You know who knows how to be cool about spilling an exotic tropical tomato amuse bouche on his shirt during a reception for poets at the Brazilian Consulate in Chicago? Peter O'Leary, that's who.
But I digress. The real question is this: who's emerging as a leading poet-critic of his generation? Stephen Burt, that's who. Here's why.
Saturday, September 27, 2008
You know who knows how to be cool about spilling an exotic tropical tomato amuse bouche on his shirt during a reception for poets at the Brazilian Consulate in Chicago? Peter O'Leary, that's who.
Saturday, September 20, 2008
Wake up, dammit! It's a beautiful Sunday! The sun shining, the birds singing, with many a youth and many a maid dancing in the chequered shade, etc. Oh, and the latest Notre Dame Review has just landed with a thud on your Norman Rockwellesque porch, so slide those slippers on, make sure your bathrobe is done up (I'm talking to you, Josh) and for the love of Mike get yourself out there to scoop it up! I mean, it's got Devin Johnston, it's got W.S. Merwin, it's got Stephanie Strickland, John Kinsella, Ray DiPalma, Renée E. D'Aoust and many more. And sullying a spread near the back is an essay by your present humble blogger, a double-barrelled review of Robert Hass' Time and Materials and Robert Pinsky's Gulf Music.
Back when I was putting the review together, I realized I'd been reading these two poets, one way or another, for twenty years. Which flipped my still-not-too-thinned-out wig, people. Flipped it. Time's winged chariot, it seems, tears on up next to me on the expressway and looks like it might just start trying to edge me onto the shoulder. But as I fretted about the inevitable Archambaldian aging, I realized it must be much worse for the two laureled Roberts, Pinsky and Hass: not only do they have a few decades on me, they're part of the baby-boom crowd hooked on the notion of their eternal youth. So age became the hook for the piece. It's called "Hass and Pinsky Sail to Byzantium," and it goes like this:
How to be an old poet? We live on the precipice of a great age of older poets, writes Roger Gilbert in the Michigan Quarterly Review, with an unprecedented number of American poets still going strong as they approach, or pass, their eightieth birthdays: Maxine Kumin, Robert Bly, John Ashbery, Galway Kinnell, W. S. Merwin, Donald Hall, Philip Levine, John Hollander, Richard Howard, Adrienne Rich, Gary Snyder — one could of course go on. One imagines each of these éminences grises has found his or her own answer to the question of how to be an old poet, and plotted out a route over the mackerel-crowded seas to Yeats’ Byzantium of ageless art. But what about the baby boomers, members of that rapidly getting-on generation hooked on the notion of youth? What, especially, about those poets whose careers began with a bang of youthful notoriety, rather than the now-typical whimper of post-MFA chapbooks and blog posts? The appearance of new books by Robert Pinsky and Robert Hass gives occasion to reflect on how the poetic wunderkinds of the early baby boom navigate waters.
It is perhaps unsurprising that Pinsky and Hass have sailed on parallel routes into what, with some slight euphemism, we might call poetic maturity. Their careers have, after all, followed remarkably similar routes since they attended graduate school together at Stanford in the sixties: each chose an academic career, each was picked up early by a major press, each has filled his trophy case with as impressive an array of prizes and awards as one could hope for, each has published good literary criticism as well as poetry, each has served multiple terms as Poet Laureate. Now, as the two poets push seventy, they have found similar ways to write as mature poets. Both have turned in some measure to a public-spirited, civic poetry; and each, in a different way, has developed what I’d like to call a poetics of accumulation, sensitive to the tradition behind them and to the presence of the work of their peers.
The rest of the piece is available as a pdf, if you're absolutely committed to not getting out of bed to get your copy of the magazine. Read on, punishment-gluttons, amidst the croissant crumbs and unfinished New York Times crossword puzzle! Hear of the civic poetry and Eliot-style assimilation and transformation of tradition! Thrill to the assessment of Hass' poem "Bush's War," and chuckle knowingly over the analysis of poetic minutiae! Also, gimme some of that croissant, will ya? Mmmm. Yeah. That's the stuff. Got any more coffee?
