Marxist critic Fredric Jameson, a prominent academic leftist, values art instrumentally, as a critique of or counter-ideology to bourgeois ideology. For him, art is useful as a mode of oppositionality, social struggle conducted by other means. But art’s critique is precisely the critique of usefulness, of means-end rationality. For Immanuel Kant, freedom was the kingdom of ends, in which all entities, including people, existed for their own sakes and not as the means to some other end. Octavio Paz writes that “The poetic experience…does not teach us or tell us anything about freedom: it is freedom itself unfurling itself.” The poem presents a world in which every word, every phrase, exists both as an integral and indispensable part of a larger whole and as something significant (in both senses) in itself and for itself.
The independent existence of art is the product of the rise of what Theodor Adorno calls instrumental reason and what Jean-Francois Lyotard calls performativity: if everything has to be good for something, then art is good for itself. Art’s importance is that it has no place in our culture. As Paz acutely puts it, “poems have no value: they are not products susceptible to commercial exchange….Commercial circulation is the most active and total form of exchange our society knows and the only one that produces value. As poetry is not a thing that can enter into the exchange of mercantile goods, it is not really a value. And if it is not a value, it has no real existence in our world.”
Poetry is potentially liberating because its uselessness marks out a space not colonized by or valued by capital. Its “obsolescence” is also its resistance to being easily consumable; its loss of “relevance” is also a freedom to keep alive certain human possibilities. In this sense, the drive to make poetry “relevant” is a concession or a surrender to instrumental values, to the imperative of use and functionality: poetry had better be good for something. And poetry simply isn’t politically efficacious; as W.H. Auden so perceptively noted, “Poetry makes nothing happen.” The conflation of the existence of social, political, and economic elites with muddled notions of intellectual or aesthetic “elitism” is sheer obfuscation. The power elite in this country care nothing for art or culture; they care about money and power and the means to acquire and retain them. Art is not among those means.
Those who wish to change society might better turn their energies toward society itself, to the real areas of oppression and suffering, economic, political, racial, and sexual. (Identity politics can be a useful organizing tool of social activism, though it can also lend itself to a group solipsism that blinds people to structural, systemic issues.) To blame literature, or culture as a whole, for social, economic, and political woes (or even to see it as central to their perpetuation) is evasive at best, dishonest at worst, a kind of posing as politics, in social commentator Adolph Reed’s trenchant phrase. But such posturing is much easier than doing the hard work of trying to change the world. “Cultural activism” is a poor substitute for real political activity, although we live in an era in which cultural matters are up for debate while fundamental economic and political questions are not, except on the often loud but frequently incoherent and usually ignored fringes.
George Oppen gave up writing poetry for several years in favor of political activism, because he believed neither that poetry could change society nor that it should be subordinated to an agenda. In Oppen’s words, “If you decide to do something politically, you do something with political efficacy. And if you write poetry, you write poetry, not something you hope, or deceive yourself into believing, can save people who are suffering.” Several years ago, I was asked by someone I had just met whether my poetry was Afrocentric. I told him that I didn’t know what he meant by that term, and he said, “You know, dedicated to the liberation of black people everywhere.” My only answer was, “I don’t think that poems can do that.”
Poetry’s preservation of mystery is its preservation of a space not colonized by capitalism’s totalizing impulse. This is also the preservation of a space not colonized by instrumental reason. The poem embodies this space in its specificity as an event in language: a good poem is not simply a recounting or re-enactment of an extra-linguistic event, but an occasion of its own. The poem is a new thing in the world (or better: it is a new event), not simply a copy or an account of an already existing thing: it cannot be reduced to its “meaning” or its “content.” Part of what poetry does is remind us that things and events, including language, including ourselves, aren’t as accessible or as apprehensible as we think they are. The Russian Formalist Viktor Shklovsky described art as a mode of defamiliarization, making the familiar strange, or perhaps revealing it to have been strange all along when not seen through the smudged and blurred lens of habit and routine.
The encounter that poetry can provide with a realm of experience not defined by or limited to the social (however much it may engage and interrogate that realm--certainly, politics can be the subject matter of a poem) is the most valuable and liberatory thing poetry has to offer in our over-determined world. I wouldn’t want to surrender that freedom to an agenda or a program, however well-intentioned.