Okay, okay, enough about me. Now: what do others think about me?
People who've written about my poetry have had all sorts of different things to say: some say it's allusive, some say it's derivative (I think they're on to the same thing, only some don't like it). I've read a description of it as "sentence-based" rather than elliptical, but I've also read that it can be disjunctive to the point where it's "reminiscent of an interrupted telegraph cable." One critic scared the hell out of me when he showed me a whole pile of father-anxieties I'd never known were there (what's worse is this: I'm sure he was right!). Another critic was kind enough to class me "among the better poets writing in our day" but also critical enough to say that I had some serious limitations, because "any poet who corrects subject-matter insufficiencies with mere formal tricks will fall into some kind of error or another." (When I think of his article, I always hear Tom Waits' voice singing "Step Right Up," with its great line about how "the big print giveth and the small print taketh away"). One of my favorite reactions was a kind of creative splicing-together of one of my poems and one by Louis Armand by a guy who seems to be on a mission to cross-breed poems by all of Salt Publishing's poets. But I've never had a poem of mine compared to a cross between Situationism and urban shamanism, which seems to be what's happening here, where a poem from Home and Variations, "Citation Suite" comes up in the context of Stephen Grasso's theories of English hoodoo and dérive. I'd always thought the poem was some kind of cento-meets-dérive exercise, a kind of textual-spicing meets psychogeography. But I'd never knowingly aspired to hoodoo. Anyway, I'm interested, and even more amazed than I was when the guy unearthed all my dad-issues from behind my protective screen of objective correlatives.
Wednesday, July 29, 2009
Okay, okay, enough about me. Now: what do others think about me?
Friday, July 24, 2009
What now? Can't you see I'm trying to fix the knackebrod on my Volvo with an Ikea catalog while the Swedish Chef socializes some lutefisk in the kitchen? Oh, fine. If you must come in, put some ABBA on in the sauna and busy yourself with "Double Gesture," the piece I wrote about the evolution of Swedish poetry over the past two generations. The good people at The Boston Review have, at last, added it to their website.
Hej då, pojke och flikarna!
Thursday, July 23, 2009
So, as part of my ongoing process of poking away at the project whose working title remains "The Big Boring Book of Aesthetics, or: How Poetics got to Now from Then," I've been rooting around in Keats' letters. It's been a while since I've read them, and it's good to meet them again. You get to see Keats pine for love, recover from a black eye he got in a game of cricket, you get to watch him hang with Coleridge and talk nightingales, nightmares, and poetics, and, most importantly, you get to confirm your sense of Keats as the ultimate aesthete — most of the time.
Poetry, for Keats, was about poetry — a radical position at the time. It wasn't about anything like a quest for truth (his famous idea of negative capability meant we needn't seek after certainties), and it certainly wasn't about persuading anybody of anything ("we hate poetry that has a palpable design upon us," he writes, a line I think of whenever I find myself at some kind of "poets for social justice" event). Beauty must not only reign as the supreme value, for Keats: it must "obliterate all consideration" of other things.
Keats has a tremendously strong sense of the autonomy of the imaginative act: if you're a real Keatsian, you don't write with a goal in mind (not, say "this poem will convince them that the war is bad," nor "I must complete a full-length manuscript that'll win the Picayune Press Emerging Writers Award," still less "I need something they'll publish at the kind of journal the tenure committee cares about" nor even "this'll show her I'm sensitive and then she'll want to meet for clove cigarettes and some snogging"). If you're a real Keatsian, you surrender to the imagination's own imperatives. "If Poetry comes not as naturally as the leaves of a tree," says Keats, "it had better not come at all."
The most challenging part of this, for a lot of people, is the lack of a sense of ethics, the failure to worry about whether one is writing something morally acceptable or not ("what shocks the virtuous philosopher delights the cameleon poet"). But the ethical content of a poem isn't a problem for Keats, because he believed, like Philip Sidney before him, that the poet affirmed no particular truth; and he believed, like Auden after him, that poetry made nothing happen. It simply existed, as beauty.
