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The New International, October 1938


Parker Tyler

Magic and the Machine

From New International, Vol.4 No.10, October 1938, p.316.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


A New Anthology of Modern Poetry
edited with an Introduction by Selden Rodman
Random House. New York. 1938. $3.

Much more important, certainly, than the reprinting of any of the poems in this anthology is the editor’s theoretical approach to the task of selection, an approach which suggests vividly that Mr. Edmund Wilson’s essay, Is Verse a Dying Technique?, seems, with its recent publication in book form, to have brought to a sentient head the growing suspicion of the American poetic profession that poetry needs an advertising campaign, that the poets must acquire, for the health of poetry, a new professional, distinct from a new political or economic, consciousness of himself. Toward this end, poets would begin graciously by an inflection of their accustomed extra-verse oratory, with the grand-manner cliches subtly diverted. Yet two sophisticated individuals, Archibald MacLeish and the present editor Selden Rodman, have not hesitated in the first flush of enthusiasm to utter the most pretentiously inflated of bromides in behalf of their profession. In his long introduction Mr. Rodman is discovered swimming the English Channel of this heavy proposition before we arrive at the actual goods: “Does Science Conflict With It?” He breasts and passes the villainous wave of Max Eastman who “maintains that science has withdrawn intellect from literature,” by this type of stroke:

“... Science does not and cannot make men feel, much less act. Nor does science as such, any more than sociology as such, give modern man that confidence in his own dignity and essential nobility which is necessary for the translation of mere animal energy into aspirations, aspirations into deeds. A great scientist must be a poet also. He must have vision to go beyond precepts and conceive what never was. But a great poet need not be a scientist, though his mind must have equal dignity, daring and orderliness.”

Here Mr. Rodman focuses upon the exigent element of his critical enterprise, which would have fared much better if he had refrained in his professional heat from adopting the grandiose approach. Solemnly enough, the whole question of the scientific method and the machine in relation to poetry is raised in this section of the introduction, and confronts us as a moronic sort of ghost. Examination of Mr. Rodman’s statements will lead us to the kernel of a widespread modern attitude, no less traditional in its latest guise. One cannot be aware of but-so-much of the introduction as given above without perceiving that Mr. Rodman is at the old saw of sawing poetry into magic and science before the credulous and amazed eyes of poets and laymen. We are to believe, as we shall see, that it is no more than an illusion, and that the subject emerges whole.

“A great scientist or a great prophet or a great revolutionary,” Mr. Rodman tells us, “must have a one-track mind ... but a poet must be a whole man ...” It is rude to examine the mechanism of Mr. Rodman’s trick, but has he not just said that “a great scientist must be a poet also”? So a great scientist who must have a one-track mind must also be a poet who is a whole man all by himself. But if we are up on our reading, we can aptly produce a source for Mr. Rodman’s authority, the words of Mr. MacLeish in his salvo in behalf of the magical profession of poetry in Poetry for July 1938: “The failure of the spirit is a failure from which only poetry can deliver us.” Mr. MacLeish makes it clear that he refers to the present world-crisis of the human spirit; therefore, if poetry can prevent fascism, as seems categorically implied, and lead us to the perfect world democracy, it can certainly turn the relatively trivial trick of sawing itself in half and remaining whole.

Somehow I for one do not believe in this trick, if only for the reason that Mr. Rodman is an inept performer. If, as he says, “a great poet need not be a scientist,” we are obliged to assume that the statement is equipped with the latest devices for this type of magic, and if they do not work, something must be wrong with the magician; in brief, his science must be inadequate. How can we believe, bearing in mind that the great poet need not be a scientist, that the scientist, in order to be great in the field of exact knowledge, is required to be something or partake of something, the mastery of which has nothing to do with exact knowledge? However, Mr. Rodman has dazzled us by declaring this something to be a whole (“The poet must be a whole man”). We are disillusioned when we learn that by adding a whole to something less than a whole but more than nothing, we still do not get a whole, but only a great scientist. Only the poet is whole, for that is the necessary denouement of the trick.

We could have warned ourselves that it is foolish to mess around magic with logic, but perhaps it is permissible to assume that Mr. Rodman, obviously not conceiving science in the sense of scientific method, conceives of it as a professional classification, a collection of professions other than poetry. In a time when the sun seems to reserve its best brightness for the sciences, we can understand Mr. Rodman’s anxiety to expose the traditional place in the sun of one of the most eloquent of the arts, poetry: “... art, along with science, is one of the valid ways of communicating knowledge.” This section of the introduction ends with the suggestion that “after materialistic conceptions have proven inadequate in the very fields where they achieved their greatest triumphs, ‘values will be regarded as inherent in reality’.” As though scientific thinking were confined to “materialistic conceptions”, or as though Mr. Rodman had waited for science’s “greatest triumphs” to wither away before operating on the body of “values”.


