[(essay date winter 1996) In the following essay, Michelson analyzes the fundamentally public and political nature of Dorn's poetry.]
In the late eighties there was a brief flurry of prose about the sickness unto death of contemporary poetry. Joseph Epstein, a conservative essayist, wrote a piece in Commentary adroitly designed to get under the skin of poets and their liberal inclinations. He correlated the demise of poetry with the development of creative writing programs in the academy, contrasting the petty bourgeois perspective of their "poetry professionals" with the large cultural vision and achievement of the modernists. He inspired vituperative rebuttal from poet-subscribers to the official journal of the Associated Writing Programs, most of which tended to confirm his assessment. Dana Gioia, a poet, then asked "Can Poetry Matter?" in the Atlantic, naturally less fatalistic about poetry but essentially accepting the basis of Epstein's critique. Both writers primarily addressed the sociology of poetry, concluding that it had become a self-serving subculture isolated from social discourse. Aesthetically, moreover, Gioia contended that "personal poems" were the strength of contemporary poetry, whereas it had not achieved much in the way of "public forms like political or satirical verse." That neither writer seriously considered such conspicuous contradictions of their hypotheses as are found in Beat (e.g. Allen Ginsberg), Black Mountain (e.g. Edward Dorn), feminist (e.g. Adrienne Rich), and ethnic poets (e.g. Amiri Baraka) rendered their judgments more than a bit parochial. Perhaps that's why the brief commotion they stirred proved to be a tempest in a teapot.
The fact is that poetry is hardly more marginal to the cultural discourse than any other art, including jazz but possibly not painting, which snags public attention the same way Michael Jordon's NBA contract does. In a culture of celebrities--the effectual measure for both Epstein and Gioia--perhaps the only artistic one who actually effected cultural change was Allen Ginsberg, a poet. Otherwise, since the bluster of the sixties the political and economic culture has been reactionary. Is this the legacy of the modernists? Or the presumably less marginal postmodernists, such as Truman Capote? Norman Mailer? Susan Sontag? Miles Davis? Andy Warhol? Toni Morrison? Still, given this public display of myopia, one must assume that the record of contemporary poetry's practitioners of public poetry is not so clear as it might be.
A little background is pertinent. By the end of the 18th Century science and materialism were changing aesthetic assumptions dramatically. And the developing form of the novel was usurping the literary preeminence of poetry. Correlatively, a dialectic developed between nature's volatile energy and the aesthetic function. Blake's The Marriage of Heaven and Hell was one response, Coleridge's theories of imagination and epistemology were another. Through the 19th Century American, British, and French poets explored that dynamic, the French the more assertively. Baudelaire, the symbolists, Apollinaire, and Jarry extended Blake's aggressiveness, getting in the face of artistic and social conventions. The latter two added humor to the equation. The surrealists harnessed the anarchical bravado...