Saturday, January 29, 2011

Know Your Rights: Poetry and Copyright

So there I was, stepping into the offices of the Poetry Foundation to drop off a contract for a piece I'd written and pick up a couple of lunch companions, when I found someone pressing a svelte little printed document into my hand. Glancing down, I read the title: "Code of Best Practices for Poetry."  Fantastic, I thought: here at last was the guide that would give me such useful tips as "Don't use too many rhyming couplets — people find that annoying nowadays" and "Writing another pseudo-Ashbery poem? Ask yourself why before proceeding with extreme caution."  I wondered: dare we hope for an appendix on the care and feeding of egomaniacal power-brokers in the poetry demimonde?

Four hours later, when the remains of the massaman curry had long-since been carted away by the long-suffering waiters at Star of Siam, and Issues of Great Importance permanently resolved by the consensus of the gathered poets, I popped the document out of my pocket for a proper looking-over.  As it turns out, it wasn't a guide to the best practices for poetry: it was a guide to the best practices "in fair use for poetry" — a set of guidelines for using copyrighted material in criticism, scholarship, performance, and in one's own poetry.  And it was good, too: we've needed something like this for some time (if for no other reason than to put bullies like Paul Zukofsky in their place — I mean, PZ has been trying to intimidate people for years about the use of Louis Zukofsky's poetry, and now his over-stepping of his legal rights  will be seen for what it is).

I had the privilege of playing a small supporting part in the creation of these guidelines, which emerged from interviews with many poets across the country.  But the real work was done by a host of legal minds, under the general guidance of Peter Jazsi of the Program on Information Justice and Intellectual Property at American University, who worked along with Professor Patricia Aufderheide  of American University's Center for Social Media and a Legal Advisory Board including Michael J. Madison, of University of Pittsburgh School of Law, Gloria C. Phares, of Patterson Belknap Webb & Tyler, and Elizabeth Townsend-Gard, Tulane University School of Law.  These are some serious people in the field of copyright law: they're responsible for the Best Practices guidelines for documentary film, and they've advised many other industries on these issues.  They know what they're talking about, and they know how to listen, too: the guidelines they developed represent a consensus view from a broad and deep survey of people in the field.

The general consensus, says the document, is this:

Poetry, as a highly allusive art form, fundamentally relies on the poet’s ability to quote, to copy, and to “play” with others’ language, and poetry scholars and commentators equally rely on their ability to quote the poetry they are discussing. In fact, poets generally acknowledge that essentially everything they do in their workaday lives, from making their poems to writing about poetry to teaching poetry, builds on the work of others.

And here, in the briefest form possible, are the general guidelines on fair use for material that remains in copyright:

1. Regarding Parody and Satire

PRINCIPLE: Under fair use, a poet may adapt a poem or a portion of a poem in order to (1) offer a direct or indirect critique of that poem, its author, or its genre; (2) present a genuine homage to a poet or genre; or (3) hold up to ridicule a social, political, or cultural trend or phenomenon.

2. Regarding Allusion, Remixing, Pastiche, Found Material, etc.

PRINCIPLE: Under fair use, a poet may make use of quotations from existing poetry, literary prose, and non-literary material, if these quotations are re-presented in poetic forms that add value through significant imaginative or intellectual transformation, whether direct or (as in the case of poetry-generating software) indirect. 

3. Regarding  Education

PRINCIPLE: Under fair use, instructors at all levels who devote class time to teaching examples of published poetry may reproduce those poems fully or partially in their teaching materials and make them available to students using the conventional educational technologies most appropriate for their instructional purposes. 

4.  Regarding Criticism and Illustration

PRINCIPLE: Under fair use, a critic discussing a published poem or body of poetry may quote freely as justified by the critical purpose; likewise, a commentator may quote to exemplify or illuminate a cultural/historical phenomenon, and a visual artist may incorporate relevant quotations into his or her work. 

5. Regarding Epigraphs

PRINCIPLE: Under fair use, an author may use brief quotations of poetry to introduce chapters and sections of a prose work or long poem, so long as there is an articulable relationship between the quotation and the content of the section in question.

6. Regarding Online Use

PRINCIPLE: Under fair use, an online resource (such as a blog or web site) may make examples of selected published poetry electronically available to the public, provided that the site also includes substantial additional cultural resources, including but not limited to critique or commentary, that contextualize or otherwise add value to the selections. 

