One of my rules is that whenever Louis Menand writes anything in the New Yorker, I drop tools and read it. IMHO, he’s the best literary critic living today. In July he wrote a marvellous review piece on a whole raft of books about the role and importance (or lack thereof) of poetry. I was struck by this para:
One of [Ben] Lerner’s chief examples of misplaced expectations for poetry is what he calls “nostalgia for a poetry that could supposedly reconcile the individual and the social, and so transform millions of individuals into an authentic People.” He says that this kind of poetry never existed. To which there is a one-word response: Dante. The Divine Comedy is a first-person poem about a man who suffers a crisis (“I found myself in a dark wood, for the straight way was lost”), which he resolves by undertaking an imaginary journey that he pretends has been made possible by the soul of a dead woman he loved. That poem, written in the vernacular in the fourteenth century, is still at the heart of national identity in Italy. As the Iliad and the Odyssey were for ancient Greece, and as the Aeneid was for Rome.
Towards the end of the piece Menand quotes from a poem by Frederick Seidel in a post-election collection of 50 poems edited by Amit Majmudar. This is how it goes:
And you could say we’ve been living in clover
From Walt Whitman to Barack Obama
Now a dictatorship of vicious spineless slimes
We the people voted in has taken over.
Once we’d abolished slavery, we lived in clover,
From sea to shining sea, even in terrible times.