November 30, 2010 / Theology
This essay is neither for nor against Glenn Beck. The philosopher Michel Foucault warns us …
August 17, 2011
Editor’s Note: If you missed Part One of Ryan Harper’s article, click here.
Louise Glück’s call for poets to embrace open-endedness are not new. She writes in the spirit of the great American poets of contingency—Walt Whitman, Charles Olson, and A. R. Ammons, to name a few. Although this tradition resonates with me, historically it has a troubling upshot.
Demands for open-endedness often become entangled with endorsements of a dogmatic disinterestedness—the sorts of which the New Critics and mid-century moderns like Anthony Hecht celebrated—for example, in this, Hecht’s paraphrase of W. H. Auden:
If some person came to [Auden] and said, “I want to be a poet because I have something very urgent and important to express,” chances are, he or she would not be a poet. But if they said instead, “I am interested in putting words together in novel and unexpected ways. I like playing with words, with language.” This is someone who might very well turn out to be a poet.
So the argument goes; the formalistic craft of poetry must be the compositional prime mover. The poet must distance herself from the concerns of the world and its citizens, all for the sake of the craft. Or the poet can care about the things of the world; those cares just cannot drive the poetic enterprise—the assumption being that poets driven by any righteous cause other than the cause of righteous craft quickly become crude pamphleteers, pontificating prosaically about the plight of the poor, the sexually marginal, the cultural outsider. Furthermore, because the power of the righteous cause—or the power of the poet’s conviction—will not suffice to render a powerful poem, the righteous-cause poet damages both the formalistic quality and the prophetic witness of the poem. Therefore, the righteous-cause poet ultimately nullifies her ultimate concern.
Be they Pietistic or Marxist, righteous causes certainly have fueled a lot of bad poetry. And if it is legitimate to believe Hecht composed “More Light! More Light!” in a mood of calculated disinterestedness, there is indeed an explosive and chilling pathos—a cold fusion—to a disinterested approach.
But pure disinterestedness is impossible. I believe most poets accept this impossibility intellectually. Most of us in the humanities, having imbued Michel Foucault, if not Friedrich Nietzsche, likely will nod lazily when someone claims that some interest undergirds all of our endeavors. The impossibility of disinterestedness becomes especially clear in retrospect; one need not be a brilliant theorist of race or gender to note the very particular interests attached to the New Critical proclamations of disinterestedness.
But practically, in our own moment of creation, contemporary poets frequently take on the New Critical mantra, denying that interests substantially inform their craft. This is especially true and especially troubling in a generation in which poetry has become specialized and professionalized to an unprecedented degree. Poets literally cannot afford to think that their creative writing programs have interests other than shaping them into good craftspeople—or that the very notion of a professional craft is politicized, predicated upon the exclusion of voices that are “interested” in toppling one of the craft’s current load-bearing pillars. Academic poets (and, in a sense, that is all of us who attempt to publish in the epoch of academic professionalism) cannot afford to think that the academy teaches unto its own perpetuity, rewards only usable or ignorable dynamisms, and restricts those experiments of form and content that would shake foundations. We of the academy cannot afford to think that our institutions’ interests have any meaningful effect on what we write, how we write, or the fact that we write. When we narrate ourselves to ourselves and others, either we must employ that tired old romance of the academic visionary versus the academic money-men—in which singular professors or perhaps their departments practice their genius surreptitiously, away from the watchful eyes of the cold pragmatists in the administrative building whose vision extends only to the financial bottom line—or we must imagine that the academy, like us, possesses a disinterested singularity that allows for the flourishing of our disinterested singularity. There are manifold career incentives simply to take our stipends and salaries and to proclaim ourselves free artists, open to contingency, working in a free space, alongside people who are open to whatever our disinterested jaunts into the unknown yield. I write presently in one of the historic stone structures of Princeton University. It is silent and windless here; untroubled, a writer could draft and draft. The very stones cry out on my behalf.
When I read some of the tunnel-vision academic poetry of the twenty-first century, I cannot believe this species of disinterestedness is desirable. By “tunnel-vision” I do not mean simply autobiographical poetry, for it requires wide eyes to see oneself. Rather, I mean poetry that fancies the world—including potential readers—as being thoroughly external to the poet and merely incidental to the poem. This is a sign of disinterestedness-turned-disconnectedness, which is a predictable but unfortunate perversion of that disinterestedness which attempts to meet the world on the world’s terms, to hand some of the meaning-making over to the reader, to transform the poetic enterprise into communion. The disconnected poet has no true community—for true communities house substantive dissenters. The disconnected poet answers to no one but species of himself—or to the program that created him, which is usually nothing more than his own ego writ large. Such a poet becomes a soliloquist—and not a very good one, because good soliloquists have seen the world, have listened in terrible wonder as their voices bend back to them from the backs of theaters, have seen the shadow their bodies cast on the stage floor, dark and unsteady. The disconnected poet conceives neither of the world nor of himself in it.