It wasn't a position shared by all the Romantics. In one letter, you can catch Keats chiding Shelley for being too political in "The Cenci," saying "you might curb your magnanimity and be more of an artist" — and this when Shelley was scratching up some cash to haul Keats' tubercular ass down to Italy, lest he die of an English winter. Keats was an aesthete, but that didn't mean he wasn't aggressive.
So: no surprises here about Keats and aestheticism, at least not yet. But there is one moment in the letters when we see, ever so briefly, young Mr. Keats' faith in aesthetic purity and the autonomous imagination shaken. For a brief moment, we can watch that growing force of the nineteenth century, the logic of the marketplace, put the fear into Keats. Is poetry, he wonders, nothing more than a commodity? Check it out:
(From a letter to Benjamin Bailey, March 13, 1818, for those keeping score at home)
I am sometimes so very sceptical as to think Poetry itself a mere Jack a lantern to amuse whoever may be struck by its brilliance — as Tradesmen say every thing is worth what it will fetch, so probably every mental pursuit takes its reality and worth from the ardor of the pursuer — being in itself a nothing...
Look out! Tradesmen are trudging across the well-kept lawns of poesy, their hobnailed boots mucking up the flowerbeds! What's poetry worth? What's it for? Is it just a low-returning venture in the entertainment industry? One hears echoes of the Utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham's dictum that pushpin (a pub game worth trying) is as good as poetry, when it comes to having a good time. All that was solid in Keats' aestheticism melts into air, and the poem is "in itself a nothing," just a blank slate onto which the market will inscribe a (no doubt deeply-discounted) price.
But even as the abyss of market-value opens before Keats, we see him shifting things around, and finding a way to value poetry other than by market appeal. When he speaks of the work taking its value from "the ardor of the pursuer" he opens a door to a different set of values than those of the market. After all, the market isn't about the individual's degree of passion for something: it's about big groups, and tipping their passion just to the point where they'll buy. When Keats shifts the ground of value from a poem being "worth what it will fetch" in the market to the degree of ardor a poem can incite in a single reader, he changes the rules. Suddenly, the poem's value isn't something you can put on a price-tag. Rather, the value is determined by how much any one person can love the poem. Poetry, it seems, doesn't need a big demographic appeal — the poet can settle for what Milton called "fit audience though few." If, to cite that doyen of aesthetes, Walter Pater, the poem can make a few people burn with the light of a hard, gem-like flame, then it has value, no matter what the broader market may feel.
I'm pretty sure that the little mental-judo move Keats comes up with to escape his moment of doubt is one still in use today. In fact, I remember invoking something similar when I was arguing for the importance of the great, and greatly unpopular, poet John Peck: "I don't foresee a world in which Peck's readers outnumber those of the laureate who sings the praises of television," I wrote, "but for a small number of readers Peck will always matter tremendously. Be one of them." I didn't know I was being Keatsian.
In other news, John Gallaher has written "Robert Archambeau: We're Still Shopping at the Romanticism Store," an intriguing response up to my earlier post "Poetry/Not Poetry."
Sunday, July 19, 2009
I've been surprised by the amount of feedback I've been getting back-channel about the Poetry/Not Poetry Post (I suppose back-channel is the only way to get feedback, since I'm the only blogger in the world who hasn't turned the "comments" section on). Anyway, here are two comments I thought were particularly interesting, pointing as they do to some of the shortcomings of the post. I think both Kent and Lucas are dead right.
*From Kent Johnson:
Just wanted to say I really liked the last blog post on Poetry/Not Poetry. A collection of these clear, instructive pieces would make for a book that could attract some attention, I think. I've sent the link out to a few folks, already, today.
Just a couple comments, if you don't mind: There seems to be a slight weakness in the essay, inasmuch as your case of the Augustans as exemplary model of Pre-Romantic notions of poetry gets contradicted a bit when you quote Coleridge on Shakespeare as exemplary model of organic form! In other words, I'm not sure Pope and Dryden so neatly stand as representative of some unbroken attitude towards poetry's nature (prose with versification added, as you have it) dominant before Romanticism. In their conjoining of the poetic and didactically discursive, the Augustans themselves represent a historical break and turn, really. I know that your point is a general one, and the essay does a great job of putting forward a helpful, broad, heuristic frame. But I wonder if a couple sentences of qualification there might be good: Systems of patronage aside, there are important differences of poetic attitude and belief, surely, between the Elizabethans and the Metaphysical poets, for example, vis a vis the 18th century masters...
