...Poetry has been moved to aisle 12, between the get-well cards and the pantyhose. Consumers are understandably tentative. No entertainment epic without its penumbra of bombs, potholes, belly-up malls, the barely biographic world where private poems struggle towards print....
Assistant Professor of English Bob Perelman received his Ph.D. from the University of California at Berkeley and came to Penn in 1990. A well-regarded poet as well as a teacher and critic, Perelman has published ten volumes of poetry (the latest is Virtual Reality from Roof Press) in addition to numerous articles and reviews. Perelman teaches courses in contemporary poetry and theory, American literature from 1900-1940, and modernism. His most recent critical book, The Marginalization of Poetry, is due out from Princeton University Press this year.
Q: You have recently been writing and organizing on behalf of the National Endowment for the Arts. Why do you think it's important for artists that the Endowment survive?
A: It's a complicated situation. I don't want my actions understood as an absolute endorsement of the NEA as it exists; I have my own frustrations with the NEA for being too conservative. But this kind of support for the arts is crucial to jump start many programs. I come from the small-press poetry world. The NEA's grants to publishers in the 1970s and '80s were very helpful in getting many books published that I think will turn out to be some of the most interesting American poetry of the second half of the century. The NEA is a very valuable resource, though far from perfect.
When art is politicized, a funny kind of standoff occurs. Some artists think that art is direct political action. Some conservative senators also think that art is highly political and grant it tremendous power that it doesn't actually have. The issues are complicated and call for a great deal of tact in communication. But they get handled by frontal assault. And in these battles, many art communities get squashed.
What is most interesting about art is that it sends very complex messages. That complexity is exactly what we need in a democracy. It connects you up with other groups but not in a demagogic way. If an issue is oversimplified--"Are you for the family or against it?"--that's demagogic. But our society is full of complicated people. It's possible for a person to be Catholic, gay, anti-abortion, pro-free speech, etc. Art can convey some of that complexity.
The NEA battles are significant because they're not just about culture in an old, high-toned sense. They're about the variety in our present-day society. Some attacks on the NEA are not just attacks on art but on whole social groups that are associated with artists--groups like homosexuals and multiculturalists. But I think having a variety of arts and audiences that are active now--not safely dead and in the past--makes for a much healthier society.
Q: When critics say that tax payers shouldn't have to support the arts, what would you reply?
A: That argument is very farfetched. The NEA's $167 million amounts to a can of soda per person per year. Some of the same people who say the NEA costs too much want to revive Star Wars, which doesn't work and has no enemy to defend us against. On the other hand, the economic arguments for art are strong. The arts attract a lot of money into cities and have a multiplier effect. They use money efficiently; there's very little waste. More money is spent on military marching bands than on the NEA. I think the NEA is a real bargain for the taxpayer.
Q: If we say that tax payers should not support the arts, do we imply that the arts should earn their keep by immediately appealing to very large audiences? Did they have to do that in the past?
A: No, they didn't. And there's a process of education that goes on. Taste changes. Valid art will make its way and will find an audience, but it won't necessarily find it right away. In the last ten years of his life, Mozart found some of his best music less popular than his earlier work. Stravinsky, Picasso, Matisse were unpopular at first. Art is by definition new, unless you simply want to hear Beethoven's Fifth forever. But that gets a little tedious for everybody. Why not have something that stirs things up?
If art has to sell immediately--or it's lost its chance--why would anybody ever take a risk? We'd just do spinoffs and imitations. That leads to a very cheap culture. You have to push people's buttons very hard to get them to buy right away. We'd wind up with nothing but Hard Copy on TV.
Q: Today we have no popes, princes, and dukes competing to sponsor artists. In their absence, have governments, big foundations, and universities become patrons for art that can't exert mass appeal?
