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Poetry and the Nation

Linh Dinh reports, over at Harriet: The Blog, that:

Seldomly do we see this kind of gravity in American poetry. Clear, direct and free of personal references, it’s also aimed at the widest public, at the nation. Americans, those few tolerating poetry, tend to cringe at poets assuming such a grand posture. Our first, Walt Whitman, remains our best. Ginsberg was but a shadow, at times parody. Half prophet, half clown, he was in any case our last public bard.

This is an important subject: gravity in American poetry, as relative to American poets’ and the American public’s interest(s) in the nation. I felt the immediate urge to scroll down the archives of POEMS FOR THE FIRST 100 DAYS, but the first on the site seems only to prove Dinh’s point.

I want to offer a response, a fist raised in defense of American poets, but I think, instead and immediately, of non-poets, and of writers from other nations: I think of Salman Rushdie’s Step Across this Line and Imaginary Homelands; I think of Said and Naipaul, Sebald and Coetzee. I think of Anderson’s Imagined Communities, of Anzaldua’s Borderlands, Bhabha’s The Location of Culture, Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth, Hareven’s Thirst, Suleri’s Meatless Days, and, of course, Soja’s Thirdspace.

And then, too, I think of Anthony Doerr, who in my humble opinion wins the prize for gravity in American fiction. “The Caretaker,” anyone? For although its politics begin in Liberia, the story’s end comments on America’s, for what happens to Joseph Saleeby could happen to anyone whose exile/escape from his homeland doesn’t quite end up/live up to the hype of America’s promised land of the free . . .

So Doerr’s got something to add to the discussion of literature and the nation. But my questions now are: Who else? And which American poets do (or did)? And do you?

10 thoughts on “Poetry and the Nation

  1. This is what Eliot Weinberger’s been saying for years. And I think my gut reaction to our poetry/fiction industry is that it’s the same as all our other industrial and institutional pursuits–sausage full of waste parts that does far more harm than good. And I think, as was pointed out via the quote, our “clowns” have the upper hand as they are distractions they minimize and marginalize the moral seriousness of what is happening in the world.

    Less about the “world” of fiction and publishing and more passionate words about what the hell’s going on out there.

    Be defensive if you want, point to the engaged example (as was done) as deflection…but stop the chatter and step out on the limb and ACT with your work.

  2. Are you talking to me? If so, I hear you. Though . . . my politics are gender politics, and my first book recasts a lesbian as the prince in a retelling of multiple fairy tales; and my current, FLORA THE WHORE, recasts Zephyrus (the rapist) as a female pimp and Flora (the survivor) as a drag queen. So, in this arena, I am trying. But when it comes to the nation, I suppose I’m still trying to figure out where I fit in it. My long-time proposed, future dissertation will be an autobiomythography/allegory for the proposed reunification of North and South Korea, but there again I’m dealing not with American politics so much as I am Korea’s (especially where transnational adoption is concerned).

  3. I said this over on Reader, but since you posted this here, I might as well contribute:

    I was just kind of discussing this the other day on .the idiom., how as a nation mostly unoppressed, we have completely different demands on our writing, and I think especially our poetry. I mean, how condescending would it be on a global scale, an American poet discussing oppression, and to an extent, the loss of war. Sure, we’ve lost soldiers at war, but only a handful of times since the Civil War have we actually fought on our own land, had entire cities razed, buildings along with civilians. 9/11 was the first time really since Pearl Harbor that we’ve had such civilian casualties at the hands of war, and even then, war in this case could easily be put in quotations. (Though, considering Vietnam was a drafted war, I suppose you could argue our “soldiers” over there were largely a civilian number.)

    What have we really to speak of war and oppression with respect to countries like Poland, Darfur, Rwanda, Afghanistan, Palestine, &c. &c.? Sometimes it feels the whole world is at war. What demands does this put on our poetry?

    1. This is a good point, and I had similar thoughts — though mine were less war-oriented and more privileged-country oriented.

      I’d hoped more would contribute to this thread. :/

      1. Yeah, I think my thoughts turned most to war because of the poems in the OP.

        But, in general, the reason I mentioned “demands,” repeatedly was because I read a post on Bark the other day that begged the question, “What demands does free speech place on American poets?” and it really stuck with me. I feel like this kind of touches on that subject and seeks to partially answer it.

        Though, I’m usually scared of subjects like this because of the prescriptivists that seem to invite themselves to the table (not that they shouldn’t be, but you know.. stop being so damn prescriptive [of course, is this part of the problem/solution/quandry? this fear of prescriptivism?]).

      2. A privileged nation made up of so many marginalized and underprivileged communities/voices/individuals, our poetry perhaps overlooks its possible potential to reach (not a broader audience but) the broader audience?

      3. Give it a minute. I mean, it just showed up in my Reader about 30 minutes ago. I saw it on your FB before my Reader. Hopefully it’ll take off; I’d really like to hear some other opinions around here.

  4. Couple of quick things. I don’t read much poetry “of the moment” so I’m not sure I’m the best to respond, but…again, this has been Weinberger’s “working method” for years. We are a nation of know-nothings. We are the world’s oppressor in many ways. How do the victors write poems about this? We write of our glories and even our “unseemliness” can be turned to triumph in the face of poetry.

    We are a nation of oppressed. But we are “managed” in that oppression in ways that diffuse our energies. Good at writing? Take a workshop; write ad copy; go to Hollywood; make it “big”…freelance and blog about your daily life doing nothing but trying to find work as a writer.

    Where is your strong anger/rage/passion/love for anything outside the self. We are disengaged. The wold is falling apart–how are we so catatonic in response?

    However, the voices that write out of oppression must be there…or is the “dream” of opportunity to ubiquitous? Does the anger turn to ACTION and the dream turn to the pen?

    Weinberger encourages translation–learning about the world through the world’s contemporary voices. But he notes too that poets in other lands are often diplomats and politicians–they are ENGAGED in how the world WORKS and IS.

    1. interesting Adam…I haven’t read him, but other than one book that seems to simply be a debunking of the “skunkery” entrenched in an insular MFArt of words, words, words, what does this work do other than poke institutional poetry in the eye?

      Of course, I’m baiting you so that I learn something.

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