The other thing I was thinking you could qualify/clarify is that you are speaking about the *Western tradition*. It's very interesting that Chinese poets in the late Tang, for instance, or Japanese renga poets for centuries--and long before the Romantics--were practicing a very elliptical, even "postmodern," "discontinuous language" kind of poetry (Renga is the prototype of the New Sentence!). Of course, some of this classical work has helped make our own modern and "post" period in English-language poetics what it is, starting with Pound, and so on, so it's not like it's new. But in other ways, we're just beginning to appreciate how ahead of "us" (by something like 1000 years!) the Chinese, for example, were.
Anyway, and really, excellent stuff. It's refreshing to see, frankly, complex ideas put into clear and even entertaining prose. So just quickly sending you these comments, for what they're worth.
*From Lucas Klein:
I found myself really responding to your blog entry. I think it helps me clear up a number of things I've been thinking about recently. One quibbly question, though: when you say "Suddenly, poetry wasn't more-or-less continuous with prose, or prose-plus-special-effects," I wonder if this shouldn't actually mean that prose wasn't poetry-minus-special-effects. Isn't poetry older than prose?
Thursday, July 16, 2009
Where do we draw the line between what is poetry and what isn't poetry? Or, more specifically, what makes a poem a poem? Ask a poet like Howard Nemerov, and you'll get a beautiful answer, in the form of a poem called "Because You Asked about the Line between Prose and Poetry":
Sparrows were feeding in a freezing drizzle
That while you watched turned into pieces of snow
Riding a gradient invisible
From silver aslant to random, white, and slow.
There came a moment that you couldn't tell.
And then they clearly flew instead of fell.
It's nice (especially since it compliments poetry, making it fly, while prose merely falls), but in the end Nemerov's answer about the nature of poetry is evasive, offering little more than the "I'll know it when I see it" argument that people used to invoke in debates about pornography.
I don't really have a better way to answer the question, except to say that the only real way to answer anything is to quit looking for trans-historical, absolute truths and start rooting around in contexts, in the history of how a question has been answered, and the reasons those old answers made sense at the time. If we do this, I think we can say that something changed in the way we answered the question "how is poetry different from prose" right around the beginning of the nineteenth century, and that, with some small modification, the new answer poets came up with at that time is still with us. This is Romanticism, people, nor are we out of it.
One of my touchstones, when I want to think about pre-Romantic poetry in French or in English is a statement by Roland Barthes in his great, early study Writing Degree Zero. Here, he argues that for poets of the pre-Romantic period, there was a fundamental similarity between good poetry and good prose. “Poetry is always different from prose,” writes Barthes, but in the classical period “this difference is not one of essence, it is one of quantity. It does not, therefore, jeopardize the unity of language, which is an article of classical dogma.” In other words, the classical or Augustan writer doesn’t grant poetry one of the rights that we moderns and postmoderns grant it: the right to follow rules significantly different from those governing discursive prose. It is more or less the same stuff, but with the added use of particular literary devices such as rhyme and meter. Think about it: Alexander Pope's poem Essay on Man is more or less what it sounds like — a discursive, explanatory essay — it just happens to add versification. Even the title indicates a fundamental continuity between prose and poetry. Prose and poetry are more or less up to the same sort of things: explaining, talking, arguing, narrating.