Thursday, September 18, 2008
Exhibit A: Action Yes logo, as deployed by Johannes Göransson and Joyelle McSweeney in their fabulous online journal of the same name:
Exhibit B: English Beat logo, as displayed on tee-short worn by Robert Archambeau, 1984-1991 (R.I.P., favorite tee...)
Suspicious, no? And made all the more so by Joyelle's resemblance to the English Beat girl...
Wednesday, September 17, 2008
Don't you think Johannes Göransson's Action Yes has the best name for a literary journal since Poor. Old. Tired. Horse. (which was going for quite a different effect)? Sure you do! Agreed, then! Anyway, there's a new issue up, packed (as usual) with smarter-than-the-average-journal stuff, the lone exception being my own humble essay "The Avant-Garde in Babel," in which I try to respond to the overwhelming erudition of Per Bäckström's "One Earth, Four or Five Words: The Notion of 'Avant-Garde' Problematized" from the previous issue. Bäckström and I both try to get at just what it is we talk about when we talk about avant-gardism. He gets a lot further than I do.
I'm genuinely stoked about the direction Johannes is taking Action Yes: there's lots of adventurous work to read, and there seems to be a genuine effort to bring critical prose — often on large topics — to the fore, rather than confining it a back-of-the-book reviews section. Also, as an unreconstructed drawer of diagrams, I'm very happy that Johannes posted the chart I drew of Bäckström's schema of modernism and the avant-garde:
I always find charts like this good as points of departure, but bad as points of arrival.
Speaking of departure, there's a knock on my office door, so I'm heading out of blogspace posthaste. Ciao!
Saturday, September 13, 2008
So check this out:
What makes people vote Republican? Why in particular do working class and rural Americans usually vote for pro-business Republicans when their economic interests would seem better served by Democratic policies? We psychologists have been examining the origins of ideology ever since Hitler sent us Germany's best psychologists, and we long ago reported that strict parenting and a variety of personal insecurities work together to turn people against liberalism, diversity, and progress. But now that we can map the brains, genes, and unconscious attitudes of conservatives, we have refined our diagnosis: conservatism is a partially heritable personality trait that predisposes some people to be cognitively inflexible, fond of hierarchy, and inordinately afraid of uncertainty, change, and death. People vote Republican because Republicans offer "moral clarity"—a simple vision of good and evil that activates deep seated fears in much of the electorate. Democrats, in contrast, appeal to reason with their long-winded explorations of policy options for a complex world.
Our diagnosis explains away Republican successes while convincing us and our fellow liberals that we hold the moral high ground. Our diagnosis tells us that we have nothing to learn from other ideologies, and it blinds us to what I think is one of the main reasons that so many Americans voted Republican over the last 30 years: they honestly prefer the Republican vision of a moral order to the one offered by Democrats.
Okay. Right. So these are some of the opening words of Jonathan Haidt's article "What Makes People Vote Republican" over at Edge.org. He does a pretty good job of briskly summarizing much of the recent work on right-wing Americans and their ideology (there's a lot of good work by Bob Altemeyer, who revisits Adorno's Authoritarian Personality; by John Dean, who used to work for Nixon, the president who really got the authoritarian politics of resentment rolling; by Thomas Frank of What's the Matter with Kansas; by Chris Hedges, who wrote American Fascists; and by a host of others). Haidt seems like a bright, well-meaning guy. But this opening bit of his drives me crazy. There's a real error here, a false dichotomy so naive I hope it's just a mistake, a matter of bad writing. It's this: Haidt tells us that we can't explain the right-wing's views with reference to social psychology because those views are honestly held. This is preposterous: often, we hold our views most sincerely, and uphold our preferences most honestly, precisely because we are psychologically motivated.
