Sven Birkerts’s essay on Emerson’s “The Poet” [April 2012] focuses on the disconnect he senses between Emerson’s transcendental theory and the practice of poetry today. This misalignment, Birkerts feels, is due to the “culture of embarrassment” that has taken root in our academic institutions, which shun the idea of the “soul” and “perfect beauty” in art, replacing these terms or aims with an “arbitrariness” that stems from the fact that we are constantly “on the run from the anxious vibration of our living.” Birkerts says that Emerson’s text feels “archaic” and somehow “remote” from modern poetic discourse, which dismisses the “inward as a place for progress or gain.” Indeed, Birkerts feels that “The Poet” seems so alien to a modern reader that it might have come from “another world.”
While I can agree with Birkerts that self-transcendence through internal examination is on the wane, I still feel uncomfortable with how much he distances Emerson’s essay. Even though Emerson uses the “soul” to craft his argument, there is no doubt that, on a logical level, the essay still works whether you choose to buy into its portrayal of the poet or not. What makes Emerson so important to my own experience of poetry is the very feeling that Birkerts seems to long for, a sense of “The Poet” transcending its time and coming to bear on the present. I receive this sensation of relevancy through the clarity of Emerson’s prose and the religious fervor of his argument, both of which, I believe, can fully penetrate the secular age in which we live.