21 oct. 2005

In conversation with my Latin Americanist colleagues an issue came up. They worry that literature itself is a conservative thing. That is, they view the object of study itself as somehow suspect, infused with conservative baggage that it is their task to be suspicious of. I don't feel at all this way. That is, I feel that "literature" can be positioned anywhere in political terms, depending on the circumstances, but that there is nothing inherently conservative about literature itself. I don't know whether this difference is due to the fact that I am not a Latin Americanist and don't have the ideological baggage of that particular field, or whether it is because I am a poet and cannot feel that literature is something I can hold at arm's length. Possibly it is the idea that teaching only literature, or teaching literature without the requisite socio-political contextualization, is a conservative enterprise.

Although it is only comparatively recently that I have considered myself a "career" poet, I think I do identify poetry as part of myself. There are plenty of political issues surrounding literature and poetry that are interesting to discuss, and I have all sorts of political opinions that are not far removed from those of my colleagues, but I cannot view political concerns as an acid test of the value of literature or poetry. Even a "conservative" body of work will end up having a certain value that is not confined by its ideology. If someone proved to me the Euripides was "conservative" in the context of his time, that he was on the wrong side politically, I would still stick with Euripides. I would say that that is very interesting, but that that is not the way Euripides is to be judged in the first place. By the same token, I would not admire him more if it were proven that he was "progressive" for his time. In short, I lose no sleep worrying whether teaching literature is a conservative thing to do. Creating poetic texts is something people do, have always done. It's like asking whether breathing is conservative.

What do you all think?

12 comentarios:

eeksypeeksy dijo...

It's not so hard to ignore ancient politics -- Ghibelline or Guelf, it's all the same to me -- but can you, in a contemporary poet, see past the poet's politics to judge the value of the poetry? And if the poetry itself is political, can you see past the poetry's politics to determine whether the two sestinas you're reading, one for arctic drilling and one against, are any good? (That's what we need, sestinas for and against arctic drilling. This could be a book.)

GJPW dijo...

I think that politics can be there or not in the poems but you're so right about the lasting value of certain work. I'm thinking of certain Venezuelan poets that write much further beyond any ideological stance.

Or someone like Roque Dalton in Latin America, his politicized "clandestine" poems of the 1960s vs. his posthumous novel "Pobrecito poeta que era yo." Politics is given a minor (though prominent) place in the book. Ernesto Cardenal vs. Octavio Paz. We should read them with their time but also beyond it.

David Leftwich dijo...

I would agree with you. Neruda was influenced by his politics and also blinded some by his politics -- his tacit support of Stalin, which now seems against the "humanism" of his poetry. Pound and Eliot, at times, had what I would consider questionable politics but their best poetry manages to transcend the political. And who knows exactly what Stevens politics were -- I once spent a semester trying to figure that out, and they were probably somewhat in line with what you might expect from a business man of his times, but they seem irrelevant to his poetry. Literature is both of politics and transcends politics. I think viewing everything only through the prism (prison) of political dichotomies is limiting.

Jonathan dijo...

I'm not so interested in particular cases of writers on one side or the other of the political spectrum, but on the root question of what the horizon of judgment is to be.

Neruda's Stalinism is far from "tacit," and I'd love to see a sestina in favor of arctic oil drilling. Wouldn't it automatically be read ironically?

David Koehn dijo...

Breathing IS conservative!

Laura Carter dijo...

The Trojan Women is such a beautiful play. Of course all of those old plays are about war. That will always be political, which means it will always concern us. So teach it--humanize it.

David Leftwich dijo...

All right, I was showing a little too much deference to the old commie bugger. But the point of the examples was less about the individual poets and more to show how the poetry, if not always the poets, are more than their politics.

Patry Francis dijo...

If you worry about the politics of your breathing, you find yourself gasping for air. Same with poetry.

Thomas Basbøll dijo...

"I detest having to think of a writer by his politics first. It's like thinking of people by way of their anus." (Norman Mailer)

I've just unpacked this idea a bit over at the Pangrammaticon.

http://pangrammaticon.blogspot.com/2005/10/latin-conservatism.html

I think I'm basically on the "it's like breathing" team.

Tim dijo...

Hi Jonathan. Here's my two cents. Actually I think it's more like six cents.

Jonathan dijo...

I saw that post yesterday. That's a very clear summary of the various positions most people take.

Jon dijo...

John Beverley's Against Literature is a useful introduction to the Latin Americanist debate.