Is Rococo Over?

The time for poetry of ruffles and dessert — by champions of liberalism like Marianne Moore — has waned. What we need now is Yeats.

I have not lost my interest, nor my belief, in the powers of poetry. But my goals for my own poetry, and for the ways that I write about poetry, are not what they were before November 8. I used to believe, if not in Walt Whitman’s late-1850s optimism, then in the chastened patriotism, the qualified trust in elections and popular culture, that he found even in the Gilded Age. I have opposed critics who use, as unconsidered, generic praise, the word “revolution,” on the grounds that few good things are harder to break than to fix. I have argued—and I still believe—that our ways of reading and our ways of hearing poetry, like our ways of eating and our ways of understanding kindness and violence, have roots older than we are, older than the twentieth century, even though they have changed, and will change. And I have aligned my own poetry, most of the time, with incrementalism, with a way of reading that (like W.H. Auden’s, like Elizabeth Bishop’s) pays some homage to the deep past.

I also wanted my poetry to champion the femme, the elaborate, the playful, the serifed, the feathered, the self-consciously involute, the magenta and the chartreuse, even the ornamental: ruffles, dessert. I wanted that poetry, and other contemporary poetry too, to take pleasure in small things, and to push back against a patriarchal, instrumental, coarse, results-first, adult-driven, queer- and transphobic capitalism. I called those goals for poetry “nearly Baroque,” or rococo, and I found its closest modern precedent in Marianne Moore.

Our president-elect appears to enjoy the rococo, too, but it is the wrong kind of rococo: not delicate craftsmanship as a blow to misogyny, but the gilding of every conceivable surface, the flaunting of a wealth he has used to hurt others, as a boastful public spectacle. Trump represents the end of liberalism, the end of self-restraint and public kindness delivered through flawed, long-lived institutions, at least on a national scale. The social contract of Paul Wellstone and Richard Rorty, of A. Phillip Randolph and Eleanor Roosevelt, and for that matter of Barack Obama, seems all torn up.

(…) And as we react to that change—and try to make art that reflects the enormity of it—we will have art from the present and past to consider: there is the radical art of popular organizing, and the art of introspective dissent, but also the art of anger at the destruction of institutions, the art of a patriot whose country was not what he thought it was or could be, the art of an idealist let down, an art (not least) that speaks to America from outside America: the thoughtful, angry, frustrated, and painfully memorable art of W. B. Yeats. / Stephen Burt, Boston Review

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