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This article is taken from PN Review 180, Volume 34 Number 4, March - April 2008.

Poetry, Culture & Oswald Spengler J.P. Greene

In 1917 Oswald Spengler published Der Untergang des Abendlandes (The Decline of the West). Therein, among much else, he pronounced it problematic whether the thousand-year-old geohistorical phenomenon called the West had not exhausted its creative potential, i.e., its ability once again to reintegrate, in stylistic form, its fundamental historical impulse, its 'soul'. Today, nine decades later, that question, for some, has still sharper pertinence. In pursuit of an answer, I propose to undertake a metaphysical visit to time present.

Now in my judgement that site's location has never anywhere or in any epoch been more precisely triangulated than in its poetry. And yet we quickly find that precisely there, in our poetry, we run into paradox. For whereas the metaphysic of previous epochs appears through a distinctive unity of style, that of time present (i.e., the past half-century, give or take) appears in the opposite, an apparently self-inconsistent mélange, one might even say cacophony, of tones, intentions, and modes of execution, yet oddly enough, all, I submit, instantly identifiable as 'contemporary' (i.e., in fact mutually consistent, albeit not in the form of a style but at some non-obvious conceptual level). Hence, for our purposes, a single example will do, this one, say, from Locusts on the Edge of Summer: New & Selected Poems by John Balaban:

Friend, the Old Man that was last year
has had his teeth kicked in; in tears ...


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