From CHAPTER ONE, THE ACADEMIC POETS in
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.
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" ... 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).