I was asked by Denver’s Westerlind (via e-mail) about my thoughts on ‘poetic integrity.’ At once I felt a real clarity and real pause of position. Here are a few thoughts.
(As preamble: my concern lay majorly with Poets, not poets—those whom imagine poetry more a gnostic duty than a mode of pleasure, popular repute, academic repute, or general ‘outlet.’ I do not mean to imply that the former type of poet is without joy in her composition and reading, only that such joy is not her primary writerly impulse.)
(i) If, in one sense, ‘integrity’ implies unity and cohesion, ‘poetic integrity’ must be interrogated.
Personally, I should not like to write the same poem twice; I may explore certain themes many times, but hope to deepen, broaden, or transmute my cause (or effect) each time. If I notice the sestina becoming a crutch, it must be left—perhaps for good. One should interrogate most vigorously the forms and styles wherein he writes what he (currently) deems his best work. In terms of his oeuvre and his understanding of self, a Poet should not seek ‘integrity.’
(ii) If, in another sense, ‘integrity’ implies a development of strong, principled poetics, let us have it.
You see the interesting line here: for a Poet, possessing a philosophy of art is integral, but it must not ossify. To defend Stevens’ “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” based on grammar school patina is not integrity; to re-read the poem every few months, harrow it a bit, and still come out reeling—that is the thing. Reminiscence is not poetics; ‘integrity’ is rather a wraith, always demanding to know why it should be boss. (And, in this case, it should be boss.) In the Gawain Poet’s terms, integrity ‘Hef hyȝly þe here.‘
This line of comment speaks to the growing and deeply amorphous critique of ‘shrillness’ in academic contexts. In her (quite substantive) critique of Rita Dove’s editorial work in Penguin’s Anthology of Twentieth-Century Poetry, Helen Vendler’s tone (and thus her article in toto) was critiqued as ‘shrill’; the exposé that was foetry.com—which unmasked Jorie Graham and Bin Ramke as educators and artists of deeply questionable morality—has been almost entirely set aside because of its ‘shrill’ tone (at least insofar as we see both poets retaining high academic profile). This is an injustice. It is, I would suggest, such vapid imperatives of ‘good behavior’ or ‘collegiality’ that stop poets short of becoming Poets—that stifle growth into ‘poetic integrity.’ Criticism of content is quite different from criticism of tone, even if one may inform the other; when an academic or artist-academic hews his critiques with a head to student evaluations, tenure, or further magazine publications, it is the academy (and students) that suffers for its loss of ‘integral’ faculties. Poets should be morally and aesthetically rigorous before they are ‘social’ (something a major artistic socialite, Gertrude Stein, knew very well).
(iii) ‘Poetic integrity’ may imply something about poetry’s history—but I’m not sure what.
It is generally unwise to level a loose critique of Emily Dickinson, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Emily Brontë, or Herman Melville in my presence; I think my desire to shepherd and protect their ‘poetic integrity’ is part of that pique. Because they are no longer ‘producing’ poems (or very poetic prose), their poetics are not active in the same way a living Poet’s may be—and this complicates our first point, since perhaps it is a (justified?) bracketing of produce and method that I want to call for in this case, and this that I want to defend. The resultant desire to qualify this bracketing with reiteration of the ever-expanding purport of Dickinson’s or Hopkins’ poems as enduring art-objects—ones that ‘pass’ their actual dying—strikes me as requiring further reflection.
There’s also a bit of the ol’ Romanticism in this mastiff, liking to hunker down at the grave with his relics and bared teeth.
Your thoughts are very welcome.