A: Very much so. Government is problematic. Frankly, I don't imagine that in the next decade or so the U.S. government will be a very useful patron of the arts. I hope that the NEA will survive, partly because it's hard to imagine it would ever be reconstituted if it doesn't. But foundations and universities are crucial. There isn't the kind of cultural space outside these institutions that there used to be. In earlier decades, you could make money as an independent critic. Now the critics are all in universities.
Q: What about your own art, poetry? It isn't as expensive to produce as painting or theater or medieval music. Can't a poet make poetry with just a piece of paper and a pencil?
A: You have to live and publish. As important as the pencil and paper is the audience. Even Emily Dickinson had a very small, private audience in the house next door. Poets need other poets and non-poets, too. We need ways to publish, magazines, reading series, a lot of contact with each other and the outside world. Poetry is really not written on a desert island. It's a social art. Some of my favorite poets imagine poets as antennae of the race or social receptors. We catch a whole spectrum of different voices and make something out of it. I think that's where poets most usefully exist, in hearing the variety of the society's speech and responding to that variety.
Q: Some people say that there is a renaissance in poetry going on across the country. Do you think that's true?
A: I hope it's true, and I want to make it truer. My own experience bears it out. In San Francisco there were many poets, many groups, readings, publications, and poets' theaters. At Penn, too, there seems to be an increasing interest in poetry. Of course there is still a significant number of students who are pretty phobic of poetry. They come out of high school distrusting the mysteriousness and unpredictability of poetry, having been taught it very badly.
But there's a much greater openness to poetry in general. I think it has to do with the waning of the New Criticism of the 1950s. That put very difficult poetry like T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land at the top of the heap. Poetry was something that you studied intensively; it required a great deal of sacrifice and training. Now that whole model has waned. The poetry that has come up in the '50s, '60s, and '70s has been remarkable. There are the Beats, the best of them very serious writers. They're certainly taken seriously--as we saw with the recent visits of Allen Ginsberg to Penn: the audiences were consistently in the hundreds. There's the New York School--Frank O'Hara and John Ashbery--who are witty, ambitious, and appealing writers. There's Black Arts writing and feminist writing like Adrienne Rich and Judy Grahn. Many different voices. In the '90s, we have a wide range of intense, highly charged poetry. When I teach, I try to show all this to the students: the different aesthetics, politics, tones, and appeals to readers.
There's also a surprising sense of poetry that everybody gets from ads these days. The typography of ads comes right out of modernism. Everybody is aware of it and reacts to the placement of words on billboards or newspaper pages. What do all those catchy phrases in ads mean? That a copywriter had to put care into words to catch your attention. That's not really different from the care that a poet puts into a line. So it's not surprising that poetry gets on MTV or that singers are edging closer to being poets. We've been reading these market poems--known as ads--for the last fifty years.
If people can learn that there is something called poetry that has all of the potential grabbiness and excitement of ads but is not selling anything--is instead opening up society for one's own life and possibilities--I think many people would find that interesting. A poet must pay attention to language; you can't do without skill. Nor is language identical with your private self. These days there are many different language communities. It's not just a matter of self-expression but of multi-expression.
Q: Are there any dangers to expanding the audience for poetry? If you appeal to millions of people, will poetry become just another mass entertainment?
Maybe. Look at politics. The line between entertainment and politics is hard to draw these days. Politics as we know it has this bizarre entertainment aspect. We rate a politician's speeches on how well they play, not what they say. It's a performance. A speech might be a visionary explanation of goals that would make everyone's life better, but if it's an hour and 35 minutes long, that's all that gets noticed.
But we're a long way from making poetry a mass art. For me, a really key issue is still rhetoric. I come from an avant-garde that reads Stein and Williams and tries to do new things formally with poetry. But I'm also interested in what people who haven't read all this stuff hear in poetry. Rhetoric concerns the present. Can you hear what I'm saying right now? And what do you make of it? I'm interested in the political-ethical-aesthetic issues raised by bigger audiences.
Last modified: Thursday, 15-Aug-1996 09:27:30 EDT