Brian Campbell's comment on one of C. Dale Young's entries led me to BC's essay "Can Poetry Matter?--15 Years After."
Brian looks at a number of essays that responded to Dana Gioia's original "Can Poetry Matter?" essay. One of the issues that always comes up is the role that Creative Writing programs play in the development of poetry in North America. One point that I always make and that I rarely come across has to do with health insurance.
Perhaps it takes an expatriate living in a country with a functioning health-insurance system to notice this, but one very good reason for poets to want to get credentialed (MFA) and tenured (Professor of Creative Writing)—or even just working for a university in some way—is to get health insurance.
In the jazz world, it is striking how often older musicians who get sick are dependent on benefit concerts from their fellow musicians in order to be able to pay their health costs (Billy Higgins, Sun Ra)—or at least are dependent on staying on the road (or going back on the road) after life-threatening heart attacks or strokes (Oscar Peterson continued touring even after his stroke partially disabled his hand: try playing piano like that!).
So it's more than understandable if creative people try to get themselves a gig at a university, which will usually involve some sort of health coverage. When Adrienne Rich left UC Santa Cruz to teach at Stanford in the mid-eighties, the story we students heard was that (even though she apparently would have preferred to stay at UCSC) she got much better treatment for her rheumatoid arthrities through Stanford than from a public school.
Of course, Brian's essay made me think of some other things, too. He quotes Jake Berry's response to Gioia:
"Should we as poets be prepared to accept, even embrace, obscurity in order to practice an art that is important to the deeper, more complex, conditions of our species? For what reason? Does reason have anything to do with it? Do we not practice this art out of some obsession that forever seems to remain just beyond our ability to describe and name? Or do we practice it to keep the poetic faculties alive regardless of who or how many may subscribe to that experience?"
The last of these questions reminds me of a book I read long ago, Das Glasperlenspiel, by Herman Hesse. Not a great novel, but a very memorable one: the main character is a monk-like figure living in a future in which civilization has collapsed, and he and his fellows in the cloister-like place where they live spend their days playing "the glass-bead game," which is a means of preserving knowledge for future generations.
I recently read Basel in the Age of Burckhardt, by Lionel Gossman, and one of the things that kept coming up was how much Burckhardt (and Bachofen, who is the other major figure in Gossman's book) saw his scholarship as a way of "shoring up fragments against our ruin" (to quote anachronistically). In a sense, Burckhardt saw scholarship as a "glass-bead game" even before Hesse wrote his novel.
There's one other moment in Brian's essay that I would like to draw attention to:
"As Simon DeDeo, one of my blog interlocutors, put it so well, does theoretical science matter to anyone? Not really, except for the practitioners, the aficionados, and the students. Similarly for poetry. As theoretical science is not in a bad way, neither is poetry."