Academic and Dreary
Over on Facebook, in a comment stream linked to the last post, my old friend Michael Boughn wondered if academics can be trusted to sort out the good, bad, and ugly of nineteenth century American poetry. Aren’t poets the ones who ought to do this work? And on the same comment stream, Don Share wondered if the work, once done, could ever be of interest to anyone but academics. Ouch!
Here are three thoughts, not quite answers, in response:
1. Judgments of worth are ultimately subjective, so I wouldn’t want to say that one kind of judgment is inherently more trustworthy than another. But it’s true that an academic judgment is not always shaped by the interests of poetry. This is what I meant when I said that the poets of the Norton serve the interests of a theme, not the other way around. Academic labor stirs things up; it brings memorable poetry to the surface, but also things that are not so memorable; it muddies the waters. Isn’t that its use? Dislodging things from the past, making reappraisal necessary?
2. “Academic,” however, is Michael’s word. I tried to avoid it before, speaking instead of scholars and teachers, saying that teachers split the difference between a scholar’s needs and those of the common reader. But Michael reminds me that the scholar and common reader are only two points of a triangle; poets watch over the third corner. Why I forgot this, I think, is that poets ― the poets I care about ― have ceased to be interested in re-imagining the century. It’s astonishing, really, how stable the poets’ nineteenth century has become, especially when you consider the volatility of the early twentieth. The Pound Era became the Stein Era, but what changed in our view of the fifty years before that?
This leads directly to Don Share’s question:
3. Have poets ignored the nineteenth century because there’s nothing worth reappraising there? Obviously, I don’t think so, or I wouldn’t be devoting so much attention to the era. But substantiating that faith, or rather making it convincing, isn’t so simple. Judgments of dreariness are subjective, hence they have no objective answer, and subjective answers that are able to win converts require evangelical skill. I lack that; my temperament is more rabbinical. Not Pharisaical, mind you (that would mean academic and dreary, right?), but more passionate in study than espousal; readjusting tradition in every act of interpretation. Which means that I find texts insufficient in themselves. Value accrues in the way we read them. I hope to make that value clearer in what I continue to post here. Assuming I do continue.