Charles River

Charles River
Upper Limit Cloud/Lower Limit Sail


"Messianicity is not messianism ... even though this distinction remains fragile and enigmatic." (Jacques Derrida)

Monday, June 16, 2014

Will the Real Poet Laureate Please Sit Down?

The Library of Congress has recently announced that Charles Wright, 78, professor emeritus at the University of Virginia, has just been appointed our newest poet laureate. Quoted in the NY Times, Wright seemed a bit dazed and confused – and yet disarmingly spot on. “I don’t even know what I’m supposed to do!” But like a good American, once he’s told, he’ll do it, he says. He raises a good question, though. What “is” a poet laureate?

Fortunately, I think I have an answer. And it’s not good. The office of the American poet laureate is an evil plot to pervert poetry. It's like when the GI Joes are betrayed by their own President, who secretly works for Cobra, and must turn to Bruce Willis for salvation. In this case, Bruce Willis is played by Charles Bernstein. Bernstein once and for all hilariously skewered the sanctification of poetry in his brief essay, “Against National Poetry Month as Such.”

Not to get all self-righteous, but poetry is not like vitamins, it should go without saying. Poetry is, um, like thinking: it’s dangerous. Or as Camus once put it, “beginning to think is beginning to be undermined.” Robert Kaufman put it best when he described poetry's job as one of making "thinking sing and singing think."

But more than that, the idea of an office for an American laureate epitomizes a certain hubris: it's symptomatic of the desire of empire to suborn all cultural production to its cause.

Now it’s not that Charles Wright is a bad poet. Far from it. Though when it comes to the laureateship, good or bad has nothing to do with it. Twenty years ago or so, when I was first learning my craft as a poet, I found Wright inspirational. He’d absorbed both Pound’s tessellated lines and Montale’s wry irony and combined them into something powerful by drawing on his Appalachian heritage. But what started out as distinctive and new soon decayed into mannerism. In a word, he became soporific. For some years now, a Wright poem has pretty much had the same effect as a shot of Nyquil. I'm sure Wright himself is a charming affable fellow and his work in "Black Zodiac" remains powerful for me. My point here is not to run down Wright or any previous laureate - even though I can't help but fantasize would it might be like if say, Anne Waldman was named to the post. The thing is, Anne Waldman already is our poet laureate and has been for some time now. Which is kind of my point here.

My problem is with the whole idea of the office itself. In the 90s, Robert Archambeau wittily satirized the post of the Poet Laureate by calling for the installation of an “anti-laureate.” He nominated instead my old friend and mentor Anselm Hollo and the choice could not have been better made. Anselm went in abhorrence of prestige, of officialdom, of baboonery. He was the most learned man I ever met. But he was also the most gracious and down to earth. His hearty laugh punctured every pretension.

Way back in 1989, when I was just a wee sprite tilting at windmills, and before I'd ever met Anselm, I wrote a half-cocked, spirited polemic against the Poet Laureate post in a little journal I was editing. About six people read it. I offer it here as an appendix, for what it’s worth.


Poetry’s place in the public eye has never been an easy one to define. Since the time of Socrates’ interrogation of the supercilious Ion, poets have been viewed by most of the general public somewhat askance, as if metaphysically suspect, or worse, ungainfully employed. Plato was never shrewder, or closer to Stalinism, when he declared that the ideal state, in order to function smoothly, i.e. without dissent, should run all the poets out of town. Kierkegaard summed up the situation with his customary sting: “And men crowd about the poet and say to him, ‘Sing for us soon again’— which is as much to say, ‘May new sufferings torment your soul, but may your lips be fashioned as before; for the cries would only distress us, but the music, the music, is delightful.’”

Recently, Congress has experienced a yen for such “music” and to that end has created, through its Library, the post of poet laureate. This position grew out of an older one: Consultant to the LOC. The laureate stands in relation to poetry as the Doric columns of Washington stand in relation to some marmoreal ideal of Western cultural glory. While the intention to honor poetry’s role in American life is laudable enough, this act seems little more than window dressing. It is inconsistent, to say the least, with America’s strong individualist and populist traditions. What would Whitman say?

Curiously, we never seemed to need a laureate until the Reagan Administration, steeped in a faux populism concealing a latent royalism, took office. As with so many other brainchildren of that Presidency, this one, too, reeks with the nostalgia for Empire that has been legitimized into an agenda. With the right hand, the State makes provisions for an official wreath in the Muse’s name; with the left it reduces drastically the already feeble budget it has grudgingly allotted to the arts.

The idea of a laureate invokes a less complicated time, when poetry could be yoked to political ends without thought for what was said by the poet, or what the government did. Tennyson wrote a coded critique of the British involvement in Crimea. But Richard Wilbur, who served an abbreviated term as our second laureate, produced nothing more than the dismal cantata “On Freedom’s Ground,” a work quite inferior for a poet of his stature and a far cry from his earlier “Speech For The Repeal Of The McCarran Act.”

It is frankly embarrassing for poetry when one considers that the commissioning of this poem coincides roughly with the drafting of white papers by the State Department for the invasion of Nicaragua. Yet Wilbur is hardly to blame since the poet is no more privy to the machinations of State than any other citizen. The laureate’s post should be abandoned for no other reason than this, as it forces poets to assume the awkward onus of complicity with government policy. Moreover, the requirements of producing occasional verse are seldom conducive to a poet’s writing at his or her best level.

The truth is we need a poet laureate the way we need a Miss America.

Or as Derek Walcott put it in his interview with Bill Moyers on “A World Of Ideas”: “One of the things that America has to face is the reality that it is an empire.” This being the case, we must carry, in Walcott’s phrase, “the responsibility of empire.” American poets have been slow to respond to this challenge, despite the outstanding example of a small group of them during the Vietnam War.

What Walcott was getting at is what most poets [even Charles Wright] have always known all along. Political language mutilates meaning. It suffers drastically from rhetorical and ideological dislocation. Reagan has called the MX missile, capable of killing millions, “the Peacekeeper.” George Bush, we know, is seemingly unable to utter a complete sentence in ordinary conversation. His fractured syntax only too well represents the disjointedness of our leadership.

Poetry, despite the cynicism of Auden, who realized what Oppen had already figured out, that poetry can make nothing happen because it is not and can never be the language of policy, nevertheless can play a decisive role in the rejuvenation of language. It can rescue it from untruth because it can name things otherwise.

The only laureate is the one with no name.

1 comment:

  1. I've never read a more intelligent critique of the position of Poet Laureate. There is more to consider, as poets who seek these positions are often ones whose ambition outstrips their abilities and then they are given these titles and, as a by-product, some kind of status which is not earned through the actual work, but through name recognition, which is a nod to marketing and the industry-generated-culture, a situation good poets rail against. Poets who live the life of poetry are in direct opposition to the kind of puerile consciousness that reinforces all the worst traits of materialism and the oligarchy. Poets Laureate seek to BE those overlords, not overthrow them and you can sense that in the timidity of their work. You can sense a kind of consciousness that needs to get its authority from a government entity or grant panel rather than from the muse itself. Pity. May more get this like you do Patrick. Thank you.