And why did people write poems? Many reasons, of course: but they tended to be the same sorts of reasons one writes prose: utilitarian ones. Often poetry was a courtly game, but all games have some purpose. In this case, it was to show one's wit and cleverness — sort of a peacock's tail thing, in that verse may have seemed useless, but it was a sign of health and desirability, therefore useful in securing a mate or some sort of payoff or privilege. Not that there weren't critics of the rewarding of such displays, like Lord Burleigh, who objected to Queen Elizabeth giving Edmund Spenser a hundred pounds in recognition of a poem, shouting "All for a song?!?" Sometimes there were market motives (remember Johnson's comment that no one but a blockhead ever wrote for any reason other than money?). Sometimes there were more elevated, socially concerned ideas — think of Sir Philip Sidney's argument that poetry presents us with ideal worlds and characters we can try to emulate, since the poet "goeth hand in hand with nature, not enclosed within the narrow warrant of her gifts, but freely ranging only within the zodiac of his own wit. Nature never set forth the earth in so rich tapestry as divers poets have done... Her world is brazen, the poets only deliver a golden." The old John Donne wrote to save souls ("batter my heart, three-personed God!"), the young John Donne wrote to get laid ("For God's sake hold your tongue, and let me love!"). So: personal advancement, money, getting the girl, social improvement, didacticism: there were a host of good, utilitarian, reasons to write a poem, just as there were a host of good, utilitarian reasons to write a piece of prose. Prose and poetry were close cousins formally (one just had extra verse elements), and close cousins in terms of their telos or purpose.
Then things got weird.
They got weird right around the time the Romantics hit the stage (not that this is a bad thing: indeed, it's the beginning of everything I most love in poetry). Suddenly, poetry wasn't more-or-less continuous with prose, or prose-plus-special-effects: there was what Barthes calls a "discontinuity of language." Poetry was reborn as something very different from prose, and different from verse, too.
Consider Coleridge's famous definition of poetry in the Biographia Literaria. Here, we learn that poetry, unlike prose, generates its own rules. We learn that the poem, unlike prose, looks inward upon itself, seeking a co-ordination of all parts to the whole. And we learn that the statement or use-value or telos of the poem is secondary to its formal composition. Poetry is strangely autonomous, being all about its formal wholeness, rather than any specific external purpose. Poetry, says Coleridge, is a kind of communication “opposed to works of science, by proposing for its immediate object pleasure, not truth; and from all other species… it is discriminated by proposing to itself such delight from the whole, as is compatible with a distinct gratification from each component part." The organic harmony of the “legitimate poem,” Coleridge continues, necessitates that the parts
… support and explain each other; all in their proportion harmonizing with, and supporting the purpose and known influences of metrical arrangement. The philosophic critics of all ages coincide with the ultimate judgment of all countries, in equally denying the praises of a just poem, on the one hand, to a series of striking lines or distiches, each of which, absorbing the whole attention of the reader to itself, becomes disjoined from its context, and forms a separate whole, instead of a harmonizing part; and on the other hand, to an unsustained composition, from which the reader collects rapidly the general result unattracted by the component parts.
It is the fusing of all elements that is essential to the poetic work— so much so that Coleridge comes to include within the category of poetry all works, including those in prose, that reconcile all their diverse elements.
It almost doesn’t matter to Coleridge how such fusing is accomplished. Or, rather, it does matter, in that a particular form of the fusing must not be prescribed: “could a rule be given from without, poetry would cease to be poetry” says Coleridge. This does not mean the work is arbitrary, though, merely that it must generate its own rules from within. Coleridge’s most elegant formulation of this principle comes in the essay “Shakespeare’s Judgment Equal to His Genius,” where we read that “No work of true genius dares want its appropriate form, neither is there any danger of this,” because “genius cannot be lawless; for it is even this that constitutes genius — the power of acting creatively under laws of its own creation." Such self-generated rules are, in fact, Coleridge’s famous “organic form,” arising from within each true aesthetic or poetic work.
This business of the poem’s autonomy, its inner, organic wholeness, and its fusing of disparate elements is familiar enough stuff to students of Romanticism. But it’s worth rehearsing in the present context because of what it implies for the meaning of poetry. Because of its intense organic fusing-together of all of its parts, the poem has what Coleridge, in his essay on Shakespeare’s genius, calls “untranslatableness.” In a true poem, the meaning cannot be paraphrased: “it would be scarcely more difficult to push a stone out from the pyramids with the bare hand,” says Coleridge, “than to alter a word, or the position of a word, in Milton or Shakespeare… without making the author say something else, or something worse." Indeed, the meaning, in the sense we usually reserve for that word as something comprehensible and cognizable, is irrelevant to the work’s status as a poem: the poem’s deepest meaning lies in its activity of bringing together apparently disparate elements.
