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Democracy and Poetry

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In these two essays, one of America’s most honored writers fastens on the interrelation of American democracy and poetry and the concept of selfhood vital to each. “I really don’t want to make a noise like a pundit,” Mr. Warren declares, “What I do want to do is to return us—and myself most of all—to a scrutiny of our own experience of our own world.” Indeed, Democracy an In these two essays, one of America’s most honored writers fastens on the interrelation of American democracy and poetry and the concept of selfhood vital to each. “I really don’t want to make a noise like a pundit,” Mr. Warren declares, “What I do want to do is to return us—and myself most of all—to a scrutiny of our own experience of our own world.” Indeed, Democracy and Poetry offers one of the most pertinent and strongly personal meditations on our condition to have appeared in recent letters. Our native “poetry,” that is, literature and art, in general, is a social document, is “diagnostic,” and has often been a corrosive criticism of our democracy, Mr. Warren argues. Persuasively, and movingly, he shows that all of “art” and all that goes into the making of democracy require a free and responsible self. Yet the American experience has been one of the decay of the notion of self. Our astounding success jeopardized what we promised to create—the free man. For a century and a half the conception of the self has been dwindling, separating itself from traditional values, moral identity, and a secure relation with community. Lonely heroes in a bankrupt civilization, then protest, despair, aimlessness, and violence, have marked our literature. The anguish of Robert Penn Warren’s own poetic vision of art and democracy is soothed only by his belief that poetry—the making of art can nourish and at least do something toward the rescue of democracy; he shows how art can be- come a healer, can be “therapeutic.” In the face of disintegrative forces set loose in a business and technetronic society, it is poetry that affirms the notion of the self. It is a model of the organized self, an emblem of the struggle for the achieving self, and of the self in a community. More and more as our modern technetronic society races toward the abolition of the self, and diverges from a culture created to enhance the notion of selfhood, poetry becomes indispensable. Compelling, resonant, memorable, Democracy and Poetry is a major testament not only to the vitality of poetry, but also to a faith in democracy.


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In these two essays, one of America’s most honored writers fastens on the interrelation of American democracy and poetry and the concept of selfhood vital to each. “I really don’t want to make a noise like a pundit,” Mr. Warren declares, “What I do want to do is to return us—and myself most of all—to a scrutiny of our own experience of our own world.” Indeed, Democracy an In these two essays, one of America’s most honored writers fastens on the interrelation of American democracy and poetry and the concept of selfhood vital to each. “I really don’t want to make a noise like a pundit,” Mr. Warren declares, “What I do want to do is to return us—and myself most of all—to a scrutiny of our own experience of our own world.” Indeed, Democracy and Poetry offers one of the most pertinent and strongly personal meditations on our condition to have appeared in recent letters. Our native “poetry,” that is, literature and art, in general, is a social document, is “diagnostic,” and has often been a corrosive criticism of our democracy, Mr. Warren argues. Persuasively, and movingly, he shows that all of “art” and all that goes into the making of democracy require a free and responsible self. Yet the American experience has been one of the decay of the notion of self. Our astounding success jeopardized what we promised to create—the free man. For a century and a half the conception of the self has been dwindling, separating itself from traditional values, moral identity, and a secure relation with community. Lonely heroes in a bankrupt civilization, then protest, despair, aimlessness, and violence, have marked our literature. The anguish of Robert Penn Warren’s own poetic vision of art and democracy is soothed only by his belief that poetry—the making of art can nourish and at least do something toward the rescue of democracy; he shows how art can be- come a healer, can be “therapeutic.” In the face of disintegrative forces set loose in a business and technetronic society, it is poetry that affirms the notion of the self. It is a model of the organized self, an emblem of the struggle for the achieving self, and of the self in a community. More and more as our modern technetronic society races toward the abolition of the self, and diverges from a culture created to enhance the notion of selfhood, poetry becomes indispensable. Compelling, resonant, memorable, Democracy and Poetry is a major testament not only to the vitality of poetry, but also to a faith in democracy.

