Tuesday, January 30, 2007

How to Read a Modern Poem

In 1913, Ezra Pound advised
poets to go in fear of abstraction;
one should find the image that symbolized
the age’s usurious malefaction.

Eliot, finding Hamlet deficient,
wanted an object that could correlate
with a given emotion, an efficient
formula traditioned readers could translate.

William Carlos Williams had his version
“Say it!” he said, “no ideas but in things”:
Things like Elsie, wheelbarrows, an excursion
to the contagious hospital in spring.

Modern poems are a junk yard, a heap
of broken images, but strip the paint,
or glue the pieces, and you find the cheap,
naked, lovely, poetry of complaint.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Can Poetry Matter? Part II

Despite Gioia’s sound proposals for saving poetry from itself, his justly-famous essay nevertheless falters on a couple of points. First, he seems too conservative in imagining the audience poetry might have. He wants poetry to speak again to the “2 percent of the U.S. population” that represents our “cultural intelligentsia,” “the people who support the arts—who buy classical and jazz records; who attend foreign films, serious theatre, opera, symphony and dance; who read quality fiction and biographies; who listen to public radio and subscribe to the best journals.” Given how small poetry’s audience has become, Gioia can perhaps be forgiven his realistic hopes about the audience poetry might plausibly win back. Still, as the editor of an anthology of poems written in the 1930s by workers and organizers and published in their various union newspapers, and as a critic who reveres the public role poetry played in various political movements of the twentieth century, I would prefer not to limit poetry’s imagined audience from the outset to the “cultural intelligentsia.” It has had a more democratic audience in the past, and we shouldn’t rule out from the start it having another one again.

More serious, though, is the—to be brutally honest about it—the lame case Gioia makes for why poetry should matter. His first reason concerns the relation between poetry and language. Because poetry forces us to pay attention to language, readers of poetry may be less taken in by “intellectual leaders”—politicians, preachers, copywriters, newscasters—who seek to enslave us through their manipulations of language. Poetry can thus help to keep “the nation’s language clear and honest.”

I like that reason a lot, actually, but it is almost spoiled by the second one Gioia offers, which is that as the fate of poetry goes, so goes the fate of other forms of American high culture. In other words, if we can rescue poetry from its marginal position, we can rescue serious drama, jazz, and classical music as well. And while that sounds nice in principle, it also seems hopelessly circular. Indeed, it tells us nothing about what poetry can do for us—unlike Gioia’s lesson about poetry and language—only about what it might do for the other arts. What those other arts could do for us, though, remains unclear.

To be fair, no one is asking Gioia to also justify these other forms of American high culture; but at the same time he cannot rest half of his defense of poetry on them either. If my spouse asks me why I’m tearing up the fence in our backyard, and I answer that because otherwise the shovel wouldn’t get used, she is not likely to find my answer very persuasive.

After all, it could well be that a culture does not truly need poetry or any of these other forms of American high culture. Surely there are other, even more democratic ways, to teach people how to keep our language—and our politics—honest and clear. Nor can one necessarily appeal to our desire for beauty or aesthetics to justify poetry since people already seem to be fulfilling that desire quite nicely, and doing so through genres, modes, and forms of culture—fiction, popular music, film, sports—that have nothing to do with poetry.

So “Can Poetry Matter” is a slightly different and, indeed, easier question to ask than “Should Poetry Matter?” and, if so, “Matter for What?”

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Can Poetry Matter? Part I

“Most editors run poems and poetry reviews the way a prosperous Montana rancher might keep a few buffalo around—not to eat the endangered creatures but to display them for tradition’s sake.”

Dana Gioia, “Can Poetry Matter?” (1992)

Poetry, as we concluded last Monday, qua Auden, “makes nothing happen.” Instead, it “survives/ In the valley of its saying, where executives/ Would never want to tamper,” providing us solace in the “raw towns” of “isolation” and “busy griefs” that “we believe and die in.” If Dana Gioia is right, though, poetry is providing that solace to fewer and fewer people, surviving, if that description is still even apt, on the life support of creative writing programs and English Departments.

But let’s first pause and note the irony that Gioia, a well-known American poet and chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, was also a former corporate executive at General Foods. So whereas Auden celebrated that poetry would remain beyond the grasp of executives, for Gioia, the problem is that all too few executives can be bothered to tamper with it.