7. Regarding Literary Performance

PRINCIPLE: Under fair use, a person other than the poet may read a poem to a live audience, even in circumstances where the doctrine otherwise would not apply, if the context is (1) a reading in which the reader’s own work also is included, or (2) a reading primarily intended to celebrate the poet in question. 

There are, of course, subtler points to be made regarding each of these principles, including limitations.  You can find the whole document online if you're interested. It's a great way to begin to understand your rights. 

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Nothing in this Life: Nick Cave and the Romantics

The latest Horizon Review is out, assembled by the able editorial hands of the poet Katy Evans-Bush. Among the poems, essays, stories, and interviews lies an essay of mine called "Nothing in this Life: Nick Cave and the Romantics," about the special bond between Nick Cave and poets, who seem to adore him. The essay takes its title from the lyrics to Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds' song "There She Goes, My Beautiful World," and it begins like this:
Not long ago a pair of young poets approached me and asked if I’d like to contribute to an anthology they were editing. I write prose quickly, but I’m a slow poet, and don’t keep much ready-to-publish material on hand, so I was a bit wary. “What’s the theme?” I asked, as a series of possibilities for an anthology in which I might belong flickered through my head. Rapidly graying poets? White guys who could lose some poundage? The last generation of poets to get on the tenure track before the general derailment of academe? It turned out to be none of the above: the young poets wanted to put together an anthology of poetry inspired by Nick Cave.

When I mentioned the project to the Scottish poet Roddy Lumsden, he didn’t miss a beat. Nick Cave? Lumsden had written a poem for Nick Cave and, through a series of events too complex and unlikely to present here, he’d heard from an octogenarian friend who’d lunched with Cave that the great man himself had pored over the little chapbook in which the poem appeared — pored repeatedly, apparently fascinated, but inscrutable. There seems to be some special connection between Cave and the poets, and I think I know what it is.

The rest is online here.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Let's Hear it for the Boys, or: The Plinko Theory of Poetry

“Let’s Hear it for the Boys” is not a title I expected to find on a review of my book Laureates and Heretics, but I think I see why Brian Reed chose it for his piece on the book in the latest issue of Contemporary Literature: my book does, after all, treat a bunch of white guys as they make their way through the cultural politics of the sixties, seventies, and eighties — the very decades when the hegemonic cultural position of American white guys was starting to break apart.  There have been other bright things said about the book (notably by Henry King in the English journal PN Review) but Reed’s the first guy to make much of the way the book treats how people from the old dominant group react to the changes they live through and try to understand.

Here’s how Reed’s review opens. It had me a bit worried, really:

Robert Archambeau’s Laureates and Heretics: Six Careers in American Poetry begins by offering a reassessment of the irascible, archconservative poet-critic Yvor Winters. It then proceeds to discuss several poets from the“last generation of students” to work with Winters at Stanford University, all of whom “arrived in Palo Alto around 1962” and were later featured in the Carcanet Press anthology Five American Poets (1979): Robert Hass, John Matthias, James McMichael, John Peck, and Robert Pinsky. Each of these figures receives a chapter that summarizes his career, comments on his principal publications, and accounts for his reception history. Described in this manner, the book might not sound promising.

But then things warm up:
Despite these obstacles, Laureates and Heretics turns out to be a compelling meditation on the mechanics of canonization. Building on the work of David Kellogg, Alan Golding, and Jed Rasula, the study focuses on the institutional and social dynamics that produce different levels of popular and critical success among authors active during the same time period.

And soon thereafter Reed turns to the business of the effect of identity politics on “the boys”:
No longer could white men speak unreflectively “of, for, and to a presumably general community.” A comparative study of Winters’s students proves to be a new and inventive means of supporting this last proposition. Hass, Matthias, McMichael, Peck, and Pinsky all came of age in an era of intense ideological demystification. They did not, however, respond to that challenge in the same way. Just as the counter- cultural poetries of the period were internally diverse and mounted a variety of critiques of entrenched authority, so too the elite-educated individuals with easier access to prominent venues for publication, employment, and promotion likewise exhibited a range of behaviors. To understand the literary system of the later twentieth century, Archambeau contends, one has to set aside reductive accusations of sexism, homophobia, and racism and understand that the establishment, too, was a mercurial, complex, self-contradictory entity, fitfully and unpredictably responsive to shifts in the larger poetry field.
Reed's got it, dead-on.  After the rise of identity politics and feminism, you really couldn't go around acting like "Robert Lowell, National Voice of Poetry" or even "Allen Ginsberg, National Voice of Rebellious Poetry."  Things were different, and you had to figure out how, and why, and what to do, not from above or after the event, but during the changes as they happened.

