William Blake, had his own poetic diction, but it was the same or quite similar in both modes. The syntax of this so-called "pre-Romantic" style was more ordinary than that of the succeeding Romantics, as in the beginning of "A Little Girl Lost" from Songs of Experience: "Children of the future age, / Reading this indignant page, / Know that in a former time / Love, sweet love, was thought a crime." This was a verse poem, of course, but "Creation" is prose: "I must create a system, or be enslaved by another man's. / I will not reason compare [an inversion: 'compare reason']. My business is to create."
"In the ten years following the Second World War," James E. B. Breslin wrote, "literary modernism, like an aging evangelical religion, had rigidified into orthodoxy. In fact, with the publication of the widely used second edition of Understanding Poetry (1950), modernism had been codified into a textbook. The most conspicuous feature of the writing produced by younger poets Robert Lowell, James Merrill, W. S. Merwin, Richard Wilbur, for instance — was their revival of the very traditional forms that modernist poets had sought to dismantle; the predominant mode became the well-made symbolist poem. Yet in the modern era, the very existence of an identifiable mode, much less its perfection, is self-discrediting, so that during the fifties the predominant mode came increasingly to feel limited, excluding, impoverished" (xiv). By the end of the decade it seemed to many readers of contemporary poetry almost as though Modernism had never happened.
The reaction against Modernism had begun as early as the 1930s in the work of the British poet W.H. Auden and his Oxford University contemporaries including Stephen Spender and C. Day Lewis, but the reaction was not a revulsion against the poetry of Eliot, Pound, Yeats, and the other high Modernists so much as it was a feeling of frustration with the apparent impossibility of continuing to explore the outer edges of twentieth-century expression. Auden's first collection Poems appeared in 1930, and in it can be perceived the beginnings of the post-Modernist period style.
Auden and his group in the pre-World War II period blended traditionally formal verse structures with an urbane conversational style, as in Auden's "What's the Matter?" — "To lie flat on the back with the knees flexed / And sunshine on the soft receptive belly / Or face-down, the insolent spine relaxed, / No more compelled to cower or to bully, is good; and good to see them passing by / Below on the white side-walk in the heat, / The dog, the lady with parcels, and the boy: / There is the casual life outside the heart." Perkins wrote, "to understand why the poetry of the thirties took the direction it did, we must keep in mind the situation in literary history of these poets born between 1907 and 1917. They were the first generation for whom the development of modern poetry from the 1890s was what it is for us — history, tales of the tribal elders" (v. II, 120).
The "Fugitive" poet and New Critic Allen Tate's complaints about Auden's style in a review of his 1941 book The Double Man put it clearly. Tate's assessment is that he "can see in it a great deal that is brilliant and entertaining, and in the sonnets much that is brilliant and moving; but in passage after passage the main poem, 'New Year Letter,' slides off into...parlor magic — or in places it dissolves into the annotations, of which there are 87 pages to 55 of poetic text" (202). Tate ended his review by noting that "Auden has a complex, even a very rich mind; yet his passion for autobiography brings him back always to the question: What does it mean to me? Perhaps he will not be able to tell us fully what it means to him until he no longer asks the question. Or maybe until he asks the question: 'What does it mean?'" (204). That is to say, what does it mean to the human race, not merely to Auden.
Louise Bogan was kind in her description of the prevalent style: "By the middle forties a modern poetic style in English had come into being, broadly workable and capable of a variety of applications. This style was a composite one, derived from many sources. But, since very nearly all of the sources were genuine, the end product was itself authentic. It was a style which tended to veer, it is true, toward verbalism on the one hand, and extreme condensation of meaning and idea, on the other. At its worst, a core of over-compressed thought was surrounded by an envelope of over-inflated words. It was a style rich in allusion, and its tone could vary from conversational flatness to high incantation. Its best practitioners, old and young, had insight into the nature and possibilities of the poetic means, and kept these flexible, according to the nature of the poetic end in view" (98).
This became what was known as "academic poetry" in the United States, and it persisted even into the so-called "free verse" (prose) poems of the post-war generations: here is the contemporary poet William Stafford in "Adults Only": "Animals own a fur world; / people own worlds that are variously, pleasingly, bare."
None of this sounds at all like the poetic diction of Auden's contemporary, the idiosyncratic Dylan Thomas who owed more, perhaps, to Gerard Manley Hopkins than to anyone else, as in "Hold Hard, These Ancient Minutes in the Cuckoo's Month," which is also the first line. The poem continues, "Under the lank, fourth folly on Glamorgan's hill, / As the green blooms ride upward, to the drive of time;.." nor does it sound like Theodore Roethke in Part 2 of "The Visitant": "Slow, slow as a fish she came, / Slow as a fish coming forward, / Swaying in a long wave;.." or John Berryman in "Old Man Goes South Again Alone": "O parakeets & avocets, O immortelles / & ibis, scarlet under that stunning sun / deliciously & tired I come / toward you in orbit, Trinidad!..."
In the latter days of the Modernist Movement preceding World War II, the formal study of poetry written in traditional verse mode, as distinguished from the innovative Modernist "free verse" prose mode, was commonplace in the high schools of the United States. Poetry is a genre or “kind” of writing, like fiction or drama; it is not a "mode," for any of the genres may be written in either of the modes, prose or verse — The Oxford English Dictionary defines verse as "metered" or measured language," and prose as "unmetered" or unmeasured language. What is measured in language is in most instances syllables, whether stressed or unstressed or both. Poetry written in verse utilizes metrics, but poetry written in both verse and prose use rhyme, figures of speech, and the other techniques and elements of writing to be found on its four levels: the typographical (page layout), the sonic (besides meter and rhyme such techniques as assonance, consonance, alliteration), the sensory (figurative language), and the ideational levels (subject, theme, treatment).
The rest of the first chapter, “Academic Poets,” in Dialects of the Tribe: Postmodern American Poets and Poetry is devoted to these poets:
*1. Delmore Schwartz
*2. Richard Eberhart
*3. Richard Wilbur
*4. Elizabeth Bishop
*5. Howard Nemerov
*6. Randall Jarrell
*7. Theodore Roethke
*8. Karl Shapiro
*9. Louis O. Coxe
Essays on these and on many other 20th century poets, may be found here:
Dialects of the Tribe: Postmodern American Poets and Poetry, by Lewis Putnam Turco, Nacogdoches, TX: Stephen F. Austin State University Press, www.SFASU.edu/sfapress/, 2012, 336 pp., paperback.