Sunday, January 23, 2005

Deep in Berryman this weekend, while the snow stockpiles its small cold forms outside. Reading outside The Dream Songs, which I haven't done in years, and reading Paul Mariani's biography, a page-turner:

Although Mariani doesn't suggest this, it strikes me that the hinge-moment in Berryman's life is when he visits Heidelberg in 1937 (I think this is right) and witnesses firsthand the Nazi's consolidation of power, meaning and culture. When he returns to Cambridge, there's an insuppressible rage to his poetry and correspondence, breaking through the overlay of well-formed Yeatsian imitation. No-one--except perhaps Yeats and Shakespeare--survives his scathing criticism of poetry's impotence in the face of fascism, and in the resulting century-sized ambition, we get the first hints of the twisted syntax and slippery diction of later works.

It may be the case that after the dust clears, if it does clear (if we are allowed a future continuous enough to permit an examination of this historical period), some of the best poets of my generation will have found "what suffices" in these years after September 11th, years of war war war. It comforts me to think of someone right now--someone who came of age (read: got laid) in the early nineties or late eighties-- rising to such a challenge, writing a poetry adequate to the seemingly insurmountable ambit of the present. This narrative of challenge and response comforts me, it truly does.

Certainly The Blog is aswarm with many voices who will object to such a politicization of "the role of the poet." When, for instance, I read through the interviews at Here Comes Everybody, I'm surprised at how clearly compartmentalized these very smart and interesting poets see the political and the poetic. It's much murkier for me. Without a doubt, poetry does not (except in certain historical moments) effect direct political change, and when it attempts to it is often very bad for the poetry. But poetry does often speak--in an indeterminate and open-ended way-- to its historical and political moment, and continue to speak to future moments. What the reader does with such a dialogue is unpredictable--given the same poem, a Pound will turn to Mussolini and a Ginsberg will turn to some kind of psychosocial anarchy. Nevertheless, good poetry can create a space for the play of political and moral impulses, a place where the receptive reader's sense of his or her historical moment is enlarged, allowed to stretch out and try on various, particolored responses. I don't think all poetry does this, but many poems do, and in this way the political can be an important material for poetry. I must admit that it disturbs me to note that so many poets whose work allows me this kind of experience might disavow such a role for poetry. Is it fashionable to say that poetry has nothing to do with politics? Are we too afraid that history will make fools of us?

This is when his syntax starts to knot up, too.

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