As compelling as this observation is, it’s this next one from Collins that really strikes me. ”… in times of crisis it’s interesting that people don’t turn to the novel or say, ‘We should all go out to a movie,’ or, ‘Ballet would help us.’ It’s always poetry. What we want to hear is a human voice speaking directly in our ear.”
Of course, I can’t just pull Billy Collins quotes from eight years ago in the New York Times out of my head, so I must credit a book I’ve been currently reading — Marilyn Johnson‘s excellent The Dead Beat: Lost Souls, Lucky Stiffs and Perverse Pleasures of Obituaries — for leading me do it.
The Collins’s quotes struck me because I was wondering what to write about NPT’s upcoming original documentary THE FUGITIVES, which broadcast premieres on Wednesday, February 25, 2009 at 9:00 p.m.
The half-hour documentary tells the story of a coterie of poets in the early 20th century who gathered in Nashville, Tennessee at Vanderbilt University determined to redefine the way the world viewed the south. They set out to prove that the South could produce highly intellectual art. The Fugitive, a literary magazine published from 1922-1925, proved that point. Of the 16-member group of poets known as “The Fugitives,” four members went on to become professional men of letters. John Crowe Ransom, Donald Davidson, Allen Tate and Robert Penn Warren made tremendous contributions to the art of poetry through their individual voices, their influence on the art form, and the legacy they left behind. Ultimately these poets would redefine Southern poetry.
Warren may be the most well known of the poets, going on to win three Pulitzer Prizes in two genres, including in poetry for his books Promises and Now and Then and in fiction for his novel, “All the King’s Men,” which won the Prize in 1947. He, along with Tate in subsequent years, was Consultant in Poetry of the United States, and a recipient of the National Medal of Arts and the Presidential Medal of Freedom. In 1986, he was the first to be designated Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry.
I wondered about Collins’s comment about poetry’s role in times of crisis. How had these poets responded in real time to the crises in their time. World War I had just begun when Ransom received his B.A. from Vanderbilt. The War ended four years later, in 1918, the same year Ransom published his Poems About God. The Fugitive Anthology was published in 1928, and then, one year later, something very important to the decade ahead happened — the stock market crashed and set the Great Depression in motion.
The very next year, the Agrarians, a group that evolved from the Fugitives and included some of its members, published a manifesto, I’ll Take My Stand . The collection of essays explored the negative effect of modern industry and convention on Southern culture, and proposed a return to traditional Southern American values. While the prominent Fugitives in the group, notably Warren and Ransom, disavowed these views in later years, it’s still a fascinating reaction to what was going on at the time. The country was in deep crisis, and the artists and great thinkers were exploring what got us into this mess and what was going to get out. One answer, they suggested, was a return to a conservative Southern time.
The country is in deep crisis again. Which brings me back again to Collins’s quote. We found comfort, and sought for meaning, after 9/11 in the poetry written decades and centuries before, because maybe, “we haven’t produced a poetry that has much authority in this area.”
We might have some authority in the area when it comes to the current economic crisis the country is facing. So where will the poetry come from? Will it come from the Fugitives? Robert Lowell? Will it come from Billy Collins? Maya Angelou? Will it come from Elizabeth Alexander, who delivered “Praise Song for the Day: A Poem for Barack Obama’s Presidential Inauguration?” Will it be you?
So I ask you, reader. Is there a poem and poet, who can help us all make sense of this? Bring us comfort. Put things in perspective. The way Percy Bysshe Shelley’s OZMANDIAS rang so prescient after 9/11?
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