Interview with Robert Archambeau, Author of The Poet Resigns

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Quick: name the top five living American poets. Now name the top three poetry critics. Name the last book of poetry you bought.

These days, many of us come into contact with poetry when we hear poems read at memorial services or see them quoted in the media after national traumas. Poetry is something we were forced to read in high school and underwent a required exposure to as undergraduates. Then we moved on.

But that is not good enough for the poet and critic Robert Archambeau. In his book, The Poet Resigns: Poetry in a Difficult World (buy at Amazon or U of Akron P), Archambeau examines the state of contemporary poetry. This is somebody we definitely needed to hear from. I wrote to ask Mr. Archambeau for an interview and he graciously agreed. This is the result.

Thank you for agreeing to this interview, Robert. One fascinating thing about your book is that in lieu of an introduction to your book, you provide a letter of resignation and write, “I’ve become less and less of a poet, and more and more of a critic.” What are the career trajectories of poet-critics? Do some write some of their best poetry after becoming noted as critics, whereas others dry up as poets and then become gifted critics? How, for example, are we to understand the career of Randall Jarrell?

The career trajectories of poet-critics? It’s difficult to generalize, even if one limits oneself to the United States and the present day. Calvin Bedient wrote criticism for ages before he put together his first book of poems; William Logan’s first book of poetry came out 16 years before his debut book of criticism; two wonderful younger poet-critics, Daisy Fried and Michael Robbins, seem to type their poems with one hand while tapping out sharp criticism with the other.

The Poet Resigns
The Poet Resigns by Robert Archambeau

The standard take on those who write poetry and criticism at the same time is that the criticism exists to justify and promote the poetry, and to create the taste by which the poet wishes to be judged. What was it Auden said? That the poet who writes criticism is only really saying “Read me! Don’t read the other fellows!” and that his task when he encounters a new poet is to define the relationship of that new poet to his own work – “My God! My Great-Grandfather! My Uncle! My Enemy! My Brother! My imbecile Brother!” There’s a lot of truth to that, and it explains a lot about Randall Jarrell, who often seems to want to set down the record of his own soul among the books he’s reading. His scathing treatment of Auden can only really be explained as an attempt to define himself against a poet a little older and a lot better known than he was.

Jarrell could be quite defensive about being a poet-critic – he took a shot, for example, at a bunch of scholarly critics discussing Wordsworth, saying that only a poet really knew what poetry was about, and adding “if a pig wandered up to you during a bacon-judging contest, you would say impatiently ‘Go away, pig! What do you know about bacon?” René Wellek, a critic and scholar of real substance, took issue and replied in print, saying that a pig, indeed, “does not know anything about bacon, its flavor or price, and could not appraise bacon in so many words” – and you kind of have to give the round to Wellek. At least I do. There are things to be understood about poetry that involve disciplines and modes of inquiry very different from the practice of writing poetry, as valuable as a practicing poet’s perspective can be.

The poet-critic to whom I feel closest (although in terms of the scale of achievement, I feel close to him the way a flea feels close to a golden retriever) is Coleridge. Coleridge’s work as a poet fell more and more by the wayside as he turned to writing about literature – but in his criticism he was up to something much larger than the kind of advertisement for himself that Auden sees as the real game played by the poet-critic. Coleridge had started out exploring certain issues in poetry, and ended up pushing those issues forward with less beauty but more conceptual clarity in his critical prose. The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, for example, is in large measure about how visionary experience is received and interpreted, and how the truths it discloses have an impact in the world even as they remain largely elusive, and as those who experience visions become social outcasts (“Kubla Khan” treads pretty similar territory).

In Biographia Literaria and The Statesman’s Manual he pursues these themes armed with German philosophical concepts, because he’s not going to be satisfied until he feels that he’s grasped them in detail, and looked into the philosophical importance and social position of the visionary. He invented a lot of interesting and important things in the process, like his idea of the clerisy – an educated class of interpreters, which becomes important in lots of ways, including the formation of the modern humanistic disciplines. So it was fruitful, and a legitimate continuation of an arc that began in his poetry. I like to think that my own poems, which so often worry over the meaning and social position of art, led me to my criticism, where I’ve been chasing the same themes in a different way, a way involving less intuition and more research about what has happened to poetry over the past couple of centuries.

Who are your heroes among poetry critics? Who are the best ones writing today? What do you think of Helen Vendler, for instance?

