ἀλλὰ κέρδει καὶ σοφία δέδεται.
ἔτραπεν καὶ κεῖνον ἀγάνορι μισθῷ χρυσὸς ἐν χερσὶν φανεὶς
But even wisdom is enslaved to profit.
And gold appearing in hands (reckless wage!) turned
that man […]
–Pindar, Pythian 3.551
At Powell’s the other day, I noticed an anthology called Poetry After Modernism (Robert McDowell, ed). Since I think contemporary poetry, in its overwhelming rejection of traditional forms, has often thrown the baby out with the bathwater and created a new, equally boring, status quo, I was curious to see what the deal was with the “New Formalists” mentioned in one essay. The author was particularly enamored with Dana Gioia, author of the apparently-famous essay “Can Poetry Matter?,” and one of Gioia’s poems quoted in the book impressed me. Some research at home reveals that Gioia is an ex-corporate-executive and current chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, appointed by George W. Bush.
So I’ve been having a morning of cognitive dissonance, reading through this essay by Steve Evans, “Free (Market) Verse” and sorting through some thorny questions about art, commerce, populism, tradition, and form. These questions seem especially relevant now that I’m a member of the arts industry. I’m currently living off (running out of!) the cash award I got for the poetry I wrote for my thesis. As I begin working with Top Shelf I’m going to be intimately concerned with (and dependent on!) the principle of charging people money for art.
My thesis was centrally concerned with questions of accessibility. I may not have succeeded in my goal of writing a thesis my grandmother could read, but I’m a big fan of art that actually reaches people, and in some ways to translate is to popularize (or to vulgarize — in Latin they’re synonyms!). I wanted to get the poems out of the Classics department and into the ears of the public.
My work in comics activism/advocacy is similarly rooted in a desire for accessibility, although I hadn’t made the connection until now. I try to promote comics to people who don’t read them; I hunt for books that appeal to those readers. I’m more likely to change somebody’s life by giving them Blankets or Strangers in Paradise than Crisis on Infinite Earths. The comic book scene, like (Gioia argues) the academic poetry scene, has its head up its own ass and is busy talking to itself rather than communicating with the world.
Yet I’m uncomfortable with the idea of connections between aesthetics and politics. Does nostalgia for an old-fashioned art form imply nostalgia for an old-fashioned ideology? Is the impulse to defend the institution of rhyme related to the impulse to defend the institution of marriage? I think not, in my case at least. I think there are a few more things at work here.
I’ve been asked to write a new school song for Reed College. Writing an alma mater is one of the most public, populist things you can do. The alma mater genre, like the Pindaric victory ode, is inherently conservative — institutionally normative, you might say, or counterrevolutionary — but I love the challenge of writing an anthem that the notoriously cynical student body of Reed can proudly stand behind. (Luckily, Reed itself is weirdly conservative in many ways.) It’s the same challenge I enjoyed as an atheist at Baptist Youth Camp, serving on the worship planning committee: finding ways to create a service that would be meaningful to everyone. In my thesis, I loved the challenge of writing deliberately old-fashioned translations of old avant-garde texts for a contemporary audience.
My father once made a remark that has stuck with me ever since: I was raised in a relentlessly heterogeneous environment, in a world of apparent contradictions. A liberal & educated city in a relatively rural state, a fiercely progressive church in a resolutely conservative denomination, a lower-end neighborhood in a wealthy suburb. My brother and I are both devoted to the idea of applying high-culture perspectives to low culture, and vice versa. I tend to feel like the geekiest person in a room full of “normal folks” and the most well-adjusted in a room full of geeks. In the Taijitu, my father implied, I’m the white in the black and the black in the white.
I don’t think I’m going to figure this all out today. I don’t think that everyone who agrees with my aesthetic values is going to be someone I’m comfortable standing with. But, I realize, that’s nothing new. I’ve been preaching the gospel of heavy metal and comic books for years, and God knows I have a pretty dim view of the average metalhead and comic fan. The fun part, after all, is loving something that’s insufficiently loved by people I respect, and then teaching them to love it.
[Did that make any sense? All of these points could use some elaboration, but this has been sitting on my computer for a long time now and I need to get it out. I’m sure there’s more to come.]
1 Pindar is describing the corrupting influence of wealth on the ancient healer Asclepius, who was once paid a ton of cash to resurrect a dead man. Zeus, outraged at this violation of the laws of nature, killed him with a thunderbolt. As a freelance poet who sold his praise to the highest bidder, Pindar is very careful to denounce the evils of capitalism and conceal the economic realities of his own situation. The way he operates, the poet assures us, Pindar only writes poems about people who are genuinely his friends, and every word is deserved because his patrons really are that awesome.