Democracy, Culture and the Voice of Poetry:

Democracy, Culture and the Voice of Poetry:

Robert Pinsky
Copyright Date: 2002
Pages: 112
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    Democracy, Culture and the Voice of Poetry:
    Book Description:

    The place of poetry in modern democracy is no place, according to conventional wisdom. The poet, we hear, is a casualty of mass entertainment and prosaic public culture, banished to the artistic sidelines to compose variations on insipid themes for a dwindling audience. Robert Pinsky, however, argues that this gloomy diagnosis is as wrongheaded as it is familiar. Pinsky, whose remarkable career as a poet itself undermines the view, writes that to portray poetry and democracy as enemies is to radically misconstrue both. The voice of poetry, he shows, resonates with profound themes at the very heart of democratic culture.

    There is no one in America better to write on this topic. One of the country's most accomplished poets, Robert Pinsky served an unprecedented two terms as America's Poet Laureate (1997-2000) and led the immensely popular multimedia Favorite Poem Project, which invited Americans to submit and read aloud their favorite poems. Pinsky draws on his experiences and on characteristically sharp and elegant observations of individual poems to argue that expecting poetry to compete with show business is to mistake its greatest democratic strength--its intimate, human scale--as a weakness.

    As an expression of individual voice, a poem implicitly allies itself with ideas about individual dignity that are democracy's bedrock, far more than is mass participation. Yet poems also summon up communal life.. Even the most inward-looking work imagines a reader. And in their rhythms and cadences poems carry in their very bones the illusion and dynamic of call and response. Poetry, Pinsky writes, cannot help but mediate between the inner consciousness of the individual reader and the outer world of other people. As part of the entertainment industry, he concludes, poetry will always be small and overlooked. As an art--and one that is inescapably democratic--it is massive and fundamental.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-2515-8
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. I Culture
    (pp. 1-18)

    The term “culture” with its old agricultural and biological connotations has taken on a new, surprising centrality. In world affairs and in American electoral politics, in geopolitical analysis and in economics, culture has become a kind of ulterior cause of causes. It has been proposed that culture determines the power of a nation to achieve economic development, and that cultural more than political differences underlie electoral contests and atrocities, economic trends and terrorist acts. Cultural clashes seem to have replaced ideological strife. Even the directions and conceptions of science have been seen in cultural terms.

    Far from resisting this trend,...

  5. II Vocality
    (pp. 19-30)

    Dire abandonment, I have read, often makes institutionalized souls, especially children, croon and rock rhythmically: a heartbroken ritual music, a making, a fearsomely minimal created presence. A clinical name for this behavior is autostimulation. The embarrassing hint of masturbation in that term, the grotesque unease or nervous giggle of the association, perhaps reveals an eerie recognition. Just outside the membrane enclosing that wounded isolation, made vivid by contrast, is my ordinary consciousness: engaged yet furtive, communicative yet shamed, teeming with a host of wants and taboos—the word “taboo” embodying the price of our charmed admission to the world of...

  6. III Self-Consciousness
    (pp. 30-43)

    To some extent, poetry always includes the social realm because poetry’s very voice evokes the attentive presence of some other, or its lack: an auditor, significantly absent or present. And in twentieth-century American poetry’s incorporation of explicit social material, the tension of social embarrassment and isolation—like the cultural tension of uniformity and dissolution—recurs in our endlessly varying struggles between stereotypes and freedoms, snobberies and realities: an intricate, ineffable process, endlessly banal and aspiring, dire and zany.

    The Favorite Poem Project, which became a document (and an example) of that process, began as my response to the peculiar title...

  7. IV Performance
    (pp. 43-46)

    This intimacy and human scale of poetry have special meaning within a mass culture extraordinarily rich in performance—a society where show business and performing arts provide a major industry, a de facto aristocracy, and an all-but-universal measure of things. The mass culture of our democracy, our standard arena for expressing the anxieties of cult andcolon, is a mighty achievement. And its works have included poetry and been included in poetry. But poetry also plays a significant role as a contrast to mass culture—somewhat resistant precisely because the poetic medium is essentially individual.

    This contrast explains the frequency...

  8. V Social Presence
    (pp. 46-54)

    I have said that poetry penetrates to where the body recognizes the stirring of meaning. The English language lacks an auditory parallel to “visualization,” but in that nameless action of imagining the audible shapes of meanings a crucial human power dwells.

    That power is social as well as psychological. If all art is imitation, what does the art of verse imitate? It imitates the social actions of meaning. (This mimesis is all the more distinct if the poem is difficult or aspires to the “nonreferential.”) The cadences of poetry mime the shapes of our sentences, our meaningful grunts of exclamation,...

  9. VI Readers
    (pp. 55-64)

    One question such a portrait might illuminate is the place of poetry in relation to a tremendously powerful, elaborate, and often brilliant mass culture. In one way or another, every American poet and reader must respond to that amazing constellation of genius and vulgarity, vitality and turpitude, of which the greatest products are jazz and the American feature film. The decidedly non-statistical, unscientific nature of the project had the advantage, as well as the limitation, of disregarding numbers in favor of instances.

    One of the participants we eventually filmed, John Doherty, wrote in his initial correspondence the sentence “I guess...

  10. VII The Narcissistic and the Personal
    (pp. 64-73)

    When the Favorite Poem Project has been described approvingly as “populist” I have felt uncomfortable, because I know that the approach was in essential ways elitist. There is a generation that loves the writing of Robert Service, and some of them wrote cogent letters in response to the project, and some of their grandchildren wrote about Shel Silverstein. Some from the generations between those two wrote to us about Rod McKuen, or the lyrics of Bob Dylan—all part of the larger archive of letters and e-mails, and significant elements in that archive, but not represented in the book or...

  11. VIII Models of Culture
    (pp. 73-79)

    A successful, inventive mass culture, together with Tocqueville’s “principle of equality” from which the mass culture partly grows, have engendered a need to define, and perhaps to construct, the social place of an ancient art. This pressure should not be seen as merely negative; it, too, is enabling as well as controlling. The mass culture itself struggles to adjust memory and change, and like the poets it sometimes succeeds and sometimes collapses into pretension or banality. In the absence of the settled aristocratic idea, and in the absence of the unifying folk culture, Americans have been pressed to supply new...

  12. IX Conclusion
    (pp. 79-94)

    I will quote one of my own favorite poems—one I have written about before, in an account of my home town on the Jersey Shore. Written near the beginning of the twentieth century by Edwin Arlington Robinson, “Eros Turannos” epitomizes for me the tidal forces within lyric poetry that draw it toward social reality. The poem’s peculiar, rather spectacular form embodies those forces and their “War,” as Bishop calls it, with something private and interior. In its title and other echoes of Greek tragedy, in its focus on one heroic figure in her choral, provincial setting, “Eros Turannos” recalls...

  13. Index of Names
    (pp. 95-96)