In his influential essay, “Can Poetry Matter,” which originally appeared in the April 1991 issue of the Atlantic Monthly, Gioia lamented the marginal space poetry occupied in the contemporary art and intellectual world. This was intended to be a surprising claim since poetry appeared to be anything but marginal. Indeed, from a certain perspective, it appeared to be thriving. Just under a thousand new volumes of poetry appeared every year, and anthologies and literary magazines published still more poetry. Moreover, roughly 200 graduate creative-writing programs in the United States and more than 1,000 undergraduate ones provided several thousand jobs for poets and several tens of thousands of homes for aspiring poets. What’s more, poets and aspiring poets alike were supported by grants and fellowships offered by federal, state, and local arts programs as well as by private foundations. In short, given the number of resources devoted to it, “an observer might easily conclude that we live in a golden age of American poetry.”

Not so, Gioia charges, because despite all the resources devoted to it, American poetry is “no longer part of the mainstream of artistic and intellectual life.” It has become, instead, “the specialized occupation of a relatively small and isolated group.” Indeed, Gioai elsewhere compares the poetry world to “subsidized farming,” which “grows food no one wants.”

It shouldn’t take you more than one, at most two guesses to determine who makes up that “relatively small and isolated group” poetry now feeds: other poets. “Over the past half century,” Gioia writes, “as American poetry’s specialist audience has steadily expanded, its general readership has declined.” It cannot come close to matching the audience for literary fiction, and it is rarely if ever reviewed in daily newspapers. “The New York Times,” Gioia observes, “only reflects the opinion that although there is a great deal of poetry around, none of it matters very much to readers, publishers, or advertisers—to anyone, that is, except to other poets.”

Gioia blames poetry’s retreat on a number of figures: poets, who at public readings celebrate and sing themselves (that is, read only their own work) rather than the genre of poetry as a whole; anthologists, whose editorial principles seem driven less by poetic quality than by collegial clubbiness; reviewers of poetry, who are almost always “overwhelmingly positive” and therefore neglect their role as evaluators and guides; academics, who base their decisions about employment on quantity of publications and not necessarily on quality, which floods the market with bad or only hastily-assembled poems; and finally poets themselves, who have isolated themselves from the public by taking up residency on campuses. This last, of course, is in contrast to poets from the first half of the twentieth century, who were either professionals (Wallace Stevens the insurance executive, William Carlos Williams the doctor), literary journalists (either editors or reviewers), or unemployed ne’er do wells hanging on in bohemian genteel poverty. The result, Gioia argues, was an audience made up of “artists and intellectuals, including scientists, clergymen, educators, lawyers, and, of course, writers,” a “group of nonspecialists who took poetry as seriously as fiction and drama”—exactly the audience poetry is so grossly missing today.

At the conclusion of his essay, Gioia offers a number of proposals for restoring poetry’s nonspecialist audience. They are, for the most part, unobjectionable. I especially like three: “When poets give public readings, they should spend part of every program reciting other people’s work”; “Poetry teachers, especially at the high school and undergraduate levels, should spend less time on analysis and more time on performance”; and, finally, “Poets need to write prose about poetry more often, more candidly, and more effectively.” Number three—poets writing prose about poetry—has come to pass to some degree as David Orr is writing honest, incisive, and even occasionally humorous poetry reviews for The New York Times and other journals. Not surprisingly, Gioia would point out, Orr is a lawyer, not an academic.

But as much as there is to applaud in Gioia’s diagnosis of poetry’s ills and his prescriptions for them, the doctor also has some rather strange things to say about the patient. We’ll take these up in Part II.

Friday, January 19, 2007

Which Dying Child Will Fix My Furnace? Part II

There are two reasons why I did not contribute my fair share--not to mention all that I reasonably and comfortably could--to preventing needless deaths. Neither of the reasons is in any way exculpatory, but they are worth pausing over.

One, as a good social democrat, I tend to think that fighting global poverty ought to be the domain of governments, both in organizing and distributing aid but, equally so, in levying taxes towards that end and compelling its citizens—compelling me—to give my fair share. (Or, for that matter, it need not raise more taxes at all but, rather, redirect some of the 470 billion dollars it annually spends on, say, defense towards something a bit more laudable.) But that is neither here nor there. Indeed, that the state does not play this role does not in the least absolve me of my responsibility—quite the opposite in fact. Two wrongs do not make a right.

