This essay was originally delivered as a talk at Saint Mary’s College, September 16, 2015.
The poet and critic Allen Grossman has said that poetry addresses itself to two fundamental problems or limits: death and the barrier of other people’s minds. What he doesn’t discuss in this formulation are the material conditions in which those problems present themselves and in which any poetry that tasks itself with confronting them is written. But such conditions—economic and social—obtain in any historical moment from antiquity to the corporatist present and not only affect a poem’s situation, they constitute a third limit: the poet’s constrained imagination of those other limits, death and people, and of poetry’s capacity to reach and traverse them. One crucial version of that third limit is time, which at all times is an economic commodity—the act of composition is a labor that requires time and thus freedom from other labor, either purchased with one’s own work or by virtue of the work of others, usually both. Poetry has several ways of forgetting the fact that it’s underwritten by labor, that there is endless occupation supporting its vocation, the easiest of which is, like Grossman’s account of the poetic task, simply not to mention it. A specific, reliable form of this unmentioning is called pastoral.