Soon after this part comes my favorite image in the review: the depiction of The Plinko Theory of Poetic Reputation, which is actually a pretty good way to hold in one’s mind the nature of poetic reputation-making, which isn’t primarily about the quality of the work, but about how your trajectory happens to intersect with the various forces at work in the cultural field (this does not mean that bad work gets rewarded, or good work shunted aside, only that one’s work will be popular if it has affinities with cultural imperatives, and finds its way to light through channels that happen to serve large or powerful or coherent constituencies):
Laureates and Heretics offers a theory of canonization that resembles the game Plinko on the television show The Price Is Right. A contestant drops disks from different possible starting points and then watches how initial conditions affect their paths as they descend toward more or less lucrative possible outcomes. Pinsky and Hass could never have predicted that their specific swerves away from Winters would lead plink-plink-plink to their selection as poets laureate. In retrospect, however, one can see that the “poetry field” of the 1970s and 1980s tended to reward certain moves while penalizing others. This kind of experiment could easily be repeated, perhaps with a more eclectic group. What would it be like to read a book that devotes a chapter each to the likes of Agha Shahid Ali, Mary Jo Bang, Charles Bernstein, Rick Kenney, Dana Levin, Eileen Myles, and Tupac Shakur? Would it be chaos, or a way of gaining a more comprehensive overview of poetic production in the late twen- tieth century? Archambeau has shown that there is now enough historical distance on the post–Vietnam War era that one can fruitfully approach its poetry with the cool gaze of a sociologist.

From now on, I’m going to refer to the Archambeau-Reed Plinko Theorem as if it were the General Theory of Relativity or something.

Anyway, here’s the grand finale, which I think gets me exactly right, depicting me as a man aiming at disinterested objectivity and almost but not quite getting there:
One senses that Pinsky and Hass interest him primarily as literary-historical riddles (how did they come out on top?).  He writes well about McMichael, but Peck appears to intrigue him more, and his admiration for Matthias is patent. One suspects that, if pressed, he would admit that his money is on modernist ambition and seriousness as the true route to lasting achievement. The beauty of Laureates and Heretics is Archambeau’s ability to restrain himself from making such pronouncements. He takes the tools of practical criticism and puts them in the service of a relatively unbiased literary history. No matter who their favorite poets might be, others will be able to build on his arguments. The field needs more books like Laureates and Heretics.
And I can't resist ending with this, a celebration of Brian Reed's title (I couldn't quite bring myself to post Deneice Williams' "Let's Hear it for the Boy"):

Thursday, January 13, 2011

The Crack in the Teacup Opens: The Debate About Prynne and Cambridge Poetry

"The Crack in the Teacup Opens," a review of Intimate Exposure: Essays on the Public-Private Divide in British Poetry Since 1950 has just appeared in the venerable Oxford journal Essays in Criticism.  The reviewer, Yasmine Shamma, says some interesting things about recent discussion of J.H. Prynne, including this:

Archambeau's essay... [asks] 'What ought we to make of a school of poetry that has a strong public concern, but no appreciable public presence?' Robert Potts’s November 2010 article in the Times Literary Supplement addresses a similar question, outlining the ‘obscurity’ of the school, and asking how J. H. Prynne emerges as a ‘poet of our times’. Archambeau takes this obscurity apart, explaining in his ‘Public Faces in Private Places: Messianic Privacy in Cambridge Poetry’ that, as readers of the Cambridge school and, more specifically, Prynne, we ‘ought’ to consider how this school operates as a ‘poetry of public faces in private places’ (borrowing from Auden), and accordingly hold it up to some charges.

