The 2001-2002 Sawyer Seminar at the University of Chicago
RANGE OF CONTEMPORARY LITERACY:
THE CIRCULATION OF POETRY
|Sponsored by the Andrew Mellon Foundation|
THEMATIC STURCTURE OF THE SEMINAR
At the heart of many discussions of poetics, traditional and contemporary, is controversy about instrumentality: is the language of poetry properly used to serve objectives of a community? Or are those regions of language that most serve instrumental use properly off-limits to poetry? Is language that expressly serves a community worthy of credibility? Can such language bear value and formulate hope for change? Or is instrumental language itself a source of duplicity and misrepresentation? These are questions that bear directly on contemporary political and social issues. The accuracy and credibility of language is constantly at issue in political and social debates. Can we even distinguish between the quality of language and of thought in discourse about politics or public policy? European and American poets have traditionally recognized this link between the clarity and sharpness of public language and the accuracy and credibility of poetic language. Does this link hold any longer? Or is responsibility for the medium of language more with other media now? Has the development of "global English" itself outpaced the reach not only of poets but of any local language community? Are journalists the only custodians of global English?
This seminar will focus on questions of contemporary literacy, the public roles of art, and the engagement of literary intellectuals in liberal democracies and in autocratic regimes. Because poetry is the art that takes language as its material, this seminar will bring poetry critics together with linguists who study the circulation of language through contemporary societies. We will look to the dynamics of language communities for guidance in understanding contemporary literacy.
In the last twenty years academic literary studies have been reshaped by the very impressive development of cultural studies, which has brought literary interpretation and social sciences closer together. A great deal of surprising and influential work has come from this cross-pollination, and the field of mass culture studies is now central to the discipline of literary studies. But attention to poetry during this period fell off rather markedly, which makes sense: poetry is, traditionally speaking, less directly committed to political and social projects than fiction, drama, and expository prose are. Poetry is also traditionally further removed from mass culture than these other literary genres. Very recently, though, we have begun to see renewed interest in the category of the aesthetic, in Elaine Scarry's Tanner lectures On Beauty and Being Just (Princeton Univ. Press, 1999), for instance, and new interest in poetry in particular. (See Marjorie Perloff, "In Defense of Poetry," Boston Review [December 1999/January 2000]; and Jan Clausen, "The Speed of Poetry," The Nation [24-31 July 2000].)
Here too at the University of Chicago, where cultural studies are quite highly developed, a group of younger scholars in Social Thought, Classics, and English have begun to establish poetry-reading groups and a new graduate workshop on poetics. In 1999-2000 the University hosted a major new series of poetry readings and talks on poetics that has helped to build up the community of poetry scholars at the University, and this series will continue in 2000-2001 as well. The time is right for a sustained effort at collaboration between those committed to the art of poetry and scholars engaged in social analysis. We propose to do this in a sharply focused manner by establishing a dialogue between poetry critics and socio-linguists. There is now no such dialogue in the professional scholarship on poetry, though both groups are focused on the social significance of language practices. Here at Chicago the study of poetry is now doing very well, among faculty and students, but the tools that poetry critics have for analyzing the function of the art are not far developed beyond what was available to earlier generations a half-century ago. This dialogue could help literary scholars by opening up the analytical categories of sociolinguistics to the art of poetry, and this is something that will not happen without special efforts.
What are the functions of poetry in contemporary societies, and what are the paths of its circulation? These are the overriding questions for the proposed seminar. Throughout the nineteenth century and in the first half of the twentieth a number of English and American poet-critics wrote about the function of poetry. Essays on this topic by Shelley, Matthew Arnold, T. S. Eliot, and Ezra Pound are canonical, and many later poets like Muriel Rukeyser, Laura Riding, Allen Tate, John Crowe Ransom, and I. A. Richards addressed this topic too.
These writers often move toward notorious cultural generalizations based on a notion of linguistic circulation in the background of their arguments--that the poet purifies the dialect of the tribe, in Mallarm*'s phrase--though the mechanics of circulation are not explained. Their sense of the structure of the literary culture takes for granted a stable class structure and a system of journalism that no longer prevail: mass politics, advertising, universities, and many other institutions that were less prominent even eighty years ago have changed the social contexts of poetry and aesthetics. The avant-garde Language Poets of the last two decades share with their modernist predecessors a sense that poets shape the language used by many speakers and writers who do not read poetry, but the theories of Charles Bernstein and other Language writers take for granted the fact that poetry circulates in a university-dominated literary culture. What are the consequences for the claim of circulation of the fact that the elaborately structured contemporary university culture mediates the transmission of poetry? How does the development of small literary presses and the withdrawal of large publishing ventures from the poetic culture affect the circulation of poetry? Are the publishing institutions that have evolved over the last half-century (small presses, tiny poetry magazines) the apparatus merely of a coterie culture? This topic has not yet been well examined. Poetry critics need to develop new accounts of the circulation of language in contemporary literate societies.