Of course the views of the left are as psychologically and socially motivated as the views of the right, so it doesn't follow, as Haidt says, that the linking of right-wing thinking to such motives gives the left the moral high ground. Unless you define the moral high ground as a place of tolerance, individualism, and curiosity. And the most interesting and challenging part of Haidt's article comes when he asks whether we should really look to individualism and tolerance and curiosity and the like as the primary virtues. Noting that "the moral domain varies across cultures," Haidt asks whether group solidarity shouldn't also play a role, as it does in so many societies. He cites Emile Durkheim, whose work I've admired, but read only in part. If I remember correctly, though, the kind of group solidarity Durkheim describes depends upon the constitution of an ingroup by definition against a despised and demonized outgroup. This may be a good way to maintain social order in relatively homogenous groups who don't actually have much contact with people unlike themselves. It may also work when an isolated group is being exploited by powerful outsiders. I'm thinking, here, about something James Wright once wrote about the great Peruvian poet César Vallejo's upbringing in small mining town: "His home town was small and provincial," says Wright, "with an ancient and living tradition of large, affectionate families who were of necessity mobilized, as it were, against the physical and spiritual onslaughts of death in its ancient and modern forms: disease, undernourishment, and cold on one hand; the officials of the tungsten mines on the other..." I mean, I can certainly understand how the whole defense-of-the-ingroup vs. the hated outsiders thing would come about in a situation like this one. But — given that "the moral domain varies across cultures" — you've got to wonder about firm ingroup loyalty/outgroup hatred as an ethic for modern and postmodern societies, which are diverse, large, mobile, and in constant contact with other groups around the world.
I remember my own contact with the whole ingroup-vs-outgroup ethic, back when the neocons where just starting to ramp up their let's-go-to-war talk back in '02. I was on a committee at the college where I teach, a committee where representatives from all the college constituencies (faculty, students, staff, etc.) could discuss general topics. Someone asked whether we should in some way address the coming conflict. A faculty member suggested we should bring some Iraqi intellectuals to campus to get their view of things (from what I've read and heard from Iraqi intellectuals since then, I imagine we would have heard that Saddam Hussein was a very bad man with a very bad regime, and that invasion would lead to chaos). While this was being proposed, I saw a member of the coaching staff, who has since moved on to greener pastures, first furrow his brow, then set his jaw in stony determination. I don't recall him saying much else in that committee, but I vividly remember him getting up after the prof had finished, and saying "Why bring their side in? Why not bring in a vet of the Gulf War!" It puzzled me at first: the only Gulf War vet I know had told me he thought an invasion was a bad idea, and that Colin Powell had been right in stopping the first Gulf War from expanding beyond the liberation of Kuwait. But the more I mulled it over, the more it became clear to me: for the coach, we weren't proposing to get a full view of all sides of an issue — we were inviting the other team into our locker room. We were supporting the enemy. Liberal types valued the idea of critical discourse and individual judgement, but guys like this coach valued ingroup loyalty. To question, or even examine, national policy critically would be like refusing to execute the play the quarterback had called — it just didn't make sense.
The coach's mindset makes sense in a football game. I imagine it even makes sense in a lot of historical situations — but it strikes me as an older ethos that causes more harm than good in the diverse, globalized society we live in now. Ingroup feeling is still strong, and can be mobilized politically (to speak only of America, we can see examples in the McCarthy-era witchhunts, in the demonizing of gay people in the "defense of marriage" movement, or in the it-was-okay-when-my-ancestors-came-but-now-it's-different anti-immigrant hysteria we see from time to time). But it's a dangerous sentiment to exploit. I mean, I like football as much as the next guy with three degrees from Notre Dame, but life is more complicated than fourth-and-long.
Friday, September 12, 2008
It saddens me greatly to hear of the passing of Reginald Shepherd.
