WHAT GREAT LEGACY?
Or, Why This Legacy?
Anis, how can you have a debate about the current state of American poetry by making this assumption—an assumption of “greatness”—right from the start?
The “moderns” had no hit records. They are not read.
True, outside of school, very little poetry—and very little literature of merit—is read, but if we can’t blame the moderns for this, we certainly can’t ascribe to the moderns a “legacy,” for the public turned away from poetry during their reign!
Let’s look at what happened, shall we?
The little magazines of the modernists had tiny audiences.
The “moderns” enjoyed a small window of notoriety after World War II, when the New Critical modernists insinuated themselves into ‘English major’ textbook anthologies.
The ‘English major,’ however, is fast becoming extinct in the university, replaced by Business majors, mostly.
The “moderns” had a brief, artificial existence—which is now dying.
There is no “legacy.”
Every age has some good poets; granted. But this is quite different from “betraying” a previous era’s “legacy.”
First: As everyone knows, the “legacy” of the “moderns” is a vigorous and explicit betrayal of their prior eras. So obviously one has to “betray” the “modernists.” One can’t have one’s cake and eat it.
Second: Very few (their friends) read the “moderns” until they were put into school textbooks. Now, the new poetry today is only being read in school. The idea, then, of a “betrayal” could only be understood by a New Critical, ‘close-reading’ comparison of “modernist” poetry with today’s poetry. Obviously, one wouldn’t expect poets writing today to write just like William Carlos Williams; if one felt ‘William Carlos Williams influence’ were necessary to avoid “betrayal,” it would be highly quixotic to even ask for such a thing, much less make any attempt to prove some sort of “betrayal” of that “legacy” because WC Williams was not being followed closely enough. Why not ask whether the “legacy” of Chinese poetry, or that of the Provencals or the Romantics, or the Greeks, has been “betrayed?”
Yet, the “moderns,” of whom no one reads, and who are no longer modern and whom “betraying” might just be profitable; the moderns, that small group of gentlemen, are held over our heads, with great ceremony and solemnity.
If we keep asserting this “legacy,” based on what is now fusty, fussy writing that failed to catch on with the public, how are we going to see clearly or make any reliable judgment on this matter at all?