- Poetic Commons
Although written from different critical backgrounds, employing different theorists for their support networks, and even emerging from different countries, these four studies defend poetry in America as—potentially and under certain circumstances—a public art. That defense rests, moreover, not simply on the poet’s interest in civic matters but on the values that poetry brings to intellectual debate. Acting in relation to problems that are already recognized, already inviting debate, the poet brings to these problems not just an intellectual but an emotional response, involving soft values of care and attention. These studies, then, propose an expanded role for the poet who continues working within a lyric tradition albeit inside an epic framework, who is bidding to record intimate experiences and obtain personal and even intimate reactions in the face of large and powerful forces. It goes without saying that it may be urgent to recover poetry’s public side at a time when the humanities seem increasingly excluded from decision-making designed to be cost-effective. At the same time, any bid to restore the poet to something like a place of centrality, even if temporary, will be no easy undertaking. Sidelined as more or less inconsequential, sometimes by detractors like cultural studies scholars who favor the narrative appeal of fiction as a carrier of social change, sometimes by supporters like belles lettres critics who embrace an art with appeal to only a few, poetry needs strong defenders if it is to escape its displacement in recent years.
That sidelining is remarked upon in a previous work of literary history that was strongly invested in the idea of a public poetry: Robert von Hallberg’s “Poetry, Politics, and Intellectuals,” a detailed overview of American poetry from 1945 to 1995. Appearing in the eighth volume of Sacvan Bercovitch’s Cambridge History of American Literature (1996), a place that was in one [End Page 468] sense ideal (all research libraries would purchase it) but in another sense unfortunate (priced for library purchase, few individuals would acquire it), von Hallberg’s six chapters set mainstream writers (Robert Lowell, Adrienne Rich, James Merrill) in conversation with less well-known figures (Turner Cassity, Susan Hahn, Jay Wright), included chapters on translation that brought in such expatriates as Czeslaw Milosz and Thom Gunn, and opened with a chapter entitled “Politics” followed by a chapter on “Rear Guards” and “Avant-Gardes.” Examining Robert Hass’s “Meditation at Lagunitas” (1979), he noted that the word “thinking” in the poem’s opening line (“All the new thinking is about loss”) was, in its first publication, the word “poetry” (131). Poetry might well be interchangeable with thinking, at least in the work of the most interesting poets. Yet von Hallberg’s final chapter would conclude that poets remained, in the last half of the twentieth century, unacknowledged as legislators of any kind. They are “the paupers of the intellectual world. . . . American readers, even those in universities, still want something from poets, but what they want is prose,” he wrote wistfully. “Poets are still thought to speak with a romantic authority, as though they tell profound truths while others make strategies” (209).1
As an ensemble, the books under review are in a different position, almost 20 years later, to take steps to counter von Hallberg’s gloomy assessment. For one thing, they consider poetry not as an intellectual art but as an art of emotion and the intellect (or, pace von Hallberg, an art that can be strategically deft in engaging deeply held beliefs). For another, they take advantage of the increased interest in the idea of a public sphere that has only expanded since 9/11. Viewed as a crucial aspect of modern society—its importance underscored, philosopher Charles Taylor notes in Modern Social Imaginaries (2004), in that institutions must even pretend it exists when it clearly does...