We lived a few blocks from one another in Chicago's Wrigleyville, but we never met face to face. I am honored, though, to have known him through our correspondence over the past couple of years. He was a real poet, a real intellect, and a man to be admired. The world was not always kind to him, but he died a deeply loved and respected man.
Here, because I am too sad to say anything new, are the opening paragraphs of my retrospective review of his five books of poetry. The piece appeared in the spring 2008 issue of Pleiades:
A Portrait of Reginald Shepherd as Philoctetes
Philoctetes, sadly, has never been a favorite character of Greek legend. He gets only a brief mention in the Iliad, and missed his chance for greater acclaim when the last manuscript of Proclus’ Little Iliad, where he may have played a greater role, was lost to history. The Greek tragedians liked him — he’s the subject of a play by Aeschylus and another by Euripedes, and two by Sophocles — but their audiences didn’t fall in love with any of these plays, and history has been unkind to the manuscripts: only one full Sophoclean script remains, along with a few lines of the other. The Aeschylus and Euripedes have fared even worse: neither has been preserved, even in fragment. When Edmund Wilson surveyed the history of the Philoctetes story in The Wound and the Bow, he found it left surprisingly little trace in literary history: a bungled seventeenth-century French play by Chateaubrun, a chapter of Fénelon’s Télémaque, an analysis by Lessing, a sonnet by Wordsworth, a John Jay Chapman adaptation, and a version by André Gide. The six decades since Wilson’s survey have added little to this short list: mentions in Derek Walcott’s Omeros and Seamus Heaney’s The Cure at Troy, and a few short poems by Michael Ondaatje are the only distinguished examples.
This is a shame, in that the Philoctetes story seems remarkably suited to our times. It is, after all, a story of othering, or (to steal one of Reginald Shepherd’s words) of otherhood. An archer equipped with a bow that never missed its mark, Philoctetes suffered a wound to his foot so distasteful to his fellow Greeks that they stranded him on an island en route to Troy. Ten years into their fruitless war, the Greeks learn that without the skills of the man they’ve wronged, they cannot win. They coax the understandably outraged Philoctetes to join them, which he does, distinguishing himself in battle. Edmund Wilson saw the story in a Romantic light, treating it as a myth of the alienated artist whose skill is somehow connected to his isolation. But we can see the story in more contemporary terms, too, as a myth of social disenfranchisement and the damage it causes. Seen this way, the real wounds aren’t physical at all. They are, rather, the social and psychological burdens placed on those othered, and the losses to society caused by its failure to embrace the human potential of all of its members. It is no accident that the three poets to pick up the story after Wilson are all postcolonials.
Reginald Shepherd’s poetic career mirrors the Philoctetes story in both its contemporary and Wilsonian versions. The contemporary version of the story fits in that being born gay, black, and poor in America — as Shepherd was — is to be triply othered, to be shunned and devalued for one’s sexuality, race, and class. It isn’t that gayness, blackness, and poverty are wounds in themselves: it is that America treats these things in a wounding way, much as the Greeks treated Philoctetes. Just as the Greeks’ cause at Troy suffered because of their failure to embrace Philoctetes, America suffers from its othering of people like Shepherd. The Wilsonian version of the myth also applies to Shepherd, in that Shepherd’s poetic genius is intimately connected to his otherness in American society: his work returns, again and again, to the particulars of his outsider status. Shepherd’s poems also return to the same solutions to the dilemma of otherhood, seeking solace in never-quite-trusted yearnings for beauty and interracial erotic fulfillment.