One refraction of all this is the idea of the symbol. “Symbol” is a term that Coleridge uses inconsistently over the course of his career, but the important sense for the present context comes in a passage of The Statesman’s Manual where Coleridge tells us that, unlike the allegorical figure, the symbol is characterized “above all by the translucence of the eternal through and in the temporal." Unlike the allegory, with its one-to-one relation of sign and meaning, the symbol offers polyvalence and endless suggestive possibilities. Interpreting the symbolic work is an ongoing coming-toward and escaping-of full apprehension (think of Coleridge's own "Kubla Khan" here: it is pregnant with meaning, but you can't pin it down to any particular meaning). The symbolic work is certainly at a far remove from the simple, discursive statement of a particular meaning. As Coleridge states in an appendix to The Statesman’s Manual, “discursive understanding, which forms for itself general notions and terms of classification” can only give us “Clearness without Depth." Poetry, when it is symbolic, gives us depth without clarity. We can never quite say what it means, or what it proposes to accomplish in the world.
So poetry becomes a bit of an embarasment in a utilitarian society (and nineteenth century society was getting more and more utilitarian by the day). Poets were meant to chase mysterious symbols, and create organic wholes. The old laureate job or writing odes to the monarch became something of a joke, out of step with the new notion of what poems were all about. The poet isn't supposed to answer to any patron, or, for that matter, to try to make things happen (there were exceptions — consider Shelley's political rabble-rousing poems, but the general trend was toward organic form, symbol, autonomy of imagination, and all the rest). The poet became, in some sense, a figure outside of society. The poet's work was either a quiet withdrawal from bourgeois utilitarian society, or an angry rejection of it. Take your pick. Either way, poetry was different from prose in two respects: it played by different rules, and it was written for different reasons. All of this was new with Romanticism.
While these things may have started with Romanticism, they continued after the Romantic movement in new permutations and combinations. The French Symboliste movement (Mallarmé and company) was in some ways an intensification of the idea that the poem was beyond paraphrase (it should be like music), beyond utility, beyond the logic of means-and-ends. And, despite some of their anti-Romantic rhetoric, the American New Critics in the 20th century made huge intellectual investments in Coleridge's ideas: "The Heresy of Paraphrase" is a rehashing of Coleridge, and the New Critical ideas of irony and balance are just Coleridge's organic form revisited. The poem was about itself, about form, and not subordinate to anything else. (If the Romantics turned to the autonomy of art because they were critical of utilitarian values, the New Critics were a bit different: there's a real story to be told about how they saw the autonomous poem as an essential component of the autonomy of English as an academic discipline: if poems were essentially different from prose statements, they needed a special academic department. If they were like prose, they could be absorbed into history or sociology or whatever — this actually comes up in their correspondence with one another).
But we're past all that now, right? Well, no. In many ways, I think some of the most thoughtful poets of the last few decades have been practicing a kind of modified or inverted version of Romanticism. Think about elliptical poetry: so much of it is all about the lack of formal coherence that you think it'd be the farthest thing from Coleridge's organic form or its New Critical offshoot, the well-wrought urn. But the deliberate incoherence of elliptical poetry is really out to accomplish the same sorts of things Coleridge outlined. First of all, elliptical techniques are all about differentiating poetry from prose, about upholding what Barthes called "the discontinuity of lanuage." Poetry is different, we see, because it doesn't try for prose coherence. And in the deep ambiguities and incoherencies of elliptical verse, we're looking at effects similar to those Coleridge saw as belonging to the symbol: we avoid paraphrasable meaning, we escape the utilitatian logic of means-and-ends. Some see this as purely a matter of beauty, some see it as a critique of a society that relies on a logic of language to support its logic of power. Again, all of this is vey much in line with the general trend of thinking that runs from Coleridge through Mallarmé, and even through the New Critics.
