A Few Ways of Pulling Apart a Poem

by Reed Whittemore | December 9, 1957

June comes, the end of a kind of
And the thought of starting again with a new set of points
And a full tank of whatever it is
     that makes
Our own cranky old crate rattle on toward the scrapheap—
This seedy thought
Hobbles our way on its endless circuit, bearing
Its regular summer line of beaches, parks,
Mountains, canyons and islands with and without
                        We are charmed.
We read the brochures.
At all the resorts the proprietors pretty their cabins,
Fatten their calves and rates, and look to the weather,
God and the Chamber of Commerce to send them
A better season that last, and to make us
Quiet tenants who don’t drink.
Makers of boats and mosquito repellent,
Owners of drive-ins and fruitstands,
These persons too await us, as do
Jellyfish, horseflies and oilers of highways all
Biding their time as we with our children,
Luggage, golf clubs and travelers checks
Turn off the juice lock doors and fussily set forth
On what will no doubt turn out to be like the last
Several brochure summers, which we don’t remember
Now were delighted but couldn’t, we’re sure,
Possibly match the one we’re about to endure. 


A POEM of my own. I put it here because I propose to use it as a whipping post while I discuss high matters. It isn’t a bad poem if I may say so, but it isn’t good either. I struggle to describe its defects, and I find words from several different vocabularies uncomfortably jostling each other to be spoken. I hope to get beyond the jostling, but may not. If not, I find solace in the hope that the jostling itself may be instructive.

My first vocabulary may be loosely described as belonging to Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren. I call it theirs since those gentlemen can hardly suffer any more from loose use than they already have. I was bred up with a copy of their celebrated textbook Understanding Poetry on my bedside table; hence my first and frequently least valuable thoughts about any literary work are apt to be connected with such words as “totality” and “intention.” In the poem above I think I perceive that I have failed to carry out my original intentions with the poem. I arrive at this profundity easily by noting that the poem is one I have been trying for some time without success to expand or elaborate upon. As I see it the poem should be at least twice its present size. I should have a second narrator who would come in just as the present speaker leaves off and deny some of the latter’s clever but intemperate slurs upon the unfortunate “we” of the poem; by so doing this new character would undermine the present easy indulgence of the “we,” the facile dismissal of anything but mauve ironies from “we’s” repertoire I would then have a pleasant dialogue going between two opposed points of view and in the stress and strain and, yes, tension existing between them the totality o complex that I apparently originally envisioned might emerge.

How does that sound? Pretty good? Good or bad, put it aside please and consider how my second criticism, which emanates from the part of my mind addicted to the sociologist David Riesman. That part reads the poem and comes up, a bit too readily, with the conclusion that I want my first or second speaker, or somebody, to be “warm” about the poem’s vacationists. Riesman should not be blamed for this conclusion, which is my own; he merely has spoke at length in The Lonely Crowd and in Faces in the Crowd about warmth in our time, and what he has said has stuck with me. Ultimately Riesman tries to demonstrate that warmth is a crucial word in the vocabulary of the other-directed. As a graduate student interviewed in Faces in the Crowd put it, “That’s what I mean by human—warm.”


THE RIESMAN PART of my mind, then, says of the poem that it is cold and I want to make it warm. I now turn back a bit to Aristotle, whose line on my poem, at least in my mind, is based upon his following familiar words: “Comedy aims at representing men as worse, Tragedy as better than in actual life.” He adds, discussing the difference historically:

Poetry now diverged in two directions, according to the individual character of the writers. The graver spirits imitated noble actions, and the actions of good men. The more trivial sort imitated the actions of meaner persons, at first composing satires, as the former did hymns to the gods and the praises of famous men.

I gather from this that the Aristotle in me regards my poem as trivial or at best as comic, and this part would have me turn over a new leaf, become a graver spirit and endow my vacationists with all the dignity that graces the actions of “good” men. Very well.