I think we may be allowed now to substitute for Mr. Rodman’s deceptive symbol of the poet as a Whole Man, the more illuminating and verifiable symbol of the poet as a Medicine Man, for it is only with this value in mind that we can identify with any surety the type meant by Mr. Rodman. At least, the Medicine Man is much nearer to the wholeness of mankind than the modern poet is, for it is only in far primitive times that art could be identified with the whole of the community life, when “poetry” was merely the dance, and the dance was identical with worship and prayer. We know only too well the dangerously platonic line of thinking which leads to such desperately positivistic assertions of the poet’s value as Mr. Rodman’s. For hundreds of years the category of poetry has received the punishment of those wishing to appropriate meanings and functions to it often purely hypothetical, or at any rate idealistic in essence. For how long has the “magic” of poetry been supposed to make the poor man rich, the degraded envision heaven, and the stay-at-home superior to the participant in Cook’s Tours? The palliative, the consoling, effect of poetry is beyond question, but equally beyond question is the fact that the “palliative” is the most vulgar of poetry’s practical functions, as, in relation to its creative functions, thin romantic dreaming is the most vulgar of its genres. As entrepreneur of a fat and eclectic anthology of poets, Mr. Rodman is no mere vague and inutile theorizer on the wholeness of the poet. Just as the Medicine Man was one who found the claim of supernatural power necessary to his profession, the poet, by Mr. Rodman’s authority, must claim as his the realm of the absolute social type, the true leader in the search for values. Thus it is impossible to conceive of such men as Mr. MacLeish and Mr. Rodman as reasonable human beings without attaching to them in their current exercises of rhetoric the pre-eminent interest of a distinct profession, whether wisely or unwisely, consciously or subconsciously, formulated.

It would seem that they obviously represent a current state of mind, the result of a more immediate economic tension and less immediate political tension, which they characteristically interpret in a socially reactionary mode of retreating into a professional refuge and girding for combined offensive and defensive manoeuvres toward “the enemy”. In the case of opposing “the enemy”, all kindred interests, according to this social psychology, must be integrated into one big camp. I do not think it is mere routine absolutizing for Mr. Rodman to say: “Poetry is the greatest of the arts because everyone can – and does – practise it. The ad-man, the gag-man, the housewife and the corner grocer are latent poets.” It may well be an instance of wishful thinking, hypostatizing the crude element of wit, as it invests the minor and folk arts, into the grand art of serious poetry. One will notice that here again Mr. Rodman has cut something into inept halves. The ad-man and the gag-man are professional literary practitioners, the housewife and the corner grocer are not, but form a large part of their audience. By using what is primarily an analogy to the case of serious poetry, Mr. Rodman makes a slightly more rational effort to make the body of poetry seem whole by placing the audience on the stage with the magician, and thus making it an accomplice to the action, and so binding its poetic morality to the poetic morality of the performer. But the effort is useless, for it is impossible to cram the whole of poetry into the half that is its ancient magical inheritance. After all, one must not fail to point out that it is not primarily in the interest of poetry that the housewife responds to the art of the ad-man by buying, or that the corner grocer, being crushed by a chain-store competitor, is momentarily released from his dilemma by the art of the movie gag-man.


I think Mr. Rodman’s point about the inevitable, absolute and universal subservience of science to poetry may be finally inundated with a corrective light by quoting some lines of J.G. Fraser’s:

“From the earliest times man has engaged in a search for the general rules whereby to turn the order of natural phenomena to his advantage, and in the long search he has scraped together a hoard of such maxims, some of them golden and some of them mere dross. The true or golden rules constitute the body of applied science which we call the arts; the false are magic.”

By this definition of the arts, poetry, modern poetry, is an applied science, and therefore a poem is a hypothetical machine, not a destined product of illusion or the preordained result of a supernatural spell. It is true that as a product its field of values is not that of what we know as the sciences, but this is merely because of differences of interest, not because the sciences and the arts obey a hierarchy of values. The placing of poetry at the top of a hierarchy of values, as Mr. Rodman has placed it in his time of need, is the rarely exceptible psychological habit of the poet. But when the poet hallucinates himself at the head of the community in this sense, today, when he reverts to the psychological state of the Medicine Man, he is guilty at the best of moral idealism and at the worst of professional advertising.