So: where do we draw the line between poetry and not-poetry? Well, it seems that we've been doing it by insisting on poetry's autonomy, its freedom from use-value, its freedom from specific meaning. Poetry is poetry because it is unlike prose: it is more free, and stands somehow (we like to think) outside of the utilitarian world. That seems to be the best answer we've come up with in the two centuries since the poets left off praising popes and princes in exchange for patronage. I wonder: how long it will last? For now the old answer flies, but someday it, too, will fall.
Monday, July 06, 2009
Anglophiles present, for the American professor of English, an occupational hazard. One inevitably has colleagues who've spent so many summers in London that you start to let their references to ringing you up or going to the loo go by unremarked. I've never quite been one of these West End-haunting, Guardian reading, BBC4-lovers myself. It's not that I haven't found plenty to love about England (the cheese, the London tube map, Manchester music from the Factory Records era, the perfect shape of the pint glass, etc.). It's just that the countries that have mattered most in my life have all been, in one way or another, less important than England: Belgium, Canada, Sweden, Denmark, Ireland, Iceland. But today's topic is neither Belgian nor Icelandic, boys and girls. It's English. Specifically, it's Something the English Do Way Better then We Do.
I suppose, if I had to give a name to that something, it'd be "the creation of a sense of desirable discursive community." Bear with me, and I think I can explain both what that means, and why the English do it better than we do.
The Sense of Desirable Discursive Community, or: James Campbell and the TLS
Every time I pluck the TLS from my mailbox, I turn immediately to the back page, an assortment of short literary items written by "J.C.," or James Campbell, one of the editors (while he's a Scot, everything about the TLS is profoundly English). It's an odd little assortment, and never fails to charm. In this week's issue, Campbell begins (as he often does) by following up on an earlier entry, this week presenting some answers people had mailed in to a question he'd asked about whether Graham Greene had ever written any of the biography of Robert Louis Stevenson Greene had mentioned in his correspondence. Next, Campbell quotes some snarky comments by authors about the terrible conditions they face in the brutal publishing marketplace — the big reveal coming when he notes that these aren't comments from this week, but from 1909. Campbell then includes an item about T.S. Eliot manuscripts up for sale, a clever note about an old paperback cover of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and ends with a collection of trivia from a recent book on the origins of familiar phrases. In all, it's a pretty typical week at the back page of the TLS. But what's really important aren't any particular entries: what's important is the way one feels while reading Campbell's little anthology. One feels very much a part of a group, a participant in a conversation, even if that participation remains potential rather than actual. That is, when Campbell throws a question (like the one about Greene and Stevenson) out there, you feel "oh, I might've known that." Or at least you feel addressed. And when Campbell makes a wry point about writers as grumblers, the TLS reader (fairly likely to know, if not in fact be, some sort of writer) will feel a sense of connection, of "oh, yes, you and I, Campbell, we understand how these people are." And when he touches on Eliot or Joyce, he touches on something close to the common canon, the texts all English majors of a certain age know, or know of. And so on. The main function of the back page of the TLS is to make you feel welcome, as if you were a member of Joseph Addison's Spectator Club back in the Eighteenth Century, a learned fellow of the world among other learned fellows of the world. You're part of a community. In fact, you're part of a rather distinguished community, a desirable community. Or so it feels.
In fact, of course, the TLS isn't a classic public sphere publication, where the reader is also often the writer, and where there's a real sense of active community. Scale alone prohibits this: the TLS readership survey of 2000 estimated 100,000 weekly readers. You have about as much chance of participating in a conversation with the other readers as you'd have of getting to know everyone at the Superbowl, which tends to get 70,000-100,000 attendees. But that's not the point: a guy like Campbell (whose talent is tremendous) can really make you feel like you're on the inside, sitting at one of the comfortable leather club chairs with the other bookish gentlemen. For all of the very-real insider-centrism of The New York Review of Books (sometimes called The New York Review of One Another's Books), there's nothing like this cultivation of the reader as a (potential, or pretend, or fictional) member of the desirable discursive community. The English do it better than we do.
Further Evidence: The Economist
It's not just the TLS where we find this strong sense of discursive community, either. It happens in a lot of their magazines, especially the tonier ones. Consider The Economist, or, rather, an article from the July/August issue of The Atlantic, in which you can almost see the waves of envy for the British magazine's ability to create discursive community rising like steam from the pages of the American magazine.