And here is an older poem of Reginald's, an elegy for his mother:
How People Disappear
If this world were mine, the stereo
starts, but can't begin
to finish the phrase. I might survive
it, someone could add, but that
someone's not here. She's crowned
with laurel leaves, the place
where laurel leaves would be
if there were leaves, she's not
medieval Florence, not
Blanche of Castile. Late March
keeps marching in old weather,
another slick of snow to trip
and fall into, another bank
of inconvenient fact. The sky
is made of paper and white reigns,
shredded paper pools into her afterlife,
insurance claims and hospital reports,
bills stamped "Deceased," sign here
and here, a blank space where she
would have been. My sister
said We'll have to find another
And this is how
loss looks, my life in black plastic
garbage bags, a blue polyester suit
a size too small. Mud music
as they packed her in
damp ground, it's always raining
somewhere, in New Jersey,
while everyone was thinking about
fried chicken and potato salad,
caramel cake and lemonade.
Isn't that a pretty dress
they put her in? She looks so
lifelike. (Tammi Terrell
collapsed in Marvin Gaye's arms
onstage. For two hundred points,
what was the song?) Trampled
beneath the procession, her music.
Pieces of sleep like pieces of shale
crumble through my four a.m.
(a flutter of gray that could be
rain), unable to read this thing
that calls itself the present.
She's lost among the spaces
inside letters, moth light, moth wind,
a crumpled poem in place of love.
Thursday, September 04, 2008
Wednesday, September 03, 2008
It might have been the three bottles of Tsingtao, it might have been the extra-spicy shrimp chow fun, it might have been all those hours eyeballing the cable coverage of the Democratic National Convention while surfing the blogosphere for amateur punditry. Odds are they all played into the dream that came to me a few days ago as I slouched over my laptop in a living room lit only by the blue glow of small-hours MSNBC. And an oddly highbrow dream it was: the figures who habitually make appearances in my dreams tend to range across a spectrum the low end of which is my junior-high science teacher, demanding the carbon count of a benzene ring, and the high end of which is Jane Fonda as Barbarella, demanding something altogether different. But this time the dream-presence was an intense little man whose enormous moustache bristled with general defiance. I knew him immediately from the cover of a dog-eared college paperback still on my shelf: Friedrich Nietzche.
“It’s like this,” he began, jabbing toward my chest with the stub of his cigar. “Your man Obama has a problem. Half of his supporters want him to be Apollo, the other half want him to be Dionysus. He has to be both, but he could end up being neither — and then,” he paused, eyes boring into me from beneath eyebrows fit for Bigfoot, “you know... kaput!”
Before I could even unslouch myself enough brush the crumbs from my shirtfront, Nietzsche was pacing the room, flinging cigar ash at the potted ficus and occasionally picking up the chow fun carton and sniffing suspiciously. “‘Enough with the big rallies and the speeches’ says the Clinton woman — but they can’t get enough! 200,000 people in Berlin! 84,000 in Denver! This is what they yearn for, after two demoralizing terms of a Republican White House: to feel the power of their unity in a crowd, to lose their small selves there, to be a part of a movement. This is what Dionysus is all about, and Obama’s the first Democrat to understand it in years. The bond of citizen and citizen is forged by the magic of the Dionysian rite — and those benighted anemics who look down on Dionysus have no idea how cadaverous they seem to the rest of us. They might as well be Mike Dukakis!”
Realizing that trying to interject would be like trying to get a word in edgewise with cocaine-era Robin Williams, I shut up and let Nietzsche roll on. “So what do they want, the rally-haters? ‘Substance! substance!’ — they shout it from behind the wheels of their hybrid cars. After eight years of the dimwit Bush’s administration, they want the piercing, analytic gaze of rational Apollo. They want reason, specific plans, policy that comes from expertise, not gut-feeling. And Obama gives it to them: he gives them page after page of...” (here Nietzsche wrinkled his brow, and grasped in the air with both hands after the right word) “... page after page of wonkery, I believe you say. But what comes of this? ‘Elitist! Egghead!’ scream his enemies. ‘Too Harvard,’ says one, ‘inept bowler!’ says another. They won’t admit it, but even his supporters worry about this. The teeming crowds at his rallies? They want a left-wing Reagan, not a new Adlai Stevenson.