Many of the critics who meant a lot to me over the period in which I was writing The Poet Resigns don’t actually have much to say about poetry – Raymond Williams, Stefan Collini, and especially the intellectual historians T.W. Heyck and D.L. Le Mahieu have all helped me tune into the social position of the arts, and how they interact with large economic and cultural forces in the world. Williams is even kind of obtuse when it comes to poetry, but there’s a lot to be gained by transposing the ideas and insights of people like him into a study of poetry. But there are critics who concentrate on poetry whom I admire immensely, too. Every word Mark Scroggins writes is gold, and he’s got a kind of scrupulousness when it comes to arcane historical details that I treasure but could never emulate. Christopher Ricks is a hero to me because he has incredibly high standards: I wrote a piece for Essays in Criticism once, and he called out of the blue to administer a real drubbing to my prose. A couple of hours later I was bruised and battered, but my essay was much improved.

"Poet" (Photo Credit: TheoJunior | flickr)
“Poet” (Photo Credit: TheoJunior | flickr)

Helen Vendler’s work has never really done much for me, though I know plenty of people for whom she is the great poetry critic of our time. She loves a kind of Keatsian Romanticism (as I do), but sometimes she seems to want to reduce other poets – Wallace Stevens, John Ashbery – to that model, and amputates a lot of their other qualities in the process. She also seems frustrated by one of the qualities I find exciting in contemporary poetry: the unmanageable, unclassifiable bulk of it all. If I had to choose between Helen Vendler and a critic she’s often contrasted to, Marjorie Perloff, I’d take Perloff in a minute, even though Perloff and I have disagreed so many times she’s called me her “sparring partner.” Perloff engages poetry with eyes open to all kinds of possibilities, and a willingness to be taken with the new and strange.

In your essay, “The Discursive Situation of Poetry” you discuss some of the writers who have blamed the rise of the MFA program and the ensconcement of poets in academia for the decline in the public profile of poetry and make this fascinating point, “The oversupply of academically credentialed poets points towards a shifting of the center of gravity away from academe.” Wouldn’t that be a good thing? After all, some of the greatest poets had active careers in other fields such as William Carlos Williams as a doctor and Matthew Arnold as an inspector of schools. Isn’t it healthier for poetry that its practitioners venture forth into the real world and get out of the ivory tower?

Poets tend to cluster around different means of support in different times and places: there have been times when poetry was written mostly by courtiers, or clergymen, or people living in little bohemias where they’ve had to affirm one another because no one else was interested. There was a time when most American poets worked in journalism. There are always outliers, but the tides of history tend to deposit concentrations of poets in one place or another. I look on this more or less the way one looks at the weather: there can be satisfaction in complaining about it, but nothing much comes of such complaints. Of course the way poets live and work will affect how they write and what they believe – Marx put it a bit strongly when he said “social being determines consciousness,” but he was on to something. The poet-as-bohemian and the poet-as-journalist and the poet-as-courtier are very different creatures and make very different kinds of art. I think we’ve seen a lot of very fine things come from the poet-as-professor. Anyway, I don’t know what changes will take place when the best way to get in touch with a poet poet no longer involves sending an email to an address that ends in”.edu.” Poetry will be different then, probably better at some things and worse at others.

You suggest in your essay “Poetry and Politics, or: Why are the Poets on the Left?” that the end of the embourgeoisement of poets in American universities today due to taxpayer and commercial pressures may result in even more left-leaning politics than poets already espouse. You write, “…with the overproduction of MFA and PhD-bearing poets relative to the market for their skills in tenure-track academe, we’re likely to see an even greater trend to the left among the poets.” Will there be a corresponding radicalization among the general reading public or will average educated readers only come to regard poets as losers and whiners and read even less poetry than they currently do?

I’m less certain about poets becoming more radicalized when the era of the poet-professor winds down than I used to be. It’s certainly possible, but then again, one of the things that can happen when people lose their relative autonomy from the marketplace is that they become a bit cowed, a bit afraid to speak out. It’s very hard to understand the past, and exponentially more difficult to get a grip on where things are going.

And speaking of the relationship of poets to audiences and political advocacy, in your essay, “The Aesthetic Anxiety: Avant-Garde Poetics and the Idea of Politics” you write, “…we may have reached a point in the history of poetics in which what I am calling the aesthetic anxiety (that is, the anxiety about the apparent political and social inutility of autonomous art) isn’t so much a passing crisis as it is a lasting condition of poetic production.” Could you tell us how people like Wordsworth, Yeats, Pound Robert Lowell, Boris Pasternak and Anna Akhmatova fit into this discussion?

