The Dream Life of Desire

The Dream Life of Desire

Drawing a line between poetry and the political has never been simple.


This article is part of The Nation’s 150th Anniversary Special Issue. Download a free PDF of the issue, with articles by James Baldwin, Barbara Ehrenreich, Toni Morrison, Howard Zinn and many more, here.

Grace Schulman, the poetry editor of The Nation from 1972 to 2006, once remarked that this magazine’s “poems and criticism have been more consistently literary” than political. The “back of the book,” as she called it, constitutes the soul of the magazine: not pushed to the back as a matter of lesser importance (though some certainly see it that way), but “back” as in backing—the fundus or bottom of; supporting, strengthening; the hidden spring. Front of the book: reportage, editorials, the debating of laws and action bolstered by facts and figures. Back of the book: intuitions, counterfactuals, representations that may contradict our self-proclaimed beliefs. It’s an old trope, and damned if it doesn’t shore up the lyrical in favor of its own argument, but there it is: the back of the book has an authority rooted in our dream life.

But Schulman’s division between the political and the literary in poetry isn’t so clear-cut. Nation readers may know that among the magazine’s earliest contributors were bona fide men of letters: Charles Eliot Norton, James Russell Lowell, John Greenleaf Whittier and Henry James (who, at the age of 22, panned Walt Whitman’s Drum-Taps). The first poetry actually printed herein was a pair of Civil War sonnets by the Irishman (and Words-
worth epigone) Aubrey de Vere, “The American Struggle”:

Lo! as an eagle battling through a cloud,
That from his neck all night the vapor flings,
And ploughs the dark, till downward from his wings
Fierce sunrise smites with light some shivering crowd….

The poem has not worn well. To my mind, Peter Gizzi’s “On What Became of Mathew Brady’s Battle Photographs” is the best poem about the Civil War that The Nation has published, and it took until January 22, 2007:

Sunlight and plant light
glass and stain
the campaign the conflict
the dead frozen in air
the sun and the sweat
the swell of fetid flesh
the tears the ache
the empty gut the ache
the heat of loss
the nerves burn
and the shock
of never returning burns
in the belly
and the brain alike
these images lifting off
into air, dissolving
into heat and light
defy gravity
lifting off
they are going now
Mother, they are gone

Is it political? Its despair can’t be political in any positive sense. Is it literary? It eschews conventions; the language is unadorned; no tropes present themselves, except in the cumulative effect of all these disappearances: first the pain disappears, then the body disappears and then, terrifyingly, even the photographs disappear. Relation itself (“Mother”) is going to disappear. Despite the apparent drabness of the poem, it is actually a potent successor to Emily Dickinson’s “After great pain, a formal feeling comes—”: “First—Chill—then Stupor—then the letting go—.”

So the “literary” may or may not be more reliable than the “political” as a criterion for a poem; try to define these terms with any degree of precision and you end up in an even greater muddle. Is Daisy Fried’s “Women’s Poetry,” from June 22, 2009, literary or political? And in what ways?

…when out of the gaping wound
of the car-detailing garage (smells like metallic sex)
came a Nissan GT-R fitted with an oversized spoiler.
Backing out sounded like clearing the throat of god.
A gold snake zizzed around the license plate.
Sunburst hubcaps, fancy undercarriage installation
casting a pool of violet light on the pocked pavement
of gum blots. Was it this that filled me with desire?

Here is the dream life of desire (the dandified biological engine), as opposed to Gizzi’s nightmare of oblivion. Whatever the global conflict happened to be the week they were published, these poems are equally intractable. They cannot be domesticated to a “position,” but literariness seems to be the least of their concerns.

* * *

“Critics and criticism,” the editorial that began on the same page as de Vere’s sonnets, announced the intention to devote substantial space to “promote and develop a higher standard of criticism.” Even in 1865, this required a pre-emptive apologia: “The question may be asked, Cui bono?” Indeed, who does benefit from book criticism (not to mention higher standards)? We still ask the question today.

Well, writers themselves benefit from analysis and debate, as the editorial concludes; but that wouldn’t be enough to explain the persistence, despite competing cultural and economic pressures, of reviews of some of our best poets across this past century and a half (though many of their names remain stubbornly obscure to wider audiences). True, there was more discourse about poetry than poems themselves (the first poetry editor proper was not introduced until M.L. Rosenthal’s appointment in 1956). No poem by Walt Whitman, T.S. Eliot or Ezra Pound made it into these pages (four poems by Dickinson were printed—in 1929, forty-three years after her death), but they constituted subjects for others. Their work became touchstones of a sensibility that viewed poetry as a complement to politics.

Poetry has always been a symbolic battlefield, a theater of competing emotions and sensibilities. This view is antithetical to the inspirational strain that runs so deep in our country. Think of all of Emerson’s children, from Whitman to Maya Angelou: poetry is supposed to uplift and inspire. Even W.S. Merwin demurred: “I don’t see the point in negative criticism, because if a piece of writing isn’t any good, time takes care of it, just gets rid of it. The virtues of criticism are in showing you things you might not have noticed, in discovering new talent and new aspects of old things” [May 16, 2011]. There is certainly ample evidence of that sort of criticism—appreciation—in these pages. In the past few decades, they have included Josephine Jacobsen on Marie Ponsot (1988), Douglas Crase on James Schuyler (1985), Marilyn Hacker on Tony Harrison (1988), John Palattella on Lorine Niedecker (2002), James Longenbach on Yeats (2011).

