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Aug 30 / Jonathan

The difference between a democratic society and a consumer society

In my last post I quoted Robert Hass’s Twentieth Century Pleasures: Prose on Poetry, but no Hass. So here’s a bit of Hass himself. I love this paragraph, especially the last sentence, which I’m still puzzling over.

Now, I think, free verse has lost its edge, become neutral, the given instrument. An analogy occurs to me. Maybe it is a little farfetched. I’m thinking of balloon frame construction in housing. According Gideon, it was invented by a man named George Washington Snow in the 1850s and 1860s, about the same time as Leaves of Grass. “In America materials were plentiful and skilled labor scarce; in Europe skilled labor was plentiful and materials scarce. It is this difference which accounts for the differences in the structure of American and European industry from the fifties onn.” The principle of the balloon frame was simply to replace the ancient method of mortise and tenon—heavy framing timbers carved at the joints so that they locked heavily together—with construction of a frame by using thin studs and nails. it made possible a light, quick, elegant construction with great formal variability and suppleness. For better or worse. “If it had not been for the balloon frame, Chicago and San Francisco could never have arisen, as they did, from little villages to great cities in a single year.” The balloon frame, the clapboard house and the Windsor chair, American forms, and Leaves of Grass which abandoned the mortise and tenon of meter and rhyme. Suburban tracts and the proliferation of poetry magazines. The difference between a democratic society and a consumer society.

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