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Of course we did!
“There is simply too much to think about. It is hopeless — too many kinds of special preparation are required. In electronics, in economics, in social analysis, in history, in psychology, in international politics, most of us are, given the oceanic proliferating complexity of things, paralyzed by the very suggestion that we assume responsibility for so much. This is what makes packaged opinion so attractive.” So said Saul Bellow – to which political speechwriter Barton Swaim recently added: Another name for “packaged opinion” is “politics.” Even if you’re a poet, and ostensibly resist prepackaging… people can probably guess who you voted for. Uh oh!
Swaim, in his recent TLS essay “Little Meaning, Strong Words: On Not Knowing the Reasons for One’s Vote,” claims that “politics is not known, nor has it ever been known, for clarity and a strict adherence to truth.” Could be this goes for poetry and poets, too. In this month’s issue of Poetry, Robert Archambeau, responding to a recent Harriet post by Lucia Perillo and to David Orr’s recent piece for the magazine, “The Politics of Poetry”, mulls over the politics of those Shelley called the “unacknowledged legislators” of the world:
There are exceptions, of course, but few would deny that the American poetry demimonde skews leftish, just as, say, Wall Street skews right. […] Perillo comes close to the source of this leftism when she speculates that “it may be that poets are aligned with the left because they tend to share the concerns of the poor, or at least the not-rich, having only moderate incomes and job stability.” There is certainly a sense in which poets, and humanistic intellectuals generally, stand outside the zone of power in America. The situation’s a bit more complicated than that, though. Poets are, after all, generally people with a lot of resources—but those resources are more cultural than economic. This is the case even when poets do well economically. A poet who is a full professor in an English department, for example, makes a solidly upper-middle-class salary, and has the kind of job security you just don’t find in many fields anymore. While she’s comfortably bourgeois in economic terms, though, her real status comes from her cultural resources: in that realm, she’s an aristocrat. It’s this emphasis on cultural capital that gives poets a somewhat unusual position in society. They have status, but not the kind of status you need to really stand at the helm of power. As Pierre Bourdieu tells us, in The Field of Cultural Production, such people “are neither dominant, plain and simple, nor are they dominated (as they want to believe at certain moments in their history). Rather, they occupy a dominated position in the dominant class, they are the owners of a dominated form of power…”
So what should poets do? Archambeau says:
Some poets have written with the idea that the poem certainly should attempt to persuade in the manner of normal political speech. One thinks of Shelley’s “Song to the Men of England,” or, in America, of Vachel Lindsay’s “Abraham Lincoln Walks at Midnight,” or of Allen Ginsberg on the right day. Others write in a less overtly rhetorical way, and act on their political convictions the way any concerned citizen would, volunteering during elections, writing letters to the editor, signing petitions and the occasional contribution check, and maybe hitting the streets for a demonstration. Still others—mostly in the experimental camp—consider their kind of poetry political by virtue of its very eschewal of the normal language of persuasion. Joshua Clover, for example, takes this position on his blog (a website popular with the experimental poetry crowd). After quoting Wittgenstein’s famous quip about how a poem, “even though it is composed in the language of information, is not used in the language-game of giving information,” Clover declares that “an equivalent formulation from the perspective of politics” would be that “the poem wishes to confront capital without being used in the language-game of capital.” A non-communicative, non-commodifiable poem (a poem, that is, like most of the poems in Clover’s own collection, The Totality for Kids), is in this view a kind of declaration of autonomy from the world of power.
To which he drily adds: “One may wonder just what good it does, if any, for the wretched of the earth…”
In the comments stream of the version of this article on the Poetry magazine website, Kent Johnson points out that if it’s true that American poets lean left, then “it’s a pretty safe kind of leftism.” Harriet regular Henry Gould, on the other hand, has this to say:
“… Marvell’s various poems on Cromwell; some of Milton’s poems; the political subtexts of many of Shakespeare’s plays; the moral complexity and engagement of Chaucer and Spenser, Gower & Langland…. where has this level of poetic discourse gone to? Romanticism emphasized the role of poet as visionary outsider, dreamer; Symbolism set up a specifically anti-political rhetoric (cf. Mallarme); Modernism posited the poet as Olympian exile-artifex (Pound, Joyce)… all these movements were protests against what was considered a mercenary, anti-poetic culture & age. So today we have, paradoxically, American citizen-poets, faced with extraordinary historical changes and moral dilemmas, still playing out these antique roles… and wondering why America doesn’t pay more attention to them….”
When we interviewed him on this month’s Poetry podcast, Archambeau allowed that there’s not so much wrong with preaching to the converted: it’s what preaching is for, after all. But it got me thinking again about Cole Swensen’s concept of hybrid poetry, which tries to show in another way altogether that American poets are far more like each other than the noise of their ideological axe-grinding suggests. Can we be that easily pigeonholed when it comes to both our politics and our praxis?