Contrived Corridors: History and Postmodern Poetry

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Author: Robert B. Shaw
Editor: Lawrence J. Trudeau
From: Poetry Criticism(Vol. 190. )
Publisher: Gale, a Cengage Company
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 3,227 words

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[(essay date 2012) In the following excerpt, Shaw compares four historical poems by different poets, including Hoffman’s Brotherly Love, pointing out that a “crucial component” of that work is the “depressing story” of the “failure of the United States to remain true to its founding ideals.” Shaw credits Hoffman’s “poetic artistry, here displayed in multiple facets” for preventing Brotherly Love from “devolving to a mere compilation of documents, or a history of history.”]

The works I turn to next, and which I discuss for the remainder of this essay, fall within the emergence and growth of the New Narrative movement. In his essay “Other Lives: On Shorter Narrative Poems,” David Mason begins by stressing the attraction to poets and their audiences of narratives that are not autobiographical. As a formal matter, such writing involves strategies “to regain literary territory that in modern times has been lost to the novel.”1 As to the impetus for such work, Mason describes it as a reach for “empathy,” which he no doubt correctly terms “a civilizing process” that “implies connection, community, releasing the poet—who otherwise seems ‘Encased in talent like a uniform’—from isolation.”2 The New Narrative aims to break free of “Romantic subjectivity,” including its later manifestations in modernism and confessionalism. This program can easily be seen reflected in the works I am about to discuss, though the degree to which they eschew subjectivity is questionable. Certainly by the 1980s, whether consciously as part of the Expansive Poetry movement or not, poets were behaving more expansively when they took on historical topics. But which topics? The general appeal of history to the poet is that there is such a lot of it. Earlier, the expatriates Pound and Eliot drew topoi from the Old World; for more recent American poets the interest lies in what our politicians now call the homeland. Following the pioneering efforts of Warren and Berryman (and no doubt with glances back at The Bridge and Paterson), poets of the last few decades have subjected the American past to insistent scrutiny. In their most compelling works the story in question is given an unconventional slant, or enriched with the kind of detail often glossed over or missing in standard accounts. Poets have in a sense become the rivals not, here, of novelists but of the historians who provide them with source material—inevitably, when taking on the burden of this kind of narrative. Their willingness to challenge received versions of the past is in keeping with the general skepticism toward American motives that many intellectuals expressed in the wake of Vietnam and Watergate. The credibility of government in those years was at a low point; and for many writers a revisionist view of the past, of American civilization and its heritage, was a natural concomitant. The aesthetic aims of these poets coexist with an ethical intent to set the record straight, to cast light on dark corners, to fill gaps. If the New Narrative in general seeks to broaden the...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1420123126