Friday, January 07, 2011

The Poet Dreams of Power: Part One

The critic Robert von Hallberg has retired from the faculty at the University of Chicago, and the editors of the Chicago Review have marked the occasion by running a series of essays on poetry and poetics in his honor.  In true, inimitable Hyde Park style, they honor von Hallberg by beginning the feature with a short essay picking him to pieces, saying the claims of his book Lyric Powers "are extraordinary, even irresponsible."  I like this, mostly because it embodies the best spirit of the Chicago Review: serious about the life of the mind, and a bit unworldly and impolitic.  I think this must have something to do with the fact that the journal has always been edited by graduate students: they're not in charge long enough to become too complacent, and they're not hooked into networks of mutual academic or literary obligation that might keep them from saying what they mean when they disagree with someone.

One of the essays dedicated to von Hallberg, Keith Tuma's "After the Bubble," speculates on the fate of poetry after the financial crisis, and its inevitable effect on the university creative writing programs where so many American poets currently find themselves employed.  In the course of pursuing some larger points, he makes a comment about Robert Pinsky that got me thinking about the relationship between poets and power — or, more precisely, that got me thinking about how poets have dreamed about how they would like to relate to those in positions of power.  Here's Tuma's remark:
In Robert von Hallberg's recent book Lyric Powers (2008), Pinsky's poetry, which is rooted, von Hallberg thinks, in "imitation of speech," is linked to "the premise that civil, secular values properly govern cultural life." While von Hallberg admits that some readers find Pinsky's poetry boring, he views Pinsky's "patient hypotactic style" as a credible and considered alternative to modernist juxtaposition and speed.  To take on a claim like that would make for serious debate.  Von Hallberg is not shy about identifying Pinsky with power.  But without a critical discourse about poetry and power and these other matters, criticism of Pinsky will continue to operate like gossip...
I'm in agreement with Tuma that we need some kind of a deep, non-anecdotal understanding of the relationship between poetry and power, something that gets beyond claiming that one or another poet is resistant to, or complicit with, the powers-that-be.  I hope the book I've been working on, formerly called The Aesthetic Anxiety, now called Poetics and Power — a social history of the idea of aesthetic autonomy in poetry — will be a contribution to such an understanding, but I'm only about halfway done, and by no means assured that the outcome will be of interest to anyone.  So, in the absence of an understanding of the actual relations between poetry and power, let me offer instead a brief, highly selective history of the way some poets writing in English over the past two centuries have dreamed about how they would like to relate to power.  Robert Pinsky certainly appears from some perspectives (von Hallberg's and, I think, Tuma's) to have a somewhat cozy relationship with power.  But seen in historical perspective, things change a bit: compared to some poets, Pinsky is neither close to power, nor desirous of such proximity.  Compared to others, he just appears more successful in realizing his dreams.

It's tough to know where to begin a discussion of the poets and their dreams of how they might relate to power.  I suppose some small gesture to an era when the differentiation of literary elites and power elites had not yet occurred is in order.  Consider the Elizabethans: Sir Thomas Wyatt, Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, Sir Edward Dyer, Sir Philip Sidney, Christopher Marlowe, Sir Walter Raleigh, William Shakespeare, Thomas Campion, Sir Henry Wotton, John Hoskins, Edmund Spenser.  All those "sirs" give a pretty clear picture of the situation: for the most part, the literary elite and the power elite were one and the same.  Of the non-knighted and non-nobel, Spenser was a big landowner in Ireland, and Hoskins was a member of parliament, so they too were members of a power elite.  Campion was a successful physician, and therefore an exception to the power elite rule, as were the two playwrights Marlowe and Shakespeare, who were part of the fledgling world of commercial writing.  As for how they dreamed of their relations to power: well, it varied.  But for the most part they saw their roles as poets as subordinate to their roles as movers-and-shakers, and poems as either pastoral escapism or as the jewels on the pommels of the weapons they used in the cut-and-thrust of courtly life.  Spenser did try to convert The Faerie Queen into a big cash payment from the sovereign (the idea was nixed by Lord Burghley, with the famous comment "all of that for a song?"), but even here it was less a matter of trying to influence power with poetry than of trying to put poetry at the service of power (huge, now-unread, tracts of The Faerie Queen are dedicated to Church politics, and propagandizing against Catholicism).

