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American literature

When I was 4 or 5, my grandmother loved to ask me where I was from: “Pittsfield, Massachewits” I’d say. Like a sneeze. She took a special delight in my inability to grasp and order all the necessary phonemes. We moved from Massachusetts before I turned 10, before I really appreciated the important literary contributions that state had made to American literature. I do remember visiting Herman Melville’s estate and finding, appropriately enough, an arrowhead half-buried in the ground. Presumably another child lost it after buying it from the gift shop, but that object must’ve buried itself deeply in my psyche because I’ve felt compelled to recover my heritage. There’s Frost and Dickinson, of course; Moby-Dick is becoming a psychic and artistic anchor for me. And more recently, I am growing into deeper relationship with the “small triumphs” of Robert Francis.

It’s part of this Massachusetts ressourcement, I suppose, that I have discovered Anne Bradstreet for myself–a poet with few advocates these days. In my cursory and rather sloppy overview of critical opinion about her, I discovered that she’s read by different critics as proto-Romantic yet also derivative bibliophile, as subversive proto-feminist yet also conformist American Puritan. The contradictory interpretations are to be expected since Bradstreet is an outlier of most received literary groupings. I suspect this is also a reason why–perhaps Berryman aside–she has few advocates. I’m sure all these debates are important in their own ways. But there is one literary grouping–a personal one–of which Bradstreet is definitely a member: she’s a Massachusetts poet.

There’s an ‘essentialist’ definition we can use: the presence of themes and qualities that she shares with other notable Massachusetts writers. Consider the opening stanza of her long poem “Contemplations,” which most critics consider her finest work:

Some time now past in the autumnal tide
When Phoebus wanted but one hour to bed
The trees all richly clad, yet void of pride,
Were gilded o’er by his rich golden head.
Their leaves and fruits seemed painted, but was true,
Of green, of red, of yellow, mixed hue;
Rapt were my senses at this delectable view.

Yes, she loves and writes nature in a Romantic manner parallel to Wordsworth, but she also demonstrates a penchant for naturalistic observation more akin to Francis or Frost: meditating on nature as an emblem of the mystery of being. Nature is not romanticized as a means of insight; rather, in the moment of perception, nature is caught up, as it were, in the larger schema of what is. The human eye becomes the means of transfiguration. Bradstreet fuses this tendency with the extended metaphysical conceits–similar to Donne, of course, but also similar those Dickinson was so fond of using. For example,

Silent alone, where none or saw, or heard,
In pathless paths I led my wand’ring feet,
My humble eyes to lofty skies I reared
To sing some song, my mazed Muse thought meet.

Like Dickinson’s, Bradstreet’s psyche becomes a space in which the author roams and encounters thinking as a series of events along the journey.

There’s also a less essentialist definition to this term: “Massachusetts poet” can loosely gesture toward the in-betweenness of Bradstreet, in the same way that Massachusetts was at the intersection of two empires. Bradstreet was steeped in classical education, yet she lived on the frontier–almost beyond the reaches of the civilization that shaped classical sensibility. In this space, readers can recognize that Bradstreet works with themes and images that come to fruition in later American literature.

In this series of posts, I want to do a reading of Bradstreet’s poem “Contemplations” and trace these two aspects of Bradstreet’s “Massachusetts”-ness in order to achieve a few broad goals:

1. Interpret Bradstreet as an intersection point between a more classical and modern poetics, between old and new world. Doing this may help modern readers appreciate where we are in contemporary poetics as well as where we’ve been.
2. Help readers appreciate how Bradstreet foresaw many future American literary impulses.


I think one hurdle for modern readers is that Bradstreet’s thematic interests and method of exploring those interests has more in common with pre-modern sensibilities. This is a really broad statement, but it’s mostly accurate if you squint your eyes right. The way we moderns conceive of the self is entirely different. Read Charles Taylor’s Sources of the Self if you’re interested in more of this. I’m more interested in how this understanding of self affects contemporary poetics. Here’s how I see these shifts affecting contemporary readers: modern readers prefer speakers with highly individualized voices, because moderns have a more privatized sense of inner life, of the irreproducability of individual experience; we associate highly individualized voices with “genuine” feeling. 

