The first occasion that I can remember where I questioned the poet’s role in society was in my exposure to the caricature of the poet in early sitcoms. Inevitably the poet was portrayed as a beret-donning bohemian beatnik. It was both comical and derogatory a depiction. I envisioned poetry as a means to an end – usually some form of social activism – rather than an end in and of itself.
That the poet is seen as critical of society and his/her role therein stands to reason. Questioning the social construction of reality would seem to be consistent with the image of the poet as eccentric, outsider and rebel. “The romantic figure of the poet-rebel has pervaded our conception of poetry for almost two centuries: …evok[ing] pictures of reckless young men/[women] in uncompromising pursuit of individual self-expression revolting against conservative morality, political oppression, authoritarian rule and personal insincerity. The romantic view of the poet as tormented outcast even survived the rise of realism and naturalism in the second half of the 19th century.” (Mathias F. Adelhoefer)
This romantic image of the poet always intrigued me. Perhaps it was because I could never really embrace the fashion in which society was forged by the “haves” leaving the “have-nots” in the lurch. Questioning the social paradigm one finds oneself in is a sane way of looking at life in my book. Clearly, in order to gain insight into an otherwise monolithic social entity the poet must exercise detachment from the socially compromising roles that they must assume in society. This aloofness allows for some startling observations vis a vis this commonality - providing just the right rhetorical fodder.
Have today’s poets lost this detachment? I’m not sure. But it does appear that many of today’s poets are - by trying to become established becoming the establishment. Are we as poets just feigning the outsider role? Are we quick to join the established order at the drop of a beret? Perhaps Adelhoefer was right in saying that “in the West the belief in the power of poetry as a decisive social force has all but evaporated…”
excerpts from: Thoughts of The Times: Poetry--A Cultural Dinosaur?
By Mathias F. Adelhoefer
First published in: The Korea Times, Seoul, Korea, 17 June 1993, p. 6.