Is poetry, is literature, a special case? Can we still speak, with straight faces, of poetic exceptionalism? Or is literature, as Luke Menand avers in his recent consideration of Lionel Trilling, merely a report on experience that enjoys no special privileges?
Menand closes his article on Trilling on an autobiographical note:
"I was taught to think about literature as part of the history of ideas, and to believe that people wrote novels and plays and poems because they had something to say. I still think that this is true. I think that literature is a report on experience. I just don’t think that it’s a privileged report on experience. It is, as Trilling felt in his darker, anthropological moods, simply part of the cultural activity of making meaning."
Admittedly, it takes a fine mind to make an argument for dethroning literary privilege from the pages of The New Yorker. I’d like to think Menand is wrong. I’d also like to ask him why he’s taking a paycheck from Harvard while masquerading as an English professor. But the question is a serious one; it deserves consideration.
Reared on the high modernism of Pound and Eliot, I’ve always taken it for granted that what poets do is special. Not in the sense that we have access to some higher fund of wisdom, or more penetrating insights into the human heart. But that the music itself, the making of it, and the making of it within a long tradition, within the continuities and communities of form, sets it apart from other forms of cultural activity; because that concern with form is at its heart utopian. It sees the world as always potentially otherwise. More importantly, it attends to the myriad details that go by everyday unnoticed. Not just the details, but the warp and weave of them into patterns of meaning and from those patterns, song – the re-affirmation of the body’s scope – its pleasures and and its tremblings – the bewilderments of living.
When Williams equated poetry with the daily news, observing that “men die miserably everyday for lack of what is found there,” was he making a case for poetry’s difference from ordinary reports on experience found in newspapers – the common run of things – or was he instead dethroning poetry as an exceptional case, placing it in the order of the common run, saying it is no different a report than what is found on the front page, only you must learn how to read it if you could receive what it has to offer – “you got to try real hard.”
As a culture critic, Menand wants see around every corner, map out every angle of a of particular social nexus. (It is what we do, after all). The instrument he uses to perform this magic feat is, of course, historicism. But while his approach shares much in common with that of Greenblatt, attending to the nuance and complex intertwining of public and private, social and literary, relations, it also seems to set too high a premium on continuity.
It's perfectly well to map the circulations between film noir and New Wave, as he does in his Cold War lectures, making persuasive claims about how they are linked as moments and movements of cultural exchange. But his lack of finer grained detail sometimes troubles me since it runs the serious risk of conflating disparate things for the sake of unity and at the expense of all the discontinuities, large and small, that also mark these exchanges. Back of it seems to lie a method founded more on sustaining a certain ironic tone than revealing either linkages or fissures. And while without irony, no real historical distance can be credibly maintained, it's sometimes a slippery slope to enlightened, that is to say, cynical false consciousness.
Two readings I attended this week brought all this home to me. The first was an appearance of Seamus Heaney at Sanders Theater in Memorial Hall, a grimly gothic Godzilla of a building, an enormous cenotaph for Harvard’s Civil War dead. The theater itself is a kind of culture barn: all warmly burnished wooden risers and balcony; the overall mood one of reverential hush. This, dearly assembled, is where Culture takes place: the epicenter of the Privileged Report. Heaney, a very sweet and, it must be said, gracious and humble, man, was almost up to the task of filling so august a space, though I thought it did his poetry no favors.
The work itself was uneven. A poem like “Rain Stick” I found to be a mash of cloying clichés and bardic imperative: “Listen now again” – a line which anxiously closes the poem, all but suffocating the delicacy that precedes it. “Two Lorries,” an attempt at the frisson of the dialectical image that dissipated any force it might have had by meandering through anecdote and then resorting to heavy-handed juxtaposition. The two lorries, one that carried coal (and a flirtatious coal man) to his childhood home; the other that carted an IRA bomb down the same road, are clumsily conjoined by the phrase “flash forward twenty years.”
The violence of the episode and its historical significance fail to get any traction. His newest work, based on Book VI of The Aeneid, mixed charming Irish colloquialisms with a graver classical idiom, but the final effect was not very moving. At his best, Heaney has a way with pitch and stress that is marvelous: constructing clusters of tessellated consonants that are deeply chthonic; an Orphic music that makes you feel (as in Sobin or Bunting or Johnson) that if the trees and rocks could speak, this is how they would sound. Though I can never think of this strain in his work without recalling Terry Eagleton’s take-down of Heaney’s version of Beowulf, in which he rips to shreds the etymological fallacy of Saxon fetishism and regional vernaculars.
The second reading I went to, about an hour later, was Bill Corbett’s at Harvard Book Store. If Heaney’s reading exemplified what Manny Farber called “white elephant art,” the kind of work that’s mired in its own self-importance, then Corbett’s was surely “termite art,” work that tunnels through its own boundaries, constantly dissolving them. Corbett’s performance, in a small room of the store, maybe 30 folding chairs, with many folks crowded around in nooks and aisles, was a complicated mixture of bravura self-display and genuine generosity. Through anecdotes about Groliers, Robert Lowell, and many others, both famous and obscure, and by mixing their work in with his own, he invoked a vivid sense of continuum and community. Not just poems, isolated instances of speech, but of what it means to be part of poetry. It was as charged and vital a reading as I’ve ever heard. To cap it off, there was Heaney, Bill’s old friend, sitting in the front row, obviously and hugely enjoying it all.
What do these two readings point to? First, each offered its own version of exceptional cultural space and experience, from the very public to the quite intimate. Second, both displayed how poetry creates a space for saying things where none had existed before. This space belongs to no particular cultural forum but comes out of the ways in which language is used. Poetic speech is predicated on and proceeds by the drive to say what can’t otherwise find its way into speech. And if that sounds too much like therapy, let me put it this way: poetry opens us to the danger and risk of having experience – whether as Erleibnis, the shock of the instant, or as Erfahrung, the mediated measure of that instant. The best poetry does both.
If this doesn’t make literature exceptional, then I fail to understand the meaning of the word. Because how we make meaning matters. How we construct a poem is different from how we report the daily news. They report experience at two vastly different registers: the one reified; the other tearing away at the fabric of social conventions for understanding and feeling.
Poetry is not the only way to report experience. But for me, it is the most powerful, the most musical, the most spiritual, that is, the most alive to the potential and promise of being: that which cuts closest to what it means to be alive. Poetry may not, in fact, be a report on experience at all, but more insistently, more urgently, an experience in its own right, one that brings us into the presence of being alive, here and now, in a body, and feeling all the risks of feeling, listening to them as we never could have before.
P.S. Since first writing these notes, in the Fall of 2008, I’ve become a teaching assistant for Menand’s “Art and Culture in the Cold War” class, an experience I’m enjoying a great deal. Menand himself strikes me as a thoroughly decent guy: sincere, witty, and even warm and affable, though the affability seems to be swaddled in insulation; it has some trouble rising to the surface. I suspect he's intensely shy, or else socially phobic. I’ve always thought him of as being more of an essayist than a scholar, but that's only because he's so nimble at what he does that you tend to forget your reading some truly fine intellectual history. He belongs to a certain tradition of American letters I've always admired, one that includes Trilling, Edmund Wilson, Robert Warshow, Dwight MacDonald, and yes, Pauline Kael. And despite my misgivings about what kind of axe he might be grinding, his remark, in lecture, that "art messes with biology" will endear him to me always.