The introduction of new thought into poetry violates the principle of externality and observability, whereby a poet is limited to what can be seen, and what can be observed introspectively. This, oddly behaviouristic position (we might call it “subjective behaviourism”) is perfectly tenable, but a great deal of literature has been written in this mode, and we perhaps have enough. More to the point, this material was written sincerely, whereas contemporary writers have to “feign anaesthesia”, to use that nice phrase of Ogden and Richards, in order to frame their work. (Craig Raine’s Martian poems would be a prime example of this.) And in any case, much of the writing of the past which seems to be objective is not so, and many parts of so-called objective poems in the present conceal weak scientific hypotheses, or ideologies. – William Carlos Williams’ soppy poem about a tree ("Trees") relies on the idea of a universe created for the glory of man. But simple immersion in a science in general is not a sufficient corrective, and some sciences are better than others. Biology forces an introduction of new material, whereas physics is so abstract that the cosmic grandeur already present in the literature of religion can easily accomodate it without transformation. In principle, a very conscientious writer might be able to get something new from physics without falling prey to miltonics, the grand style, but I am not aware of any that escape that trap. It would, I think, require a truly heroic effort and be well worth the hardship, but it is not for all individuals to attempt. I shrink from it myself. A really comprehensive knowledge of physics would be necessary, and might not be enought to prevent error. Even Peter Atkins, in his very unusual Creation Revisited, falls a prey to the poisonous romantic heritage of Wordsworth and Paradise Lost. What hope for others?
The literature of the past, particularly that of the seventeenth, often impresses us, at least in English, because it is a poetry in touch with the main body of human thought, scientific and philsophic current at the time. Literature gradually, through the 18th and 19th centuries, and right into our own time has been losing contact with the network of propositions that constitutes human science, extending, as Quine says, from mathematics on the one hand to history on the other. It is not that there are no connections, but rather that it is has fewer connections than other areas; it is relatively isolated and now it stands gradually emptying of intellectual content, or infused with a trivial philosophy designed to inflate the status of the empty-headed writer. The writer has failed the reader, not the other way around as is so often said. Poets today resemble clergymen of the Anglican order, transforming their cloisters into coffee-shops to tempt the ordinary person back into the arms of the Holy. But, and in exactly the same way, it was never the masses who were important to the church; they supported it because they were compelled by circumstance. The church has failed because it has lost the support of the intellectuals, who gave it prestige and created the compelling circumstance that made it a powerful societal phenomena. Something very similar has happened to literary poetry. The priests of both are now in the process of replacing that loss by recruiting amongst those who were never deeply interested, and amongst the muddled and the wounded. Poetry is attempting pastoral outreach, and by doing so it further degrades itself in the eyes of intellectuals. Since such people are not interested anyway it may not seem worth poetry’s while to avoid deeper contempt. However, to think this would be a mistake. The more abject the art becomes the less likely it is that any recovery can be made. The point can be brought out by contrast with lyric verse, which needs neither help nor apology; it thrives as never before in the popular song, where demanding forms and self-advertising wit earn their living from the mating habits of the young. It is not a very interesting form of life, to those looking on, but it is definitely alive and growing. Literary poetry on the other hand is in decay, and proof of this can be found in the diction of contemporary poetry, which is impoverished, and not simply because it is restricted in size, but rather because it draws its novelties from two or three sources only: from colloquial speech, from slang, and from local or provincial factual detail. I have separated colloquialism from slang since it seems to me that there may be a useful distinction between colloquial uses of items from the formal lexicon, and slang neologisms. By slang I do not, of course, mean “uneducated slang”, but that of all groups, though it will be found that poets are somewhat unadventurous in their choice of sources, generally sticking to the slang of poets and the slang of the currently fashionable underdog. Local detail is a category including product names, place names, personal names even, phrases from advertisements, and signs.
It will be immediately noticed that all these sources of novelty are what we might term casual. Reasoning that it is their duty to remain in touch with the common world, poets restrict themselves to what they think of as ordinary or non-elitist diction. This is a very strange way of going about it. Slang, in plain intention, and colloquialism accidentally, are exclusive, elitist. That's the point. The same may be said of provincial detail.
In addition I should want to say that these sources of diction are rich in quantity, but contain a great deal of redundancy, and in many cases are categorically poor; distinctions and grades are lost. Terms of approval in slang coalesce and tend to hyperbole. By trying to meet the common man, by rather inefficient means and in a place where he is not to be found, the literary poetry has turned its back on the subtleties of language, subtleties that are in fact thriving, however ephemerally, the popular lyric.