Angus Fletcher: A New Theory of American Poetry


Many might remember Angus Fletcher’s Allegory: A Symbolic Mode which was written in the wake of such luminary works as Northrop Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism and his Fearful Symmetry; a work on the life and poetry of William Blake. Fletcher’s work brought forward the notion of an allegory without ideas in its modernist variant, along with the traditional four-fold schemes of medieval fame.  In that study he applied a reading of works as disparate as Dante’s trilogy and Spenser’s epic poem The Faerie Queene, giving us a glimpse at the daemonic mode of the symbolic sublime. 

One of the things I took away from Fletcher’s work on allegory was a sense as he said that “allegory, the touchstone of medieval literature and preaching, cannot fail over time to produce anesthesia, whereas metaphor, a figure of instant animation, lifts the mind to a fervor of aesthetic activity.  Metaphor as structural principle generates restless shift and flexing of sense.”1 In this sense our modern troubadours such as our Orpheus Hart Crane – with his hyperbolic sublime; and, the natural or descriptive sublime of that Lucretian Wallace Stevens. All used this notion of the metaphor of the restless and never-resting Mind that travels and travails across the far horizon of our earthly estate seeking the lost objects of the heart that must suffice.

I’m reading a work I read back in 2004 by Fletcher A New Theory for American Poetry: Democracy, the Environment, and the Future of Imagination. In it he admits that “the most factual of relations to nature give rise to a new form of transcendental, namely to gnomic expression and of immanent transcendence.”2 This notion of gnomic expression and immanent transcendence might be familiar to those who keep up with current continental thought. It’s a nice way of talking about naturalist modes of atheism without directly appealing to that name. I don’t have time to go into the full details of the book, but it offers a six-fold reading of American poetry as a cross between naturalist descriptive verse and a responsive and inquisitive, even democratic dialogue between poetry and the sciences. One that allows for poetry to begin with the circle of the horizontal, or the concept of horizon as a beginning point, which “implies the immediate boundary to any environment”. Then he speaks to the place of the poet’s herself, her “way of being in the world,” as pertaining to the ecological surround of the poet’s eye and thought. Then he uses the exemplary poetry of our gnomic poet Walt Whitman, son and ephebe of that famed New Englander Ralph Waldo Emerson. He describes Whitman’s poetry as the poetry of environmental form. He’ll connect this form to its underlying rhythm, how it shapes this dialogue of naturalist perspectives with imaginative understanding. Next he treats of that distant son of Whitman, John Ashberry as the poet of becoming or process and motion; time and its momentum or accelerating disposition and advance. Finally, he’ll develop an ethical or poetic stance which he perceives within American poetry at large, between our native strain or poetic sublime and the counter-sublime. This ethical strain he likens to the pragmatic theory of coherence. He’ll take aim at separating out our homegrown pragmatism deriving from Pierce and James, weeding out the religious and belief systems in favor of its more abstract and constant layers of doing and making.

I’ll probably come back to this in a future post to fill out the details. Definitely a work to look into if your a lover of poetry, especially its American descendants. This year I’ve been rereading most of the poetry that has meant something to me over the years. Been an exciting time to go back through many of my favorite poets. After spending so much time reading philosophers and scientists the last few years its nice to return to my poetic roots.


  1. Angus Fletcher. Time, Space, and Motion in the Age of Shakespeare (Kindle Locations 154-155). Kindle Edition.
  2. Angus Fletcher. A New Theory for American Poetry: Democracy, the Environment, and the Future of Imagination. Harvard University Press (March 15, 2006)

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