The Barbarian Invasion of Poetry (Hurrah!)
And now, what’s going to happen to us without barbarians?
They were, those people, a kind of solution.
This just in: the Empire of Poetry has fallen to the barbarians. The fall was not sudden—it took place over the course of the last seventy years or so, and even before then alarmed sentries spoke of shaggy hordes moving in the dark forests beyond the far-flung border outposts, clutching their axes and the icons of their strange, compelling gods. Let me begin by making clear that I, bred within the confines of the old and dying Empire, welcome the barbarians as friends, and as a force to invigorate our aging and insular imperium.
When I speak of barbarians, I speak of them as the Italian novelist and essayist Alessandro Baricco does in his study The Barbarians: An Essay on the Mutation of Culture, a book largely unknown in America, despite having been serialized in one of the most prominent Italian newspapers, giving rise there to a nationwide discussion of the changing nature of cultural production and consumption. For Barrico, the barbarians are a group on the rise, and not just in Italy, or even Europe, but worldwide. Ever more visible, they cause great distress among the more hidebound Catos committed to the old and dying virtues of the Empire—not, it is important to note, a distress that Barrico shares. Barrico sees the barbarians everywhere, marked not so much by their different culture as by the different way they think about culture, be it musical culture, literature, cuisine—even wine and soccer (Barrico is, after all, Italian). The old ways of the Empire are deeply traditional, rooted in an appreciation of the specific history of whatever cultural form is under consideration. But the barbarians see things differently. They are eclectic, these nomads from beyond the borders, and less attached to the traditions of the imperial past.
Consider wine. In the past, it was available to few, grown only in select areas, and those who knew it knew a few varieties, mostly local, but knew them with great intimacy. There were families in which water was simply never on the table, whose members, as Barrico says, “lived on the same hillsides where for three generations their families have fallen asleep each night to the scent of must.” When they open a bottle and drink from it, their frame of reference may be narrow, but it runs deep—“Ah!” they’d say, “the vintage of ’53! It was dry that year, but shady on the hillsides, much as in ‘59—you can feel it on the back of the tongue.” The same connoisseur whose palate is so thoroughly refined may never have bothered trying scotch, though, having limited himself—or having been limited by circumstances—to the splendors of the local vineyards. Nowadays, such specialized knowledge is rarer—if not in absolute terms, then relative to the number of people now drinking wine. Under modern conditions, wine is abundant, grown in countries where few had thought it possible, and consumed quite differently, mostly by people whose frames of reference are not the local terroir and its tradition, but craft beer and the occasional martini. And wine is often made with these new frames of reference in mind, designed to signify in an array of tastes ranging from fruity sodas to peaty whiskeys, not with reference to the past of specific grape and region. Old-school wine lovers may look on these newcomers with disdain, much as the ancient Greeks looked the outlanders whose speech seemed to them like nothing but a garble of syllables, the bar-bar-bar from which the word “barbarian” comes. But the barbarians did make their own kind of sense to those who learned how to listen.
As with wine, so also with music: the old Empire was one of narrow connoisseurship, where one knew a particular genre—classical, say—in great detail. Its historical evolution, its main routes and byways, the evolution not just of composition but performance—all signified and formed a coherent whole for the imperial listener. But the barbarians? They are likely to shuffle between samba, indie rock, baroque, and bebop, mixing reggae and raga in an array both broadly xenophilic and, in comparison with the imperial model, a little sketchy on the details of each specific tradition. In both the imperial and the barbaric modes of listening, we see responses to specific cultural conditions: when it’s hard to find west African music outside of west Africa, one could be forgiven for ignoring it and listening exclusively to the local classical radio station. When the internet offers everything, anywhere, all the time, such habits seem strangely self-limiting, even though they result in a profound understanding of the one known tradition.
When Barrico turns to literature, the pattern remains the same. “To get a firm grasp of this,” writes Barrico, “you should think of, say, William Faulkner”:
To enter into one of Faulkner’s books, what do you need? You need to have read many other books. In a certain sense, you need a mastery of all literary history: a mastery of literary language, a familiarity with the temporal anomaly of reading, an acceptance of a certain taste and certain idea of beauty that have formed over time within the literary tradition. Is there anything external to book culture that you need in order to make the journey? Almost nothing.
Leaving aside the truth of the particular instance (I can hear them now, the southerners crying out that one needs to know Dixie to know Faulkner), we see the imperial attitude clearly enough: the Empire revers the specific history of a given field. But the barbarians range far and wide and quickly between different territories, glimpsing many things briefly as they go.
What, though, is the Empire’s take on poetry? On this Barrico is silent, but the implication is clear: the Empire has read T.S. Eliot’s “Tradition and the Individual Talent” and made it something like a credo, held aloft along with the war eagles of the imperial standards. Eliot’s ideal of the tradition is, in the realm of poetry, recognizably the ideal animating Barrico’s connoisseurs of music, wine, and fiction. The poet, says Eliot, must have a historical sense, a knowledge of “the mind of Europe” which:
…involves a perception, not only of the pastness of the past, but of its presence; the historical sense compels a man to write not merely with his own generation in his bones, but with a feeling that the whole of the literature of Europe from Homer and within it the whole of the literature of his own country has a simultaneous existence and composes a simultaneous order. This historical sense, which is a sense of the timeless as well as of the temporal and of the timeless and of the temporal together, is what makes a writer traditional. And it is at the same time what makes a writer most acutely conscious of his place in time, of his contemporaneity.
No poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone. His significance, his appreciation is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists. You cannot value him alone; you must set him, for contrast and comparison, among the dead.
Examples among Eliot’s peers are legion—Pound, obviously, or H.D., or David Jones. Even William Carlos Williams, who pointed us toward the everyday, is, behind the wheelbarrows and the refrigerators filled with plums, informed at every turn the conventions of Renaissance poetry and the old Greek myth of Persephone. The fruits of this tradition are both abundant and sophisticated—perhaps rising to greatest dominance in American poetry in the 1950s. The poetry then most visible was a poetry very much in accord with Eliot’s ideals, even when it wore its tradition lightly. One thinks of the opening of Theodore Roethke’s “I Knew a Woman Lovely in Her Bones”:
I knew a woman, lovely in her bones,
When small birds sighed, she would sigh back at them
Ah, when she moved, she moved more ways than one:
The shapes a bright container can contain!
Of her choice virtues only gods should speak,
Or English poets who grew up on Greek
(I’d have them sing in chorus, cheek to cheek).
How well her wishes went! She stroked my chin,
She taught me Turn, and Counter-turn, and Stand;
She taught me Touch, that undulant white skin;
I nibbled meekly from her proffered hand
She was the sickle; I, poor I, the rake,
Coming behind her for her pretty sake
(But what prodigious mowing we did make).
It’s not just the naming of the parts of the ode and the invocation of the classics-infused tradition of English poetry that aligns this poem with Eliot’s way of looking at things: it’s the light and loving touch Roethke shows with the conventional metaphors of the courtier poets, and the sly, knowing use of the metaphysical conceit. The poem sings on its own terms, but it harmonizes with the specifically poetic past. That chorus of English poets is real.
Of course there were barbarians afoot in the 1950s, too: poets who looked outside the history specific to poetry for primary inspiration. Frank O’Hara, for example, was as familiar with poetic tradition as anyone (his Meditations in an Emergency is a play on the Donne’s Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions, sometimes referred to as Meditations Upon Emergent Occasions, a joke made for the citizens of the Empire). But he was even more drawn to, and inspired by, material outside of poetry—jazz, the movies, popular culture—as he was by Eliot’s “mind of Europe.”
If the master-word of Empire is “tradition,” or “continuity” the master-word of the barbarians is “adjacency” or “contiguity”—concern with fields beyond poetry that can be related to poetry. Not for the barbarian the vertical axis working its way into the poetic past like a rock drill through geological layers. Instead, the horizontal axis reaching out to territories beyond the specific plot of poetry and its particular artistic past. And this isn’t just a matter of poets reaching out to pop culture, and writing about Super Mario Brothers or their parents’ collections of prog rock albums. It’s often a matter of poets situating their work within a sequence based outside of poetry, in the identity of one or another sort of community.
This, to my mind, is where what we’ve been calling barbarian poetry is most intensely important and valuable. We have seen an extraordinary growth of poetry connected to identity politics, from the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s to today. Here, the poetry, which may or may not orient itself to the poetic tradition of “the mind of Europe,” finds much of its impetus in its relation to extra-poetic concerns, to social and political movements, and to communities seeking, demanding, and increasingly achieving expression, visibility, and empowerment. Sometimes the orientation to things outside the specific tradition of poetry in English makes those raised in the old dispensation of the Empire balk. One comment I have frequently heard (though rarely seen in print) regarding Citizen, Claudia Rankine’s powerful poetic testament to the African-American experience, captures the attitude of the well-meaning imperial citizen: “I’m on her side politically, but as poetry? Well, I can’t quite get behind it in those terms.” It was, in fact, my own comment the first time I read that book. But the power of poetry that reaches out beyond poetry per se to connect with social movements can be extraordinary. I remember seeing photographs of a reading held for the launch of Russell Price’s first chapbook, Tonight We Fuck the Trailer Park Out of Each Other. Price’s poems address themes of queer sexuality and identity, and the images of the reading, which was held not long after terrible homophobic mass murders at an Orlando nightclub, radiated something like community solidarity and mutual support. The event reached beyond poetry, in the best possible sense. If this is barbarity, then bring it on.
None of this is to say that the old ways of Empire are to be washed away. Along with the new approach to wine, for example, we still find the old ways persisting—the wine aristocracy, says Barrico, is still “more or less intact, still decanting precious, ultra-refined liquids and commenting on them in jargon for the initiated.” It’s just that other things are going on as well. One of those things is a kind of barbarian-imperial hybridity, such as we saw in Frank O’Hara. My favorite recent example is the work of Michael Robbins, whose allusions to all manner of popular culture are matched by his allusions to the tradition Eliot revered. And, more importantly, those allusions work (as I’ve argued elsewhere) not just as window dressing, as some of Robbins’ critics have maintained, but in a manner every bit as sophisticated as Eliot’s, and in support of a similar end: defining an elusive but implicit hope in Christian redemption.
Long ago C.P. Cavafy wrote of the citizens of an aging empire waiting for the barbarians to come, because they secretly saw the arrival of these new people as “a kind of solution,” a way of reviving the moribund empire. Their barbarians never came, but we may well be grateful that ours have, bringing with them new audiences for poetry and new means of poetic expression. They are doing what one old modernist, committed to the imperial tradition, saw as the true task for emerging poets: they are taking the art and making it new.