Voices and Visions: The Poet In America is a companion volume to the Public Broadcasting Service television series produced in 1988 by the New York Center for Visual History. At once scholarly and accessible, it can serve equally as a general work for the serious reader or as a basic text for a more detailed and scholarly analysis of the poets.
In her introductory essay, Helen Vendler sets the general theme: the development of the American poetic voice. It is a commonplace that American poets first were bound by English poetic forms and diction, eventually learning to take from them what they needed for their own unique expression. American poetry demanded new forms to deal with new subject matter: first, the wilderness, and later the cities, the raw new culture, the rivers and trains that linked the country. Walt Whitman was the first to create a startlingly new poetic form, attempting to encompass all of American life. For many American poets, exploration also led inward, their own experience becoming a microcosm of the American experience. Once poets were able to break away from traditional forms, they were then able to return to English and European culture with fresh insights, influencing and being influenced by new developments in and redefinitions of poetry, in Vendler’s words, “through free verse, surrealism, ’found poetry,’ ’concrete poetry,’ the prose poem, performance art” and, one might add, through discovering alternative outlets for publishing and, by finding wider audiences for poetry readings, returning poetry to the oral tradition.
In discussing the general plan of the essays, Vendler indicates, certain questions were raised: What was the tradition the poets inherited? What were the influences on them, literary, social, or environmental? What were the sources of their poetic language, the forms they created or individualized? For these poets, even one as private as Emily Dickinson, did not function in a vacuum, and the essays, reinforced and illuminated by the illustrations, provide a portrait of the times and of the literary milieu in which they worked. Consequently, additional authors ranging from Ralph Waldo Emerson to Anne Sexton appear in the discussions, giving some balance to the emphasis on the thirteen poets covered in depth. The selection of poets for this sort of study, as Vendler is the first to point out, is but one of many that could have been made. A number of poets, equally unique voices, such as Robinson Jeffers, E. E. Cummings, Theodore Roethke, and Gary Snyder come to mind.
Within the general editorial guidelines, the contributors’ voices are as individual as the poets’, though there are some common characteristics. Scholarship and depth are not sacrificed to readability, and some of the essays on the more difficult poets make considerable demands upon the reader. Close readings of numerous works both illuminate the poets’ visions and provide examples of what, indeed, is meant by poetic “voice.” Although the essays can each stand on their own, there are a number of interrelationships growing naturally out of the subject matter, especially in the discussions of the influence of one poet upon another, notably those of T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, Wallace Stevens, William Carlos Williams, Elizabeth Bishop, and Robert Lowell. What emerges is a sense of the flow of American poetic development, the way in which, as Stevens put it, “the poet’s function [is]... to make his imagination theirs [the people’s],” or, as Helen McNeil concludes her essay on Sylvia Plath, poets “finally address the wound in us all.” The latter passage is a good example of the way the essays interrelate: The statement applies particularly to Plath, yet does not seem an abrupt ending to the entire volume. Vendler, in her comprehensive but concise introduction, traces the relationships among the poets and compares the contributors’ approaches to their subjects. In contrast, focusing on the individual essays in chronological order enables the reader to perceive the cumulative development as new concepts appear and events shape ideas.
In his opening essay on Whitman, Calvin Bedient emphasizes both Whitman’s debt to and involvement in the intellectual currents of the times and his development of a unique poetic voice expressive of the vastness and diversity of America. Bedient observes that Whitman considered himself not only the “first American poet” but “the first truly universal poet.” While Bedient acknowledges Whitman’s debt to such European writers as Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, he stresses the influence of Emerson and the way in which Whitman embodied America—“power in motion.” Eastern influences are de-emphasized, and one would wish for an analysis of “Passage to India,” for Bedient is at his best in close readings of selected poems, explicating and illuminating Whitman’s poetic techniques. The three elements of Whitman’s poetic voice—“personality,” the definite, strong voice of the poet, consciously and sometimes theatrically addressing and involving the reader in the poetic process; the long, loose lines with their deceptive suggestion of absence of form; and the use of the American vernacular idiom—all tend to obscure an awareness of Whitman’s careful use of language to sustain his effects. The illustrations reinforce the variety of American experience Whitman expressed in both his poetry and his prose, including paintings, landscapes, and John Gast’s “Spirit of the Frontier,” a facsimile and some illustrations from the newspapers for which Whitman wrote, and photographs of Civil War dead and hospital scenes.
Emily Dickinson’s poetry could not be more of a contrast. Using the common hymn meter, she created from the restrained Puritan heritage a poetic voice that the first reviewer of her poetry found “half-barbaric,” but “a new species of art.” The contrast is vividly...
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