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Poetry, Politics, and Leanings-Left

Why poets after Eliot will never be as conservative as bankers.
"The field of poetry is somewhat insulated from market forces, if for no other reason than that the material rewards are so small."
I'm working on it! That's what ran through my mind when I read David Orr's reflections on poetry and politics in the July/August issue of this magazine. Why, asks Orr, are we so endlessly fascinated with the connection between poetry and politics? "The ideal answer to that question," he writes, "would involve a painstaking analysis of the political inclinations of several hundred years' worth of English language poets, and it would take a proper scholar at least two books to outline. That answer would also be dull." I can't vouch for my ability to avoid dullness, but I have been working on a book that tries to pull together some kind of answer to the question Orr poses. If I'm lucky, all my rooting around in dingy archives in pursuit of an answer will also produce a thesis or two on a related question, one raised not long ago in a post by Lucia Perillo on the Poetry Foundation's "Harriet" blog: why are contemporary poets generally aligned with the political left? There are exceptions, of course, but few would deny that the American poetry demimonde skews leftish, just as, say, Wall Street skews right. "I have pondered over this question," blogs Perillo, "and was reminded again about it when the Harriet bloggers had a phone conference recently, and some kind of anti-Bush or anti-war entendre that was uttered by someone produced among us a knowing chuckle." One imagines the chuckle to have been of the same order as a stockbroker's chuckle over tax-and-spend liberals: it probably had more to do with political solidarity than with wit. Saturday Night Live's Seth Meyers coined the term "clapter" to describe this sort of reaction to humor, where what we're expressing is group approval more than anything else.

Although I'm a few sabbaticals away from producing the kind of painstaking, dull tome Orr rightly dreads, I am willing to venture a hypothesis about poets and politics, or at least to adapt a hypothesis from a passage in Marx's Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy. In the preface to that ponderous work, Marx claims, "it is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but, on the contrary, their social existence that determines their consciousness." Poets are no more an exception to this rule than stockbrokers. This is true with regard to their widespread sense (not generally shared by politicians) that poetry and politics are intertwined, and of their general leftishness, too: both can be explained by the position poets tend to inhabit in American society.

* * *

What poets and politicians have in common, says Orr, is "a totalizing vision" of things—a sense that the problems they address aren't merely matters of self-interest, but of more general concern. This, I'm sure, is entirely true. But why is it true of poets? It used to be a matter of national representativeness. The poet's sense of somehow representing a community larger than the self was, in the nineteenth century, often a matter of literature's link with nationalism. Longfellow's yearning for an American epic provides one example; Walt Whitman's creation of a representative American self provides another. But, despite a few striking exceptions like Robert Pinsky's An Explanation of America (written, as Pinsky has said, with Whitman in mind), most American poets no longer think of themselves as representatives of the nation. In fact, most poets who see themselves as representative of a group are either post-colonials or members of other historically or currently oppressed groups. The scholar Declan Kiberd gets at the reasons for this in Inventing Ireland, where he writes:

A writer in a free state works with the easy assurance that literature is but one of the social institutions to project the values which the nation admires, others being the law, the government, the army, and so on. A writer in a colony knows that these values can be fully embodied only in the written word: hence the daunting seriousness with which literature is taken by subject peoples. This almost prophetic role of the artist is often linked to "underdeveloped" societies.

Kiberd's observations about colonized peoples and their poets ring true for many poets from oppressed racial and gender groups too. But the sense of a connection between poetry and politics extends beyond poets with a strong connection to identity politics. Why?

We can get at something like an answer via the thinking of Alvin Gouldner, one of America's greatest writers on the sociology of intellectuals. In his brisk little study The Future of Intellectuals and the Rise of the New Class, Gouldner points out that intellectuals, particularly humanistic intellectuals like poets, revel in their semi-autonomous situation vis-à-vis market forces, forces that would dictate that they pursue their own material self-interest. This isn't to say that poets are angelic creatures devoid of self-interest. It's merely to note that the field of poetry is somewhat insulated from market forces, if for no other reason than that the material rewards are so small, and the self-image poets cultivate reflects this. By and large, poets don't tend to think of themselves as motivated primarily by material self-interest. (Gouldner, I should note, is very sensitive to the differences between self-image and actuality: in fact, The Future of Intellectuals is in some measure a teasing-out of the contradictions between intellectuals' self-image and their actions.) What Gouldner says about teachers is apposite here, in part because so many poets teach, and in part because both poets and teachers tend to define themselves with reference to their cultural, rather than their material, capital. "As teachers," Gouldner writes, "intellectuals come to be defined, and to define themselves, as responsible for and 'representative' of society as a whole." This is a very different way of thinking than that of, say, the typical owner of a small business, who is out, in most of his activities, to advance his own enterprise, and to represent his self-interest. If he doesn't do this, after all, no one else will. This doesn't mean that his activities don't benefit society as a whole—as Adam Smith said in The Wealth of Nations, such a person "generally ... neither intends to promote the public interest, nor knows how much he is promoting it." But unlike teachers and humanistic intellectuals, such people are unlikely to think of what they do as, first and foremost, a matter of general social advancement. Poets, like Gouldner's teachers, are often semi-insulated from market forces, working in universities or the public sector, and when they are in business many poets keep their business-selves and poetry-selves in separate compartments, as did Wallace Stevens and T.S. Eliot. So they don't generally think in terms of immediate self-interest, but in terms of a large, social interest: this is what lies behind what David Orr calls their "totalizing visions."

