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Poetry, Pragmatism, and American Literature:
An Interview with Richard Poirier

Giorgio Mariani

The following interview was recorded in New Brunswick in October 1995, and was later published, in Italian translation, in the Spring 1996 issue of Ácoma, an Italian quarterly journal of American Studies. It is reprinted here in its original English version with permission of Ácoma's editorial board. As should be clear from some of the questions asked, the scope of the interview was largely to introduce Italian readers to some of the most significant features of Richard Poirier's approach to literary studies, since his critical works had (and still have) never appeared in Italian translation. At least part of the reason for that lies with the fact that some of the major figures Poirier has been interested in (Emerson, Frost) have attracted limited attention even amongst Italian critics of American literature.

Question: In distinction to earlier important critics like F. O. Matthiessen, Richard Chase or Leslie Fiedler, you seem to approach American Studies from a specifically American perspective. Do you accept that characterization?

Answer: I would not agree. My book on James (1960) examines mainly the verbal surface of his fiction, without raising larger considerations of a historical nature, and that put me at a distance from critics of the time. So I would maintain that it would be correct to say that my interests were different from those of the critics you have mentioned. But A World Elsewhere (1966) is rich in detailed comparisons between English and American literature. For example, there is a chapter where I compare Jane Austen's Emma with Huckleberry Finn. The book on Frost (1977) has numerous references to Rossetti and Wordsworth, and says little about Frost's roots in American culture, which in any case are difficult to trace. In The Renewal of Literature(1987) , I don't think I have excluded from my interests English or European literature. In fact, in comparison to the three critics you named—and even though Fiedler does have quite a bit to say also about European writers—I would say that I am the one who devotes more space to European literature. Critics like Matthiessen, Chase, and Fiedler are anxious to show that there really is an exclusively American literature. But it's hard to argue this position because American literature is in fact a rather poor literature. I am not saying that it lacks works of extraordinary greatness. But these are few, and in order to back them up these critics have recourse to a host of minor figures, whom they try to associate with large historical and cultural trends, to make them look important. What must be praised in a critic like Sacvan Bercovitch is that, even though he insists on the reciprocal relations between the literature he studies and the historical and political context, he is a fine reader of literary texts. Indeed, as far as the so-called New Historicism is concerned, Bercovitch seems to me a closer reader of American literature than Stephen Greenblatt is of Elizabethan literature.

Q: And yet you do argue that American literature has its own specific greatness, right?

A: Certainly, but it is a greatness that has to do with peculiar circumstances. In America, as I have written in The Renewal of Literature, there is a mythology that, today as much as yesterday, has been very influential. According to this mythology, when we arrived on this continent we left behind the oppression of the political and ecclesiastical institutions of the Old World. It is something that may be observed in negative terms, the way Cooper and Hawthorne do, and the way Henry James does in his book on Hawthorne. Or else one can choose a different approach, given that, as William James, Henry's brother, used to say, here there were no military, political, or religious institutions capable of enormous injustices like the ones behind the Dreyfus affair. But what Americans could not get rid of was the thing that was of greater weight, and that is language. It's for this reason that, beginning with Emerson—or even earlier, with Jonathan Edwards—there is an enormous stylistic vivacity in American literature. I think it is precisely this fact, too often overlooked, that requires critical attention. A critic as important as Harold Bloom still reads Emerson as the visionary representative of a new American religion rather than as someone skeptical about the possibilities of language. I have always thought that the distinctive trait of American literature is this effort to use language in order to make the individual, and more generally civilization, aware of the possibilities that language can in fact only suggest but never fully sustain. This is especially true of the language of the novel, a form whose task is also that of representing social institutions. And while this strikes me as a peculiarity of American literature, it is a peculiarity that is short-lived, as it was absorbed by the modernism of the Twenties, to the point of becoming one of its specific features—even though it is worth pointing out that Eliot, Stein, and Pound were all American. In any case, similar arguments were made by writers inaugurating new phases of other literatures, and one can't say that it is a uniquely American phenomenon. Think for example of Sidney's Apology for Poetry or of Wordsworth's "Preface to the Lyrical Ballads." The difference between the American situation and the others is that while Wordsworth speaks of a poetic condition that could help sustain a larger cultural life, American writers truly believed that America was the place where such cultural reality could and should exist; you can see that everywhere in Whitman. Thus also in the most experimental of American writers, like Emerson or Whitman, there is always a feeling of unity with the people. They are against literary inheritances for their foreignness and yet their opposition to them is so sophisticated that their work has never really been understood by the people for whom they claimed to be writing. Gertrude Stein, too, has the same perplexities: she believed she was writing everybody's autobiography, and she really thought she would be understood by the common people, which is why she was delighted to write for the Saturday Evening Post. Her works made her famous, but as she told the publisher of The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas during her triumphal United States tour in 1934-35, "Remember that this extraordinary welcome is not due to the books they understand, such as The Autobiography, but to those they do not understand."

