In 1800, it was possible to imagine what might be turning Europe into a new direction, away from the lingering powers of medieval institutions like the monarchy, the Catholic Church, aristocracy. William Wordsworth had slipped across the English Channel to observe first hand the throes of the French Revolution to unseat all those vestiges of medieval power still governing France. But it didn’t take a genius to figure out that something like Orc, the principle of violent change, was aborning in the smoking debris of castles, churches, royal retreats and grand country estates. Whatever it was, it would bring forth chaos at first and then a strong man like Napoleon to bring down an iron fist on anarchy and turn France into a war machine.
Wordsworth saw it a bit differently. He went home to confer with his soul brother Samuel Coleridge on the meaning of what he saw. That gave rise to one of the most remarkable literary movements in modern history – the democratization of language and form as lyric poetry shifted its stance from a deep-rooted aristocratic decorum to one of ballads and conversational modes of discourse. Informality was the thing, they reasoned, and in 1798 they published a book called Lyrical Ballads, in which the term lyric was dispossessed of its arcane references and rigidly formal principles and invested it with an open, musically flexible language of the “common man.” In a swipe of the quill, the aristocrats were told their legacy had ended in the smoke and blood of France, and a new age of proletarian verse would now celebrate the rise of the oppressed. For years thereafter, both men complained that the king’s thugs and thought police dogged their every step around England. The crown thought both men were incendiary radicals bent on overthrowing the English monarchy. Not so. They were reading a much larger page of history and sensing profound shifts in the structure of European society as a whole. For the first time ever the ordinary mortal would have his say, or have it translated into poems about the rights of man, the reality of spirit, and a tentative resurrection of pagan beliefs in the wisdom of nature and its benevolent laws.
That was a good reading of things even in the eye of the storm. It showed that poets were first to elucidate the emerging patterns of historical violence. Nothing quite like it has taken place since. Modernism, much touted in the last century, was hailed as a new age of poetic discovery, a bold attempt to read the history coming into being after the slow death of Victorian culture in England and America. What would lie beyond the upholstered gaudy furniture of most middle-class houses, beyond black suits and doughty floor-length dresses, beyond the changing huts on the beach to preserve women’s modesty, beyond the religious sermon as the most popular form of reading. Beyond the facile morality of most novels and poems, the “emotional slither” of typical poetry of the 1880s, as Pound described it. Modernism would be about bare forms, like Brancusi’s sculptures, essential forms in the Cubist paintings of Picasso and Braque, the x-ray spareness of Frank Lloyd Wright’s “Prairie houses.” All those excesses of an age of empire would be swept away and a new age would show the bones and sinews of real nature. But alas, Modernism was not a prophecy of momentous change but a stylistic reformation. It made its adjustments and scrambled the procedures for self-analysis so that direct, penetrating insight into the ills of the individual would be seized in jumpy, erratic, gap-strewn phrases Eliot tried out in his earliest poems, notably in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” Suddenly, a bare-boned, honest, excruciating lyricism took over and replaced the padded verses of the past. That seemed like a major overhaul, but in time it showed that “free verse” could easily become something else in the hands of lesser disciples. Pound ruefully remarked that what he had intended as “Imagism” in 1915 soon became “Amygism” a few years later, as Amy Lowell cranked out fragmentary telegrams of the self that were hardly the perceptive nodes Pound had insisted on. William Carlos Williams complained that Eliot had forced the American poem back into the classroom after reading “The Waste Land” in 1922.
And in a sense Williams was right. Academic poets saw a chance to elevate the American idiom to something more refined and elegant, a way of escaping from Whitman’s barbaric yawp and the lawlessness of the new poetry. In other words, the big reading of the future didn’t quite grasp a truth that would be deeper and more resilient than the whims of poetic fashion and the politics of the various warring poetry schools that raged all through the first half of the century. Modernism was a dismal failure at finding the pattern of life emerging from the ruins of a world war, the withering influence of industrialism and the rise of corporations. All that was how the common man was once more put back into a framework of labor and diminished rights, while the aristocracy became the investor class and resumed its privileges undisturbed. Nothing Modernism had done quite changed the original ideas of Wordsworth and Coleridge, and across the Channel, of Baudelaire and Rimbaud. The epiphany had faded, and the ephemeral reviews and broadsheets slugged it out over who was with or against their minor causes.
