David Perkins

David Perkins: On "Howl"

Perhaps the hardest aspect of the poem to accept is, paradoxically, its humor. . . .  [F]or example, the "angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection" are compared to lightbulbs, or to any machine that can be plugged in and operated by electricity.  Even in relation to Ginsberg's conception of mystical experience . . . the comparison is reductive, for it suggests that such experiences turn on, galvanize the instant, and wink off, having no significance beyond the momentary "kick" or "trip."  For another example, consider the persons in Howl who "threw their watches off the roof to cast their ballot for Eternity outside of Time," and then "alarm clocks fell on their heads every day for the next decade."  These Dadaists are typical Ginsberg questers, heroic and futile.  He celebrates and ironizes.  As he put it in a letter to Williams, he has "W.C. Fields on my left and Jehovah on my right."  Though virtuous in other kinds of poems, in lament and prophecy this double perspective is a limitation.  But Ginsberg's self-reducing humor helps to explain the remarkably good-natured acceptance bestowed on him.  He is perceived more as a spiritual clown than as a threat.  A psychoanalyst might suggest that Ginsberg is a child testing the father's love.  His provocations are what Erik Erikson calls "teasing."  They defy and disarm at the same time. . . .

The hipster is also a victim, but of just what is obscure.  Ginsberg calls it "Moloch," and Moloch is the economic system, urban-industrial milieu, government, police, war, atom bomb, everyone's mentality, America, and Time (as opposed to Eternity).  Within Moloch our loves, visions, ecstasies, and epiphanies seem crazy, and the only escape from Moloch lies in suicide.  Because of the power of Moloch no rebellion can hope for practical effect.  Gestures of defiance are, as I said, merely expressions of feeling, and the more they are extreme and absurd, the greater the emotional satisfaction.  When the hipsters "distributed Supercommunist pamphlets," they did not expect to persuade anyone, any more than when they "burned cigarette holes in their arms," or "threw potato salad at CCNY lecturers on Dadaism and subsequently presented themselves on the granite steps of the madhouse . . . demanding instantaneous lobotomy."  In his feelings of bafflement, helplessness, constriction, and woe Ginsberg speaks for many readers, but by conjuring Moloch he also provides himself with less acceptable satisfactions, for he locates the evil outside himself and his fellow hipsters.  Or if Moloch exists in them also, it is not, Ginsberg thinks, as an inherent part of their being but an invading infection.  Viewing the enemy as wholly external, Ginsberg sentimentally transforms him into a demon and his victims into innocents.

David Perkins: On Randall Jarrell's War Poetry

… During the war he served in the air force, though not as a pilot. By 1942 he had published two collections of poetry. The preface to the first (1940) confessed his wish and failure to replace Modernism with something else. At the air base he listened to the stories of the pilots and read newspaper war reports and out of these materials he composed, in Little Friend, Little Friend (1945) and Losses (1948), what remain for many readers the finest "war" poems of our time. They are vivid and moving incidents of combat, told with an exceptionally sensitive psychological insight and moral perplexity. And the emotions of Jarrell’s pilots were in some ways unfamiliar in the literature of modern war. He expresses the pity and protest typical of the better poets of the First World War, the shock, horror, weary resignation and sense of doom common in war poetry, but also a nexus of other feelings; they do not belong just to Jarrell (or to[W. H. ] Auden, whose perceptions helped form Jarrell’s in these poems), or just to the Second World War, but persist to the present moment. The planes have more reality, more identity than their crews ("A Front"). Enclosed in machines in remote sky, the pilots are psychologically detached from the deaths they distribute and fall toward. They are murderers who are likely themselves to be murdered, yet also passive, helpless, and innocent ("Eighth Air Force"). In short, in his pilots Jarrell expressed the feelings of alienation, helplessness, regression, irresponsibility, and vulnerability that our vastly unmanageable, bureaucratic, technological civilization seems to create.

