The powerful machinery of instantaneous discourse-proliferation & dissemination has its effects on poets' lives & careers. Meanwhile the forces at work, the loci of the pressure, seem to become more visible. Nevertheless these phenomena take on the tincture, exhibit the deformations, of the general strangeness of the times. Thus we have the monotonous drumbeat demanding that poets & poetry become more socially engaged & transparent - that poets must claim their place & make their stand on the burning political & moral issues of the day. Then we have the backbeat (it's a duet of sorts) : journalistic/media experts, bemoaning the death of poetry, its irrelevance to the larger scheme of contemporary life. Then a 3rd, dialectical, voice leaps into the fray - poets, editors, & poetry teachers, for the most part - who insist with vehemence that, to the contrary, poetry is becoming more & more popular, relevant, dynamic, pervasive, & culturally powerful! Poetry is on a roll! Poetry is coming into its own, shedding the old stodgy elitism & academic fetor, & emerging as the revolutionary expression of the people & the common life, the 99%!
The common thread here seems to be that poets have a moral obligation to serve populist movements & what appear to be the political questions of the moment. & the technology of media dissemination actually promotes & forwards this attitude. The popularity of poets & poetry now seems to be a product of very sophisticated public relations & media manipulation, rather than an effect of poems themselves. Am I being paranoid? Is this sour grapes? I don't know, but there does appear to be at least an element of "selling" & Babbittry to the whole poetry enterprise - & it seems to be rather pronounced in our days.
OK, let's say I have no problem with the notion that serious poetry has an obligation to engage with the moral dimension of human history & life. & I do not. What I do have reservations about is how this gets translated simplistically into popular/populist memes, movements, celebrity, & (supposedly-) critical attention. (I hate Pop Art, by the way. I like Jasper Johns, though.)
I am not going to drag out this mini-jeremiad. But let's just look for a moment at the micro-technology of literature. The arts of the word (poetry, drama, fiction) are constructed around quasi-ritual acts : that is, they mirror the continuum of reality, while at the same time distancing themselves, becoming strange forms of serious play. The verbal art of a long family novel, to give one example, offers us a telescoping of ordinary time & experience - & thus opens a window upon both life's pathos & its ironies. What this character says & does now is framed inside an unforeseeable future, with consequences & ramifications (emotional, existential, moral, spiritual) which cannot be predicted in advance : & this situation is the very marrow of plot, the very essence of our emotional engagement with narrative. & remember : it's art. It's not everyday life. It's not a speech, it's not a program. It's a very complex mimetic evocation of an ultimately inexpressible wholeness.
Poetry telescopes the same foreshortening of fiction, with all sorts of other complicating effects (the mimicry of presence, the prosody of suspense...). In general, though, all three modes (poetry, fiction, drama) aim toward the same telos, the same end, which is essentially aesthetic. That is, the end of these arts has something to do with the beautiful.
How then can we have "the beautiful" by means of some kind of inherent distancing effect? Isn't there a problem, or a danger, here, of diffidence, detachment, moral indifference? Certainly : but it's the same moral, existential & personal problem which faces us in all modes of human social life. The arts do not have a monopoly on detachment & indifference. You notice it also, by the way, in economic & political life - the various deviously-systematic modes (all rooted in selfishness & callous pride) of amoral indifference with regard to the common welfare & the rights of the poor.
The pressure for populism, political engagement, relevance & mass popularity with respect to poetry is underwritten by a kind of devil's bargain : we will trade aesthetic values for social power. We will actually deny that there exists something objectively "beautiful" in itself (even if "objectivity" & "subjectivity" are impossible to delimit in a reductive way), for the sake of a persuasive political argument or a naively self-gratifying sense of our own political righteousness.
These pressures all seem to be part & parcel of the downgrading of the arts & humanities in education generally. We are enslaved to various modes of functionalism & determinism today - all in the name of liberation, justice, &, yes, economic realism.
How boring. It's enough to make me feel like writing another unpopular poem.