Judging democratically, which is to say by market size, there are three tiers of cultural prominence in the United States. Standing at the top are music, television and the major spectator sports. The audience for each of these is all but universal. A child can enjoy any of them, and chances are very good that you can converse with a total stranger regarding at least one of them. The profits are correspondingly immense. In the middle are the fields that lack the absolute visibility of the top tier yet still attract great popular interest, certainly enough to render themselves financially autonomous: fiction (as in all fiction, not just literary), radio, hockey, Broadway musicals, politics, video games, comedy, among others. At the bottom lies everything else, the fields whose popular appeal is too small to survive the pressures of the mass market. If there’s ever any serious money in one of these fields, it’s either because its tiny audience possesses tremendous wealth (e.g. the worlds of high art and high fashion) or because it relies on institutional largesse, whether from foundations, governments or the academy. Poetry exists at this last and lowest level. Like scientists and mathematicians, professional poets are entirely trained and largely employed within the university system, producing work primarily for each other while a very small contingent of outside enthusiasts looks on.
It’s clear that poets’ extreme proximity to the academy grants them a measure of security and professional status otherwise unattainable. But this association with higher education is hardly an unmitigated good for the art of poetry itself. Given that university attendance is the hallmark of middle-class status and virtually all roads to poetry—canon formation, poetics seminars, creative-writing workshops—run through the academy, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that to speak of poetry today is to speak of middle-class poetry. Identity for the middle class is, essentially, a compound of neurotic introspection and uneasy social positioning; this sets it apart from working-class identity, which is predicated on physical strain and material exhaustion, and upper-class identity, whose non-performative introspection is rooted in the occluded arrogance of financial control. Disciplined by the conformity of the workshop setting and distilled by the claustrophobia of the poetry world as a whole, this middle-class mentality generates a discourse whose resonance is entirely contingent on the audience possessing the same tendencies toward status-anxious narcissism as the author.
This doesn’t mean that there aren’t stylistic differences within contemporary poetry, but it does set a limit on the range of available tones and acceptable attitudes. The imperative is to evade criticism from other members of one’s minuscule poetic community: any poetic means is acceptable so long as that objective is fulfilled, from the post-confessional tactic of dousing the poem in explicitly personal detail (so that criticizing the poem would equate to criticizing the poet’s life) to the post-avant-garde maneuver of fogging up the text with disruptions of syntax, grammar and context to the point where the subject is impossible to discover (one can’t be criticized if one can’t be found). The trendy mean between the two, currently, in New York at least, is a not-too-personal poetry, directly vague or vaguely direct, sprinkled with references to cultural and political phenomena, line-capitalized and with a minimum of punctuation so as to generate a trancelike ambience. Forms change. What remains constant now are the paired middle-class compulsions of special pleading and bad faith: these are certainly common enough, but listeners can tolerate them at length only if they’re in the same class and have to, as part of the curriculum. Most contemporary poetry puts the reader in the unpleasant position of an adjunct being flattered and begged by a student pursuing a higher grade than they deserve. Small wonder so few people read it.
If poetry has a distinct class character, it also has a pronounced racial bent. Just as the American middle class is disproportionately white compared to the general population, an overwhelming majority of American poets are white. The parallel with high art and high fashion, those other tertiary fields, is instructive: in each field the criteria by which quality is assessed is so subjective, and the costs of entry for members of marginalized social groups so high—university certification, unpaid internships, the extra time required to master shibboleths and mores one’s white peers have been well versed in since childhood—that the demographics of the field, historically dominated by a white supermajority, remain as they are. Of all American literary genres, poetry has always been, by a wide margin, the most segregated. Though they appear together in anthologies, the fact is that white poets and black poets belong to two completely distinct traditions whose mutual relation, at best, has been nothing more than glancing.
The canon of white American poetry, with its extremely strong inclination toward still life and landscape and its implicit upper-middle-class presumption that solitude, not company, is the primary and most immediate (though not necessarily most desired) state of being, is predicated on white social hegemony: for most of American history only whites had free access to the countryside and the stability and autonomy required to be at ease there. Contrarily, the canon of black American poetry, with its invariable ground notes of defiance and urgency and its acute social awareness, constitutes a Sisyphean effort to assert the collective humanity of black Americans. If a poetic tradition represents the aversions and longings of the class that produced it, then the conclusion to be drawn from studying the poetry of the American white educated class is that this class has never had an interest in insightfully examining its origins and privileges. Meanwhile, what emerges from the poetry of the American black educated class is the persistent desire (always accompanied by an unsparing knowledge of the obstacles to its realization) for recognition as a people worthy of dignity and citizenship. Though white supremacy is far from the only topic of black poetry, it’s evident that black poets are continually compelled to reckon with its persistence even as they celebrate their own.
You can see the culmination of each tradition in their poetic champions of the moment. Thanks to a combination of his ready fluency in poetic phrasing, facility with academic discourse, soft left-radical politics and social status as a white male, the late-stage experimental poet Ben Lerner has experienced an uninterrupted run of career success. Suitably garnished with a lurking awareness of his own bad faith—fraudulence would be his preferred term—this very success has become, more and more, the material of his writing, particularly following his transition from poetry to literary fiction. His first novel, Leaving the Atocha Station, draws on his experience as a Guggenheim Fellow in Spain; his second novel, 10:04, on his experience as a winner of the Lannan Residency plus author of a critically acclaimed first novel. In keeping with Lerner’s three books of poetry and his interest in John Ashbery, the novels strive to become narratives of their own reception. This is the classy way of saying that they’re very solicitous of the reader.
