As Evan Kindley acknowledges near the beginning of his new book, Poet-Critics and the Administration of Culture, the history of the poet-critic in the West is as enduring as it is fraught with ambiguity.1 The tradition of poets not simply making cultural artifacts out of language, but also wielding some sort of intellectual control over the broader shape of culture itself, goes back to the very beginnings of Western thought. In Plato’s Apology, after being accused by Socrates of not understanding their own poetry, the poets join the politicians and scholars in condemning the gadfly to death. From the very beginning, the poet’s relationship to power was tenuous and complex. The poet, all too aware of his own precarious position within society, yearned for the ability to defend himself—and in some cases, was made a glutton for political power by those insecurities.
Kindley, a visiting assistant professor of Literature at Claremont McKenna College and an accomplished essayist and critic, explores in his book how this reciprocal relationship between power and precariousness played out among poet-critics in the first half of the twentieth century. It’s an insightful history, composed with an elegance of thought that resists a lazy fatalistic acceptance that things had to turn out the way they did. Instead, Kindley fully inhabits the contingency of the past, using a handful of well-known poet-critic personas to tell the story of how contemporary poetry has become so wedded to the university.
The book begins, appropriately enough, at the beginning of the twentieth century with the example of T. S. Eliot, usually considered the architect of the persona of the modern poet-critic. Kindley writes, “From the early 1920s onward, even those poet-critics who opposed or disagreed with Eliot’s views were performing a social role he exemplified and helped codify for the culture at large.” Eliot’s main contention is that poets, having already fulfilled their creative drive, are able to write more objectively, as they need not succumb to “the satisfaction of a suppressed creative wish” in their criticism. It’s the old “every critic secretly wishes he were a poet” argument, which is as untrue as it is cliché (as it was even by the time Eliot made the argument, as Kindley shows us). Delivered in Eliot’s powerfully authoritative voice, however, it’s also a brilliant strategic maneuver which strengthens the case for the professionalization of poets.
Like Eliot, much of Marianne Moore’s authority as poet-critic comes from her association with the small magazines so crucial to Anglo literary culture. Moore, however, assumes authority without engaging explicitly in the polemical agonism of her fellow modernists such as Eliot and Pound. Kindley classifies Moore as a poet-connoisseur as much as a critic, writing, “Critics not only have aesthetic experiences but must also work to prove that they’ve had them, whereas connoisseurs simply have, and cultivate having, such experiences, to no purposive end and with no desire for a posteriori justification or demonstration.” Moore contributed to the professionalization of the poet-critic by exemplifying how an administrator of culture might dodge a fight.
Things changed significantly moving into the 1930s and 40s. The power of individual patrons and small magazines waned, and poets began to survive financially by associating with universities and the state. The same students who had read major modernist poets as undergrads, such as Auden, became administrators themselves. Of course, survival in a bureaucracy depends much less on strong poetry and incisive criticism than on the agenda of the organization being served. According to Kindley, “[Archibald] Macleish was perhaps the most acceptable face modernism could offer the U.S. establishment in the 1920s and 1930s,” not because he was the most superb artist or critic, but because his political thought most closely adhered to Roosevelt’s New Deal goals. What this meant was a truncation of the poetic imagination, a turn away from the deep metaphysical concerns of Eliot or the dangerously wild experimentation of Pound, and a focus solely on “human frailty and the individual experience.” Macleish asked that poets give up “their lives as writers” to fight fascism. But is a civilization that demands the sacrifice of the arts in order to survive worth saving? It’s a question that Macleish’s thought, so preoccupied with fealty, lacks the perspective and depth to address.
Poet-Critics and the Administration of Culture is an inventive and fascinating history with a value beyond its relevance to our present intellectual situation. What’s going on behind the scenes of the book is interesting as well. Kindley associates with writers like Mark Greif (whom Kindley quotes in the book), Marco Roth, and Nikil Saval. These essayists and critics are not only simultaneously wading through the cultural and literary effluvia of our new century, but also communicating with and through each other in subtly profound ways. Together their work forms an alternative to the Manichean dullness of so much online discourse, sending out signals to sympathetic minds while widening the horizon of inquiry and broadening the angle of pursuit. Kindley’s book is a welcome addition to what can only be called a burgeoning canon of millennial critical thought.