MEMO ON A DECLARATION OF CULTURAL WAR
In issue #11 of Edge City Review, Thomas B. White has an essay entitled "Declaring Cultural War in Defense of Poetry’s Future." This essay is a manifesto which I for one would have few reservations about signing. I would have shown less patience than Mr. White with Auden’s premature resignation and Marianne Moore’s fussy aestheticism; but these are nuances. I wish, however, to differ with Mr. White on one of his strategic points, and to suggest some directions in which the second of his strategic points could be expanded.
Mr. White says that we should "militantly advocate the written word," and approach the Internet with skepticism. He writes: "Poetic tradition is continuous and historical; the media [including the Internet] thrives on the discontinuous and nonhistorical."
While caution in approaching the Internet is certainly indicated, we need also to keep in mind that the written and printed word is not, historically, the poet’s best friend. Poets are atavistic survivals of an oral culture. We were perhaps the very first class of workers to be "downsized": with the invention of writing, we lost our jobs as keepers of tribal memory and got downgraded to entertainers and performers engaged in "self-expression." This means that the poetry that is preserved in writing is not poetry at its most functional. Only oral poetry is truly continuous. Written literature consists of discrete literary works, each one frozen in final form and marked with the name of one poet. The authors of these works don’t regularly communicate (as do the members of the "college of bards" in advanced oral cultures). And the reader in a written culture, unlike the hearer in an oral one, feels no obligation to feed the bard. Literary scholars (another noxious invention of the age of writing -- a whole class of writers whose work is seldom even meant to be read) generally wait for poets to be dead before giving their work much attention.
In a written culture, poetry ceases to be a channel for the exchange of information and awareness and breaks down into "works," each of which becomes a fetish. The poet, deprived of the continuity of an oral tradition, becomes fixated on the hope of writing a "work" that will be "immortal": "I have erected a monument of enduring brass." While a few of those monuments are in the public squares, most are in the cemetery.
This is not to deny that the invention of writing has brought some good. Few of us would wish to be without Shakespeare’s sonnets or Keats’ odes in their permanent forms. Furthermore, a literature designed to be read in solitude can, at its best, promote that sense of individual responsibility which is or was the foundation of civilization (as opposed perhaps to tribal as well as to mass conformity). And the preservation of the record of the past has given our consciousness a dimension of time which is largely absent from oral cultures. But against these benefits we must weigh the the fact that historically the written word has also, and perhaps on balance mainly, served to help move people and goods around in large masses, without much attention to individual being. The creation of "false realities" for that purpose did not begin with the electronic media; it began with writing.
What poets need to advocate is not just a return to written culture, much as we wish to preserve what is left of its benefits. We need, instead, to go back further -- to think about reclaiming what was lost with the change from oral to written culture. In this respect the Internet, unlike TV and the movies, may yet prove our friend. It is a powerful metaphor of continuity, not through time of course, but among minds in the present. And yet it is, after all, also a written medium. The fact that so far the Internet has been used mainly for unworthy purposes does not mean that poets could not learn -- and teach -- a better use. If we could think of it as a sacred instrument, and treat it with a certain solemnity and responsibility, even ceremony, the way the ancients treated sacred things, then the Internet could help poetry to become once more a dynamic, constantly self-renewing interchange.
This immense instrument has been given to us. Let us learn to play it. Let us develop methods, traffic rules, new forms that will help up to communicate with one another and with our fellow-citizens, many of whom, at least, will have logged on out of a longing to connect.
As his second strategic point, Mr. White advocates that we should "champion the rebirth of the poet as a social critic." With this I agree. However, I believe that we should not confine ourselves to the criticism of church, state, academy, and the commercial world. We need to look at ourselves as well. "Poets are absolute idiots when it comes to community," one poet wrote to me recently. "‘Individuality,’ (i.e. ego) is much more important to most of them than cooperation." And he was only voicing what all the world well knows. If poets are going to regain some social effectiveness, they will have to work on overcoming their cognitive disability in this direction.
Is this disability congenital? Perhaps partly. Humans evolved in small groups, where there would only need to be one or two poets at a time. Yet in advanced oral cultures poets have formed guilds, colleges, have devised curricula of instruction, the most famous being the Celtic system which required twenty years of study -- all oral! -- for its highest degree. Much of poets’ social dysfunction is probably just an effect of long demoralization in a culture where their skill was regarded as "superfluous." To understand this fully is a first step.
I would, on reflection, underline Mr. White’s statement that the tradition of social criticism "needs to be reaffirmed in the form of a war against cultural mindlessness and cynical reductionism." Military metaphors are not wholly to my liking. I’m a girl, after all, and have always preferred to think in terms of "rebuilding the house of community", reconstituting the tissue of human society. But, like it or not, it seems that humans organize most readily and actively in military forms, and there is certainly need for active organization now. Athena, the goddess of weaving, was also a war-goddess, and perhaps we need to coordinate these functions.
If, however, we are to take the military metaphor seriously, then we must see that it is not yet true that "poetry today is defended by excellent generals such as Dana Gioia." While Mr. Gioia and others have made excellent proclamations, generals must do more than make proclamations. Generals must coordinate the movement of forces, oversee the work of their staff, plot strategies in some detail. Similarly, Mr. White says: "poetry also needs to generate an army of enlistees." There are plenty of poets already; what is needed is for them to be organized.
Why, indeed, should poets not organize in squads, companies, divisions? Why shouldn’t they be sent on missions to communicate, through poetry, with groups of persons who need to hear us or who need us as advocates? Why should there not be an effort of intelligence to coordinate the results of poetic reconnaissance into a map on which future movements could be plotted? Again, I think that the Internet, by which people can keep in touch without necessarily meeting at the same time, offers some advantages here, though it should be coordinated with organization of poets in each locality. Over the years I have often suggested that a concrete goal of such organization should be the establishment of a "House of Song and Story," an archive and meeting-place for poets, in every community of size.
As social critics, poets cannot afford to be wholly selfless advocates for other causes. We also need to persuade the advocates of all "just" causes that they need us, that in the long run they will not get very far in the absence of a poetic culture. For, as Mr. White says, poetry is about real appearances. And it is also about proportion and justice. "Just" causes that do not pay tribute to a general spirit of justice are questionable.
So, in short, I hope that poets will indeed declare war on the culture of mindlessness -- with all the consequences of such a declaration in mind. Let me conclude with some words uttered by Benjamin Franklin on a similar occasion: "Now is the time for us all to hang together; for if we do not, we shall assuredly all hang separately."
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