Disappearing WYSIWYG Poetics

Ron Silliman


This note is an attempt to connect two very different phenomena that exist on very different scales of human activity. One was relatively simple and small — a transformation in US poetry that occurred almost without being noticed. The other, a world war, was neither.

Disasters smaller than a world war appear to have little lasting impact on poetry as a form within a given society. Terrible events — September 11, the assassination of JFK, the shootings at Sandy Hook, Union Carbide's industrial accident at Bhopal that left thousands dead & over one half million injured, hurricanes Katrina and Sandy, the Loma Prieta earthquake — are for the most part just so many blips across the literary screen. Regardless of the number of commemorative anthologies or personal retellings, the work they generate after such an occasion is not very different in its formal presumptions than the verse written before.

Even longer term conflicts, such as Vietnam, impact the future of poetry within a nation like the US only insofar as the refugees generated as a consequence enrich the diversity of the literatures in the nations that receive them. That is not an insignificant result, but it does not transform the writing of the recipient nation unless it should prove to be the tipping point in some other dynamic already taking place.

But total war — as a world war invariably must be — penetrates into a nation to a degree that it reorganizes aspects of society that seemingly having nothing to do with the fighting.

The one million soldiers — not including navy, air force or marines — currently serving in 150 countries may represent a baseline for the permanent state of low-level conflict that Bush’s muddled, duplicitous response to the attack on New York ensured. But during World War II, with the US population less than half of its current 300 million, 10,110,104 American males — roughly one-fifth of the draft eligible population — found themselves conscripted into military service for the duration. A similar number took jobs in war-related support industries ranging from Rosie the Riveters double-bottoming boats in Richmond, California, to a visually impaired Robert Creeley steering an ambulance around Burma. Not only was the nation distracted and otherwise engaged, wartime material requirements constrained the ability of publishers to obtain the paper and ink needed to produce books — the number of poetry volumes per year, not much over 100 to begin with, dropped roughly in half by 1943 and did not start to recover until 1947.

The length of the war itself meant that a generation of young men (and a number of the women as well) postponed higher education. Many colleges saw enrollments drop by half. Others, such as Dartmouth, got through by shifting to a trimester system to speed students to graduation and collaborating with the US Navy to the degree that civilian students were outnumbered three-to-one by naval personnel. And by the time many returning veterans were ready to take advantage of the GI Bill — the most democratizing educational support program in US history — the first group of returnees were more interested in college as a quick path to a career than as the leisurely exploration of intellectual disciplines that it had been for so many before the conflict.

Against that backdrop, the start of contemporary American poetry i has always been a postwar poetics, dated as beginning with either the publication of Donald M Allen’s The New American Poetry in 1960, or by one of two alternate, but essentially complementary birth dates — the Six Gallery Reading in San Francisco of October 7, 1955, in which Allen Ginsberg introduced his poem Howl, or the publication of Charles Olson’s “Projective Verse,” in Poetry New York in 1950. Each was the announcement of a rebellion against the received habits of establishment verse.

Which received habits, and just whose, is the interesting question here. The typical response has been to point to a pair of counter-anthologies, both entitled New Poets of England and America, the first published in 1957 and edited by Donald Hall, Robert Pack and Louis Simpson that has its contributors presented in alphabetical order without regard to national origin, and introduced by Robert Frost, the second issued just five years later with English poets selected by Hall, US poets chosen by Pack, the writers now grouped by country, Britain first, this version containing no third-party introduction ii. In spite of the identical title and broad overlap, Meridian, the paperback imprint of World Publishing, kept both editions in print throughout the sixties, but not beyond. In contrast, The New American Poetry became a best-seller, has rarely been out of print, and is published today by the University of California. iii

I and others have noted the impact of the war and its constraints on publishing on the modernist lineage of American verse, which in the 1950s was most often called the Pound-Williams tradition as though Objectivism and the poetics of the 1930s and ‘40s had never happened. But what has not been acknowledged is the degree to which the traditional poetries of the post-war years also reflected a similar transformation and effacement. The establishment verse of 1957 was a far cry from that 1940, not just because it had evolved, but rather because key figures from the earlier period had been airbrushed from history like so many banished Soviet generals.