David Perkins: On "The Creation" and "God's Trombones"

The work for which Johnson is most remembered is God's Trombones, which caused a sensation when it was published in 1927. Impressed with the power of the imagination and speech of the Irish peasantry, Johnson wished to create a similar monument—and literary movement—for his own race. God’s Trombones consists of seven sermons by a black preacher. Though Johnson did not use dialect, his free-verse paragraphs are in the rhythms of this indigenous oratory and his imagery caught the simplicity and grandeur of the preacher's imagination, nurtured on the Bible:

 

And now, O Lord--

When I've done drunk my last cup of sorrow—

When I've been called everything but a child of God

When I'm done travelling up the rough side of the mountain--

O--Mary's Baby—

When I start down the steep and slippery steps of death—

When this old world begins to rock beneath my feet—

Lower me to my dusty grave in peace

To wait for that great gittin' up morning.

 

The use of the redundant auxiliary ("done"), the biblical, concrete imagery ("cup of sorrow"), the anaphora ("When I've . . . When this . . ."), and the allusion to well-known spirituals ("Mary Had a Baby, Yes, Lord" and "In Dat Great Gittin' up Mornin’") are typical of Johnson's style in this work. In an actual church sermon the last line would be a signal to the congregation to break into singing the spiritual.

David Perkins: On "Dead Body"

Though the tone of this is complex and difficult to define, one's first impression is not. To speak of a child's death as a "subtraction" is peculiar and oblique to the nth degree, and so also is calling it a "transaction." Reinforced by their rhyme, the terms inevitably suggest that the boy's death is not much felt by the speaker. "Foul" therefore seems a cold, half-comic hyperbole, and the "green bough" a cliché, though one that renders the semibiblical speech of this traditional community. But on reflection we note that since the speaker is not one of the kin, he can appropriately view the death from detached perspectives, and whatever sympathy he feels may be the more moving because it emerges through and despite his detachment. But no matter where we finally arrive in our response to this poem, the initial shock is chilling.

David Perkins: On "Richard Cory"

"Richard Cory" concentrates on a particular character. The poem is no lyric self-expression, but an impersonal, objective report. The setting is an American town of the time, the provincial imagination engrossed and dazzled by a figure of consummate gentlemanly elegance (of royalty, as the townsfolk take it, if one regards a counterpoint in the images "crown," "imperially slim"). The idiom, though cultured, is colloquial, not in the least "poetic." Except at the end, the poem selects the most ordinary incidents as points of focus and plays down emotion.

Above all there are the irony and humor from which the poem chiefly derives its effectiveness. The surprise ending may be a little easy, and the implied moral--something like "how little we really know about the lives of others!"--may be trite. (The "idea" of the poem, Douglas Bush suggests to me, may have been taken from a bit in Bleak House, chapter 22.) But what matters is the attitude of the speaker toward himself and especially toward the other townspeople: his self-awareness, ironic distance, and detached amusement with the human comedy. The poem is subtle, however, and it is easier to sense this attitude than indicate its source. It depends very much on the characterization of the speaker through language, syntax, and metrical form. The idiom ("clean favored," "in fine") is itself "admirably schooled," the syntax controlled and orderly, and the neatness of the quatrains further contributes to the impression. One infers that the speaker is an educated man and hence that his self-identification with the too-admiring townsfolk is half ironic, a circumstance that becomes especially clear in the exaggeration of the lines,

So on we worked, and waited for the light,

And went without the meat, and cursed the bread.

