It would be difficult to deny that the twentieth century has been a
period of exceptionally forceful competition among social paradigms. A
plethora of conceptions of social reality have ripened and ultimately
fallen from the contemporary tree of knowledge into a veritable
cornucopia of desperate experiments and wildly hopeful fantasies,
charismatic leaders, tragic swindles, some silly and some ghastly
utopias, and some impressive advances. Some of these advances are
already showing signs of wear and tear but have attained a degree of
historical importance. Others, such as the civil rights movement, the
women's movement, the mental health movement (to name a few) have left
in invaluable inheritance and an example of growth and change towards
healthier ways of living. Other attempts left many people with a lot
of physical and emotional baggage they don't need.
Like all forms of human endeavor, poetry lives and thrives, matures and finally fades away in importance and relevance, in part, according to social conditions. As a result, as with other forms of essentially individual action, there is a dynamic relationship between the social responses to poetry and the impact of this effect on the actual practitioner's purposes and aims. The social fact, for example, that poetry has learned how to survive and even flourish almost in a vacuum, as it does in the United States, amply demonstrates the paradoxical relationship between the actual power of poetry and its apparent social reception. As illustrated by the biographies of many great poets, poetry can germinate and grow quite excellently in the arid desert of practically no response whatever. Emily Dickinson and Charles Baudelaire may serve as bright examples.
There are poets who can make the rain fall in the desert. I think of Allen Ginsberg. When he sings to hex the government, I don't hear the music of the spheres. But when he envisions, like his soulmate Walt Whitman, the individual's relationship to government, world, mind, cosmos, I wonder if everyone hasn't been transformed.
If we are to speak of the "social" as poets, I think it would be most valuable to visualize it as a largely internal entity, part reality and part fantasy, no matter what happens on television. If a poet feels the need to address the whole society, I think it would be more effective for her to do so as if she were talking directly to someone else (which partly includes, of course, talking into the void). Perhaps we ought to imagine the social as if it were a person, and in the United States, a not very well or, at times, very coherent person, and then, even as a kind of other person within that person, partly unknown to the person. To me this would approximate the "social" as it may be seen from a poet's view-point. In psychoanalysis this is called the superego, which I have called the "supraego" to underline those aspects of the conscience over which the individual has little power or influence. Having, in fact, very little real power to reshape society by force, at least for very long, the poet learns, like any other individual, to adapt to external reality. But the internal adaptation that takes place simultaneously is not like the external one, and is different in some essential way from that of the average person. The poet must learn to rebel in a certain sense internally whether or not he or she rebels externally. Without this small rebellion, staged within the self again and again, there would in fact be no poem. With groups the story is different. The fact that a very large group of people came together to protest the war in Vietnam (and I would always think of Allen Ginsberg in this context) did not alter much the overall and pervasive feeling of powerlessness among individuals in our society. So what is the power of the poet under such conditions to effect the social policy? To me the answer lies in the fact that poetry carves out a place for the social to exist in some freer way inside the individual human being. Denise Levertov once said that the "language poets" take a private space on the public beach. My response to this is that it takes a private place within for the individual to find any comfort or freedom at all on the public beach-which, in fact, is the only beach for most of us. Poetry attempts to redefine the whole of experience by confronting it with its own language, creating a self-transformative loop between language and experience, helping to externalize what is too often internally regarded by the individual as a public province.
We live in a time when much individual experience is reduced to an extreme version of social homogeneity. It is abundantly clear by now to most people in the United States that if you conform in your thoughts, you will fit in. A ready sense of humor will protect us from any sincere reaction to a departure from the usual expressions. The unconscious wish to suppress all idiosyncrasy is an obsessive trait that belongs to a primitive form of tribal self-protection. In this sense we might say that the individual has "come a long way" but the individual as group or the group as individual is still largely infantile-particularly when it doesn't get its own way with what it regards as "the stubborn individual." Under such circumstances poetry only survives in hidden forms. This means literally secret, not just esoteric or obscure, but inscrutable. In this way it protects its ageless loyalty to real experience, and real human needs. As long as the extreme social hypocrisy remains, poetry will turn to extreme means to protect itself like this, and will rediscover its power in guarding the ancient truths. Nothing will publicize it to the detriment of this function, no matter how energetic the broadcasting-to whatever extent the gulf between the poet and the public continues to be an externalization of the gulf between the truly valued and the unquestionably phony. Such things cannot be changed quickly or easily, because the situation has little to do with the "social" in the reportorial sense, but more to do with the group conception of the internal human being and the group's beliefs about the conditions under which its importance is actually realized (which is in a certain sense known, but unconsciously denied, for the same reasons that so many other ideals are lost somewhere between their social acknowledgment and their actual application). Here and now the poet struggles to transgress not so much the external laws and norms which are unjust but which the group continues to declare just-as obnoxious and limiting and vicious as these can be-but the far more insidious, cancerous, and pervasive subliminally imposed internal ones. In this arena the powers and means of the poet often differ from that of other people, though they partake of the universal spirit in the individual experience, or strive to. The poet is best equipped to intelligently transgress certain extremely important, actually crucial internal entities, from a cultural viewpoint-crucial particularly to the inner needs of the productive individual within the culture. The poet's sensitivity is able to creatively transgress certain internal boundaries in order to help define their continued existence from the point of view of overall consciousness, and sometimes to even help redefine them. Sometimes poetry does the latter by helping rid the conception of the internal person of boundaries which are probably already in a rotted condition and are ready to go. It is because of this that poets can become "expert revolutionaries", though they should take care not to obsessively apply their expertise in this area, resulting from purposes that are not precisely the same as those of full-time political revolutionaries. Suffice it to say that the ordinary "peacetime" activities that each are generally attracted to are not consistently the same. The poet has special skills in creatively transgressing internal boundaries because of the wish to make a contribution to what is out there in here.
In closing I'd like to turn around that famous dictum of Gertrude Stein: we are all a found generation.