The Space of the Poem

Angus Fletcher
A New Theory For American Poetry: Democracy, the Environment, and the Future of Imagination
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Harvard University Press, 2004. 336 pp., $29.95

Reviewed by Nick Halpern


The central subject of Angus Fletcher’s important new book is “the environment poem” and its role in “the future of imagination.” Environment-poems according to Fletcher, “aspire to surround the reader, such that to read them is to have an experience much like suddenly recognizing that one actually has an environment, instead of not perceiving the surround at all.” The idea of an environment-poem, as Fletcher develops it throughout his book, is an revelatory and resonant one, but what may be most appealing about the book is that the critic has, in writing A New Theory For American Poetry, imagined a version in criticism of the kind of environment he celebrates in poems. Fletcher, sketching out his theory of the environment-poem, creates his own critical environment, a place where the prophetic and the everyday can co-exist. He focuses on John Clare, Walt Whitman and John Ashbery, but there is a sense that his own example makes a fourth in that series.

Fletcher, a celebrated Renaissance scholar and theorist, is the author of The Prophetic Moment: An Essay on Spenser; Allegory: The Theory of a Symbolic Mode, and Colors of the Mind: Conjectures on Thinking in Literature. He begins A New Theory for American Poetry with a discussion of British eighteenth-century descriptive poetry. Such poems, according to Fletcher, offer a valuable (and provocative) alternative to the Romantic tradition. “How shall we deal with the apparent ordinariness…of descriptive accounts? Surely they almost want not to be inspired.” Fletcher is particularly interested in what it means to describe—to want to describe—“the nondescript.” What is the value for us of these poets who seem to believe in total immersion in the everyday? And why would a poet want not to be inspired?

Inspiration can feel threatening, for one thing, and the everyday can act, as it did for the anxious William Cowper, as a kind of therapy. For Fletcher, descriptive poetry may also be simply a kind of relief, especially if one has read (or written about) a great deal of elevated or prophetic poetry. It is an alternative, not an escape: the sublime affords no escape. But just because the sublime is always there (or there when it wishes to be) doesn’t mean the imagination must submit to it. Fletcher tells us that the “elevated vision is most difficult to restrain, given the role of the sublime during the period, but at the very least it needs to be moderated and analyzed from the perspective of Low Romanticism.” Fletcher takes the perspective but not the tone readers associate with it: his book is not commonsensical, restrained, or moderate. He is a prophetic critic coming to rest in the everyday, but he remembers (most of the time) where he came from, and what he loved about it.

From eighteenth-century descriptive poetry, Fletcher moves to John Clare—a poet who may become for critics what Blake was in the nineteen sixties and Wordsworth was in the seventies and eighties. Like them-- though we didn’t know it until recently--Clare can be used to rethink Romanticism. A close reading of Clare might even show us that “almost all the accepted recent criticism of Romantic poetry has mistaken its own ground.” Ground is the right word, since Fletcher wants to use Clare to bring High Romanticism back down to earth. “By failing to grasp the role of description as the grounding strategy of the Romantic impulse, criticism has been forced into its overestimation of the problems of authorial consciousness and creativity. Such criticism has always been able to lean on the Coleridgean theory of imagination, as presented in the Biographia Literaria and elsewhere, but it has never dealt seriously with the problem enunciated in the Lyrical Ballads and its famed Preface (with later additions).that is, the role of the common in poetry. “ Authorial consciousness. Creativity. Coleridge: If we are turn away from them, what do we get in return? What—to use a word from High Romanticism—recompense do we get? It won’t be what we want, Fletcher warns us, but it is definitely what we need. An environment we can live in. (Fletcher also refers to an “environing space,” a “self-organizing chorography, “ “a neighborhood of images and ideas,” ”chaos with rules,” “a permeable containment of all constituents,” and even Shakespeare’s “isle full of noises, sounds and sweet airs.”)

