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Poetry and Policy: Overtures of Beauty

Transformative Approaches Project

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From within the world of poetry there are those who occasionally express concern as to whether poetry matters to those outside it. But any criticism they voice is naturally greeted by a most vociferous defence on the part of the proponents of Beauty. An early example was Edmund Wilson's Is Verse a Dying Technique? (1934). The challenge was rearticulated in Joseph Epstein's Who Killed Poetry? (Commentary, 1988). Wilson blamed historical forces, whereas Epstein focused on poets themselves, the institutions they helped create, and notably the creative writing programs. Both have been vigorously attacked by poets themselves.

Much more recently, it has been the former marketing executive Dana Gioia who has aroused considerable controversy, notably through a book entitled Can Poetry Matter? (1993). As an author of widely praised books of poems, he speaks with authority -- but from outside the academic institutional culture in which poetry currently thrives in America.

1. Challenge to the subculture

Gioia accuses poets in America of having developed into an isolated subculture content to communicate with each other. Thus: "the energy of American poetry, which was once directed outward, is now increasingly focused inward. Reputations are made and rewards distributed within the poetry subculture" (p. 2). And: "Over the past half century, as American poetry's specialist audience has steadily expanded, its general readership has declined" (p. 2)

He is often brutal in his assessment: "Like subsidized farming that grows food that no one wants, a poetry industry has been created to serve the interests of the producers and not the consumers. And in the process the integrity of the art has been betrayed. Of course, no poet is allowed to admit this in public. The cultural credibility of the professional poetry establishment depends on maintaining this hypocrisy" (p. 10). And again: "Most editors run poems and poetry reviews the way a prosperous Montana ranches might keep a few buffalo around -- not to eat the endangered creatures but to display them for tradition's sake" (p. 4)

2. Isolation from public life

Like others before him, Gioia sees poets and poetry as increasingly separated from the general reader and the concerns of society. Thus: "Even if great poetry continues to be written, it has retreated from the center of literary life. Though supported by a loyal coterie, poetry has lost the confidence that it speaks to and for the general culture" (p. 6). Also: "poets and the common reader are no longer on speaking terms" (p. 10). And: "public skepticism represents the final isolation of verse as an art form in contemporary society" (p. 11)

Gioia notes that with few exceptions, poetry is essentially unrelated to any collective enterprise: "Without a role in the broader culture, however, talented poets lack the confidence to create public speech. Occasionally a writer links up rewardingly to a social or political movement....But it is difficult to marry the Muse happily to politics. Consequently, most contemporary poets, knowing that they are virtually invisible in the larger culture, focus on the more intimate forms of lyric and meditative verse" (p. 11).

Of course there are contrasting views, such as those of Neil Astley, founder of the UK poetry publishing house Bloodaxe Books that has an anti-metropolitan, anti-establishment bias. In his view, to be one of their poets: "means that you are emotionally tough, you have an intellectual grasp of the world and that you are in touch with the social realities of the 1990s...We don't publish much landscape poetry." (Guardian, 11 August 1993).

3. Institutionalization of poetry

Whilst noting the manner in which poetry has thrived in a formal academic setting in America, Gioia deplores some of the consequences: "...the engines that have driven poetry's institutional success...have unwittingly contributed to its disappearance from public view" (p. 2). As in other academic disciplines, the "publish-or-perish" syndrome holds sway: "Poets serious about making careers in institutions understand that the criteria for success are primarily quantitative. They must publish as much as possible as quickly aspossible" (p. 9). "Society suffers by losing the imagination and vitality that poets bring to public culture. Poetry suffers when literary standards are forced to conform to institutional ones" (p. 14)

Whereas it might be expect that poetry would offer insights into ways of reframing institutional initiatives in a society whose survival is so dependent upon them, in effect poets have become resigned to existing only in and for their subculture. As a consequence: "...institutions have changed the social identity of the poet from artist to educator. In social terms the identification of the poet with teacher is now complete" (p. 13)

Within the literature departments of universities, writers and literary theorists are often openly at war. "Isolated even within the university, the poet, whose true subject is the whole of human existence, has reluctantly become an educational specialist" (p. 14)