Because he mistakes indifference toward the tension and conflict inherent in a radically open-ended universe for a strenuous inhabiting of the tension and conflict, the disconnected poet presumptuously delights in his own negative capability. He believes he has accepted a Keatsian uncertainty, a comfort with the absence of resolution, when in fact he merely has exempted himself from involvement with and responsibility to the world, its citizens, and the contingencies that go with them. When the disconnected poet dramatizes questions—not realizing that the dramatization of particular questions as opposed to other questions reveals particular commitments on his part—he is guarding his singularity by exonerating himself from history, which perpetually requires humans to provide answers, however provisional. This sort of poet is every bit as condescending and feckless as the poet who bullies an intended response from readers. The Great Dramatizer of Questions is beyond challenge. It takes no great courage to invite readers to respond to one’s questions, for questions are designed for responses. It takes some courage, some risking of the self, to invite readers to respond to one’s answers.
Enter the evangelical, who has the audacity to wear her commitments in the public square. No doubt, many of her commitments might strike non-evangelicals as parochial. But only a cosmopolitan of the most parochial variety would view a person’s parochialisms as reason enough to scoff at all of her particularities. Only a pluralist of the narrowest sort would refuse to countenance the widely resonant commitments an evangelical voices as a consequence of her particular theological commitments. We all may not be able to gleefully recite John 3:16 in the same spirit as an evangelical, but we may recognize, respect, and even learn from a person who take God’s love for the world to mean she must commit herself to resist oppression, renounce violence, and prioritize the experiences of the marginalized. True, these are not the only commitments various evangelicals might regard as commensurable with their theologies, as the all-too-frequent alignment of American evangelicalism with American imperialism resoundingly demonstrates. But the legacy of resistance is still there among evangelicals. The tradition of giving voice to the voiceless is still there. Especially (but not exclusively) among young evangelicals today, an increasingly vocal impatience abounds with a Christianity that serves as ornamentation for the rich and powerful. Many of these voices presently may be sighs too deep for words. But they will become words in time, if these evangelicals find a community where prophets are not without honor.
Such evangelicals more nearly approximate the prophetic valence of poetry—especially American poetry—than do those whose celebrations of disinterestedness blind them to the very imminent disasters to which a non-circumspect disinterestedness can lead. For surely the poetic enterprise is built on more than a foundational commitment to non-commitment. Many of the great poets wrote as particularly committed people. This is true even of the great poets of contingency. Walt Whitman was driven both by the (re)vision of his craft and by his democratic vistas; the two drives mutually informed one another. It was not simply the search for new aesthetic forms that caused Adrienne Rich to chart a path from Rukeyser, to dive into the wreck of patriarchy; it was not simply novel wordplay with which Rich surfaced—transformed, a radically new radical poet. Even William Carlos Williams—one of Glück’s outcome-disregarding lodestars—had something generally democratic in mind when he made a start out of particulars; something gave him the idea to turn from ideas, toward the things themselves. Scope eluded Ammons’s grasp, but he still allowed himself eddies of meaning: those eddies always swirled around Ammons’s commitment to the individual soul’s inviolable capacity for radiance. A directed contingency—a mobile and powerful telos, a heated fission—charged all of these poets. They wrote poetry out of and unto a vision of how the world was and might be. Were this not the case, we would not be drawn to their radiance. We might pick up their volumes once; we would not pick them up twice.
Evangelical commitment does not merely translate to exhortation. It also often results in profound self-examination. The pixilated, round-the-clock bombast of jeremiadists often overshadow this characteristic of evangelicalism, but it is a serious facet of evangelical piety. Evangelicals are compelled to understand their own brokenness, their own complicity in the wrongs they perceive in the “external” world, their own need for redemption, their own potential for offering redemption. True, there are evangelicals who either do little self-examination or who predicate their examination upon fraudulent dichotomies; evangelical soul-searching can become a Manichean project of escape from either the material world or society or both—a simple matter of figuring out how to be “in the world but not of it,” how to hole up like the great Carmelite poet, recusing oneself alone from involvement in the hellish world of other people. But I do not find, on the whole, that evangelicals are prone to unaffected removal from the world. Their world-loving God calls loudly. Especially among Reformed evangelicals who claim the likes of Jonathan Edwards as their theocultural heritage, I find a great deal of intense, honest, and communal introspection—a passionate and persistent ambivalence toward the self that is of a piece with their passionate and persistent ambivalence toward their world. If through their self-examination evangelicals maintain hope for personal transformation (without which there is mute despair) and hope for the world’s transformation (without which there is self-righteous apathy), the ambivalence is productive: the beginning of all transformations.
I return to Glück, this time on the poet’s motivation and mood: “When the force and misery of compulsion are missing, when the scar is missing; the ambivalence which seeks, in the self, responsibility [. . .] when ambivalence toward the self is missing, the written recreation, no matter how artful, forfeits emotional authority.” I believe evangelicals might be predisposed uniquely toward these blessings and curses of temperament. It makes many of them anxious, somewhat neurotic people (hardly a disqualifier for membership in poetry guilds). It is hard to imagine a literary community that would not benefit from having such tormented, loving people of faith as fellow citizens. We need writers so passionately committed, writers who have something urgent and important to communicate. The world groans for their transformation.
Ryan Harper is a graduate student in the department of religion at Princeton University, where he is completing a dissertation on contemporary southern gospel music. His poetry, essays, and articles have appeared or are forthcoming in Litchfield Review, Ruminate, Potomac Review, Sugar House Review, Journal of Religion and Popular Culture, Huffington Post, and elsewhere. Ryan lives in New Jersey with his spouse, the writer and chaplain Lynn Casteel Harper. He is a jazz drummer, avid runner, and lover of the outdoors.