Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Puzzling over value #6a Pierre Bourdieu and why it isn't going to happen again.

I think Bourdieu’s model which I quoted from in my previous post is useful in that it explains how the field of cultural production that is poetry worked, and then, in failing to account for how it works now, shows the problems facing a young poet today.

Point one: for Bourdieu the work or art is simply that which is labeled a work of art by those with the power to do so. Think of it as who gets hung in the gallery. “Poetry is a verdict, not an occupation” said Mr. Cohen. It is inevitably someone else’s verdict, if you’re trying to get published and it is always retrospective to the act of writing.  It follows from this that you cannot 'confer legitimacy' on yourself. You may decide that whatever you write is poetry, you can call yourself a poet, you can self publish to your heart's content, but it does not, in Bourdieu's terms, confer legitimacy. 

Point two: Who gets to be called a poet, what gets to be called a poem and published and talked about, is the result of what Bourdieu sees as the struggle for legitimacy that characterizes the history, in fact drives the history, of any field of cultural production.
In Bourdieu’s model there are three groups who offer legitimacy to the producer:
1)  The small group of fellow producers whose opinion you value. 
2)The people who make taste: the publishers, critics, reviewers, academics etc 
3)The consumers who buy the product, perhaps ignoring 1 and 2.

When Pound went to London in 1908 he went because; ‘His eye was on the London where the most poetry and the best poetry was published and where live poets might be met. It was there he hoped to find a publisher and to find Yeats. It was, he then believed, the only right place in which to practice poetry’ (Moody, p71).  With Swinburne, Tennyson and Browning dead, Yeats was the acknowledged ‘King of the Cats” though there were people saying he was finished. In a letter to T.S Eliot’s father, Pound wrote that London was the place to be because:
..Again, if a man is doing the fine thing and the rare thing, London is the only possible place for him to exist. Only here is there a disciplinary body of fine taste, of powerful writers who ‘keep the editors under’, who make it imperative that a publisher act in accordance, occasionally, with some dictates other than commercialism. (EP to Henry Ware Eliot sr. Qtd in Meynard p98)
Pound was openly contemptuous of 2 and 3 above, while being very good, in his London years, at dominating and exploiting the possibilities for the making of taste. (In reality Pound, like Joyce, and perhaps unlike Eliot, trusted his own judgment and didn’t care what anyone else thought. If they didn’t agree with his opinions, or his own evaluation of his work, that was their failure.)

It is obvious that the Field was then coherent enough for Pound to create a space for his own version of what poetry should be by attacking the version of poetry that was dominant at the time. In so doing he created a version of the ‘professional poet’ and a readership, if not necessarily for his own work, then certainly to help Eliot create one for himself.  

A hundred years later, give or take, and the field that is poetry has shrunk dramatically. It is difficult to imagine a poet doing what Dan Brown does, publishing writing that is critically damned, and selling hundreds and thousands of copies. The third form of legitimization for the poet is rare (there are exceptions). In some corners of the field the idea of popularity and sales (even by the pitiful figures that pass for popular in poetry) are seen as evidence that the poetry isn’t quite right and the fact only five people pretend to understand and admire your radical avant-garde poetry is proof positive of how good it is. Not being understood has become a mark of distinction.

Secondly, the field itself is no longer coherent but fractured and scattered.  In 1908, Pound was 23. Imagine a 23 year old today with his ambition who survives the “don’t be so pretentious” brigade. There is no geographical place which is the centre of poetry in English, (there are places which might claim to be); nor is there a clear ‘King of the Cats’ (there are candidates but the dominance of Tennyson and Browning over the 19th century has not been repeated); and there are so many competing versions of what a poem is that even if our 23 year old wrote the best poem of the 21st century tomorrow, it is unlikely that there could be agreement about its quality or significance across those contending versions. 

When Eliot published The Waste Land people knew the boat was being rocked.  It’s never going to happen again. 

That’s one of the problems with B’s model. It doesn’t describe what happens now. (There are other strengths and weaknesses when you apply it to poetry but this is not the place for a discussion thereof).

What I see as the crucial difference between then and now is that for Bourdieu the field is characterized by the struggle for legitimacy. He doesn't say this but it makes sense in terms of the history of poetry in English: Chaucer’s southern courtly style against the alliterative; Spencer and Sidney having to prove that poetry was possible in English; Coleridge and Wordsworth rebelling against what they saw was an over-ornate artificial diction and imagery; Pound and Eliot against a degraded 19th century stodge. 

However, for Bourdieu, Legitimacy was never automatically conferred.

It is now.

You sign up at the university at 18 or 19, and you progress through the academic hoops, and when you exit with your PhD in Creative Writing you can be employed putting other people through the hoops. You get published because you’ve learnt how to write a poem and you have contacts. You know the other people running courses: they know you. You review them and write intros for their books; they scratch your back in return. You probably even edit an online journal choosing who gets published.


It’s the crucial difference because it confuses education: (you’ve hopefully learnt about poems and writing them and can now go away and try and write something a stranger might enjoy reading. If you work hard at it and you’re lucky you might produce some good pieces: you may not), with legitimization: (you’ve got an MA, MFA or PhD therefore you are a Poet and therefore what you write is Poetry and since your job relies on publication better keep it coming).  

Which explains why there is so much poetry and so much of it is solid but uninteresting. The situation now is very similar to what faced Pound. There's a lot of poetry being published. But our 23 year old rebel today, burning with Pound's conviction that good poetry is an art worth fighting for, has no where to strike.  

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