Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Longfellow, George Will, Poetry, and the Individual Artist or Thinker

George Will is a conservative I respect. Of the widely published op-ed columnists in American newspapers and newsmagazines, Will is one of the few of any political persuasion, and virtually the only conservative, I consistently respect and find insightful, even while I disagree with much he has to say.

I respect two main things about Will’s thinking and writing. First, he is a careful, logical thinker. He doesn’t play around with or distort facts, nor does he reduce complex matters to sound bites that could potentially be shouted at someone during a guest appearance on one of the many “talk” news programs. Second, I admire his wide ranging interests and passions. He cares about and writes about the important news items of the day, of course, but he also cares deeply about the arts, baseball, and other phenomena that don’t habitually clog the headlines. He’s probably the only syndicated columnist willing (or able?) to dedicate an entire column to poetry.

About a month ago in a column published in Newsweek (March 12, 2007, p. 68), Will did just that, with a column dedicated to the bicentennial of the birth of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. In addition to simply being dedicated to this important bicentennial of a poet of national importance in the U.S. (important for such familiar poems as “The Song of Hiawatha” or “Paul Revere’s Ride” which were once the staples of American public education), Will’s column also comments on the sad fact that this bicentennial went so unremarked in general. While I must admit that Longfellow is far from my favorite sort of poet, his poems are a part of an American tradition of thought as much as the works of Thoreau or Emerson, or even the speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Abraham Lincoln, or the Declaration of Independence, so it is a bit sad to see such an anniversary go largely uncelebrated. I’d like here to quote an extended passage from Will’s column, specifically a section exploring possible reasons for the lack of attention paid nowadays to poetry in general and poets like Longfellow in specific:

“Longfellow intended his narrative and lyric poems – genres disdained by modernists – as inspiriting guides to the nation’s honorable past and challenging future. Yeats ascribed Longfellow’s popularity to his accessibility – ‘he tells his story or idea so that one need nothing but his verses to understand it.’ This angers today’s academic clerisy. What use is it to readers who need no intermediary between them and the author? And what use is Longfellow to academics who ‘interrogate’ authors’ ‘texts’ to illuminate the authors’ psyches, ideologies and social situations – the ‘power relations’ of patriarchy, racism, imperialism, etc.? This reduction of the study of literature to sociology, and of sociology to ideological assertion, demotes literature to mere raw material for literary theory, making today’s professoriate, rather than yesterday’s writers, the center of attention.”

I agree with Will’s arguments and implications – with three big qualifications. (This is often my reaction to reading a piece by Will – I completely agree with what he has said, except for the huge qualifications.)

First, he implies that the lowered status (he mentions elsewhere in the column the past existence of celebrity poets – a phenomenon clearly not existing today, except in the sense that some celebrities, such as Jewel or T-Boz, have published books of poetry after becoming celebrities in other capacities) of poetry in general, and of accessible, narrative and lyric poetry in particular, is the fault of an “academic clerisy.” There is a large grain of truth to this, both in the sense that literary theory thrives on literature that needs theorists’ mediation, and in the sense that many genres of poetry enjoying prestige in some academic contexts (and thus absorbing the energies of many poets seeking that prestige) has moved in non-popular directions. But there is much more going on as well. Poetry over the past several decades has had to compete with many other genres of content, not least the movies, television, and the internet. These have as much to do with today’s lack of celebrity poets as an academic clerisy. Publishing practices have also played a role. Big publishers are more and more concerned not just with profitable titles, but titles with huge profit potential, with the result being huge sales of small numbers of titles, with poetry generally losing out. Change in income tax laws in the 1980s to make unsold inventory taxable didn’t help matters for slower selling genres like poetry, either. At the same time, I would actually contest that things are so bad for poetry nowadays. There are actually hundreds of small presses today publishing poetry, and lots of people reading poetry and other literature. There are no longer celebrity poets or poets known to virtually everyone, but poetry in general, in myriad forms is actually thriving.

Second, while he does not say this explicitly, Will seems to imply that accessibility in poetry is a good thing and that difficulty is a bad thing. I would disagree in that in art or scholarship neither accessibility nor difficulty is inherently good or bad. It is problematic that often in academia, accessible art or scholarship are almost automatically seen as lacking in sophistication or seen as otherwise unworthy or déclassé, while at the same time, the difficult or obscure piece of art or thought is often elevated largely on that basis alone. I do think somewhat different rules apply here to scholarship or art. With scholarly writing, I would argue that things should not be more difficultly or obscurely put than necessary, but when presenting complex ideas, such as in discussions of quantum mechanics, the structural study of Australian kinship systems, or the intricacies of modern art music, a certain amount of complexity in the text is inescapable in writing for a professional, scholarly audience. With art, it is not so much about presenting things as accessibly as possible as much as form matching content and artistic intent. Take the John Coltrane recording Ascension compared to his Giant Steps album. Ascension is much less accessible to most listeners – it certainly requires more patience and careful listening to achieve pleasure from it, though it also rewards that patience and careful listening – though on those grounds alone, I wouldn’t consider Ascension less, or more, worthy as art than Giant Steps. (See also my earlier post on the topic of difficulty, “Difficulty in Ethnographic Writing,” March 5, 2007).

Finally, like Will, I object to reducing the significance of an artist or thinker and their work to a symptom of their individual biography or sociological category. For example, in my earlier blog entry, “Charlie Parker and Shostakovich: Art, the Artist, and Culture” (February 13, 2007), I remarked that while knowing that Charlie Parker was experiencing heroin withdrawal during his class 1947 recording of “Lover Man” might heighten or inform one’s appreciation of the track, the significance or aesthetic quality of the recording is by no means determined by this biographic tidbit. Likewise, knowing that the viola sonata was the last piece of music written by Shostakovich, and knowing that he knew he was dying, might inform one’s listening, but such facts do not determine the structure or quality of the piece in itself, nor is the piece reducible to such biography. Will specifically targets tendencies to theorize poetry and other literature in terms of “the ‘power relations’ of patriarchy, racism, imperialism, etc.” In doing so, Will is aiming more specifically at brands of identity politics that explain phenomena, including art, as symptoms or reflections of race/ethnicity, gender, and/or class as identity categories. As an anthropologist, I recognize the extreme importance of race/ethnicity, gender, and class in shaping people’s social realities, but also like most anthropologists, I reject straightforward cultural determinisms as well. So, while I cannot disagree with Will on this point, my main point of agreement with him is in finding problematic any form of reductionism of art or thought to personal biography or social factors, and I do find myself wishing Will had cast this point in somewhat broader terms.


Unknown said...

Another great post.

brian (baj) salchert said...

Mr. Philen:

As you say:
"George Will is a conservative
I respect."
Further, and more importantly,
I appreciate your insights
throughout this poet. Thank you.

Brian A. J. Salchert