Wordsworth, I think, lies a little outside the historical penumbra covered by the concept of the aesthetic anxiety, but Yeats presents a particularly interesting case, since he was pulled in so many different directions. Part of his heart belonged to the aesthetes of the Rhymers’ Club who used to gather at the Cheshire Cheese pub in London, people like Ernest Dowson, Lionel Johnson, and Victor Plarr – who had been influenced by Walter Pater at Oxford, and believed in art for art’s sake. But another part of Yeats’ heart belonged to Irish nationalism, and an overtly politicized poetry. A third part belonged to mysticism and the whole panorama of turn-of-the-century spiritualism – séances, Ouija boards, that sort of thing. He tried for a number of years to put all of these things together, to create an “Order of Celtic Mysteries” in which the imagination could roam free, but with the result that a new religion would be formed that would contribute to the liberation of Ireland. Ultimately this failed, because, while it would have solved the problem of Yeats’ divided heart, it really didn’t have much appeal to any significant number of people outside of Yeats’ immediate circle, and not even to all of those inside it. The whole episode of the Order of Celtic Mysteries is a fascinating incident of the aesthetic anxiety, and I try to deal with it in the book I’m working on now, Making Nothing Happen: Poetry in Society, Poetry for Itself.

Pound and Lowell are interesting in how they seem to assume a public importance for poetry that conditions around them denied. In Pound’s case, there’s something tragic about it: he seems to assume a public role for poetry comparable to what it had been in the Victorian period, but he also takes a stance completely at odds with the mainstream values of his society. This creates contradictions: one cannot expect the vast majority of the public to receive one’s work with sympathy when one is attacking the values of that majority. At some level Pound sensed this, and this lies behind some of his attempts to create a public that would be amenable to his poetry: think of his enormous pedagogical effort, in books like Guide to Kulchur and ABC of Reading. But he was doomed to be a marginal figure, considered treasonous by many, held in custody for years, and dying in a kind of exile. His hopes for what poetry could accomplish were thoroughly at odds with the literary conditions of his time, and whatever one may think of his politics, there’s a certain doomed, heroic gesture to his life’s work. Lowell, being a Lowell, had an odd position, in that the prominence of his family and the prestige of his conditions allowed him to feel (with just barely enough basis in reality) that national issues were in some sense family issues. Megalomania certainly helped maintain the illusion.

Russian poets, at least up to the era of glasnost and perestroika, lived under conditions quite unlike those I describe with the concept of the aesthetic anxiety. They wrote under repressive conditions, when the values of large segments of the society could not find articulation in public institutions – in the schools, the government, the mass media – so poetry became important as a means of expressing the values of many people. This is why Russian poets used to pack large stadiums, and why they can’t anymore. Now there are other means for people to express their values, and Russian poets are becoming as marginal as their American peers. This isn’t really something to lament, unless you think large-scale public appreciation of poetry is so important that it’s worth having a deeply repressive government.

Given the increasing diversity of American society the question you ask in your essay “Can Poems Communicate?” is pertinent, “What can a poet do when he or she can’t expect a shared frame of cultural reference with an audience?” As a woman and an Oregonian, I find that when I read about (and I do tend to read about them and not their poetry itself) male poets of New York or Oxford or the American south their concerns and imagery often don’t resonate with me. The same thing may be true for young Hispanic readers or American readers of South Asian descent. What will be the shared frame of cultural reference ten or 20 years hence?

