Monday, August 11, 2008

Our Progressive Zeitgeist

I am intrigued by this idea being led by Jennifer Nix over at Guernica: the need for progressives to reclaim art as a way to open minds and bring people into progressive thinking. Perhaps in part because of my own personal professional experience, I appreciated her discussion of people leaving art for activism, not seeing that the two can work together, side by side, for the same purpose. She explains that art and activism "are very much part of the same continuum, [but] over the past eight years there has been a kind of damaging divergence between art and life, for many progressive activists." She sees blogs in particular as ideal vehicles to bring these communities together.

She's drawing her inspiration from novelists like Mark Twain who, during the Gilded Age, reached more common folk by publishing in affordable newspapers, thereby upping the literacy rates and hooking in readers to think outside of the elitist rhetoric of the era: "The masses were able to read fiction and to imagine better realities than those put forth and controlled by the era's robber-baron elites." She's also jumping off Aleksander Hemon's The Lazarus Project, though I was confused by her quotes that she attributes to Hemon. If they were in this novel, the novel must break into some pretty didactic language.

Her point is that progressive blogs need to help "integrate literature back into American life." Who doesn't agree with this? But yes, she has a more specific plan of action, and I support her completely. Some novelists have made this effort - Barbara Kingsolver comes to mind, and of course writers from countries with oppositional leadership like Orhan Pamuk in Turkey - but we should encourage more. Let's get people over this idea that literary writers shouldn't muddy their hands with politics, or maintain objectivity just like journalists. So preposterous.

I then thought of The Poetry Foundation and their efforts to insert literature into the average American's life. If you'll recall, they received a massive $100 million donation from Ruth Lilly, great-granddaughter of the founder of pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly. Initially, they had discussed "trying to figure out how to finance the notion of bringing poetry to people in libraries, schools and elsewhere," as reported in the New York Times. They then branched out to try to get poetry into hipper venues. This New Yorker piece by Dana Goodyear explains it well.
[T]the foundation is offering its services as an external poetry editor. Over the past year, it has sent a dozen magazine editors mockups with poems superimposed on actual layouts from those magazines (a Basho haiku in a Good Housekeeping spread showing how to “pair old china with fresh blooms”; Lucille Clifton’s “Homage to My Hips” on a fitness page called “Love Your Curves”). To Details, the foundation suggested an essay by Jim Harrison: “If Jim Harrison, poet, novelist (Legends of the Fall) and walking vat of testosterone, needs a daily shot of poetry, it must not be for sissies. . . . A good hed for the piece might be ‘Don’t Be Afraid of Poetry.’ A better one might be ‘Read Poetry. Get Laid.’ ”

Yeah, seriously. Actually, the article does a fine job, nicely mentioning the foundation's history. Goodyear explains how Harriet Monroe founded Poetry magazine in 1912 because “the well of American poetry seemed to be thinning out and drying up, and the worst of it was that nobody seemed to care. It was this indifference that I started out to combat, this dry conservatism that I wished to refresh with living waters from a new spring.”

I know another initiative in the foundation was getting poetry into smaller local newspapers, which I thought was smart. I don't know how successful the foundation's been in this new endeavor overall, but I respect the effort. I'm all for enlivening poetry and getting it to reach the masses in a form more sophisticated than children's verse.

And I applaud Nix's concept of reminding progressives that art and politics are not oil and water, and I thoroughly enjoyed Hemon's quotes in her article, including:
There is a loss of intellectual self-confidence all across the board, for capitalism prefers a non-thinking consumer to a thinking citizen. The restoration of public space in blogosphere, I think, alleviates that problem. I hope it can also provide space for a resurgence of serious literature."

Here here!

More on how to support her at the end of the article, so check it out - especially if you're a progressive political blogger.

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