A good example of the future that poetry once imagined for itself can be found in the first act (sometimes prologue) of Brecht’s great play, The Caucasian Chalk Circle. Brecht is an outstanding lyric poet, but his most poignant reflections on poetry and poetics might be found within the plays, which famously employ lyric elements to disrupt the mimetic anesthesia of conventional theater. In the framing prologue to TCCC , a government official, an “expert” (or in some translations, “delegate”), possessor of a certain technical and scientific knowledge, mediates a dispute between two Soviet agricultural collectives who want to use the same valley. But in contrast to the justice on display in the rest of the play – even the justice of the holy-fool Azdak — the “expert” does not autocratically decide the fate of two collectives, but rather facilitates their reconciliation.
We often find ourselves discussing, often in rooms with other poets, often in schoolish settings, what it means to say that something is poetic. It is for the most part clear enough in reference to other literature, suggesting a higher-than-average degree of patterning the sonic and visual aspects of language. Or to put matters in another register, “poetic” suggests that some relatively larger portion of the communication is borne by things other than denotation and connotation, by measures to be found beyond the dictionary and thesaurus.
But when something beyond language is identified as poetic, problems arise.
Our series on the self-abolition of poets has, perhaps, long passed its expiration date. In the interest of finding our way to another line of inquiry, we’d like to turn to the obverse of the phenomenon we’ve been describing. While we will certainly hold fast to the argument that much of the most interesting poetry of the last century has been animated by a desire to destroy poetry, to eradicate it, disfigure it, render it inoperable – this is almost a definition of the avant-garde – negationist impulses of this sort have always existed in tension with an opposed and sometimes complementary drive to realize poetry, to generalize and universalize it.
Earlier today, we clicked through to Eric Bennett’s “How Iowa Flattened Literature.” Three people had emailed us the link by the time we got to our email. They knew that we have for some time been attempting to understand US literary nationalism and the role of literature in US soft diplomacy. Bennett too has been studying, as he puts it, “the relationship between creative writing and the Cold War.” Bennett’s addition is focused on Paul Engle, the second director of the writing program at the U of Iowa: “For two decades after World War II, Iowa prospered on donations from conservative businessmen persuaded by Engle that the program fortified democratic values at home and abroad: It fought Communism. The workshop thrived on checks from places like the Rockefeller Foundation, which gave Iowa $40,000 between 1953 and 1956—good money at the time. As the years went by, it also attracted support from the Asia Foundation (another channel for CIA money) and the State Department.”
I have said that poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquillity: the emotion is contemplated till, by a species of reaction, the tranquillity gradually disappears, and an emotion, kindred to that which was before the subject of contemplation, is gradually produced, and does itself actually exist in the mind. In this mood successful composition generally begins….— William Wordsworth, "Preface to the Lyrical Ballads"
So first there is the break, the moment that cannot be contained; then time passes, one achieves some distance, one brings the surfeit back into thought, patiently reproduces its intensity but now as representation, as form. One realizes the truth of the original moment, but in a measured way. The measure, the bringing to heel of the original overflow, is precisely Wordsworth’s break between language and real life.