Monday, February 12, 2007

A poem as a political reference point

In my post on "poets as intellectual reference points," I quoted Durs Grünbein:

"When an average intellectual today reflects on the last century's great artistic and intellectual achievements, he first thinks of such names as Freud and Picasso, Stravinsky and Heisenberg, Hitchcock and Wittgenstein. It is impossible to imagine that one of them could be a poet. Not a single poet from the ancestral gallery (whether Pessoa, Cavafy, or Rilke, whether Yeats, Mandelstam, Valéry, Frost, or Machado) will cross the mind of the historically-informed thinker, who dares to claim a monopoly on Modernism anyway."

As I summarized the issue: "what 'artistic' references do intellectuals use to support their points in cultural and political discussions?"

Well, C. Dale Young drew my attention today to a New York Times article by Adam Cohen, "What W. B. Yeats's 'Second Coming' Really Says About the Iraq War." Cohen indirectly deflates Grünbein's claim, in two ways:

1) He refers to many "uses" of Yeats's poem, belying the claim that poets and poems are never reference points for intellectuals.

2) "The pundits ... are picking up on Yeats's words, but not his world view": "world view" is a bit strong, but Cohen implies that it may not be possible to use a poem's words as intellectual reference points without engaging in careful interpretation of their nuances. In other words, the problem with poets, poems, and poetry is not that people do not refer to them in intellectual discussions but that poems resist being co-opted for such arguments in any straightforward way. Yeats's poem, Cohen concludes, is in fact "a powerful brief against punditry," against the very idea of predicting the future through intellectual argument.

This is still not a definitive rebuttal of Grünbein's claim, but it does put it in a somewhat more questionable light.


Donald Brown said...

As Bob Dylan said, "well, I guess."

I mean, I thought what Grunbein was commenting on was that intellectuals don't reference poets as intellectual property, as cultural reference points -- as they might a song or a film or maybe a very famous painting. I didn't think he meant that pundits should cite poetry. I can't imagine living in such a world, in part because poetry -- except as a supplier of "ringing lines" (and that's mainly from much older stuff) -- is so figurative as to appear obfuscating in almost any context but the poem (and even there...).

Andrew Shields said...

I have begun to realize that I am using "intellectual" in a broader sense than other people. The style of writing associated with punditry may not be what is usually associated with intellectuals, but it nevertheless seems absurd to me to deny that pundits can be intellectuals simply because of their punditry.

The only English-language newspaper I read regularly is the "International Herald Tribune," which means I get the NYT columnists, and Krugman, Rich, and Kristof surely must be considered "intellectuals" even according to any quite limited definition of the term.

But I might be under the influence of the German-speaking world here, in which newspapers generally work at a somewhat more "intellectually" demanding level than in the English-speaking world.