Saturday, May 13, 2006


Henry Theodore Tuckerman –
Tuckermanities” live on


I continue to get asked, primarily by newbies to this blog, about the phrase, School of Quietude (SoQ): did I invent it? what does it mean? why do I see a need for its use? etc. Joe Green’s Wikipedia site for the phrase isn’t 100 percent wrong. Here is how I would respond to the most common inquiries:

No, I did not invent the concept of a “School of Quietude.” Edgar Allan Poe suggested as much in the 1840s, a period when the Knickerbockers, a New York-centric group of writers committed to the idea that American literature should ape its European betters, were contending with the Young Americans, who felt that American literature might be more & other than a pale copy of what was in fashion in the British Isles. Poe had had “the Tell-Tale Heart” rejected by Henry Theodore Tuckerman and was told by Tuckerman that he should condescend to be a little more quiet, which is to say a little less rowdy. Poe’s response was that

If Mr. Tuckerman persists in his quietude, he will put a quietus on the magazine of which Messrs. Bradbury and Soden have been so stupid as to give him control.

Elsewhere, Poe dismisses “Tuckermanities” as an “arrant / Bubble.”

I first used the phrase in a discussion of the Robert Kelly/Paris Leary anthology, A Controversy of Poets, on October 9, 2002. The Kelly/Leary anthology was valuable in acknowledging the ongoing presence of this division in American letters in the 1960s, with Kelly selecting poets from the New American tradition, Leary those from the SoQ. Just last week, I quoted Louise Bogan (one-time poetry editor of the New Yorker) praising Marianne Moore’s work with The Dial, for making clear ““the obvious division between American avant-garde and American conventional writing.” This “obvious division” has been deeply engrained in America’s literary heritage & persists to this day – as a look at the publication lists of the Gang of Six major trade publishers, or of awards like the Pulitzer or National Book Critics Circle, or of the annual lists of “most notable books” of poetry in the New York Times will confirm, where Louise Bogan is far more apt to be represented than other women poets of her time, whether Lorine Niedecker or H.D. or Besmilr Brigham or Barbara Guest.

A good discussion of what I think the phrase implies appeared here on January 5, 2004.

One of the primary mechanisms of institutional power that the SoQ employs is the claim that it represents poetry – some tell-tale journal titles: Poetry, American Poetry Review – and everybody else just represents some niche poetics: Beat, Avant-garde, Postmodern, Language, Black, Women’s, Leftwing, etc. If that were true, then presenting the world of poetry as tho it were largely SoQ, with a sprinkling of others, would seem fair, reasonable, logical, rather than merely partisan.

Poetry magazine may have been inclusive and broadly focused during the last seven years of Henry Rago’s tenure as editor (1962-9), but it has since become a movement journal most closely identified with New Formalism, a literary tendency whose obsession with inherited patterns obscures a much deeper lack of interest in form itself. Given $100 million by a pharmaceutical heiress, the Poetry Foundation recently funded a survey that had nothing to do with the needs of poets & everything to do with the publishing interests of the Gang of Six.

The most useful thing any outsider can do about such tactics is simply to name them, to make them visible, to make their literary tendencies perceptible as such. There are, after all, some fairly major differences – the American Poetry Review has a different aesthetic than does Poetry or The New Criterion or Ploughshares – but we’ll never fully understand that if we pretend that they’re the unmarked case. Ironically, SoQ poets are far more likely to have a lasting influence on letters if they treated more accurately than is now the case. Today, the death of an SoQ poet is a virtual guarantee that in 20 years he or she will have receded from memory. Remember James Dickey? Recall when he was treated as the most significant of American poets? That was within the last half century. SoQ poets virtually all get to be neglectorinos, to use Larry Fagin’s word. They all end up as famous as Tuckerman. Whether that is because their poetry has no lasting value without the institutional power that foregrounds their work while they’re alive, or is an inadvertent consequence of approaching the world as if they have no real poetics, no inherent clustering tendencies or literary shape, that they’re “just poetry,” is open to debate. But they’re the ones who stand to benefit most from becoming identified, if not with the SoQ as such, then with literary tendencies that have names of their own choosing.

So I will continue to use the phrase in order to give militant conservatives like William Logan, Christian Wiman, Dana Gioia, Billy Collins & Ted Kooser what they need most: a label.

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