Not so much for the pre-moderns. I’d argue that this sensibility is still evident in folk music. The speaker could easily be you or me; the singer may inhabit a voice and the performance makes it individualized, but a different performance is a different individual. The words and themes are a bit like generalized grooves into which singers pour the real individualized feeling. This isn’t to say that Bradstreet’s poem is “pre-modern” in the sense I describe above, only that it shares some of those sensibilities. One area where this understanding is important is when exploring the form of Bradstreet’s “Contemplations” because it helps readers see the poem on its own expectations.

“Contemplations” is composed of 33 individually numbered seven-line stanzas, each a sort of self-contained half-sonnet or modified rime royal. The stanza is composed of a quatrain of alternating rhyme pattern (ABAB) followed by a fully-rhymed tercet (CCC). Generally, the quatrain seems to pose an emblematic idea or image to ponder, and the tercet, with its triadic finality, deepens one’s perception of the image by drawing some conclusion or responding to it. In this pattern the form is indeed similar to the sonnet, yet this stanza simply does not have the room to sustain the intellectual acrobatics (read: the stamp of individualism) of traditional sonnets. Moreover, the sense of conclusion is more final and mysterious than, say, the standard Shakespearean couplet, which often feels provisional at best (that’s a feature, not a weakness). Also notable is that while the first six lines are iambic pentameter, the 7th line is alexandrine.

The lines are incredibly well-wrought in places, her voice working within but also freely moving across her form. The language is so formally satisfying at times that one can float right by the wonderful strangeness of some lines: “All mortals here the feeling knowledge hath.” That line, in addition to its strong intimations of Dickinson, suggests perhaps that Bradstreet’s feelings have yet to dissociate from sensibility, a rupture that Eliot pins on Milton, an almost contemporary of Bradstreet. There are, indeed, moments when Bradstreet, like the metaphysical poets, feels her thinking.

But unlike the Metaphysicals, Bradstreet’s “feeling knowledge” is not focused on the almost sensual pleasures of thought–and it is here here we must temper our modern expectations. I would argue that the goal of this form is geared less toward solving problems and more toward contemplation (surprise!): of an emblem, an icon, a mystery. That is to say, each individual poem-stanza does not achieve resolution, does not try to rectify infinite paradoxes within the vanishing point of the individual. The form extends beyond the insight-inducing koan, but is less focused on the act of thought than a sonnet: thus a critic could rightly call this form “contemplation.” I’ll use this name for it, since I haven’t been able to find any name for the form itself. If Bradstreet did not coin this form, its name seems obscured by time. The only other use of this exact form I’ve been able to locate (and only then after consulting some of the most knowledgeable poets I know on Facebook) is “The Purple Island” by Phineas Fletcher (an obscure find if there ever was one, Joe Weil!). I suppose there is a chance Bradstreet would have known this poem, since she was deeply read and seems to share Fletcher’s affection for didactic poetry. Moreover, the two poems are also works of natural theology, both attempting to come to understanding of the divine through nature and life experience.

The mention of theology brings us to another hurdle for modern appreciation of Bradstreet, but it gives us a chance to see how understanding the form helps overcome this hurdle. Despite her fondness for the natural world, Bradstreet seems to privilege divine revelation. Because of this privileging, critics accuse Bradstreet of a restrictive piety: that her religious convictions bind her to fall back on and rehash the establishment line when the paradoxes of the world become fraught. But I suspect such critics fail to appreciate, on some level, the sense of devotion that Bradstreet was likely to possess. Here an appreciation of the classical influences helps. In this sense, dogma is not merely a code for following, but itself an object worth contemplating, something to be entered into, to have written on one’s heart. If my read on the form of the poem is correct, then we should not approach these as similar to Milton’s attempts to “justify the ways of God to men.” Instead, the end of each stanza is a lot more like the “selah” of the Psalms, a pause inviting reflection rather than demanding an intellectual choice.

Let’s take a specific example and see how this works out. In stanza 31 Bradstreet describes how a sailor that fancies himself himself lord of the seas is forced by a sudden storm to tuck tail between legs and make for port. It’s an image of the sudden and ugly turn of nature. To most readers today, the stanza that follows lands with a pious thud, a theocratic spike in the end zone:

So he that saileth in this world of pleasure,
Feeding on sweets, that never bit of th’ sour,
That’s full of friends, of honour, and of treasure,
Fond fool, he takes this earth ev’n for heav’n’s bower.
But sad affliction comes and makes him see
Here’s neither honour, wealth, nor safety;
Only above is found all with security.

