And Your Point Is?

Note: Originally posted on 2.8.2009, I've moved this back to the top because Robert Bernard Hass has been kind enough to respond in comments. I have also written a response to his comment and would love to hear the view of others, which is why I'm also going to cross-post this to the Plumbline blog. What the hell is the point of this? I didn't think much of Alexander's poem either, but I tried to sketch a few reasons I thought the piece didn't work. Jack Foley, whoever he is, has simply delivered an insult without content. Another writer at CPR (which I tend to think of as a literary organ of the rump New Formalism), makes a sronger case. Robert Bernard Hass's objections make sense, as far as they go, but I find the assumptions underlying his conclusion problematic:

Perhaps what was most troubling about this inaugural event is that one of our most celebrated poets (Ms. Alexander was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize) seemed so woefully underprepared to seize the opportunity to take poetry from the periphery of our awareness and make it more culturally relevant. With such a huge audience on hand, her inaugural moment had the potential to inspire a nation, to find, as President Obama himself has often iterated, “old ways to be new.” Unfortunately, Ms. Alexander’s poem, so devoid of the rhetorical resources poets have always relied upon to celebrate exceptional accomplishment, failed to capture the American imagination—as President Obama had done, so eloquently in his speech, only moments earlier.

An understanding of the the rhetorical situation is essential, I agree, but I suspect that no rhetoric can reconcile electoral politics with the "politics of the unconscious." (Modern) poetry can only assent provisionally to ideology. The modern poet must write from an alienated position. It occurs to me, in fact, that those poets (like me) who see modernism in terms of a fundamental break in the culture of the West are likely to see a parallel fundamental disjunction between poetry & politics. On the other hand, poets (& readers) who see Modernism as just another literary style will tend to see the relationship between politics & poetry as, if not unproblematic, then at least not fundamentally problematic.

Author: jd

Joseph Duemer is Professor of Literature Emeritus at Clarkson University in northern New York state. His most recent book of poems is Magical Thinking from Ohio State University Press. Since the mid-1990s he has spent a good deal of time in Vietnam, mostly Hanoi. He lives with his wife Carole & five terriers (four Jack Russells & one Patterdale) on the stony bank of the Raquette River in South Colton.

4 thoughts on “And Your Point Is?”

  1. Dear Joseph,

    Thank you for your thoughtful reply to my post in CPR. I understand your point that most contemporary poets write from a vantage point outside of mainstream culture. To attribute poetic isolation to Modernism (whatever that blanket term may mean), however, seems to me the very opposite of what many of the Modernists, especially those in more avant-garde circles, hoped to achieve–namely to shake poetry out of its Romantic lyric slumbers and make the art more relevant in culture.

    Your idea that the contemporary poet must write “outside” of his/her culture is the clearest sign that the legacy of Romanticism is alive and well. And while I agree that the lyric is still our most important (and primary) mode, it is certainly not the only one. If we broaden poetry to include occasional verse (commencement addresses and inaugural poems), popular songs, advertising jingles, etc. then one might suggest that a poet adopt the proper language to meet the rhetorical situation. The chief problem with Elizabeth Alexander’s poem is that she uses the language of the contemporary lyric instead of the language of epideictic praise–a rhetorical mode far more suitable for the inaugural event.

    Another problem with your comment is that I find it difficult for one ever to stand “outside” of culture. If we believe the Marxist premise that culture helps create us, it is impossible for one not to be fully saturated with the hidden power structures common to a given historical moment. Contemporary LANGUAGE poetry sets itself against lyric modes of expression in part to explode this lingering Romantic myth.

  2. Robert, thank you for this reply. You are probably right about the Modernists’ desires — at least some of them dreamed of a poetry that could enter the political discourse. Often enough, this has horrific consequences — Ezra Pound’s descent into the fascist madness — and sometimes it was merely unfortunate (because not all-consuming) — Eliot’s antisemitism. One could also look to the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe in the 20th century for examples of the poet as mouthpiece. Even so, I’m open to the possibility of such a poetry. I’m pretty familiar with modern Vietnamese poetry, for example, and there are plenty of good poems written from a highly politicized position; but then those poems emerged from a revolutionary movement that was itself outside the precincts of power.

    When you note that my insistence on the poet’s stance as an outsider is evidence of Romanticism, my first impulse is to agree. I’m not embarrassed by the association. But your Romanticism is one of “lyric slumbers” and mine is not. The lyric need not emerge from sleep. Likewise, I’ll agree that there is some ultimate sense in which the poet cannot ever get outside the forces of history; but the fiction-making powers of the imagination at least allow us to construct powerful hypotheticals. I’d say the power of the lyric mode derives from this paradox. Besides, I wasn’t really talking about being completely outside of history, just about taking an oppositional stance.

    Which leads me to your wish that Alexander had employed the “language of epideictic praise.” It would certainly have made for a better performance, but whether it would have made for better poetry, I’m not sure. I was arguing that such language is, in our time, not available to poetry, but it is a tentative argument. We agree, at least, though for different reasons, that Alexander’s language of the contemporary lyric was unsuited to the occasion. From my perspective, it was unsuited because it did not really own its paradoxical position — it was not lyric enough.

    Finally, you write: “Contemporary LANGUAGE poetry sets itself against lyric modes of expression in part to explode this lingering Romantic myth.” To which I can reply that I’m not convinced that LANGUAGE poetry has been successful either as poetry or as a critique of Romanticism. It has been wildly successful in other ways, but that’s a discussion for another day.

  3. Dear Joeseph,

    You have written a wonderful reply and I appreciate your fair-mindedness and clarity. It’s a pleasure to discuss ideas without resorting to the contentiousness I find on other blogs. Bravo.

  4. My pleasure, Robert. I hope we have other opportunities to discuss matters poetic. And if you’re of a mind, please feel free to comment over that the Plumbline blog.

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