BOOK REVIEW / Essence of rose in the Wasteland: 'Poetry and Pragmatism' - Richard Poirier: Faber, 20 pounds

This is a brief but striking study from an authority on American literature. Based on his 1991 T S Eliot Memorial Lectures, Richard Poirier's argument is a theory against theory. Alluding to Emerson and William James, to Robert Frost and Wallace Stevens and Gertrude Stein, his aim is to describe an authentically American tradition of reading and writing: one opposed, that is, to the Europe-centred understanding of past and present which was significant 'from about 1920 to 1960 . . . when the Wasteland ethos, with its admixtures of Anglo- Catholicism and Southern Agrarianism, dominated the American literary-academic scene'.

'Poetry' and 'pragmatism' both have a specific meaning here. Behind the first stands Emerson, the book's founding father, and the first two chapters are mainly given to him. Emerson's pervasive vision of a whole new present- orientated culture, summed up in the famous phrase 'America is a poem', would work a radical shift in the general sense of what a literary art might consist of. The term 'pragmatism' we mainly owe to William James, seen by Poirier as taking from Emerson a sense of the vital practicality of psychological energies. The two together are seen as men of intellectual action, joined by a belief in 'the virtues of a public poetry and a public philosophy'.

Such a belief values communication above the mere forms of expression. It creates what this book calls 'linguistic scepticism'. Poirier is interested in the effects of linguistic scepticism on the private experience of public poets. His texts are principally two of Robert Frost's poems, 'There was never a sound beside the wood but one' and 'Something there is that doesn't love a wall', and one by Wallace Stevens, 'It is an illusion that we were ever alive'. In the chapter entitled 'The Transfiguration of Work', Poirier suggests that an American writer who starts from the desire to dignify the ordinary human worker ends by identifying the truest work as that done by the poet-in-process.

In 'The Re-instatement of the Vague', Poirier proposes that American poets reveal a linguistic sense that is the reverse of Eliot's symbolism. A Frost or a Stevens uses language that gestures humanly or colloquially, a parallel to the Emersonian sense that all culture is 'superfluous' in terms of spirit. There is, as a result, a 'linguistic scepticism' that generates an uncertainty, a dislocation as to meaning.

Poirier's last chapter moves from poet to audience. Having characterised the present literary scene as one of 'tedium, rancor, confusion and professionalist over-determination', he turns here to a practice in sharp contrast: one of 'Reading Pragmatically'. Emerson wrote in 'The Poet' that 'an imaginative book renders us much more service, at first, by stimulating us through its tropes, than afterward, when we arrive at the precise sense of the author'. It is in this spirit that Poirier himself hopes to read, to write, and now to be read.

It is hard to read Poetry and Pragmatism without admiration throughout for the mastery with which Poirier fuses together the philosophical, the poetic and the academic into one tenacious and serviceable notion of the 'public'. In this sense, the whole has an elegance that is internal as well as external, Poirier's The chapter on the linguistically 'Vague' strikes one as particularly seductive and provocative: almost, in fact, convincing. The writer's structural discipline, his mastery of materials does have its counterpoise, however. For instance, in its appeal to a 'public' audience, the book recalls a literary-critical class at Harvard. At this moment Poirier reflects those very attributes of 'professionalist over-determination' about which he has allowed himself to be austere.

The pursuit of theory has brought order and (sometimes) brilliance into much literary criticism, but often at a peculiar price. It is lifeless; it is even inhumane, in its self-referentiality. It gives its energies to its concept, sparing little to endow its subjects with intrinsic value and interest. Thus, Emerson is indeed a fascinating and seminal figure. Deriving from the rubble of late Puritan and revolutionary-republican belief the materials of his own new and secular idealism of the spirits, he called for a purely modern literature of the New World. Leaves of Grass followed only a decade after 'The Poet'. But Poirier in fact makes little of this available to his readers, assuming knowledge where he might have created it. His first two essays will, as a result, prove testing to those who are not American, academic literary critics. Or even to some who are. The appeal to a humane intellectual tradition has its ironies here.

The same irony underlies the theory of 'linguistic scepticism'. Decidedly interesting as theory, it may not work in practice. Beyond a certain point I am just not convinced by the application to the powerful lucidities of Frost and Stevens of the word 'Vague'. This doubt strengthens when Poirier actually seems to be misreading. On pages 78-79 he quotes a short poem by Emily Dickinson which begins: 'Essential Oils - are wrung - /The Attar from the Rose / Be not expressed by Suns - alone - / It is the gift of Screws'. Her point seems simple; she is using the household making of rose fragrances as an analogy for the formation of the individual soul. An easy life, happiness, 'sunshine' (as it were) won't do the job, and certainly not alone; only suffering, the daily thumbscrew, brings 'attar' from the spirit.

Poirier imports political correctness in the form of feminism: 'This rare daughter of the muse claims equality in poetic status with putative brothers (that is, 'Suns' as Sons) . . . she will achieve immortality of sorts in a poetic line nearly exclusively male'. Emerson is, after all, refuted by the text itself. Scepticism and pragmatism are often not enough.