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.