4. Why poetry matters

Gioia frames the key questions: "But why should anyone but a poet care about the problems of American poetry? What possible relevance does this archaic art form have to contemporary society?" (p. 19)

In an initial response he suggests that: "In a better world, poetry would need no justification beyond the sheer splendor of its existence....Aesthetic pleasure needs no justification, because a life without such pleasure is not worth living" (p. 19). This suggests the challenge: "How does one persuade justly skeptical readers, in terms they can understand and appreciate, that poetry matters?" (p. 19)

One might ask whether, phrased in this way, the questions do not preclude other kinds of answer. Is the question really just about "poetry" as a product which is being rejected by potential consumers? Are there not other insights to be obtained by focusing on "poetry making"? The fact that so many are attracted to creative writing classes and that so much poetry is produced in a materialist society does indicate that other processes are at work. At least poetry and poetry-making have an important psychotherapeutic function for the individual. Does this not suggest that it may have an analogous function for society as a whole? It perhaps this aspect that needs to be clarified.

For Gioia one starting point in establishing the relevance of poetry, at least for the individual, is a verse from William Carlos William: "It is difficult / to get the news from poems / yet men die miserably every day / for lack / of what is found there". But despite the vigour of his criticism, Gioia's arguments in favour of poetry are weak and his remedies are only addressed to the subculture he criticizes.

Gioia puts forward two reasons why the situation of poetry matters to the entire intellectual community. Firstly: "A society whose intellectual leaders lose the skill to shape, appreciate, and understand the power of language will become the slaves of those who retain it -- be they politicians, preachers, copywriters, or newscasters" (p. 20). He cites George Orwell: "One ought to recognize that the present political chaos is connected with the decay of language..." and argues that "one is hard pressed to imagine a country's citizens improving the health of its language while abandoning poetry" (p. 21). He fails however to identify how poetry can improve the quality of the language, but above all he fails to identify the special role of poetry in sharpening what language is used for. It then becomes too easy to obscure fundamental, technical points about the cognitive power of language (which are as yet poorly appreciated) by vague and superficial arguments about "the power of language" (notably as demonstrated by those with rhetorical skills).

Gioia's second reason is that poetry is not alone among the arts to find itself in an increasingly marginal position as well as isolated from other arts (p. 21). This appears to be little more than a plea for solidarity among all arts in the face of the fragmentary tendencies of modern society. As such it merely raises the broader question as to the role of the arts in responding to the challenges of contemporary society.

Gioia concludes that educational institutions have codified the conventions that guide creation, performance, instruction, and analysis. "These conventions may once have made sense, but today they imprison poetry in an intellectual ghetto. It is time to experiment, time to leave the well-ordered but stuffy classroom, time to restore a vulgar vitality to poetry and unleash the energy now trapped in the subculture. There is nothing to lose. Society has already told us that poetry is dead." (p. 23)

5. Poetry and corporate life

Of relevance to the argument of this paper, Gioia also studies "a curious collection of modern poets who were also businessmen -- a group whose very existence no scholar has previously noted" (p. 133). He himself is a management executive. The group includes: Wallace Stevens (insurance), T S Eliot (banking), Edmund Clarence Stedman (stockbroker), Richard Eberhart (director), L E Sissman (advertising), A R Ammons (salesman).

Gioia concludes however: "The facts, as they exist, point toward an almost absolute separation between their business careers and imaginative lives" (p. 134). He notes that, even for those who spent most of their working lives in corporate offices, none of them has seen it as an experience that is fit to write about (p. 111). Eliot spent the most productive decade of his life as a poet working in the international department of Lloyd's Bank of London (p. 114).

For American poetry, the business world according to Gioia is characterized by "tedium, isolation and impersonality". "Business does not exist in the world of poetry, and therefore by implication is has become everything that poetry is not -- a world without imagination, enlightenment, or perception. It is the universe from which poetry is trying to escape....Our poetry, in short, seldom deals directly with the public institutions that dominate American life, or with situations that increasingly typify it." (p. 114).

