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The American Hype Machine

Sorties, by James Dickey Doubleday & Co., 227 pp., $6.95

By Sim Johnston

THE LITERARY MARKET place these days seems totally absorbed in the trappings of art rather than art itself. The artist has been plugged into The American Hype Machine. He is wired, plugged in, and variously tapped to perform on the monkey circuit of talk shows, academic tea parties, State Department romps abroad, and readings.

A typical reading exemplifies the whole process: the poet or novelist is trotted out as some kind of three-dimensional back-jacket photograph of himself to satisfy the celebrity craving of the audience which came to see him rather than to listen to his art. It is like an audience at a rock concert which comes primarily to hear the group play by rote their latest album. But listening to a familiar record with visual aids is more entertaining than listening to poetry one never reads. The audience at a typical reading becomes visibly restless after ten minutes unless the writer is a stage ham like Norman Mailer or Allen Ginsberg. The cruel part is that the writer submits himself to this process which can only alienate him from his own creativity.

If the artist tries to withdraw from this day-glow treatment to the archetypical farm or fishing shack he runs the risk of destroying his talent, since he must dirty his hands in the corruptions of the real world if he is to remain vital. J.D. Salinger does his writing in a bomb shelter in New Hampshire, and he hasn't produced anything readable in thirteen years. We just don't have writers anymore who can lead public lives and still recall those ancient sages who, when an enemy took the town, walked out of the gate empty handed, without a care for the morrow, (The Hype Machine could fix their wagon.)

WHICH BRINGS us to this latest book by James Dickey, Dickey, after spending years as a good but relatively unknown poet, wrote the best-selling novel Deliverance and was promptly inserted into the Machine. Once you are there, any drop mush that egests from your mental driftings is considered a literary event. And that is exactly what the journal part of this book is: drop mush. It is touching in a way, though, because what it mainly records is the mindless trivia imposed on the life of any American writer. Most of it consists in literary laundry lists (Should I write an introduction to his anthology? Should I go on this talk show?), caustic remarks about the New York literary mafia and London literary critics, vague and useless pronouncements on poetry ("In poetry I want a kind of deep clarity"), and quotations from other writers which only remind us that we could spend our time more profitably reading something else. The worst part of it is the musings over the technical difficulties of his novel in progress which are presented in such a fragmentary manner that we never know what he is getting at. Besides, who, even ten years ago, would consider presenting rough draft passages of a novel with notations even before it is published? Imagine Robert Frost publishing those terrible first drafts of his famous poems before the poems themselves came out. "I hold it very indecent that a man should publish his meditations," said the Earl of Shaftesbury. "These are the froth and scum of writing, which should be unburdened in private and consigned to oblivion, before the writer comes before the world as good company."

THERE ARE some instances when journals written for immediate public consumption are justifiable. These are always impersonal records, however; their saving grace is usually cleverness and humor, and they don't give the impression of being compiled because the author was too lazy or indifferent to incorporate the material into other work. Fitzgerald's aphorisms in The Crack-Up and Samuel Butler's Notebooks are notable examples. But when a person is merely writing about his personal experience in a diary he knows will be read during his lifetime, the result should be approached with great suspicion. Consciously or unconsciously, he has some self-serving angle which vitiates any good points the dairy may have. Anais Nin gives the impression that she has affairs with famous men just so she can write them in her diary. David Lilienthal kept fascinating and informative journals when he was a young, obscure lawyer, but once he became famous and knew that his journals would be published in his lifetime, they took on the air of acknowledged greatness and became about as informative as a stateman's memoirs.

Dickey's angle seems to be the desire to unload the frustrations of middle-age. This is understandable, particularly for a poet, since, as Eliot said, a poet at that point in life is faced with the choice of repeating old formulas or going through the agony of trying to break into new kinds of composition. Biographies of poets invariably contain a crisis or breakdown, or suicide at this stage of life. And indeed, Dickey relates how his is groping for a new kind of poetry that will be different from anything being written today. This problem is that he is vague in these journals about what kind of poetry this is going to be. In the meantime, he seems to be leading a life out of a Tennessee Williams play, drinking heavily and moving his literary cubicle across the sad landscape of middle-age. He writes about his pain, however, with a very ordinary kind of "dime-a dozen sensibility," to use his own phrase. It would be better if he kept it for his poetry.

While the journal can be safely skipped, the sixty pages of essays tacked on at the end are well worth reading. They all deal with modern post-Eliot and Pound poetry, what Dickey thinks is wrong with it, and where he thinks it should be going. Like everyone else, Dickey has the irrational longing for the unwritten and perhaps unwriteable poetry which would hold up a clear mirror to the way we live now. He does, however, offer some very rational suggestions on how this kind of poetry might be achieved. For one thing, he says, the poet must discard the language of Eliot, Pound, and Empson if he is going to get back to the absolute basics. Here I heartily concur. Eliot made the most wrong-headed and damaging statement in modern criticism when he said, "It appears likely that poets in our civilization, as it exists at present, must be difficult. Our civilization comprehends great variety and complexity, and this variety and complexity, playing upon a refined sensibility, must produce various and complex results." Eliot here is making a false analogy between traffic jams and dynamoes, and complications of diction, tone, syntax, and meaning in poetry. He is saying that obscurity and complexity are as necessary to the modern poet as blank verse was to Milton simply because they have certain ressemblances to the surface qualities of modern life. Yeat's late poetry is a good example of the implausibility of his contention. "The Second Coming" is no more obscure than a typical poet by Browning, but it can hardly be called anything but modern.

ELIOT and his followers thus made the mistake of refining themselves clear out of our common sensibility. This was an across the board sweep affecting all the arts. Eliot and Pound, along with Robert Lowell and John Berryman, have as little to do with our basic experiences as I.M. Pei has to do with Route 66, Dickey holds up Theodore Roethke, the Michigan poet who celebrated the greenhouses and gardens of his early life with simple, crystalline language, as the kind of poet who can bring off the new poetic revolution against these oppressive forces. Roethke is a good start, but we need someone who can not only get back toward basic things and basic-sounding statements about them but who can also embrace the traffic jams, the dynamoes and the Hype Machine without knuckling under or evading their essences with crusty intellectual reactions. In the meantime, American poets would do well to follow Dickey's advice that they "begin wholly afresh. Go straight to the sun, the immense forces of the universe, to the Entity unknown; go higher than a god; deeper than a prayer; and open a new day."

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