"Charges" is a stronger word than I would have used, but a lot of people who read the essay when it appeared in an earlier form would probably agree with Shamma's characterization.  Anyway, if you're interested in seeing the review (which, among other things, gives a good summary of my essay), it is available online, as well as in your local university library's periodical room.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Monkeys, Wrenches, and the Discursive Situation of Poetry

Rejoice!  Mary Biddinger and John Gallaher's new collection of essays on poetics, The Monkey and the Wrench, has finally appeared (at least in my mailbox, where a set of contributor's copies arrived today).  Not only does it look good, its svelte 175 pages contains a wealth of good stuff for anyone interested in contemporary poetry and poetics, including:

• Stephen Burt on rhyme in contemporary poetry
• Cole Swenson on hybrid poetry and its discontents
• Elissa Gabbert on the common moves of the contemporary poem
• Michael Dumanis on litany
• David Kirby's "A Wilderness of Monkeys"
Essays by Benjamin Paloff, Elizabeth Robinson, and Joy Katz
• A symposium on hybrid aesthetics featuring Arielle Greenberg, Michael Theune, Mark Wallace, and Megan Volpert

The only defilement of this otherwise excellent volume is my own contribution.  It's called "The Discursive Situation of Poetry," and it attempts to explain why poetry has declined in popularity and influence since its heyday (which was not when most commentators think it was).

It begins like this:


The Discursive Situation of Poetry

“Why do poets continue to write?  Why keep playing if it’s such a mug’s game?  Some, no doubt, simply fail to understand the situation.”
—Sven Birkerts

The important point to notice, though, is this:
    Each poet knew for whom he had to write,
Because their life was still the same as his.
    As long as art remains a parasite
    On any class of persons it's alright;
The only thing it must be is attendant,
The only thing it mustn't, independent.
—W.H. Auden

Statistics confirm what many have long suspected: poetry is being read by an ever-smaller slice of the American reading public.  Poets and critics who have intuited this have blamed many things, but for the most part they have blamed the rise of M.F.A. programs in creative writing.  While they have made various recommendations on how to remedy the situation, these remedies are destined for failure or, at best, for very limited success, because the rise of MFA programs is merely a symptom of much larger and farther-reaching trends.  These trends are unlikely to be reversed by the intervention of a few poets, critics, and arts-administrators.  I’m not sure this is a bad thing.  Or, in any event, I’m not sure it is worse than what a reversal of the decline in readership would entail.  Let me explain.

While we don’t have many instruments for measuring the place of poetry in American life, all our instruments agree: poetry has been dropping precipitously in popularity for some time.  In 1992, the National Endowment for the Arts conducted a survey that concluded only 17.1% of those who read books had read any poetry in the previous year.  A similar N.E.A. survey published in 2002 found that the figure had declined to 12.1%.  The N.E.A. numbers for 2008 were grimmer still: only 8.3% of book readers had read any poetry in the survey period (Bain).  The portion of readers who read any poetry at all has, it seems, been cut in half over sixteen years.  Poetry boosters can’t help but be distressed by the trend.
            Poets and poetry lovers have somewhat less faith in statistics and rather more faith in intuition and personal observation than the population at large.  They’ve intuited this state of affairs for more than two decades, beginning long before the statistical trend became clear in all its stark, numerical reality.   As far back as 1983, Donald Hall sounded a warning note in his essay “Poetry and Ambition.”  Although he did not blame the rise of the graduate creative writing programs for the loss of connection with an audience, he did feel that M.F.A. programs created certain formal similarity among poems.  The programs produced “McPoets,” writing “McPoems” that were brief, interchangeable, and unambitious.  His solution, delivered with tongue firmly in cheek, was to abolish M.F.A. programs entirely.  “What a ringing slogan for a new Cato,” wrote Hall, “Iowa delenda est!” (Hall).  Five years later Joseph Epstein picked up Hall’s standard, and carried it further.  In the incendiary essay “Who Killed Poetry?” Epstein argued that the rise of writing poems led not only to diminishments of ambition and quality — it furthered the decline of poetry’s audience.  The popular audience for poetry may have shrunk by the 1950s, argued Epstein, but at least the poets of midcentury were revered, and engaged with the larger intellectual world.  By the late 1980s, though, poetry existed in “a vacuum.”  And what was the nature of this vacuum?  “I should say that it consists of this,” wrote Epstein, “it is scarcely read.”  Indeed, he continues,

