Three Tendencies in English Language Poetry

Amit Majmudar
August 16, 2012
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A broad characterization of three tendencies in English language poetry, by no means exhaustive.

 

The Asian tendency.

Specifically, the influence of Chinese and Japanese poetry. Imagery without commentary. Meaning through nuance and inference. Complete or near-complete excision of discursive language or summation-statements. Frequent aversion to “abstract” nouns.

This entered in full force in the early 20th century, with the translations of Pound and Imagism and related poets. This combination of factors—its origin in translated poetry, and the historically coincidence of the rise of free verse—accounts for the frequent absence of rhyme and meter in this kind of poetry.

 

The Near Eastern tendency.

Atomization of meaning from line to line, sometimes phrase to phrase. Frequent use of nonsequitur or near-nonsequitur. Inclusion of (unlinked) discursive or assertive statements, and of occasional abstractions. Cf. John Ashbery, Dean Young, much of Bob Hicok, etc. Many younger poets seem to write in this mode as well.

In this case, the geographical notation is purely for reference. The modern manifestation is totally independent of the long history of Arab and Persian poetry, whose dominant form, the ghazal, forces these characteristics into a poem with its rules and conventions. Note how, by contrast to Near Eastern poems of a similar inner structure, rhyme and formal strictures do not govern the generation of vaguely related statements. Where the coherent argument underlying independently meaningful statements is missing or indistinct, we have the atomized verse style that, surprisingly, unites Dean Young and Hafiz.

This element—a unifying, often “paraphrase-able” argument from beginning to end—is the hallmark of

 

The European tendency.

Still the dominant influence on American poetry. Narrative. Rational “sense.” Poems frequently have an “argument” in the old Miltonic sense of that word. A grounding in the history of the English language frequently—but by no means always, beginning with the 20th century—leads to a use of rhyme, meter, or form. Notice how frequently American sonnet-writers make clear prose sense (sometimes too much prose sense).

Formalists (eg. Wilbur), plainspoken free verse poets (eg. Maya Angelou), and slam poets (eg. Anis Mogjani) are all, counterintuitive though it may seem, preserving the same distinctly old-European tendency toward rational “sense” and narrative in poetry. We take it for granted, but there are entire poetic traditions that emphasize this much less. Of all three of the poets mentioned above, the stage-centered, rhetorically charged, shake-the-dust Mogjani is easily the most Shakespearean.

 

General Observations.

Note also that these are tendencies, elements, strains. Poets in practice hybridize these elements and show signs of more than one or all three. The best example of this is Seamus Heaney, who unites the European and Asian strains (he even has an essay about the Chinese influence on his poetry) but generally de-emphasizes the Near Eastern one.

Poets that emphasize the European write poetry that, being closer to prose than the other two, is more likely to be popular, usually in inverse relationship to its syntactic complexity (Collins, Angelou, etc.).

Poets that allow one of the other strains to dominate often possess strong reputations in academia or in literary circles. This is because the majority of English-speakers—even though it’s been a century now—are unaccustomed to such writing. Appreciation of it requires sensitization—or, more accurately, acculturation.

Contemporary and Modernist poetry in English that cannot be easily “followed”—a frequent complaint of readers estranged from contemporary poetry—is usually written with either of the non-European tendencies dominant. The disjunctions of an Ashbery are an extreme manifestation of what you see in a Rumi ghazal, which is atomized into often impenetrably allusive couplets on the basis of rhyme and refrain.

 

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