Thursday, January 22, 2009

`No Social Function'

I didn’t intend to belabor the awfulness of Elizabeth Alexander’s inaugural poem but my thoughts have returned to it as they do to an act of vandalism one witnesses in a public place. Millions of Americans, I fear, will confuse Alexander’s platitudes and pieties with poetry. For many it will suffice as the only sanctioned poem they hear or read this year and perhaps until the next presidential inauguration. “Praise Song for the Day,” in fact, is not poetry but an inferior species of prose. It is what one expects from an earnest junior-high-school student with little gift for language, or from a professor at Yale. Hearing it, I thought of the words of a genuine poet:

“Power and sycophancy, sycophancy in power:
power’s own cringing to extrapolation
and false prophecy.”

These lines are Geoffrey Hill’s, from Section CXLIII of The Triumph of Love. Writing a poem for a ceremonial event of such importance must be extraordinarily difficult but writing a poem for any reason – a good if not great poem – is always extraordinarily difficult. There’s an ancient tradition of sucking up to one’s patron on such occasions, and in this at least Alexander honors tradition. The only boat she rocks is poetry’s. About my glancing mention of her performance in Wednesday’s post, a friend writes:

“I am amazed at how many American writers pretend to themselves that they are `speaking truth to power’ when they attack Bush. Nothing bad is going to happen to them. In fact, they'll be applauded. I can't help feeling you wouldn't hear a thing from such people if this really were a repressive state.”

In an interview Hill gave last year after a conference in his honor at the Collège de France, he described "poésie engagée" as “suspect.” The interviewer, Anne Mounic, asked “What is the role of the poet in our world?” His answer, particularly after Alexander’s performance on Tuesday, seems apropos:

“He has none. In London, when a taxi driver who loves to talk with his passengers, asks me what I do, I tell him I am a retired university professor. It is best to leave that I am a poet to the last. The driver would collapse with total laughter while driving and that would be dangerous. The great poet has no social function. The mediocre, yes, he finds himself delivering fashionable platitudes to the public. The true poet is completely isolated.”

Stefan Kanfer has a useful appraisal at City Journal.


Anonymous said...

I agree wholeheartedly. It's not a good time to be a writer, much less a good writer. Here's an unusual blog that seems to concur: It's sort of 'Nietzsche meets Marx meets a fiction writer.'

Anonymous said...

I disagree wholeheartedly. I think it's a particularly elitist and supercilious point of view. Not to say that I liked Alexander's poem, which I didn't, but I think Hill is completely wrong about this, too.

Anonymous said...

The difference, Mr. Kurp, and why Kirsch's "assessment" of Alexander's contribution can be and should be given serious consideration - he actually watched the inauguration.

Anonymous said...

Alexander's "poem" should stand or fall on its own merits. Whether or not one watched the inauguration has nothing to do with expressing an opinion as to whether the "poem" qualifies as a poem. (Unless one feels that it is somehow an adjunct to the inauguration speech, and thus a species of agitprop.) I'll rely upon Alexander Pope to describe my reaction to its merits as a poem:

Thus Dullness, the safe opiate of the mind,
The last kind refuge weary Wit can find,
Fit for all stations, and in each content,
Is satisfied, secure, and innocent.
No pains it takes, and no offence it gives:
Unfeared, unhated, undisturbed it lives.

(From "On Dullness.") And, yes, this is a highly elitist view.

Art Durkee said...

As I've pointed out elsewhere, criticizing an inaugural poem (or poet) is like shooting fish in a barrel. It's easy. That's because most political poems, including virtually all inaugural poems are occasional pieces for specific moments, and like most such poems, usually not very good. So what? That's not their purpose. Trust poets to make a big deal out of something that no one else cares about.

And the history of mediocre inaugural poems is a long one. Frost's poem for Kennedy was no better, really.

As for Hill's remark that "the true poet is completely isolated," one wonders why Hill ever bothered to publish any of his poems, if he really believed that. Poets are part of the world, too. Claiming otherwise is disingenuous, probably a bit cynical, and probably also a bit dishonest. From experience, I've noted that poets who say such things are basically abdicating their responsibility for being engaged. Life's too hard, oh well, let's go back into our caves and ignore the world. That's the message, and yes it is an elitist one.

This doesn't mean that one must write political, occasional poems. But don't pretend you don't care about what goes on in the world. Refusing to be engaged is also a political choice, no doubt of it.

James Marcus said...

Frost's inaugural poem was pretty bad, but Alexander's was much, much worse. Big surprise. If only Dr. Suess was still alive!

PITCH review said...

There's a funny glancing reference to Alexander in a review here