Assessing what constitutes establishment verse in a period when most poets did not hold teaching positions is of course problematic. The classic account of the transformation I am about to discuss is Alan Golding’s excellent “The New Criticism and American Poetry in the Academy,” the longest chapter in From Outlaw to Classic: Canons in American Poetry (1995). Interestingly, Golding mentions the writer and academic who I am about to argue was the most institutionally powerful poet in the early years of the war in just one paragraph, focusing on Walt Whitman’s reputation as a test of poetic politics during the pre-War period. Golding’s account of how New Critics made inroads into the academy is fascinating, but poetry as a social field is not the university, and especially was not during a period in which so many of the major US poets, from Pound and Williams to Frost, Stevens, Moore, Crane, Hughes, or Jeffers did not teach. The period between New Criticism’s origins circa 1930 and its hegemony in the late 1940s represented not just a coup within the academy, but within the nation’s understanding of the role of the poet.

The best index I can come up with for power in poetry itself is the awarding of prizes, especially as prizes were relatively rare in the first half of the twentieth century. The oldest award for poetry in the US is Poetry Magazine’s Levinson Prize, begun in 1914. Four years later, the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry got off to a tentative start as a special citation, and then from 1922 onward it proceeded, failing to present an award only once, in 1946. The Pulitzer’s unique recognition and prestige is a consequence not of the quality of works chosen, although many have been (and continue to be) justifiable selections, but rather that, as the one prize series that focuses its greatest attention neither on poetry or fiction, but on journalism, the Pulitzer is the lone US award that has been routinely reported by the nation’s press as though it were a big deal. The National Book Award can trace its history back into the 1930s, but was discontinued altogether during the war years, starting back up in 1950 and not including poetry as a matter of course until 1983. The one other award that pre-dates the Second World War was not a “best of” affair, but a first book prize, the Yale Younger Poets Award, which like the Pulitzer started in 1918.

Of the three prizes that were being given in the 1940s, it is worth noting that Steven Vincent Benét won one Pulitzer, while his brother William Rose Benét won another and yet another, earlier graduate of Yale, Leonard Bacon, took a third, all in a span of four years interrupted only by one given to Robert Frost, his fourth, which is still the record. Plus, up until his premature death at 44, Stephen Vincent Benét was also the sole judge of the Yale Younger Poets award.

The nephew of another Yale alum who made a fortune manufacturing machine guns, Stephen Benét published his first book at 17, received his MA from the New Haven institution for his third book, and was made a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Letters before he was 34. The early prestige of the Yale Younger Poets series was at least partly a consequence of Benét’s selections: James Agee, Muriel Rukeyser, Margaret Walker, Reuel Denny, Norman Rosten. When Benét died, the award shut down for a year, before being restarted with Archibald Macleish, the outgoing Librarian of Congress, as the interim judge.

Yet by 1957, just 13 years after Stephen’s death, the influence of the Benét brothers has been erased completely. Consider today the presence and impact of the work of Sylvia Plath, dead 51 years, Frank O’Hara, 50 years, Charles Olson, 46, Allen Ginsberg, 19. What befell the Benéts was both other and more, much more than the passage of time. Benét, whose best known poem is the epic John Brown’s Body, first published in book form in 1928 with an introduction by — surprise! — Leonard Bacon, was a poet of traditional form and straightforward content. The ambiguity that William Empson would begin to champion just two years later was almost nowhere a value of traditional or establishment poetry in the 1920s. These poets practiced a verse that the tech industry would come to call WYSIWYG v , an acronym for What You See is What You Get. vi

This is not to suggest that there were no conservative poets in the 1920s who wrote such poetry: TS Eliot, Hart Crane, Wallace Stevens, even Frost vii . But Empson and his early American converts all had something in common that these writers did not: a vested interest in pursuing a career within the academy. In essence, the argument of New Criticism was that English departments should become the domain of specialized readers who got more out of texts than other, more vulgar readers and passed this professional skill along to their students. While their tools were simple enough — the notion of close reading as a process is little more than the codification of common sense — and the focus on the text itself flushed much sloppiness out of earlier exegetical practice, the New Critics were never the objective pseudo-scientists of the text they portrayed themselves as. Initially a cabal of Southern “gentlemen” and Anglophiles, their attempt to spread Kudzu-like through all English literature programs culminated after World War 2 in a poetry surrounding their brilliant but bipolar protégé, Robert Lowell.

