Individual poets, whatever their imperfections may be, are driven all their lives by that inner companion of the conscience which is, after all, the genius of poetry in their hearts and minds. I speak of a companion of the conscience because to every faithful poet, the faithful poem is an act of conscience. - Wallace Stevens
Have been reading interesting book on Pushkin and other Russian poets of his generation (The esoteric tradition in Russian Romantic literature, by Lauren Leighton).
Leighton explores the background in Freemasonry which, for the poets, included some knowledge & application of numerology, "cabalistics", and other esoteric codes in their poetry. She quotes Pushkin : "How fun it is to guide one's lines / with ciphers precisely row by row." & she investigates the incredibly sophisticated numerical design in Pushkin's gambling story, "The Queen of Spades". (Anna Akhmatova : "how complex, The Queen of Spades. Layer upon layer.")
But the numbers games of Pushkin and fellow poets (such as Bestuzhev, .a.k.a. "Marlinsky") were motivated not only by aesthetic "fun", but by a need for secrecy. In the early 19th century, revolution was in the air - Romantic poets (inspired by French & American models) expressed heroic aspirations for liberty, democracy, the end of autocracy.... & naturally, came up against the Czar & the secret police (cf. the Decembrist revolt, on which Leighton elaborates).
In fact, what strikes me, reading this study, is how (apparently) seamlessly knit-together were aesthetics and civics in the vocation of poet - in the poet's self- and public image. Poets were (re-)tellers of popular tales, romantic novelists, vox populi, "public intellectuals." They were also tangled up in webs of intrigue and complicity with the Czarist government, and the small (& murky) world of elite aristocracy. The oppressive might of a centralized, unaccountable government, in dialectical fashion, clarified the moral position of the liberal intelligentsia : & this continued even into the 20th century (see Mandelstam's remark - in one of his essays(?) - confirming his "sacred vow to the Fourth Estate").
I started thinking in a vague way, walking to work this morning, just how much this world of poets & literature differs from our own. Here, today, in the U.S., we tend to take political liberty for granted : the temptation is not so much in the direction of conspiracy or extremism, as toward a complacent kind of factionalism. The basic principles of government are not in question; instead, the debates are over how to apply them, and on what ethical-pragmatic-political grounds. We do not have so much a "liberal intelligentsia" as a political class, divided by party affiliation & allegiance to contrasting ideals. We have a nation polarized by partisanship, more interested in one-upping the opposition than in finding common ground. We have professional political careers maintained primarily by lobbyists & the media. Meanwhile, in poetry world, we have a sort of institutionalized "poetry class", dedicated to the idea of differentiating "poetry" as a special kind of substance and activity which requires special treatment, and distinct professional-academic institutions for its support. What is involved is a sort of abdication of the role of "poet" as free intellectual, of the poet as engaged writer.
I don't mean to assert this in order to cry "j'accuse" : I'm just as implicated in this abdication as anyone else - perhaps more so. I'm just trying to understand it. We hear the seasonal calls for more political engagement from poets and poetry : poetry should be more clear, more sincere, more virtuous, more popular. Meanwhile, in counterpoint, we have the seasonal & generational developments of special techniques & styles by means of which poetry is supposedly enabled to promote a more enlightened politics (cf., in their various ways, Language Poetry, the Cambridge School, Flarf, Conceptual Poetry...) .
Somehow I find something basic missing from both these wings of the poetry scene. Poetry is only hobbled by a dependence on either institutions or technique. Both of these approaches reduce poetry to a craft, a career, or a cabal. I tend, rather, to conceive of poetry as a gift and a spirit. The free-standing autonomy of the process of making art (& poems) is allied with imagination, a profoundly synthetic faculty of human intelligence. Yet this constellation of forces is not driven or motivated toward more autonomy (ie., indifference), but in the other direction : toward deeper participation. Here art is allied with science as free intellectual activity : and it's this essential freedom which allows art & poetry to bridge partisan divides, to question & evaluate political slogans & vested interests, to find common ground (often ironic) between supposedly bitter ideological opponents.
The kind of literary activity I am idealizing can only be developed on the fertile ground of literary tradition. We have to get beyond the knee-jerk experimentalism of the nouveau-nouveau (which is profoundly shallow & uninformed), as well as from the marketable brands of traditionalism which reduce poetry to a set of learnable skills. Poetry is a gift & a calling toward engagement. Craft is inseparable from intellect & worldview, as larger, holistic dimensions. On this basis, the dignity of poetry is something sustained by the inner, moral discipline of individual poets (integrity : Stevens' "conscience"), and granted by society at large : it is not an attribute of professional networking or social cliques.