Have been pretty absent & absent-minded around the Plumbline lately. Partly due to personal circumstances (a strange summer), & partly due to somewhat of an impasse in my thoughts about "plumbing" (constipation, Henry?).
Joseph D. & Mairi have offered us some models, here, for moving beyond a general terminology of "the middle" - showing how "plumbline" values are manifested in particular poets & their poems. I've been too scattered to do that, myself. & too involved in poetry website discussions/squabbles (especially at the Poetry magazine Harriet site) - among various hotheads, wannabees, nobodies, & cranks (like me).
But this morning it occurred to me that I might be able to salvage something for the plumbline from a few of those controversies - if only to add another layer of generalization to our field of interest....
Two of the topics of interest (to me) on those websites have been 1) the rise of "hybrid" forms of experimental poetics - Flarf, Conceptual Poetry, etc.; and 2) the nagging debates over the purpose & value of the "poetry teaching industry" (MFAs, etc.).
I would like to try to propose a statement of (my) principles which addresses BOTH of these topics, together, in a unified way. I've done this in a piecemeal way in various comment streams on said websites; but here's how I would summarize my position :
1) Poetry is One Thing (with tremendous variations). It is not whatever anybody decides to name as poetry. For example, when Kenneth Goldsmith, the main proponent of "Conceptual Poetry", copies an entire day's issue of the NY Times, and calls it "conceptual poetry" - I would, au contraire, describe this as an oxymoron, or contradiction, rather than a description. It is not poetry. Poetry is a verbal art with its own distinct characteristics (some of which Aristotle began to analyze, way back when).
2. Poetry and poetic making are inseparable from experience at large. The aphorism which Keats assigned to the Grecian urn - "Beauty is Truth, Truth Beauty; - this is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know" - is a perennial challenge to every artist and maker : ie., where & by what means comes to pass the conjunction of beauty and truth, art and experience? (& this is perhaps one of the bases underlying our "plumbline" concept of the poem as an equilibrium, a balance of forces).
3. With #2 above clearly in mind : the social vocation & role of the poet can be best summarized as the companion. The aspects of artist, craftsperson, fabulist, musician, performer, scholar, etc. - all these are subsumed under the primary role of something like wise fellowship. The poet is our companion - Whitman's camerado/camerada - on the "road of life". A poem is a testimony : bears witness to felt & comprehended experience. A poem which achieves the status of art - which fulfills its aesthetic purpose - is one which faithfully comprehends & reflects some aspect or value of that shared experience. (& to say this is not, on the other hand, to rule out the most baroque & parodic fabulations & gleeful take-offs & lethal/tragic ironies & vicious satires & zithery re-makings of same.)
It seems to me that when this (traditional) ethos of the poet - the poet's social role - is better understood, then some of the gnarly ethical problems of "teaching" poetry & writing might be re-formulated (& maybe redeemed). Writing will be subsumed under the ethos of language-use in general; poetry-writing will be integrated with the study and practice of literary history; "creativity" and "self-expression" will be re-valued in relation to elementary education (& arts education) as a whole.
One need only reflect on some of the great "engaged" poets of the last century - Spanish, Russian, Italian, French - Char, Montale, Akhmatova... we could each make our own list - to recognize a common thread in their verse : an evocation, an expression, of the shared experience of living through those brutal & tumultuous decades. The ethos they represent seems distinct from the image of the poet as experimentalist or craftsperson; and the influence of ethos seems like a kind of undercurrent which has all kinds of implications for literary style...