Saturday, December 17, 2011

"It's Too Much": Norman Finkelstein and the Poetics of Contemporaneity

One of the most notable things about contemporary poetry is that there's so much of it.  If one were tempted to keep up with it all, one might say there's so damn much of it.  This is the starting point of Norman Finkelstein's "The Poetics of Contemporaneity," a long reviw of Mary Biddinger and John Gallaher's book The Monkey & the Wrench: Essays into Contemporary Poetics, a review just now out in Contemporary Literature.  It starts with reference to a little Facebook discussion in which I played a part:

In a recent post on the Poetry Foundation’s Harriet blog entitled “It’s Too Much,” Stephen Burt declares, only half-jokingly (I think), “Every week, every day, I get email and Facebook notices and for that matter word of mouth about the latest debate or commentary or controversy or metapoetic metaconversation (sometimes it’s even attached to actual poems) on one of three dozen fine websites and active blogs and web-only or web-mostly mostly-poetry magazines… to be au courant, I should keep up. And I can’t keep up.”  Burt continues in this vein for another couple of paragraphs, and though he keeps it light, he manages to touch a nerve.  In my little corner of Facebook, Robert Archambeau linked to Burt’s post, eliciting twenty-eight more-or-less anxious comments.  Mark Scroggins picked up the post and responded at some length on his blog, Culture Industry: “Man do I sympathize. With the expansion of the internet as the primary medium of poetry, & of the endless chatter of poetry-promotion & poetry-discussion – of pobiz, in short – it feels like there's been an exponential explosion of poetic activity out there, so much being written & published & written about that no-one, but no-one, is able to grasp more than a tiny fraction of it.”

Finkelstein's review goes on to discuss how the various pieces in the book address, or fail to address, the contemporary situation.  Finkelstein has some particularly kind words for my own contribution, and I'm not above repeating them:

…the two best essays, by, as it happens, Robert Archambeau and Stephen Burt, take the longest view and are most fully informed by an acute literary historical awareness. Archambeau’s “The Discursive Situation of Poetry,” which leads off the collection, alone is worth the price of admission.  Archambeau is one of our smartest poetic sociologists, and in this essay, he tackles the biggest problem facing poetry in our time: the dwindling of its audience and the growing divide between poets and a mainstream literary readership, however the latter may be construed.  Archambeau considers an ideologically varied group of critics, including Dana Gioia, Joseph Epstein, Charles Bernstein, Thomas Disch and John Barr, all of whom complain about poetry’s loss of public attention as poets gradually migrate to academia and graduate-level creative writing programs proliferate.  A corollary to this complaint is the notion that at some time in the not too distant past (say the 1940s or 1950s), poets were more responsive to the needs and desires of a middle-class readership, editors published them more frequently in general interest magazines with wider circulations, and market forces, rather than the rarefied aesthetic views of a literary elite or bohemian coterie, determined poetic success.  Archambeau demolishes these notions, but at the same time, identifies a period further in the past—the mid-Victorian period—when the “discursive situation of poetry—that is, the conditions of writing, publishing and reception” (13) was such that poets really did speak to, of and for the values of a growing middle-class reading public.  “This class,” notes Archambeau, “growing into unprecedented political and social dominance in a rapidly changing and industrializing society, felt understandably dislocated” (15).  The British middle class found the guidance for which it sought in “men of letters” such as Ruskin, Thackery, Mill or Tennyson, “because men of letters, including poets, were drawn from, and remained a part of, the same social class as the reading public, and as such they articulated that class’s own views, anxieties and values” (15).  The preeminence of these figures, however, proved relatively short-lived, as on the one hand, literacy spread to the working class, and on the other hand, the middle class itself, intermarrying with the aristocracy, formed “a newly confident class that developed an ethos of self-interest, utilitarianism, and conspicuous consumption….They were decreasingly in need of buying what the mid-Victorian poets were selling” (19).  By the end of the nineteenth century, the poets had moved from middle-class drawing rooms to the garrets of bohemia, which they bequeathed to their modernist heirs.
Unfortunately, Archambeau never explicitly links the situation of Victorian England to that of the United States, where the class structure, without an aristocracy in the European sense, developed along somewhat different lines.  Concomitantly, the figure of the poet as cultural arbiter differed as well.  Perhaps the Fireside Poets played a similar role to the British men of letters, but the advent of Whitman and all he came to represent proved a definitive break.  In any case, Archambeau is still correct: when the utilitarian and consumerist values of the middle class solidified, and the poets moved first to bohemia and then to academia, the loss of a general readership for poetry was inevitable.  As Archambeau puts it, “Professionalized literary studies and bohemianized poetry were close cousins, both products of broad shifts in economics and culture that took poetry and the broad reading public in different directions” (20-21).  Furthermore, the changes that might realign poets and average readers are not particularly desirable.  Where, after all, does poetry really count in the modern world?  Basically, under conditions of political oppression.  Thus, “just as we would not wish to return to mid-Victorian levels of literacy and social development just to see the rise of a new Tennyson, we would not wish to fall victim to colonization just to have our own Celtic Revival.  Those of us who live with discursive conditions that keep poetry unpopular may count themselves lucky” (24-25).  Meanwhile, as Archambeau observes, “the encroachment of market values on the previously semi-autonomous academic system is well under way, and is probably irreversible,” a development that is bound to affect “[t]he oversupply of academically credentialed poets” (25).  How many unemployed or under-employed MFAs in creative writing do you know?  Unfortunately, I know quite a few.

Finkelstein is completely right about my failure to address the American situation in the late 19th century.  And he's onto something when he says the Fireside Poets (Longfellow, Whittier, et al) played an important role, analogous in some ways to the role of Tennyson in England.  But I haven't really done enough research in American poetry to say much more than that.

If you have access to Project Muse at a university library database, you can check out Finkelstein's article online.

There's a pretty spirited discussion of my own essay, and related issues, at John Gallaher's blog.