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Sunday, February 27, 2011

"The Discursive Situation of Poetry" by Robert Archambeau

In this essay, "The Discursive Situation of Poetry"in The Monkey and The Wrench, edited by Bissinger and Gallaher, Robert Archambeau  comes to the somewhat startling conclusion that "historically, the conditions under which poetry becomes widely popular are not conditions we should seek out." The two conditions Archambeau identifies are Victorianism and the expression of oppressed peoples toward their government.

In the former case, Victorians used poetry as a sort of moral guide. With an insecure rising middle class who needed instruction on the values and expectations of people of stature, poetry played an invaluable role. Perhaps Tennyson is the perfect example of this poet.

As far as the latter condition goes, Archambeau goes into little detail other than to reference the Celtic Revival in Ireland. However, it is not difficult for us to extrapolate. In many movements for liberation, from China to Africa, poetry has played various roles in the fight for human dignity, from agit-prop to the creation of counter-traditions such as the Francophone Négritude poets.

How does Archambeau see poetry working within U.S. culture at the present time? Primarily as academically credentialed professors writing for others with such credentials. He views this as a rather dry and less colorful extension of Bohemia artistry, where the market could not handle all the art being produced so groups of artists began to produce it for themselves.

How might this situation change? Archambeau seems particularly skeptical about boosterism and publicity. Instead, we need to look at wider social/historical forces impinging on the academy. And the most important one right now is "the encroachment of market values on the previously semi-autonomous academic system." (He takes this idea from Frank Donoghue.) The humanities may be the least well placed educational arenas to defend their utilitarian benefit.

Archambeau says that these changes will bring about a new historical condition for poetry, and we can hardly predict the form it will take. He also seems pessimistic about our ability to direct this movement in any significant manner. (I personally do not want to see poetry lose its foothold in the universities and colleges.)

This provocative article seems convincing on a number of levels. Of course we would not want to live in a society as cruel as Victorian England or as repressive as those suffering under a dictator or one party rule. Having poetry being popular is too big a cost to pay.

But I wonder at the dichotomy that Archambeau sets up:
poetry in a free society is unpopular as poetry in an unfree society is popular.

I profoundly disagree with Archambeau. Poetry is hardly unpopular in the U.S. today. The form of poetry that involves sophisticated words placed on a page, usually with line breaks, to be read quietly alone or to a quiet crowd, that form of poetry is not popular.

But song lyrics are wildly popular. And they are poetry: "lyric" poetry and song "lyrics" come from the same root. The fact that there are a lot of bad pop, rock, rap, country, and blues lyrics does not mean the poetry is bad. Any type of poetry needs to be judged by its finest examples. And there can be no doubt that some of the finest lyrics today serve as good performance poetry. This argument is not even out of the mainstream. The Anthology of Rap recently came out with Henry Louis Gates giving his imprimatur in the form of an afterword.

So the issue is not that we have stopped liking poetry. We have just stopped liking the type of poetry that is read silently or unaccompanied. Why is that? One is because technology has allowed us to. We now have stereos to play the lyrics accompanied by the spectacle of song. In Bryon's day, would his poetry have been sung over synthesizers, beats, and guitars if recording were available?

Old technologies rarely leave when new ones arrive. They just adapt. Wagon rides, after the advent of tractors and cars, switched from a simple necessity to a special celebratory activity, usually during the winter. Scrolls also are still around, centuries after Gutenberg, but they serve an ornamental rather than a utilitarian purpose. Newspapers will still be around for years, in spite of the internet.

What poetry represents, then, is a backwater technology, a nostalgia. The question becomes, if we feel compelled to write poetry, what can we do with this nostalgia? And here is where things get interesting. We could give in to just using it as tradition and allowing the nostalgia to completely overcome us, to become the poetic equivalent of gleeful wagon rides. Or, because poetry is nostalgia, it is not tethered to markets, nor is much expected of it, allowing it to become a sort of free-floating entity if we develop it in that direction,

This, then, becomes a paradoxical argument for experimental poetry, saying that its very nostalgic uselessness is what gives it its most power. What is this power? Here I come back to Archambeau. It is a Bohemian power where people who have, for whatever reason (academia, friends, curiosity, having come across a book in a bookstore or a poem on the internet), been drawn to this free-floating nostalgia and accept its marginalization, while at the same time taking the writing quite seriously.Why take it seriously? Because it is freeing to write and to read. It loosens assumptions and causes beliefs to dance before our eyes, making us ask if we want to continue believing them.

So people have not drifted away from poetry. The means of production simply allow it to be delivered in a more spectacular manner. This causes the marginalization of what we have traditionally termed poetry, words sitting on the page to be read quietly. This marginalization creates a kind of nostalgia to be associated with this poetry that can free poets from most any tethers when it comes to writing, thereby allowing them to experiment freely.

One word of caution: how do you convince a politician or academic administrator to fund difficult, exploratory poetry that few people read?

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