V  P  R

Contemporary Poetry and Poetics





Today is a chilly, sunny day in April as I start these introductory remarks to Heresy and the Ideal.  The first flowers are fading already, little clumps of crocus in debris, white daffodils along the sidewalk.  The maple leaves have unfisted and are starting to shine.
    April in America is National Poetry Month.  Last week I gave a benefit reading, from my own poems, at a large chain bookstore in Columbus, Ohio.  It had seemed one of the less odious chain stores, interested in literature and culture, and I was glad to be asked to take part in the event.  When I arrived, the manager met me at the door and pointed me back to the porta-podium, which waited in a cleared area near the large coffee bar and cafe.  There were a dozen tables, mostly empty, and a few people reading newspapers or books.
    I read my poems for about forty-five minutes, and people came and went, listening with eagerness, sometimes, or with curiosity or bemusement.  Some sat and stayed, attending hard, though the cash registers whirred and doors opened and closed and conversations bubbled around us.  Sometimes they clapped, quietly, or asked questions.
    "Where are your books?" was one question, and when we looked to the manager for direction, she made a sad face.  "We don't carry David's books here," she said.  We all shared an embarrassed group laugh.  "If the national buyer doesn't pick a book for all the stores," she explained, "then we don't carry it.  None of the stores carries it.  It's all or nothing."  There were two poetry shelves in the store, with a few dozen volumes: Dickinson, Whitman, Milton; several brightly-colored books with covers depicting sea shores and sunshine; a few popular anthologies; and half-a-dozen contemporary poets, including the year's best-selling poet, Jewel, a teenage pop-music celebrity.  I imagined that offering, in that exact presentation ÷ the books like little bags of french fries in their slots ÷ at every one of the chain's stores.
    April is National Poetry Month.  It is also National Lawn and Garden Month, Alcohol Awareness Month, Fresh Florida Tomato Month ÷ I'm not making this up ÷ Holy Humor Month, Sports Eye Safety Month, and so on.  It is a shame that poetry is relegated to the status of a public-relations event.  It is a shame that any of these activities or concerns is a public-relations sales event.  But a joke, a tomato, a black eye, a poem are all equivalent commodities in the devouring market.
    The store manager's predicament was an example of the problem.  She couldn't carry my books because my books weren't likely to sell enough copies to make it worth the shelf space.  So that day no one found my books.  I was there as a good-will publicity stunt, as corporate entertainment, like the New Age guitarist tuning up in the coffee bar to play all afternoon or like the puppeteer who regularly entertains kids in the children's book and toy section.  After all, why give up space to a book of poetry, which might sell a thousand or two copies in a year across the nation, when you can stock a book that will sell many thousands, even hundreds of thousands, of copies?  Octavio Paz accurately describes this circumstance: "The literary trade today is motivated by purely economic considerations.  The value of a book, thus, is the number of people who purchase it."
    Poets operate within an economy that places little value on their works, and thus on their work.  Poetry brings no return on the monetary investment.  The major book companies are headed by people whose expertise is advertising, finance, management, and international relations, not literature, and whose motivation is sales.  Here is Paz again: "The best-seller, be it a novel or a book on current affairs, appears on the scene like a meteor: everyone rushes to buy it, but in a short time it disappears forever.  Best-sellers are not works of literature, they are merchandise.  What distinguishes a literary work from a book that is merely entertaining or informative is the fact that the latter is meant literally to be consumed by its readers, whereas the former has the ability to come back to life."  Lewis Hyde rightly avers that art functions not as an element of the consumer market but as a component within a gift economy.
    The marketplace has always been an unfriendly site for poetry.  But the contemporary academy is not very enthusiastic about the art, either.  For the past two decades the literary professorate has disengaged itself from the literary text as a whole.  I have colleagues who don't read literature anymore, although they read earnestly about theories of literature.  A poet friend recently told of a reading she gave, at a college well known for its writers and English department.  "There were two hundred students, listening and asking questions, and one member of the English department, and she was my host," said my friend, shaking her head.  The academy has never been especially nurturing to the art, but at least, at its best, it has been a critical audience.
    During the past twenty years the university has experienced a kind of explosion.  Its greatest efforts have been to widen its scope and nature, and among the central developments are these: critical attention to the rhetoric of popular culture and the mass media; a worthy embrace and guidance of growing cultural diversity; and expansive investigations (and deconstructions) of the very notions of genres, departments, and intellectual disciplines.  At its best the English department has opened for interrogation its own canonical presumptions and has produced an era of new voices, genres, and projects.  At its worst its fascination with theory ÷ and with theory's technically bland language ÷ has blinded its ability to appreciate, to evaluate, and to savor.  Issues of aesthetics have given way to issues of cultural politics, but as Paz clarifies, the project of political criticism just isn't adequately equipped to describe the full experience of a work of art: "Reading a poem in this way [deconstructing its political significance only] is like studying botany by scrutinizing a Corot or Monet landscape."  While a reasonable mind might indeed see the interrelationship of aesthetics and politics, too many contemporary scholars have hardened the discourse into an either/or dialectic.  The price is obvious and high.  In his editor's comment in a recent issue of New Literary History, Herbert F. Tucker notes that "the often politically urgent critique of historical and cultural meanings has a way of approaching literature as if it were information, of regarding a text's formal literariness as if it were a code to be broken and discarded in favor of the message it bears."
    Part of the anxiety that drives the rhetoric of the contemporary academy derives from a corporate rigor not unlike that of the chain bookstore.  The need to develop new fields, and thus new teaching and research positions, is part of the compulsion to compete in a powerfully competitive economy.  Issues of academic publishing and tenure are, as well, issues of politics and power.  One paradox is that this is all happening at a time when the American professorate senses that the worth of its opinions is being diminished, in the public eye, to the point of obsolescence.  The public seldom turns to the professor for intellectual or moral guidance; hence, the professor hardens opinion into panicked certainty, in a last-ditch attempt to influence and convert the few listening.  There is certainly nothing like negative capability in today's scholarly discourse.  The American academy is running the risk of turning into a chain bookstore, with each book in its small place, driven by a corporate bottom line and a manic appeal to the public.  Ironically, the academy's fascination with popular culture has produced a rhetoric of extreme exclusion, a language which few but the well-trained can share.
    But people no longer read poetry for the same reasons they turned to it in earlier times.  Poetry doesn't have the same audience because poetry doesn't serve the same purposes it did in the nineteenth or the fifteenth century.  The advent of rapid publishing and the growth of literacy have produced an abundance of genres, forms of writing for every need and interest.  We have short, long, sudden, flash, children's, airline, literary, erotic, minimalist, and interactive fiction.  We have many more kinds of writing to convey many more kinds of information and experience ÷ to say nothing of video, film, varieties of music, and other expressions.  But poetry has a smaller corner in the larger market, and poets strain to identify its purpose.  What is the purpose of poetry?  Who is it for?  How does it mean and continue to mean?  These questions should be central to every poet and reader of poetry.  They are also in my mind as I prepare to usher into the world a book about contemporary poetry.  Who may read this book, and why?  Where will they find it?  What do they desire to know?