The seminar will engage questions about the function of poetry in a comparative context that will develop gradually throughout the year but be dominant in the second half of the Winter Quarter and in the Spring Quarter. The aesthetic and stylistic traditions and controversies in German and Korean, for instance, are quite different from those in English and American poetry. In the discussions concerning these poetries, relations between poetic expression and state authority are rather different from the Anglo-American scene. And within the American scene alone there are great differences between the function of poetry for many African American writers and for mainstream white writers. The Fall Quarter will focus on the case of African American poetry in detail, with papers from Salikoko Mufwene and John Rickford, both of whom have agreed to present to the seminar. We hope to develop, beginning in the second half of the Fall Quarter, a fund of instances of poetic usage from diverse language communities. As the seminar develops our discussions should become increasingly comparative.
Issues concerning contemporary literacy are investigated widely by sociologists, political scientists, educational theorists, and makers of public policy. Literacy is commonly conceived in terms of an ability to function in elementary verbal contexts: to read a newspaper, complete an application for employment, and so on. This normative term literacy, however, covers a much wider range of language activity, with functional literacy at one end of a continuum extending to the reading and writing of poetry at the other. Poems focus attention on the linguistic medium itself, rendering its forms visible and audible, as newspapers do not and essays only rarely and intermittently do. Poetry engages words in terms of sound as well as sense and often employs syntactic structures that deviate sharply from functional, conventional patterns. Between functional and poetic literacy is a wide range of usage. Talking about poetry in terms of literacy focuses attention on the social function of this art: this category of analysis encourages one to consider not only the audience for poetry, which is often ignored by poetry scholars and critics, but also the possibility that idioms and linguistic structures that are used in poems can affect linguistic usage in non-aesthetic contexts, because of the circulation of language patterns through diverse contexts. The patterns of circulation in contemporary societies are very rarely examined by literary scholars, but this is an area where collaboration of poetry critics with sociolinguists and sociologists who study art may have some significant outcome. This seminar will, first, analyze the circulation of poetry in sociological terms; second, consider how this circulation bears on the poetry itself, especially thematically; and, third, consider what the circulation of poetry suggests about the range of literacy in contemporary societies.
The seminar will focus on the functions of poetry in terms of several contemporary issues. We will look back on accounts of the differences between poetry in democratic and totalitarian societies. Cold War discussions of this topic have figured importantly in literary debate in the U.S. from 1945 until 1989. Some of the poets who had greatest currency in the U.S. during this period--Czeslaw Milosz and Josef Brodsky, for instance--were exiles from Warsaw Pact countries, and this fact helped greatly to gain American audiences for them. Since 1989 Germany has been the site for the transformation of a literary culture beyond this Cold War dichotomy. The seminar will give some attention to this transformation beyond the scarcities and engagement of the East and the polemics of the West.
There have been some surprisingly important populist approaches to the reception of poetry. Some time ago the poet Donald Hall remarked that the poetry reading is the main form of publication for poets now. And besides the conventional genre of poetry reading, poetry slams, open-mic and "spoken-word" events have proliferated in the last two decades. The current Poet Laureate of the U.S. Robert Pinsky has established a tape and video archive of the poems that Americans claim matter most to them. This is a deliberately non-academic project aimed at the general populace of the country. Some of the results of this project have just been published in book form and a larger archive is coming on-line too. The seminar will examine Pinsky's notion that the reach of poetry extends far beyond the institutions that are recognized as literary. It will be important in this context to consider the category of literacy critically, because populist projects often focus on the oral dimension of the art and its performative properties. The distinction between orality and literacy seems not to serve well an analysis of the popular aspirations of some poets.
The development of poetry audiences around identitarian politics has given quite distinct political significance to some populist poetic trends.
The avant-garde project of the Language Poets (an American avant garde that formed in alternative publications of the late-1970s and 1980s) will be the focus of an examination of the circulation of language through the academic literary culture.
Poetry sometimes finds an audience through musical settings. This Sawyer Seminar will seek ways to follow poems that move through musical culture.