The question of shared cultural references still vexes poets, but less than it used to. Many of the modernists were troubled by what felt like the loss of a shared cultural bond between poets and readers, although this was in large measure just a continuation of trends that began in the nineteenth century, with the rise of mass literacy and changes in the economic model of publishing. A relatively small reading public, composed of people with somewhat similar educations and points of reference, was replaced by a large, various set of reading publics, many of them not particularly sophisticated about literature. The essay you mention, “Can Poems Communicate,” contains a quote from the poet-critic Donald Davie, who asked where we can go in our poetry when the King James Bible has become a recondite source. His sense was that the shared points of allusion and reference that made the appreciation of the kind of poetry he valued possible were being lost. There have been many answers to just where poetry can go: to popular culture, to non-referentiality, to identity groups and their shared experiences, and so forth. It sounds like your experience falls into the latter category, with regional and gender-based groups forming the basis for shared values and assumptions. We also tend to give lip-service, or perhaps more than that, to the notion that we ought to read outside our identity groups in order to appreciate difference: that’s become a kind of mantra of American education, though there’s some question as to how far such kinds of reading have really gone in practice. Me, I’m a little skeptical about the idea that we can only really connect with things written by people like ourselves, and I’m skeptical, too, that when we read things by people from groups to which we don’t belong, the main thing that we get out of them is a sense of the demographic difference of that other person’s experience. Certainly it’s important to read people whose experience is like our own, and certainly reading people from other identity groups can give one a sense of one’s difference from that person’s experience. But the encounter of reader and writer is so much more complicated than either of these things. Take the late Reginald Shepherd, for example – a poet and critic whose career I survey in one of the essays in The Poet Resigns. On the surface, Reginald and I had very little in common, other than being men and being roughly of the same generation. He was born black and poor and gay, and grew up in New York City and in the small towns of the south. I was born white, to the professional wing of the middle class, and heterosexual, and I grew up in a mid-sized Canadian city, with summers in Maine and Ohio. But the moment I cracked open one of his books, I felt not only our differences but an immediate and powerful connection. We ended up having an intense correspondence in the year leading up to his death, and when he died, tragically early, it shook me to the core. Whatever there was between us by way of an intellectual bond – and there was something – was real, and couldn’t be reduced to either shared experiences or to a mutual interrogation of demographic difference. I hope someday to revisit his work and understand him, and myself, better. As to the future of shared cultural references – again, I find it very difficult to say anything authoritative about the future.

Speaking of matters of gender, I could not help not noticing that the overwhelming number of critics and poets you discuss are male. You don’t really discuss feminist approaches to poetics at all. Could you tell us why that is? You seem a little dismissive of modern American female poets referring to “the identity politics of Adrienne Rich or Rita Dove.” But weren’t Allen Tate (reactionary white southerner) or Yeats (romanticizer of the agrarian Irish past) engaging in identity politics? Are there any American female poets now alive that you admire as artists? There don’t seem to be many in your book.

My first instinct is to get a little defensive here and start listing all of the women poets and poetry critics I have written about – Maxine Chernoff, Di Brandt, Gertrude Stein, Rae Armantrout, Susan Wolfson, Mary Biddinger, Andrea Brady, Lucie Thesée, Vanessa Place, Wislawa Szymborska, Catherine Walsh, Marjorie Perloff, Bonnie Costello, Abigail Child, and Eavan Boland come to mind. And I’m curious as to why referring to Rich and Dove as advocates of identity politics could be considered dismissive – they’re two of the most important American poets to make the advocacy of different identity groups central to their poetry, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. I don’t mention Tate or Yeats in the essay to which you’re referring because the context is contemporary poetry – what I was doing was trying to show the variety of work among the more prominent living American poets. The full sentence is “Think of some of the most prominent poets, and immediately we see a range: Robert Pinsky’s discursiveness, John Ashbery and Jorie Graham’s elliptical verse, the formalism of Kay Ryan or Donald Hall, the surrealist-inflected work of Charles Simic, the identity politics of Adrienne Rich or Rita Dove, the experimentalism of Charles Bernstein.” Women poets appear here in many guises, and as representatives of a variety of positions. But I take your point that identity politics, or identity poetics, are also things men have been involved in: there’s the southern regionalism and Irish nationalism you mention, and in an American context one thinks immediately of someone like Amiri Baraka. I’ve recently written an essay about T.S. Eliot that sees him as speaking to and from the concerns of a particular class, too – certainly a form of identity politics.

