I'd just like to sketch out some quick unrehearsed responses to Joshua Clover's recent piece over at the Harriet blog ("Unfree Verse"). This is a plain-spoken, straightforward personal essay about some of the dreary aspects of working in academia, and of contemporary work-life in general, and of the effort to be a poet and write poetry in this time & place. I respect Clover for his honesty, but I have to register my disagreement with his conclusions.
Clover sums up, near the end of the piece, like this : "In the society of ambient discipline, all verse is unfree." He defines "ambient discipline" as : "I don’t mean Foucault-type discipline like sovereigns and regimes of power. I mean political economy basically. How our shared and fragile lives are structured according to the imperatives of the economy’s self-remaking."
Now this may not be Foucauldian, but it seems to be describing a structural, pervasive economic determinism. We are not in control of our economy; it is in control of our "shared and fragile lives." This appears to be an underlying principle of Clover's sense of what he terms "political economy".
There is no argument to be made against the fact that freedom, for each of us as individuals, is limited. What I question here is the implied global determinism, structuring human social life in its totality. The history of the 20th century offers numerous examples, from the political left and right, of theories of determinism put to use as means of denying the differences between liberal democracy, on the one hand, and political authoritarianism or tyranny, on the other.
I would argue that a belief in forms of government which provide limited, yet very real, freedoms - those freedoms we associate with basic norms of human rights and liberty - is not naive or delusory. In the treadmill of economic necessity, so plangently evoked here by Clover, we can lose sight of these fundamental political conditions. Moreover, cynicism will always rush to the aid of our discontent, if we let it.
I would also argue that there is an analogy (though imperfect) between political freedom and the freedom of art and poetry. I was struck by Clover's remark : "Poetry can stand for freedom so intensely that people start to worry there is too much freedom." This gets at something important, but then Clover deflects it into a gibe at Robert Frost (and, by extension, at the neo-formalist school of poetic "discipline").
Let's think for a moment about poetry as free expression. For poets, this involves the very marrow of our vocation. We are creatures of the dream of fabulous inspiration : we wait and work for the moment when the poem bursts forth with unaccountable force. It is on this kind of "charismatic" experience that we have based our whole sense of poetry's cultural importance, its authority. We believe poetry is the ultimate form of human verbal expression; that poetry is how human beings express living truth.
Even the cherished, exalted fountain of pure, living Truth, however, must subsist and be understood within shared limitations : of mortality, of biology, of history, of politics, of economics, of cognition, of cosmology... - thus the Chaplinesque, tragicomic biographies of the poets (paralleled by the tragicomic destinies of the cultures which produce them). Our experiences of poetic free expression, then, are elusive - perhaps never equal to the imagined ideal.
However, once again, this mixed situation does not negate the reality of freedom in poetry, just as economic necessity or political divisions do not of themselves preclude the (limited, embattled) existence of democracy, equality, freedom, and popular sovereignty. As a poet, I believe in the effort, the labor, of making room for creative freedom and inspiration in one's practical life. I believe this effort is justified, even if not everyone, yet, has equal access to creative opportunities. Because it does take work. It involves actual life-decisions; it requires some devotion, some faith, some self-discipline. Most of our commitments, of course - along with our whims - may prove eventually to have been mistakes; but this does not disqualify the effort.
No one, as poet, has to take a job in academia. No one, as poet, has to play the mercenary games of networking and self-promotion (I'm not suggesting that these games, and academia per se, are the same thing : they are not). Poetry is a distinct labor, which is sometimes rewarded with inspiration, and even more rarely with public recognition. The freedom to make the original poem - unmediated by necessity of any kind - is the honor, and the ultimate social value, of the trade. The "autonomy" of art, which Clover derides, is part and parcel of this limited, experiential, laborious, earned freedom.
"The poem is a stone fallen from heaven : no one will judge it." (Osip Mandelstam) This, it seems to me, is the credo of every real poet.