Thursday, January 08, 2015

The Power of Poetry in the Modern World

Rejoice! The new issue of the South Atlantic Review (vol. 77 nos. 1 & 2, for those of you compiling bibliographies) will soon find its way into print (and onto your local JSTOR server), and it's a special issue on the power of poetry in the modern world—essential reading for anyone interested in understanding how poetry interacts with the larger world.  In addition to poems and reviews, it features the following articles:

Marjorie Perloff, "John Cage as Conceptualist Poet"
Lisa K. Perdigow, "Coming Undone: Entering Jorie Graham's Poststructural Poetics"
Emily R. Rutter, "the story of being: Revising the Posthumous Legacy of Huddie Ledbetter in Tyehimba Bess' leadbelley"
Jason M. Coates, "H.D. and the Hermetic Impulse"
Ronald Schuchard, "Yeats and Olivia Revisited: A Pathway to The Winding Stair and Other Poems"
Tara D. Causey, "Stories of Survivance: The Poetry of Karenne Wood"

There's also my own essay—"The Fall and Rise of Poetry: T.S. Eliot and the Place of Poetry in the Modern World."  Here's how it starts:

T. S. Eliot was far from alone among modern poets in perceiving a crisis in the social position of poetry and in dreaming up a solution to that crisis. Yeats, for example, sought to bring poetry out of the aesthete’s garret by allying it with both mystic rites and nationalism; while Ezra Pound dreamed of a world in which “the damned and despised literati” would, through clarity of language, keep “the whole machinery of social and of individual thought” functional and therefore make themselves crucial to the legislators and governors of the world. Eliot’s particular sense of the nature of the crisis, and of its solution, was colored by the decline of his social class and of the kind of public, moralistic poetry associated with that class. Eliot had strong family connections to a Boston-based, cultivated elite that entered a phase of steep decline around the time of his birth and similarly strong connections to the poetic traditions of that class, traditions whose supporting institutions eroded rapidly in the closing decades of the nineteenth century. Eliot’s reaction to the decline of public poetry was, at first, to retreat from such poetry into the aestheticism of his 1905 graduation ode and later to satirize his declining class and its culture, including its literary culture. Out of his satire, though, emerged a new theory of poetry, in which the energies to which popular culture speaks are harnessed to the civilizing power of a tradition of high culture and spiritual discipline. Eliot sees a public role for this new poetry—but not as a replacement for popular culture. Rather, he sees it as being important in the formation of a new caste of cultural leaders who will, he hopes, have a broad influence in society. When a new class of educated professionals takes up Eliot’s poetry (and humanistic culture more generally) in the postwar era, this class partially fulfills Eliot’s ambition. Unlike Yeats or Pound, Eliot sees his dream for a revivified poetry, with a kind of power in the modern world, come to some measure of fruition.

I'm especially happy to have my essay on Eliot—really a kind of social class analysis of aesthetics in poetry—appear in an issue guest edited by Nancy D. Hargrove, a distinguished Eliot scholar.  The South Atlantic Review is under new and dynamic editorship, and promised great things in the years ahead.  Excelsior!  Now, if only they could do something about cover art...

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