In The Atlantic article, "The Newsweekly's Last Stand," Michael Hirschorn reflects on the ongoing success of The Economist at a time when other weekly news magazines (especially American ones) are heading for extinction:
Given that [American news magazines] are faltering, how is it that a notionally similar weekly news digest—The Economist—is not only surviving, but thriving? Virtually alone among magazines, The Economist saw its advertising revenues increase last year by double digits—a remarkable 25 percent, according to the Publisher’s Information Bureau. Newsweek’s and Time’s dropped 27 percent and 14 percent, respectively.... Indeed, The Economist has been growing consistently and powerfully for years, tracking in near mirror-image reverse the decline of its U.S. rivals. Despite being positioned as a niche product, its U.S. circulation is nearing 800,000, and it will inevitably overtake Newsweek on that front soon enough.
Hirschorn is further flabbergasted when he considers that the growth of online reading hasn't put a dent in subscriptions to The Economist, nor has it slowed down the sale of famously-expensive newstand copies:
It is a general-interest magazine for an ever-increasing audience, the self-styled global elite, at a time when general-interest anything is having a hard time interesting anybody. And it sells more than 75,000 copies a week on U.S. newsstands for $6.99 (!) at a time when we’re told information wants to be free and newsstands are disappearing.
So how is it done? It isn't the strength of the writing, which, says Hirschorn, "can be shoddy, thin research supporting smug hypotheses." Nor is it the "leaders," or short lead-off editorials, which "tend to 'urge' politicians to solve complex problems, as if the key to, say, reconstituting the global banking system were but a simple act of cogitation away." In the end, Hirschorn has very little to offer by way of an explanation for the success of The Economist at a time when similar news digests struggle:
...the American newsweeklies are going away from precisely the thing that has propelled The Economist’s rise: its status as a humble digest, with a consistent authorial voice, that covers absolutely everything that you need to be informed about.... The writing in Time and Newsweek may be every bit as smart, as assured, as the writing in The Economist. But neither one feels like the only magazine you need to read. You may like the new Time and Newsweek. But you must—or at least, brilliant marketing has convinced you that you must—subscribe to The Economist.
So, in this view, The Economist is just like the American news digests, but with some kind of magic pixie dust attached, attributed to the vague genie of "marketing." And here's where I think Hirschorn misses the mark. I think it's pretty clear that what The Economist has, and Time and Newsweek lack, is a sense of desirable discursive community. I mean, think about it: those "leader" articles may be a bit ridiculous, with their urging of actions on Prime Ministers. But in the end, they help create the feeling that this magazine speaks to elites, and that, if we're reading it, and understanding it, and paying seven bucks for it, we must in some sense be part of that same elite. Hirschorn was close to getting this when he made note of the way the magazine was purchased by a "self-styled global elite." I think the important fact is this: the magazine, with its unexcitable, urbane, eminently non-folksy tone, invites its readers to think of themselves as such an elite. When you shell out your seven bucks, it's better than getting the magazine for free online, because you're showing yourself (or, at any rate, expensively convincing yourself) that you're part of the elite to which the magazine seems to speak.
Rule 2, or: The Historical Why
So: why are the English good at creating this sense of a desirable discursive community, while we here in America aren't? I think the answer lies in the different way intellectual and social elites interacted in the industrial era in the two countries. Consider, for example, Rule Two of The Athenaeum Club of London.