It would be easier to forgive Bradstreet that last bit if were the result of an lyrically compelling passage in which mere force of will somehow wrestled this insight from the nihilistic abyss (as Herbert does in “The Collar,” for example). This preference is a modern bias because of our latent preference for the logical (or at least lyrical) virtuosity of individuals. I think this desire is related to the importance of (what Charles Taylor terms)  ‘moral sentiments’ for modern individuals. In short, an account of reality (in this case a poetic one) must appeal to and satisfy our sense of, say, inner religious longing.

This is not to say that pre-moderns didn’t feel inner longing in the sense that we term it today (in fact, this sensibility is probably found in embryonic form in Augustine, that first modern). But they understood it differently. The source of those sentiments arose from a direct ontological connection. For moderns, this connection is impossible, so the source of sentiments is completely subjective. This is a crucial point because it should change even our subjective expectations of what is poetically ‘satisfying’ in a sympathetic reading of poetry.

Given the icon-like nature of Bradstreet’s poem, it seems then that she should not be judged by how well she navigates these images or marshals them toward a conclusion that satisfies our moral sentiments.  Now we may realize that this stanza is an invocation of a well-tread theme, one she does not try to overcome or even lyrically transcend: it’s about the opposition of the law of nature, with its chthonic demands of ritual sacrifice, to the law of grace and its ability to bestow a peace that passes understanding. We must also note that this poem is not a rejection of life’s pleasures. These pleasures receive a powerful treatment in the poem. We know without a doubt that Bradstreet loved to feast on the “sweet” of life as much as the next poet–if not more (“Rapt were my senses at this delectable view”). If we moderns insist on a glimpse into the world of the writer, we can imagine how bittersweet the final statement is for Bradstreet to affirm: indeed, readers must imagine because that is what the form asks of us: contemplation of that mystery. The force of truth does not come from within but exists in an objective order. One does not believe in that order; one can only recognize it.

In this series, each “contemplation” gathers, one on top of another, like a pile of inscrutable stones. Bradstreet, of course, threads themes and stories across the contemplations; once or twice she even puts the stanzas into direct conversation with one another. But moving through “Contemplations” is more akin to strolling through an ancient church that is full of mosaics or gazing upon an iconostasis. This is the classical bent manifesting itself in Bradstreet. This is not to say the stanza-poem remains in stasis. In fact, the movement of a narrative does emerge: it is the story of the soul’s ascesis (ascent to the divine) through the deepening perception of each stanza.

I dally. It is one of my strengths. I remember when I was ten years, driving to Boston in a groggy, once-flooded luxury Mitsubishi and telling my father, “Sire, it is summer, the windows are locked in the up position, and the engine’s heat is seeping through the vents.” He responded, “Your mind dallies, Thomas Charles Bair III; it is winter, the windows are rolled down, and the air conditioning is on. And do not contradict me.” “But sire, I am sweating and the juice you packed is boiling as though it were on a stove top.” “Young progeny, will you allow me none of long-driving’s natural silences? If you are warm, remove your jacket and your gloves and trim your beard. And if you are to contradict me again I will be forced to contact Authority Protection Services.” “That will not be necessary,” I replied, “your generous responses are truly my honor.

This is surely incontestable proof of my dallying. It may also hold some of the secrets to my method and purpose as to why I must go around with disposable gloves and a stick and gather the trash of this poem: I am full contradictions (as is the language of The Waste Land), and I am rude to my elders. That is, I am rude to my elders until they reference the local authorities, in which case I defer in reverence (The Waste Land has many authorities on file).

But I suppose my dallying is the reason I write on this ontologically paralyzing poem. Another anecdote: I first encountered TWL in school, duh. It seems until recently TWL was merely a mandatory furnishing of the English Literature 2 and American Literature 2 surveys, and it (TWL) was relatively proud of this standing. I, as I assume most people, encountered the poem in a sort of mad dash to move on to the “next literary movement.” But TWL, a radically condensed epic, refuses to be taught with any precision even in the three classes some teachers devote. How is the epic form reduced into something of nine pages (not counting the footnotes)? This is a question worth asking. TWL makes for an awkward Modern epic—too short and significantly odd to be passed over in a survey, too overbooked and promiscuous to be taught with certainty in a class or three.