MY FOURTH and last criticism of the poem stems from a reading of a fine British Marxist critic. Arnold Ketle. In discussing a novelist of whom I had never heard, E.L. Voynich, Kettle latches on to a remark made by Bernard Shaw after attending a meeting:

It flashed on me for the first time that “the conflict between erligion and science”… the overthrow of the Bible. The higher education of women, Mill on liberty, and all the storm that raged around Darwin, Tyndall, Huxley, Spencer and the rest, on which I had brought myself up intellectually, was a mere middle-class business.

Kettle then proceeds to try to describe what a “middle-class business” is, for that is of course the crucial phrase here. As he does so, and he does so at length, my mind wanders away from all the novelists he brings forth to make his point—Dickens, James, George Eliot, Conrad, as well as the Voynich person—and comes back to roost naturally and inevitably with my poem—what else? And, also naturally and inevitably, the more my mind thinks about the poem in relation to Voynich, the more sure it is that the poem is all-in-all a mere middle-class business. Here is the kind of Kettle statement that leads to this conclusion:

If one doesn’t understand what Shaw meant by “a mere middle-class business,” I don’t think one will be likely to see what I am getting at when I refer to George Eliot’s limitations in particular and suggest that there was no great novelist between Dickens and Conrad. I think, besides, that Shaw, with his talk of “the new spirit” (the sort of thing that doesn’t go down too well in literary circles these days) and his sense of the limitations of the latter-day bourgeois literature, had got hold of something which most literary critics have ignored—to their cost. And I don’t think that what he had got hold of can be brushed aside as “non-literary.” When he talks of the “resurgent energy” of such a writer as Ibsen the judgment is not extra-literary. On the contrary, he has put his finger on the very quality in which, for instance, Tolstoy’s novels as literature excel George Eliot’s. 

How does this kind of talk apply to my poem? Well, the poem does lack “energy” somehow, and this lack is I think evident even in the poem’s origins. The matter of the poem, and even a measure of the expressed attitude toward the matter, seems to have been given to me by cartoons, jokes and advertising matter about vacationists, matter from the Postscripts page of the Saturday Evening Post and from cure billboards selling sun-tan lotion. This given matter I have simply swallowed; as a result I haven’t really had to think very much about it or about the “we” of the poem. I have merely accepted a whole convention of thought about vacationists, or have, as Brooks and Warren might put it, made a stock response to them. Kettle would go further than Brooks and Warren here, however, and say that my response is middle-class; I have entertained thoughts about vacationists in the same dispirited, unenergetic, unfelt, unthought-out manner as Shaw’s thinkers entertained their notions of Mill, Darwin, Huxley and so on. Thus, a mere middle-class business. Something to amuse, divert, entertain—no more.

Here, then are in brief my four tentative criticisms of the poem, as drawn from four different schools or disciplines of literary thinking: it is an oversimplification and therefore incomplete; it is cold; it is trivial; it is bourgeois. How the poem can survive after this four-power attack I’m sure I don’t know, but its survival doesn’t worry me very much. Criticism, not my poem, is the subject here. I am concerned with the relative merits of these four somewhat different ways of saying that my poem is not yet ready for the golden treasuries. And how to weight these merits? —this is the difficult part.


I MUST go at it personally by deciding how helpful each of the criticism is to me as I project, not very seriously, a revision or an amplification of the poem. I am convinced, for example, that the Brooks and Warren criticism is a sound one, and the thought of adding a second speaker to enlarge upon the present statement sounds reasonable. But there is one small difficulty: I haven’t been given the smallest clue, by my Brooks and Warren Department, to what, precisely, that second speaker will say. Her Brooks and Warren fail me, because in that part of my mind attuned to them there is no room somehow for matters outside the poem. And at the moment that other speaker is certainly outside the poem.