And description—writing it, reading it, trusting it—will get us there. We have been underestimating description, Fletcher tells us. “Description may not be the most intense response to our natural surroundings, but it is certainly the fullest. After quoting some lines from a poem by Clare, Fletcher writes, “this is the language of naïve scientific astonishment, and it lacks the grand manner; on the other hand, it also lacks a kind of higher emptiness.” Higher emptiness? Which grand poem is he thinking of? He doesn’t tell us. We are being prepared to lie down where all the ladders start. Some readers might worry that there won’t be any ladders at all in the environment-poem, and they’re right to worry. They’ll be relieved to discover, though, ladder-like structures. “With gnomic precision, the poetry wrought by the poets I praise aspires to a new mode beyond either the sublime or the picturesque, such that its descriptions are always strictly uncanny; they penetrate the familiar wall all the way to its secret unfamiliar side, passing through the mirror into a gnomic transcendency, where they discover their more subtle relation to the scale of things.” And Fletcher writes: “Clare finds the uncanny everywhere, in the simplest things.” It may cheer some readers that the future of imagination will include gnomic transcendency and the uncanny. And if gnomic transcendency makes you miss Transcendence and the uncanny makes you long for the Sublime, what you need is this book and the wisdom in it. “If one is to understand the genuine ground of Romantic vision, one has to begin here with Clare and with his lesser descriptive brothers and sisters. In them winter is actually cold, the autumn bleak and ominous, the summer warm and festive. They present us with humans as a species that knows these things, before higher thoughts ensue.” Fletcher on John Clare is like Vendler on John Keats, except that Vendler always knew about “these things” and Fletcher writes like a man who is just learning what he calls “diurnal knowledge.” The effect is compelling and engaging, and gives the book a human attractiveness. Here is a critic who can show other newcomers to such environments “how to live” and “what to do.” Fletcher, a convert of sorts, offers his book as a kind of advertisement for non-sublime spaces. There won’t be many of the emotions we associate with Longinus but you can digress if you want to, where you couldn’t with the sublime. Intimacy is possible-- one might even have a more intimate relation to the universe. A primitive or primordial language is possible. You can rhapsodize, if so inclined. It is even permissible to head for transcendence, provided you don't arrive. “Whitman the impression-gatherer would like to be a Platonist, but he never gets there,” Fletcher tells us. He is aware that “to make a great poetry from quotidian events is no mean trick,” but there is nothing else to make it from, and he ends his chapter on Clare with the moving words, “The secret is that there is nothing but the day, which is always disappearing, reappearing, disappearing, reappearing, again in a perpetual sequence.” The only cure for early Lowell is late Lowell, Fletcher knows, but he also knows that early and late are both available to readers.

Whitman is called an “impression-gatherer” but that is high praise. And there is higher praise. “Whitman, known for inventing free verse, even more radically invented a new kind of poem, which we must call the environment-poem. His poems are not about the environment, whether natural or social. They are an environment.” Fletcher the prophetic critic shows himself again here. The term “environment” might seem too ordinary (especially if one wants to advertise it as a place to live) and he quickly makes it attractively rich and (especially) strange. “This generic invention, though not entirely without precedent, and not without affinities in certain nature writings, is a strange idea. Stranger than one might at first imagine.” Strange and powerful and profound, the environment and the environment-poem is the “most intensely deep descriptive poetic form.” Strangeness, depth, amazement, complexity: “Whitman is utterly amazed at the fact of the world’s existence.” Ashbery too, though a poet of diurnal knowledge, is strange: “Strange connections between disparate things enable us to see how much bizarre variety goes into the making of any complex habitat.” Although Fletcher’s book is partly about the drama of souls rescued by ordinary life, the book itself is saved by its own depth, complexity, strangeness and sense of amazement at the world and at poems.

It is also saved (for readers like me) by the fact that it takes High Romanticism, the Sublime and prophetic poetry with extraordinary seriousness. Fletcher is engaged throughout in dialogue with Harold Bloom--who on the back of the book tells us he doesn’t agree with Fletcher’s interpretations, and calls him (in a sense, reminds him that he is) an orphic seer. But Fletcher wants (here) to write not about seers, but poets who simply see. After all, what kind of environment is an orphic seer in? In the poems Bloom loves, the environment is dominated by a mountain peak or a broken tower and everything else is a blur. We do not look around or if we do, it is in order to compare our environment with others. Is it equal to, worse than, better than? You don’t ask such questions if you’re happy in your environment. Fletcher’s is a book about “the future of the imagination” and the heroic Caspar David Friedrich figure on the mountain peak (who can be found, of all places, on the cover of Helen Vendler’s latest book, Poets Thinking) has no imaginable future beyond private apocalypse or disappointment.