Q: Could you explain why Emerson—an author who has not been studied much in Italy—is so important to your way of looking at American literature, perhaps starting from your conviction that there are not two Emersons, the optimistic one of the early works and the skeptical one of the later, more mature works.

A: Well, Emerson was more of an optimist when he was young—but so was I! There is nothing new about that. But I don't believe that there is a clear break, brought on by the death of his five-year-old son Waldo, in 1842, between the publication of the first series of Essays in 1841 and the second series of Essays in 1844, as Stephen Whicher argued in Freedom and Fate. I believe that death—and this is the main point of his 1844 essay “Experience”—forced him to ask whether he had any creative power left. The death of the son, he writes, is like losing a property—something that will pass. But will I be able to produce something that will survive me? The problem is that Emerson, leaving aside the death of his young son, is an extremely complex writer, little understood even here in America. The best critics of Emerson are Whicher, Stanley Cavell, Barbara Packer, and myself. Given the kinds of difficulties intrinsic to Emerson's prose, I'm not surprised that he's not very popular in Italy, or in Europe, England included. It's not that he is an author difficult to understand: Italians are perfectly capable of understanding very complex writers like William James or Eliot. I am truly amazed by the knowledge Europeans have of American literature, and I am not saying it in a patronizing tone. But there are writers who are difficult to understand because they write for the ear, like Robert Frost; because they are writers who proceed through movements based on very ingenious and slightly perceptible patterns; who do not move logically from one point to the next, but betray a radical dissatisfaction with their own formulations. Emerson is impatient not only with the language he inherits from others, but also with the language he inherits, so to speak, from himself. The same applies to Frost. It is very, very difficult to catch the modulations of voice through which he finds his own position. As he wrote to his friend Louis Untermeyer in 1917, "all the fun is outside, saying things that suggest formulae but won't formulate—that almost but don't quite formulate. I should like to be so subtle at this game as to seem to a casual person altogether obvious." These are subtleties superior to the ones we can find in Pound, Eliot, and even Stein. That is why I think Frost never got the Nobel prize—because his poetry, as he himself used to say, is what is lost in translation, and what is lost is the modulation of the voice.

Q: What you have just expounded I suppose could be described as a pragmatist vision. And since pragmatism is not only one of the words in the title of your recent book , but would seem to be also the only "theoretical" label you are comfortable with seeing attached to the kind of criticism you practice, I was wondering whether you could say something about your interpretation of pragmatism. For example, it seems to me that your "poetic pragmatism" is different from the philosophical one embraced by Richard Rorty.

A: Rorty is a great mind, and also an engaging writer, and so I understand that his refusal of the classic way of proceeding in philosophy may be of great interest. But what I mean by pragmatism is closer to what I call "linguistic skepticism." By pragmatism, I mean the effort to show—not only to affirm, but to show—what it means to reject what William James calls "power-bringing words." While a philosopher like Rorty associates power to words that are central to philosophical analysis—words like "reality," "nature," "soul"—I try to extend this analysis, through the reading of Emerson and Frost, to what William James calls "substantives," and to the habit we have, when we read, of focusing on one word or substantive of a sentence. It doesn't have to be a word proper; it can be what we take to be the theme of the sentence, around which we then gather the other words, in a subordinate position. Frost, with his "for once, then, something," or his "as if," always subordinates the substantives to the tone of voice with which they're pronounced. Take the opening of his famous poem "Mending Wall": "Something there is that doesn't love a wall." For the majority of readers, this is a poem about walls. For me, instead, this incipit tells us that this is a poem about that "something," and also about "someone" ready to feel that the power resisting the wall—resisting substantives—is a mystery. It is not God, and it is not even spring, as the poem may lead one to believe; it is simply any disruptive impulse. Something; anything. This is the relation I see between poetry and pragmatism, and it doesn't have much to do with Rorty. Rorty likes to talk about "strong" poets and "strong" critics—and here he closely resembles Harold Bloom, a critic I greatly admire—but he is not interested in tracing the origins of pragmatism back to Emerson. On Emerson he has very little to say, and also not much on James. If mine is a partial pragmatism, so is his. He focuses his attention mainly on Dewey, or on a certain component of Dewey's thought. Rorty writes like a philosopher; I write like a critic of poetry and language. I believe that pragmatism the way I see it—pragmatism as an esthetic form and a linguistic theory—has generally been given little importance. I admit that Emerson, or William James, or even Dewey, speak explicitly about language less than one would think from my readings of them, but I think that this is due to their not being aware of the implications of their work as philosophers for literature.

