Tuesday, January 14, 2014

The Defences of Poetry part six: consequences B, some modern examples


Does any of this really matter? Who cares what some disappointed aristocrat wrote to soothe his sense of career failure or some towering egotist wrote to massage his own enormous sense of self-importance while living the high life in Italy?

Yes it does matter. We should care. To quote Pierre Bourdieu:

In an artistic field which has reached an advanced stage of its history, there is no place for naïf’s: more precisely, the history is immanent in the functioning of the field, and to meet the object demands it implies, as a producer but also as a consumer, one has to possess the whole history of the field.

There is far too much historical amnesia in the current discourse about poetry

Or to put it another way, the whole house of cards that constitutes the field of modern poetry: the way we talk about poetry, its obligatory use in schools when the majority of any population, including the people teaching it, don’t read it for pleasure, the way it is treated in University writing programs, the claims made by governing bodies, the fact we have governing bodies,  attitudes towards publication and reception,  rests on these works, and the way they have been recirculated in a sealed acoustic where the phrase “where is your evidence?” has been treated as a sign of unbearable naivety by those guilty of a much more fundamental naivety.

So before going on to Pound and Eliot 

1) The modern world; some scattered observations

In what follows I want to briefly look at some contemporary examples.  This is not meant to be exhaustive, just an illustration,  and space does not allow a detailed analysis of each example.  I’ve already mentioned a couple of posts back about the 2013 “A Poet, Cheating for money?” scandal, the bizarre things  and in previous posts about the way we talk about Poetry in the way we talk about no other art.

Examples can be easily found in any contemporary discussion or use of poetry but Paul Dawson’s Creative Writing and the New Humanities(2005),  and Terry Eagelton’s How to Read a Poem (2007)  will serve as one example.   Both take for granted Sidney’s argument about the power of Poetry. 

According to Dawson the purpose of modern creative writing courses should be to turn out “literary Intellectuals” who will be “oppositional critics”. Oppositional criticism being:  textual or cultural critique of received opinions, with the ultimate aim of affecting social change , or at least an alteration of public opinion , beyond the refinements of disciplinary knowledge (p.201).  This is an extension and variation  on the romantic ideal of the outsider artist, given its most famous poetic expression in Shelley’s Defence. The claims for Poetry as an active participant in contemporary political processes, able to affect the community at large, flounder when one tries to see how this could operate outside the seminar room or find an example.

Analysing the ideology of poems written in the past, Terry Eagleton’s preferred method (Eagleton 2007), or discussing the ideology of poems written in the work shop (Dawson)  assumes poetry has inherent power over the reader which apprentice poets need to learn to use in appropriate ways (for which read, ways approved by the resident lecturer) (Dawson) and readers need to learn how to resist (but only what and in ways approved by the resident lecturer) (Eagleton).

This is based on the equally traditional belief that poetry “delights and instructs”, an idea that goes back in English to Sidney but beyond him to Horace. Such an approach reduces poetry to a carrier of ideological viruses  and poems to content,  just as the reviewers of the late nineteenth century judged a poet for “what he [sic] said”.  

However, at no stage can either Dawson or Eagleton, or anyone else, show how studying poetry this way prepares the student to do anything other than study poetry in this way. When put blandly: Poetry is the art of using words charged to their utmost meaning. A society whose intellectual leaders  lose the skill to shape, appreciate and understand the power of language will become slaves to those who retain it-be they politicians, preachers, copywriters or news casters  (Gioia 1992) can seem  baffling in its casual arrogance.  

Who are these self-appointed “intellectual leaders”. Gioia’s title Can Poetry Matter  is a Koan like encapsulation of the problem. It assumes “Poetry” means the same thing to everyone, and that it can and should “matter” to everyone, in the same way for the same reasons.

Even when the writer seems to be distancing herself from previous claims, she can be  trapped into recycling them. In an article published in the English Guardian in 2006 Adrienne Rich began by quoting Shelley’s famous statement and then qualified what she was discussing.

I hope never to idealise poetry - it has suffered enough from that. Poetry is not a healing lotion, an emotional massage, a kind of linguistic aromatherapy. Neither is it a blueprint, nor an instruction manual, nor a billboard. There is no universal Poetry, anyway, only poetries and poetics, and the streaming, intertwining histories to which they belong.

But by the end of the article, which is only 995 words long,  she has forgotten this and is writing about “Poetry’ as if it were all the things she has just claimed it is not:

Poetry has the capacity to remind us of something we are forbidden to see. A forgotten future: a still uncreated site whose moral architecture is founded not on ownership and dispossession, the subjection of women, outcast and tribe, but on the continuous redefining of freedom - that word now held under house arrest by the rhetoric of the "free" market. This on-going future, written-off over and over, is still within view. All over the world its paths are being rediscovered and reinvented (Rich 2006).

My final brief example is from outside academic discussions. In the 21st Century, despite its miniscule share of the book market, (last year Britons apparently spent more on Pringles Chips than poetry books) despite the invisibility of poets for the majority of the population, Poetry rather than poets or poems, still has a privileged cultural position. 

In 2009 the British based poetry publisher Salt was in financial difficulties. Faced with impending bankruptcy it launched an appeal called “Save Our Salt”. [1]   Salt claimed that unless X number of books were sold in a limited time, it would be finished.  Word spread around the blogosphere, news outlets picked up the story, Salt sold its required number of books and the crisis was temporarily averted. 

At the time it seemed like a small but interesting example of the strange position poetry occupies in modern culture. It was difficult to imagine General Motors Holden for example,  during one of its regular financial crisis, appealing to the American consumer in a similar manner.  “We are going broke because you don’t want our product. Please buy the product you don’t want so we can continue to make the make the product you don’t want.”

In 2010, faced inevitably with the same problem, Salt relaunched their campaign with the following statement from Griff Rhys-Jones on the website:

Support the good work here. Don’t let Salt fall. If the recession is going to take things down, let it be motor manufacturers, let it be bad banks, let it be chains of fast food restaurants. We can lose a few of them, but we do not have enough small independent and daring publishers like Salt. I think I can be a little more forthright than Chris and say ‘Just six books’. Buy dozens why don’t? It’s a great list. And apparently you will help the economy in many subtle ways too complicated for studious folk like us.[2]

For many British communities the devastating social, economic and cultural effects of the closure of major industrial operations like ‘Motor Manufacturers’   are too familiar.  Why these might be lesser than the disappearance of  a small poetry publisher raises questions, not just about the values of “studious folks like us”,  but about their attitudes to poetry.  Referring to an idealised Poetry,  Jones cannot explain how poetry will help the economy in many subtle ways. Nor can he help but reveal the clubby sense that “bookish folk like us” feel they are rather superior to the masses who rely on motor manufacturers and fast food restaurants.

So this tracking of the defences is not “history” in the sense of something past and finished: whether or not Poets were prophets in the early stages of an unspecified culture is of academic interest in the derogatory sense of that term. Barbers were, until recently, surgeons,  but nobody goes to one today for open heart surgery.  This is a history, in Bourdieu’s terms which is immanent in the functioning of the field.  How individual writers or teachers situate themselves depends to a large extent on which versions of Poetry and Poet their craft is based on.  To use another Bourdieu quote;
This is why…it is so important if one is to have a bit of freedom from the constraints of the field, to attempt to explore the limits of the theoretical box in which one is imprisoned.
And so onwards to Pound and Eliot.



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