Our concerns in these six days begin with the assumption that poetry has a role to play in the larger political and intellectual sphere of contemporary culture, and that any poetry which subtracts itself from such engagements is no longer of interest. “Social poetics” is not a settled category, and does not necessarily refer to poetry espousing a social vision. It simply assumes that the basis of poetry is not personal expression or the truth of any given individual, but shared social struggle.
This statement set off warning sirens for Rebecca Wolff, Editor and Publisher of Fence Books, who offered a spirited response here. Ms. Wolff makes many of the points I would make, but I want to add a few observations of my own.
First of all, I have to admit that most of the people I know don’t read poetry. They don’t value poetry (except, perhaps, in the abstract, as some kind of “worthy cultural activity”). They do, however, struggle. My family—near and far—are struggling, and (with one distant cousin excepted) not reading poetry while they do it. The fact is that I could pour all my energies into “shared struggle” of the kind I believe Spahr and Clover mean and never touch my family or the vast majority of my friends. This is because I am not an academic—not full time, anyway. (No PhD, don’t you know.) That is, I do not teach full time in a program where I would be surrounded by people with an interest in creative writing. (See: I already have to expand the discussion from poetry alone, since it’s well known that most writers of prose are as uninterested in poetry as most unwriterly Americans.) Based on my experience, then, I would say the idea that poetry based in “shared struggle” would speak to the majority of people engaged in that struggle is spurious.
Secondly, I find that when people tell me about this or that poem of mine that matters to them, it inevitably matters because of “shared struggle” of a different kind. The struggle for illumination, for more consciousness; the struggle for perspective; the struggle for human connection. Sometimes this involves social struggle, but really, in most cases, not. It arises instead from the personal. (I happen to believe in the personal. I believe that anyone who makes a social/political commitment of any kind does so for personal reasons. Writers who think that their work is impersonal are mistaken. They are conning themselves. Why? Out of a personal need to believe that their perceptions and understandings are more significant, more objective, more authoritative than they are. I imagine that attendees of The 95 Cent Skool will be told such things, although I hate to prejudge.) Unless I am to reject both my own awareness of subjectivity and the reactions of my audience (the people who come to my readings and buy my books and visit my blog), I cannot reject the personal.
Finally, in all honesty, I ask myself what it is I read poetry for, and “shared struggle” of the Spahr/Clover kind is not at the top of my list. For that I read Arundhati Roy’s or Noam Chomsky’s essays; I read Andrew Bacevich and Naomi Klein. I also put my shoulder to the wheel in various other ways. But when I read poetry, I want the personal. I agree with Thomas McGrath, who I’ll wager knew more about “shared struggle” than anyone associated with The 95 Cent Skool, when he writes: “I begin with identity / And seek the Wilderness Trace / and the true road of the spirit.” We begin with the personal, and everything else flows from it. The cult of Impersonality, founded by Ol’ Possum, the Invisible Poet himself, is just one reason most Americans, including most educated Americans, don’t care about poetry. It’s not that they don’t find themselves in it; it’s that they don’t find anyone in it.