The second reason I haven’t given my share of our household’s roughly $1300 is because, quite frankly, I am cheap. Now, let me say what I mean by cheap. At age 31, with a somewhat secure job that has a salary slightly higher than the US average, I am, now, for the first time in my life, after years of that special sort of relative poverty known as student and graduate student poverty—for the first time in my life I am able to save some money, and now that I have a taste of it, I guard every penny like a miser. I do so not out of greed, really, but because, having grown up not exactly poor, but not quite middle class either, I fear perhaps more than anything not having enough money to pay for some emergency should it befall me or my household. And my overactive, paranoid imagination has no trouble whatsoever inventing more and more costly emergencies that might befall us, from the very small, like what if our furnace stops working and we have to buy a new one, will we have enough money? To the very large, like, what if I get dreadfully sick and cannot work? How will we live?

In short, I am a pessimist, always imagining a series of never-ending worst-case scenarios for which I will need what little money I have in fact managed to save. Nor would increasing the amount of money I am able to save—say, by moving to a smaller house—likely alter my behavior or lead me to give away the surplus. I would still save whatever money I managed not to spend out of fear for what imagined or unimagined calamity lies around the next corner.

Now, one could argue that I may ultimately absolve myself of these sins if, assuming that none of these worst-case scenarios actually befall me and I keep saving money, I ultimately (after I die, say) give away all the money I managed to save. The problem with that, though, is that it does nothing in the meantime, when people continue to live in poverty and die and when, in theory at least, I could reasonably and comfortably give now what I intend to give at my death. In other words, I am still guilty of valuing my life—my furnace, my health—unconscionably more than others. I cannot imagine saying to a dying child that while I would like to help, they—or, not necessarily them but some other dying child in the future—will have to wait for me to die first before I will lend them a hand. In other words, I cannot imagine that they will care very much about my broken furnace--not to mention the mere possibility of my broken furnace.

I am, then, by any definition, acting callously, indecently, and wrongly by letting children drown all around me for no good reason. Still, it is worth trying to understand why I—and perhaps others—do not do what we should do given our beliefs. Singer would do well, too, to devote more thought than he does to why people do not give what he thinks they ought to. It is not always a result of consumption, the effect of our frivolous desire for new shoes, even though imagining that that is the final reason for our inhumanity helps to make us seem all the more inhumane. Rather, we may withhold our giving not because of our desire for new shoes but out of fears of being left shoeless ourselves. If so, then we might need to change the terms of our argument in order to persuade everyone to give what they should. It might also help if we felt like we lived in a society that would take care of each other if an emergency did arise, but our safety net has so many tears in it right now that it leaves us obsessed with keeping our balance on the trapeze above.

But the final moral of the story, I suppose, is that having saved a little bit of money this past year, and having worked through the insufficient reasons for why I did not give, I am resolved to contribute at least my fair shair this coming year. Perhaps more if I think I can coax another year out of our furnace.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Which Dying Child Will Fix My Furnace? Part I

“In an article I wrote more than three decades ago, at the time of the humanitarian emergency in what is now Bangladesh, I used the example of walking by a shallow pond and seeing a small child who has fallen in and appears to be in danger of drowning. Even though we did nothing to cause the child to fall into the pond, almost everyone agrees that if we can save the child at a minimum inconvenience or trouble to ourselves, we ought to do so. Anything else would be callous, indecent, and, in a word, wrong. The fact that in rescuing the child we may, for example, ruin a new pair of shoes is not a good reason for allowing the child to drown. Similarly, if for the cost of a pair of shoes we can contribute to a health program in a developing country that stands a good chance of saving the life of a child, we ought to do so”

Peter Singer, “What Should a Billionaire Give—and What Should You?” (2006)

The passage above comes from a recent article by the Princeton philosopher Peter Singer, which appeared in The New York Times Sunday Magazine over the holidays. In it, Singer argues that if we in fact believe what we profess to believe—that is, that all human beings have an inherent dignity and that no single human life is any more valuable than another—than we ought to be doing a lot more to eradicate global poverty and disease than we currently do. According to Unicef, for example, “more than 10 million children die every year—about 30,000 per day—from avoidable, poverty-related causes.” Yet, as Singer notes, “the amount of foreign development aid given by the U.S. government is, at 22 cents for every $100 the nation earns, about the same, as a percentage of gross national income, as Portugal gives and about half that of the U.K.” In other words, the citizens of the United States are watching a lot of children drown as they make their way to the mall to buy a new pair of shoes. These deaths, after all, are avoidable: it is within our capacity, assuming the will, to prevent them. That we do not, then, makes us—and our new shoes—in some sense responsible for their deaths.

The remainder of Singer’s article is given over to determining how much one should give in order to satisfy the basic ethical principles that we purport to live by. There are two sides to the debate. Either one should give their fair share, or one ought to give as much as they reasonably and comfortably can regardless of their fair share since, of course, not everyone will give their fair share and, thus, children will continue to needlessly drown. Singer favors the second position, and calculates, for each income bracket, the amount he believes households can and should give.

