Friday, January 05, 2007


Weird set-piece battle over at Poetry on the Grand Question: “Does Poetry Have A Social Function?” The four participants are all sharp & sling words good enough, but the forum itself, like so much Poetry touches, seems vague in purpose and ill-conceived to me. The positions staked out are all ones you’ve heard before: it’s basically “School of Quietude vs. Post-Avant” 101, with the more independent-minded moderates representing each wing. (Ron’s distinction is so annoying because so often it works.)

It’s hard to see what Poetry wants to accomplish with a feature like this. Either they’re trying to look ecumenical (& grooming the ‘Lilly millions’ voices who’ll get to speak for each side) or they’re hoping to make poetry look relevant by giving it a little Bill O’Reilly-style sizzle. Either way, the exercise feels artificial and teacherly to me. No diss meant to the participants, whose positions are considered and deeply felt; it’s just that in watching the discourse of contemporary US poetry move through the quartet with greater or lesser intensity, it struck me how little reason these poets have to talk to one another at all. Nothing personal, it’s structural: the interlocking networks of publishing houses, grants, teaching opportunities, awards, websites, blogs, and review outlets a poet needs to get work out into the world in 2006 (oops, 2007) are so thick & multifarious now that poets at its extremes never need to meet.

Sure, there’s a lot of voluntary interchange, even poaching, in the warm middle, and you could argue that as interest in poetry—& reading in general—shrinks, the field is making like the mainline Protestant denominations and going ecumenical: the Academy of American Poets recruits from the Grand Piano. But I think the more striking development in recent years is how little reason poets of different stripes have to confront or even acknowledge one another to have a fulfilling life (career?) in the art. Being a Yale Younger Poet doesn’t automatically cut any more ice in some not insignificant circles—in fact, considerably less—than having a first collection from Edge or O Books. What the Language poets helped to do, with all the obduracy and rancor they’re sometimes remembered for, is create an alternate poetry world that’s been grafted onto the ‘real’ one. (Parallel examples could be drawn from a lot of other poetries and scenes.) ‘Uptown’ and ‘Downtown’, as more and more poets seem to realize, are two dense, self-sufficient neighborhoods on the same shrinking island, where the commuting’s become purely voluntary.

I’ve been reading Yeats’s The Trembling of the Veil, where he remembers the effort it took to weld the young pre-Raphaelite Turks like himself to the Fenian greybeards of the 1840s generation in order to create The Irish Literary Society. It was rough work, of the ugly committee-and-minutes kind, but tied as it was to the larger cause of Irish independence, Yeats & his colleagues felt it was worth the fight. I can’t see the larger political (let alone poetic) reason that would require the ‘School of Quietude’ and the ‘post-avant’ to come together like that right now, in any of their permutations. The Irish needed to show they had a world-class literature to strengthen the case for self-rule: how’s that for Social Function? On what pressing political grounds today, in the US, do we need poets from across the spectrum to work together—or even convene on a website—at all?

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