Monday, January 16, 2012

Whoa. Nice to Meet You, Mr. Berry.

I received a lovely christmas gift. A volume of Wendell Berry's essays titled Standing By Words. I just finished the first essay, 'The Specialization of Poetry'.

I'm a bit jarred by how much it clicks with me. The main claim of the essay is that poets have ceased to be identified as spokesmen for their communities, and are now regarded as people with a technical skill for language. Poet's have ceased to live in the real world, have ceased to sympathize with their communities experience, they no longer write about the world which they "have in common with other people" (8). Instead, they have taken to making poetry for themselves, they use poetry as a way of finding "self in words, the making of a word-world in which the word-self may be at home" (7).

Berry believes that this specialization in poetry also comes along with a rejection of older work. They now regard the new, the contemporary as the only worthwhile form of poetry. Thus Berry claims that poet's make themselves socially and emotionally vulnerable with their "tendency to make a religion of poetry or to make a world out of words, and by their preoccupation with  the present and the new" (14). All of this, moreover, stems from a poet's inability to deal with action. He believes that modern poets have refined their sensibilities to the extent that they have lost touch with action, and that their poetry suffers for it.

All of this results in the fragmentation of communities. Other poets, like Ezra Pound, for example, have claimed that the relationship between poetic expression and social order: "When their work goes rotten... when their very medium, the very essence of their work, the application of word to thing goes rotten, i.e. becomes slushy and inexact, or excessive or bloated, the whole machinery of social and of individual thought and order goes to pot" (Cited in Berry, 19).

This is precisely Berry's problem with the specialization of poetry: "That we have no poets who are,.... public persons suggests even more forcibly the weakness of our poetry of protest. In his protest, the contemporary poet is speaking publicly, but not as a spokesman; he is only one outraged citizen speaking at other citizens who do not know him, whom he does not know, and with whom he does not sympathize. The tone of self-righteousness is one result of this circumstance" (20).

In other words, poet's have become less like artists and more like craftsmen, regarding the technical use of language, and not expression, as the end of their work. Artist's have ceased to speak the heart of their community, as Collingwood claims they do, and have withdrawn into their own world.

There is a lot to work out here. In particular, with Berry's claims about poet's disconnect from the past. I have a lot to say about simulation and duty and all that. Because I think that Berry is describing the decline of simulative thinking in poetic communities.

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