A more intelligent critical precursor, because a more sensitive poet, than Mr. Rodman, is Hart Crane, who may be said, according to a quotation Mr. Rodman includes in his introduction, to represent by his individual symbol a stage halfway between the critical realization of Mr. Rodman and the critical realization of Frazer. It is with a virginal intuition of pleasure if also with a virginal sense of trepidation that Mr. Crane mentions the Machine and its marriage to the poet:

“... Unless poetry can absorb the machine, i.e., acclimatize it as naturally and casually as trees, cattle, galleons, castles and all the other human associations of the past, then poetry has failed of its full contemporary function. This process does not infer any program nor does it essentially involve even the specific mention of a single mechanical contrivance. It demands, however, along with the traditional qualifications of the poet, an extraordinary capacity for surrender, at least temporarily to the sensations of urban life ...”

Evidently, Mr. Crane could not readily recognize the Machine for what it is, the concrete emergence of the principle of scientific procedure as a development of man’s historical efforts to control natural phenomena, but merely advises the poet to “surrender to the sensations” provided by the Machine so that he will not think of it as foreign or hostile – namely, as a supernatural element to be propitiated as once nature was propitiated by savages. Crane’s program, as usual, was too ambitious, and his own practise revealed that it was part of the operative magical inheritance of poetry to surround machines with the aura of supernatural force, because in society and religion the magical vestiges of thought still remain. Crane in The Bridge made superstitious, almost religious symbols of Brooklyn Bridge and the Subway.

Something like this result was inevitable as the rule, seeing that” poetry, as well as other arts and sciences, have not alone or together arrived at the final conquest of knowledge. Poetry has arrived only at a certain method, limited, by its nature, in application, and there are of course moral problems today which poetry cannot solve as a method. As yet neither the techniques of politics nor economics nor sociology are perfectly fitted to their own spheres of application; each is yet to be extended in its own set of formulas; likewise with poetry. Everyone, Mr. Rodman included, is aware of the moral and emotional atmosphere of modernity, and every poet worth his salt is to some extent aware of the place of poetry in this atmosphere. But Mr. Rodman and his poets are apt to make the one fundamental error of tending to conceive the Machine as another appurtenance in poetry’s magical “bag of tricks”. I need only mention in passing the climactic lines of a poem by Horace Gregory:

The facts were these: She died in Lesbian serenity
neither hot nor cold until the chaste limbs stiffened.
Disconnect the telephone; cut the wires.

It is my idea that relating a mechanical contrivance to an elegiac emotion in this way is really magical, not poetical, and as such cheapens both symbol and emotion.

The problem I indicate takes its form in bringing the Machine somehow into poetry. This action is to be thought of in two fundamental senses: 1) Bringing in the science of the Machine as a modified technique, derived from some specific iiranch of scientific knowledge; as Masters brings the subjective psychological document into his Spoon River Anthology; as Vachel Lindsay brings objective research in anthropology into The Congo; as Auden brings the vocabulary of airmanship into verse; and as Rukeyser and others bring the data of social and economic surveys, peculiar to recent times, into verse. Here the new method emerges with the new subject-matter, while in the other sense: 2) The method stands alone, and depends on a rarefied conception of the technique of verse, as in Paul Valery’s verse, with its highly precise verbal style and its mechanical discipline of composition; a poetry which, excluding the concept of the machine, as a form within the form of poetry, strives to be the machine, regardless of the grist.

It seems to me that in the first case poetry, far from feeling whole in itself, is self-consciously borrowing, striving to expand itself by annexing literary techniques hitherto considered alien to poetic statement. All that is now psychology’s, sociology’s, economics’, politics’, once was poetry’s, in the primitive sense of poetry, and now poetry may wish to reclaim its own. But the last clause is imprecise, and the statement should be reformed to say: Poetry, or the art of verse, has come to be one of the social techniques, along with the other arts and sciences, by which man expresses, in a much more complex manner than formerly, the sum of his relations with reality. It may be prophetic to say that man wishes by the means of verse-technique rather than by any other means to reclaim a certain primitive social unity, wherein religion, art and soicety were practically identical; but it is one prophecy among many expressed with equal, sometimes, greater vehemence, and involving varieties of motives.

On the other hand, by taking the road of awareness of the Machine as a principle, as the poet Valery has done, without relating it to social values, or the social uses of the machine – by conceiving of the poetic technique as a sort of external expression of this inner principle – poetry is much more concretely identified as a part of a solid modern pattern, in which a traditional form of expression, the art of verse, has, in the truest concrete sense, “kept up with the times”. Poetical science consists in ascertaining the limits of the control of verse over its subject-matter, over mental, emotional, moral concerns. But how can modern poets borrowing the verbal and psychological means of other techniques not themselves perfected, hope for scientific certainty, a perfect form in their own medium, by following such a method? The great poet must also be a scientist ... now.

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