But you’re right about this particular book of mine being mostly about male poets. There’s a full chapter on Harryette Mullen, and other women are treated, too, but the preponderance of the writing is on men (a surprising amount about Charles Bernstein, I noticed – his name occurs more than any other in the book). It is possible that this has something to do with the nature of the questions I was asking. I wanted to write about two related things: the social position of poetry, and the idea that poetry should be autonomous, that it should be written without regard to some ulterior motive like succeeding in the market, or upholding a political party’s agenda, or serving a particular church, or some similar goal. Your question leads me to an intriguing hypothesis – that the notion of aesthetic autonomy might be something that has had more appeal for men than for women. Something like this hypothesis appears in one of the pieces A.S. Byatt wrote for her wonderful collection of fiction, The Matisse Stories. Here, a male artist (who in some ways is written as a parallel to Bertha Mason, the famous “madwoman in the attic” of Jane Eyre) works away in his attic studio on formalist paintings, each of which sets out to solve some problem of line or color, and none of which makes reference to the world beyond pure form. He’s a figure for the artist in love with art for its own sake, and the narrative presents this as something intimately tied up with gender: with male delusions of personal power and freedom, with masculine forms of ego, and so forth. But all the while he’s doing this, his cleaning lady has been working on her own paintings, which burst with life and energy and clearly have to do with issues of power and gender and sexual identity and politics and everything outside of l’art pour l’art. There’s a great conflagration at the end, where the cleaning lady gets the kind of public recognition for her art that has been denied to the man in the attic, and his art is reinvigorated by his outrage at this. Byatt is working imaginatively and intuitively, but she’s not someone whose insights are to be treated lightly, and I’m inclined to believe that there may be something to the gendering of the question of aesthetic autonomy. It’s certainly worth investigating. Maybe I’ll have to write that book if no one else does.

Do you admire any of the New Critics as poets? Are any of them still much read as poets? Is it correct to include Yvor Winters among the New Critics or did he stand apart somehow?

I like a lot of the poems written by that crowd, especially now that most of them are out of fashion. Winters is fascinating, because he was in early anthologies of New Critical writing, but as people reduced what was meant by New Criticism to formalism, and erased the historical and ethical dimensions of New Criticism, Winters – an ethical critic – no longer fit the model. Pretty much everything I was told about the New Critics in graduate school turns out to have been at best a half truth, and I think we’re do for a proper revisiting of their work. I wrote an essay for a book called Re-Reading the New Criticism a while back in an attempt to help get the ball rolling.

Could you please tell us what Harryette Mullen’s work tells us about the role of wit as it relates to the history of poetry and what the place of wit plays in her poetry and in our times?

The essay you’re asking about had its origins in a talk I gave at a conference where people gather to admire the experimental wing of American poetry that Mullen represents, and it got the most extraordinary reaction. I kind of thought the crowd was going to pursue me through the streets with pitchforks and torches. What I set out to do was to describe Mullen’s poetry in terms of the classical theory of wit developed in 17th and 18th century England, with the goal of seeing how the standards of wit upheld by certain poetry communities now contrast with the standards of wit upheld where and when those theories were developed. Mullen is a wonderful poet, and in the largely university-based world of American experimental poetry, she is often (and rightly) praised for her wit. But if you look at the kind of wit we most commonly see in her poetry, it is exactly the sort of thing 17th and 18th century English literary theory condemned as “false wit.” In the theory of Joseph Addison, for example, “true wit” combines verbal resemblance (such as you’d find in a pun) with some kind of resemblance between objects or ideas, while “false wit” involves a freer, looser kind of language play and verbal association. For me, the interesting thing was the difference in values between Addison’s community and that of the experimental-academic crowd that values Mullen. I wanted to examine that, and then get at some sense of the social and economic factors conditioning taste in two very different poetry communities. But people don’t generally react well when their own values are treated with something like sociological or anthropological distance, and the crowd in the room rapidly became hostile – at the end of the talk, a lot of the comments were one or another version of “how can you say her wit is false? She’s a great poet!” and my reply “I’m not saying it’s false, I’m saying that Joseph Addison would say it’s false, and asking about what that says about how we’re different from him!” Luckily, we avoided fisticuffs and – in the best traditions of academic gatherings – many of us continued our misunderstandings late into the night over an unseemly amount of bourbon. I think Mullen is great, by the way – but I also think that my judgment of her is, like all of my literary judgments, conditioned by who I am, the institutions in which I operate, the social and intellectual currents running through our time, and so forth. I wanted that talk to be an examination not only of Mullen but also of my (and my crowd’s) valorization of her. I think the chapter of The Poet Resigns on Mullen does a better job of this than my initial attempt.

You say in your essay about John Matthias, “Power and the Poetics of Play” the following, “The meaning of play has been one of John Matthias’ most enduring poetic concerns.” What about that appeals to you? What other poets does Matthias resemble in that?