While Lowell himself had aged out past the 40-year cutoff point by the second edition of New Poets, more than a few of his friends and students were added to the mix — Sexton, Plath, Starbuck, Kinnell, Kennedy, Hughes and Rich — while Robert Bly, an earlier acolyte who had already become an apostate to the “cooked” program, was dropped. WD Snodgrass, on the other hand, participated both under his own name and his pseudonym SS Gardons. Pack’s introduction to the American section invokes Lowell by name and attempts to defend Lowell’s division of poetry into “cooked” and “uncooked” tendencies by suggesting in so many words that there are reasons to avoid E coli in your boiled beef. But neither editor (nor Frost, five years before) make note of the fact that the New Poets were not your father’s traditionalists. While the second edition may well have been aimed explicitly at the challenge of the New American poetries, these two volumes were hardly alone in their erasure of WYSIWIG poetics. Louis Untermeyer’s Modern American & Modern British Poetry of 1955 (edited “in consultation with Karl Shapiro and Richard Wilbur”) includes Tate, Ransom, Bishop, Delmore Schwartz and Jarrell in addition to Lowell, but neither Benét. Similarly, the 1965 American Poetry edited by Gay Wilson Allen, Walter Rideout and James Robinson is eclectic enough to incorporate HD and Robert Creeley, but neither Benét.

There are, of course, perfectly good reasons why the poetry of the Benéts, as institutionally prominent as it may have been in the early 1940s, disappeared so quickly. Stephen died in 1943, William (twelve years older) in 1950. Not only were they urban liberals in contrast to the politics of the rising Southern Agrarians viii , their verse was the literary expression of the very same kitsch that Clement Greenberg had been arguing against precisely at the moment the New Critics chose to join forces with modernist art criticism. They were an embarrassment. Even an omnibus attempt at 20th American poetries, Hayden Carruth’s 1970 The Voice That is Great Within US, which includes everyone from Elinor Wylie to Lou Lipsitz, finds no room for Bacon or the Benéts.

Plus the directness that was always the argument for WYSIWYG poetics did not itself disappear — if anything it made more sense when attached to a program of free verse, whether in the work of William Carlos Williams and some of the New Americans, or in the soft lyricism of a William Stafford or Ted Kooser. It is, more than half a century later, what Garrison Keillor means by “good” poetry. The problem with the Benéts was that the conjunction of directness and the patterning of rhyme and meter exposed the functional limits of formalism, as such. Not so much a well-wrought urn as an overwrought one.

The twenty-year disappearance of the Objectivists has some parallels to this, but with the significant difference that, even in exile, the Objectivists had champions such as Robert Duncan and later Robert Creeley and Denise Levertov. They shared their enthusiasm and prepared the grounds for the Objectivists’ return, Levertov including works of Louis Zukofsky among the volumes she selected for Norton, George Oppen picked up by New Directions even before it began publishing Duncan and Creeley. This never happened for Bacon and the Benéts and, to my knowledge, there was never a debate or serious commentary over their sudden absence from literary history. While there have been many other instances of literary movements that have disappeared without a trace, from the Young Americans of the 1840s to the Actualists of the 1970s, none ever held the institutional power of the WYSIWYG poets.

Neither the shift from WYSIWYGism to the Boston Brahmins nor the airbrushing of the first group would have happened in the same way (or maybe at all) without the impact of the Second World War. Like the disappearance of the Objectivists, this was a situation partly predicated on the physical constraints on publishing, deepened by the sudden reduction in college attendance and shift in what was being studied, the consequence of a nation otherwise occupied for an extended period of time. And it was never in the interest of the establishment poets like Hall or Pack to point out just how new or fragile their “established” actually was. ix In some respects, their “cooked” was more of a nouveau cuisine than, say, Olson’s riffs off the Poundian paradigm.

