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BOOKS & THE CULTURE The Fate Of Poetry What’s at Stake in the Battle of the Books? BY PAUL CHRISTENSEN POETRY AFTER MODERNISM. Revised edition. Edited by Robert McDowell. Story Line Press. AND WHAT ROUGH BEAST: Poems at the End of the Century. Edited by Robert McGovern and Stephen Haven. Ashland Poetry Press. obert McDowell, publisher of Story Line Press and editor of Poetry After Modernism, has long been trying to establish a *ght-wing takeover of poetry. It isn’t the first time someone tried to capture poetry for the conservatives. The nineteenth century was rife with attempts to seize the es sentially liberal act of writing and make it or thodox, reactionary, the voice of racial utopi anists. In the 1930s, Southern Agrarians replaced the Modernists with a return to for malism and the apolitical New Criticism, forcing poetry into obscure corners during World War II, the Korean Conflict, the Cold War and other social crises, which went largely ignored. But since conservatism is fundamentally opposed to experiment, change, or subjectivity the roots of the po etic act all such efforts end in confusion. Until recently, our general sense of pub lishers has been that they advocate the liberal view of life. Jewish migrs coming from central Europe with a long tradition of sup port for populist causes set up publishing houses to do the same thing in the U.S. Prin cipal among them was the house of Knopf, which gathered up a lot of the first-line talent that was articulate, contentious, and critical of the Protestant ruling class. Assimilation, absorption by the media conglomerates, and the reactionary drift of national politics have all had their influence in changing the ideo logical character of New York’s Fleet Street. Now come the new conservative publishers, led by Rupert Murdoch, pushing the focus of A From the cover of Poetry After Modernism communication well to the right across the entire media spectrum. Robert McDowell is part of this new conservative push, but his means and his ambitions set him apart from the grubbier struggles of talk radio, Fox News, and Christian evangelical agitprop. McDowell is serious and focused, and his ideological savvy puts Story Line Press in a class with the Washington Times and the National Review. If you want to know how conservatism tries to be literary and include poetry in its values, read Poetry After Modernism. It will inform you what is at stake in the conservative assault on higher culture, and depress you to know how little is actually contained in the right’s vision of life. McDowell’s introduction insists his real target is not liberalism but mediocrity, the lazy versification of the self-absorbed who write nothing but free-verse lyrics that all sound the same. I don’t quarrel with his prey; I’ve been saying the same thing for years and teaching narrative and dra matic poetry in my classes to combat the dismal cloning of the so-called “Iowa style” of lyric, the laundry list of daily trivia by which a kind of psychological glimpse into self is achieved. The University of Iowa is the home of the first creative writing program, organized by Paul Engels back in the fifties. His method of formulaic lyric, with an emphasis on imagery and tonal irony, has become the template by which every other university program teaches the art. The free-verse poem is in fact cousin to what the psychologists call “talking cures,” and suggests that what makes us turn to evil are alienation and poverty, what heals us is self-disclosure. But to orthodox thinkers like McDowell, looking within is anathema; they don’t want to know where motives come from, just that action is either good or evil. Behind the conservative distrust of psychology is the notion of Christian determinism: a soul is born and not made. It goeth up or down as God wills, and neither Freud nor Jung can change that. Though it may not 26 THE TEXAS OBSERVER AUGUST 6, 1999