Do you know, RCAR, I have a sense that poetry is less emblematic of national modes of thought than dramatic storytelling. There's an artifice to poetry -- and poetry is a good thing, and artifice too -- that almost demands contrapuntal thought and ironic patterns. You can, if you want to, write poetry with a heavy hand and infuse it with blank singlemindedness and turgidity, but the medium can't handle that and still be its best self in the way the novel can.
Of course, that's one woman's opinion. I'm not even sure I agree with you about modern American poetry; I think I might call overly intellectualized preciousness what you detect as irony. But there's a quality to poetry that transcends culture anyway, by introducing a conscious device between the author and his reader. Every literate culture has written poetry, but only some have felt the need to elevate narrative, self-expository fiction to an art form.
Try this. In my view, it would have been possible to write the story in Coleridge's Rime of the Ancient Mariner as a novella. It's a wonderful, haunting poem, but it could be equally powerful in a different way as narrative fiction. Moby Dick, on the other hand, could only have been written in the form of a novel, and in particular, a self-expository narrative. Trying to put it into poetry would turn what is complete and coherent in novel form into a cacophony of unresolved chords, and overly portentous notes held too long.
It's an American thing, as it's a Russian thing and, to a lesser extent, an English and French and Spanish thing, to favor modes of thinking and storytelling that produce what is too grimly realistic and morally inclusive to be put into verse (even blank verse). War and Peace and Long Day's Journey into Night are equally "unversifiable" -- and I've long thought of Whitman as a would-be poet who was trying, unsuccessfully, to cram a load of unironic American narrative into the wrong form.
Ah, but living irony isn't the same thing as having an ironic perspective. It's our lack of the latter that leads some among us to -- irony of ironies -- embrace absolutism in the pursuit of post-modern deconstructionist relativism.
The Euros have by and large lived comfortably enough with irony that they don't see any actionable disconnect in proclaiming all manner of utopian lunacies while actually behaving with all the self-interest, universalist piety, and state-of-nature demographic squabbling as any other set of humans that has ever inhabited the planet.
Americans don't tolerate irony that well. We don't shrug easily, or with dispassion, over the tragic nature of human life, nor can we square in our minds declaiming one thing and acting out another. A lot of Americans are suspicious of politicians, but we're amateurs at that compared to Europeans, who have in fact always accepted a more ironic, less accountable view of politics than Americans do. It's not that the Europeans have moved past us -- it's that they've never actually been where we started, and in some keys ways, haven't even been where we are today.
Anyway, it's certainly possible that Americans will develop a national sense of irony, as an intellectual way of being, in the coming years. But that would be a transformation, and not for the better.
I'm not sure American culture puts up the irony necessary to well-crafted tragedy. Americans are unironic as a people, and frankly, it's more fun all around to live among the unironic. They tend to stop at stoplights and pay their bills.
To me, Long Day's Journey lacks the implications of irony, fate, and choice that attend the tragic idea in the West. It's naturalistic, observational, blankly uncompromising. Honesty is an art form of its own, and I don't see it as a lesser one than any other. Long Day's Journey has the same beauty as the greatest of other drama and literature: you wouldn't have to be briefed beforehand on the political situation of its time, or on the customs and mores, to understand what's going on. The only prerequisite is humanity.
Cinema probably is our premier art form, although I think there's something to be said for the American novel too.