A Revolution in Taste

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 16)

Louis Simpson’s lively and personable essays on four major voices in American poetic sensibility derive from the poet/critic’s aversion to “confessional” writing and his preference for what he calls “the personal voice” in literature. The personal voice expresses character; it does not exhibit the soul of the writer but seeks to create “a symbolic life” and, by doing so, to “create a feeling of community.”

In his Foreword, Simpson announces that his method, like his subject, “has been somewhat personal.” Therein lie many of the virtues of the book, as well as its chief faults. The person narrating and interpreting the history of his own time invariably reveals as much of himself as he does of his contemporaries, and when the narrator himself participates in the scenes he presents, one can hardly expect a calculated balance. A Revolution in Taste provides insight to the cultural life of a nation, but it suffers from blind spots.

Engaged criticism, however, may be superior to coldly detached, merely academic criticism. At no point does Louis Simpson claim to be the oracular voice of truth. The voice of his book is the voice of an individual concerned about poetry and the state of the culture poetry reflects. Simpson’s essential ambivalence prevents his book from becoming rigidly ideological. John Woods expressed awareness of Simpson’s ambivalence when he wrote in Poetry that the writer “appears to stand between the New world and the Old, the present and the past, the mythical and the real, between involvement and estrangement, and to radiate ironies.”

In A Revolution in Taste, Simpson appears to want to affirm the American tradition as he sees it embodied in Walt Whitman, the imagists, and William Carlos Williams; this leads him to characterize W. H. Auden’s poetry as “an exercise in reason” and lacking passion. Compared to poems by Dylan Thomas, practically everybody’s work during the 1950’s lacked passion, but Simpson’s claim finds little support in what Auden wrote about poetry, or in what Auden’s friends have said about his work and method of composition. Stephen Spender, for example, has said that many of Auden’s poems were “anthologies of best lines’; their appeal was chiefly to the ear.”

Simpson’s book gains interest, if not clarity, from the fact that his thesis demands that Dylan Thomas’ poetry of musical passion save American poets from the sterility of Auden’s practice—when, in fact, Simpson himself derived much of value from Auden and other “formalists.” The main lines of the “revolution” Simpson describes may be demonstrated, but his book suffers from lack of such demonstration. He asserts Auden’s influence as a “mainstay of tradition” which stifled the native American voice, but he covers the topic in a page—without illustration. Actually, although Simpson does not say so, his book shows Auden to be a poet creating “symbolic life” and Thomas a poet expressing his own personality.

On the positive side, Simpson brings a poet’s eye and ear, a poet’s sensibility, and a scholar’s concern to his subject of changing poetic tastes. He begins his book on the eve of World War II with Auden established in the United States “at the center of literary power” and comes forward to the death of Robert Lowell in 1977. Born in 1923, Simpson published his first book, Arrivistes, the year before Dylan Thomas’ first American tour. Thomas and Lowell, born in 1914 and 1917 respectively, were but a few years older than Simpson, and Allen Ginsberg (born in 1926) and Sylvia Plath (born in 1932) were not much his juniors.

The “boom” of Dylan Thomas’ voice cracked what Simpson calls “the Audenesque façade,” and a few years later Ginsberg brought that façade tumbling down. All this may be true enough, but Simpson appears to confuse the dynamics of poetry readings and performance with poetry itself; he contrasts Thomas’ performance with the “dry, impersonal” tone of recordings by Auden or Elizabeth Bishop. Perhaps, however, Simpson’s confusion of manner and matter is precisely the point.

Dylan Thomas inaugurated an era of poet as prophet, poet as personality—in the media sense of the word. His hard-drinking and generally outrageous behavior precisely satisfied the public notion of what a poet should be. The musical nature of his work performed passionately doubtless made poetry accessible and palatable to a...

(The entire section is 1847 words.)