More, the poem’s resolution enables professors to flee its fragments without worry. This resolution, that redemption is a wholly personal matter, that the TWL may not even be concerned with our the reader’s redemption, except that it provides us a heap of broken images, cracked voices, and a reading list is secondary to the other, more obvious conceit of the poem. Namely, that book learning (and only by happenstance aestheticism) unites the centuries, heals both cultural and personal trauma, and that the fundamental closedness that Postmoderns go on to high-five each other about for seventy-something years is a potentially redemptive thing. The following is the longest direct quote, aside from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, in Eliot’s footnotes. It is written by F. H. Bradley, the philosopher on whom Eliot wrote his doctoral thesis:

My external sensations are no less private to myself than are my thoughts or my feelings. In either case my experience falls within my own circle, a circle closed on the outside; and, with all its elements alike, every sphere is opaque to the others which surround it.… In brief, regarded as an existence which appears in a soul, the whole world for each is peculiar and private to that soul.

It should be noted that this quote is attached to the fifth section “What The Thunder Said,” line 411 in TWL. It comes while our hero is in a hole next to the “the empty chapel.” The thunder’s command comes from the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, thunder here vaguely signifying the coming of water, of renewal to the land (we will talk more about The Fisher King romances next time). In the Upanishad the command “Da” is given to the three orders of being—Gods, Humans, and Demons—and each hear different commands. The Gods hear Damyatta (Control), The Humans hear Datta (Give), and The Demons hear Dayadhvam (Sympathize). Significantly though, the reader of TWL receives all three commands—this works in synchronicity with Eliot’s “melting” of characters into one another throughout TWL.

This specific footnote arrives during the thunder’s command “Dayadhvam.” Eliot goes on to write the lines, “I have heard the key/Turn in the door once and turn once only/We think of the key, each in his prison/Thinking of the key, each confirms a prison/Only at nightfall, aetherial rumours/Revive for a moment a broken Coriolanus.” He defines The Demon, The Godless One, as the one that is locked in (and according to F. H. Bradley we are all “locked in”). “The key,” that which offers itself as our freedom, is Eliot’s proof that we are indeed trapped in an opaque circle.

But what is most interesting here is that the condition of “locked in” necessitates the modality of sympathy. As if one were not possible without the other. Also consider–and here is the difficulty of translation–sympathy is not empathy, but the difference is subtle. Sympathy is a relationship between things wherein what affects one also affects its other. If one is sad, its other is also sad. Empathy is an intellectual projection that intertwines subject and object. If one is sad, its other understands its sadness.  That sympathy and not empathy is The Demon’s requisite function implies that The Demon must become its opposing circles, not understand them.

And what of the aetherial rumours? Given Eliot’s style, we must concede that asking these sorts of questions to TWL can only be vaguely correct. This is a prime example of Eliot’s masking. “Aetherial Rumours”?—a brittle façade. Eliot uses the techniques of symbolism to paint faces over his meaning, thus giving us the reader a candy shell that can’t be cracked. But it’ll dissolve if we lick it! Conjecture it is. Aetherial rumours translates to something like “holy, celestial chatter that we can’t necessarily prove true.” Given the structure and style, method of arrangement, and basic assumptions of TWL—namely, that ‘public ritual’ has lost all practical meaning fifteen years after Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity, the rise of popular atheism (Bertrand Russell is alluded to very early in the poem), the post-WWI ruins of Europe, the difficulties involved with romantic love not made any easier by the tattered and grossly sensual whinings of the romantics—these aetherial rumours, I argue, are the Arts and Prophets of times past.

Note that Eliot’s opaque circle is not described as having a limit to its width. By reading the classics, Eliot argues, one’s consciousness expands through time. It’s as though from Eliot’s perspective he stands in the present, and by grappling with the great works of times past, envelopes them, doubling the the radius of his circle into the past, and consequently into the future, minimizing his own, personal involvement with the creation of a thing. The trope of the Prophet is also a theme redoubled in TWL. What’s more, this is just about explicit in his essays. From “Tradition and The Individual Talent”:

. . . .What is to be insisted upon is that the poet must develop or procure the consciousness of the past and that he should continue to develop this consciousness throughout his career.

What happens is a continual surrender of himself as he is at the moment to something which is more valuable. The progress of an artist is a continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality.

And if we consider ‘The Fragment” to be Eliot Prophet-Artist’s signature, at least in TWL, then, now looking back on the twentieth century, there is a case to be had.


