categorizing poetry

Some of the po-bloggers have been wrangling the avant-garde again. And, more generally, the (un)usefulness of putting poems/poets into categories.

The Silliman avant garde / School of Quietude dichotomy is just annoying. For the loaded (insulting) terminology, but also because the more he and JC explore it, the more it sounds like a division based on personality type rather than poetics.

But leaving aside such intentionally provocative distinctions, all categories – by period, school, technique, or whatever – can distort history as well as helping us understand it. They exaggerate the similarities within a category and disguise those between categories. They also imply that those features which are typical of a category are also the important features.

For example, Modernism was typified in all the arts by, among other things, formal experimentation and a conscious break with old ways of doing things. But the fact that formal experimentation was typical of Modernism doesn’t mean that Modernism has any exclusive claim to it. There’s a tendency to want to take some earlier experimental writer – GM Hopkins, say, or Arthur Hugh Clough, or Melville – and try and claim them as a proto-modernist, as though their experimentation was itself evidence that they were some kind of precursor. But if Clough, why not Sterne? Milton? Shakespeare? Sir Thomas Wyatt?

It would be interesting to know if the established categories would be re-discovered if we started again from scratch. Let’s take Romanticism. It’s an uncontroversial category which is often seen as the most profound cultural shift since the Renaissance. But, as a thought experiment, if you took a clever but ignorant reader – an undergraduate, probably – and gave them lots of poetry from the mid-C17th to the mid 20th, without any notes, criticism or biographical information, just names and dates of poets and the poems they wrote, would they spot Romanticism? Would the pattern emerge from the data clearly without any need for extra context? Would they pick the same date for it happening? Clearly they would identify trends and shifts in fashion, but would they pick up on this radical discontinuity of thinking and aesthetics which we are told happened at the turn of the C18th/19th? Would it be clear to them that Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Shelley and Keats formed a group, or would they emphasise a continuity that goes ‘Pope, Thomson, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats, Clare, Browning, Tennyson’ and draw a stronger connection from Blake to Shelley? With Byron lumped in with Ann Radcliffe and Monk Lewis, perhaps.

And is the ‘without context’ clause unfair? If so, why? I know it seems unfair to try and understand writers like Coleridge and Wordsworth without access to what they themselves said they were doing, and the people they said influenced them, but if the influence isn’t detectable in the finished poem, perhaps it’s a red herring.

My guess is that Romanticism would be spottable, though the details might come out slightly differently – but it would be an interesting experiment. And I think less important movements and groupings would turn out to be less distinct and more arbitrary than we appreciate.