Tuesday, August 29, 2006

The Death of Literature is Eliot's Fault (?)

One quick thing tonight--reading John Barr's essay in the current issue of Poetry, which is a conservative essay and contains some arguments with which I disagree, nevertheless surprised me by making much the same insight I made on Sunday on this blog:

"Samuel Johnson, echoing the ancients, said that the end of art is to instruct through pleasing. Movies, novels, popular songs: the best of this entertainment survives because it has art. We are drawn back to it because it tells us about our lives; we are instructed as we are pleased. Poetry, coming from the other direction, must meet a standard of pleasure as well as profundity if it is to recover its place in American culture."

I love it when I think of something on my own that feels and seems important and valid, then read someone somewhere else who has had a similar thought about the subject. That's when you know you're not alone, that there is community out there--and, of course, you feel validated.

Where I disagree with Barr is in his harping on the MFA programs as the death of poetry. There is a grain of truth to some of the complaints about MFA programs, but my own opinion is that equal blame is shouldered by English lit departments. And by a too long, too great, too intense acceptance without questioning, of Eliot and Eliot's aesthetic and theoretical positions. I really think that Eliot is a great poet, but his aesthetic is about how things break apart without the possibility of being put back together. It is only by looking back to the past that Eliot sees stabilization and reconstruction of art. It is only by making his mind a dead, restive thing that Eliot feels calm enough to write. Eliot (and his flavor of Modernism) provide English departments (not creative writing departments) with a justification for ending the organized study of literary movements in the first couple of decades of the 20th century. Eliot provides a perfect bookend to the Early Modern period. You can review it when you teach Eliot and Pound.

Williams, on the other hand (WCW) sees in fragmentation and shifts in definition, tradition, and style, a platform for moving forward into new literary territory. Yet Williams has been, for years, taught as a minor figure or side bar in the history of Modernism. Eliot ends the long run of English literary tradition. Williams is the father of contemporary American poetry.

How can you fault MFA programs for the demise of literature? That's the responsibility of English lit departments. If you can't, on a critical level, examine and teach anything after 1925, you aren't making literature a living thing--you're killing it.

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