Poetry as Democracy: A Letter to AWP
Garrett Hongo | February 1990
Ships and plans bring bad news to me slowly here on the volcano. I've just now read the AWP Chronicle from last May when you ran the symposium featuring the essay "Who Killed Poetry?" by Joseph Epstein, editor of The American Scholar, our national magazine of the Phi Beta Kappa Society, and a dozen or so responses from interested poets around the country.
Epstein attacks the state of the art and the level of talent and seriousness in its contemporary practitioners. In contrast to the great poets of High Modernism whom he esteems for having paid their way in society as doctors, editors, and insurance executives, Epstein believes contemporary poets, the majority of us situated in a "vacuum" of university-sponsored creative writing programs, are too much pampered by the system of artificial financial supports put in place by organizations such as the NEA and publication opportunities provided by small-circulation literary magazines, themselves underwritten by the NEA. We postmodern inheritors of the great tradition have, according to Epstein, metaphorically "killed" the beloved art of poetry in our time. For Epstein, there has been altogether too much self-congratulatory celebration of the democratization of the art and too little emphasis on standards.
Various poets-some employed by university writing programs-respond. Though a few of the ripostes were pungent and intelligent (Simic, Vogelsang), I was generally dismayed by the whole thing. Is interest in our organization so moribund that we have to resort to assisting in the perpetuation of a controversy designed as a smokescreen for an elitist agenda?
Aren't the real issues these: (1) the narrowing of political control of funding for the arts; (2) a regression to the exclusively elite arbitration of general taste? The elitists have their experts, we have the AWP. It's obvious to me that there's a terrible mismatch these days as AWP has assisted Joseph Epstein in manufacturing a petty debate that diverts discussion away from these very serious issues.
In the spring of 1988, Stephen Goodwin, director of the Literature Program of the NEA, invited Edward Hirsch and me to make a presentation on behalf of "The Poet in America" at the annual review of NEA programs by the National Council on the Arts in St. Louis. He explained that the NCA was the governing body of interested citizens appointed by the President to set policy for the NEA. These were important, powerful people, he said. He was worried about certain statements members of the council had been making, that a casually suggested threat to cut the Literature Program might gain support and eventually go through, resulting in curtailments for certain of its programs. Goodwin assured us that grants to individual writers would not be in jeopardy, but that other things like Audience Development and Assistance to Literary Publishing might have to be considered for cutbacks if the idea of federal support for poetry were not defended. He explained to us that certain council members-most prominently Sam Lipman, publisher of The New Criterion, but Epstein also among them- had been making statements decrying the state of poetry in America and questioning the role of government involvement in poetry through the NEA. During one council meeting, Lipman had suggested, somewhat offhandedly, "Let's cut the budget for the Literature Program by $1 million bucks." These were some of the issues that needed to be addressed, and Goodwin, while not yet alarmed, was nevertheless quite concerned that there had been too much negative talk about poetry at the level of the National Council on the Arts. For the upcoming national meeting of the NEA, there had originally been an idea to invite some honored elders in poetry to make a presentation (there would also be presentations in Dance, Folk Arts, Arts in Education, etc.). Yet, Goodwin himself was in favor of having two poets who, as he put it, were "in the life" so to speak, "who belonged to a generation that is working now, who furthermore had some immediate connection both with the Endowment and with the region where the meeting was taking place." He thought Hirsch and I fit these criteria well, as we had both been NEA fellows and we were both then living in the region (Houston and Missouri). Goodwin's view prevailed, and he appealed to us then, convinced we'd be zealous partisans if not elegant diplomats.
In exchange for transportation and per diem, Hirsch and I went to the meeting and made our presentations (which consisted of a brief reading of our poems, then a short talk addressing the issue of the poet's calling vs. the popular notion Randall Jarrell called "the obscurity of the poet"). The presentations took place in a convention ballroom. in the Omni-the converted railway station in downtown St. Louis. There were perhaps 200 people in attendance-the 20 or so members of the NCA seated at a square of tables, then, in banks of folding chairs surrounding, staffers and directors from the various divisions of the NEA, other participating artists, spectators, and reporters from the Washington Post and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
Hirsch told some simple but powerful and effective stories. He talked about growing up and listening to the voices of his aunts and uncles, his grandparents from Latvia, the gossiping and the arguing and the singing of his people at the supper table. He said that, when he first started out in poetry in college, he had to ignore those lives and those voices, he had to overcome his own "impossible North Chicago Jewish accent," and he'd tried very hard to become more like the poetry he was studying-the poetry of John Donne and George Herbert, the poetry of "the canon." But, as he grew older, the more he stayed in poetry and began to prosper in it, to discover what he thought was his place, he gradually came up with the idea of trying to make poetry more like him, more like the lives he witnessed and loved as he grew up, more like the coffee houses and barber shops and movie theaters of Chicago and Skokie, the voices and the places he heard and saw in memory. What if he used the techniques of the poetry he loved-the wit of the metaphysical poets, the romantic imaginings of Stevens and Crane-to other, more contemporary ends? Adapting a brilliant observation by Frank Bidart, Hirsch said "I finally realized that, as long as I tried to rewrite the tradition, nothing was possible because it had already been done; but I thought that if I could get the courage to imitate no one, if I wrote from my own life and the lives of the people like my football coach and my Aunt Gussie, well, everything was possible. And so I found my poetry."
