Steinman, Introduction

Romanticism & Contemporary Poetry & Poetics


Lisa M. Steinman, Reed College

  1. When I began soliciting essays for this volume on Romanticism and Contemporary Poetry and Poetics, I had in mind that I would invite those whose interest in poetry stretched from the early nineteenth- to the early twenty-first centuries, while trying to include at least one person best known for their work on Romanticism (like Robert Kaufman, who has already appeared in an earlier volume of Romantic Circles Praxis), one person best known for work on modern and contemporary poetics (like Charles Altieri), and someone whose work on poetry might not usually be characterized in terms of periods (like Ellen Stauder, whose work often concentrates on prosody, rhythm or sound and, as here, on ekphrasis).

  2. I anticipated that I would find a range of contemporary poetics and of romanticisms invoked, and this expectation has been fulfilled. If not as much as I had anticipated, contemporary poetry and poetics turns out to be a mixed bag, from Mark Doty (who might appear more "scenic" or "mainstream") to Barbara Guest ("New York School") and the early poetry of Michael Palmer ("San Francisco Renaissance"), the latter two both also sometimes linked with experimental or LANGUAGE poetry although the work is quite different from that of Lyn Hejinian and Leslie Scalapino. Stauder quotes Doty’s sense of his distance from the other poets: "The aesthetic is not now and never has been autonomous. If it were, no poetry would be possible but language poetry, which denies the validity of representation and questions the very notion of subjectivity." Yet, between them, these essays lay the groundwork for further investigation of the affiliations between Doty’s poetics of description, the ironic in-motion form of one strand of postmodern poetics, and the skepticism about "aboutness" (or perhaps the quarrel over what "aboutness" entails) in Hejinian’s and Scalapino’s version of postmodernism.

  3. True, Doty’s Atlantis opens with the question: "What is description?" (which he aligns with both desire and representation as well as with letting "the world help write the poem") while Sight suggests that "description as what people will like is not the way the thing (the event or writing) is" (Scalapino’s preface), taking instead as its project "elaborating problems in phenomenology but not in description" or placing emphasis "not on the thing seen but on the coming to see" (Hejinian’s preface). Still, both claims are that poetry concerns what is and that 'what is' involves the meeting of a subject with the world, a meeting enacted—or described—in terms of sight. As reading the three essays here together intimates, there are in this apparently heterogeneous group of poets and poetic practices common questions, questions that come to us through Romantic constructions of and practices in the lyric.

  4. Of course Romanticism itself is even more variously—if in each case self-consciously—constructed here, with the variations in part dependent on the contemporary practices each of the three critics explores. Kaufman’s essay looks back to (and forward from) Kantian aesthetics, suggesting that romantic difficulty, even if by default, underwrites—and is continued by—modernist and postmodernist experimentation, while using poetic difficulty to interrogate the concept and uses of other forms of difficulty: social, cultural, and critical. Altieri’s exemplary Romantic poet is Wordsworth (or, rather, several Wordsworths, thus making explicit the different characterizations of Romanticism in play) from whom he traces an historical progression through Arnold and Williams to Hejinian and Scalapino, while Keats—who also loiters if un-named in Altieri’s essay—is featured in Stauder’s essay, which is less interested in genealogy than with taking up Romantic questions in a contemporary vein.

  5. If we have here, then, three divergent analyses of at least five contemporary poets viewed in relationship to several different strains of Romantic practice or theory, nonetheless all three of the essays note and resist, either tacitly or explicitly, the ways in which Romantic poetry has been caricatured: Doty (and Stauder) for instance confront the possibility that the use of Keats will seem "naive"; Kaufman challenges the assumption that the lyric inherited from the Romantics is by now "hopelessly naive, escapist, and self-deluding," distinguishing between romantic lyric and conventional neoromanticism; while Altieri examines in detail how Arnold’s Wordsworth constructed a romantic subject against which modernism rebelled, even as Wordsworth (the other Wordsworth, if you will) might be seen as "the godfather of at least one strand of contemporary radical poetics because of how he enables us to escape the lyric heritage that Victorian poetics imposed upon him." It seems that both Romantic practice and the caricatured ghosts of Romanticism continue to haunt contemporary poetics.

  6. The larger questions raised here then include the question of what Romanticism looks like to actively producing poets right now, as well as the question of what constitutes the most compelling contemporary poetic practices and why they are compelling. This leads to the question Kaufman raises (by way of Cocteau): "Poetry is indispensable—if [we] only knew what for." Ultimately, the uses of poetry are addressed, if in quite different ways, in all three essays here. While Stauder shows us Doty’s poetics defining itself against what he sees as aesthetic autonomy and embracing a "given" that is more material (and bodily) than sociopolitical, Kaufman concentrates on the problem of how the aesthetic and the sociopolitical might be intertwined (by way of the feelings), complementing and giving voice but not rise to one another; Altieri, on the other hand, concentrates on what exactly feeling is and so—focusing on feeling and on transpersonal affective sites—suggests that Wordsworth gives poetry "a powerful social agenda that need not be connected to any specific political one." There are points for further discussion here, but more disagreement about which practices—poetic and critical—exemplify what, than about the centrality and communicability of feeling and of the problematic world (or of the problematic nature of seeing the world feelingly) in poetry.

  7. Indeed, all three critics converge in posing such questions about the uses of poetry, about what poetry does (to or in writers, readers, and cultures)—drawing on different vocabularies but fundamentally re-visiting debates about the lyrical "I" and questions of agency and freedom as well as focusing on the indispensability of affect in poetry. In the process, all three explore the way poetry negotiates (or, to be more precise, blurs) the boundaries between "self" and "world." Of course, the status of the personal and the collective is variously defined, and the "world" is associated, equally variously, with the physical, the social, or the sociopolitical. Still, whatever the self or the world may be, poetry after Romanticism is still seen as expanding or recasting the borders between what Stauder images as material presence or absence and a language of ideas (or "the given and the made") and what Kaufman calls "objective-conceptual knowledge (or the objective world to which conceptual knowledge is meant to correspond) and the subjective human capacity for a critical agency that would be more than arbitrary in relation to objective knowledge of existing reality" or, locating the problem in a slightly different way, between intellection and sense-experience. Altieri explores not simply the relationship between fact and imagination or sensation and imagination (along with self and language) but the difference between what poets thought and what their thinking made possible.

  8. Obviously there are here different answers to the questions raised, even different assumptions about how (or under what aspect) fact, thought (or thinking), sensation (or feeling), and imagination come together in poets, readers, or the formal arrangements of language in poems. Moreover, the range of contemporary poets and poetics shown to inherit or reinvigorate the most challenging aspects of "a" Romantic legacy suggests that Romantic poetry—while still one way or another setting the agenda for contemporary poetics—has bequeathed more than one legacy. At the same time, these essays forge a sense that the very nature and fact of the not always harmonious conversation in which they are engaged are Romanticism’s legacies to contemporary poetics; the essays uncover too a shared sense that speaking of affect is neither naive nor easy (and remains central to any discussion of why poetry is indispensable). Finally, to drag Yeats into the conversation somewhat unfairly: there seems to be some common ground, some agreement that the fascination with what’s difficult not only does not dry up but may compose the soul.

Works Cited

Doty, Mark. Atlantis. New York: Harper, 1995.

Hejinian, Lyn and Leslie Scalapino. Sight. Washington, DC: Edge Books, 1999.