Contemporary poetry is no longer a part of the regular intellectual diet. People of general intellectual interests who feel that they ought to read or at least know about works on modern society or recent history or novels that attempt to convey something about the way we live now, no longer feel the same compunction about contemporary poetry.… It begins to seem, in fact, a sideline activity, a little as chiropractic or acupuncture is to mainstream medicine—odd, strange, but with a small cult of followers who swear by it. (Epstein)

The principle culprit in the sidelining of poetry was, for Epstein, the credentialing and employment of poets in graduate writing programs.  “Whereas one tended to think of the modern poet as an artist,” argued Epstein, “one tends to think of the contemporary poet as a professional,” and, “like a true professional, he is insulated within the world of his fellow-professionals” (Epstein).  The poet, instead of responding to the audience-driven world of the book market, responds only to his peers, with the effect that the audience simply melts away.
            Après Epstein, le déluge.  The 1990s saw a phalanx of poets and critics complaining about the decline of poetry’s audience, and linking this decline to the rise of M.F.A. programs.  Dana Gioia fired the loudest shot when, in Can Poetry Matter? (published as an article in The Atlantic in 1991, republished in book form a year later).  “American poetry now belongs to a subculture,” said Gioia, “no longer part of the mainstream of intellectual life, it has become the specialized occupation of a relatively small and isolated group” (1).  While he allows that they have done so “unwittingly,” it is “the explosion of academic writing programs” that is to blame for this sad state of affairs, as far as Gioia is concerned (2).  Gioia was by no means alone in this opinion.  Vernon Shetley’s 1993 study After the Death of Poetry: Poet and Audience in Contemporary America tells us that poetry has “lost the attention not merely of common readers but of intellectuals” (3) – and that creative writing programs have contributed to this loss by cultivating “a disturbing complacency” and by “narrowing of the scope” of poetry (19).  Bruce Bawer introduces his 1995 book of criticism Prophets and Professors by lamenting the professionalizing of poetry.  He tells us that “those who read poetry — which, in our society, basically means poets” shy away from being too critical of the art, since “they conside[r] poetry so ailing and marginal a genre that criticism was… like kicking an invalid” (8).  In the same year, Thomas Disch claimed in The Castle of Indolence that “for most readers… contemporary poetry might as well not exist.”  The reason, he says, is

…that the workshops, which have a monopoly on the training of poets, encourage indolence, incompetence, smugness, and — most perniciously — that sense of victimization and special entitlement that poets now come to share with other artists who depend on government or institutional patronage to sustain their art, pay their salaries, and provide for their vacations. (5)

Blaming writing programs for the isolation of poetry extended beyond the fairly conservative literary preserves inhabited by the likes of Bawer, Disch, and Epstein. Charles Bernstein’s 1995 essay “Warning — Poetry Area: Publics Under Construction,” argues “it is bad for poetry, and for poets, to be nourished so disproportionately” by universities, adding that “the sort of poetry I care for has its natural habitat in the streets and offices and malls” (Bernstein).
            By 1999, the chorus had grown so loud that Christopher Beach claimed we were “discussing the death of poetry to death” (19).  Not that this stopped anyone.  In 2006, Poetry Foundation President John Barr caused a stir with “American Poetry in the New Century,” an article in Poetry magazine in which he noted poetry’s “striking absence from the public dialogues of our day,” as a sign that we have a reading public “in whose mind poetry is missing and unmissed.”  The problem, he asserts, stems from the writing programs.  These produce poets who “write for one another,” producing “a poetry that is neither robust, resonant, nor… entertaining.”  It cannot exist without “academic subsidies” and fails in the market, unable to sell in “commercial quantities” (Barr).  While Barr surveys the terrain from the heights of the Poetry Foundation offices above Chicago, more recently the poet Daniel Nester has come to similar conclusions (albeit without the invocation of the values of the marketplace) from the depths of New York’s poetry scene.  Nester has characterized that scene as the product of the writing programs.  Looking around at poetry events, he says he’d see university cliques such as the “Group of People Who Went to Iowa” and those starting “Teaching Jobs Out West.”  The scene was isolated from a larger engagement with society, with “a lack of connection to the reader” and readings attended only by “other aspiring poets” (Nester 2009).  “It’s an unsustainable system,” he said when asked by an interviewer about his article.  “Even the most niche of niche art forms has an audience.  Not so with contemporary poetry” (Nester 2010).
            As even this brief and incomplete survey of writers makes clear, American poets have noted the decline of the audience for poetry, and found it troubling.  But when decriers of the decline make M.F.A. programs their whipping boy they misunderstand the role such programs play in the distancing of poet from audience.  In fact, poetry’s decline of popularity predates the rise of writing programs, and such programs are properly seen as the latest episode in of a larger and long-enduring drama, a drama that began in the nineteenth century.