    I have wanted to make a few remarks about the context for poetry in the current reality, and about the contexts for a practical criticism of poetry.  Even with the complaints I have mentioned above, poetry seems healthy, resilient, relevant, and available.  People who read poetry know where to find it ÷ mail-order and internet outlets, the flourishing (yet always imperiled) small presses, the essential literary bookstores, the poetry readings and writers' conferences all over the country, libraries and schools and cultural centers.  If most of the big book companies are abandoning the art, then small presses and some university publishers are trying to fill the void.  As a subculture, poetry seems to thrive, partly in and partly out of the academy, the marketplace, the popular media, and the collective discourse.
    In fact, some of the contemporary problems facing poetry are not merely contemporary.  They are the abiding circumstance of an art which is neither especially democratic nor municipal.  "The American public . . . does not care for, nor understand, serious poetry.  Moreover, the special audience for poetry even among those who have gone through college is incredibly small . . . nowhere else in the world is [poetry] so thoroughly exiled as in America."  So wrote Oscar Williams in the introduction to his great A Little Treasury of American Poetry, which was first published in 1948.  More than half a century later, his reasons for the predicament of poetry are still accurate: "The American emphasis upon material welfare and mechanical gadgets, the reverence for the mysteries of science, the journalistic corruption of language in popular periodicals and upon the radio, the never-lifting oppression of economic anxiety and extrovert ideals, together with much else, make the simplest kind of escape entertainment, in the reality of their day's living, not only of more attraction, but actually of more value to the majority than so demanding an exercise as the reading of serious poetry."  Only the radio dates his remarks.
    Poetry is more resilient than one might think.  Contemporary poets have confronted, even embraced, some of the problems above and turned them into the challenge of subject matter and method.  The infusion of poetry with science and technology has marked the work of A.R. Ammons and Alice Fulton.  The application of popular culture, with its linguistic and imaginative "corruption," provides Albert Goldbarth some of his most brilliant inspiration.  Philip Levine has made his art by exposing the damage of the modern production line, as Adrienne Rich has made hers from a vivid indictment of the oppressive practices of power and politics.  The Language poets, among many others, are busy adapting the form and actual presentation of poetry for the computer and the worldwide web.  And poets continue to sing, lament, think, and praise, as they have for millenia.
    If university English professors are busy theorizing about literature, many of their students seem more compelled to try to write it.  After World War II the American university embraced ÷ well, accepted ÷ the literary writer, and in turn the writer brought a wide new discipline, creative writing, into the ivied halls.  Indeed, college students are more interested in poetry and creative writing than ever before, and writing classes are plentiful, the programs rich and diverse.  Accusations that poetry has subsequently become more insular, restrictive, or complacent are simply wrong.  A college teaching position is virtually the only thing that poets as various as Susan Howe, Edward Hirsch, and June Jordan might be said to share.  Some say that poets shouldn't be in college teaching positions.  But where should they be?  Where should sculptors and literary critics and physicists be, if not teaching the young the knowledge and methods of arts and sciences?  In the writing class, students know that the literary text is a text in process.  As a most practical expression of reader-response theory, the writing workshop is a forum for negotiation and creation and flexibility, where the text is not merely an instrument used to prove or disprove a professor's political position.

