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Monday, 28 July 2008

Beach and Crane

I've been reading, lately, The Cambridge Introduction to Twentieth-Century American Poetry, by Christopher Beach, who knows a thing or two about contemporary (and avant-garde) poetry and poetics. I'd recommend this book to anyone who wants to know more about the current state-of-the-art thinking on American poetry. Still, there's a strange moment in it, in the invaluable Chapter 3, "Lyric Modernism: Wallace Stevens and Hart Crane".

Beach, who should (and does, I think) know better, rather oddly parrots Yvor Winters, and his outlandish (if fascinatingly maverick) poetics, when discussing Hart Crane's The Bridge. Beach is excellent on Crane's excessive, exuberant rhetorical style (of great interest to my own poetry), but writes "if The Bridge is to be judged primarily as a modern epic celebrating the mythic and historical sweep of America .... then it must be considered a failure." This ain't necessarily so.

Only really by evaluating The Bridge within New Critical, or modernist, terms, especially Winters' curious version of such (Winters was, of course, opposed to much modernist critical thought) can a critic easily call The Bridge a failure. In fact, I am not sure what it would even mean, for a poem to "fail" - a poem is not a Boeing 747 (or real metal structure like a bridge) able to weaken under stress and strain; poems do not corrode. Crane's poem is deliriously, deliciously flawed, perhaps - but yields too many verbal pleasures to be anything less than a wonder, and, I'd argue, a success, as a poem.

Beach may be right in assigning failure to the grandiose final intended version, that Crane never completed, or achieved - his ideal poem in the mind - but criticism can hardly use neo-Platonic ideals to beat poets up with. I wonder at why Beach chose to take this line regarding Crane's masterwork. He acknowledges it has "brilliant lyric sections" but ends up as merely "a qualified success". Who is fit to qualify Crane? Beach's own interest in indeterminacy and post-modern poetics might have allowed him to read Crane against the grain - as the experimental scout for strange linguistically excessive poetry - not within narrow critical demands for order or unity of design.
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