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It’s Always a Bad Time For Poetry
On the evening of Rosh Hashana this past fall, I sat listening to my stockbroker and lawyer cousins freak out that the stock market had just dropped nearly 800 points that day. They were sweating bullets as I sat quietly and listened. When the conversation came around to me, I shrugged and quoting Brecht, stated that it’s always bad time for poetry. In the United States, it was lousy during the boom and promises to be lousy during the bust. It was crappy to be a poet during the Bush years and will most certainly remain crappy under Obama.
This week in the New York Times’ Week in Review, an article appeared about how the boom affected the design world. It began, “Few of the arts benefited from the late economic boom more than design. After all, when the wealth is flowing, people don’t covet the concerts you see or the books you read. They covet the couch you bought, and then they buy a cooler one.” The piece goes on to discuss how the excesses of the period produced decadent works of design that were premiered amidst equally decadent scenes. It called for a reckoning, a sobering, stating that prior downturns were good for design, that the WPA during the Depression and the scarcity of materials during World War II made design lean, mean and efficient again. One commentator said that, “It was a chance to make good on the Modernist promise to make affordable, intelligent design for a broad audience.”
Dems is a scary word to an avantist, recalling the exile of adventurous art during the Depression when intelligibility wiped innovation off the map: when Aaron Copland’s populism trumped the ultramodernism of Edgard Varèse and Henry Cowell; when the avant-European aesthetic of Alfred Steiglitz was pushed aside in favor of American regionalists like Thomas Hart Benton; or when the radical typographical investigations of E.E. Cummings were decimated by Archibald MacLeish who, according to Al Filreis (author of the indispensable Counter-Revolution of the Word), was the poet people turned to when they wanted verse to explain democracy to them. It pretty much derailed the avant-garde in the United States for two-and-a-half decades, until the mid-1950s, when the likes of Cage, Greenberg, The Beats and The Objectivists began to pick up where the avant-gardists of the 1920s left off. A lot of good was tossed out. One example that comes to mind was the multicultural — yet ultramodern — efforts of the Pan-American Association of Composers (which included Latino composers such as Carlos Chavez and Amadeo Roldán as well as their American counterparts) was dismantled and effectually blacklisted. It killed the career of someone like Nicolas Slonimsky, whose advocacy of challenging music created such controversy in early 30s, that he was banished entirely from conducting.
This is not to say that a WPA scenario will play out the same way today. Culture, in this time of wide horizontal digital distribution, is in the hands of many as opposed to the few in the 1930s, and there is an accessible and strong international community for support of challenging work. And even in the headiest of times, it’s lousy for the avant-garde: witness the consistent refusal that such work exists in conservative publications like The New York Times Book Review, The New Yorker, and, yes, even in Poetry.
Back in May, when Charles Bernstein premiered his Recantorium at the Conceptual Poetry and its Others conference in Tucson, it seemed cheeky, a bit clever, satirical, even overstated; it was easy to shrug off. Half a year later and in the context of an entirely different world, it no longer seems so improbable, instead appearing eerily prescient:
“I was wrong, I apologize, I recant. I altogether abandon the false opinion that only elitist and obscure poetry should be praised. I abjure, curse, detest, and renounce the aforesaid error and aversion. And I now freely and openly attest that the best way to get general readers to start to read poetry is to present them with broadly appealing work, with strong emotional content and a clear narrative line.”