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Democracy, Culture, and the Voice of Poetry.

Robert Pinsky. Democracy, Culture, and the Voice of Poetry. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002. 96 pp. $14.95

This short book is not Robert Pinsky's first venture into criticism. In 1976 he published an important manifesto-like study, The Situation of Poetry, which argued the merits of the "discursive" poetics practiced by Cunningham, Bidart, Ammons, and others and exposed the limitations of bardic, epiphanic, and surrealist styles of poets like Bly, Merwin, and Strand. His collection of essays, Poetry and the World (1988), featured readings of American and British poetry from Freneau to Heaney and included provocative chapters on "Responsibilities of the Poet" and "American Poetry and American Life." Insofar as this new book presents a major American poet's discussion of the idea of "culture," it invites comparisons with Ezra Pound's Guide to Kulchur (1938) and T.S. Eliot's Notes towards the Definition of Culture (1949). What makes Pinsky's book different is its somewhat modest argumentative scope. Rather than offering an iconoclastic revision of the cultural curriculum (Pound) or ruminating on the relationship between culture and class (Eliot), Pinsky limits himself to exploring linkages between culture, democracy, and what he calls "the voice of poetry" in the United States. These linkages, he argues, are real, strong, and very much in need of discussion especially at a time when poetry is said to exist on the margins of American culture.

Pinsky claims that American culture is unique primarily because it encompasses elements of flux and ambiguity, change and adaptation, motion and contradiction. Early in the book he identifies two anxieties evoked in the American mind by the idea of culture. On the one hand, he says, culture brings to mind a
 nightmare of undifferentiation, a loss of cultural diversity
 comparable to the loss of biodiversity.[...] The vision of
 destruction by an all-consuming dominant culture reminds us of the
 etymological link between 'culture' and the 'colon': the one who
 cultivates or scratches the soil, the colonialist.


In this sense, culture is seen as a mechanism of standardization, homogeneity, and uniformity. At its best it is a negation of difference, individuality, nuance. At its worst it is an instrument of ideological control. This notion of culture brings to mind an inherently American phenomenon: the idea of a mass culture, which breeds sameness, conformity, and complacency. On the other hand, according to Pinsky, the term "culture" also causes anxiety of an opposite kind:
 the coming apart of civic fabrics through fragmentation, ranging
 from the tremendous, paranoid brutalities of ethnic cleansing and
 ruthless terrorism to petty division of mass culture into niches.
 [...] In this disturbing area, the etymological ghost is culture's
 relation to 'cult,' a word denoting arcane forms of worship: the
 perceived sinister difference of strangers, its ultimate evolution a
 zeal for extermination.


Here culture is identified not as a monopolizing force, but as an impulse toward multiplicity and particularism, which threatens society with radical differentiation and eventual disintegration. My culture is not your culture. My language is not your language. Culture, in this sense, denotes bottomless uniqueness, endless difference, and irreversible dissolution of common values.

This dual understanding of the word "culture," encompassing the elements of both colon and cult, frames Pinsky's discussion of poetry's place in American democracy. To what extent does a poet speak in and to America and thereby participate in the formation of American culture? Does he or she have a "voice" in the society that sees culture either as mass consensus or unbridled anarchy? Pinsky answers these questions by way of Alexis de Tocqueville. In Democracy in America Tocqueville argues that instead of seeking inspiration in old myths, legends, rituals, and traditions, American poets would turn to exploring their own inner lives, and their own inner selves, vis-a-vis nature and God. But such radical self-investment, as Tocqueville himself realized, would become at once a blessing and a curse. Democracy empowers a poet, just as it empowers any individual, but it also makes one stand alone in space and time, removed from one's peers, face to face with the inscrutable natural and cosmic forces. Under these circumstances (Tocqueville argued and Pinsky reminds us) poets turn inward and speak to themselves rather than to their audience, thus severing their relation with the rest of society. In their fascination with powers greater than they are, American poets (the argument goes) choose the bliss of solitude over the communal sublime.

Literary history proved Tocqueville right: the first mature poets of the Republic, Whitman and Dickinson, make a virtue out of their eccentricity. Notwithstanding the attempts by Joel Barlow in his all but forgotten Columbiad and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in The Song of Hiawatha, even the most public poetic genre--the epic--has tended to be concerned more with personal than national history; this includes Whitman, Pound, Williams, Olson, even James Merrill. But it is not necessary for poets to write an epic in order to negotiate between individual autonomy and social reality. Much of today's poetry, Pinsky argues, is written in the traditional lyric form, i.e. as speech addressed to no one or as speech overhead. But every kind of speech implies the use of voice and Pinsky is particularly intent on describing poetry as an expression of individual voice aiming at community: "the vocality of poetry, involving the mind's energy as it moves toward speech, and toward incantation, also involves the creation of something like--indeed, precisely like--a social presence." Even on the level of exclamation, murmur, and chant, Pinsky argues, voice is already halfway between self and society. It occupies the spectrum between breath and speech; it is, we might say, language in the making. On this account, a lyric, no matter how inward-looking, is always a part of communal experience. Not quite representation and not quite performance, it is a locus where individual and community, private and public, inner and outer, meet. As Pinsky puts it, "[p]oetry is a vocal imagining, ultimately social but essentially individual and inward." Following his insightful reading of Bishop's "In the Waiting Room," he says: "What makes us all one--and what makes us all different--seems deeply involved with a voice: a voice that is both imagined and actual; both inner and social; both mine and someone else's; that separates me and includes me."

