Letter from Poetry Magazine

Letter to the Editor

by Henry Gould

Dear Editor,

I enjoyed Robert Archambeau’s essay [“Marginality and Manifesto: A Response,” June 2009] which put the whole question of manifestos in context. However, I think there are limits to the sociological model offered by Pierre Bourdieu, whose work frames Archambeau’s analysis.

According to Bourdieu-via-Archambeau, battles over literary style are motivated by marginalization. There’s an inverse ratio between institutional support and stylistic innovation, and this dilemma motivates the production of manifestos. Since our contemporary society offers much broader bases of institutional support, for a wider range of stylistic diversity, the manifesto has become obsolete.

The problem with this analysis is that it assumes that style is both a sort of natural feature of art and that art is to be equated with this feature (i.e., style is art’s end or purpose). Thus stylistic variety is the desired norm; once achieved, the artistic milieu can be said to be in equilibrium, normative. As long as the poet has the requisite dexterity in a particular style, he or she is a candidate for prominence or canonicity, which is duly awarded by official art institutions and their organs of dissemination.

But the purpose of manifestos has never been simply to draw public and institutional attention to marginalized artists and experimental styles. A manifesto is a form of self-reflection and consolidation of a shared worldview. Style cannot be divorced from worldview, nor can poetry be safely sheltered (via approved styles) from the critical or prophetic role which it periodically takes on. For example, the fleeting Russian Acmeist group of early twentieth-century St. Petersburg produced manifestos which were intended to delineate, simultaneously, the poets’ sense of their role in society, their approach to literary style, and the worldview which grounded those stylistic choices. They opposed what they understood as a kind of decadent and otherworldly extremism in the poetics of their predecessors, the Symbolists, with a sensibility both more traditional and more realistic.

Archambeau’s genial picture of a broad-based literary culture, granting support for a variety of styles, and sanctioned prominence to a lucky few, seems to me just the sort of establishment which is ripening for a fall, or at least for a manifesto—since honoring style over substance, and divorcing manner from message, is just the sort of thing a real poet might find revolting.

providence, rhode island

Originally Published: September 1, 2009

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This prose originally appeared in the September 2009 issue of Poetry magazine

September 2009

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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