52 review for Democracy and Poetry

  1. 5 out of 5

    robin friedman

    An Adventure In The Celebration Of Life In 1972, the National Endowment for the Arts established the Jefferson Lecture which the NEA aptly describes as "the highest honor the federal government bestows for achievement in the humanities." The recipient of the honor delivers a lecture in Washington, D.C. in conjunction with the spring meeting of the National Council on the Humanities. The series has become distinguished, and several participants have subsequently published their lectures. In 1974, R An Adventure In The Celebration Of Life In 1972, the National Endowment for the Arts established the Jefferson Lecture which the NEA aptly describes as "the highest honor the federal government bestows for achievement in the humanities." The recipient of the honor delivers a lecture in Washington, D.C. in conjunction with the spring meeting of the National Council on the Humanities. The series has become distinguished, and several participants have subsequently published their lectures. In 1974, Robert Penn Warren was invited to deliver what was the third Jefferson lecture. Warren (1905 -- 1989) was a novelist and poet who had received the Pulitzer prize for both fiction and poetry, a rare accomplishment, together with the National Book Award, the Bollingen Prize, and the National Medal for Literature, among other honors. Warren chose as his subject "Poetry and Democracy". Warren subsequently expanded his Jefferson Lecture into two essays and published them in a short book with the title "Democracy and Poetry" (1976). Although titled "Democracy and Poetry", the book explores the relationship of at least three broad concepts: democracy, poetry (defined broadly to include all "making" or artistic creation), and, most elusive of all, selfhood. Warren explores these three concepts as they appear primarily in American literature, but he considers broader sources as well. Warren views American poetry as "a corrosive criticism -- of our actual achievements over the years in democracy". The theme is broad and the discussion free-wheeling for the small compass of the essays. Warren properly views the result as more of a personal meditation which may provoke thought in readers than a historical study. The goal of the essays is to explain the importance of poetry in the recreating and revitalization of democracy. In the first and shorter essay, "America and the Diminished Self", Warren offers a whirlwind tour of American writers beginning with namesake of the lecture series, Thomas Jefferson, and passing through Cooper, Emerson, Whitman, Melville, Howells, Twain, Dreiser, Eliot, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and others. Warren tries to use these varied Americans to show that the "decay of the concept of self has been, consciously or unconsciously, a developing and fundamental theme for our writers." With the expansion of technology and materialism and the Civil War, the initial optimism for a free society of independent individuals faded among American writers. Gradually, a sense of alienation or cynicism took its place. With the skepticism engendered about democracy came a disintegration of the idea of independent selfhood, for Warren. He finds, however, that those Americans who care about the arts still find in these sources the means of understanding and celebrating the United States and its potential for both democracy and independent selfhood. The second and longer essay, "Poetry and Selfhood" is even broader in scope than the first. In it Warren tries to "document the decay of the concept of self in relation to our present society and its ideals." The focus of the essay shifts from "diagnosing" the situation to helping to cure it. Writing in 1974, Warren expresses alarm with what he terms the "Technetronic Age"; and his concern would doubtless have intensified during the current age of the Internet. Besides American writers, Warren draws heavily or the thought of Kierkegaard, Dostoevsky, Augustine, and Martin Buber. The analysis is difficult. Broadly, Warren argues that technological, rationalistic advances have alienated people from themselves. He finds strong evidences of self-alienation in American consumerism and materialism. He finds people are the benefit of leisure time which they do not use in fulfilling ways but instead turn to passively buying whatever is thrown at them in the way of goods or ideas or events -- such as the mindless cult of a "fan" for his favorite sports team. The arts, for Warren, are a way of human re-creation in what he sees, correctly or not, as a world of increased leisure. The arts have a role in diagnosing the human condition and in offering redress in the celebration of life. Poetry,Warren writes, serves as an "antidote, a sovereign antidote for passivity. For the basic fact about poetry is that it demands participation, from the secret physical echo in muscle and nerve that identifies us with the medium, to the imaginative enactment that stirs the deepest recesses where life-will and values reside. Beyond that, it nourishes our life-will in the process of testing our values. And this is not to be taken as implying a utilitarian aesthetic. It is, rather, one way of describing our pleasure in poetry as an adventure in the celebration of life." Warren sees people as having a "divided nature" between the self of material needs and the everyday and the self that seeks for meaning, unity, and purpose. He sees the arts as a means of bringing this divided nature into one. Warren's little book provocatively explores the question of what it means to live a fulfilled human life. Although I find Warren draws too sharp a line between an art which criticizes on the one hand and an art which properly may celebrate and explain what may be valuable and worth praising in a culture on the other hand, his book explores how individuals may live with a purpose, at whatever stage of life they may be. Robin Friedman

