Reginald Shepherd, in his post of July 8, relays some interesting commentary by Anne Lauterbach on the dynamics of the American poetry scene, as influenced by academic-theoretical agendas and the pressure of group-identification. Included is a passage from Gertrude Stein, which Lauterbach herself quotes, in which Stein explains the rarity and lastingness of great classics as due to the fact that "they exist because they come to be as something that is an end in itself and in that respect is opposed to the business of living which is relation and necessity".
I think this nod to "classics" suggests a direction which might lead away from some of the problems Lauterbach criticizes, though I think Stein oversimplifies and gets it only partly right.
It seems to me a "classic" is a work of art which somehow (miraculously) absorbs and lifts up all the very real and specific "necessities" of a particular time & place - lifting them, without simplifying or minimizing or denying them, into that art-realm which is indeed an end in itself.
And this idea of "classic" suggests a way to think about tradition as a measure of value in poetry. If we remember just how substantially our history and culture are founded on and structured by texts and utterances, we might discover how contemporary poetry-making could find sanction and value in relation to those more general, pervasive and public texts. I'm talking about, for example, the Bible, the classic texts of ancient philosophy and history and poetry, the Constitution, the great speeches in our language, Shakespeare and the dramatic tradition which evolved out of the medieval mystery plays, the classic English & American 19th- and 20th-cent. poets, etc...
And one cannot acquire a basic knowledge of at least some of these writings, without discovering an element of public rhetoric in the modes, styles and forms of poetry. The work of Auden, Frost, Lowell, Brodsky, among others, reveals an awareness of the public, declamatory possibilities of poetry, which is a consequence of such basic cultural literacy.
If the roots of our culture and history are in historic public utterances and texts, then our poetry should be able to find the mode or level of address which achieves some kind of fitting or seamless relation with that general culture.
But if you survey the contemporary scene, you'll quickly see how strange and anomalous this sounds. Think of all the assumptions and attitudes which are the building blocks of the academic poetry industry or the literary subcultures. Here's just a sample :
1. the poet is a rebel, an original tradition unto him/herself, an autonomous individual speaking as an autonomous individual before & above all else.
2. the poet gives voice to the identities & identifications of her/his subcultural affiliations - which are in resolute opposition to the "mainstream" or the "dominant" or the "hegemonic" society.
3. poetry is an act of pure rebellious play which exhibits no affiliations or points of contact with "bourgeois" culture and its determinations; it is opposed to "journalism", "discourse", and other forms of cultural illusion and false consciousness.
4. poetry is a craft which flourishes best in its own autonomous artistic sphere, which is itself a transvaluation of ordinary concerns, and for which professional poets commit themselves in purity and seriousness so as to pass on their craft to other craftspeople.
etc. etc. Ironically, these forthright aesthetic commitments reveal, with the utmost transparency, the depth of cultural illiteracy, pedantry, and parochialism of their adherents.
(p.s. I'm not just channeling Allan Bloom here (Closing of the American Mind). Please understand. I'm aware that art is an act of critical engagement and re-making - based in the discovers & contingencies of our own times. But you can't remake something if you simply dismiss it, if you refuse to engage with your own tradition.
Furthermore : I'm a complete partisan of the personal and the individual in art. But a person in a solipsistic coccoon or egocentric balloon usually ends up reiterating, in not very interresting ways, what's been done before. There's the personal - and then there's the Horse and the horserace of Poetry. You need both.)