A New Theory for American Poetry
by Angus Fletcher
Harvard University Press. 316 pp. $29.95
A Professor Emeritus of English at the City University of New York Graduate School, and a Stanford University Humanities Fellow, Angus Fletcher begins the journey of his thesis with the nineteenth-century English "peasant" poet John Clare, whose "flat fenland home" revealed "the shape of a meeting ground between imaginative and perceptual vision." As Clare was "always walking toward the horizon," Fletcher appropriates the notion of liminality, along with the environment itself. However, he quickly points out that "there are two external real worlds, the one we daily walk around in (or drive cars through), and the one the environment-poet has invented. Both worlds have equal shares of the real---equal shares of Being." This hints at how postmodernism was well under way two centuries ago, scumbling "the sharp distinction between fictions of fact and fact itself." But "such poems are not about the environment." Rather, they tend to break down the classical distinction "between the world within the poem and the world out there, outside the poem."
With its subtitle, "Democracy, the Environment, and the Future of Imagination," the book is infused with the spirit of democratic values, as exemplified by the American iconic poet Walt Whitman. Fletcher points out how Whitman eliminated the clause from his poems, unfurling long stanzas in which "no phrase is ever grammatically superordinate, superior to any other phrase." His verses were purposefully structured to open linguistic barriers in order to rally against warrants of zealous secrecy and paranoia of the Other. "Unlike many in power today," Fletcher opines, "(Whitman) took seriously the notion of public trust." Thinking simultaneously of politics and the environment, Whitman called for "a readjustment of the whole theory and nature of poetry."
This is also Fletchers agenda. He insists that "many conflicts today considered political are actually environmental conflicts, which need to be treated as such." Again, the environment on which he focuses is not the one we take for the "natural world." Like a painting, it is a constructed landscape, "a scene of gradually self-adjusting and expanding coexistence, a getting along;" an aesthetic of "separateness somehow needing to belong to the mass." Then, referring to "coherence," one of his prime factors of his theory, he explains that while "we usually say that to cohere is to come to a conclusion conclusion means not finishing off the parts."
Which brings us to the third exemplary poet in this book: John Ashbery, whose poetry "looks like chaos but is not." Like Alice in Wonderland, Ashbery has "a special way of paying attention." As in, "Today I would leave it just as it is the singular effect of all things / being themselves, that is, stark mad " ("Ghost Riders in the Moon")
If there is slippage in his theory, it is when Fletcher, who has had formal training in both neurophysiology and physics, juxtaposes sciences methodology with poetrys, the latter having "the advantage of being set free from assuming the burden of proof." On the contrary, I retort. A poem is no less subject to proof than a scientific theorem. Its veracity, too, is drawn from the consistency of its conception.
Whether the professor has fulfilled what he set out to accomplish is not as important as that he begins to systemize a poetics that embraces the aesthetical complexities, the politics, and the scientific discoveries of our young century.
© Philadelphia Enquirer 2004