Introspection and Contemporary Poetry By Alan Williamson Harvard University Press; 207pp., $17.50
CRITICS, in the guise of defining a new gerue, will often invent a meaningless catchall then watch the rest pounce on it like hungry rats. Phrases--the "Beat Generation, is a famous example--will pass into common usage because they are convenient and recognizable. Rarely will such phrases be questioned or qualified, but often they are used to belittle artists.
"Confessional poetry" is one of these ubiquitous terms. It became current when Robert Lowell published his highly autobiographical The Dolphin, and widespread with Sylvia Plath's spectacularly introspective Ariel. Now an acceptable part of the critic's vocabulary, confessional poetry generally refers refers to highly autobiographical poetry. At its worst, confessional poetry is little more than a laundry list of personal grievances. But many excellent poets have been unfairly tagged with this label and its attendant associations of sloppiness and whining. Because confessional poetry has not been sufficiently defined as a genre, critics judge the poetry only by blurry, often subjective, standards.
Alan Williamson, one of a group of younger academic poets who were profoundly influenced by Lowell, is especially familiar with the phrase and its accompanying problems. In a new book, Introspection and Contemporary Poetry, Williamson defends self-revelation, distinguishing several types of introspective poetry, and suggests new criteria by which to judge contemporary poetry. He also substitutes for "confessional poetry" the phrase "personal poetry" as a more general--and less loaded--term.
Williamson immediately discards the notion that the self is not a valid subject for poetry. Perhaps too immediately, because that argument has often been used as a basis for pot-shots at poets of all types. But Williamson sees no need to go on the defensive, and the assumption that underlies his refusal "to apologize for regarding the self as one of the great human and poetic subjects," is a correct one. As Williamson points out, such poetry is less susceptible to vague abstraction since it less often presumes to make universal generalizations. He does not need to add that critiques of a poem's subject matter are often a substitute for proper scrutiny.
Critics often avoid examining the origins of contemporary poets' preoccupation with the self. Williamson writes:
It is one of the paradoxes of modern thought that all of the advances that have made internal states more describable...have at the same time cast doubt on the concept of an essential self, and even on its usefulness as a legal fiction.
This paradox, he argues, is the source of a "splintering of styles"-the varied voices poets adopt when addressing the self and their own subjectivity. It is also the source of the critic's problems with judging poetry. Generalizations often prove useless or silly when applied to specific poets. Instead of glib categories, critics should produce analyses of the problems unique to the new poetry and assessments of poets as poets, rather than as representatives of their not-yet-defined generation.
In a series of essays on selected poets, Williamson does just this. The personal poet, he argues, enacts a ritual of sorts through his poetry. The poet begins with an objective shaping of the self, then, after an almost narcissistic immersion, begins to experience the self as an external object. He finally transcends his isolation by projecting himself outwards, at the same time engaging the reader in the transformation. Lapses in personal poetry, then, can be either failures at any step of this ritual--such as the unquestioning immersion in narcissism which leads to psychic laundry lists--or simple failures of poetic technique.
Poetic technique, however, is difficult to pin down. Lowell's language sometimes becomes clunky and almost anti-lyrical. But Williamson argues that this quality mirrors a disintegration of consciousness--or, more appropriately, a new realization of the discontinuities of consciousness. It is refreshing that Williamson distinguishes between the deliberate use of anti-lyricism as a technique and the recurrent inattention to poetic technique that characterizes the poets of bad surrealism. Clumsy diction can illustrate the disintegration of consciousness and some poets even use language as a weapon against itself, as James Wright, Galway Kinnell, and Robert Bly do at times. And Williamson rightly praises Plath for the extraordinary lyricism of her poetry. The chapter on the attempt by some poets to destroy language leaves one question unanswered: if the poets under consideration find language such an inadequate tool, why don't they stop writing? The answer, with which Williamson would perhaps disagree, may be that the poets are only experimenting, not attempting to destroy language entirely. Life includes death, and language includes silence.
Williamson is freshest when he writes about his contemporaries-- Louise Gluck, Richard Tillinghast, Diane Wakoski, Frank Bidart, James McMichael, Robert Pinsky, and Allen Grossman. Each of these poets has confronted the same problems that Williamson's book addresses, and Williamson's refusal to apply premature classifications is the beginning of a fair critical treatment of these poets. It is here that he addresses the complexity of each post's private images and the value of irony.
Williamson's analysis would be sharper if it emphasized irony more. Contemporary critics take poetry for too seriously; this tendency has hastened poetry's tragic descent into obscurity, away from mainstream culture. Williamson praises Tillinghast's early poetry for its gentle irony, a quality which that poet has refined to great advantage in his more recent work. But he almost completely ignores the wonderful humor in most of Plath's poetry--a humor that saves her poetry from becoming an obsessive mythology of self-hatred. A sense of playfulness is the crucial element lacking in much personal poetry as well as other contemporary poetry. And we are surely lost if the poets have forgotten how to play