Some things, actually many things, are inevitable. The recent publication of the letters between Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop has evoked yet another occasion for name-calling and label-gumming. As you would expect from some quarters, Lowell gets called a "quietist," whatever that means, and is said to have almost single-handedly occluded the accomplishments and stature (two different things) of great American poets like Zukofsky, Oppen, Olson, and others. Ideologues are naturally dualists, fighting for one imaginary extreme in order to oppose another: you need a dualist, after all, to invent and then battle the problem of evil. Yet our poetry-bloggo-axe grinders show themselves to be - far more than Lowell - fossils themselves; their rote pigeonholing is out of date by at least a century, or to be more precise, they ignore the thinking of a hundred years ago. All one has to do is flip through Flaubert's dictionary (which ought to have killed off such taxonomizing long ago) to find the dictum:
"Say about a great man: 'He is completely overrated.' All the great men are; besides there are no great men."
Yet I know of no bookshelf that can't simultaneously contain Lowell, Bishop, and the other poets mentioned above, along with Niedecker, Bunting, Pound, Eliot, Ashbery, the recently canonized Jack Spicer and dozens more. Just because the stock market has to go up and down, do valuations of poets? Inevitably, perhaps, they do. Why? Well, part of the reason must be the spirit (a mean spirit at that) of our narrow age. As Elisabeth Roudinesco characterizes it in her recently translated book, Philosophy in Turbulent Times: Canguilhem, Sartre, Foucault, Althusser, Deleuze, Derrida:
"Jean-Paul Sartre – for or against? Raymond Aron – for or against? . . . Should we take a blowtorch to May 1968 and its ideas . . . seen now as incomprehensible, elitist, dangerous and anti-democratic? Have the protagonists of that revolution . . . all become little bourgeois capitalist pleasure seekers without faith or principles, or haven’t they? . . .
The father has vanished, but why not the mother? Isn’t the mother really just a father, in the end, and the father a mother? Why do young people not think anything? Why are children so unbearable? Is it because of television, or pornography, or comic books? . . .
And women: are they capable of supervising male workers on the same basis as men are? Of thinking like men, of being philosophers? Do they have the same brain, the same neurons, the same emotions, the same criminal instincts? Was Christ the lover of Mary Magdalene, and if so, does that mean that the Christian religion is sexually split between a hidden feminine pole and a dominant masculine one?
Has France become decadent? Are you for Spinoza, Darwin, Galileo, or against? Are you partial to the United States? Wasn’t Heidegger a Nazi? Was Michel Foucault the precursor of Bin Laden, [and] Gilles Deleuze a drug addict . . . ? Was Napoleon really so different from Hitler?"
These questions, these shallow categorizations: do they not strike you as "the absolute nadir of contemporary interrogation?" Let's interrogate the interrogators. No, better: let's read and even cherish things that are supposed be outside our ken, and let's not engage in what the Marxians used to call reification. Politicizing poetry turns people and poets into things, which is (or ought to be) contrary to the spirit of poetry itself. Yes, I said spirit.
This peevish rant is much indebted to Elif Batuman's review of Roudinesco's book at the London Review of Books.