* * *

What about the overwhelmingly left-leaning nature of the "totalizing visions" of poets in America? 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...This structurally contradictory position is absolutely crucial for understanding the positions taken by writers and artists, notably in struggles in the social world.

The odd position in which poets find themselves explains, for example, both their critical attitude toward business leaders (whom they tend to resent from below), and their often-sentimental identification with the disempowered (with whom they identify by virtue of experiencing themselves as outside of true power). None of which is to say that their political beliefs are wrong or inauthentic, merely that poets aren't exempt from having their views conditioned by their social position. If political views weren't influenced by factors like social position—if, that is, social being didn't determine consciousness—it'd be a heck of a coincidence to have a phalanx of Harriet bloggers chuckling in agreement at the same political comment.

One imagines the leftward lean of the poets will only increase, in part because of the ongoing migration into the groves of academe, and in part because of the exclusion of so many poets from those groves. The poet-as-professor trends left, for the reasons described by Bourdieu: she's in the dominated part of the dominant class. But with the overproduction of MFA and PhD-bearing poets relative to the market for their skills in tenure-track academe, we're likely to see an even greater trend to the left among the poets. Back in the late seventies Gouldner noted that "we have now entered a period in which there may be more educated manpower than demand for it." Consequently, the educated feel pressure to accept work of a sort other than that for which they'd trained, ending up with increased job dissatisfaction and an attendant growth in alienation, which often manifests itself as a more radicalized politics.

* * *

One of the great things about David Orr is the way he doesn't shy away from embarrassing questions, and the question that most embarrasses poets when the topic of poetry and politics comes up is that of efficacy. Can a poem have a political influence, and if not, then what, exactly, is the political (as opposed to the aesthetic) point of the thing? "Should we draw a firm line, and say that a political poem has to have some actual political effect," Orr asks, along with a related question, "should it attempt to persuade us in the way most 'normal' political speech does?"

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. One may wonder just what good it does, if any, for the wretched of the earth, but the intention is plainly one of defiance.

Perhaps the most interesting way poets respond to the tension between their desire for political influence and the seeming inability of their poetry (that "dominated form of power" of which they are the owners) to have a political effect is to dramatize the contradiction. Consider "Unpleasant Letter," a poem from John Matthias's sojourn in England in the seventies. It begins with found text lineated as poetry—the text in question being a court summons Matthias received for a bicycling offence. Apparently he'd been riding a bike that

did not
Carry (a) one bright lamp which showed

White light to the front
And (b) one bright lamp which showed

Red light to the rear
Visible from a reasonable distance

Contrary to Section 74
Of the Road Traffic Act, 1972.

And what did this offence, depicted in the language of law and bureaucracy—in, that is, the language of power—warrant? A summons to court. "You," declares the unpleasant letter to its unfortunate recipient,
Are summoned to appear on 23.5.77
At the hour of 10 AM

Before the Magistrates' Court sitting
At the Court House, Guildhall.

The second of the poem's two parts gives Matthias's response, in which the language of power is answered not in its own terms, but with a language signaling (through incantation and exaggerated bardic grandiosity) its status as poetry. "O ancient magistrates and ancient guilds/Of Cambridge," it reads,
O reason & reasonable distance
O information that's laid

O hours of deepest darkness O lights
Both white & red which flash

Toward the future and signal
The past and the passing: O vision O visions

I was illuminated all over all tingling
Flourescent & flashing in

Every direction at once: I had read
For a day in your citadels O Marlowe O Newton

O John Maynard Keynes

Here Matthias asserts poetic authority over legal authority, and invokes cultural capital ("O Marlowe O Newton") against political power. At the end of this incantation, he reverses the power-relation implied by the court summons, and (tongue, admittedly, in cheek) demands the presence of the court officials at his own secret rituals and rites:
With my bicycle chain and both of my pedals
With my deer's antler and medals

Where I wait with my middle-American vowels
Where I summon you all

To the stone-age shaft where I hide & abide
With the ghosts

Of hairy Fenmen: Constable, magistrate, prefect,
Bursar, provost, torturer, cook...

I summon you all: all of you: to appear!

The action, here, is all in the punning on "summons" as both a matter of being served with a legal notice, and a matter of demonic conjuring. Matthias proposes the archaic, shamanistic form of symbolic power wielded by the poet as a negation of the court's legal power. In a sense, the poet wins, at least in the realm of symbol and language: he summons the constables and magistrates into his poem, and this is where we find them. Then again, the poet loses in the realm of law, where his form of power truly is the dominated one: Matthias assures me he dutifully went to Guildhall and paid his fine.

More from this issue

This poem originally appeared in the November 2008 issue of Poetry magazine

  • Robert Archambeau's books include Home and Variations (Salt Publishing, 2004), and Laureates and Heretics (University of Notre Dame Press, 2010). He teaches at Lake Forest College.

Prose from Poetry Magazine

Poetry, Politics, and Leanings-Left

Why poets after Eliot will never be as conservative as bankers.
  • Robert Archambeau's books include Home and Variations (Salt Publishing, 2004), and Laureates and Heretics (University of Notre Dame Press, 2010). He teaches at Lake Forest College.

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