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Fictions of Form in American Poetry

Fictions of Form in American Poetry

Stephen Cushman
Copyright Date: 1993
Pages: 230
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    Fictions of Form in American Poetry
    Book Description:

    In the 1830s Alexis de Tocqueville prophesied that American writers would slight, even despise, form--that they would favor the sensational over rational order. He suggested that this attitude was linked to a distinct concept of democracy in America. Exposing the inaccuracies of such claims when applied to poetry, Stephen Cushman maintains that American poets tend toovervaluethe formal aspects of their art and in turn overestimate the relationship between those formal aspects and various ideas of America. In this book Cushman examines poems and prose statements in which poets as diverse as Emily Dickinson and Ezra Pound describe their own poetic forms, and he investigates links and analogies between poets' notions of form and their notions of "Americanness.".

    The book begins with a brief discussion of Whitman, who said, "The United States themselves are essentially the greatest poem." Cushman takes this to mean that American poetry has succeeded in making fictions about itself which persuade its readers that its uniqueness transcends merely geographical boundaries. He explores the truth of this statement by considering the Americanness of Emily Dickinson, Ezra Pound, Elizabeth Bishop, and A. R. Ammons. He concludes that the uniqueness of American poetry lies not so much in its forms as in its formalism and in the various attitudes that formalism reveals.

    Originally published in 1993.

    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: 978-1-4008-6352-5
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-x)
    (pp. xi-2)
    (pp. 3-24)

    Surveying the “Literary Characteristics of Democratic Times,” Tocqueville claims that “the inhabitants of the United States have, then, at present, properly speaking, no literature.”¹ In his reflections, published in the second part ofDemocracy in America(1840), he continues his inventory of the new nation’s scant literary holdings, ignoring, among others, Irving, Cooper, and Bryant, whose reputations were well established by the time of his arrival in May 1831, and declaring unequivocally, “The only authors whom I acknowledge as American are the journalists” (2:56). But Tocqueville also prophesies that this situation will change, that America will generate a literature with...

    (pp. 25-41)

    Three famous descriptions of his own formal practices illustrate Whitman’s preference for what he calls “indirection” or “suggestiveness.” Two appear in the 1855 preface toLeaves of Grass, which associates nationality with the notion of form in its opening paragraph: “[America] is not so impatient as has been supposed that the slough still sticks to opinions and manners and literature while the life which served its requirements has passed into the new life of the new forms” (CRE 709). In the first description, Whitman likens his own formal schemes to various flowers and fruits: “The rhyme and uniformity of perfect...

    (pp. 42-74)

    What appears to be missing from Dickinson’s poems and letters, which is not missing from the work of Whitman and so many other American poets, is some statement about her own forms¹ She often speaks of poets and poetry, both explicitly and implicitly by means of figure. Cynthia Griffin Wolff has examined what she calls Dickinson’s “metapoetic” tropes, arguing that the poet “customarily referred to her poetry as a ‘veil’ or ‘flowers’ or ‘snow.’’ In addition, she confirms what others, such as Robert Sherwood, have noticed before her, namely that Dickinson often employs the conventional figure of the bird to...

    (pp. 75-111)

    Dickinson meant little, if anything, to Pound. Her name appears nowhere in his shorter poems,Cantos, Literary Essays, Selected Prose, World War II radio broadcasts, or 1950 collection of letters. Even Stevens, about whom Pound had almost nothing to say, crops up in a radio broadcast (November 6, 1941) and in at least one unpublished letter.¹ One explanation of Pound’s indifference to Dickinson, whose poems emerged in a scholarly edition during his confinement at St. Elizabeths and letters the year of his release, is that in his eyes Whitman eclipsed her. Certainly, he has much to say about Whitman, and...

    (pp. 112-148)

    In elizabeth Bishop’s life and art, Pound’s presence cannot compare with Marianne Moore’s, which quite appropriately has received considerable critical attention.¹ Nevertheless, his presence remains undeniable. In her adolescence, Bishop began playing a Dolmetsch harpsichord in response to Pound’s opinions on music.² In her prose piece “A Trip to Vigia,² probably written in 1967, she records that she “tried a story about Ezra Pound,” adding, “It was very well received but, I felt, not understood.”³ In “Efforts of Affection,” her memoir of Marianne Moore written between 1969 and 1979, Pound appears twice, once as the alleged author of a cigar...

    (pp. 149-186)

    For bishop thears poeticais a way of escaping apologies and essays; for Ammons it is a characteristic mode. In his long poem “The Ridge Farm,” first published in 1983, he turns once again to the idea of form:

    don’t think we don’t

    know one breaks

    form open because he fears

    its bearing in on him

    (of what, the accusation,

    the shape of his eros, error,

    his guilt he must buy

    costing himself)

    and one hugs form because

    he fears dissolution, openness,

    we know, we know:

    one needs stanzas to take

    sharp interest in and

    one interests the stanza...

  10. ENVOI
    (pp. 187-190)

    Whitman has been dead one hundred years, yet the controversies generated by his writing thrive. When Henry James’s 1865 review ofDrum-Tapsdescribed the “melancholy task” of reading that book, charging that the “frequent capitals are the only marks of verse in Mr. Whitman’s writing,” it established both the terms and the tone of much of the argument to follow.¹ Two recent studies show clearly that the two sides of this argument remain unreconciled, one contending that postmodern verse suffers because of its metrical deficiencies, the other prophesying that postmodern poets who attempt to revive traditional forms will produce verse...

  11. NOTES
    (pp. 191-210)
  12. INDEX
    (pp. 211-218)