Q: In your latest book, you criticize current notions regarding the "subversive" nature of literary discourse. At the same time, however, you insist on the crucial function of language in shaping one's identity, which seems to suggest that you are not discounting the socio-political function of language, though you do not see it as a necessarily subversive one.

A: For me, literature displays the efforts of the self to affirm its independence vis-a-vis the impositions of the power of language. I don't believe in the prison-house of language because I feel, as Hawthorne suggested, that language always has the capacity of reminding us not only that we are prisoners, but that we can, at least momentarily, escape from prison. This affirmation of individuality through language may also have, perhaps, political consequences: it may create small islands where people can privately touch this power they have of not succumbing. But I don't think that literature has a great power in influencing social changes. Here I agree with a critic like Bercovitch: literature is always complicit, but not because the writer is co-opted by power or gives himself up to it. Greenblatt, for example, insists excessively on the presence of this theme in Shakespeare. My point of view is that, by its own nature, the use of language requires the consent of the institutions that create and perpetuate it. One can win only momentary victories; or, to quote Frost, "momentary stays against confusion." This is why I'm against that air of importance that critics take on when, in their interpretive works, they speak of literary subversion.

Q: I would like to ask you one final question on another much-debated issue, that of the canon. You mentioned earlier Harold Bloom, who has recently published a very spirited defense of the "Western canon." From my reading of your books, it would appear that you too believe in the notion of "great" literature. At the same time, though, you have also worked on popular culture, publishing an essay on The Beatles, for example. What relationship do you see between your activity as a literary critic and as an analyst of popular culture?

A: When I wrote "Learning from the Beatles," or wrote on Bette Midler, or Balanchine, or even Richard Nixon, I wanted to show that if one is a critic who knows how to read the way I like to read—with that kind of attention—then one can face all aspects of a culture. I didn't intend to show that The Beatles or Bette Midler were as great as Shakespeare, but that knowing how to read enables you to deal also with expressive modalities that are not literary, or literary-canonical. By working on the complexity of language in a number of canonical texts, one learns how to identify, as I have done in the essay on Nixon, certain rhetorical strategies of contemporary political discourse. As far as Bloom's book on the Western canon is concerned, I think it is essentially correct. I too am convinced that certain books are better than others. Nevertheless, the virtues of these texts don't lie in their ability to perpetuate a series of cultural attitudes and convictions, but rather in their ability to perpetuate the power of the means literature depends on, and that power is language. Personally, I find Frank Kermode's defense of the idea of the canon more convincing: a text is canonical simply because it can be reinterpreted by any epoch and any generation, and the reason is that the language of these texts can accommodate a number of potential historical meanings beyond the words actually there, and therefore within the text you have a large number of possibilities. So, yes, I believe in the canon, and canonical texts, in general, are the difficult ones. Or, to invoke a distinction I traced in The Renewal of Literature, texts that are "dense." There, I tried to show that the "difficulty" of Eliot is not the difficulty you find in Frost. Frost seems simple, but he is quite difficult to understand. His difficulty, or density, is a function of his fidelity to the complex nature of the material—the words—he employs. You can never say it too often: literature is made of words, and the best proof of its goodness is the same as in culinary art. To what extent is it able to develop the qualities and the nuances inherent in the raw materials employed? Some people can get more out of a chicken than others. The meaning of "canonical" is simply that.

Contributor's Note

Giorgio Mariani received his Ph. D. in English from Rutgers University in 1990, where he attended Professor Poirier's classes and lectures on his work-in-progress. He is now a Professor of American Literature at the "Sapienza" University of Rome and the Vice-President of the International American Studies Association.

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