‘We have not yet abandoned the citadels that the modernists established’
Yellow House, Michał Rouba, 1930
In the tumultuous period that began in the late 1910s and ended in the late 1940s, poet-critics began to consolidate their cultural gains by making a durable place for literary modernism in the American social order. They did so with the support of large bureaucratic institutions like research universities, government agencies, and philanthropic foundations. What is exceptional about these poet-critics is not the fact that they wrote criticism, nor is it the particular type of criticism they wrote. It is that they participated, as none of their predecessors had or could have, in the life of bureaucracy, aligning themselves with large institutions at a time of radical instability in the cultural economy. They were not just poet-critics; they were poet-administrators.
The modernist union of poetry, criticism, and bureaucracy has had many obvious benefits: Certainly the levels of comfort, prosperity, and productivity enjoyed by several generations of Anglo-American poets from the postwar era onward as a result of their connection to bureaucratic institutions are nothing to minimize.
But in many ways poets have traded reliance on an aristocratic elite for a technocratic one — the patron for the administrator. The particular kind of cultural compromise that the modernist poet-critics normalized has made it harder to conceive of an autonomous poetic culture that exists apart from bureaucratic institutions. In an age of labor-market crises in academe and dwindling resources for the arts in both the public and private sectors — not to mention rampant populist anti-intellectualism and skepticism even on the part of elites about the value of the humanities — that may be exactly the future that today’s poet-critics and scholars most need to imagine, whether they want to or not.
It is common to complain that American poetry culture, as it exists today, is too exclusive, unequal, or artificial. This is true, but that culture is also incredibly fragile. While we may not be facing a crisis of the magnitude of those that necessitated the shift from aristocratic to bureaucratic support — the 1929 crash, the two world wars — there are plenty of cracks in the edifice the modernists built, and we shouldn’t grow complacent. Much of what we view as our robust vernacular culture of poetic composition and instruction could easily be decimated with a stroke of a university administrator’s or foundation officer’s pen.
Are there new institutional havens out there to which today’s poets (and critics) can turn? Can the market, or civil society, sustain the kind of professionalized poetic activity that has been supported by the academy and other institutions for the past 60 years? Will today’s poets need to return to something like the old patronage system, in which a few exceptional geniuses are subsidized while the majority of would-be professionals are neglected?