A couple of evenings ago I found myself hanging around the big modernist caverns of the Arts Club of Chicago, munching on scallops wrapped in bacon, eyeballing the Kandinskys and Motherwells, and jawing with some of the local literati — Calvin Forbes, Simone Muench, Mike Puican, Chicu Reddy, Suzanne Buffam, Fred Sasaki, and others, including my colleague Josh Corey. We’d been summoned down to see Poetry Foundation’s Pegasus Awards, a ceremonial giving-out of glory and cash in the form of the Children’s Poet Laureateship and the Ruth Lilly Award. For me, the big attraction was getting to hear David Ferry (the Ruth Lilly winner) read. Well, that and the hors d’oeuvres: the Arts Club food is always credible.
Having inflicted a book called Laureates and Heretics on the world, I’ve probably spent more time thinking about the meaning of laureateships than anybody should, and I certainly have my share of preconceptions about what such laurels mean. The roots of laureateships lie in societies quite different from our own, and the idea of such an award certainly sits more easily in times and places that are more formally hierarchical and less culturally diverse than the United States in the early 21st century. In England, the poet laureate used to have to swear an oath of loyalty to the monarch, since his words were in some sense the official verse of the nation — John Dryden, the only English laureate ever to be kicked out of office, was so booted because of his refusal to take an oath to the protestant William of Orange (Dryden had converted to Catholicism some years earlier). But the notion of the laureate as the official literary spokesman of the realm was already wobbling in the Romantic era, when the winds of democratic reform and social leveling were blowing across the Channel from France: Byron was clearly joking when he wrote that the laureate Robert Southey was “representative of all the race.” In our own time, the laureateship of the U.K. has seen a reduction in status, with the former life appointment done away with in favor of ten-year terms. Britain may still knight people for life, but the laureateship now rotates, albeit slowly, so as to accommodate a greater variety of aesthetic and social constituencies: a typically British moderate adaptation of old institutions to newer, more diverse and democratic times.
But what about the laureateship in the United States? It's sort of like a Palladian villa in the hills above Los Angeles: it pretends to be older than it is, and fools nobody. That is, we’ve only really had American poets laureate for 25 years, after Ronald Reagan signed off on a law changing the older position of Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress, which has been around since the 1930s, into a laureateship. Some poets bemoaned the development (the poet Michael Anania told me his first thought was “well, now no one interesting will ever get the job"). Others gnashed their teeth at the idea of hierarchy and official culture. Many more began polishing their resumes, hoping for a shot at the illusory immortality one gains from being enshrined in a footnote to literary history.
Right from the start the position was a sort of weird mish-mash of various American impulses. There was, of course, a dash of England-envy, a desire for the sexy otherness of titles, pomp, and an archaic past. It was, after all, the 80s, and all the wannabe princesses of America still turned their yearning eyes to Charles and Diana. But that was really just a veneer behind which lay both a populism — at odds with the yearning for titles and pomp — and a strong dose of Rotarian style boosterism, or even hucksterism. When the American laureateship came into being, the Brits were still appointing laureates for life. But in the U.S., the job was conceived of as a one-year gig, so that it would rotate among representatives of different social and aesthetic groups, a principle observed more in the breach than in actual practice. Additionally, the laureate was given a charge to promote poetry — a kind of glorified sales job, really. Some poets ignored that part of the role, or went at it impractically: Joseph Brodsky, for example, would issue demands that anthologies of poetry be placed in all hotel rooms, like Gideon Bibles, but do so without any follow-up in terms of fund-raising, editing, or schmoozing with hotel tycoons. Others took to the role as if they’d been born for it. Robert Pinsky spent three terms barnstorming the country, delivering speeches and readings and launching the “favorite poem” project, which sought to promote the poetry that non-poets knew and loved.
You’d think the biggest problem with an American laureateship would be the inherent contradiction between an office with a title that links it to hierarchy and official culture, on the one hand, and a non-hierarchical country without a unified cultural tradition, on the other (of course we have all kinds of hierarchies in America, but officially we don’t — and when you leave the world of the super-rich, who know where they stand in relation to the populace, and the world of the righteously irate intellectual, where you and I live, damn near everyone insists that they are middle class). But the complaints I hear about the institution tend to echo that of Anania: that the poets selected for the job aren’t aesthetically interesting or challenging. Maybe that speaks about the crowd with whom I hang. I think, though, that it says something about the way the populist demands of the position — that it be given to someone willing to promote poetry to a large public — are at odds with the socio-cultural position of most American poets. Most poets, now, produce for other producers: they live in a world of academic specialization, and write for other specialists. I don’t think of this as a good or a bad thing: it’s simply something that has come to pass, for reasons larger than the whims of any poet, critic, or any single cultural institution (my short version of how and why this came about is in an essay called “The Discursive Situation of Poetry” in Mary Biddinger and John Gallaher’s book The Monkey and the Wrench: Essays into Contemporary Poetics; I’m still working on the long version, a book called Power and Poetics). Anyway: it’s hardly surprising that an office that comes with a populist mandate would end up disappointing a group of people whose tastes are formed by non-populist principles.