In my talk, I was critical of what I called "poetry as an elite practice," the cultural formation that perpetuates a hierophany of interpreters who use poetry as a means to produce notions accepted by the general population as "knowledge" that there is a learned arcana obscure to them but accessible to a privileged rank in society from which they themselves are justifiably excluded because of their ignorance. Medicine and science are relatively beneficial formations of this sort. But transposed over into the cultural arena, these formations are insidious, upholding distinctions of intellect, ability, even class. I sketched out the position that the poetry of High Modernism, essentially the works and critical notions of Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot, had been perverted as taught to the majority of Americans by the New Critics and now too many of the "New" New Critics of high theory, upholding values of obscurity, intensive literary allusiveness, and privileged cultural knowledge that the uninitiated-generally, college underclassmen and earnest high schoolers-could not possibly possess. Poetry was thus a punishment for most and an exclusionary practice open only to an approved elite. Our egalitarian myths of open government and equal opportunity were thus in severe conflict with normative teaching practice and the underlying tenets of poetry as then promulgated by the academy. Most would naturally reject poetry rather than give up notions of liberty and justice for all. Yet, the overall setup would serve a certain few extremely well. This is what has been wrong with it, I said. But programs such as Poetry-in-the-Schools, the MFA workshop, and public poetry readings sponsored by the NEA, along with the contemporary emphasis on accessibility and the address of common experience as prevailing literary values, are now coalescent forces working to counter the problems I outlined. I did cite Immanuel Kant, I did recall the socially engaged and populist ambitions of many of the English and American poets of Romanticism, and I did claim that the MFA workshop was the new writerly "Village."
In the Q& A after our short presentations to the Council, Epstein called us "ivory tower poets" and disparaged us for our lengthy cubiculum vitae, our "profiting from the system of university patronage and support." He thought our claims of affection for what he called "the masses" were contradicted by our awards, fellowships, and positions in the university. He called us "successful," as if that in itself belied our feelings of affinity for the American people- a group Epstein must view as generally "unsuccessful," judging from his remarks. (He repeats the insult in his essay with the phrase "young poets with their c.v.s and bluejeans." As a matter of fact, I recall wearing the professorial uniform of corduroys and tweeds, dresshirt and tie that day at the National Council meeting.) The strong suggestion was that our work was irrelevant and that we ourselves were pampered hypocrites without a true constituency. Hirsch and I beat back his charges and implications (that we were isolated and protected university poets, writing in a "vacuum") by citing our own experiences growing up as readerly kids inhabiting the public libraries of America. We said we'd both had our first jobs in poetry through teaching in Poetry-in-the-Schools programs which brought us into elementary schools and into contact with teachers throughout the system of public school education. And we reiterated our connection to the history of our peoples in this country-19th century Jewish and Japanese immigrants. I remember Epstein suggesting that, by our very status as university professors, we were of course cut off from any true allegiances to the people we came from, that, if we were true to our beginnings, we'd renounce our positions as privileged members of the academy. My words to him then were these, and I may have shouted them: "It took my family three generations of laboring in Hawaiian canefields in order to buy my way out so that I could be educated to the level of literacy that brings me to this table to talk to you. I'm not giving that up. I'm not going to apologize for my learning nor am I apologizing for the history of Japanese immigrants in America."