“Now,” he continued, underlining each word with a poke in my chest from his burnt-out cigar, “what — is — to — be — done?” I started to mumble something about swing states and swift-boating, but the man snorted with contempt. “Details! Bah! For untermenschen! Think big! What is the greatest achievement of civilization?” My mind quickly raced: was it chow fun? blogs? No, not blogs. Maybe Barbarella... “Greek tragedy!” shouted Nietzsche. “And why? Why has this pinnacle of art stood above us for centuries in lofty grandeur? Ah! Because they knew, the Greeks, that the greatest, most enduring appeal comes from the fusion of Apollo and Dionysus! Thought alone is nothing. And mere spectacle without reason is worse. But together — ah, together...” He seemed to swoon for a moment, before snapping back to attention. “Well, if Obama can keep Apollo and Dionysus together, the election is his. The election? No, the nation! The age! From his mountain swift-stepping Zarathustra descends, and...”
“But what about McCain?” I asked, mustering my courage. “Doesn’t he have something to prove, too? I mean, he doesn’t really rate as an Apollonian candidate of reason, does he? Not if he can’t tell his sunnis from his shia. And he’s never been able to give the religious conservatives the Dionysian thrill they so deeply desire. When his handlers put him in front of one of those mega-church audiences you can actually see him recoil and, you know, die a little.”
“Oh, him,” Nietzsche replied. “He isn’t particularly good at being Apollo or Dionysus. Sure. But as long as the media keeps spinning this election as a referendum on Obama, he doesn’t have to be much of anything. The less we think about him, the more likely it is he’ll win.”
I had more to ask the agitated old philosopher, but with a start I found myself in the morning sun as it shone on the empty bottles and food cartons. I was awake, groggy, and blinking in the wake of what had started to seem like a nightmare.
Monday, September 01, 2008
Okay, okay, okay. Sure. Since you've been after me about it for so long, I'll tell you. You're always asking me "how does it feel to go to a play about the English Romantic poets directed by, and starring, students to whom you once taught the works of the English Romantic poets?" Well, I'll tell you: it feels good. It also feels odd, and gives one a sense of time's winged chariot zipping by at an alarming pace. I mean, I'm used to running into former students working as bartenders and wait-staff (I teach English, after all), but now I've been at this game long enough to start seeing my former students accomplish impressive things. They go to grad school. They have kids. Some of them make piles of money. And some of them put on plays in cooler-than-cool little Chicago theaters. In the present case, they've put on a play that pushes a whole lot of my buttons, dealing as it does not only with Romanticism, but with the contradictions of the autonomous intellect.
The play is Howard Brenton's Bloody Poetry at the Side Project Theater, directed by Evan Jackson, and starring, among others, former students of mine Mark Dryfoos, Catherine Hermes, and Tristan Brandon. Brandon plays Byron, which is perfect: I always thought he had a Byron-meets-Brian Ferry kind vibe to him, and he assured me after the show that he was able to kit himself out in full Byronic regalia from his personal wardrobe. Anyway, the play's a sharp two-acter about the goings-on between Lord Byron, Percy and Mary Shelley, Claire Clairemont, and Dr. Polidori. I'd call it a love triangle, but I think it's more like a love dodecahedron, with revolutionary politics, social deviancy, polymorphous sexuality and a bit of opium thrown in for good measure. There's also sudden death, Shelley's funeral pyre, and some weird supernatural hauntings.