Well, I go on from there for quite a while. But fret not: I don't argue against MFAs, or against poetry mattering — but I do try to look at the conditions under which poetry is hugely popular, and those conditions usually entail a lot of social negatives. 

Anyway, don't let my contribution prevent you from getting the book!  Copies are a laughably cheap ten bucks at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or actual bookstores, if they're hip.  

Saturday, January 08, 2011

The Poet Dreams of Power: Part Two

When last we checked in with our hero, The Poet Who Has Lived Through All of History, he'd come some distance in his dreams of power.  In the Elizabethan era, he actually had power, but not through his capacity as poet: the literary elite and the power elite were, generally, one and the same.  Poetry was mostly an ornament, a game, a semi-private meditation, a pastoral escape, or an attempt to get laid.  When we next checked in with The PWHLTA of H, it was the eighteenth century.  By this point he was beginning to learn how to work in the marketplace, but for the most part he hung on his aristocratic patron, and envisioned his relation to power in quite immediate, face-to-face terms, as the guide and gentle advisor to His Lordship.  By the Romantic period, though The PWHLTA of H found himself alienated, an on-the-run semi-bohemian, radically critical of the world that seemed to have no place for him.  He dreamed that posterity would come to his rescue, and that his works would slowly become the foundations for how everyone thought and felt.  This went on until the Victorian period, when for various social reasons the poet was recruited by the middle class to speak their values back at them.  The poet worried a bit over this, since the values of the bourgeoisie were only partially his (he also had the values of the aesthetic producer).  But they offered him a lordship and a lot of praise, and he felt he was defending the responsible classes against chaos, so on her wrote.  Then further changes in publishing, literacy, and the valuation of poetry lost him his big public, and in a new, modernist guise, the poet (now going by the name Ezra Pound) picked up the old Shelleyan idea of being a kind of unacknowledged legislator.  Well, that's the story so far — full of lacunae, deeply oversimplified, but not entirely wrong, I hope.

To add just a little subtlety to the picture of the modernist poet's dreams of how he might relate to power, let's increase our sample size from one (Pound) to two, and take a quick look at how Eliot dreamed of the poet's relation to power.  In his quiet, understated, uptight way Eliot actually dreamed of immense power for poets — or, at any rate, for the right kind of poet, the poet who, like himself, was a kind of Christian intellectual.  Like Pound, he dreamed of having enormous cultural authority, and like Pound, he had to find some kind of way to get past the enormous fact of poetry's relative marginalization after it's brief Victorian high-water mark.

I suppose I should pause here and say that it's probably not a good idea to uncritically valorize the high Victorian period just because it was the last period in which an Anglo-Saxon country put poets on a pedestal and, en masse, turned their yearning eyes to poetry for moral guidance.  The idea is enough to make many poets drool, but we have to remember that the conditions that created such reverence for poetry involved things like the lack of working-class literacy, the lack of inexpensive books and mass education, a deep insecurity on the part of the middle class about their status vis-a-vis aristocrats, and the absence of the social sciences as a means of gaining knowledge about society (if you're interested in this kind of excruciating minutia, you might be the few who will actually want to read my essay "The Discursive Situation of Poetry," which is coming out right about now in The Monkey and the Wrench: Essays into Contemporary Poetics).

Anyway.  Eliot had to deal with the question of the relative decline of poetry's importance in Britain and America in the twentieth century.  He felt deeply that intellectuals should have some kind of leading role in culture, but, as he said in a letter to Philip Mariet: "the whole question of the popularization of ideas (and the avoidance of perversion of them) deserves our consideration, and I don't know where to begin."  What to do, in a modern age that seemed (as his pal Pound put it) to demand "a mould in plaster,/Made with no loss of time,/A prose kinema, not, not assuredly, alabaster/Or the "sculpture" of rhyme"?  

