I was intrigued by Robert Archambeau's comments about continuity/sameness in US poetry – and have been thinking about it since July 9. His premise is that seemingly opposed “camps” often use the same lexicon to describe and discuss poetics. I’m a big fan of tracing similarities as well as differences in literary history (capitalism loves novelty loves difference masks similarity). He points to some rather suggestive similarities between the way that IA Richards and Paul Blackburn talked about poetry. The old-timey “godfather of New Criticism” (hmm . . . well, sort of) and the New American young turk are speaking the same language, as Archambeau sees it. Check out the much more articulate original.
While this comparison risks anachronism (Principles of Criticism was published in the 20s, “Statement,” in the 1950s), there is certainly more than a little truth in these observations, especially when Blackburn speaks of poetry’s power to help one “stand a better/chance of being a whole man,” juxtaposed to Richard’s desire for poetry to aid in (what would later be called) self-actualization. Both writers are interested in counter-acting instrumental rationalism (which, as children of modernism, both associate with modernity). Archabeau does us a service by linking this notion of literature-as-self-cultivation to Schiller’s – it is indeed an idea that grows out of late Enlightenment/early Romantic thought (esp. in Germany). A’s apologies for these men’s use of male pronouns is part and parcel of the formal individualist philosophy implied in their writings.
But for every similarity, there’s a difference. Richards desires a psychological “balance” within the personality; in “Science and Poetry,” he speaks of poetry’s power to act as “a League of Nations for the moral ordering of the impulses – a new order based on conciliation, not on attempted suppression.” While Blackburn has no truck with suppression, he is also suspicious of orders; he embraces, not conciliation but confrontation – hence his language about “the materialistic pig of a technological world” as the enemy. This is late Romanticism rebelling against early Romanticism – Shelley vs. Wordsworth.
Of course, both Richards and Blackburn locate poetry’s usefulness in its not being a means to an end. This may appear to some (like me) to be a bit of a contradiction. Richards wants us to see things “as they really are . . . apart from any one particular interest which they may have for us.” He is quick to concede, however, that “[o]f course without some interest, we should not see them at all, but the less any one particular interest is indispensable, the more detached our attitude becomes.” Our interest in poetry is its ability to render us disinterested – detached. This is a far cry from Blackburn’s cry for poets to “sing something from their guts.” But Blackburn also wants poets do so as a means to an end: that of “being a whole man.” Both writers thus echo Allen Tate’s claim that “poetry finds its usefulness in its perfect inutility.”
All of which might be an interesting angle on Dale Smith’s SloPo. The purpose of slow poetry is to sever poetry from any vestigial links to the market economy – and to help its devotees to move in that direction. This is, however, not a desire to destroy poetry’s use value; quite the contrary, since the point is to produce an improved quality of life.
Which brings us back to the family resemblances between all the writers from Schiller to Smith who are fundamentally anti-capitalist – whether they are Romantics or paleo-conservatives or anarchists. The enemy is really exchange value, not use value. Despite the opposition to instrumentalism, they embrace utility. However, this is not the result of some Hegelian self-identity inherent in (or emerging from) the nature of things. It is the material genealogy of an idea – an idea that should be considered within the specifics of particular moments in the history of liberal-democratic/capitalist society.
If you have read this far, you should probably just go ahead and buy my book and read it (above, at right).
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