There's a long, slow differentiation of elites in the centuries that follow.  But let's fast-forward to Alexander Pope in the Augustan eighteenth century.  Pope's interesting for all sorts of reasons, not just for the snazzy hats he wore.  For one thing, he was among the first English poets to make a lot of money by selling poetry in the marketplace.  He lived at a kind of liminal period, when the system of relying on aristocratic patronage hadn't yet died off, and the market system was just kicking into gear.  The relation he had with power may, in fact, have been as a kind of housecat (one noble patron liked to stop Pope during readings and revise lines, such being the patron's prerogative).  But he dreamed of himself as a kind of spirtitual and moral advisor, not speaking so much on matters of immediate political urgency, but offering general principles that might inform the decisions of the powerful at a more abstract level.  Consider the opening of "An Essay on Man":
Awake, my St. John! leave all meaner things
To low ambition, and the pride of kings.
Let us (since life can little more supply
Than just to look about us and to die)
Exatiate free o'er all the scene of man;
A mighty maze! but not without a plan;
A wild, where weeds and flowers promiscuous shoot,
Or garden, tempting with forbidden fruit.
Together let us beat this ample field...
The "St. John" is Henry St. John, Lord Bolingbroke, and one of Pope's most powerful friends.  Pope envisions himself as a companion of the good Viscount Bolingbroke, and envisions the two of them engaged in aristocratic activities together (to beat the field was to send runners out into it with sticks to scare the birds, who would then fly up to be shot by the noble hunter and his companions).  The tone is friendly, if a bit deferential, and the relationship to his Lordship is as philosophical guide: the word's a maze, but not without a plan — a plan the poet will explain to the Great Man in ways that will enable him to carry out his duties of state in a philosophically informed manner.  If the deference might make some of us cringe, now, the proximity to power would make more than a few poets blanche with envy.

We start to get closer to a recognizably modern relationship of poetry and power with the Romantics — if only because the Romantics were often either radical bohemians with no direct influence on power (think Shelley) or government-sponsored former radicals whose views now seemed less threatening (think Wordsworth).  The document of the time that seems most representative of the poet's dream of his relation to power is Shelley's "Defense of Poetry." It was never published in his lifetime, but has had a huge allure for generations of poets since — and why wouldn't it?  It really lets you have your cake and eat it too.  On the one hand, the poet is responsible only to his private vision, not the demands of the market or the audience of any kind of patron, none of which were much available to Shelley anyway.  On the other hand, the poet has enormous influence: his ideas shape the consciousness of the ages to come.  All of this has its origins in Shelley's arguments with his father in law, the philosopher William Godwin: Godwin said philosophers were the primary thinkers of society, and poets should serve as publicists for philosophical ideas.  Shelley turned the relationship around, saying that poets inspire everyone, including philosophers, to think in new ways.  The process is gradual, spreading bit by bit through readers of the poet to those who are influenced at second or third or fourth hand — the original viral marketing.  Hence the unacknowledged legislator: sure, no one knows you influenced the world, but that's not important: what's important is that the influence happens.  Of course there's no proof that the influence really takes place.  As Lou Reed might put it, you need a busload of faith to believe in this sort of thing.  But poets tend to have a lot of faith in poetry: when I was arguing about the political impact of poetry with Andrea Brady in the pages of The Cambridge Literary Review last year, I couldn't help but think she was a bit of a Shelleyan, and that I was a bit of a nay-saying grinch.  Anyway, the point is this: Shelley's dream of enormous influence is the product of a kind of alienation of the poet from power: Sir Walter Raleigh didn't look for such indirect influence on politics.  When he wanted to make things happen politically, he schemed with other courtiers.  Nor did Alexander Pope look for some secret, long-term, possible-but-unprovable political influence: if he wanted political influence, he buttered Lord Bolingbroke's toast and made some subtle, inoffensive suggestions.  You have to be pretty removed from actual legislators to pin your hopes on small scale, but just possibly viral, influence on public opinion.

It's not quite a straight line from Shelley to us, though.  I mean, think about Tennyson.

“Tennyson,” Eliot once wrote, was “the saddest of all English poets, among the Great in Limbo, the most instinctive rebel against the society in which he was the perfect conformist.” Eliot is certainly right to sense a conflict at the heart of Tennyson.  But to explain the dissonance in Tennyson in psychological terms — as a matter of rebellious instincts and the urge to conform — is to miss the way those very instincts were conditioned by Tennyson’s peculiar moment in the history of English society and the history of poetry.  His was a time when social disorder and growing middle-class power — both products of industrial development — weighed on every thinker’s mind.  It was also a time when ideas of the autonomy from power, fully developed by the Shelley and other Romantics, were bequeathed to new generations of writers.

Tennyson, in ways more instinctive than calculated, came to embrace a role on offer to many writers of his time: that of public moralist.  Literary public moralists both propagated the values of the middle class and urged the amelioration of those values in an effort that, collectively, made a major contribution to the cementing of a social order beneficial to the middle class.  This public moralist is the Tennyson most famous in his own day, the teacher of domestic order in The Princess and Idylls of the King, the prophet of self-denial in Maud and Enoch Arden, the instiller of faith in progress in “Locksley Hall,” and the obedient servant of empire in “The Charge of the Light Brigade.”  The public moralist acting on behalf of the bourgeois order did not, and could not, sit at ease with another side of Tennyson, the late-Romantic poet who’d loved Keats’ poetry, and who had carved “Byron is dead” into stone when, as a youth, he’d heard of the great Romantic’s passing.  Part of Tennyson was always loyal to one of the big Romantic ideas of the poet — as an alienated outsider creating works that sought not so much to speak to the world but to form themselves into mysterious symbolic wholes, or to hover in the delicious indecisiveness of negative capability (this isn’t the Shelleyan idea — it’s more Coleridge and Keats).  Tennyson spent a lifetime at war with himself, his intellectual and aesthetic inheritance ever at odds with the social role he was asked to play, and was so richly rewarded — in sales, in status, in honors — for playing.  His path is that of the poet divided.

