These phenomena - coinciding with the sudden intensification of the political/cultural crisis of the West - got me thinking about the concept of the bard, of bardic poetry, and in a personal sense, about my own situation as poet.
There's a book I keep returning to, by Jeffrey Walker - Bardic Ethos and the American Long Poem (Louisiana State Univ. Press, 1989). Walker's thesis, in a nutshell, argues that Whitman established the parameters for an ambitious, bardic-nationalist role for the American poet; that Ezra Pound, WC Williams, Hart Crane, and Charles Olson were foremost (among others) 20th-century inventors of a new bardic poetry in the Whitman mode; and that certain shared assumptions of these poets also forecast the limits and partial failure of that particular enterprise. Walker's is a very detached, critical, cold-eyed analysis of these poets : he shows complete respect for their ambition and inventive power, while at the same time illustrating the central flaws - going back to Whitman himself - which hobbled their efforts. These flaws cluster around a kind of spiritual elitism - an assertion of cultural values at odds with mainstream American life, despite their proclaimed allegiance to populist-egalitarian ideals. Whitman's call for a new American literary (bardic) elite was translated by Pound into political authoritarianism, echoed in WC Williams' and Olson's denigrations of electoral democracy, and Crane's tragic vision of the flower of American culture (emblematized in Emily Dickinson, Isadora Duncan) drowned under a surge of crass philistinism. In his final chapter, Walker decisively contrasts the alienation of Charles Olson, as would-be cultural exemplar, with the rhetorical and spiritual capacity of Martin Luther King, to express basic American and universal values.
Walker's analysis is very acute & necessary. Yet the limits of his thesis tend to obscure the actual, contradictory, and in many ways egalitarian and democratic messages and impulses surging through these poets. Whitman, after all, produced a body of nationalist poetry whose moral center is Abraham Lincoln, and whose strident attacks on the corruptions of the Gilded Age constitute a defense of the American (democratic) Republic. The legacy of Pound, on the other hand, is much more ambiguous.
But it would take more than a blog post to deal justly with Walker's argument and his valuable readings of these long poems. And my original impulse in posting today is slightly different.
The constellation of "folk-bardic" events this fall suddenly got me thinking in a new way about my own efforts and failures over the past 30 years. What, exactly, do we mean by the "bard"? Is there such a thing? Is there a difference, now, today, between a bard and a poet?
There's certainly a New-Age stream out there trying to revive "bardism" based on ancient Celtic sources and traditions in conjunction with druids, mysticism, etc. I suppose this to some extent echoes the Romantic era's enthusiasm for a semi-mystical notion of the the ancient bard (Ossian, Taliesin, etc.). Also there is a genuine literary interest in Wales, Ireland, and Scotland (and perhaps elsewhere) in the lost cultures and skills of ancient bardic (oral) poetry. Yeats was a great figure in the renovation of the image of the poet-as-bard, as both visionary and crafty minstrel.
And the stream Walker identifies - the American long poem, from Whitman to Olson, et al. - has certainly evolved as a distinct, iconoclastic dimension of the larger American poetry scene.
It was while surveying (in my preliminary sketchy way) these things that it struck me how much my own path with poetry has veered into the long-poem/bardic stream. It began in the early 1980s, with a curiosity about Ezra Pound - an interest in the capaciousness of the Cantos - the possibility of broadening my own style, being able to "include history" too (Pound's definition of epic : "a poem including history").
But what I'm puzzling over is how my absorption in this effort over 30 years - and the writing of at least 9 book-length long poems - has kept me marginalized, fairly unknown, unable to make a dent.
The main responsibility for this dilemma, no doubt, can be laid at my own feet : the limitations of my own themes & vision & style, the "professional" mistakes, the unimaginative & distracted (& often comical!) efforts to break out of obscurity, etc.
But the thought occurs to me that perhaps something else is going on also. Perhaps we can hypothesize a real distinction between bard and poet. And maybe the American literary scene - both the culture of prestigious magazines and the fashionable canons of academia - has crystallized, has institutionalized, around poetry/poet, as opposed to bard/epic/life-poem.
Maybe - in different ways - both magazine culture and the collegiate order of the "program era" are inimical to certain aspects of "bardism", such as :
a) the bardic investment in large, ongoing, serial, epic, ambitious "life poems" - difficult to excerpt for magazine consumption.
b) the bardic willingness to fuse the poetic, the literary, the rhetorical and the performative. The aim of the bardic poem is not simply to be a beautiful, self-sufficient, autonomous aesthetic object (such as all MFA programs and strictly "poetic" careers are designed to produce). A bardic poem, as Walker points out, has suasory (persuasive) designs on its audience : it aims to "spiritually revolutionize" both individual reader and culture at large. This is not a goal easily taught or pursued in the college classroom.
c) and (related to (b) : the populist, "folk" dimension of bardism - its desire to speak "of, by, and for" the people. Its openness to unfashionable notions of "national unity", "national purpose", "national history", "national ethos", "national culture" - and a willingness to offer dramatic-performative representations of same (the long poem in its epic-heroic mode). Clearly, any poet who aspires to such a bardic enterprise would have to address the American audience as a contrarian, a dialectician, a prophet - standing up to debunk the jingoism, racism, and chauvinism of crude "America First" ideology.
I've really just begun to think through these notions. Beyond Walker's bardic Pleiade, many other poets are worth studying for a bardic counter-view : H.D., Vachel Lindsay, Jay Wright, Lorine Neidecker, Louis Zukofsky, Carl Sandburg, John Berryman, Lissa Wolsak, and the ghost of WB Yeats...
But this is a whole new way - for me, at least - of thinking about American poetry : that there might be an objective cultural distinction to be made between "poet" and "bard"... and that the contributions of all these figures does not define the effort of the long poem, but only serves as instigation toward what might be achieved in future. It's a path to be cleared...
Meanwhile my own neglected massive poetical-aesthetical-historical-spiritual works are out there, visible in the swamps of blogland, in the dark corners of Amazon books. & I realize I need to change and revitalize my own practice, to get out there and read & perform & strum the old harp.
Mr. Bard steps out