Inaugural Poet (1968) and Gluck’s “The Poet and the Reader”

Monday, January 25, 2021

It’s hard to tell how off-beat thoughts occur in one’s mind. Or minds. Maybe it’s the dialogue between the polymind, which I tried to type as one word and the system immediately broke it in half. I guess one must learn to be tolerant in a bemused parental fashion as AI slowly adapts to the jovial proclivities of the human mind.

Just before I started this post, I began wondering what would have happened if Robert Kennedy had made it through the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel and gotten to… I wonder where he was headed? Was he headed for a party in the Hollywood Hills? Somehow I just don’t picture him going straight to his hotel suite and kicking off his shoes.

Imagine him, eventually, as the candidate who triumphs over Nixon and George Wallace in 1968. His brother, in January, 1961, had asked Robert Frost to read a poem. In my fantasy world, Bobby Kennedy asks Allen Ginsberg to read at his inauguration in January, 1969. Like Frost, Ginsberg sets aside the poem he had composed for the occasion and instead leads the nation in three minutes of chanting “OM.”

I mention this alternative history as a way to counterbalance the depression I felt after reading Louise Gluck’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech. I’ve read drivel like this from undergraduate students who choose the creative writing option because writing essays about literary texts is a bit beyond their intellectual reach. It was bad enough that Gluck won the prize when there are so many worthy writers and poets in other countries who deserve the attention; but for her to produce something that hardly seems past the first draft stage is just pathetic.

There was one sentence, and one sentence only, that had even a glimmer of potential for development as an argument within the speech. It is the second sentence of the following paragraph:

“In art of the kind to which I was drawn, the voice of judgement of the collective is dangerous. The precariousness of intimate speech adds to its power and the power of the reader, through whose agency the voice is encouraged in its urgent plea or confidence.”

There’s a lot to be unpacked there; if only in the rest of the speech she had clarified the blurred relationships posited in these seemingly thoughtful assertions. Part of the problem is that Gluck never acknowledges in her speech the role that cultural capital plays in “the power of the reader,” and it is that benign self-indulgence of her own privileges that leads me to be very suspicious of her characterization of the reader’s agency.

I don’t hit it off with most poets, at least on a personal level. “You are one of the most alone people I know,” one of my few friends once wrote me. On the other hand, I do accommodate myself with pleasure to a fairly diverse set of poems and poetics. But I have my limits. “There is some bourgeois bullshit I will not eat” is my variant on what Olaf snarled in one of e.e. cummings’s best known poems. Gluck’s speech falls into that category.

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