coffeehouses, politics and the knowledge of life

As poetry-type readers in the UK will know, political poetry is being discussed a lot around the place at the moment – what with the current issue of Poetry Review being dedicated to it, especially. However, it seems to be an international – or maybe perennial, universal – Zeitgeist. I was reading a blog that’s new to me – Bullets of Love: the VRZHU Press poetry & arts blog – and found this interesting nugget from America in the comments box:

The contradiction… between the political ineffectiveness in poetry (especially in countries or communities that don’t feel disenfranchised), on the one hand, and the refusal of poets to be happy about this is an important one. I’ve been chasing down the history of the idea, and the social conditions around it, for a while (ending up in 18th century English coffeehouses with Addison and Steele and in Parisian bohemia with Baudelaire), but the answer that seems to be emerging from all this research is a version of your ‘So poetry, orphaned, wanders around in the dark looking for a place to be’… Once aesthetic activity breaks free of service to church and state, and once (as is sometimes the case) it steps away from the marketplace, its raison d’etre is no longer obvious. One of the frequent justifications of poetry under these conditions is to say that it has only a private relevance, but another frequent justification is to claim some large-scale political relevance. Perhaps paradoxically, it is often the least overtly ‘engaged’ kind of writing for which these claims are made. This, I think, is connected to the idea that such writing represents a fundamental rethinking of things, rather than an attempt to accomplish particular political goal (in the ‘poets against the war’ vein).”

That’s written by Robert Archambeau, who writes a very interesting blog, and turns out to be a fellow Salt poet on the US list.

Meanwhile, Patrick Kurp got me reading Joseph Brodsky’s Nobel lecture again earlier. I really do think it always snaps straight back to Brodsky if you have any questions about the role of poetry in the life of a nation (or, I suppose, “the people”); his books of essays, Less than One and On Grief and Reason are two of my most important possessions (the first especially, because it’s signed). Brodsky says:

“The real danger for a writer is not so much the possibility (and often the certainty) of persecution on the part of the state, as it is the possibility of finding oneself mesmerized by the state’s features, which, whether monstrous or undergoing changes for the better, are always temporary.”

And he says:

Nowadays, there exists a rather widely held view, postulating that in his work a writer, in particular a poet, should make use of the language of the street, the language of the crowd. For all its democratic appearance, and its palpable advantages for a writer, this assertion is quite absurd and represents an attempt to subordinate art, in this case, literature, to history.” This very interesting thought, which I am inserting an aside into so you can savour it for a moment, continues thus: “It is only if we have resolved that it is time for Homo sapiens to come to a halt in his development that literature should speak the language of the people. Otherwise, it is the people who should speak the language of literature.”

(This, for all you people who think that might not be “accessible,” is what the Bible was. It’s also what the working men’s colleges, circulating libraries, subscription libraries, book clubs and state education were about. It started with Alfred the Great and ended with Big Brother.)

And this, on poetry as a guard against evil:

“…A man with taste, particularly literary taste, is less susceptible to the refrains and the rhythmical incantations peculiar to any version of political demagogy. The point is not so much that virtue does not constitute a guarantee for producing a masterpiece, as that evil, especially political evil, is always a bad stylist. The more substantial an individual’s aesthetic experience is, the sounder his taste, the sharper his moral focus, the freer – though not necessarily the happier – he is.”

He goes on:

“…In the history of Homo sapiens, the book is anthropological development, similar essentially to the invention of the wheel. Having emerged in order to give us some idea not so much of our origins as of what that sapiens is capable of, a book constitutes a means of transportation through the space of experience, at the speed of a turning page. This movement, like every movement, becomes a flight from the common denominator, from an attempt to elevate this denominator’s line, previously never reaching higher than the groin, to our heart, to our consciousness, to our imagination.”

and to:

“…the Russian tragedy is precisely the tragedy of a society in which literature turned out to be the prerogative of the minority: of the celebrated Russian intelligentsia.”

Patrick Kurp also throws this us little rosebud from Samuel Johnson:

“Books without the knowledge of life are useless, for what should books teach but the art of living?”

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