The top 0.01 percent of U.S. taxpayers, for example, all 14,400 of them, earn on average $12,775,000 per year and together $184 billion per year. Singer argues that it “seems reasonable to suppose that they could, without much hardship, give away a third of their annual income, an average of 4.3 million each, for a total of 61 billion. That would still leave them with an annual income of at least 3.3 million.” Moreover, that 61 billion would more than cover the 48 billion that Jeffrey Sachs has calculated the UN would need to make good on its Millenium Development Goals, which include reducing by half the number of the world’s people who live in extreme poverty, ensuring that children everywhere take a full course of primary schooling, reducing by two-thirds the mortality rate among children under 5, and a host of other unarguably laudable goals.

But that 61 billion comes from just the very rich. Singer also calculates what the top 0.1 percent, the top .05 percent, the top 1 percent, and the top 10 percent of U.S. income earners could comfortably give. The income bracket that my household belongs to, for example, the top 10 percent (who earn at least $92,000 annually, with an average $132,000), could, if it gave 10 percent of its income ($13,200 per household), contribute 171 billion dollars to the cause. And if those households were to give only their fair share—that is, their share of the 48 billion dollars that would be needed to meet the UN Millenium Development Goals—those households should, by my quick and dirty calculations, be giving roughly $1300 per year.

But here is the problem. Our household gives nothing. Not a penny. And being reminded of this, as Singer surely intends, is disconcerting. Indeed, for someone who purports to care very deeply about national and global poverty, I do comparatively little about it. I started and direct a free college-accredited course for low-income people in our community, but the students who enroll in that course, while relatively poor, are not absolutely poor in the way that someone living on less than $1 per day or whose children die from diarrhea before age 5 is poor. I think and write and teach about poverty, but, as the saying goes—and seems especially apt here—I don’t put my money where my mouth is.

Why not? And why should I nevertheless? We'll see in Part II.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Shelley and the Stasi

"'The unacknowledged legislators of the world'" describes the secret police, not the poets."

W.H. Auden, "Writing" from The Dyer's Hand (1962)

"The unacknowledged legislators of the world" is, of course, the early-19th century British poet Percy Bysshe Shelley's concluding sentence from his A Defense of Poetry (1820). In full, it reads like this: "Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world."

Auden, however, would have none of it, and in the passage I've quoted above, he joined an august list of 20th century poets and critics--T.S. Eliot, F.R. Leavis, John Crowe Ransom, and Allen Tate, among others--who delighted in letting the air out of Shelley's transcendent tires. And Auden is certainly right. Compared to the Stasi, then as now, poets have relatively little influence over people's or a nations' behavior.

But I'm struck by certain ironies in Auden's undoubtedly clever reworking of Shelley.

One, because of his anti-clerical writings, Shelley himself was "kept under watch by the civil authorities" in England and Ireland--that is, by the secret police of his day. Did Shelley believe the civil authorities kept an eye on him because they read too much of his poetry--or because they hadn't read enough?

Two, I'm reminded of
what the British critic Raymond Williams made of Shelley's Defense. In Culture & Society (1958), he gives this reading of the concluding lines:

"The last pages of Shelley's Defense of Poetry are painful to read. The bearers of a high imaginative skill become suddenly the 'legislators', at the very moment when they are being forced into practical exile; their description as 'unacknowledged', which, on the theory, ought only to be a fact to be accepted, carries with it also the felt helplessness of a generation."

As usual, Williams is on the mark. Under the pressure of irrelevance, Shelley overplayed his hand. What's surprising is that anyone ever believed him. Maybe if Shelley had said the poets are the unacknowledged legislators of readers of poetry, he would have been on firmer ground, but even that may have involved a little wobbling.

Finally, alert readers will recognize Auden's aphorism as a variation on an earlier theme.
Of the late-19th, early 20th century Irish poet W.B. Yeats's failure to shape Irish politics to his liking, Auden famously observed in "In Memory of W.B. Yeats" that "poetry makes nothing happen." For not making anything happen, though, Auden sure as hell wrote a lot of poetry. His Collected Poems runs to 960 pages. In other words, poetry at least made Auden happen.

But to be fair to Auden, he did not say poetry did nothing.
"For poetry makes nothing happen," Auden wrote, and then went on: "It survives/ In the valley of its saying, where executives/ Would never want to tamper; it flows south/ From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs/ Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives/ A way of happening; a mouth."