Wednesday, September 15, 2004

Democratic Panoramas: Frost Versus the Avant

While reading the books The Ordeal of Robert Frost and Career Moves, I came across some remarkable quotes that nicely circumscribe a particular issue concerning artist and audience. The first is in a 1913 letter from Frost to John Bartlett.
There is one qualifying fact always to bear in mind: there is a kind of success called “of esteem” and it butters no parsnips. It means success with the critical few who are supposed to know. But really to arrive where I can stand on my legs as a poet and nothing else I must get outside that circle to the general reader who buys books in their thousands. I may not be able to do that. I believe in doing it—don’t you doubt me there. I want to be poet for all sorts and kinds. I could never make a merit of being caviare to the crowd the way my quasi-friend Pound does.
This interest in a wider audience is set in stark comparison with this opposing outlook on the issue written by Paul Goodman in a 1951 Kenyon Review essay called "Advance-Guard Writing, 1900-1950."
But such personal writing about the audience itself can occur only in a small community of acquaintances, where everybody knows everybody and understands what is at stake; in our estranged society, it is objected, just such intimate community is lacking. Of course it is lacking! The point is that the advance-guard action helps create such community, starting with the artist’s primary friends. The community comes to exist by having its culture; the artist makes this culture.
Speaking to such alienation and its inward impulses, Frost wrote to his daughter, Lesley Frost Francis, in 1934 the following:
Everything else is to have two compulsions, an inner and an outer, a spiritual and a social, an individual and a racial. I want to be good, but that is not enough the state says I have got to be good. Everything has not only formity but conformity. Everything but poetry according to the Pound-Eliot-Richards-Reed school of art.
I’ll let Frost have the last quotation because I think he’s moving in the right direction. Creating one’s own community is a marvelous thing, but it’s ultimately a closed system, and therefore, finally, anti-democratic. God knows there are other forces in this nation and world that are working hard in that same disruptive direction, attempting to divide and conquer. It’s one of the oldest tricks in the book. But it shouldn’t be in the repertoire of an artist, whether a serene versesmith or a tempestuous bard.

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