The speaker has a self-conscious, fastidious awareness of his language. In the phrase, "yes, richer than a king," the "yes" means, "yes, we even used the stock cliché," and one thus understands that the phrasing throughout is adjusted in irony to convey the sayings and feelings of the townsfolk more than his own--for example, the subtly telling cliché, "from sole to crown," or the excessive enthusiasm (and bathetic fall) in the phrase "imperially slim." A speaker so aware must also be aware of the discrepancy between the commonplace actions of Cory (going down town, saying "good-morning," or simply walking) and the reactions of the townspeople (staring from the pavement, "fluttered pulses," their feeling that Cory "glittered when he walked"). Even the initial metrical inversion of the third line ("He was") counts by glancing invidiously at "we" others. The result is a reflective, shrewdly humorous portrait by implication of the town and townsfolk. Low-keyed, cerebral, ironic, impersonal, mingling humor and seriousness and implicating a whole social milieu, the poem was without precedent or even parallel in the 1890s.

David Perkins: On Amy Lowell

In Pictures of the Floating World (1919) Miss Lowell, who felt that volumes of poetry should have a unified character and effect, published the short lyrics she had written and stored up since 1914.

These free-verse lyrics display the qualities for which her work was exemplary at the this time. Her diction and syntax are relatively simple, straightforward, and idiomatic. She renders sensations with exact impression. The poems adhere closely to the concrete, avoiding generalization and "rhetoric." "November" is an example:

David Perkins: On "The Snow Man"

"… When we think of a snowman, most of us visualize balls of snow placed on top of each other, coals for eyes, a carrot nose, and the like. I mention these details only to point out Stevens does not. His poem does not describe but merely invokes "The Snow Man" by mentioning him in the title; thereafter the snowman is involved in the poem only as a metaphor of a metaphor. He is a metaphor of a "mind of winter," and this, in turn, is a metaphor of something even more abstract: a mind that entertains nothingness. …

But it is easy to imagine that whoever speaks or thinks this poem is himself looking at a snowman. In this case the poem may be related to the descriptive-meditative tradition in English poetry that comes down to us from the eighteenth century and the Romantic period. … A convention organizing all such poems is that the poet finds himself at some place or views some prospect or object. The poem describes what is seen and, as it proceeds, enacts a train of thought and feeling occasioned immediately by the place or object and referring repeatedly to it. Stevens’ "The Snow Man" presents the meditation with the description omitted. As "meditation," its form is thinking, the mind in activity, and this is also in part its subject, The poem is one sentence. It proceeds by amplification, illustrating the inherent dynamism of the mind, its fertile power to proceed on its own impulse.

Still dwelling on "The Snow Man," we may note that the poem posits two types of listener. One would hear a "misery in the sound of the wind." Through his own imaginative creativity he would project a human emotion into the scene and locate it there. Thus, he would make the landscape one with which human beings can feel sympathy. The other listener would hear nothing more than the sound of the wind. He would exert none of this spontaneous and almost inevitable creativity. The poem embodies Stevens’ central theme, the relation between imagination and reality. Endless permutations of this theme were possible. Was reality the world seen without imagination? If so, was imagination the world seen without reality? That was a bitter truth, if it was the truth. But perhaps the snowman, who heard no "misery" in the wind, was projecting himself into the scene just as much as the other listener. Perhaps the snowman beheld nothing only because he was "nothing himself," since, to cite a later poem, whoever "puts a pineapple together" always sees it "in the tangent of himself."

From David Perkins, A History of Modern Poetry: From the 1890s to the High Modernist Mode (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1976), 542-544.

David Perkins: On Ashbery’s Predecessors: Stevens, Eliot and Pound

Ashbery’s subject matter is similar to that of his favorite poet, Wallace Stevens. Both poets write of the mind forming hypotheses about reality in general, about the ultimate truth or nature of things. Stevens, as I said earlier, took for granted that we cannot know reality in itself. Whether we conceive of it as a colorless, featureless continuum, like gray haze on a winter afternoon, or as a "jostling festival" of concrete, particular identities, like a morning in June full of birdsong, we are in either case forming an imagination of reality. …

From David Perkins, "Meditations of the Solitary Mind: John Ashbery and A R. Ammons" (Chapter 26) in A History of Modern Poetry: Modernism and After (Cambridge: Harvard U P, 1987), 619-620, 623-624, 632.