Show me someone without a sense of play and I will show you someone of whom I am terrified. Wasn’t it Rabelais who coined the word “agelaste” to describe those unfortunate people who cannot laugh? Agelastes frighten me. They frighten Matthias, too: his work is animated in large measure by the contrast between play, on the one hand, and power, on the other. He’ll write about things like medieval tournaments and jousts being the conversion of the instruments of war – the bluntest form of power – into play, beauty, and delight. But Matthias is too canny to leave it there: he also sees how things like those tournaments are also means of making power displays, of showing off regal or aristocratic might, of masking weakness. There’s a wonderful way power turns into play and back into power and so on, and Matthias understands this completely, whether he’s writing about Henry VIII’s tournaments or George Antheil’s “Ballet Méchanique,” which converts the most advanced military technology of the period – aircraft engines – into musical instruments. There are plenty of playful poets (thank God) – just think of the New York School, with Frank O’Hara and Kenneth Koch and all the others. But few poets thematize play, and analyze its relation to power, with Matthias’ sophistication.

Here is a writer I had not heard of: Gabriel Fitzmaurice. You don’t seem to think much of him and seem to regard him as a dead end for Irish poetry. Am I reading you right here?

I’m a little torn about the essay on Fitzmaurice, in that it really doesn’t have anything positive to say about his work. But when an editor approached me with the idea of writing about him, I saw an opportunity to place him in the context of the Irish poetic tradition, and I felt there was something important to say. Modern Irish poetry developed in the context of Irish decolonization, and, often in complex and convoluted ways, it became identified with Irish national identity, or was seen as a vehicle through which national identity could be articulated. There’s nothing unusual about this: in fact, literature often plays an important role in societies as they undergo the process of decolonization. But what happens when the literary gestures developed as part of an emerging national consciousness go on long after the milieu for which they were developed has passed away? My argument, which I still believe is correct, is that we get something like Fitzmaurice’s poetry, where certain kinds of sentimentalities and resentments begin to look petty, or rote, or baseless. Irish poetry has actually developed in quite a few new directions, but Fitzmaurice, to me, represents a kind of ossification of old literary modes that have failed to adapt to new circumstances. I preserved the essay for the collection because I think it might be useful to people interested in Irish poetry, and in the cultural dynamics of decolonization, but I don’t think I’d write a similar essay today. Or, at any rate, I’d try to make it less specifically about the work of any one writer. I console myself with the thought that Fitzmaurice seems to like burning with resentment against critics and academics, and in writing so critically of his work I’ve given him fuel for that particular fire.

In the last essay in your book, “My Laureates” you write that you have gone through a series of personal poet laureates that also serve as sort of your patron saints and that the average tenure of your personal laureates is about four years. As of 2010, Coleridge was your laureate. We are coming up on 2014. I couldn’t help noticing that none of your personal laureates have been women. How about Elizabeth Bishop as a candidate for your personal pantheon? She seems to measure up artistically and seems to have been a fairly admirable person.

“My laureates” is a term I use to refer to the poet who seems to mean the most to me at any one time, usually for a period of several years. It’s not something I choose deliberately, and generally I notice that the laureate has changed only after the change has been operative for some time. Maybe they’ve been men for reasons like those you spoke of when you said you have a hard time relating to male poets of New York or Oxford or the American south, but I don’t think that’s it. A freakishly high percentage have been English Romantics – Blake, Wordsworth, Byron, Coleridge – none of whom lived lives much like my own. Why any particular poet fills the role is a bit mysterious to me, although they seem to change when my life circumstances change, so it must have something to do with that. Coleridge is still with me at the moment. Can’t seem to shake him!

At times in your book it seemed that you argue that a) the only way an American poet can make a living as a poet these days is get an MFA and scramble for a university job from which to network and garner grants, fellowships and publishing contracts and to adopt an utterly predictable liberal worldview, which is de rigueur on college campuses and b) the more poets grow dependent on academe and cut off the rest of society and the more they flog a rote radicalism the less poetry itself will matter to the average person and the more irrelevant poetry will become in our national life. Is that about right?

No, I wouldn’t say it is, not in either case. In fact, those university positions are disappearing, or being converted into very precarious positions indeed, as I mention in one of the essays. I also don’t think I can buy into the proposition that academe is cut off from society – it is increasingly subjected to the same forces of the market that are coming to dominate all of the professional spheres (medicine, law, etc.). As for poetry’s relevance: it is always relevant to something, although what that thing is changes with time, place, and conditions. I wrote in the opening essay of The Poet Resigns that, apart from some unusual confluences of forces, such as that which occurred in the mid-19th century, poetry tends to have the broadest appeal under the most repressive social conditions. Let’s hope, then, that it doesn’t become massively popular just yet.