To my mind, Lerner’s books—prose or poetry—are illegible to any class of readers other than his own. What qualities they possess are predicated on the assumption that their readers aspire to sophistication in the same exclusive register as their author. Expert caterer with a limited range, Lerner consistently nullifies the risk of confrontation and novelty, favoring instead an art of reference without engagement. His formidable rhetorical talents are primarily devoted to minimizing his own emotional and intellectual investment while maximizing those of a reader whom he sees, essentially, as himself. Gesturing towards politics and social awareness while limiting his exposure to the dangers of unanticipated criticism, Lerner asks the reader to do the work of imagining him as already engaged. The approval Lerner has received from highly placed, ordinarily discerning literary gatekeepers and tastemakers (virtually all of them white) suggests the degree to which, in an era of insurgent populism, the author’s class recapitulates its political inertia by passing off finely phrased sophistries as visionary commitments to future social transformation.
Like Lerner, Claudia Rankine possesses an impeccable academic pedigree (Lerner’s MFA is from Brown, Rankine’s from Columbia); and like Lerner, she has ascended to literary prominence by composing books that oscillate between poetry and prose and engage with the experience of screen culture. Yet the uneasy self-reflection of Rankine’s writing is distinct from Lerner’s. Citizen: An American Lyric, Rankine’s most recent and most lauded book, commences with a chain of biographical sketches featuring an indefinite protagonist (referred to only as “you”) who nonetheless possesses a definite racial identity. The sketches detail the slights, threats, intrusions and misprisions of identity by which white middle-class Americans remind “you” that, regardless of education and professional achievement, “you” are black, and that blackness is alien, threatening and abhorrent. (“Because of your elite status from a year’s worth of travel, you have already settled into your window seat on United Airlines when the girl and her mother arrive at your row. The girl, looking over at you, tells her mother, these are our seats, but this is not what I expected. The mother’s response is barely audible—I see, she says. I’ll sit in the middle.”) Taken together, the scenes delineate the terms of a society fundamentally defined by the ability of whites to interrupt, misread and denigrate blacks with impunity. Under the terms of this hierarchy, there are no individual black people: at any time each one can be reduced to an instantiation of the collective category of blackness. (One reason that the subject is “you” is because “you” is both singular and plural.)
Citizen defies easy summary, but its primary subject is the process by which the color line distorts visions and bodies until the inhumanity of racism becomes as natural as sky and space, plants and water. Many critics have noted how Citizen highlights the tonal distortions occasioned by racial prejudice— but equally powerful, and less remarked upon, is Rankine’s transformation of the lyric nature poem, a genre historically dominated by white poets with scant interest in social, let alone racial, engagement. In Citizen, the tree branches bear strange fruit and the blue seas carry the residue of slave ships. One conclusion to be drawn is that the power and pressures of racism constitute an entire climate: viewed as less than human despite all their efforts, its victims can only survive by experiencing their tormentors not as fellow human beings (this would be too painful) but as a continuous spell of foul weather. If American racism is a world unto itself, the only way to exceed and endure it is, it seems, to become one self more universal: later in the book the poet extends her vision to include recent race riots in the United Kingdom and the incident in the 2006 World Cup when the Frenchman Zinedine Zidane headbutted an opponent in retaliation for what he perceived to be an insult to his Algerian heritage.
If Lerner, artfully pointing at himself pointing at capitalism and American violence without exploring either in depth, aptly represents the political inertia and spiritual anesthesia of the white upper-middle class to which he belongs, Rankine’s dedication, consideration and intelligence regarding the same topics testifies to the existence of members of a black American middle class who are willing to demonstrate their solidarity with social groups (black Americans below the middle class, e.g. Michael Brown, and above it, e.g. Serena Williams, English council-estate dwellers, French Algerians) other than their own. Consciously or not, Lerner heralds a future where literary fiction, no longer capable of convincing depictions of perspectives beyond those of the author’s class, has reduced its ambition and its audience to match those of an academic parlor game. Yet the enormous sales of Citizen (with over one hundred thousand copies in print) suggest that genre-spanning black literature like Rankine’s can still reach beyond campus grounds.
Yet, in a sense, poetry—a distinctly black poetry—has already risen to the very height of American culture, albeit under a different name. Rap music, in the past two generations, has grown from an obscure New York City subculture to the point where contemporary culture, national and international, is inconceivable without its presence. It’s useless to pretend that rap music isn’t poetry. Too much poetry, including the poetry of ancient Greece, has been composed to accompany music for us to entertain the argument that rap cannot be poetry because its verses are blended with nonverbal elements. Given its superior verbal and tonal quality and far larger audience/market, it makes more sense to say that rap music is the authentic American poetry, the only one that speaks clearly, honestly and without embarrassment about money, violence and social ambition.
In America there has always been a strong degree of skepticism and aversion to the figure of the poet. The suspicion runs deep that poetry is an aristocratic and communal art that is difficult to harmonize with a democratic and individualist culture, and this suspicion is, I believe, in large part justified: in its increased sonic density and heightened tone, the language of poetry exists on a superior plane to that of everyday discourse, and the poet who produces such elevated language can only be, by that token, a noble spirit. Yet since the core audience and core artists of hip-hop belong to an underprivileged race and an otherwise unheard class, the cultural aristocracy that hip-hop relies upon and upholds promotes increased social equality. It’s silly to overstate the power of poetry to transform society, but it’s hard to doubt that the possibilities of social change are greater when the poet whose tastes carry the most weight in American culture is Kanye West in Chicago instead of T. S. Eliot in London. It is hard—it will always be hard—to unequivocally affirm the potential of a convergence between aesthetic innovation and political progress. Yet insofar as that potential now exists, the credit for its existence does not belong to writers dependent on the academy; rather, it belongs to West, who dropped out of college and then, proudly, titled his first album The College Dropout.
Art credit: Galo Naranjo (CC BY / Flickr)