Quintessence of the Minor: Symbolist Poetry in English
by Garrett Caples

Reviewed by Zebadiah Taylor


Published by Wave Books, 2010   |   42 pages

Quintessence is two ambitious projects in one: on the one hand, it’s a specialized survey of “minor” poetry from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and on the other hand, it’s a loose exploration of the relationship between “minor” and “major” poets. I should immediately de-emphasize the term “Symbolism” here; Caples himself admits his use of the term “merely for convenience” “to designate a broad poetic tendency,” which he describes as “the beginning, however tentative, of modernism.” Readers looking for a discussion on English Symbolism, whatever that may be, are advised to look elsewhere; Caples’s discussion is loose and tentative and mostly in the service of other purposes.

As a survey of minor poetry, Quintessence leaves a lot to be desired. There is little deep engagement with the poets under discussion. Instead, Caples leans disproportionately on lurid biographical detail, describes the poetry in generic and unhelpful epithets like “interesting,” “bad,” or “imaginative,” and rarely directs his reader to the poets’ representative works. These limitations make all further reading into Quintessence’s poets a leap into the unknown, when greater specificity might have made his research more useful. As is, slogging through Caples’s extensive list of names will require a lot of time and the patience of a literary magazine’s submissions reader.

The pamphlet’s second project is an exploration of the relationship between minor and major poetry, particularly the major poetry associated with Modernism. There is some specific discussion of the influence these minor poets had on the major poets that followed, including Wallace Stevens (who borrows from Donald Evans) and John Ashbery (whose “taste . . . is almost stridently minor”), among others, although the most thoroughly discussed “influence” is Hart Crane’s extensive theft of lines from the “minor” poet Samuel Greenberg (who is well worth a look). However, the discussion about this otherwise interesting and disturbing relationship quickly degenerates into a long and pointless invective against the “boring and misguided, . . . conservative and academic” Hart Crane. Although Caples obscures his own point through his passion, he does get across that the major/minor distinction should be a historical term, and not an evaluative one: some poets, he insists, are more pleasurable to read, regardless of their cultural status.

And what is the cultural significance of these poets? In a tentative generalization of the survey’s poets, Caples says that:

[they] lack both the prosody and substance of the Victorians, and the formal daring of the modernists . . . restive as the symbolists were under the yoke of meter and rhyme, yet unable to break free of it. . . [they] were among the first poets to consider themselves modern and experimental. Their innovations were largely in terms of content, their interest in urban experience, for example, or their willingness to explore the seedier side of life.

These poets looked on the formal accomplishments of Tennyson, Swinburne, and Bridges and felt that “the art of verse could go no further” (Richard Le Gallienne, as quoted in Quintessence). They struggled with the formal accomplishments of the past, and consequently explored the prose poem while pushing the boundaries of subject matter in poetry. Even as subsequent generations discarded and ignored them, Caples sympathetically paints them as contributing to the direction Avante-Garde and Modernist writers would take, and as thus deserving of the academic attention normally reserved for Victorians and Modernists.

Caples’ many other ideas are thought-provoking, and if they are rarely fleshed out or convincing, Caples’s phrase-making includes enough bravado to overcome these shortcomings:

I grow bored with the available. As a poet, I feel the need to see what else has been done, besides what everyone knows. For a poet, I think, finds much food for contemplation in the minor, imperfect, sometimes even the bad poet; you find things that have been attempted, that have failed or turned out ridiculous, but that yet seem like intriguing possibilities for further exploration. . .

The problem is that no minor poet here (besides Samuel Greenberg) is given the attention or enthusiasm or the generosity that would justify the above passage. In the end, this and many of his best passages have the empty mannerisms of an out-dated iconoclast –– they sound more provocative than they are provoking. And while Quintessence is a quick and entertaining read, especially with its trove of scandal, gossip, and trivia, its best qualities mostly serve to distract from a document that fails as a survey and as an argumentative pamphlet.

Through some superficial research into the Caples’s list of minor authors, a few stood out as worth a further look. Stephen Crane (1871-1900), famous in American high schools for The Red Badge of Courage, wrote abrasively cynical poetry with sometimes brutally abrupt endings. While his poems are unpleasantly reductive, they are still worth a look. Alfred Kreymborg (1883-1966) was involved with several of the Modernists, had worked with William Carlos Williams on a magazine, and also promoted Marianne Moore. While his poems lack the power or elegance of his friends, he is still interesting for his farcical misperceptions, strange digressions, and much else that still feels contemporary. Fans of H.P. Lovecraft’s fiction disappointed with that author’s poetry will be glad to find Clark Ashton Smith (1893-1961), another author known for his weird fiction, and a child prodigy who published his first book of poetry at age nineteen. Francis Saltus Saltus (1849-1889), a protégé of French poet Theophile Gautier, wrote at least a few skilled and compelling narrative poems. Lionel Johnson’s (1867-1902) “The Dark Angel”, among the few specific poems Caples points us to, is perhaps the best poem to be found through the survey; supposedly embodying Johnson’s struggle with homosexuality after his conversion to Catholicism, this poem’s rhythmical and emotional tension retains its power more than a century later.

Garrett Caples is an editor at City Lights Books, a successful hip hop journalist at the San Francisco Bay Guardian; he is the author of The Garrett Caples Reader, a book of poetry, and his fiction piece “The Omarashi Girls” is available to read online at the Brooklyn Rail. ,em>Quintessence of the Minor constitutes the first of a pamphlet series published by Wave Books.

Zebadiah Taylor received his B.A. from the University of Tennessee, Chattanooga, and an M.F.A. from the Michener Center in Texas.

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