Poet, fiction writer, and critic Alfred Corn applies his special language skills to a comparison of the two dominant versions of the English language. The United States and Britain have been described as “divided by a common language,” but this guide will help speakers from both countries make their way in the other.  Pronunciation, vocabulary, spelling, and punctuation are all discussed, and there is a brief presentation of British and American slang. The result is an accessible and succinct overview appropriate for tourists, for teachers of English as a foreign language, for book and magazine editors, for actors, and for courses on British and American literature.

Available in the following formats:

de Toucqueville pretty much makes it understandable to me why I have not had my poetry embraced by The Paris Review or the so called gods of literary merit. He writes, conjecturing on a literature created by people of means and leisure (aristocrats):

Moreover, the long and peaceful enjoyment of such wealth will have induced a certain softness of thought and feeling, and, even in their enjoyments, they will avoid anything too unexpected, or too lively. They would rather be amused than deeply moved; they want to be interested, but not carried away.

This passage explains to me why I have often been shunned by grad students, and fellow writers–why my books are reviewed, often positively and as a form of qualified praise, as exalting the ugly and the incongruous. This explains to me why some of my best students, while learning everything they could, never showed the slightest inclination to respect me as a poet. My work is not “amusing.” I don’t like middle and neutral registers of speech for their own sake, do not find them comforting, nor will I embrace fake experimental poems that are “different” in the same way everyone else is different (Projection by field theory, non-linear progression anyone?). Although the middle class sees a huge difference between Fence and Prairie Schooner, I don’t. One publishes polished, within the norm experimental language poetry, and the other publishes polished, within the norm non-experimental poetry, and both do not venture into any nomenclatures, syntax, or diction beyond the usual careful and self-conscious MFA program. I do not consider them refined, but, rather, bland to the point of putting me to sleep. Most of the elite lit mags out there now, no matter what “camp” they belong to, share one thing in common: bland-speak, a fully professional and neutral register of speech that is intelligent, refined, competent, and devoid of poesis. Alexis de Tocqueville was writing in 1848, pre-Whitman, about an American literary scene that could not stop imitating the worst “aristocratic” pretentions of the Europeans, especially the British. He could very well be describing what passes for “excellence” in American poetry at this moment. Sad… Here’s some more excerpts:

It will sometimes happen that men of means, seeing none but themselves, and only writing for themselves, will entirely lose sight of the rest of the world, and that will make their work far fetched and sham. They will impose petty literary rules for their exclusive use, and that will gradually make them lose first common sense, and then contact with nature.


…wanting to talk a language different than the vulgar, they will end up with a brand of aristocratic jargon which is hardly less far from pure speech than the language of the people.

de Tocqueville is conjecturing on an aristocratic literature. Academic poetry has always embraced such an ideal, even when supposedly attacking it. Alexis goes on to prohesy that an American literature sprung truly from the soil of democracy would be lively, but unrefined, poor on rules of thumb, sacrificing refinement to vitality. He claims (and I think rightly) that the great moments in literature for any nation come during the transition periods, the brief but dynamic wars–in this case between aristocratic and democratic influenced literature. Just six years later, Leaves of Grass would make its appearance amid a flowering of works by Emerson, Thoureau, the New England Brahmins, and, at the same time, the first great regionalists, and the far more democratic and “vulgar” writters of the west (Mark Twain). de Toucqueville’s analytical abilities border on demonic intuition. I’ll leave you with a final excerpt in which he writes of a literature born of democracy:

By and large the literature of the democratic will never exhibit the order, regularity, skill, and art characteristic of aristocratic literature; formal qualities will be neglected if not despised. The style will often be strange, incorrect, overburdened and loose, and almost always strong and bold. Writers will be more anxious to work quickly than to perfect details. Short works will be commoner than long books, wit than erudition, imagination than depth. There will be a rude and untutored vigor of thought with great variety and singular fecundity. Authors will strive to astonish more than to please, and to stir passions rather than to charm taste.

Alexis could be defining the warring camps of advocates for the cooked and the raw, the formalists or the beats, the academics or the spoken word artists. He had us down to a science before we became us! He also is smart enough to submit these are extreme views of two tendencies, and to present the fact that there will be many gradations between these two poles, and some of the best writers will arise from the dynamic of these tensions rather than from embracing one or the other way.

Reading de Tocqueville is a lesson in astonishment. In a few pages he did much to clarify for me what the problems confronting American poetry, and my own poetry are. In my case, I am neither academic nor Spoken word, meaning both camps both encourage me yet consider me unpolished (or too polished). At any rate, I can’t recommend a book enough–especially if you want a measured, sober,intelligent guide to your own country.