Democracy, Culture, and the Voice of Poetry

By Gwiazda, Piotr | Chicago Review, Summer 2004 | Go to article overview

Democracy, Culture, and the Voice of Poetry


Gwiazda, Piotr, Chicago Review


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 BIy, 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-à-vis nature and God.

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