Bloom (again, on the back cover) also calls Fletcher “a curious universal scholar of Renaissance vintage, a fusion of the best traits of Northrop Frye and Kenneth Burke, his true peers.” Fletcher refers in his book to Ernst Curtius and Erich Auerbach and other critics from “a happier time of mere learnedness.” The question in Fletcher’s earlier books was always what to make of an abundant thing, that is, how do you get all that learning between the covers of a book? Allegory: Theory of a Symbolic Mode was celebrated, in part, for its wonderful and wildly excessive footnotes. That book may have felt to Fletcher like two environments or like many environments. Colours of the Mind used endnotes, which—though fascinating—were not endless. In this latest book, Fletcher has disciplined himself still further. At the same time there is a sense of a critic who is utterly free. The happiness and value of A New Theory for American Poetry—apart from its shrewd and sensitive close readings of the poems—is its remarkable success as an environment. Fletcher has created a space where he can, if he wants, be moderate and analytical like Montaigne or intense and extravagant like Robert Burton, or merely fantastically learned like both. Fletcher the everyday critic cites Laurence Buell and Bill McKibben and criticizes the Bush administration, while Fletcher the prophetic critic makes arresting, almost Ruskin-like pronouncements about the weather. The two voices put pressure on each other. “Only a poetry that resists its own transcendental impulses, as I show the environment-poem resists them, will usefully address most serious conditions of our time along with numerous global changes.” The somewhat vague ending of that sentence suggests the tension just audible in the first part. The book is unpredictable. There are passages of number mysticism, including a revelation of the special properties of the number six. There is a discussion of the wave in poetry. “Whitman in his way, and my other descriptive poets in their ways, write less about waves of life than they actually write in waves.” Fletcher is the sort of critic who gives us the (happy) feeling that his poets write in order to corroborate him. When he comes to discuss Ashbery’s A Wave it almost feels as though he and Ashbery are collaborating. At other times Fletcher is a scientist, discussing the wave-particle duality, and bringing physics and “the new science of complexity theory” into the environment of his book. Sometimes he lets the scholar take over. There is a learned discussion of the middle voice in Greek grammar. Sometimes he is a formalist, arguing that all of Ashbery’s Flow Chart is one immense sestina. Sometimes he is just wonderfully eccentric: “Without flow and wave motion it is doubtful that water would have seemed so powerful in human imagination.” Everything works together. One of the things that happens in an environment, he says, is that “the components interact, multiply each other’s effects.” That happens in this book. The book itself, then, is an environment-poem, a strong one, as Bloom might say. The book feels—as with the late work of many poets—like a breakthrough. In Colours of the Mind Fletcher talked about labrynths and about the fear of being silenced; he meditated on the fear of too much emptiness, too much fullness. Here he has found a space in which all those anxieties seem to have vanished.

Or almost all of them. In his discussion of Ashbery he writes, “Yet one asks, is the poet awash in a personal pursuit of his own identity, as if an Ashbery got up every morning, read his Emerson, and proceeded to write an endless allegory of the self. ” Endless allegory—the phrase must have a particular resonance for Fletcher. Allegory, endless or otherwise, is to be resisted (“the environment-poem is the opposite of or requires opposition to allegory”) and the allegory most to be resisted is the internalized quest-romance.

One of the strangest and at the same most appealing aspects of this book is its relation to the idea of impossibility. The internalized quest romance is possible (to use a Stevensian word) and the environment of environment-poems is impossible—or it can seem so. Fletcher writes, “There appears something impossible about the notion of a…poem that simply is an environment. For the claim to be literally true, the reader would have to be actually living inside a verbal construct. That can happen in science fiction, but can such living occur in ordinary life? The answer would be yes, if the imagined union of the poetic form and the reader’s experience is in fact the most imposing aspect or part of that experience. “Whitman writes as if being in a poem were his normal condition.” Once inside, “the reader is asked to join in the formal experience of evolving with the environment created by the ever-expanding book.” He writes, “This view would assert 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 would have equal shares of the real—equal shares of Being. This view blurs the sharp distinction between fictions of fact and fact itself. Supposing then that such poems are intended to surround us in exactly the way an actual environment surrounds us, there will occur a breakdown of the old distinction between the world within the poem and the world ‘out there’ outside the poem.” This is an extravagant, profound, and tremendously appealing conception.

But we lead a life of allegory, as Keats said, and continue to live one, no matter what environment we find ourselves in. The “personal pursuit of one’s own identity” doesn’t end. The allegory of the self is endless. But if it did end, what more attractive place to find oneself than in an environment-poem? As if one of Spenser’s knights found himself in a pathless forest and didn’t have to panic, or in a bower of bliss he didn’t have to destroy. It is hard not to feel, at the end of Fletcher’s book, that we have read not just an environment-poem written in the language of literary criticism but a quest romance with a happy ending.


Nick Halpern is the author of Everyday and Prophetic: The Poetry of Lowell, Ammons, Merrril and Rich (University of Wisconsin Press, 2003).