Monday, May 16, 2005

Are You an Individual or a Citizen?

I went to a reading by Robert Bly last night in Marin. It must be 25 years since I heard him read with Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder and others in San Francisco. While I want to write more about the reading later, though, at the moment I'm thinking about an interesting recent post on Josh Corey’s blog:

The real conflict between poetry partisans may not be between mainstream and post-avant but between those who see poetry as a preserve of individual spiritual autonomy and those who see it as an intervention into particular historical and political circumstances. Do you primarily address, do you primarily read as, an individual or a citizen? … My own allegiances are split and confused; I'm caught up in what I suspect is a generational project to synthesize the public and private.

That formulation of “the real conflict” makes sense to me, and maybe his formulation of “a generational project” is right too. I think I’m of a different generation, though, and don’t mind saying I see poetry “as a preserve of individual spiritual autonomy,” and even that protecting that preserve may be the most important political act one can take. But perhaps my generation is overly concerned that writing as a “citizen” tends to lead either to social(ist) realism or to the pyrotechnic ironies of Andy Warhol’s silkscreens of Mao.

Corey concludes by criticizing those who are neither “poets of experience” nor “visionary poets,” but merely “middlebrow poets with a passive relation to the structures that helped produce them.” I am a bit skeptical of that formulation, as I don’t know anyone who’d admit to being a middlebrow poet and I’m not sure what the term means other than “poets who don’t write very good poems.” To me the definition seems to reflect an excessive faith in the intellect, as if mediocre poets could bootstrap their way into excellence if only they’d undertake the tough intellectual work of adopting a more active “relation to the structures that helped produce them.” But then much of postmodernism may reflect an excessive faith in the intellect (just as “postromanticism” may reflect an excessive faith in the heart)!


David Koehn said...

Who do you prefer Elvis or the Beatles?


Robert said...

I prefer Uma Thurman but that's another story, or is it? :~)