D.H. Tracy’s intriguing and intricate defense of the aesthetic [“The Moral and the Aesthetic, Recently,” December 2009] was not just a pleasure to read but also a reminder of how great a change our literary culture has suffered during the past fifty years.
When I was an English major in the mid-sixties, the question was: “How Does A Poem Mean?” Who at the time would have guessed that this was the last gasp of practical criticism, which, while hardly l’art pour l’art, was anything but today’s strident and tendentious theory?
I have no desire to reignite the culture wars, but reading Tracy’s article I was struck by the extremely long lengths to which he went—invoking, for instance, not just Plato but Lord Shaftesbury, Immanuel Kant, and Thomas Mann—in order to include pleasure and the aesthetic in discussions of poetry.
In this regard, I noted a few of John Kinsella’s remarks in the same issue [“Vermin: A Notebook”] as bearing the stamp of the time. “I see myself as a poet activist,” he writes. “Every time I write a poem, it is an act of resistance to the state, the myriad hierarchies of control, and the human urge to conquer our natural surroundings.” This is fine if it describes one person’s response to the exigencies of his life and his art. But as a prescription for poetry, I find it dangerously narrow.
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