This suggests a scale for change in poetry. If we trace the increased diversity to who gets to write and publish poetry to the population shifts that accelerated with World War 2, the democratization of the university with the GI Bill, and the increased participation in the economy by women that started with that war, we can begin to see how profound, and long lasting its consequences have been, plus how long they can take to occur. And if we date the so-called American Century back to the end of the First World War, we might also get some sense that our hour is about up. Global warming, world migration and the destabilization of national boundaries from Eastern Europe through the Middle East suggest just how much change is in the air. With predictions of warming that, at one end, reach the level of extinction events for the human race to more modest projections of 300 million refugees on the move within the next two decades — particularly after noting just how much international fascism has been brought forward in response the migration of one million people in the past year, the potential for disaster, for catastrophe that makes the Second World War look like walking the dog, is a serious option.

The future of poetry, should any of this occur, will be — as it was during the Second World War — the least of anyone’s concerns. But the notion that poetry after such a singularity will be anything like what came before is just nonsense. Depending upon the circumstances, the level and length of disruption, the changes could be far more dramatic and lasting than anything we have heretofore experienced. Then, whether these changes are noticed, as was the case with Objectivism, or not, as was the case for the Benét group, may not matter at all.

i Literally post-modern: the new poets of the 1950s and '60s were born in the 20th century, some in the Allen anthology as late as 1937, whereas the high modernists were without exception born before 1900.

ii It does, however, contain small introductions to each section by the responsible editor. Pack's is noteworthy for its focus on Lowell's division of US poetry into "cooked" and "uncooked" factions, and an attempt to argue that cooked need not mean boiled beef and "uncooked" might mean more E coli than the direct excitement of Raw.

iii For advocates of the New American tradition, this publication history has been read as a narrative of triumph. I would caution against such a reading, noting that the rise of the program era of MFA creative writing degrees, itself intimately tied to the crisis in English Department enrollments that greeted the end of the draft, needs to be factored in. I would argue that the rise of identarian poetic practices beginning in the 1980s not only is a legitimate poetics that needs to be understood as such, but one that largely has filled a vacuum left by the collapse of a New Critical poetic formalism, building on the anti-New Critical but still traditionalist "Open Poetry" aesthetic that rose up out of Iowa City, post-Paul Engle, colored by some influences from the New American and post-New American progressive traditions. When Evie Shockey calls to "retheorize the lyric genre," she is very carefully positioning a theoretical grenade at the heart of a convoluted mix of tendencies, some of them anti-theoretical, others focused around theories of identity as much as of writing.

iv By contrast, the Levinson Prize went only once to Frost, in 1922, with none ever awarded to Bacon or the Benéts. Clearly there was a difference of opinion between the East Coast and Chicago.

v Pronounced wizzy-wig.

vi I would argue that one reason there is not a ready name for this poetics — the Benét group, the Yale poets, whatever — is that, as the Establishment Verse of their period, they were (as post-Lowell group writers are even to this day) the unmarked case. They were not so much anti-modern (although they were) as that which against modernism defined itself in the first place. WYSIWYG is not a term they would have recognized or cherished.

vii It would be interesting to investigate the binary of directness / ambiguity in each of these poets, as well as in, say, Pound, Williams, Zukofsky, Oppen and others. The Frost beloved of politicians is the WYSIWYG poet — the Frost celebrated by Helen Vendler et al is a writer of layered meanings. Often it is the very same poems that are invoked, as when middle school choirs sing a setting of "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening," a contemplation of suicide, as a celebration of the Christmas season.

viii A problem the Objectivists had as well.

ix It would become visible in less direct, sometimes comic ways. ML Rosenthal's concoction of "Confessional Poetry" was an attempt to lend the Lowell group a patina of currency appropriated from the Beats, but hardly anyone was buying that. And, after many of the poets around Lowell responded both to the rise of the New Americans and to the social upheaval of the 1960s by abandoning rhyme & meter, the ground was prepared for traditional patterning to be "rescued" again roughly 20 years later by the New Formalists. Thus in Robert Richman's The Direction of Poetry: An Anthology of Rhymed and Metered Verse Written in the English Language Since 1975 (1988), not one US poet in the book was born during the 1930s.