Recently I read an interesting essay on the state of modern poetry in the July, 2013 issue of the fine magazine Harper's . The article is called "Poetry Slam, Or, the decline of American verse," by Mark Edmundon,a professor of English at the University of Virgina. Edmundson makes a case that there is an artfully disguised emptiness at the heart of much American poetry written in recent decades. The poems are beautifully crafted, with many fine turns of phrase, arresting images, and a strong sense of personal voice. These poetical confections tell us many small and even telling things about the author's personal experiences, physical surroundings, childhood memories and state of mind. All very well-done! But they have little to say about any larger issues, about life in general, the state of the world, political and social issues. They may mention a little about such things, but full-force meditations on collective situations and social conditions that go beyond tightly-focused reflections on small, personal things are discouraged. What wins awards and garners fellowships, grants, book publications and academic employment are, basically, well-crafted poems about nothing, or if not quite about nothing, about the most small, personal and apolitical subject matter as possible. The comedian Jerry Seinfeld designed his television comedy "Seinfeld" to be "a show about nothing." Well, it may be that the poets of today have him beat.
I am not a scholar of literature able to assess Professor Edmundson's claims, but this article does help me understand why the teen-aged Me who loved reading poets like William Blake, Walt Whitman, Arthur Rimbaud, Sylvia Plath and Wallace Stevens found it hard to get into more recent poetry. I always assumed it was my fault, that I simply wasn't educated enough in the exquisite pleasures of poetry that delights in tiny details and eschews grand messages and meanings. However, the article made me reflect on something else, which is whether the kind of smallness of vision and narrowing of human concern that Edmundson finds in modern American poetry might be a more generalized condition afflicting our society and culture in general. I think there is something here.
Take our political leaders. Once we had Presidents like FDR and Lyndon Johnson who pushed large, far-reaching government programs to address the needs of suffering populations, raise up the underprivileged, transform our society and combat social injustice. The New Deal. Social Security insurance to support the elderly. WPA (Works Progress Administration) to put the unemployed to work doing things for the good of our society. Rural electrification. Food stamps to feed the hungry. Medicaid and Medicare to help the poor and elderly cope with medical costs. Head Start to help pre-K kids in poor neighborhoods get mental and social stimulation that is so critical in early years. Pell Grants and student loans making college education more accessible. The Fulbright Fellowship program to help Americans study, teach and live abroad. The Peace Corps. Even a staunch, conservative Republican like Eisenhower believed in using government power and government financing to build a national highway system. JFK followed with the space program that gave us so much inspiration as well as a bevy of great new technology that paved the way for things like satellite communications and cell phones. Nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency that has done so much to clean up our land, air and water, even if much more remains to be done.
Since the mid-1970s, though, the political imagination as well as the political will have faltered and atrophied. Reagan preached that "government was the problem, not the solution," and set the nation on a political course toward disabling and dismantling many of the programs set up by his predecessors. It is ultra-conservatives in Reagan's Republican Party who have led the way backwards here, with the most recent examples being the Republican-dominated House of Representatives calling for cuts in Food Stamp benefits,even as recent reports show that child poverty and hunger is rising due to economic stagnation and unemployment, and the Republican-appointed conservative majority on the Supreme Court, just this week, putting new limits on programs designed to combat discrimination against African-Americans and other ethnic and racial minorities.
However, let us give credit to all who deserve it. Democrats have often followed along on this road of regression, such as Clinton's collaboration with congressional Republicans in "ending welfare as we know it" in the 1990s, possibly contributing to the alarming rise in child poverty and hunger today, and Obama advancing a health care reform plan largely based on Republican ideas put forward by Mitt Romney in Massachusetts and the GOP-related Heritage Foundation conservative think-tank in the 1990s. Despite some positive features of the Affordable Care Act, it is very corporate-oriented in that it provides millions of new customers to health insurance companies and lets these corporations set the prices and scoop up the profits, rather than taking the non-corporate option that many would have preferred, a single-payer, government operated program, which could have been established simply by expanding Medicare or Medicaid to make them universal programs, thereby cutting out the corporate middleman, granting the government more control over health costs, and recycling any cost savings into more public health care, not million dollar dividends to corporate CEOs. Giving people who previously had NO health care coverage some kind of health insurance is good, indeed something to celebrate, but putting this under the control of profit-oriented corporations is troubling, as it could mean huge profits for them and huge costs for the taxpayer, if government is forced to subsidize the private companies providing this expanded health care-- shades of our recent mortgage and banking crises! Sadly, this is typical of how things are done in a time when no one seems to believe that good public, government programs are worth fighting for. Once again, the score is Public--Zero; Corporations--Victory. That is to say, the only BIG political vision of the last 30 years has been a negative, regressive one, centered on stripping down government programs and capabilities and handing them over to profit-seeking corporations. Military and punishment-related programs are in a sense the exception, as these areas have continued to be expanded, but even here, much is being handed over to private corporations, as we see with privately-run, for-profit prisons and billion dollar contracts to military contractors and high-tech companies developing such things as drones and surveillance software.
