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Winter 2011

The Public Responsibilities of Known American Poets

Eugene Schlanger

Recently, Forbes magazine attempted to measure the effect of Ruth Lilly’s $185 million bequest to the Poetry Foundation. That foundation, which publishes Poetry magazine, claims that it reached 19 million new poetry readers last year. John Barr, its president, a poet and a former investment banker, suggested this was positive evidence of the growth of the public’s awareness and reception of this art form. Quantitatively, the market for poetry may have increased. Qualitatively, the results are far less clear.

In 1943 T. S. Eliot addressed the British-Norwegian Institute and attempted to measure the social function of poetry. He asked whether a poem could serve a public purpose. In addition to the pleasure of reading, can a poem expand the public’s awareness of non-literary issues, such as those in the social, political, economic, or religious arenas? Noting his inability to read Norwegian, Eliot said that if hypothetically no new Norwegian poetry were ever to be written again, he still understood that was a global loss because it would affect the ability of all people to express themselves. In other words, although civilizations and nations differ, poetic language has a universal purpose.

Against these differing backgrounds—monetized and anthropological—one may inquire about the current state and purpose of contemporary American poetry, not from the point of view of the poetry establishment but from the perspective of the general public. This question may be even more relevant in our age of constant communications when an astute observation or an expression of heightened awareness can circumvent all boundaries and be republished instantly. One might expect well-crafted words to have more of an effect and function in these circumstances. One might also expect American poetry to have more of a general audience.

Much has been said about the incestuousness of the poetry business: colleagues honoring colleagues so each in turn can garner the accolades that precede additional awards and positions. One honored poetry editor at a national magazine only solicits poems for publication from his friends. Perhaps success in all professions is as much a factor of contacts as skill and intelligence. But if poetry has a greater purpose because ostensibly it is capable of directly advancing a collective social good, one must commiserate with those sincere poets who are excluded from these inner circles. Under these conditions one hopes that their love of their art will sufficiently inspire them despite their long treks towards probable nothingness.

If poetry has a national purpose, and if it is capable of bridging different languages and cultures, the few successful modern practitioners (and their supporters) may be failing the general American public in addition to neglecting their lesser-known colleagues. The word “few” to describe this successful group is purposeful, based not upon its quantity but upon its social quality. One constantly reads and hears the same handful of important names, as if the current generation of critics and commentators must say something meaningful about their own American poets in order to have something to say about themselves. But for the poet and critic William Logan, I have often wondered whether anyone else writing about poetry these days has the courage to suggest that not much that is memorable, meaningful or musical has been written by an American poet in decades.

How odd it must seem to write about the potential good of poetry in an age when the known poets cannot attract an audience or attention. Is contemporary poetry so contemptible, so unmusical, so poorly written, or so obscure that no one now associates poetry with current events? Alice Quinn’s valiant efforts as poetry editor of The New Yorker to publish poems in response to the September 11 attacks and the prominent placement of her efforts near the back cover of that literate magazine had a negligible effect on the public’s attention to this central event of recent history. Todd Beamer’s famous two words, “Let’s roll,” may be more meaningful and real. Viciously, some have suggested that America’s poets laureate create nothing new after their appointments and instead only wallow in their own past successful formulas. Regrettably, that success excludes the future common reader. Did the polite praise of Elizabeth Alexander’s inauguration poem have more to do with the hope associated with President Obama’s election than her artistry or the need to hear a compelling poem?

Despite the current economic malaise Americans still consider themselves fortunate. Why then are our known poets so unreliant? So incapable of an important performance in our vibrant language? Do American poets deserve their little recognition? Worse, are they literally failing the diverse citizens of this nation in every occupation and at every level of success and education? Any measure of American cultural achievement for the last few decades could easily award the highest honors to Hollywood: the film industry has consistently, decade after decade, delivered creative and entertaining movies. I challenge anyone to name a poem of similar consequence or to recite a phrase from a recent American poem that has entered the national consciousness. Worse, for poets and their promoters, journalists now appear the most capable of clever writing and of the pursuit of social truths, despite their demanding deadlines.

I fault the detached university and academy writing programs, their self-absorbed professors and instructors, the reviewers and promoters of the insular magazines, and most of all the small number of known public poets for the suspicious absence of poetry from this live culture in these exciting states. Lyrics and tweets permeate the air, but the poets seem incapable of composing poems about issues of social consequence or, worse, they appear to be unaware of what most concerns the American public. This is a terrible pity. Even those who do not read or write still respond to adept artistic expressions of a communal feeling or thought. Communication is the base of all things American. Historically, words define us culturally and politically. “We, the People. . . .”

In light of the stultifying narcissism of the poetry establishment, will some young poet in Clinton, Iowa or Columbus, Georgia come to purposely write not about themselves or personal desires, but about this Congress, abortion, immigration, God or godlessness, our soldiers, or any of the other political and moral issues that permeate this nation’s consciousness at this vivid time and place? And remember, young poet, to read more history than you write poetry. You may also effectively ignore mostly all of the poetry published and praised in the last few decades. Ultimately, responsible new American poets will emerge whose poems (whether good or great) should reunite our language and purpose.  

Eugene Schlanger, the Wall Street Poet, is the author of September 11 Wall Street Sonnets (Paris: Éditions Underbahn, 2006). He also practices law on Wall Street.

Posted: March 6, 2011 in Essays.

A “conservative character [is] suspicious of doctrinaire alteration, respectful toward history, preferring variety over uniformity, acknowledging a moral order composed of human persons, not of mere political and economic atoms subservient to the state.”

Russell Kirk, A Program for Conservatives, 1954

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