I have been reading (w/some degree of amusement, I admit) the reports from last month’s “Rethinking Poetics” conference at Columbia University in NYC. All of the (first) name dropping and who-said-what makes it more entertaining than Rolling Stone and the E! network rolled into one. Ditto for the anti-academism coming from tenured academics (are we not supposed to notice? . . . ).
I especially liked John Keene’s fast-forward time-lapse quasi-versified précis of the whole thing – well worth reading through to the end. Frankly, it sounded like it was another (above-average) professional academic conference that went onto a lot of c.v.’s. Which is fine.
As I commented after that post, it also sounds to me like there was a lot of liberal hand-wringing going on – over the state of the world, and over poets’ inability to effect change qua poets (or qua academics). This is, of course, a very old sport, as any student of Anglophone poetry in the 1930s knows. The difference now, of course, is that there is not an over-arching, semi-numinous ideology to redeem it all – and no Uncle Joe to tell us we’re doing our part and it will all work out in the end. In fact, it’s looking less and less likely that it will all work out (has the bottom of the ocean dropped out yet?).
Those of us still clinging to (or dreaming of squeezing into) the comforts of lower-middle-class existence don’t want to do anything to jeopardize it and are overwhelmed by the magnitude of the challenges. We want to fight the Man, but we want to do so by doing things that will also advance our careers (which involve working for the Man). One can retreat into the belief that cultural change will lead to political and economic change (“it may take a very long time, of course” . . . the problem is that there isn’t a long time. Read The Iron Heel, by Jack London, to see how discomfiting this time-scale can be).
Unfortunately, social movements require leadership, leadership requires enormous amounts of time and energy, and if one is leading a movement against People with Money, they don’t pay you for it (which, in the era of neoliberalism, means you don’t get paid) – until you get coopted or sell out, which requires you to work at it long enough and successfully enough (w/o money) to have something to sell. You have to eke out a living doing something tedious and exhausting, and then, “after hours,” do your organizing work (and there actually are people who do this). This is why poets generally aren’t organizers. They spend “after hours” writing poems and arguing with one another. Academics have to grade papers, prep class, do committee work, get published, etc.; we call this "burrowing from within."
It’s no wonder social movements are often composed of mostly young people w/o kids – they have the energy, resilience, lack of other commitments, and naivite necessary to achieve goals that are far short of what they had desired.
Rebecca Wolff wrote a pretty good piece on the relation of poetry to “social change.” She ends up sounding a bit like John Crowe Ransom (“Poetry butters no parsnips and delays the eating of them,” or something to that effect), with one big difference – Ransom thinks one shouldn’t write poetry that touches on political and social issues at all – which is true of some (unlikely) poet-critics today, as well. But Wolff doesn’t care about that, one way or the other. She does care about being dictated to, especially on the authority of grandiose and unfair claims for poetry. She gets exercised where I get amused.
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