Whilst Gioia's points are to be welcomed, there is another to which he does not address attention. There is an important distinction to be made in corporate life between implementing policies by executing decisions and the process of policy-making itself. As in the military world from which so much of management theory is inherited, much creative thinking is involved in "grand strategy" including: the selection and positioning of forces, balancing a variety of seemingly incommensurable factors (whether quantitative or qualitative), as well as issues of timing, morale and image. It should not be forgotten how closely linked strategic notions are to philosophy and poetry, notably in Chinese and Japanese traditions.

Some of the poets named by Gioia were indeed directors and "vice-presidents", presumably with policy-making functions, but others were clearly executors of decisions made elsewhere. More to the point, to what extent did any of them have experience of the creative dimensions of policy-making and business life -- as opposed to those they might more legitimately experience as tedious and uncreative?

Gioia notes that: "Few critics...will be concerned about the absence of business from modern American poetry" (p. 119). And: "Too many critics have expressed a sort of innocent amazement that businessmen could actually write poetry, not to mention good and even great poetry" (p. 124). There are however aspects of corporate and public life which call for a level of creativity and sensitivity that is little different from that of poets. Throughout the ages, people in public life at the highest levels of responsibility have expressed themselves in poetic form (V S M de Guinzbourg, 1961). The responsibilities in large corporations exceed by far those of the past. Many would be surprised at the private sensibilities of such people. It is for example noteworthy that the Director of the Department of Organizational Behaviour at the Weatherhead School of Business (Case Western Reserve University) is given to reciting his own poems during academic meetings.

Broadening the scope of his argument, Gioia continues: "The inability of these businessmen-poets to write about their professional worlds is symptomatic of a larger failure in American verse -- namely its difficulty in discussing most public concerns. If business is nonexistent as a poetic subject, there is also a surprising paucity of serious verse on political and social themes. Not only has our poetry been unable to create a meaningful public idiom, but it even lacks most of the elements out of which such an idiom might be formed" (p. 126-7). But again one might usefully distinguish between the thematic issues dealt with by policy-makers and the more creative,technical and experiential issues of how policy-making is done --especially by an entrepreneur working "by the seat of his pants". Intuition is increasingly of concern to managers and its relevance is the subject of a number of recent books (Rowan, 1986; Le Saget, 1992).

6. Poetry in a divided world

This is the heading for a review by Henry Gifford (1986) from a primarily European perspective. This demonstrates the importance of poetry to peoples under appalling conditions of repression and impoverishment -- in contrast with American society. He quotes Czeslaw Milosz, with respect to the Nazi occupation of Poland: "when an entire community is struck by misfortune, poetry becomes as essential as bread". Milosz also recorded that following that period it was not unusual for 150,000 copies of a book of poems to be sold out in a few hours.

Gifford points out that through Osip Mandeslstam in particular "a tradition of public responsibility, long established in Russian literature, was brought to a new focus." Mandelstam is renowned for his statement that "Poetry is power". Whilst the understanding of the poet's role and depth of commitment are not unique to Eastern Europe, Gifford points out there is a distinct difference between the metaphysical terror articulated by some poets in isolation and the physical terror shared by poets of Eastern Europe with thousands.

From Gifford's perspective, poets respond to a divided world, in "a century preoccupied with language, its ability to conceal thought, to set limits upon it, to hold a sometimes despotic sway over minds, or to sink into a morass of ambiguities. With a growing awareness of the subconscious, the irrational in human behaviour, and of language's complicity with these forces, the coherence of life seems to have gone." (p. 21).

This perspective could however be interpreted as only a kind of "holding action", now that the centre no longer holds. Thus Gifford places stress on the function of poetry in "bearing witness". Virgil Nemoianu has stressed this conservative function. The arts, even when they are revolutionary are essentially revolutionary only in their pursuit of tradition. From his perspective, from Homer to Eliot, the voice of poetry has been one of regret, restraint and scepticism, offering caution to the agitators, and comfort to the one who sees wisdom in settled ways. In this sense the literatures of Europe have, in opposing the European idea of progress, done much to ensure the survival -- and even, paradoxically, the true progress -- of its culture.

