Brush up your aesthetics

At Poetry Foundation, Brian Phillips has a superb -- if lengthy -- consideration of "Poetry and the Problem of Taste." What it really addresses is the cultural place of poetry today (nearly nonexistent, you probably guessed), the sense of crisis this has caused for years among poets and literary sorts and the different attempts by poets to address it, notably Dana Gioia ("Can Poetry Matter?"). But Mr. Phillips begins with a quick, remedial run-through of the history of aesthetic theory (where did the idea of "taste" come from, anyway?) and then applies that to the crisis. This is, more or less, the crux of this very intelligent essay:

"Anxiety has pressed on the poetry culture for so long that it has become virtually a constitutive element of it, has succeeded finally in fusing itself to the logic by which the institutions of poetry operate. The sense of an ongoing crisis has given the white light of urgency to the activity of poetry's professional infrastructure, the complex of publishers, grant foundations, authors' groups, and writing programs whose efforts have increasingly assumed the glamour of emergency response.... Even the occasional indignant declaration by some leading poet or critic that there is no crisis in poetry seems, in the present climate, to contribute to the sense that there is one: when Robert Pinsky attacks the idea of the "poetry gloom," he is really acting as the poetry gloom's best publicist. Anxiety is so widespread in the poetry culture that the odd denial can be taken as a mere tic of the mechanism, like the stroke of the second racket that, in Samuel Johnson's famous metaphor, keeps the shuttlecock in the air.

But anxiety why, and for what? Most familiarly, of course, we hear that poetry has lost its social relevance, that it no longer "matters" in American culture at large. This premise was capably developed by Dana Gioia in his influential 1991 essay "Can Poetry Matter?"... According to the most common version of this line of thinking, poetry has broken off from the main body of the culture and has become a distinct subculture, what Gioia calls "a small and isolated group," of interest only to those who engage in it.... In these arguments we always find some mention of the rise of creative writing programs, which have funded poetry's withdrawal into the irrelevance of the academy, and some mention of the continuing influence of Modernism, with its lordly indifference to common comprehension. Because this position generally underlies the most public attempts to "save" poetry ... we might call it the position of the poetry activists.

Opposed to the poetry activists there is of course another group of writers and critics whom we might call the anti-activists. This group holds that the obsession with relevance, the obsession with "mattering," which is essentially an obsession with audience size, necessarily has a vulgarizing effect, and that the real crisis facing poetry is therefore not the indifference of society but the debasement that results from making an appeal to society that treats poetry like any other marketable product....Where the activists are concerned with poetry's public role and with its influence on the culture, the anti-activists see themselves as curators of the private experience of reading, concerned with its depths and mysteries, with its autonomy in the larger cultural sphere. They want poetry to remain aloof from the degrading triviality of mass culture ... By this understanding, the poetry institutions are like hospitals that kill their own patients; in their fixation on expanding poetry's readership, they compromise the qualities that make poetry actually worth reading."

This, Mr. Phillips points out wisely, is actually a debate about taste.

September 19, 2007 2:39 PM | | Comments (3)



Poetry matters, is a shaper of perspective. Thanks for reminding me of Laurence Perrine's Sound and Sense in my high school sophomore year. It is nice to recall that the only emporer is the emporer of ice cream.

No, only when I badly chop up his prose.

Yeah, more of Brian Phillips' dead sentences -- that'll bring poetry back. Does he always write like that?


Best of the Vault


Pat Barker, Frankenstein, Cass Sunstein on the internet, Samuel Johnson, Thrillers, Denis Johnson, Alan Furst, Caryl Phillips, Richard Flanagan, George Saunders, Michael Harvey, Larry McMurtry, Harry Potter and more ...


Big D between the sheets -- Dallas in fiction


Reviewing the state of reviewing


9/11 as a novel: Why?


How can critics say the things they do? And why does anyone pay attention? It's the issue of authority.

The disappearing book pages:  

Papers are cutting book coverage for little reason

Thrillers and Lists:  

Noir favorites, who makes the cut and why



About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by book/daddy published on September 19, 2007 2:39 PM.

Sam I Am was the previous entry in this blog.

b/d forgives bookslut a lot for moments like this ... is the next entry in this blog.

Find recent content on the main index or look in the archives to find all content.

Creative Commons License
This weblog is licensed under a Creative Commons License.