Rather than face the problem of modernity full-on, Eliot does a kind of end-run, and dreams of a return to the kind of pre-modern world where (he imagines) the poet and man of letters could take a leading role in culture and society.  Eliot's most notorious presentation of this dream of premodernity comes in his weird little book of criticism After Strange Gods.  Here he tells us that "stability is obviously necessary" in society, and that the most stable kind of society is the agrarian.  The modern industrial world is too fraught with perpetual change, and too prone to creating a culturally fragmented world. "The population should be homogenous," says Eliot, and "what is still more important is unity of religious background." He then makes his odious comment about not wanting too many Jews around (this, in 1934, is even harder to excuse than it would be otherwise).

Why is this social and religious homogeneity so important to Eliot?  Not everyone is aware of how much commentary Eliot wrote for the specifically Christian press, but if we root around in this considerable body of work, we can come up with quite a clear picture of what a Christian society meant for Eliot.  One thing it meant was this: a society that was to be guided, ultimately, by humanistic intellectuals.  As he said in a 1945 issue of the Christian News Letter "expert and authoritative theological minds" should be final judge of goals of a society, and other kinds of experts (economists, say) should stick to working out the means to those ends.  Eliot's book The Idea of a Christian Society makes if even more specific.  Here, he tells us that the general populace should be thought of as a "Christian Community," and this community should be led by a "Community of Christians" composed of "the consciously and thoughtfully practising Christians, especially those of intellectual and spiritual superiority."  This all sounds a little bit like the guardians in Plato's Republic, but Eliot hastens to clarify the informality of this community: 
The Community of Christians is not an organization, but a body of indefinite outline; composed of both clergy and laity, of the more conscious, more spiritually and intellectually developed of both.  It will be their identity of belief and aspiration, their background of common culture, which will enable them to influence and be influenced by each other, and collectively to form the conscious mind and the consciousness of the nation.[if you want to know more about this, check out Stefan Collini's chapter on Eliot in Absent Minds, to which I am indebted here].

Like Pound and Shelley, Eliot dreams of influencing the consciousness of the masses, of being a kind of unacknowledged legislator.  But instead of dreaming of an unrealistic power within the existing society, Eliot dreams of an entirely plausible kind of power — in a society that doesn't exist.  That is: Shelley and Pound were aware of their social conditions, and decided, despite evidence to the contrary, that poets had enormous unseen influence.  Eliot dreamed of a society where a poet could, by being part of an informally ruling elite, have an important role, but the society he dreamed of simply didn't exist.  Not in his time, and probably not at any time.  I'm sure his desire for a kind of cultural authority is behind his crackpot-ish theory of a time before a "dissociation of sensibility," and behind his relocation to England, where the mixing of literary and social and political elites did — and, to a very limited degree, still does — exist more than in the United States.

Robert Pinsky makes for an interesting contrast with Eliot, in that the kind of ideal society he imagines couldn't be more different than Eliot's.  In contrast to the Eliot's stable, homogenous, theologically oriented society, Pinsky celebrates the now-old ideal of the American melting pot.  Pinsky's poem "The Figured Wheel" is all about cultural syncretism, and his poem in praise of the saxophone is really a poem in praise of cultures mixing and melding (it is, after all, the tale of how a Belgian instrument became a jazz instrument — that is, an African-American instrument).  This is progressive, compared to Eliot.  Some might argue that it's a bit reactionary in the age of identity politics: Pinsky is not about celebrating particularist identity, except at the scale of the nation as a whole.  He's interested in the idea of America as a modern, polyglot place of cultural melding.  It's not quite a utopia, though, especially because of the racial inequities.  And it's in the discussion of race in the book-length poem An Explanation of America that we can see Pinsky trying out different ideas of how the poet might relate to power.  