AS FOR RIESMAN, well, this “warmth” business is one I can’t ignore, but Riesman is not really the man I must contend with. Van Wyck Brooks is, and his Oliver Allston (Opinions of Oliver Allston by Van Wyck Brooks). Allston (or Brooks) is a great disapprover of almost everything vaguely unwarm; he dislikes certain artists whoa re “divorced from the soil, divorced from the country…and from parenthood and love, ignorant of the general life, with no horizon beyond their noses.” And naturally, in reverse, he likes anything warm or having to do with feeling. Perhaps his position is best but in a remark he quotes approvingly from William Morris: “I always know when a thing is really good by its making me feel warm across here” (at this point Morris “rubbed with both hands the part of his waistcoat that covered the seat of his diaphragm”). Thus Allston would seem to agree with Riesman’s graduate student that humanity and warmth are synonymous, and although they might differ about where the seat of warmth is they would be one in pointing out that the seat is not in the head.

I guess I agree, for certainly one part of my head believes that my poem is cold. It is this part that mumbles that I have been led in the poem to make with my wit at the expense of my heart or diaphragm. But even though I give this part the dignity of a hearing I can only say, after I have heard, “Well, yes, but what exactly does the heart or the diaphragm feel about these vacationists? Just that they are human? That is, warm like a woodchuck in its hole? I know they are warm and human—I am one of them—and I am willing t be quite sympathetic with them. But what line or tack would you have my second narrator take to demonstrate this? Would you have him simply go on croaking, ‘Be warm! Be warm!’ like a Poe bird?” For at this point, it seems to me, Van Wyck Brooks is as empty of suggestions as are Brooks and Warren. He does not talk as they do, but he stops at the same place. Brooks and Warren taper off by saying that a poem should represent the “entire nature of man,” while Van Wyck Brooks falls back on Whitman who said he wanted “for poetry the clear sun shining, the fresh air blowing, the strength and power of health, not of delirium…with always the background of the eternal moralities.” But in either cae I return to my poem unenlightened, or turn to a different critic for more specific assistance—say Aristotle.

Aristotle’s criticism may be the most telling of all, it being essentially a criticism of me rather than the poem. I am trivial; therefore the poem is. Maybe so. But if so I cannot, to acknowledge the untrivial fact, simply wipe the smile off my face and start grimacing like King Lear (or, more probably, Orson Welles). I must, like a psychiatrist, go first to the root of my difficulty. Is it for example peculiarly my difficulty, one perhaps brought on by my mother when she tickled my infant feet, or is it less localized, having to do with my time, my society, the hwole climate surrounding that creative spirit who sat down one morning and wrote, on the back of a blank check, “June comes, the end of a kind of year.” I suspect the latter, but Aristotle would not have me do so; he does not deal with the comic or tragic spirit as a manifestation of either personal or social forces. It is sui generis; it is simply there, and presumably it will remain there no matter how many new narrators I create to remove it. Thus Aristotle’s criticism, though it may be true (Lord knows!), is not going to help me revise the poem. Indeed it rather encourages me to leave the poem as is, a perfect product of my comic (trivial) being.


AND NOW, Kettle. I am not any kind of a Marxist, and I have a ood many objections to his objections to bourgeois thought and feeling. Nonetheless, beside the other critics I have used and abused here, his remarks are like real (not Whitman’s) fresh air blowing. Why?—the answer is not simple. In some respects Kettle is merely repeating what the other critics have said. A middle-class business, for example, would appear to be a trivial business: and a work without resurgent energy” might be thought of either as a work without deep feeling—i.e., warmth—or as a work conditioned by a popular conventional attitude—i.e., built upon a stock response. But Kettle doesn’t stop here as the others do; he puts his remarks into a social and historical context, and this simple action makes all the difference. It does not even matter to me much (though perhaps it should) whether or not his placement is a wholly correct one. I am not satisfied with his word “bourgeois” and might prefer to start off by thinking of the poem as merely “mid-Twentieth-Century American” or, more narrowly and snidely, “Upper-Middle-Brow Comment upon Mid-Twentieth-Century American.” But whether the word “bourgeois” is apt or not it is a different kind of word than “warm” or “comic” or “facile.” It serves to place my poem in time and space, as the other words don’t and as, indeed, I didn’t in my own mind when I wrote the poem. I can best suggest the value of such placement by showing the poetic result—that is, by putting down some opening lines for a second speaker’s rejoinder to the poem’s present statement. The lines are not good, but they are a beginning, and they were provoked by Kettle talking about George Eliot. Here they are:

And yet you propose to endure it. Why?
Why do you pack that car year after year
And go off trailing the rest of them to some
Dirty, fished-out lake where, with the rest of them,
You joke and mildly complain of the bugs and the weather,
And find solace in drink and the simple numb knowledge
That though you do what you do you do know better? 

A beginning, I say. Maybe the end, too—for I fear that poor little lake will not stand the weight of a really severe criticism of the pointlessness of modern (bourgeois?) life. After all, people do have pleasant vacations; there are clean lakes; and a vacation is a poor occasion at best for watering the revolutionary spirit that lurks in most of us. Still, I must come back to the fact that it was Kettle, not any of the others, who got me this far. I had to read a piece not on poetry at all, not by an American, and not by a man of my political persuasion before the simple truth was revealed to me, as out of a burning bush, that there really were other possibly positions than the one entertained by my first narrator. The other criticisms had merely suggested that there ought to be.


LET ME ELABORATE. I suppose that my remarks are ultimately directed against Brooks and Warren, and Van Wyck Brooks (I do not, I find, have any serious complaint against Aristotle), or at least against the kind of literary criticism which they seem to represent. Normally these days we do not think of the two Brookses as being a single “kind”; indeed they are opposites, and fighting opposites at that, and I certainly don’t want to deny their differences—differences that Kettle perhaps describes indirectly in his criticism of George Eliot: 

There remains George Eliot and her admirable qualities. She is the biggest of the late-Victorian novelists, wide in her sympathies, deep in her understanding, wise, humane, with all the Tolstoyan virtues—until on actually comes to compare her with Tolstoy. And then one has the sense of something missing, something vital in the most precise sense. There is life there, all right, in Middlemarch especially, but it is life that lacks something—how shall we describe it?—vibrancy, immediacy, extremity perhaps? “How far apart all the houses are,” someone has excellently said. Everything matters in Middlemarch, but it matters a little ponderously, a little distantly even, in the way “important issues,” “Moral decision,” “serious questions” “cultural crises” matter: in the way things matter—to be a good deal less than fair—in Times leaders. Yes, they do matter; but do they matter quite like that?

How does this apply to my critics? Well, they too, it seems to me, lack this “something vital” Kettle is talking about. They are somehow always to be found speaking off the point whatever the point may be, and generally demonstrating how far their house is from the house they are discussing (in this case, I suppose, my poem). To demonstrate what I mean I must discuss them separately.

1. Brooks and Warren do not perhaps like to think of their criticism as lacking in vitality, human relevance, or whatever, in its essentials. When for example they talk, as they do, about poetry’s striving to express the “entire nature of man” they are demonstrating what appears to be an admirable interest in the nature of man as well as the nature of literature. What, however, is consistently missing from their criticism—and clearly missing by design—is any expressed interest in what the nature of man is. Constantly they make man a complex or a totality and let him go at that, on the grounds, presumably, that their primary business is not man but literature, and that by soming right out with a lot of big talk about man they would merely be indulging themselves after the manner of all those erring and now unfashionable critics, like Van Wyck Brooks, they have consistently opposed—the manner which treats literature as homily or history or philosophy or sociology—in short as anything except literature. Over and over again in Understanding Poetry they insist upon the importance of thinking of the poem as a poem. And over and over again their disciples, though they may hate to be described as disciples, similarly adopt “poem as poem” as their major premise. For indeed this is the major premise, the first principle of the now old New Criticism.

Unfortunately I must report that it’s a poor premise. It may serve to start a scene or two in class, but it will never in the world get the bugs out of my verses.

