Academic journal article Hollins Critic

"We Are like You, America"

Academic journal article Hollins Critic

"We Are like You, America"

Article excerpt

It is axiomatic that a poet even in some idiosyncratic, perhaps mysterious way reflects his time. To reflect so disturbing a time in which a poet now lives, a time that is no longer simply local or national but global, requires a poet of probing intelligence, manifold sensibilities, knowledge beyond the academy, let alone the usual necessary awareness, and the study of the poet's literary tradition. When the Swedish Academy of Letters awarded in October 1992 the Nobel Prize in Literature to the West Indian poet Derek Walcott, the academy's citation noted Mr. Walcott's "historical vision, the outcome of a multi-cultural commitment." The novelty in the citation lay in those postmodern words, "multi-cultural commitment." But it is a novelty that our present history almost demands, even if one more freely interprets the phrase to signify a strong social, cultural, political, even a changing philosophical awareness.

Only in the Sixties when it was common to say loosely that the personal was political was the self-absorbed lyricism of its poets accepted despite the consequent narrow subjectivity. The self is always the core of the writer, his/her anxiety and instrument. Interestingly, Alfred Corn in his new collection of poems acknowledges the centrality of the self but in a fascinating structural achievement includes salient incidents in enormously varied lives to produce his volume Autobiographies.

But should the self be obstreperously central or should it be what the painter Agnes Martin (whom the Whitney Museum was showing in the fall of 1992) calls a "detached self"--a self that reaches beyond itself, even toward some transcendence. The poet need not turn so far East, as Martin does, of course, to disentangle the self from the work. Nor need the poet be as extreme as the Language Poets who in their early work at least reflected Michel Foucault's description of the writer's instrument, namely, thought, "thought as intensive irregularity--disintegration of the self." Such a sense of self, as detached or transcendent or disintegrated is only partially or slyly manifested in the work to be considered here, but it does seem that a narrow subjectivity is beginning to lose its dominance in new poetry. Alfred Corn, for example, in his just published Autobiographies, tells his story, a kind of "on-the-road" story that allows him to extend his sympathies and to report the disruptive, difficult lives of Americans from all walks of life and from different parts of the country. In its inclusiveness, what the poet has done is to establish a commonalty, a community of concern, even as the little but crucial events in the fictional personal lives he narrates take place in Americans of vast differences in class, education, in life styles. Yet they are symbolic of what it means for the personal to become the common--these seething microcosms in the vast sweep of America.

Is it that narcissism can no longer be of interest in our troubled times? Certainly work that is narrowly social or political also has questionable force. In a panel held at the New School in early November David Ross, the director of the Whitney Museum, expressed the feeling of a majority of contemporary writers and artists when he noted that a museum is a "social instrument," but an instrument that does not deny a museum's aesthetic function. As Helen Vendler has put it in another connection, "... more often these physical and philosophical pressures simply underlie certain styles of utterance." She uses "John Ashbery's free-floating poems" as an example of contemporary social and philosophical pressures that create his poems, poems that "simply assume, as givens, axioms of the infinity and relativity of time and space; of the indeterminacy of a life unguided by providence or will; of a demotic social world generating tireless banalities of language; of an interpenetration of media in which movies, television, phonographs, radios, newspapers, and books produce a cacophony out of which meaning can scarcely form before it redissolves; of a series of illusions deconstructing themselves even as pleasure is at work constructing new illusions to replace the old. …

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