But cutting against that inspirational strain runs the modern strain: secular, cerebral, agonistic. It is a discourse periodically riled by tempests and divided by factions. At least since the 1980s, poetry has undergone existential crises: Who killed poetry? Whither National Poetry Month? Can poetry matter? The latter query became the title of a book by Nation contributor Dana Gioia (who included a tour de force he wrote for these pages in defense of Robinson Jeffers, well worth reading). F.D. Reeve, the Wesleyan professor and father of the actor Christopher Reeve, weighed in on the debate with “What’s the Matter With Poetry?” [May 24, 1993], a defense of poetry’s noncommercial virtues in argument with Gioia’s plea for populism. Poetry’s “apparent marginality in a population that has doubled comes not from people but from money—from twenty years of greed and a tripled national debt and control of culture by profit-minded entrepreneurs.” Reeve here does for the arts what Nation contributors routinely do in other spheres: he points out the ways that a profit-motivated economic system contributes to anti-democratic outcomes—in this case, the marginalization of an art whose primacy to our everyday lives is demonstrable.

Anthology “wars” are another manifestation of the American grappling for the soul of poetry. Is it new, is it timeless? Is it too vernacular, is it too “academic”? From Helen Vendler’s The Harvard Book of Contemporary American Poetry to Andrei Codrescu’s American Poetry Since 1970: Up Late, from Rita Dove’s The Penguin Anthology of Twentieth-Century American Poetry to Charles Henry Rowell’s Angles of Ascent: A Norton Anthology of Contemporary African American Poetry, the controversies that arise around these books reflect a phantasmal anxiety about our political categories: the conservative’s wariness of change, the liberal’s indulgence of yakkers and yawpers; the reactionary’s fear of contamination, the radical’s love of destruction. Katha Pollitt knew this when she set out to summarize a conflict that goes to the heart of the matter for readers of poetry and The Nation [“The Best and the Rest,” May 11, 1998]. Yale professor Harold Bloom, “self-appointed last man on the Western-
canonical barricades, savages Adrienne Rich…for selecting poems by political criteria when she edited the 1996 volume of Scribner’s Best American Poetry annual series.” Rich’s selections were, according to Bloom, “of a badness not to be believed.” Rich had excerpted the introduction to her edition in the October 7, 1996, issue of The Nation [“Defy the Space That Separates”]. According to her own testimony, this is how she chose her selections: “I was looking for poetry that could rouse me from fatigue, stir me from grief, poetry that was redemptive in the sense of offering a kind of deliverance or rescue of the imagination, and poetry that awoke delight—lip-to-lip, spark-to-spark, pleasure in recognition, pleasure in strangeness.”

What Bloom derided as “political,” then, Rich claimed for “delight.” This goes back to the question: What does it mean to privilege political over literary values, or vice versa? When Rich wrote, in her introduction, that “I was listening, in all those pages and orderings of words, for music, for pulse and breath, for nongeneric voices,” are we listening to the complaint of a merely political poet? Hardly. Nor is Bloom’s complaint merely literary (as Pollitt demonstrates). But—and here’s the rub—he was right: there is little pleasure, and much rhetoric, in Rich’s choices. (As with her own poems, too—the English poet Rosemary Tonks once quipped: “In Miss Rich’s work, the moral proportions are valid, the protagonists are sane, responsible persons, and the themes are moving on their courses. Why is it then that we are still waiting for the poetry?”) The gap between our intentions and our actions, our sensibilities and our abilities, our emotions and our ideas—this is the gap that poetry exposes again and again. Poetry is felt in the blown-off head, the shaving nick, the shudder. It is tested on the body.

* * *

This tale of sound and fury signifies everything; poetry is an art at variance with itself. Full disclosure: I have presided over my share of conflict both as a writer for the back of the book and as the poetry editor. But one of the poets I have written about appreciatively, Robert Duncan, drew on Heraclitus to explain this orneriness. “War is both King of all and Father of all,” Duncan wrote, adding: “Among poets throughout the world or within any nation, men are at war…concerning the nature and responsibility of poetry.” He might have been thinking of Helen of Troy or the American Dream, two ideals that produce war and poetry.

Nationalisms are a kind of poetry. So are religions. They infiltrate our dream life; they inflame our ardor. (I seize on this word after reading John Palattella’s discussion of Polish poet Adam Zagajewski’s A Defense of Ardor.) Ardor fuels our search for the good. If there are spiritual overtones to it (the sacred heart, the burning bush), a biological vitality underwrites it. So if poets, and poetry criticism, and poetry wars, persist in the back of the book, then it is because they illuminate the passions from which our frontal-lobe, rationalizing, facts-and-figures selves derive. Back of the book complements front of the book. Neither entertainment nor palliative, its authority derives exactly from its acceptance of discomfiture, strife and engagement, as well as its praise and appreciation. Ardor is all.

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