My own sense of laureateships, for what it’s worth, has been not to take them particularly seriously, except as cultural phenomenon that can reveal a bit about the social position of poetry, in all its contradictions and complexities. At a gut level, I’ve generally been kind of against the things, in part because of my general Jacobinism: I don’t like titles or hierarchies of any kind. I even wince when my colleagues call themselves “doctor” or put bumper stickers indicating attendance at prestige universities on their cars. I mean, it’s just a short step from that to wearing little lapel ribbons indicating membership in the legion d’honneur. And I’ve also thought that laureateships encourage poets in the direction of the wrong kind of ambition: the desire for prominence and recognition. Isn’t that kind of ego-gluttony exactly the sort of thing that the best parts of every religious tradition from Catholicism to Buddhism, and every philosophy from Stoicism to (pre-Nietzschean) German Idealism tells us will make us into unhappy, envious wretches?
So those were my preconceptions when I walked into the Arts Club. But a funny thing happened midway through the speech by J. Patrick Lewis, the newly-anointed Children’s Laureate. Lewis, who seemed a very sincere man, and was quite clearly a guy who would appeal to children, talked about how much he enjoyed the many visits he’d made to schools to read from his books and talk about poetry. “Children,” he said, “approach poetry as they approach people: with no preconceptions whatsoever.” Fair enough, I thought, from my seat in the back row of the auditorium, where the local poets had clustered. And it was a point to which I could relate, not only as the father of a two-year-old daughter, but as a person with no knowledge, let alone preconceptions, about children’s poetry. I’ve got plenty of opinions about poetry for adults — sometimes those opinions are even strong enough and weird enough and wrong enough to get people angry with me. But I couldn’t name a half dozen contemporary poets writing primarily for children. And here’s where the value of an institution like a laureateship — even a foundation-sponsored, non-federal laureateship like the one bestowed upon Lewis — dawned on me. I mean, think of it: it won’t be long before I’ll want to get some children’s poetry into my daughter’s hands, and I really don’t know where to begin at all. Now, at least, I know a name: J. Patrick Lewis. I may not know his work, I may not know exactly how strong or interesting it is in comparison to the work of his peers, but I do know that some people who care about children’s poetry thought he was worthwhile. It’s not exactly a divine guarantee of absolute and timeless awesomeness, but it’s not nothing either. It’s sort of like the kind of movie criticism Siskel and Ebert used to do back in the 80s, when they’d get together and give thumbs-up or thumbs-down to movies: it’s hardly the be all and end all of film criticism, but for an otherwise uninformed audience, it’s something, a place to start. In a sense, the official United States laureateship has a similar value: not for poetry professionals, but for people in the wider world. For all of my general griping about laureateships, I can recognize that.
Several of Chris Wiman’s remarks, as he introduced David Ferry, touched on the condition of the poetry professional. Chris mentioned that he and Don Share have been editing an anthology of poems drawn from the last century of Poetry magazine, which meant he’d recently read some 300,000 poems, a task, he told us, that might just make him start banging his head against his podium like a woodpecker at any moment. I sympathize: if Chris and Don split that number of poems up, each taking on half of the reading, and spent, say, five minutes with each poem, that would still mean more than 200 hours each of reading: five solid work weeks each, nine to five, assuming they kept the pace up all day and skipped lunch — all this on top of regular jobs consisting, in large measure, of… reading large numbers of poems. This, I thought, would be a good way to learn to despise poetry, at least temporarily: the process resembles nothing so much as the kind of aversion therapy parents used to practice on children caught smoking, when they’d make the child smoke cigarette after cigarette until the poor kids turned green and couldn’t stand to anywhere near tobacco smoke anymore. Chris seems, somehow, not to have succumbed to his particular round of poetry-aversion therapy, but his patience with the most common kind of poetry written by younger poets — which he described as “willed eccentricity, even willed grotesqueness” — seems to have become a bit strained, his attitude seeming to have become, at least for the moment, a version of “not that there’s anything wrong with that sort of thing, but…”
The evening closed with David Ferry reading from his works, including, much to my delight, his translations, which I’m not alone in seeing as his best work — though history may disagree with me: as Chris Wiman pointed out, “for many years Ezra Pound was best known as a translator.” When it was over, Calvin Forbes and I agreed that, if either of us give a reading like Ferry’s when we’re pushing 90, we’ll be damned proud of ourselves. We also both noted that everything, even the translations (which featured a fine version of the journey to the underworld in The Iliad), was about death. “When I heard Archibald MacLeish read as an old man,” said Calvin, “it was all about looking at pretty girls.” So often poetry at old age seems to get down to sex and death: Yeats’ “Politics” or his "Cuchulain Comforted.” You know, the fundamentals.
In other Poetry-related news, Marjorie Perloff and I have been in touch regarding my review of her study Unoriginal Genius. I stand by what I wrote — especially what I said about Perloff being the best and most prominent spokesperson for a whole range of poetries — but after we’d corresponded a little, I asked if I might reproduce this note, since it allows Perloff to clarify her sense of things:
I wanted to thank you for your long detailed review and say that I think you’re right that there’s no ‘progress’ in poetry; if I gave that impression, I’m surely wrong. The fact is, I don't believe in a progress model but that poetry, like furniture or clothing, cannot ignore its own time. "A
mythology reflects its region." Not that poetry gets better —far from it — it just gets different. My own preference as you must sense is for the Moderns, no one can beat Yeats or Eliot or Pound in my lexicon! And by the way, I start with Eliot and his citations so where did you get the idea that I ignore TSE and EP?
But I should have made my own view of literary history clearer and as a result of criticisms of Unoriginal Genius, I am doing that in various new things I¹ve been writing‹specifically a long essay ‘corrective’ on Duchamp that I hope you¹ll see some time.
You make many salient points and I hope we can discuss them some day before too long. I'm a big admirer of your writing!
Thanks, Robert and all the very best,