While reflecting on the role of "innovation" in poetry, Ron Silliman pauses to offer this comment:
I have written before that any history of poetry is inevitably a history of change in poetry, and that an inevitable consequence is that the well-wrought urn is almost invariably a trivial accomplishment. Indeed, it’s a trivial goal.
The "Well-Wrought Urn" is of course the title of Cleanth Brooks's "Studies in the Structure of Poetry," as the book's subtitle has it. It is probably the most important critical work to emerge from the practice of "New Criticism," and it can still be read as a primer of sorts on that approach to literary criticism. New Criticism was dislodged from its place as a dominant academic critical strategy long ago, but it continues to draw much abuse from those who associate it with an apolitical formalism or an almost religious reverence for the poem as "verbal icon" or, in Silliman's case, view it as a critical adjunct to the "school of quietude" in poetry.
It is true that in invoking the "well-wrought urn" Brooks was trying to call attention to poetry as a verbal equivalent, a poem as an art object sufficient unto itself. But the trope can be dismissed as a "trivial goal"--indeed, as a "goal" at all--only if you assume that the urn is well-wrought because it successfully attains a level of "beauty" that conforms to pre-established formal requirements. Literary history as a series of such skillfully-fashioned verbal objects reinforcing aesthetic norms would indeed be a tedious procession, and the goal of adding yet one more "fine" work would indeed be trivial.
But I don't see why "well-wrought urn" has to be taken in this way. A poem, or any other work of art, could be still be admirably made even if it departs from norms and conventions, although it might take some readers a little longer to recognize the "well-wrought" qualities of such a work. Time might be needed, or a perspicacious critic who can illuminate the aesthetic strategies employed, but surely there are too many "great" works of formal splendor that at one time were perceived as ugly or misshapen for us to accept that the notion of the well-wrought can only apply to conventionally beautiful art. Who now thinks Joyce's Ulysses is not carefully wrought, even though at the time of its publication it was perceived as chaotic? If a work carries out its own aesthetic assumptions in a deliberate and coherent way (and even apparent incoherence often has its own justifying logic), why should we not call this effort "well-wrought," even if the results are at first unfamiliar?
So, yes, the history of both poetry and fiction is a history of change, but that is not inconsistent with a literary history featuring "well-wrought" works that were also, in their time and, in some cases, are still, challenging and unorthodox. I agree with Ron Silliman that what is presented as new and innovative in art is often just "fashionism," although it seems to me that Ron's emphasis on the "evolution" of poetry, on literary history as only change and no urns, threatens to make poetry even more into fashionism. There has to be room for the recognition of aesthetic success that remains successful.