Monday, April 6, 2009

The Obscurity of the Poet (2)

If my tone is mocking, the tone of someone accustomed to helplessness, this is natural: the poet is a condemned man for whom the State will not even buy breakfast--and as someone said, 'If you're going to hang me, you musn't expect to be able to intimidate me into sparing your feelings during the execution.' The poet lives in a world whose newspapers and magazines and books and motion pictures and radio stations and television stations have destroyed, in a great many people, even the capacity for understanding real poetry, real art of any kind (17).

Yet one sort of clearness shows a complete contempt for the reader, just as one sort of obscurity shows a complete respect. Which patronizes and degrades the reader, the Divine Comedy with its four levels of meaning, or the Reader's Digest with its one level so low that it seems not a level but an abyss into which the reader consents to sink? The writer's real dishonesty is to give an easy paraphrase of the hard truth (17).

Would that I were one of those happy reactionaries, born with a Greek vocabulary as other children are born with birthmarks or incomes...But I had a scientific education and a radical youth; am old-fashioned enough to believe, like Goethe, in Progress--the progress I see and the progress I wish for and do not see. So I say what I have said about the poet, the public, and their world angrily and unwillingly. If my hearers say, 'But what should we do?' what else can I answer but 'Nothing'? (20).

Art matters not merely because it is the most magnificent ornament and the most nearly unfailing occupation of our lives, but because it is life itself...And all these things, by their very nature, demand to be shared; if we are satisfied to know these things ourselves, and to look with superiority or indifference at those who do not have that knowledge, we have made a refusal that corrupts us as surely as anything can. If while most of our people...listen not to simple or naive art, but to an elaborate and sophisticated substitute for art, and immediate an infallible synthetic as effective and terrifying as advertisements or the speeches of Hitler--if, knowing all this, we say: Art has always been a matter of the few, we are using a truism to hide a disaster (21).

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