Jeffrey Bahr writes:
"I've posted a challenge to any who would engage seriously in the attempt to -- if not reconcile, then at least identify the goals -- among the disparate views of what poetry is, should be, must do."
Tall order. Definition is power. Criticism creates the vocabulary and context for understanding & reception. With such a large abstraction ("poetry") fitted out to explain such a diverse phenomenon, the resulting contention is inevitable.
Langdon Hammer's book mentioned here yesterday presents a sort of close-sociological comparative analysis of the interrelated careers of Crane, Tate & Eliot. Hammer starts out by demystifying some of the reactionary-traditionalist rhetoric offered by some of the big Moderns, Eliot & Pound in particular. Rather than looking at them as defenders of tradition, or backward-looking medievalist-traditionalists, Hammer tries to show how they were pioneers of literature's New Class : entrepreneurs in the business of culture. He talks about how their differing attitudes toward established sources of cultural reception (Eliot's embrace of English establishment, Pound's opposite tack) influenced the amazingly contrastive outcomes of their careers (Eliot the lauded Nobel prizewinner; Pound the jailed treasonous crackpot).
He then looks at the differing responses of Hart Crane & Allen Tate to the cultural atmosphere which Eliot did so much to invent. I'm just getting into this section of the book. He contrasts Eliot's (& Stevens') ability to separate making a living from their identities & prestige as poets, with Crane's theatrically conflicted background. (I will never get over this iconic conjunction : Hart Crane, the son of successful Cleveland candy manufacturer - inventor of the Life Saver - dies a suicide-by-drowning in the Caribbean. Poets' lives often have such strange symbolic-fateful resonance. This is a real cultural-psychic phenomenon, if not an act of Providence.) Crane's path was marked, early on, for the taboo-scapegoat-genius-outsider role.
Hammer argues that Allen Tate's own conflicted response (on many levels) to Crane's example only spurred him to emulate Eliot's career path, and take it further - firmly installing (along with John Crowe Ransom & others) the presence of poet-critics in the English Departments of American academia.
The poet-critic was a new kind of professional person, who combined valuable technical knowledge of two kinds : poetry-making and scholarship. With this dual capability, such a professional could be included in the intellectual power-structure of the "New Class"; with anthologies and textbooks like Understanding Poetry, the ground was laid for the next generation's innovation : the Creative Writing Program.
So I'm just getting into Hammer's book. It's really a "close reading" of the literary biographies of these men, and the consequences for poetry and for "poetry careers" generally. I think it's a wonderful book; provides a kind of lens for viewing today's different atmosphere. Hammer in the early pages focuses on the paradoxical prestige and authority which accrued to Eliot's forms of detachment & disinterest. Because he was neither an academician nor a professional writer or journalist, his criticism augmented the sense of poetry's (and the individual poet's) independent cachet, its cultural autonomy.
In thinking about this, alongside Jeffrey's challenge mentioned above, my first vague thoughts in this direction circle around the idea that whatever poetry offers a society at large must be grounded in some kind of imaginative and intellectual empathy. Poetry has to present a fiction of its own independent momentum : that is, independent to some extent of the poet's individual background, capable of understanding and interpreting others. Yet, at the same time, poetry, if it is to fulfill its purpose, has to be a kind of end in itself : it has to be a source of pleasure for its own sake. And here the special verbal and intellectual capabilities of unique and individual poets are brought to bear. Take, for example, a fine poem in the current issue of Poetry, by Carolina Ebeid, "Reading Celan in a Subway Station". In this poem, with metaphorical sleight-of-hand, the poet fuses listening to an accordion player in the subway with the emotional atmosphere of Celan. It's a very curious magic.
So these dual imperatives - the ability to penetrate history & experience beyond the private & personal, and the ability to raise personal (poetic) expression to a highly-integrated state - seem to underly what poetry is about.
The question about the "professionalization" of creative writing - has been very controversial. When poetry becomes an institution, and part of a larger institution, and a kind of business... what is lost, what is gained? I guess there are no simple answers or single truths about this.
Spiritual truths, down through history, have shown themselves rather disruptive to social arrangements. And sometimes poets must experience life outside the circles of privilege and custom and family and economic self-interest, in order to speak with any authenticity or imaginative empathy about the conditions and lives they encounter. Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (discussed in current issue of New Yorker) is an American classic which confronts this issue head-on.