Like a lot of poets, I become ill at ease when I start to read too far out of my specialty: within my interests, I mean, but out of the range of ideas and ways of seeing I feel any control over, or expertise in. The grass in my brain gets tall around epistemology, weird science, and radical politics.
Toward definition… Poets are individuals in search of an audience of other individuals whom they give a collective experience, one that strikes the hearer as “a remembrance of his own” but paradoxically unites him (for even a moth-beat of attention) with the other dreamers or feelers around him.
The assumption, even on the part of poets of a revolutionary or deranging temperament, is that such an experience matters. Nicanor Parra, Alice Notley, George Oppen: they want listeners because they want to scoop them up, unite them, rattle them, and leave them changed. The poem “takes you and shakes you,” Barbara Guest wrote, distilling for the poet and reader an encounter of frightening intensity.
Toward worry… I felt myself wandering into unmown intellectual territory this week reading Walter Benn Michaels in the newest issue of The Baffler. Michaels asks: why do Americans love to read memoir and historical fiction? We’re drawn–it’s almost too obvious to state–to stories of self-creation, social mobility, and strong moral boundaries. The site of conflict might be slavery, Manifest Destiny, or Nazism (which side are you on, reader?), or it might be in an individual abandoning a dreary or confining life for something better, overseas or in a dashing new career. In both cases, the reader is granted the privilege of watching a cleanly-delineated conflict, whose mobile individual center makes her way in a world of opportunity.
What we don’t read about is class, or institutional power. Poetry is the same: individual epiphany is closer to American lyric habit than dislocation, Classical fatedness, or power. “[W]e might understand our attachment to our psychological complexity and moral autonomy as itself a kind of ideological commitment,” Michaels writes, “our way of imagining our world as nothing but individuals and families, markets and identities.” We’re Eat Pray Love readers now, not C readers.
Even the sites of resistance to class or institutional inequality might carry a poet outside of her comfort zone.
In his 1971 debate with Noam Chomsky, Michel Foucault inveighed against Chomsky’s justification of revolutionary action by ideal or better justice. Western definitions of justice, Foucault argues, are socially determined, normalizing and bourgeois: the oppressed fight back not in the name of justice, but in the name of taking power. “One makes war to win,” he says, “not because it is just.” The loftiest goal he grants a revolutionary is her ultimate one, “the suppression of the power of class in general.” But between then and now is the possibility of terrible violence. Good lord: does a poet, sensitive soul, believe this, or in believing abide it?
Likewise, Michaels’s thesis–that Americans reject fatalism, and so would rather not know about systems of money and power–is creepy to me as a writer. I’ve always seen myself as an artist creating from individual insight, idealism, self-discovery, and resistance for other individuals. Is my notion of the individual agent a careless narrowing of attention, a taught trick?
Is it possible to make art of individual dignity that specifically won’t trivialize inequality, art that creates collective experience without dismissing political or philosophical self-education? I’ve felt the plausible yes here and there: in the novelistic sweep and Aeschylan anti-Romantic fatedness of the Baltimore crime saga The Wire; in Alice Notley’s violent, mercurial reworking of the hero’s journey The Descent of Alette; even in (lately) the hard-boiled anarchic Parker novels of Richard Stark.
These above concerns suggest not a litmus test for makers, but a sensibility for readers, a body of inquiries that enrich the experience of certain works of art (who made it and where, in which matrix, for who) as well as kicking aside others. The collective experience that poetry invites may be, in its own little way, a location of resistance (anything I write sounds more plausible with Omar above it) to a world that would have its citizen-consumers declare moral battles won then browse their 3G alone for buyable better lives. I hope it’s true; maybe we’ll be the less deceived for it.