The Didactic Muse

The Didactic Muse: Scenes of Instruction in Contemporary American Poetry

Copyright Date: 1989
Pages: 290
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  • Book Info
    The Didactic Muse
    Book Description:

    Writing with the vigor and elan that readers have come to expect from his many astute reviews and essays, Willard Spiegelman maintains that contemporary American poets have returned to the poetic aims of an earlier era: to edify, as well as to delight, and thus to serve the "didactic muse." What Spiegelman says about individual poets--such as Nemerov, Hecht, Ginsberg, Pinsky, Ammons, Rich, and Merrill, among others--is wonderfully insightful. Furthermore, his outlook on their work--the way he takes quite literally the teacherly elements of their poems--challenges long-standing conceptions both about contemporary writing and about the poetry of the Eliot-Pound-Stevens-Williams generation. Beginning the book with a meditation on W. H. Auden's legacy to American poets, Spiegelman ends with a discussion of the multiple scenes of learning in Merrill's The Changing Light at Sandover, which he identifies as not only the major epic poem of the second half of the twentieth century but also as the period's most important georgic: a textbook full of scientific, mythic, artistic, and human instruction. The Didactic Muse reminds us that poets have traditionally acknowledged their function as teachers, from Horace's advice that poetry should please and instruct to Robert Frost's aphorism that a poem "begins in delight and ends in wisdom." Whereas many of the critical remarks of the most important Romantic and modern poets suggest their desperate attempts to separate poetry from instruction, Spiegelman demonstrates that their practices often contradicted their theories. And he shows that our best contemporary poets are now embracing the older, classical paradigms.

    Originally published in 1989.

    ThePrinceton Legacy Libraryuses the latest print-on-demand technology to again make available previously out-of-print books from the distinguished backlist of Princeton University Press. These paperback editions preserve the original texts of these important books while presenting them in durable paperback editions. The goal of the Princeton Legacy Library is to vastly increase access to the rich scholarly heritage found in the thousands of books published by Princeton University Press since its founding in 1905.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-6026-5
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-2)
  4. ONE Introduction: W. H. Auden’s “New Year Letter”
    (pp. 3-24)

    From Horace to Robert Frost (“a poem begins in delight and ends in wisdom”) the major current of Western poetics has flowed from the wells of pleasure to the depths of instruction. That poetry serves pedagogy seemed as unarguable in the classical and early modern worlds as it may appear untenable in the contemporary one. Poets traditionally held their mirrors up to nature not simply to reflect it but to occasion reflection and right action in their readers. Poet as teacher, reader as student: the roles are clear from Horace’s obiter dicta, maxims, and specifically literary advice (e.g., inEpistles...

  5. TWO The Tempered Tone of Howard Nemerov
    (pp. 25-55)

    Howard Nemerov, by his own self-description a “teacherly” poet, has devoted a lifetime to three complementary activities: poetry, criticism, and pedagogy.¹ (Like John Berryman, and like most of the other poets whom I describe as “didactic,” Nemerov has eschewed the teaching of “creative” writing in favor of more academic subjects. In his case these usually take the form of what he has been currently reading.) To these three interwoven strands his friend and teacher Kenneth Burke has suggested the analogies of power (poetizing), wisdom (theorizing), and spirit (the bond between the two as practiced in teaching),² and Nemerov himself, adopting...

  6. THREE The Moral Imperative in Anthony Hecht, Allen Ginsberg, and Robert Pinsky
    (pp. 56-109)

    Twenty years ago, Susan Sontag suggested “Jewish moral seriousness and homosexual aestheticism and irony” as the primary forces in the modern sensibility.¹ Gay poets have no monopoly on irony, as the cases of Howard Nemerov, Richard Wilbur, Anthony Hecht and John Hollander, to cite a few, prove. Nemerov and James Merrill both inherited the mantle of W. H. Auden, although only Merrill shares Auden’s sexual preference. Nor do American Jews have, ipso facto, a greater share of moral seriousness (consider Robert Bly, Amy Clampitt, Robert Hass, and Robert Lowell). And yet Sontag’s theory has a curious validity for contemporary poetry....

  7. FOUR Myths of Concretion, Myths of Abstraction: The Case of A. R. Ammons
    (pp. 110-146)

    After the publication ofThe Excursion, Coleridge wrote a letter to Wordsworth laying out his hopes and fears about the relationship between poetry and philosophy, and, more important, about Wordsworth’s presumed capacity to write the first genuinely philosophical poem. Sensing the affinities between his friend and collaborator and a distant Roman who is our first major didactic poet, Coleridge makes a rigid distinction that he then proceeds to dismember:

    whatever in Lucretius is Poetry is not philosophical, whatever is philosophical is not Poetry: and in the very Pride of confident Hope I looked forward to the Recluse, as thefirst...

  8. FIVE “Driving to the Limits of the City of Words”: The Poetry of Adrienne Rich
    (pp. 147-191)

    Polemic has its own natural claims to recognition in any discussion of didacticism, but it is neither for her political programs nor for her visionary anger that Adrienne Rich most warrants attention. Rather, it is her intelligent, insistent exploration of the grounds and possibilities of language itself that earns her a place in this book. She has seldom received theliterarycriticism she most deserves; understandably, her defenders usually take a feminist line, discussing and approving her poetry mostly in terms of its political content or in relation to her prose explorations, and her hostile critics simply adjust their sights...

  9. SIX The Sacred Books of James Merrill
    (pp. 192-246)

    As recently as fifteen years ago no one would have thought to make James Merrill the central figure in a book about discursive poetry. Perhaps at that time such a book itself would have been inconceivable. But it now seems incontrovertible to many readers that Merrill’s achievement inThe Changing Light at Sandoverhas permanently altered the course of American poetry for the rest of our century. This encyclopedic work—whose Ouija board mechanics are familiar to most readers of poetry—has subsumed and redefined all the standard genres of poetry and the techniques of versification that Merrill inherited from...

  10. SEVEN Some Speculations in Place of a Conclusion
    (pp. 247-258)

    Even those who try to evade the didactic impulse embrace it: perhaps, one might say,especiallythose who try to evade it. In his introduction to theOxford Book of Modern Verse, looking back on the battles of modernism, Yeats described the revolt against his Victorian precursors as one “against irrelevant descriptions of nature, the scientific and moral discursiveness ofIn Memoriam, ... the political eloquence of Swinburne, the psychological curiosity of Browning, and the poetical diction of everybody.” Yeats, at least, managed to invent a symbolic system that would substitute for direct instruction, and to write poems that, however...

  11. NOTES
    (pp. 259-266)
  12. INDEX
    (pp. 267-278)