Tennyson was, I should stress, far from insincere in his moralism, however much at odds it may have been with his equally sincere aestheticism.  He was, after all, connected to the powerful class on whose behalf he wrote, and he had seen enough of the social disorder of the 1830s and 40s to understand the value of an orderly society.  The authentic Tennyson, then, is not a figure on one side of the aesthete/moralist rift: the authentic Tennyson is the rift, and the product of very specific, and quite contradictory, socio-aesthetic conditions.  So: on the one hand, he was close to, and spoke for, power.  But that was only part of his dream, the fulfilled part.  The other part of his dream was to be withdrawn from the world of power, and to exist in a world of art for its own sake.

That's probably more on Tennyson than anyone wants to read, but I spent all of last summer writing about him, and you know how it goes: anything shorter than three paragraphs seems like too little of an explanation when you think you really know what you're talking about.

Anyway.  The coziness between Tennyson and some other Victorian poets and the newly-powerful middle classes ends, for a whole host of reasons  — the economics of publishing in the era of mass literacy, the relative growth in authority of the social sciences at the expense of the authority of the man of letters, the lessening sense of social crisis in England after the 1850s, the slow loosening of bonds between social, economic, and cultural elites, and other things, most of them dealt with very well in T.W. Heyck's astonishingly informative The Transformation of Intellectual Life in Victorian England, which is indispensable in understanding what happens to poetry between Tennyson and the modernists.  So we end up with poets once again alienated from power and dreaming of ways that their work might have importance or influence.

Ezra Pound makes for an interesting case in point.  He was always concerned with the social role of the poet: in the essay "The Wisdom of Poetry" he said "in former ages, poets were historians, genealogists, religious functionaries."  But in his own day the role seemed rather more unclear.  Mass culture, Pound intuited, had something to do with the change.  "Hugh Selwyn Mauberly" expresses the alienation of the poet in the age of mass communications, incipient mass consumption, and the economic importance of the masses whose tastes were so different from the elites poets had once served:
The age demanded an image
Of its accelerated grimace,
Something for the modern stage,
Not, at any rate, an Attic grace;

Not, not certainly, the obscure reveries
Of the inward gaze;
Better mendacities
Than the classics in paraphrase!

The "age demanded" chiefly a mould in plaster,
Made with no loss of time,
A prose kinema, not, not assuredly, alabaster
Or the "sculpture" of rhyme.
That was from 1920.  A year later, Pound offered his dream of a solution to the problem of the poet's role in modern times.  As it turned out, it was a remarkably Shelleyan dream of indirect influence.  Here's a passage from the article I'm thinking of, "How to Read," which — perhaps ironically — ran in the very kind of mass media vehicle that was so dislocating poets: The New York Herald Tribune:
The individual cannot think and communicate his thought, the governor and legislator cannot act effectively or frame his laws without words, and the solidity and validity of these words is in the care of the damned and despised litterati...when their very medium, the very essence of their work, the application of word to thing goes rotten, i.e. becomes slushy and inexact, or excessive or bloated, the whole machinery of social and of individual thought and order goes to pot.
In this dream of poetic influence on power, the "governor or legislator" probably has no idea that his language, and, by implication, his mental framework has been conditioned by the poet.  But in controlling the meanings of words, poets have an enormous power as unacknowledged legislators.  One might well argue that it isn't the literati who control the meaning of words, since their contribution to these matters is quantitatively minimal in relation to the products of mass culture.  But arguments are for reasoners, and Pound isn't reasoning here so much as he's dreaming of a way for the things he loves to be important not just to him, but to the polity at large.  There's will-to-power here, for sure, and a compensatory gesture — the sort of thing Seamus Heaney, in a very different context, would call "pap for the dispossessed."  The dispossessed here being poets in modernity.

Egad.  It's time for me to hop a train, and I haven't talked about Eliot, Pinsky, some comments by Larry Sawyer, or Jeremy Prynne.  I'll try to pick up where I left off with my next post, probably tomorrow.  I mean, the new semester is about to begin, and I've got some print writing deadlines coming right up — conditions that always seem to drive me to blog instead of doing any kind writing or thinking that feels like an obligation.

{Here's part two}

{Update Jan. 11: The good people at the Poetry Foundation raise a crucial point about this discussion}