It is no coincidence that the greatest literary critics in the tradition of English letters were also first-rate creative writers, if not geniuses, for the experience of creation fosters a thorough understanding of literary art. Ben Jonson, John Dryden, Samuel Johnson, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Matthew Arnold, and T. S. Eliot left major and lasting contributions to the national literature of their respective ages. The tradition of writing criticism to elucidate one’s own literary practice, in its fullest sense, dates back to Dryden in the late seventeenth century. The first English poet to produce criticism consistently over a long career, Dryden set the example for subsequent critics to justify their own literary practice and principles. Whenever a poet, novelist, or playwright turns to criticism, he is likely to find the highest literary value in aesthetic qualities that are prominent in his own work, appreciating most that which he believes he does best. Such a writer can be an exemplary critic, on a par with Dryden, only if he possesses a firm grounding in a rich literary tradition and a coherent base in critical theory. Arnold, for example, weighed William Wordsworth and the other Romantics against the classical Greeks and Romans, and Eliot found strong parallels between seventeenth century Metaphysical poetry and modern English verse.
In American Poetry: Wildness and Domesticity, Robert Bly, a prominent American poet and lecturer, limits his assessment of American poets and poetry to the twentieth century, and his theoretical base is similarly limited. While he mentions Homer and Beowulf (c. 1000), his theoretical groundwork extends only as far back as Freudian psychology. He draws heavily upon such diverse sources as Carl G. Jung’s analytical psychology, Joseph Campbell’s studies of myth, and Paul MacLean’s theories of brain structure—all recently formulated concepts. Thus, his basic assumptions about poetry—its creation and purpose—place it within the domain of psychology.
The book includes essays produced over four decades, most previously published in some form in Bly’s sequentially named literary magazineThe Fifties, The Sixties, and The Seventies. In the first of three major sections, he develops the thesis that American poetry took a wrong turn with the poets of the generation of 1917—T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, Marianne Moore, and William Carlos Williams—who oriented poetry toward the external world of objective and concrete imagery. This tradition was continued in the poets of the 1930’s and 1940’s who followed, producing what Bly terms metaphysical poetry. Finally, the postwar generation, the poets of 1947—including Robert Lowell, Allen Ginsberg, Delmore Schwartz, and their contemporaries—produced a strained poetry that Bly designates as hysterical. In the poetry of all three groups Bly discerns a loss of spirituality.
The book’s second section offers specific criticisms of twelve twentieth century poets whose work Bly either admires or deprecates. In the final section, he attempts to assess the most recent trends in American poetry, following the death of Wallace Stevens. As an epilogue, he includes an interview with Wayne Dodd on poetry work-shops, whose value Bly seriously questions.
“Wildness,” as Bly uses the word throughout the work, applies to both poetic content and poetic form. Applied to content, it means that poetry reveals different levels of consciousness and includes a dimension of the unconscious. Applied to form, it means that poetic meter corresponds to the economy of nature found in living organisms, with no waste of sounds or words. Precisely what this analogy implies to the poet remains unclear, but it presumably rules out rhyme and regular meters in favor of free verse. The appeal to nature, however, places Bly within the tradition of romantic individualism, as does his fascination with tribal customs and primitive societies. These he suggests are capable of moving man closer to the unconscious sources of art. His fascination with nature and the primitive becomes at times excessive. He admires the tribal rituals that introduce young men into adult-hood in primitive societies, without pausing to consider why there are so few young and middle-aged males among the populations of such societies. He points out that among the higher mammals, the young males fight the old for dominance, and he is perplexed that younger poets are not attacking poets of his generation. In many art forms, the process of creativity is promoted through a younger artist studying under a master and then attempting to surpass him; why an attack is either necessary or constructive is unclear. One might assume that the creative process...
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