Wednesday, February 11, 2009

The Herd Mentality Prevails in the Windy City

Having read Eliot Weinberger's 1983 essay, "The Bomb," in his classic Works on Paper, published on New Directions, I started immediately looking online for more. There is an article in Bomb Magazine, a conversation between Weinberger and poet Forrest Gander on why "they are confounded by the astounding absence of the role of poet as a public cautionary figure."

The essay "The Bomb" is a must, especially with these next few days seemingly everywhere devoted--from Facebook, to blogs, to poets' invitational emails--to the AWP Conference in Chicago. As early as 1983 Weinberger is pointing out the poet's "recently acquired status as a wage-earner" and its necessary complications involving literature in the affairs of the state (i.e., university chairs, federal grants, and the like).

Amiri Baraka, who took part in the (now-largely forgotten, I think) May 26, 1982 "Poets Against the End of the World" reading at NYC's Town Hall, thought that the long shadow of The Bomb would lead to "dynamic, socially relevant poetry" which, to Weinberger at that time, remained to be seen. Naturally, this hasn't come to pass, at least in the large-scale poetry "movements" of contemporary America, aside from small pockets here and there.

Political thought in poetry, aside perhaps from Marvin Bell's Mars Being Red, is largely absent. After the Town Hall reading, Poetry East quoted Maxine Kumin as saying "Poetry is too fragile an art for polemic" and this attitude has remained indelibly marked on the contemporary consciousness. But why?

Weinberger draws a distinction in the identity of the poet: that they are not only poets, but also citizens (a thought Socrates would have appreciated) and, as far as writers go, capable of writing something other than poetry. Like essays, for example. Whether they recognize this is something else entirely. One would be hard pressed to find political poets of the caliber of Neruda today (forgiving him, and others, for their misguided rhetoric, all things considered) though you could find Vallejo's at a discount in any online publiction, wearing a political sensibility on their sleeves, perhaps, but certainly not a solid stance.

Poetry, for all its pretensions to "gnosis," is rather a series of "communities of like souls in remote mountain fastnesses" and "communities addicted to whimsey, nostalgia, preciosity" according to Weinberger. It's hard not to quote at length from this essay of this contemporary poetic "longing for Dada or Surrealism" that results in most of the poetry published in the online journals from the aesthetic left consisting largely of "a talking in tongues" where "fleeting insights are netted and pinned to the page." But if today's poets were living, let alone understanding, a true gnosis they would realize the impact of Herakleitos: "You cannot hide from that which will not go away."

So what will not go away? Human suffering, war, poverty. The hysteria of anticommunism of Weinberger's time has been replaced by the hysteria of anti-terrorism, but where are the answers from our poets? As Weinberger suggests, (and correctly, particularly if one reads the plethora of "bios" on poets) today's American poets are entirely dependent on the military state. How many are feeding the university system, both with their tuition and their energy, whether as students or teachers? Poets have become, essentially, "wards of the state."

And this weekend they are gathering in droves to congratulate themselves in Chicago. To sell their books, to give their readings, to meet and shake hands and to drink, as one poet put it, "over-priced drinks." Like an island in the midst of a public that one poet once claimed to me "had no taste."

As Weinberger notes in a footnote, "a magnificent half-century of American poetry ended when the poets allowed themselves to be organized and controlled by the two traditional enemies of poetry: the university and the state."

(all quotes from Eliot Weinberger's Works on Paper, published by New Directions Press in 1986; photo credit: Nina Subin)


Jill said...

While I agree that contemporary poetry and American literature in general is lacking the kind of political conviction our country would surely benefit from these days, I don't think writers should be held in contempt for trying to make a living. Yes, academia is often a convoluted and corrupt labyrinth of red tape and tenure tracks, but it's a valid way for writers to be able to support their writing.

Perhaps AWP is in some measure a way for successful writers to "congratulate" themselves (and certainly to drink, over-priced or otherwise), but if writers don't meet as a community to celebrate literature and support each other, who else will?

Sean said...

I'm glad for the comments. My meditations, of late, have been based on a number of readings, poetry specific, into the kind of "political poetry" I'm thinking of: Pablo Neruda, Czeslaw Milosz, Mahmoud Darwish, even Kenneth Rexroth (of which Weinberger has an excellent essay, also from his book "Words on Paper").

Writers making a living: well, what is a living? I immediately consider Eliot the banker, Stevens the insurance vice-president, Williams the doctor, all the usual suspects. I've come to suspect, in my own writing, as in others, that a narrowing of the field of vision and experience leads inevitably to a narrowing in the field of literature, i.e. "what I have to say" (for this, one of the readings in the February 09 Harper's, a meditation on fiction by Colson Whitehead, is invaluable, and dead-on). As Whitehead, says, in effect: today's writing sounds like someone who spends all of their time in the writing room rather than getting out in the street to see how real people live.

So, teaching is a VALID way of making the rent, surely. But what kind of a national literature do we get if EVERYONE is doing it? I am a high school teacher, myself; an utterly different approach to education than college, of course. This opens up another can of worms: I've known college teachers here in Portland who are teaching literature using nothing but new/contemporary work, even graphic novels. For literature! I asked one undergraduate student why her teacher was doing this, in her thought, and she replied that he told the class they don't read the Classics because "people don't write like that anymore."

Aye. Nor, unfortunately, do people THINK like that anymore. So an entire generation is leaving college without seeing the contributions of Montaigne? Of Wordsworth? Of Dante, Cervantes, and the other--God forbid--"dead white guys"?

So who else will celebrate literature? This is a street-level question. From the microcosmos of Portland, Oregon, I see all too well that there are plenty of people who love and support poetry who are not poets themselves, or are, say, casual and amateur writers. There is an audience for poetry, but one that seems to be at once alienated by a class of contemporary poets who can find it in themselves to say "the public has no taste." It's no surprise that the poets who say this are "highly-educated." (And this is why it's so important to read Montaigne, or even better, Plato's Dialogues, in which Socrates dismantles this kind of blind arrogance for all to see--but is this still taught?).

Naturally, I disagree with this presumption about "the public," as rather than isolate myself within a select culture orbiting the university system (which has a gravity all its own, I am assured) where success is measured by one's publications/awards/tenured-positions, I'd rather be at the public's level where success is rather measured by how moved the listener/reader is by the poems laid before them.

An example: the Washington State Poet Laureate, Sam Green, at a recent reading nearby read a poem written by a high school student that was so excellently written (I mean extraordinary), and so moving that it brought tears to the eyes of the listeners and sent a palpable wave through the room. That is poetry. And without a sense of reaching out (poetry is communication, says Rexroth) that poetry will never be felt, or made real, or realized.

Williams believed in life over art. Honesty over artifice. Let's encourage that in our students instead.