For me, though, the most interesting thing about Brenton's play is the way it depicts the relations between the bourgeois world and the nascent bohemian intellectual demimonde, right at the moment of that demimonde's birth. Long story short, up until the late eighteenth century European intellectuals (including literary types) tended to be supported by, and subordinate to, various powerful institutions. Sometimes it was the aristocracy, which patronized (in both senses) writers, artists, philosophers, and scientists. Sometimes the church did this, or even the royal court. With the rise of market forces and the bourgeoisie, though, some intellectuals stepped away from this system and found the same combination of support and subordination in the marketplace, writing or thinking or painting for the money to be found there. But there's more. In the great bust-up of aristocratic and ecclesiastical authority, some intellectuals chose to step away from the old patrons and the new market system. Some of these writers went broke, and were on the outs politically (think Shelley), others happened to make a lot of money from writing, but did so without having that in mind as a goal (think Byron, who walked away from many of his royalties because he thought accepting them beneath him, and who had great kegs and barrels full of inherited cash anyway). There was an historical opportunity to serve no one, and the Shelleys and the Byrons of the world took it.
For Byron, this opportunity for freedom was largely a matter of hedonism, beyond even the level of self-indulgence in which a peer of the realm could generally revel. For Shelley, it was a matter of revolution, a chance to change the social order for the better (Byron signed on for some of this too, and famously died in the service of a Greek revolution). The really great thing about Brenton's Bloody Poetry, though, lies in the way it captures two of the great complications attendant upon such assertions of freedom.
The first complication involves the way the bourgeoisie (represented in the play by Polidori, Byron's physician and a would-be writer himself) is both attracted to and repelled by the new, autonomous intellectuals. In the play Polidori (played with splendid creepiness by Mark Dryfoos in the Chicago production) is obsessed with the literary genius of the Shelley-Byron circle, but angered by his own exclusion from their literary projects. He's even more obsessed by their sexual intrigues, from which he is also excluded. Envy of the Romantics' intellectual and sexual intrigues turns into a kind of hatred, and he vows to take revenge in the memoirs he's writing. He wants to paint the Romantics in salacious terms, to get even with them, and, as he says in a dark aside, "to own them." There's a creepy way in which we, the audience, are Polidori: after all, we're also Peeping Toms at the Romantics' sexual irregularities, and we're also excluded. His prurience is ours, and if he stands condemned by the play, so do we.
The second complication isn't a matter of clever audience-positioning, but it does give us some of the better speeches in the play. It's the problem of the isolation and uselessness that accompanies the new freedoms of the intellectual. While a court poet knows where he stands in society (he adorns the existing social order), a poet who declares his autonomy from power faces a problem. He doesn't really know what his role is. Even if he yearns for a role in social revolution, he's got to face the question of whether or not his efforts really have any effect (well, he's got to face this, or mire himself in a whole lot of self-deception about the efficacy of his linguistic activity in challenging the powers). There's a great bit in the play where Brenton's version of Byron rants about how restless he feels, and how he wishes there were a revolution, because then at least the poets would have a role, writing the songs and making the banners. And there's a fantastic speech where Shelley gets so caught up in the problem he nearly drowns in a storm at sea, as he calls out “I write poems. But most of the world cannot even read. So what can I do? Act as if I were free. Write, as if I were free.” There's the stuff, the subjunctive utopia of the autonomous intellectual. You know: where most of us live now.
I suppose it's important that Howard Brenton, an old sixties radical, wrote the play during the dawn of the reactionary Thatcher era in Britain. He'd have to have been thinking about the revolutionary dreams of his generation, and the rude awakening when the bourgeoisie reasserted itself with a vengeance. The solutions to the world's problems that Brenton and his friends had hoped for didn't seem to be taking hold, and the whole question of what all their writing and thinking had been for must have been painfully present. They had tried to live and write freely, as autonomous intellects, but to what end?
Brenton's play flirts with at least one solution to the problem of intellectual autonomy: aestheticism. Strangely, it gives this view to Mary Shelley. When Byron dismisses Wordsworth's "Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood" on political grounds, she stares down the decadent Lord and refutes him by saying, of the poem, "but it sings." Its beauty is its justification. This art-for-art's sake position isn't, as far as I know, where Mary Shelley really stood. But accuracy be damned: Bloody Poetry sings, too.