  2. 5 out of 5

    Jim McGarrah

    On my first read of Robert Penn Warren's book, I feel about the same way I did when I read Camus' book The Rebel. There were spots of diamond like clarity and other spots when I felt totally inferior to the task. I'm not ashamed to admit the connections between poetry and democracy went over my head at those points. I did get a "feeling" similar to the one I got reading Vonnegut's simple story Harrison Bergeron that mediocrity as a societal goal leads to the destruction of the actual purpose of On my first read of Robert Penn Warren's book, I feel about the same way I did when I read Camus' book The Rebel. There were spots of diamond like clarity and other spots when I felt totally inferior to the task. I'm not ashamed to admit the connections between poetry and democracy went over my head at those points. I did get a "feeling" similar to the one I got reading Vonnegut's simple story Harrison Bergeron that mediocrity as a societal goal leads to the destruction of the actual purpose of a democracy - the development of a self. And there was this on page 85 - "A man need not create art in order to participate, with varying degrees of consciousness, in order of experience from which art flows, but it is hard to believe that, in a mysterious texture of things, a world in which art does not find a place would ever long harbor men who find, in some degree, intrinsic significance in the process of life." Camus basically says that life is absurd, without a rationale, which leaves us with the only answer - suicide. Therefore, the meaning we find in life that has no meaning comes from rebelling against suicide. It seems to me that here Warren concludes that this ultimate rebellion comes in the form of art, although that's my own synthesis of different ideas - not his. Or, maybe I'm just nuts.

  3. 5 out of 5

    J. Alfred

    This guy is really smart, and this short book will be interesting for you if you have given much thought to the place of art in community. "Certainly the basis of our democracy is the conviction of the worth of the individual. Democracy does, and should, glorify the 'common man.' But here comes the rub. The phrase implies two quite distinct and, finally, contradictory meanings." That is, there is a glorification of people-as-they-are and there is a glorification of people-as-they-could-be. What ar This guy is really smart, and this short book will be interesting for you if you have given much thought to the place of art in community. "Certainly the basis of our democracy is the conviction of the worth of the individual. Democracy does, and should, glorify the 'common man.' But here comes the rub. The phrase implies two quite distinct and, finally, contradictory meanings." That is, there is a glorification of people-as-they-are and there is a glorification of people-as-they-could-be. What are we most interested in? Here are some quotes you can use to measure your habits: "...in a world of the eternal present, in which passivity is fed by a progressively intense diet of sensation and novelty, significance, which necessarily refers to the past and the future, is not significant." "...leisure, which should offer re-creation, has become for numberless people de-creation." So it turns out that English teachers are really important for a healthy society. We knew it all along.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Bill Pritchard

    Thought it would be a good time to review this classic work in light of the environment we find ourselves in. At times engrossing... at times a good sleep aid. :-)

  5. 4 out of 5

    Mindy

  6. 5 out of 5

    Song Wang

  7. 5 out of 5

    Mike Marlow

  8. 4 out of 5

    Vitor

  9. 4 out of 5

    Nicholas Hudson

  10. 5 out of 5

    Michael Mullins

  11. 5 out of 5

    Scott

  12. 5 out of 5

    Sean Southard

  13. 4 out of 5

    Enzo Gattuccio

  14. 4 out of 5

    Alissa

  15. 4 out of 5

    Frances Naimoli

  16. 5 out of 5

    Connor Tracy

  17. 5 out of 5

    Mary Ann

  18. 4 out of 5

    MoMo

  19. 5 out of 5

    Colin

  20. 5 out of 5

    Christie

  21. 4 out of 5

    Melissa Mulvihill

  22. 4 out of 5

    Natalie Smith

  23. 5 out of 5

    Samuel

  24. 4 out of 5

    Allison

  25. 5 out of 5

    Don (The Book Guy)

  26. 4 out of 5

    Robert Airhart II

  27. 5 out of 5

    T.R. Hummer

  28. 5 out of 5

    Jacob

  29. 5 out of 5

    Misssharice

  30. 5 out of 5

    Alicia

  31. 5 out of 5

    Robert

  32. 4 out of 5

    Andrea Slot

  33. 5 out of 5

    Virgínia Brito

  34. 4 out of 5

    Veronica

  35. 5 out of 5

    Houman Sadri

  36. 4 out of 5

    Renan Virginio

  37. 4 out of 5

    Sundance

  38. 4 out of 5

    Rachel P

  39. 5 out of 5

    PFunk

  40. 4 out of 5

    Santiago

  41. 5 out of 5

    Brad N

  42. 4 out of 5

    Victoria

  43. 5 out of 5

    Waller Sally

  44. 4 out of 5

    Courtney Stewart

  45. 4 out of 5

    Sietse Papenborg

  46. 4 out of 5

    Hannah

  47. 5 out of 5

    Natalie

  48. 5 out of 5

    Ilva Ravinska

  49. 5 out of 5

    Taylor Boudreaux

  50. 5 out of 5

    Luke

  51. 4 out of 5

    A.soorianarayanan

  52. 5 out of 5

    Kevin Clark

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