   Heresy and the Ideal is a collection of many of the essays and essay-reviews which I have written and published throughout the 1990s.  It is a discussion of the work of more than fifty contemporary poets.  Herbert F. Tucker's solution to some of the issues he identified in his comment in New Literary History is part of my own impulse for assembling the present volume: "It seems time we broke up the habits of a decade and renewed our attention to the interrogation of the literary medium and, concurrently, of the critical medium of the interrogation."  I aspire Heresy and the Ideal to be a type of practical criticism, and I have taken as my guide and model some of the great critical books of the past three decades, especially Richard Howard's masterpiece, Alone with America; Helen Vendler's Part of Nature, Part of Us, The Music of What Happens, and Soul Says; as well as other works by Laurence Lieberman, Marjorie Perloff, Carol Muske, and Mary Kinzie.  Like them, each in their way, I have hoped to represent many ÷ though certainly not all ÷ of the modes and tastes and concerns of the poetry of our time and language.  I cannot imagine another period when so many fine poets were writing and publishing, nor has any other era seen such an explosive opening-up of voices ÷ of minority writers, women writers, experimental writers, spoken-word artists, performance poets, traditionalists, lyric and narrative and speculative poets, writers of every political and cultural cadre.  I can imagine fifty entirely different, yet equally engaging, poets in another book like this; that's how abundant our time is.
    By the term practical criticism, I mean a criticism devoid as possible of exclusionary jargon, a criticism that pays persistent attention to the individual poem and book of poems.  I write for readers of poetry as a kind of critical advance scout.  Louise Glück's recent poem "Nest" says it well: "in my life, I was trying to be / a witness not a theorist. // The place you begin doesn't determine / the place you end."  Just so, this is an enterprise whose biggest reward is as likely to be surprise as it is substantiation.  "We cannot be content to like poems merely at random, and to pay them the compliment of no more than a passing glance; we cannot be content to take from a great poem only what we were expecting from it, as though it were simply a confirmation of something we already knew.  The great poem has the power to enrich and extend us, to make us something more than we were before," according to C.B. Cox and A.E. Dyson in their old but useful textbook, The Practical Criticism of Poetry.
    It is also true that practical criticism can be a code for the New Criticism, where everything but absolute attention to the text is jettisoned as irrelevant or misleading.  (Of course we seem to live in a literary period when everything is included except textual engagement!)  I recall the exasperated words of one of my critic-heroes, Randall Jarrell: "Personally, I believe that it would be profitable for critics to show less concern with poets, periods, society (big-scale extensive criticism) and more concern with the poems themselves (intensive criticism)."  Certainly poems don't exist by themselves, but rather within the complex matrices of culture, and readerly attention, and social pressure, and yes, politics.  But poems do exist as poems and not as advertisements, or sermons, or planks in a candidate's platform.  So says Paz: "States fall, churches break apart or petrify, ideologies vanish ÷ but poetry remains."

© by David Baker


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