The second half of the century had an even more tragic war to assess and interpret, with a mountain of 90 million civilian and military corpses to pore over for messages. But no sooner had the fires gone out than one was confronted with a strange urgency from the business classes – to find the means by which the masses could identify themselves and live comfortably in their drab neighborhoods and on diets lifted from the rations of dog soldiers. I was a child and could see the changes coming into my house as my mother tried out the new detergents, bought frozen food, served Coke and Pepsi with dinner, wore ready-mades and took us to the discount store for our annual school year wardrobes, the uniforms of peace time. Television soothed our nerves at night, and movies made us laugh and sing along as the investors bought up any patent that looked like it might induce mass belonging. The supermarket had endless aisles of canned foods and packaged meats, arrays of cereal and snack boxes, all of it the work of kitchen wizards at Nabisco, General Mills, Betty Crocker, and Kelloggs. None were much different in taste or texture; all were replacing ethnic foods with bland universality.
The makers knew that children wouldn’t eat an onion bagel with lox if they could slurp up soggy corn flakes in a bowl of thin milk with lots of sugar added. Burgers were the poor man’s banquet, as were franks and fried chicken. Bad coffee was cheap to buy and easy to make in a percolator, and prices for these shoddy goods kept falling as the designers of mass cult learned in detail what worked and what didn’t. The original perception of Wordsworth that the common man’s day was near had turned into a global phenomenon of tailoring all consumption to an undifferentiated, ethnically cleansed, morally neutral set of goods. At school we knew what moms had paid for shoes and pants; our tastes ran between Sears boys’ wear to J.C. Penny at the higher end. But in essence we were all dressed in a cosmic corduroy and institutional shoes with rubber soles and heels, t-shirts and cotton short-sleeves that were manufactured in vast sweat shops in the industrial new South. We looked like asylum inmates who had been handed a stack of institutional attire meant to keep us unified, succored on an identity that lacked detail or depth. We were just us.
As this transformation of America from a nation of immigrants to a population of consumers took form and lay on the surface of the land, with row houses and ranch-house subdivisions reaching to the horizon, and bland work and careers taking the place of skilled work in the cities and suburbs, the poets had no readings to make of these events. Instead, the second half of the century became a period of self-scrutiny in language that refused to allow for any uninitiated reading. The poetry was private, secretive, half-mad at times, or fully mad, if you examine the twisted lyrics of the Confessional poets. By the end of the century, Wordsworth and Coleridge were long gone from the literary mind; instead, one had Eliot and the poets of the ailing self as the illuminators of the future. There were no grand readings of what lay under the trembling, nervous surface of the world. No sense that history was going to explode or transform life, ever again. There was only the hermitic poet brooding in a corner on its pains and griefs, its morbid sense of loss, of profound alienation and disengagement from the world.
But we’re back to the smoke and fire as the new century enters its second decade. The old empires that divided and sundered the ancient states of the Middle East have seen their work crumble under a powerful upswell of Arab anger and resentment. The same revolutionary fires are burning across western Africa. The West is once more being peeled off the surface of modern history by the arms of Orc, and no poet seems capable of grasping what it means or what is being born of these rages.
What is certain is that what gave business its impetus to define the common man of post-revolutionary France has spread to the world; everywhere you go in the world you find the same chains of restaurants and hotels, apparel shops, and TV and movie fare. The globalized common man is handed out his meager portion of food and shelter and entertainment while the aloof upper classes turn all this merchandizing into legendary fortunes. Maybe one could say that Wordsworth and Coleridge did not see far enough to know there would be dangers once the common man arrived. They saw a chance to be poets in the new age, not politicians. They didn’t think they could control what was coming. Now that it’s here, a vast new Middle Ages begins to settle upon us and to shackle us with the same lack of choice, of personal freedom and expression as before. And the poets are picking lint from their shirts and gazing about with lofty, even haughty airs of importance. Don’t tell them they have nothing to say. It would spoil an afternoon of reverie and escape.