Such conclusions may seem a bit fuzzy. What exactly does Pinsky mean when he says that poetry is both imagined and actual, inner and social? Throughout his book Pinsky refers to poets like Eliot, Frost, Stevens, and Bishop as successful examples of how to combine private and public aspects of voice. But one wonders--could one apply the same ambiguous paradigm to the socially and politically engaged poetics of, say, Langston Hughes, Muriel Rukeyser, or Allen Ginsberg? In their most representative work these poets clearly place the social above the individual and their absence from the book may suggest limitations to Pinsky's definition of lyrical poetry. (In fairness to Pinsky, he quotes Hughes's "Minstrel Man" and describes it as being "far from his most impressive work.") In spite of his repeated affirmations of eclecticism and declarations of impartiality, Democracy, Culture, and the Voice of Poetry exposes Pinsky as shrewd arbiter of taste, a canon-maker in disguise. He may view American culture as an endless work in progress, full of shifts, improvisations, and reorientations between high-brow and low-brow, elitist and pop, mandarin and demotic, "so much in process, so brilliantly and sometimes brutally in motion, that standard models for it fail to apply." He may claim that such a culture has no place for Arnoldian cultural missionaries dictating to the masses what deserves the name of culture and what does not. But he himself sounds like an Arnoldian missionary when he remarks, on the next page, that artifacts of popular culture are "winnowed to be preserved in the care of universities, libraries, foundations." "A serious task of criticism," he continues, "is to assist in that winnowing process." Throughout the book Pinsky speaks as an advocate of poetry in all its multiple aspects but, as he himself no doubt realizes, he does so as an influential and authoritative critic, a longtime academic poet, and an upstanding member of American poetry's elite.

This is not to say that Pinsky doesn't have any populist ambitions. For much of his career he has been a passionate popularizer of poetry in the United States. He served an unprecedented two terms as the nation's Poet Laureate, appeared regularly on the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, and in mid-1990s co-directed the multimedia National Favorite Poem Project, a large-scale portrait of American poetry readership that features men and women from all walks of life--"actual Americans"--presenting and commenting on their favorite poems. Pinsky admits to some degree of editorial control exercised over the printed volumes and the recordings: "[t]he goal was less a promotion than a selective, indeed edited, portrait." Since even now anyone can submit their favorite poem to the website, and thus contribute to the ever-growing archive of "favorite poems," the whole project maintains its inclusive character: it's eclectic, dynamic, unpredictable--much like the picture of American culture he presents in the book. But when Pinsky suggests that universities and cultural institutions (like those that sponsored the National Favorite Poem Project, for example) have the responsibility to curate poetry and extend it into the social realm, we can only conclude that, as far as poetry is concerned, he believes certain standards models do after all apply. And naturally it is Pinsky himself who is in the position to tell us what these models are.

Pinsky demonstrates the "winnowing process" in his discussion of two famous, often-anthologized American poems, Edwin Arlington Robinson's "Eros Turannos" and Carl Sandburg's "Chicago." He calls the first poem "arresting" and "spectacular" and dismisses the second as "trivial" and "coarse." While Robinson's poem illustrates "the tidal forces within lyric poetry that draw it toward social reality"--thereby embodying Pinsky's idea that poetry in America is both individual and social--Sandburg's poem incorporates "brilliant but rather bullying journalistic rhetoric." The intimacy, subtlety, and poignancy of Robinson's poem are precisely the kind of resolution of private and public that Sandburg's oratory so obviously, according to Pinsky, lacks. His dismissal of Sandburg's poem, and by extension of all poetry that doesn't offer Robinson's mixture of profundity and simplicity, abstraction and concreteness, deliberation and spontaneity, undermines his general vision of American culture as something that is inherently eclectic, improvisatory, and unpredictable.

Pinsky's value judgments also epitomize long-lasting tensions in American poetry between elitism and populism, establishment and anti-establishment, center and margin. One of the consequences of these tensions is that social and political poetry is often compared negatively with poems that summon up communal life by less straightforward means--or not at all. Overtly public or community-oriented poetry, the argument goes, is almost inevitably bad poetry, just versified polemic aimed at influencing political commitment or conduct. And yet if we consider the work of unapologetically "political" American poets of the last century--Hughes, Rukeyser, and Ginsberg again come to mind--we realize that this mode has provided American poetry with necessary vitality, diversity, and edge. Their poems do not always live up to the idea of lyrical poetry formulated by Pinsky, yet often they seem much more attentive to public questions and much better attuned to the collective pulse of American people. Toward the end of his book Pinsky writes, "Poetry's voice participates in [American] society and its culture, but by its nature also resists them: singular where they are plural, memory-driven where they are heedless, personal where they are impersonal." A cynic might respond that it is precisely such a view of poetry that permanently relegates it to a marginal position in society. Pinsky celebrates the multiplicity and heterogeneity of poetic voices in America, which includes poets as diverse as T.S. Eliot and Allen Ginsberg, Wallace Stevens and Langston Hughes, Elizabeth Bishop and Muriel Rukeyser. But as an established critic and highly respected poet, he also identifies the category of poetry he believes merits to be heard more than the others. Democracy, Culture, and the Voice of Poetry (note the singular) is a graceful, passionate, and somewhat snobbish apologia for poetry in the United States.
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Title Annotation:Brief Reviews
Author:Gwiazda, Piotr
Publication:Chicago Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 2004
Words:2021
Previous Article:Flesh and Bone.
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