What? You don't know Rule Two? Sigh. Well, okay. It's like this. The Athenaeum Club was one of those private, members-only hotels/cafes/restaurants/lounges/libraries spawned in such number in Victorian London. It was, like many of the clubs, a place for the social, financial, and governing elite to mingle. But it wasn't just for them. Rule Two provided for admittance to distinguished intellectuals, and the list of intellectuals who were admitted is impressive: John Stuart Mill, Matthew Arnold, Tennyson, name your eminent Victorian. So such people came into close contact with the ruling elite, and, in a way, were co-opted by them (this is the subject of Stefan Collini's fine study Public Moralists: Political Thought and Intellectual Life in Britain, 1850-1930). The intellectuals, says Collini, were a special, junior part of the community of power. They didn't exactly "form a socially excluded intellectual class" in clubs like the Athenaeum, but "they were conscious that belonging to the fraternity of the reflective and the articulate set them apart from those more immediately involved in life's tasks and life's pleasures." They were members, but members of a special "Rule Two" sort, there just a little bit on the sufferance of the power elite. You could speak truth to power, with power actually being there in the room, but you also had to watch just how far you went in what you said. In the end, a kind of urbane, non-offensive, discourse became second nature. You spoke as a gentleman speaking to gentlemen: you spoke, in short, as a member of a desirable discursive community.
Even with the growth of intellectual professionalism, the sense of being a member of an intellectual community, one that might meet and overlap with a social elite, continued. The British Academy, a symbol of professionalizing knowledge, came about when clubbable intellectual men still suggested one another for membership. "The sense of a knowable community," says Collini of the early British Academy, "is very strong."
So modern British intellectual life came about in conditions of discursive community, and not only that, but in conditions of slightly glamorous, socially high-tone, community. Those conditions set the tone for modern institutions, and when we read the TLS or The Economist, we're reading the weight of this tradition inflecting every phrase. Conditions have changed in England, for sure, but in the pages of those magazines it's still us meeting for drinks with the cabinet ministers at the Athenaeum.
America, of course, has less of a tradition of this sort of thing. Sure, there are clubs that aspire, at least in theory, to bring the artsy types and the power types together. Hell, I'm a member of one (though I rarely end up talking to the power types when I'm there). But geographic dispersion (no American city combines all the leadership functions of London), the lack of a landed aristocracy, money-obsessed philistinism, and other factors have conspired to keep us from ever having quite the sense of a power/culture establishment that there was in England. So, for better or for worse, our magazines can't peddle that special sense of desirable discursive community with any sense of authenticity. Their particular history gave the English the magic pixie dust, and left us without it.
Friday, July 03, 2009
Ow! My leg!
Last Monday a suddenly-opened car door had a disagreement with my bicycle about the nature of my forward trajectory. "Slow and steady, okay?" said my bike. "No! Rapid, airborne, and ending with a thump!" said the car door. The car door won. I'm alive, but spent some time in hospital, where I overheard one of the doctors looking at my x-rays say "it looks less like a bone than a box of rocks." So, long story short, it'll be a number of weeks before I'm putting any weight on my leg at all, and I won't be back to leaping-and-tumbling form until late November or thereabouts.
What, you ask, are you going to do to get your Archambeau fix, since you can't lurk outside my house to see me doing my usual ballet and acrobatics routine as I go out to pick the newspaper off the driveway (full disclosure: I actually look more like a staggering Tony Soprano when I do this, but let's imagine a Baryshnikov-Archambeau, for maximum contrast).
Well, there are a couple of options. You could pick up the latest Boston Review, which contains, among much else, "Double Gesture," a big review I wrote about the evolution of Swedish poetry over the generations (long story short: it goes from existentialism to a kind of post-structuralist linguistics inflected style, and Fredrik Nyberg is really, really good).
Alternately, you could tune in to the June 25th broadcast of American Public Media's show "Speaking of Faith." If your time machine is low on batteries, you can get to the show as a podcast and accompanying web site. The theme of this particular episode is fragility, and I translated an old French poem on the theme, "The Broken Vase" by Parnassian poet Sully Prudhomme. I'm not normally keen on the anti-Romantic, Neoclassical Parnassians — I've always agreed with Gerard Manley Hopkins about Parnassian poems being "spoken on and from the level of the poet's mind" rather than from those strange moments when "the gift of genius raises him above himself." So I took the Prudhomme translation as an opportunity to try to inhabit a very different kind of poetry than the sort I'm usually drawn to. And it was an interesting challenge, trying to maintain the rhyme scheme and something of the rhythm of the original. Audio files of the poem in French and in my translation are up, read in the fabulous, tobacco-cured voice of Jean-Luc Garneau.