There was a silence that lingered a while, until Sam Lipman, glancing from notes he'd made, began a lengthy attack at us from a slightly different angle. Lipman got down on our case for being "political" and for casting ourselves as "ivory tower revolutionaries," accusing us of not knowing our Eliot and Pound. Hirsch answered that charge by pointing out the racist and fascist politics of Eliot and Pound. Lipman responded that he was not speaking of their essays, but of their poetry, which was grand and free of politics-as poetry should be. Hirsch yelled, "Oh yeah? Who is usura in the Cantos? Who is the 'Jew that squats and collects his rent' in 'Gerontian'?" Hirsch scowled like a prizefighter. He was obviously angry and he'd spoken sharply. And he could quote chapter and verse from the Modernist scriptures. My feeling was there was indeed some hypocrisy here, but that Hirsch was exposing it in Lipman and Epstein. Frank Hodsoll, then the NEA Director, had to intervene, banging his gavel and protesting that Lipman's continued support of the arts was well-known, that, so was his critique of Pound's anti-Semitism in the pages of The New Criterion. Hirsch and I ended by praising Pound's positive contributions to poetry, and I recited from "Canto 64," the translation of Guido Cavalcanti's sonnet beginning "Donna mi prega..." I made nice a little, praising the Pound who was champion of the sublime tradition, citing his revival of Grosseteste and the Medieval philosophy of light, the lyric sweetness of his own verse.
I believe we demonstrated that a poet could be of the people and yet be learned, that being lettered does not necessarily entail a shift of class nor of cultural affection, that the "democratization" of the art of poetry is not evidence of its decline, but possibly a sign of its flourishing.
Though the atmosphere was a little tense-the proceedings reminded me of testimonies given by professional witnesses called before a congressional hearing-the council in the main seemed pleased with our presentations and our willingness to go out front and on the record with our opinions. The meeting broke for lunch, and a few council members came by to introduce themselves. The actress Celeste Holm walked up and congratulated me, holding out her hand. Roberto Garfias, the musicologist, took up my hands in his own and whispered a line of poetry to me in Japanese-Mi oh na-ohshi-"Now my eyes see." And the curator of the Chicago Art Institute, a man dressed in a tailored French suit and sparkling cordovan shoes, caught up with us in a hallway to give his appreciations. At lunch later, Stephen Goodwin said he thought that our appearances should help to convince the NCA to maintain funding for the Literature Program at the usual levels. The conservative agenda (to introduce an alternative program to fund a fellowships for young journalists), led by Epstein and two others on the NCA, was, I believe, subsequently never given serious consideration.
I wonder why no one the AWP invited to respond in the symposium thought to question Epstein about how he'd come. to hear the two contemporary poets he described in his piece as a "Hawaiian of Japanese ancestry" and "middle-class Jewish"? I wonder why no one (except the astute David Lehman) bothered to challenge him to produce quotations of the poems he disparages as "slightly political, heavily preening, and not distinguished..."? I wonder why AWP didn't get in touch with me, one of the relatively few poets who is "Hawaiian of Japanese ancestry"? It is commendable that AWP gave Edward Hirsch the opportunity to reply to Epstein's essay, but, as it was, Hirsch's "middleclass Jewish" written response was soft and too polite compared to the blitzing oral defense he improvised at the 1988 NCA meeting in St. Louis that started all this. At the meeting, I was too polite myself.
Bluntly speaking, Epstein's just plain sore. We engaged his attack on poetry, we helped frustrate his attempts to cut NEA funding for poetry, and we embarrassed him before the National Council on the Arts. His essay, despite its cloak of erudition, reveals base motives when seen in the context of our actual debate.
For not naming us and instead describing us by ethnic group, for characterizing and not quoting us, for not disclosing the significant context of our presentations, Epstein exposes his bigotry and his extreme cowardice. His essay is simply so much sour grapes.
For myself, I don't care a bit for his version of the old days before the civil rights movement, before the peace movement, before integration and Brown v. Board of Education, Roe v. Wade, Korematsu v. the United States, and affirmative action, before the brave poetry of James Wright and Sharon Olds, before the beautifully raised and cautionary voices of Michael Harper and Philip Levine. 1 very much like the public role of poetry in our culture these days, the open system put in place with the judicious, democratically deliberated assistance of organizations like the NEA. And I treasure the fellowship of the AWP itself-it gives me heart, it gives me courage. If we contemporaries have, as he accuses, killed his beloved poetry, we can also lay claim to a vigilant assault on institutionalized prejudice. Let Epstein eat cake and calcified pentameters as he indulges in a nostalgic daydream for authoritarian politics and an exclusivist poetry. It's bread and roses for those of us with democratic vistas.
EDITOR'S NOTE: We did send Mr. Hongo an invitation to respond to Mr. Epstein's essay in November of 1988, when we wrote to the other 100 writers from whom we requested articles. We regret his invitation did not reach him as he had moved from one teaching post to another.-D.W.F.
Garrett Hongo lives in Volcano, Hawaii. He is director of the Creative Writing Program at the University of Oregon. His last two books of poetry are Yellow Light (Wesleyan) and The River of Heaven (Knopf).