And yet it is no wonder that Theodor Adorno expressed the belief that after the horror of Auschwitz, poetry has become impossible to write. Bosnia would surely tend to reinforce this perspective --especially given the apparently perverted use of poetry by Serbian warriors. Is poetry in a position to respond usefully in a world whose best intentions result in Bosnia?

In discussing the "international code of poetry", Gifford argues: "We seek from the past more than political understanding, or the meaning of national identity...What can be found in the poetry of earlier generations...is a safeguard and a promise. There is in genuine poetry a depth of moral awareness, of involuntary truth, and a capacity to set human experience where it can be judged without special pleading or undue harshness. Poetry achieves this by a process of reconciliation and acceptance (not the same thing as capitulation): a reconciliation with the limits of what is possible for human beings, an acceptance of community." (p. 90).

For Gifford, poetry is vitally important and indispensable for a number of reasons: "for its unrivalled power of recall, which enables it to bring into the present and project into the future truths of feeling attained perhaps three thousand years ago; for its intimacy with every phase of our long developing and changing culture; and above all for its power of self-correction." (p. 94). He concludes: "If the poetic word were to be silenced, despotism and emptiness would rule everywhere." (p. 96).

But is "reconciliation and acceptance" all that poetry has to offer?

7. Liberation poetry

Also in striking contrast to the American situation presented by Gioia is that of liberation poetry, whether in Eastern Europe or in Africa. In a study of ideology and form in African poetry, Emmanuel Ngara (1990) concludes that: "effective communication is not simply aquestion of craft. The significance and appeal of poetry is partly determined by its relevance to human life. Thus, poetry has a social function, and for the poet to be able to cry the cry of humanity he or she must strive to keep harmony between poetry and life....For those involved in the struggle for social justice...the poet should engage in practical action of some sort, for through action the poet will become part of the world of the oppressed, the poor, the dehumanized. Through the action of its creator poetry will be able to speak to humanity and to have a profound meaning." (p. 200)

Ngara continues: "the revolutionary poet must keep searching for a genuine aesthetics of liberation....And how does the poet contribute to the liberation process? Is the poet a party propagandist or is he or she concerned with promoting new and progressive forms of social consciousness? How does the poet achieve the goal of raising readers' social consciousness? By resorting to open didacticism or by leading the reader gently by the hand to an awareness of new possibilities in social relationships and people's potential?" (p. 200-1)

8. Product or process: the challenge of how?

Whether from the American perspective of "poetry in policy-making" or a Marxist form of "poetry in politics" one might ask whether the skills of and insights from poetry are not of greater relevance than is comprehended within the world of poets. Articulating the quality of better times past, or those hoped for in the future, by contrast with the suffering of the present, is not enough. Many of the values expressed by poets of the past have been embodied in the declarations, treaties and programmes of international organizations. There is widespread consensus on the need to do better. But as Bosnia has demonstrated, the "how" eludes both political leaders and their academic advisors -- despite the degree to which many have been touched by the tragedy through the media.

Why have poets never addressed the how? Why have they never explored the relevance of their skills and discipline to bringing about any "new world order"? Wishing and deploring are not enough. Politicians have demonstrated considerable skill in deploring and resolving. It is the "how" that has proved so elusive in complex situations like Bosnia where many factors are in balance and there is a need to reframe the situation through new images that empower in new ways. The protests of anti-establishment poets may continue to be necessary, but they are not sufficient. Poets have more to offer.

Perhaps what is required from poets is their discipline and not their product? It could therefore be much less a question of whether poetry is "appreciated" or used to "raise consciousness" and much more a matter of how desperately insights from the discipline of poetry-making are needed in the present crisis of policy-making --beyond the cosmetic or "educational" possibilities. Even when the need for "liberation" is recognized, the challenge is whether the remedies can be made more acceptable than the problems remedied. This has been the tragedy of "liberated" Africa. Ironically such a contribution from poetry to the qualitative improvement of policy would not be so startling within Chinese and Japanese cultures of the past.


From Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential

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