2. Brooks and Warren appear deficient in Warmth and Human Understanding by design, and the design is in many respects an excellent one (though it doesn’t help with my verses). Van Wyck Brooks’ Allston on the other hand is deficient and doesn’t know it. He for example finds the New Critics “mechanical and scientific” and declares that their “literary values [are] floating in the void.” Yet he himself floats buoyantly in that void and pronounces the experience delightful. He tells us “what a pleasure it is to think” and neglects to say about what. He quotes with approval a remark about painting that “the painter’s whole morality consists in keeping his brushes clean and getting up in the morning.” He discusses interminably how writers should live, what they should wear, what devices they should use to gain “the ear of the muse,” and how long they should keep their works before sending them to a publisher; but he never faces up to a writer’s matter except in the incredibly vague Whitmanesque terms quoted above: sun shining, fresh air blowing, and so forth. Thus although he ends his book, Opinions of Oliver Allston, with a stern admonition to us to be tough-minded, his own mind is thoroughly soft; it will not bear the weight of a single serious matter for more than a sentence or two, and then only in the most playful, platitudinous manner. As a result what purports to be one of the book’s primary assertions—“literature has been out on a branch. We must return to the trunk” is defended by describing “trunk” writers in terms such as these: 

The greatest are those who speak for all mankind; and every great man writing knows what men and women are and what they have it in them to become—through him humanity breathes and thinks and sings. He shares the traits of others in larger measure. That men should have life and have it more abundantly, this is the general aim of great men writing, of Erasmus, Dickens, Rabelais, Dostoyevsky, of Goethe, Ibsen, Whitman whomsoever one chooses.


WHOMSOEVER indeed! What good is that final list to anybody? Surely it is a fine example of the unvital criticism of which I speak, the kind that, like a bad servant, just isn’t home when called. But I must repeat that though I have a greater distaste for this kind of thing than for the New Criticism, I find the latter equally deficient. And because I do I wish I could now turn to Kettle’s piece on Voynich and be able to describe triumphantly what is not a mere middle-class business in this sad world—for this is really what I must do to carry this essay through. I must point out that though my poem is a mere middle-class business, and though all my thoughts about the poem are mere middle-class business (being derived from critics who are strictly middle-class business), still there is something other than mere middle-class business somewhere. Well, of course here is, but I am a poor one to report on it, being such a middle-class business myself. Kettle, however, reports on it eloquently. The “something” is to be found in all the various “liberation” movements starting in the Nineteenth Century and continuing, I suppose, right on down to the present. He asserts, for example, or rather suggests the following: 

By the second half of the Nineteenth Century, I would suggest, it had become impossible for a novelist to operate adequately within the framework and assumptions of bourgeois society. To put it crudely, it was not longer possible to be honest enough to be a great writer without being in some sense a revolutionary. To achieve a necessary sense of the vigor and potentiality of life, to bring a full humanity and vitality to literature, it was necessary to go outside the contracting or decaying bourgeois framework.

This is an interesting remark, being so close in some respects and so opposed in others to the essentially non-Marxist talk in our country of the artist’s alienation from modern society. But it is not a remark I can triumphantly conclude with (though it might be the kind to give my second speaker, so that my first speaker might have something, in his reply, to be more than merely middle-class about). No, the value of Kettle’s essay ends for me with his an Shaw’s perceptive remarks about the limitations of bourgeois (I would prefer to say some bourgeois) thinking. I recommend it for this, and I suggest, as a “liberating” activity, reading at random poems and critiques of poems in any literary magazine now being published, with the phrase, “a mere middle-class business,” firmly in mind. Doing so won’t produce any revolutionaries, and the phrase will pall rapidly, if it has not already. Still, the phrase may help—simply because it seems to be persistently applicable—to point up the social and historical desert through which our poetry and its prose now stumble.

This article appeared in the December 9, 1957 issue of the magazine.

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