Even when our supposedly liberal leaders like Clinton and Obama try to chart a positive, progressive direction for our country nowadays, they are scared to call for any new public funding, but try to do it in a pro-corporate, quasi-conservative way, through such means as tax-cuts and partnerships with private companies. The latter showed its inherent foolishness when the economy started collapsing in 2007-08 due to government financing of mortgage companies via Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the "public-private" housing partnerships. Similarly, when the banking industry, supposedly the crown jewel of modern free-market capitalism began collapsing, the government stepped in to prop up the banks, while failing to provide the same assistance for average people losing their jobs and homes in the financial meltdown. Everything is tilted toward private greed and corporate benefit, in the hopes that the free market will always work out in the end, and that our corporate masters will smile on us and provide a few crumbs of service to the general public. How different from FDR taking on the banking industry and declaring that he WELCOMED their hatred, because he knew he had to stand up against corporate business interests for the sake of the public. Even the word "public" has been expunged from much political discourse, as have the words "citizen" and "poor." Instead we speak in corporate terms of "the job market," "the housing market," and "the consumer," with nary a word for the very poor and underprivileged.
Our vision of society and government has grown small, narrow, and mean, and corporate-centered rather than public-oriented. Programs that help the poor, the hungry and the disadvantaged are increasingly dismantled, as they do not serve corporate interests. There is no great profit to be made in helping the poor, in giving the homeless a home, in protecting the environment from pollution, or in teaching children to have a larger view of life. The main vision in politics today is a technocratic one, resting on the untested, unproven and uncritically accepted assumption that if we simply use better technological means, provided of course by our kindly corporate masters, we will automatically reach better social ends. This overlooks who will own the technology and derive the profits from it, who gets to use the technology and how, who is it used against and how, who and what will be left out, who and what will be discarded, and what will be damaged or destroyed in the natural environment as well as the social one. This is not a public vision of making things better for everyone. This is a cold, corporate-oriented vision of society and government organized for maximum corporate profit, with a few pennies donated to charity here and there for the sake of appeasing a shallow and not very well-developed sense of conscience. Better still if the corporate charity can be used in a public relations campaign to make people feel all the better about purchasing the products produced by the corporation, without asking why the social problem addressed by the charity is so persistent in the first place.
And what of our culture? Certainly here, the imagination can soar, greater things can be envisioned for our society, new forms of social, political and economic organization can be experimented with? Plenty of room for big ideas and bold questions, right? Ha ha ha ha ha ha. No. In the sixties, Bob Dylan sang for civil rights, the Beatles proposed that "all you need is love" and many artists questioned the social order, our foreign war of that time (Vietnam), women's rights, racial equality, and more. Now our culture invites us to immerse ourselves in the fragmented, titillating, and often narcissistic digital diarrhea of Facebook and Twitter, idiotic video games, moronic reality TV shows, 24/7 celebrity gossip, and action films with bigger and bigger explosions and special effects, where what passes for witty discourse are the one-liner catch-phrases of one-dimensional "Good Guys" and "Bad Guys." Even when we get stories that purportedly express a sense of anxiety about a future of environmental devastation and social breakdown, which could be a staring point for considering how to get off our current trajectory and seek some different and better collective tomorrow, the less than novel, not terribly original solution offered in such entertainments typically involves nothing more than heroic violence against disposable Others. There's a lot of buzzing and flashing going on, a lot of distraction at an increasingly high rate of speed, but not much depth or meaning. In fact, one of the few offerings on American television that can make some claim to a serious attempt to provide depth and meaning, the PBS News Hour, is under pressure from the corporate-based Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to change its format, which has for many years featured in-depth reporting and interviews, to make it more "contemporary" and "exciting." God only knows what the News Hour will be like should people like Bill Gates get their hands on it. Sadly, considering the lack of support for anything PUBLIC in our society, such as the PUBLIC Broadcasting Service, it is entirely possible that sooner rather than later, we will no longer have a public broadcasting service, just corporate broadcasting services, corporate news and entertainment, that will generate not depth and meaning, but titillation, distraction and profit.
"Welcome to (GBS) Gates Broadcasting Service and the Google News Hour, available in 4-D supersonic splendor on all digital devices including the I-Shit digital toilet. You, as the consumer, and nothing but a consumer, have the right to consume all that you are willing to pay for. We, your corporate masters, regret to inform you that such items as clean air and water, healthy food, personal privacy, open public space, decent wages, job security, and social justice are not available for download at this time. May we suggest the following personal entertainment options..."
So, O Bard of the Corporate Age, go ahead and write your poems about your personal little topics like your grandmother's rheumatic ankles and the angst your felt about dieting when you were 13, or how the stars looked when you were still in the womb and had not yet tasted Kentucky Fried Chicken! Large corporations love it when we are personal and obscure and narcissistic. It doesn't challenge the social or economic order in any way, and it might even provide useful material for future marketing campaigns! And you, the Poet, can get a nice, secure position teaching the young the fine points of saying nothing.
It is funny, I must say, that many of our public figures today love to rhapsodize about all the great progress happening now and in the future. The underlying assumption is that technology is going to take care of everything. Oh yes, I still remember the wonderful technology of times past. No doubt future technology will be used just as wisely as it was at Hiroshima and Auschwitz. Lots of bright people designed the atom bomb. Lots of first-rate technology, and such wonderful business efficiency, went into the Nazi death-camps. Excuse me if I withhold my applause for the techno-utopia that is supposedly just around the corner. The future I see is small, mean and corporate-owned. Sometimes the only hope I can see is that things will get so bad that people will wake up, rise up and demand something different, something better, something fairer and more humane, as people did in the past with the anti-slavery movement, the labor movement, the civil rights movement, the women's movement, and so on. It would be nice if our poets and artists could offer us some new insights, new visions, new questions, but for the most part, all we get are well-crafted distractions that avoid larger, more-than-merely-personal issues, whether the craftsmen are academic poets or Hollywood hacks.
We are in very bad shape.