Racial division, says Pinsky in An Explanation of America, makes America “as Malcom X once said,/A prison.”  “Living inside a prison,/Within its many other prisons, what/Should one aspire to be? a kind of chaplain?” he asks.  The role of chaplain, the comforter of the people, appeals to him, but only momentarily.  His faith in that role soon fades: “But chaplains, I have heard, are often powers,/Political, within their prisons, patrons/And mediators between frightened groups.”  Consoling will solve nothing.  Indeed, the very possibility of consolation seems beyond reach:
No kind of chaplain ever will mediate
Among the conquering, crazed immigrants
Of El Camino and the Bergen Mall,
The Jews who dream up the cowboy films, the Blacks
Who dream the music, the people who dream the cars
And ways of voting, the Japanese and Basques…
The chaplain idea — the notion of being a kind of mediator between different groups with conflicting interests — comes straight out of Matthew Arnold's ideal role for cultured people in Culture and Anarchy (Lionel Trilling nailed it when he said what Arnold really wanted was for intellectuals to serve as a kind of "umpire class" mediating social conflict).  But if Pinsky dreams of having such a role, he's also skeptical of it, thinking it both impossible and prone to co-optation.  Here we see a self-critical side of Pinsky that his detractors don't often mention.

In actuality, I think Pinsky tries to act out a kind of Tennysonian role as public moralist, but he does so in both literary and cultural circumstances that limit the possibilities for success. Firstly, the public moralist is didactic, and we live in a literary climate radically at odds with the notion of the didactic.  Pinsky's early critical book The Situation of Poetry sets out to defend statement-oriented, discursive, and even didactic or moralistic poetry against fragmentation, hermeticism, and communication by image (the old modernist premises), but this is a reactive move, and no matter how much more didactic and discursive Pinsky is than the norm of our time, he doesn't come close to the didacticism of the public side of Tennyson.  Everything has a bit of negative capability to it, even a trace of inconclusivity — which makes public moralism difficult.  But the more serious factors limiting Pinsky's ability to take on a kind of Tennysonian role are social: the reading audience, now, is more fragmented than in Tennyson's day, and one cannot speak to it with the confidence that one is voicing its views for it.  If you want to speak of and for a group, now, you kind of have to specify which group (hence the success of identity-politics oriented poetry, at least for a while).  I once went to some length arguing that Pinsky pitched his work to not to poetry-professionals, but to the professional wing of the upper-middle class (you know: psychiatrists, lawyers, professors of things other than English, that sort of thing).  I still think I was mostly right.  Anyway: I think one thing Pinsky's career shows us is the limited degree to which one can now succeed at the Tennysonian game.  Compare their sales figures (especially in relation to the size of the book market), the degree to which they were talked about, the meaning of their laureateships, and then stack the pile of awards Pinsky has received from foundations up and see if they even reach knee-high on Tennyson's lordship.

Pinsky, we should remember, has a seemingly unlimited supply of hustle (we were talking, once, about how much he traveled, and when I asked him how long it had been since he'd slept anywhere but a hotel, he had to stare off into space for a while, brow furrowed while he tried to remember).  If the Tennysonian game won't work for him, under current conditions, it isn't likely to work for anyone.  And most poets don't seem to want to try, anyway.   For reasons that I once tried to pin down in an essay, most poets in America (among other places) now feel quite alienated from power, and are prone to the kinds of worries Pinsky raised in his passage about the complicity of chaplains.  And for many, the old Shelleyan solution seems to be back in vogue: the notion that somehow (how one doesn't know) the work will get out there and have an influence.  I once argued with some of the people who'd written on Jeremy Prynne, and claimed that his poetry (read by a tiny but often intense audience) had smashed the public sphere and had an enormous political impact. I suppose I was arguing against this kind of semi-Shelleyean view.  It made a bunch of people angry: Simon Howard, for instance, asked "Even if you are 'right' about the limits of what poetry can achieve in the world, why so important to insist upon it? Or to quarantine poetry in this way? Why can't poetry be part of a series of actions, interventions?"  I thought this was interesting — in that Howard seemed to think that the fact that I was saying there was no evidence of poetry acting as a political powerful entity was what kept it from being so.  I mean, it's not like I'm the one stopping Prynne from influencing public discourse.

Anyway.  What I think we really need is a way of understanding the situation of poetry that explains why it functions the way it does, why it has the capabilities it has and why it lacks the capabilities it lacks.  I'd also like to understand more why so many poets want so badly for poetry to have powers of the kind it so rarely seems to have had in modern metropolitan societies.  I suppose what we need, really, are answers to Howard's questions about actions and interventions.

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}