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The Place of Poetry

The Place of Poetry: Two Centuries of an Art in Crisis

Copyright Date: 1981
Pages: 160
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  • Book Info
    The Place of Poetry
    Book Description:

    Since the end of the eighteenth century, Christopher Clausen asserts, poetry has steadily declined in cultural status in the English-speaking world, yielding its former place as a bearer of truth to the advancing sciences. As the position of poetry was more and more threatened, its defenders made ever higher claims for its importance, even maintaining for a time that it would take the place of religion. But, though the Romantics brought about a sustained revival of serious poetry for a broad audience, the audience began to dwindle toward the end of the nineteenth century, and the decline accelerated as the twentieth century advanced.

    Though some of the cultural changes responsible for this retreat were beyond the control of poets -- "a society in which many people find their chief security and sense of meaning through the possession of certain objects will produce great advertising, not great poetry" -- Clausen finds in this situation evidence of an abdication among artists. Because modernist poets and their successors abandoned some indispensable principles, he believes, serious contemporary poetry now has virtually no audience outside of English departments. Yet the need for poetry "is not less in an era like ours," and "the opportunities that the end of the twentieth century offers to poetry will not become fully apparent unless and until poets take advantage of them."

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-6244-7
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. ONE Rhyme or Reason
    (pp. 1-27)

    Since the end of the eighteenth century, poetry in England (and subsequently in America) has been an art in continual crisis. As its cultural status declined, as its place as a bearer of truth was more and more taken by the sciences, its practitioners made an endless series of revolutions in poetic doctrine while seeking unsuccessfully to make society once again listen to them. This crisis has faced every poet since Wordsworth, and it has never been resolved. The place of poetry in English and American civilization has become more and more peripheral, despite the fact that every major poetic...

  5. TWO Poetry as Revelation
    (pp. 28-47)

    One important episode in the long decline of religion as a major force in Anglo-American civilization was the attempt, by writers and critics of the nineteenth century, to make art itself the source of religion. The art that lent itself most handily to the purpose was poetry. It had the necessary merit of being articulate, and there was a long tradition stretching back to the Greeks of regarding the poet as, in various senses of the word, a prophet. The view of poetry as original revelation, a more efficacious revelation than Christianity could provide in the modern epoch, seemed to...

  6. THREE The Land of Lost Content
    (pp. 48-64)

    In the middle of the eighteenth century, Thomas Gray, wistfully surveying the unreflective happiness of childhood, had concluded that “Where ignorance is bliss, ’tis folly to be wise.” His successors, flying from an adult world that seemed increasingly confused and without meaning, would soon see—and lavishly celebrate—a higher wisdom where Gray had seen only blissful ignorance. Indeed, for many the uncorrupted child would come to seem (in Wordsworth’s phrase) the “best philosopher.” Like the hunger for prophecy, the glorification of the child sprang from a sense of deprivation—not just the loss of childhood itself, which became a...

  7. FOUR The Palgrave Version
    (pp. 65-82)

    The period from about 1870—that date which marks a break in so many strands of cultural and intellectual history—until a few years after the death of Yeats in 1939 was a time of brilliance in the English short poem, or lyric,¹ unmatched by any except perhaps the Renaissance. Hopkins, Housman, Hardy, Yeats himself, the early Dylan Thomas, and a host of distinguished lesser names-in America, Emily Dickinson and Robert Frost: the achievement is especially striking when one considers that it came to fruition in a series of decades (1880 to 1910) often regarded as a mere hiatus between...

  8. FIVE New Bottles
    (pp. 83-96)

    “It appears likely that poets in our civilization, as it exists at present, must bedifficult,”T.S. Eliot wrote in 1921. The poet’s task, he went on, is to render that civilization in all its “variety and complexity”; the results will inevitably be as various and complex as the civilization. “The poet must become more and more comprehensive, more allusive, more indirect.”¹(The Waste Landwould be published a year later.) It has often been suggested that at the moment when the majority of serious poets began (not entirely through Eliot’s influence) to write according to this dictum, serious poetry...

  9. SIX Grecian Thoughts in the Home Fields
    (pp. 97-117)

    Poetic modernism was largely the creation of expatriates living in cosmopolitan cities, a fact that has had much to do with the character and concerns of twentieth-century verse. Among other things, modernism was a reaction to directions poetry had taken in the recent past and an attempt to reassert its authority (however defined) in an age the leading modernists saw as rootless, cut off from both the past and any sense of significant place. The resurrection of forgotten myths was a way of dealing with this rootlessness. Had the modernist poets shared with their public a common devotion to more...

  10. SEVEN The Place of Poetry
    (pp. 118-134)

    Many causes can be adduced for the decline in the poetic audience that seems to have been most rapid between the 1920s and the 1950s, the period that David Perkins describes as having been dominated by “high modernism.” As we have seen, the crisis of poetry did not begin in the twentieth century; it goes back at least to the late eighteenth. But the size and enthusiasm of poetry’s audience did not begin to dwindle until near the end of the nineteenth century. On the contrary, during the first part of that century they even grew. Walter Jackson Bate has...

  11. NOTES
    (pp. 135-142)
  12. INDEX
    (pp. 143-145)